The United States replaced Britain as the world hegemon, why did the two countries not go to war?

author:Cut through the fog and see the light
The United States replaced Britain as the world hegemon, why did the two countries not go to war?

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Author: Christopher Coker, Source: Obtuse Angle, this article is from the book "The Logic of Great Power Conflict", the title is prepared by the editor.

Social intelligence contributed to Britain's relative success in managing its decline from the position of "international policeman" and avoiding an "inevitable" war with the United States.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the Duchess says that there will be lessons for everything, if only you could find it. The lesson that the United States and Britain did not go to war after 1890 is instructive. Britain was able to devise a grand strategy that stood the test of time and is still valid. A professor at China's National Defense University has said that the United States may follow Britain's lead and cede the position of world leader directly to China. But this will not happen, because the story that Britain told itself after 1890 cannot be made up by the United States.

Social intelligence contributed to Britain's relative success in managing its decline from the position of "international policeman" and avoiding an "inevitable" war with the United States.

Changes in the balance of power

In May 1913, a British delegation visited New York to discuss plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of peace between the two countries. The last war between the two countries ended in 1815. During the final round of talks at the Plaza Hotel, representatives of both sides agreed to observe a five-minute silence on February 27, 1915, throughout the English-speaking world. Only one disagreed: A Harvard professor threw a startling message to the delegates, saying the two countries were planning a joint war against Germany. The professor happened to be German-American. Someone came forward to comfort him and said that neither country was considering starting a war. Indeed, all countries will be part of the world family. Afterwards, everyone applauded. As we can see, on the eve of the First World War, this was a widely held view.

However, just 18 years ago, Britain and the United States came close to conflict over a little-known territorial dispute. The dispute took place between Venezuela and a British colony, which is now Guyana. The U.S. Secretary of State has chosen to unilaterally and retroactively redefine the Monroe Doctrine. "The long distances and 3,000 miles of ocean mean that any permanent political alliance between a European country and an American country is not normal." In an article that defies reality, historian Andrew Roberts imagines how such a war would turn out. In this war, Britain seemed to be in control of the whole situation. He noted that there are hardly any coastal fire points on the East Coast of the United States to defend cities like New York, Baltimore and Boston. The U.S. Navy has only one first-class warship, with three more under construction. The British Royal Navy has 29 first-class warships, 22 second-class warships and 15 armored cruisers. The reality, of course, is that Britain can barely defend Canada. Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, argued that the British occupation of Canada had made Britain a "natural" American country that actually had a land area larger than the United States. In Roberts' vision, the Americans would take Montreal and Toronto, forcing the Royal Navy to switch from blockading the coast to bombing coastal cities. Four high-grade shells would clear the Statue of Liberty, but Lord Salisbury did not order the bombing of Manhattan.

Roberts' research shows that British policymakers have realised that their country cannot win a protracted battle. Perhaps the best outcome of the war with the United States in 1895 was Britain's cession of Quebec. The British are realists. As Prime Minister Salisbury acknowledged in 1902, the best time to contain American power was the American Civil War. Only the Confederacy victory 40 years ago could reduce U.S. power to "manageable territory." In his words, "a country does not encounter such an opportunity twice".

The war with Venezuela was supposed to happen, but it didn't. After that, the British never really considered war with the United States. But rising powers tend to be more warlike than established powers, and the United States continued to see Britain as its worst enemy until the interwar interval. According to the American "Red War Plan" (1930), which rehearsed a hypothetical war between the United States and Britain, the United States would wipe out all British army forces in Canada and would drive the Royal Navy out of the North Atlantic. The invasion of Canada would begin with massive bombing of key industrial targets, possibly even with chemical weapons. The highest-ranking official to sign the program was none other than General Douglas MacArthur. With the planning of this conflict currently available, today's experts believe that the most likely outcome is a major naval battle in the North Atlantic, where Britain will have to cede Canada in order to keep vital trade routes intact, despite a possible victory for the Royal Navy. It was not until June 1939, a few months before the German invasion of Poland, that an internal American memorandum concluded that the war plans were not enforceable "under the new circumstances," but that they were still archived for future use.

