World War I was caused in large part by the desire of Germany to assert its “place in the sun” and replace Great Britain as the major world power. The unintended consequence of the war was to allow the United States to replace Britain, peacefully — in fact, silently, even secretly, after 1918.
It was in the field of Anglo-American relations that the peace-making years were most momentous. The war had altered the balance between Britain and America for good; in the economic sphere by turning Britain into a permanent debtor and making it impossible for London alone to continue as the principle financial centre of the world, and also in the military and naval sphere. The Americans were quite prepared to outbuild Britain at sea unless they could get arrangements on naval and other items that suited them; and the British had to decide whether to take up the challenge or not. Because they decided not to, a permanent shift in world power was consummated without a shot being fired. The fact that the shift was disguised, mainly on the British side, as an acceptance of partnership was necessary for political and psychological reasons, but it did not disguise the brutal truth. (Marxist publicists went on predicting an inevitable Anglo-American war, oblivious of the fact that the war had already been fought — though bloodlessly.)
Max Beloff, Imperial Sunset: Britain’s Liberal Empire, 1897-1921.
The “Marxist publicists” had a vulgar, economistic vision of the world, and therein, it seems, lay their error. In fact, international relations theory would predict such a war, and its absence is an inexplicable or at least troubling fact in a very limited set of global wars. It is a big outlier. Perhaps the biggest.
Britain had “taken up the challenge” presented by Spain, France and Germany over four centuries, and despite many dark hours, always prevailed. Why did it not do so again? The USA had a much larger economy and warmaking potential than did Britain and its Empire 1918, but so had previous challengers in their eras. In those cases Britain had sought out allies and built an alliance system to contain and ultimately defeat the challenger. Yet Britain pursued no such course against the United States. Was this sheer exhaustion after the Great War? Or was it because Britain knew that the relative costs of challenging the USA were greater than the costs of living in US-led global order? In other words, was there something uniquely “tolerable” about acquiescing to American hegemony which was not true with regard to France of Germany? Was Bismarck right that the decisive factor in world politics was “the fact that the North Americans speak English”?
Of course, the Americans wanted to dislodge Britain, and the City of London, from economic and financial primacy, and profit by the change. But they did not want to assume the burdens of maintaining international order which alone made a global economy possible. In fact, the American leadership did not understood what was at stake or what needed to be done. Hence, we had the anarchy of the interwar period. Only after 1945, with the relative power of the USA and the tottering British Empire, even more starkly obvious, and with the immediate threat of the Soviet Union right before their eyes, did the Americans attempt to build a genuine successor to the British-led world order. These “transition costs” could not have been known in 1918, of course. But even if they had, Britain and America would probably still have changed places, but handled the transition better.
The shift from British to American predominance, without a hegemonic war between the two powers, was the decisive event of the last two centuries. The British-led world order segued into a continuous Anglo-American world order founded on similar principles. Had the two Anglophone oceanic powers gone to war, the destruction would have been immense. The way would have been cleared for a continental challenger to assert control of an unassailable land-base in Eurasia, take to the sea, and then establish a global hegemony on totally different principles — Nazi or Communist principles, most likely.
The most important “war” in history is the one that was never fought.
Update: Despite all the good comments, I think there is still an element of mystery in this particular dog not barking — i.e. the transition of naval power, and global hegemony, from the British Empire to the USA, without a war. The other challengers to Britain were very, very daunting — Napoleonic France had twice Britain’s GNP and the whole of Europe under its boot, for example, to say nothing of Germany in the Summer of 1940. Still, the British fought with absolute ruthlessness and at great cost and over many years of conflict to defeat each and every one of them. Then, the USA comes along, and the Lion steps aside. I think the only explanation is the intra-Anglospheric ties of language and institutions and elite contacts as well as trade and investment. Nonetheless, other outcomes, including conflict, were not impossible or inconceivable.
One obvious example: We can only guess what a more pragmatic German leadership might have accomplished circa 1890-1910. The volume of trade between Britain and Germany was very high, and they had common enemies in France and Russia, and Germany had the best science and technology in the world, while Britain had the biggest empire. There were lots of reasons the two countries could have grown closer together. An Anglo-German alliance could have arisen which would have made the world an utterly different place. While one can overdo it with counterfactuals, I find history is more interesting and more illuminating if you ask “What if?” and “Why not?” This helps you to make sense of what actually did happen.
(Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedling.)