Politics & Policy

Back to the Future

What 19th-century Britain can teach 21st-century America

The great strategic narrative of our time is about American decline. However, although we are facing some brisk economic headwinds that our political leaders seem clueless in dealing with, I remain unconvinced that we have entered a period of terminal decline. As Adam Smith noted two centuries ago, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” At some point Americans, in their infinite wisdom, will elect officials committed to setting the ship of state on a sustainable fiscal course. One only hopes they will get around to it before financial collapse is staring the country squarely in the face.

In any case, our current $15 trillion economy means we are still, by a wide margin, the biggest kid on the block — a condition that is likely to continue for some time. Even if China maintains its remarkable growth for another couple of decades — a big if — it will only surpass us in the overall size of its economy. The United States will remain well ahead when economic power is measured on the basis of GDP per capita. This means that even if China becomes the world’s largest economy, huge numbers of its population will remain mired in deep poverty. In strategic terms, such poverty will limit China’s ability to mobilize enough of its economic power to build the type of military force required to challenge the United States on a global scale. Unless, of course, we decide to opt out of our current role and hand global leadership to the Chinese by default.

#ad#Although China remains decades away from becoming a true global power and peer competitor to the United States, its growing wealth ensures two things: China already is and will remain a regional superpower, capable of contesting U.S. power in regions we consider crucial to our future security. And China is not alone. The “rise of the rest” will, over the next couple of decades, present the United States with a radically changed strategic environment, one in which America remains the world’s dominant power, but in which over a dozen nations can make life difficult for us militarily. Of course, through the adroit use of diplomacy and the smart use of our economic and military power, we might well be able to persuade these nations to join us instead of challenging us, and help ease our strategic burdens.

Nothing about this new multi-polar world is truly new. This is the world as it has always been. Since the collapse of the Roman Empire there has not, until our current era, been an uncontested superpower. Although the United States enjoyed that role for most of the last generation, our uni-polar moment was always destined to end. When it does, we will once again have to master the old arts of diplomacy, so as to create the balances of power that can check potential enemies and support our friends.

We find ourselves in an emerging environment not unlike the one Britain was in from 1815 to the beginning of World War I. With the defeat of Napoleon, Britain became the superpower of the age. Through its uncontested control of the seas, Britain maintained a global empire, enforced the admittedly imperfect Pax Britannica, and maneuvered to balance the other great powers of Europe. Moreover, because of its head start in the Industrial Revolution, it was by a wide margin the globe’s dominant economic and financial power for nearly a century.

#page#Unrivaled overall power did not, however, mean that Britain always got its way on the major geopolitical issues of the day. In fact, the Foreign Office had a pretty high rate of failure throughout the period. What economic and military power did allow, however, was for Britain to influence much of what happened in the world. If Britain did not always get the optimal outcome, it was usually able to avoid the worst outcomes. In the process, the British had to make some fundamental decisions about the geopolitical future. Foremost among these was what to do about the United States. Just as we are witnessing the rise of China’s economic star, Britain was watching our rise with a certain degree of trepidation. Rather than try to hamper our development, though, the British invested in it, while making the geopolitical allowances necessary to accommodate the entry of a new global power onto the world stage. But although Britain handled the rise of the United States with great skill, it failed miserably, as did the rest of the world’s great powers, to deal with the rise of Germany and Japan.

#ad#So, what lessons can the United States draw from Britain’s experience? First, even at the height of its power, Britain was never able to dictate global events. However, through active engagement on a number of levels with a number of other powers, Britain was able to make its influence felt virtually anywhere it chose. It did so with a combination of diplomacy and a demonstrated willingness to employ military power, particularly its fleet, to back up its diplomatic efforts. At the same time, Britain maintained economic and fiscal policies that ensured that it remained the world’s foremost economic and financial power throughout the period of the Pax Britannica.

Britain’s role as a leading global power was finally ended by the strains of two world wars in the first half of the 20th century — wars that might have been avoided if Britain had not placed all its chips on naval power at the expense of the army.

When Bismarck was asked once what he would do if the British army landed in Europe, he replied that he would “have a constable arrest it.” Britain’s lack of a credible land force had two major negative effects. First, when it did commit its army, even in limited conflicts such as the Crimean War, the going was typically harder and more costly than it needed to be. More crucially, a weak army limited the impact of British diplomacy on the Continent.

At the start of the First World War, the kaiser sent a note to one of his commanders ordering him to exterminate Britain’s “contemptibly small army.” One wonders whether Germany would have initiated World War I if the kaiser had not held the British army in such contempt. Likewise, would Hitler have begun World War II if Britain had had the capability to place sufficient land forces on the Continent to intimidate him during any of the crises preceding the war?

As America enters a new era of multi-polarity, several things stand out from the British experience. First among these is that it behooves the current big kid on the block to adapt itself to the rise of other powers, rather than try to find ways to challenge or contest their growth. Such challenges typically fail, and they engender a huge amount of resentment and ill will. Furthermore, while a powerful fleet assures a large degree of global influence, as crises develop, the ability to place a credible force on the ground provides the best guarantee of either a peaceful settlement or a rapid victorious conclusion to any possible conflict. Finally, without a strong economy to underpin all of our geopolitical actions, whether diplomatic or military, we run a great risk of becoming the “weary titan” of the 21st century.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.

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