The "lesson" that the Duchess draws from this story may be that declining powers should be realistic. Long before World War I, the British willingly gave the leadership to the United States, and after 1900, British leaders were reluctant to conflict with the United States. The Boer War (1899-1902) brought Britain's isolation to light. Somewhat similar to China today, Britain had few staunch allies (in this conflict, only the Americans supported Britain, just as only the British supported the United States in the Spanish-American War two years earlier). The Russian threat and fears of France (before 1904) and the failure to reach an agreement with Germany forced Britain to fall into the arms of the United States faster than normal, although Britain had been moving in this direction for a long time. In Canada, there were complaints that Britain began compromising with the United States as early as 1871 at the expense of Canadians. Those complaints came back in the settlement of the Alaska border dispute, where Canadians felt the compromise was too beneficial to their neighbors. As World War I approached, Winston Churchill suggested to Australia and New Zealand that in the worst-case scenario, "the only way out for the 5 million white people in the Pacific would be to seek American protection." In the Caribbean, the Sea-Ponsfoot Treaty of 1901 marked Britain's no longer opposition to U.S. control of the Panama Canal. The United States is virtually no longer subject to any constraints in Central America, which gives it the ability to control the finances of the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua and to intervene militarily in Haiti and Mexico.

The British thus accepted the reality that there could be no more war with the United States after 1900. One of the main explanations for choosing to back down is that the British carried out the earliest trend analysis. One of the first trends the British discovered was the British journalist W· The Americanisation of the World: The Trend of the Twentieth Century (1902) by W. T. Stead. His pamphlet is subtitled "Trends of the 20th Century." Trend analysis is not predictive, a trend is an unfolding event or tendency, but we don't know anything about its direction and speed. Trend analysis is also not necessarily accurate, because the world is interconnected, with influences interacting in complex and surprising ways. Despite these limitations, trend analysis is still the best way to strategize.

People often distill trends into something that reflects the language of the times. A few years ago, Stead wrote to Lord Morley that the "centre of the English-speaking world" was moving west, and that, as Arthur Conan Doyle once admitted, "the centre of gravity of humanity has moved here, and we must adjust ourselves as much as possible." Words like "the English-speaking world" and "humanity's center of gravity" are part of the strategic narrative. Of course, both societies speaking English does help.

The American historian John Lukacs accurately describes this shift in attitude at a particular moment in the 20th century. He wrote, "During Christmas 1907, an English man traveled to Philadelphia to visit his sister after the extreme trials of a harsh winter in New York. At that time, the first skyscrapers had been erected, and the United States left him with the impression of a very vast country, larger than the British could imagine. But Lukács also accurately describes another feeling of his contemporary: "Not only did they accept the replacement of Britain by the United States as the 'dominant power,' but they did not see it as a threat, or even feel a decline in status because of this expectation." Around that time, attitudes toward Americans and Britons began to change significantly: 1907 marked the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown Colony, which many Americans regarded as the "cornerstone" of the United States. 1907 was also the year that Anglophile Goodwin Archer proposed Anglo-American symbiosis (his son died in Britain in 1943 while serving in the U.S. Air Force). Also in 1907, Frances Hodgson Burnett published a novel depicting some Americans beginning to cling to their British traditions in the face of an influx of Eastern European immigrants.

Lukács acknowledges that "while in one place the shuttle is beginning to re-weave, in another place it is opening the thread, because the Anglo-Saxon fiber content in the American fabric is becoming lower and lower". Henry James warned of this fact in The American Scene (1907), and the book became his farewell declaration to a country he would never set foot on. According to the 1910 National Census, nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population did not speak English. James is not alone in worrying that this "hodgepodge of nationalities" may affect the identity of Americans. It's one of the reasons why so many East Coast Americans easily identify with the British. Although the Anglo-American relationship has never been as close strategically and politically as the British would like, many Americans do invest a lot in the relationship – including British culture, language, literature and, from the beginning, British "fashion". All of this comes together into what one writer called "Anglo-Saxon worship."

Lukács is not a sentimental person. He acknowledged that politicians like Woodrow Wilson, despite being thoroughly "Anglographized" culturally, remained skeptical of British motives. When Woodrow Wilson led his country into World War I, he refused to call Britain an ally, instead using "partner power" instead. If there is any kind of partnership between the two countries, it must be because Britain has to invest more. The pressure of external events forced "the British and Americans ... Reforging relations, re-weaving their common destiny, getting closer and closer". This effort continued even longer between the two world wars, when Sir George Edward Gordon Catlin published Anglo-American Union (1943) and Clarence Streit published Union Now (1939), which proposed the formation of a federation between the two Atlantic democracies.

