MARCH 6, 2018
THE WORLD’S PEACEFUL TRANSITION from the British Empire to US preeminence is one of the happier aberrations of geopolitics: defying a generally dismal record of confrontations between established powers and their challengers, it affirms that prudent decision-making and fortuitous circumstances can yet prevail over the structural forces that are supposed to preordain conflict.
Kori Schake’s new history of this phenomenon, Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony, is an eloquently written and thoughtfully constructed treatment of this long, comparatively quiet episode. While most accounts spotlight the period from 1870 to 1945, Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, begins much earlier, with the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.
Rather than presenting a rigidly chronological narrative, she identifies nine “inflection points” when the upstart United States contested the rules of the British-led order. Two of the points she identifies — World War I and World War II — are perhaps better understood as multi-point episodes than discrete phenomena. In addition, she concedes that one of her chosen inflection points examines not “a singular event or crisis” but instead the more abstract ways in which “Britain and America refined their sense of self in reaction to change” in the second half of the 19th century. These are minor quibbles, though, with an erudite rendering.
Despite the absence of armed confrontation after the War of 1812, the special relationship was often strained. While the resolution of the Oregon boundary crisis in 1846, for example, was ultimately a “great success for British coercive diplomacy,” it made the United States seem concerningly aggressive. Near the end of the 19th century, moreover, “the British government was seriously concerned about the balance of military power in North America, fearing an assault on Canada or a stalemate that would play to America’s economic strengths in undercutting Canada.”
Perhaps most remarkably, by early 1917, “Prime Minister David Lloyd George and President Woodrow Wilson’s special envoy at Versailles [were] worrying that Anglo-American military competition could become as invidious as that between Britain and Germany leading up to World War I.” Schake demonstrates how improbable a confluence of circumstances was required for a tranquil passing of the baton:
The peaceful transition was a highly contingent outcome, unlikely to be replicable. The probability is very small of stars aligning such that both the rising and relatively declining power each possesses and recognizes in the other similarities, considers them distinguishing from all others, and fosters unique trust that enables a shifting of power without violence.
By starting her narrative as early as she does — over a half-century before the United States’s economy overtook Britain’s in absolute size — Schake demonstrates that what may have appeared to be “newly emergent responses to relative decline” on the part of the British were, in fact, “enduring features of British policy” during the better part of the 19th century. In other words, while contemporary observers sometimes suggest that Britain declined “gracefully” — connoting a passive, even resigned, response — Schake suggests that it adopted a proactive posture:
The British government saw the opportunity to shed its expensive maintenance of international order onto receptive American shoulders, hedging its bets against an assertive Germany, Japan, and Russia through the cultivation of an activist America. The rising power demanded stature and acknowledgment; once the hegemon granted that, broader cooperation became possible. An America with stars in its eyes wanted to be what Britain wanted it to be. And Britain manipulated that desire with admirable shrewdness and subtlety, an effective — and cost-effective — diplomacy for the record books on the management of a rising power. Britain luring America into a commonality of interest internationally sustained British power and a preferred British order far beyond the expanse of time that Britain’s unilateral efforts could have.
While demonstrating that the two countries were, on balance, impressively farsighted in adapting to one another and situating their interactions within broader strategic currents, Schake disabuses readers of the presumption that the “safe” passage between them was a smooth one; to the contrary, it was a highly fraught affair, one whose turbulence contemporary observers tend to downplay on account of its ultimate resolution.
As one would expect, most of Safe Passage focuses on this transition. In her concluding chapter, though, she considers the implications of her analysis for the present dynamics between a preeminent United States and a resurgent China. Given how consequential their relationship will be for the course of world affairs, it is worth reflecting on Schake’s thinking at length. It is not surprising that she expresses pessimism about the possibility of a peaceful transition between the United States and China; prompted by her observations, I would volunteer at least four.
First, it is difficult to exaggerate the number and intensity of fundamental differences between Washington and Beijing — differences whose salience is only amplified by each place’s avowal of its own exceptionalism. While there were deep strategic tensions between Great Britain and the United States, they were tempered by a range of affinities: “Great Britain was the society most like America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sharing related populations, common history, similar language, political philosophies that emerged from the European enlightenment, and cultures easily accessible to the broad population.”
Second, China is impelled not only by propitious trends — especially economic — but also by, perhaps more importantly, powerful nostalgia. Beijing disclaims the conventional wisdom that it is a revisionist power whose growth is perturbing world affairs; instead, it casts itself as a returning power, merely working to restore its rightful place as the world’s “Middle Kingdom” — a place that external aggression and internal tumult conspired to deny it during its “century of humiliation.” China’s resurgence, then, should not be understood solely in strategic terms; it must additionally be seen as a nationalist odyssey.
