Passing the Baton
Kori Schake, Deputy Director-General for Institute for Strategic Studies, London has written an important book as to how a declining power peacefully passes the baton to a rising power. The operative word here is peacefully, because in most cases the two powers fall into what Graham Allison has called the Thucydides Trap where the ancient historian noted “it was the rise in Athens and the fear this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” The importance of Schake’s book is that today the world is faced not with the rise of the U.S. and the decline of Britain, but rather with the rise of China and the decline of the United States.
Her book begins with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, where she notes that it was a British idea to begin with, to the end of World War II. In the case of the Monroe Doctrine Britain was seeking to preserve its commercial interests with the newly independent Latin American countries and the U.S was more than happy to have the British navy enforce the doctrine. In fact one of the reasons for the Monroe Doctrine was the Russian presence just north of San Francisco. Both the U.S. and Britain were fortunate to have John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State and the Britain to have George Canning as Foreign Secretary.
Schake then goes on to discuss the Oregon boundary dispute of the late 1840s, the Civil War, the Venezuelan crises of 1895-1905, the Spanish American War, World War I, the Washington Naval Conference of 1922 and World War II. She highlights how Britain feared U.S. interference in British politics during the Civil War that worked to keep Britain out as many Brits sympathized with America’s republican values and the presence of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the U.S. who still had strong ties to the home country. The Brits certainly did not want to encourage secession.
By the time the Venezuelan Crises came around Britain began to fear America’s growing power and instead of fighting the powers worked together. Simply put Britain began to treat the U.S. as an equal and further it had worries much closer to home with the rise of Germany. Indeed the British Navy actually supported Admiral Dewey in the battle of Manila Bay. Again both parties were lucky to have such statesman as Hay and Salisbury. Moreover by 1900 the two countries were becoming more alike. The U.S. was become more imperialist and Britain became more democratic. Simply put The U.S. was first willing to accept Britain’s rules based hegemony and later Britain would accept the rules laid down by America.
That became apparent at the Washington Naval Conference where the once mighty British navy accepted American parity in the Pacific. It was a diplomatic victory for President Warren Harding.
With the coming of World War II Britain was forced to accept American hegemony. They had no choice and under the new rules its empire would have to go. In return for American support again the Brits had no choice.
The question for us today that would the U.S. and China be so lucky. Schake thinks not. There is far less commonality and it isn’t clear that on the U.S. side we will we have statesman on the caliber of John Quincy Adams and John Hay. One can only hope.
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