The influence of the liberal tradition

The British and Americans are not just linguistically similar. An equally and even more important fact is that they all inherited a liberal tradition that emphasized rationality and empirically verifiable outlook on life. Intellectuals in both countries have worked to demystify politics, seeking "absolute truths of history" that challenge the existence of "gods" or provide inspiration to their 20th-century opponents. The modern vision of Britain and the United States, characterized by juxtaposing relative things in search of solutions, is unique to them. Both countries insist on objectifying subjective things, rationalizing irrational things, normalizing special things, and secularizing non-mundane things. Neither country paid much attention to the obscure ideas of German idealists and the philosophical thinking of Marx.

In short, Britain's concessions to the United States are in line with a certain norm. It has nothing to do with the balance of power, but with inner beliefs. This was particularly evident on the eve of World War II, when Britain faced a more dangerous Germany. Robert Gilpin discussed Britain's rationale for peacefully compromising with Hitler in his classic War and Change in World Politics (1981), which was best famously explained in E. H. Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis (1939). Carr argues that appeasement is essential to adapting the international system to the realities of international power dynamics. Nazi Germany's growing power meant that territorial exchanges and redistribution of power were inevitable if another European war was to be avoided. Of course, appeasement ultimately failed because the Germans interpreted it as weakness of their opponents and raised the stakes. But Gilpin commented that a careful reading of Carr's text reveals that he himself did not advocate that Britain give up its "dominance" in the system. Carr preferred a European-American alliance or even a peace under the United States, which could at least consolidate the "rules" of the international system based on values. From this analysis, Gilpin concluded that the great powers have always put values above peace and are ready to fight to uphold the rules of the international system.

At the beginning of this chapter, a professor at China's National Defense University said that the United States is expected to follow Britain's lead and directly give up its leadership in the international system. Unfortunately, Britain's concessions to the United States did not help the weaker side to maintain its dominance. While this concession may not have hastened Britain's loss of that position, it did not delay it either. Towards the end of World War II, Churchill was still talking about the Union of the Anglo-speaking Peoples, which made him look extremely pitiful at a time when Britain's political capital had been exhausted. At the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, the British saw Harry Dexter White, a senior U.S. Treasury official, and the biggest victim was John Maynard Keynes, the most famous economist of the era. Both men were vying for the right to build a postwar economic system that they hoped would ensure their countries' dominance in the postwar economy. The British worked hard to ensure that London remained the world's main financial center, that the pound remained the world's main reserve currency, and that the British Empire still provided trade protection for British exports. Geoffrey Owen wrote, "The Americans ultimately won because they were in control of the whole situation: by this time, Britain was effectively bankrupt." White got the two U.S.-dominated institutions he wanted, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and he succeeded in forcing the other 44 participating countries to accept the dollar as the world's reserve currency. ”

The United States has two tasks to accomplish. The first was the economic task – to prevent the British (by offering preferences to the British Empire market) from interfering with America's export-led postwar recovery – and the second was political (impoverishing Britain by forming the US-Soviet "Commission" responsible for managing postwar Europe). Fortunately, the Cold War meant that the British regained American attention. The Soviets would not accept the U.S.-led order and would not agree to play by this "set of rules." Truman later re-identified Britain as America's main ally, but he insisted that Britain repay its war arrears (which were not paid off until 2006), thus keeping Britain an economic subordinate to the United States.

Could the story of the UK have a different ending? Happy endings are usually fantasies, and Freud warned that fantasies are simply "corrections to unsatisfactory realities." That's why novelists are always struggling when designing the end of a story. In the romantic final act of Great Expectations (1861), Pip and Estra come together, but in the original setting, they meet on the street, chat a little, and then set out on their separate paths. The point that follows from this is that literature can hide the ambiguity for the reader. Both readers and authors can pretend that their most beloved characters live happily ever after. In real life, people usually fail to do this. Sometimes the highest expectation one can have is simply survival.

For Americans, the analogy of Britain's loss of leadership in the international system is not comforting, because China and the United States do not have the same cultural resonance as they do between the United States and Britain. The United States is unlikely to willingly cede its place, but the fact that the United States and Britain successfully avoided war at least contradicts the great geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder's assertion that democracies do not think strategically except during war, when it is usually too late. Instead, democracies are better at thinking strategically, in part because they have higher social intelligence. Because they are open societies, they tend to be more willing to be self-critical and therefore have a higher social IQ. The behavior of the German Empire and the Soviet Union—obsessed with power relations and repeated misjudgments—may not have been an accidental defect, but a key element of their political culture.

Christopher Coker is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Director of the Foreign Policy Think Tank.

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