Third, neither the United States nor China has a proclivity toward partnership with another great power. In his recent book The China Challenge, Thomas Christensen notes that “zero-sum views of US-China relations are most popular in China itself. Raised on a volatile blend of Marxism-Leninism and postcolonial nationalism, many Chinese elites see the world as a brutal struggle for material power in which stronger powers will want to oppress a weaker China.” This sort of binary thinking has a growing number of adherents in the United States: the Trump administration’s recently released national security strategy, for example, contends that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”
Fourth, hubris is an immutable feature of the human condition. While today’s leaders may not make precisely the same mistakes as their predecessors, it is safe to assume that they will find new ways to demonstrate imprudence. Nor are they any better equipped to judge which trigger might set in motion an escalatory spiral. Over a century after the outbreak of World War I, even the foremost historians of the conflict cannot establish why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand proved catalytic, while comparable assassinations in years prior did not. How would the United States respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? What steps would the two countries take if a nuclear exchange occurred on the Korean Peninsula and the regime in Pyongyang were to implode? Could a US-China trade war devolve into an armed confrontation?
Notwithstanding all of these potential casus belli, however, a violent conflict between the United States and China is not preordained; to suggest otherwise would imply that leaders are impotent spectators to structural forces. The two countries are nuclear-armed powers, separated by vast oceans and bound by a multifaceted fabric of economic interdependence — a point that bears repeating, however shopworn it may feel.
It is perhaps too stark to contend, as Schake does, that “China will either fail to continue rising or become indistinguishable from other states in the American order, or China will prove resistant to the attractions of liberalism and overtake America as hegemon.” Even if, as seems likely, China’s manifold resurgence continues, the US-China power transition that many presume will occur may not, in fact, materialize.
However much China may resent being excluded from the postwar order’s creation and design, it has not yet evinced a desire to dismantle that structure entirely — with good reason. Its economy has exploded since its accession to the World Trade Organization. It continues to press for a greater voice within institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And with the Trump administration’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, stated intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, and criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, China has taken to casting itself as the guardian of globalization. True, Beijing is establishing a parallel architecture, comprising institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and initiatives such as “One Belt, One Road.” And the imprimatur of its norms and preferences — in arenas ranging from trade to the internet — will inevitably grow, even if not as rapidly as its comprehensive national power increases. But China is not an overt revisionist; it poses a more nuanced challenge to the postwar order.
Nor is it clear that China will achieve the capacity to displace the United States globally. While it may well emerge as the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific, present conditions are not conducive to the resumption of the tributary-style system that it enjoyed in centuries past: it has 14 neighbors, many of which have sizable economies and impressive armed forces. Its challenges outside of the region loom large as well. It depends far more on external stability for its economic health, for example, than it did as the Middle Kingdom. While its military is rapidly modernizing, its emergent capabilities are largely focused on consolidating its posture in the Asia-Pacific; it is a long way away from being able to project military power globally, as the United States can do and routinely does. Schake contends that the world’s foremost power “must have the ability to enforce the rules of order, and in international relations, military force is the final arbiter of terms.”
China’s economic heft continues to grow apace, of course, but becoming a commercial superpower would not necessarily render it the guarantor of world order, especially if it is not keen to take on that mantle. Zhao Kejin, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University, assesses that while China seeks to “play a bigger role in the reform of global governance,” it is not agitating for dominance: “We know that leadership has high costs, and we don’t want to bear them. We’d rather the US do that.”
Those who fear China’s ambitions might accuse Zhao of being disingenuous: would a country whose modern architect advised its leaders to “hide our capacities and bide our time” be foolish enough to enunciate a quest for global preeminence? The difficulty with this reasoning is that China no longer pretends to be laying dormant; especially under Xi Jinping, it has been transparent in its desire to be seen as a great power. But there is little evidence that it seeks to guard the global commons, mobilize responses to humanitarian crimes, contain threats from failed and failing states, and so forth. If the world’s preeminent power abdicates its leadership of the postwar order — core elements, anyhow — but its putative replacement is neither capable of nor interested in seizing the inheritance, we may not experience the US-China power transition that many assume will occur. Instead, we may witness the emergence of a tense, fluid balance between the two countries against the backdrop of growing world disorder.
Schake observes that, even at the zenith of its power, Britain foresaw “an emerging deficit of relative power” with the United States. The two countries had the shared foresight to recognize that their respective clout “mattered less than the cumulative power they exercised together.” The decision that the United States and China make in this regard remains to be seen: will they become preoccupied with one another’s trajectories, or will they instead have the wisdom to pool their prodigious collective resources in the service of stabilizing and modernizing world order?