Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony

DATE: 18:00 – 19:00 – Tuesday 29th May 2018

VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP

SPEAKER: Kori Schake – Deputy Director-General at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Professor Brendan Simms – President of The Henry Jackson Society.

EVENT CHAIR: Dr John Hemmings – Director of Asia studies Centre



Thank you very much for giving me the privilege of being part of the programming at the Henry Jackson Society. I got started writing this book because I was curious with the rise of China and what this means for the United States (US), and whether this can happen peacefully. I got curious about previous hegemonic transitions and what made them peaceful and I thought I was writing a political science book, namely let’s take five examples of peaceful transition and see what worked and didn’t and compare and contrast. I only realised there was only one peaceful transition between a dominant rule-giving power in the international order and a rising power and that’s Britain to the United States in the 19th century. It is very common now to think of Britain and the US as so similar that a peaceful transition is an obvious outcome but that was by no means what the countries looked like to each other in the 19th century. The US defined itself in opposition to Britain despite what Freud describes as the narcissism of small differences. We did define ourselves in opposition to Britain and Britain as it expanded its franchise and through if different ways of its international role, feared the US’s cautionary example, that the blast of democratic governance in the US looked like rule by the mob, interoperate and erratic leadership and the prospects of enormous corruption, and all three of those things are true about the US in the 19th century.

We American forget that we were fundamentally an illiberal democracy in the 19th century and I tried to tell this story of how we have come to be similar to each other and different to others. I start to tell this story from 1823 with the Munro Doctrine, which some of you probably know, as it was a British proposal for the British and US to prevent continental European colonisation in the Western Hemisphere. I tell the story in the book of how Britain outflanks the US, prevents the outcome that this policy proposal has intended to achieve without help from the US and the Munro government, and unilaterally declares as a doctrine, that the Western hemispheres is no longer subject to European colonisation. Sadly for my country, for the next 70 years we lacked the capability to enforce the Munro doctrine, but the Royal Navy did so on our behalf.

I then look at 8 other instances where the US challenges the existing rules, specifically hegemonic transition, where the hegemon is the rule-giving power and the enforcer of the International order, and the examples I pick are over 100 years where the US tried to change the rules the British had established, as that is the point where crisis at which conflict is possible. As well as the Munro doctrine, I look at the Oregon boundary crisis in 1845, the US and Great Britain had joint sovereignty over Oregon, Washington, Wyoming from 1819-1845. I look at the tension when the Presidency of James K Polk unilaterally asserts that Britain has no right to governance in that area as it’s not a representative democracy as so the attempt to flip the table on sovereignty as suggests, the only governments who have internationally are those who are directly representative of their population.

The third case I look at is why the Palmerston government doesn’t recognize the confederacy in the American civil war which would have been the easiest opportunity to prevent a rising challenger, which is that the US because of our ideology had the ability to play in the democratic politics of other countries, in particular because by 1869, the immigrations patterns were predominantly from Ireland and Scotland to the Industrialized North of the US and Palsmerston worried that the Lincoln government would have the ability to foster domestic dissent in GB and raise the domestic cost of controlling Ireland and Scotland. For me that was the favourite thing I learnt as we in the US often think about our diverse immigrant population as a source of potential weakness in warfare and in that, most important conflict where we could have been [inaudible] our immigrant population proved a strategic advantage for stalling the involvement of the strongest power in the international order. Thus it is Japanese – US attornment filliped on its head in a way that the US doesn’t think about.

The next case study isn’t a crisis. It is the 1870’s, where it feels to me that Great Britain and the US choose their defining mythology, which for the US was Westward expansion – the myth of the American west and its renaissance as we try and patch our country back together. Due to manifest Westward expansion, the US had come by the 1870s to think of themselves in imperial terms, and Britain, in its expansion, the peaceful democratisation of the country, compared to what is happening in continental Europe, becomes a central part of Britain’s mythology – that they look similar to each other but different from others. When Britain has to consider not just one but three rising powers, Japan, Germany and the US, the US looks like the safe bet, and the sense of sameness allows for space to compromise in times of crisis, that comes about in obscure crisis over the boundary line of Venezuela in 1895. It is a great American story where Grover Cleveland, the President of the US, who was so anti-imperialist, that he didn’t proceed with the annexation of Hawaii, as he felt it was an infringement of self-governance. He gets dragooned into this as Venezuela hired an American lobbyist who starts writing newspapers editorials over the US on how Cleveland wasn’t establishing the Munro doctrine, and the Secretary of state writes a 12,000 word case to the UK on how they should subject themselves to US arbitration in Venezuela. The Salisbury government initially ignores it but eventually responds that Great Britain controls as much territory on the continent as the US, and Cleveland takes advantages of the reckless US congress, getting unanimous votes in both houses for a policy that would go to war with the UK. There is no question we would have lost, so the mystery is why does Britain subject itself to this – why not enforce the rules it established? The answer in because of civil society. By 1895, because of the sameness, the ways in which the two societies beginning to grow together, you have 350 members of the British parliament writing an open letter of the US encouraging arbitration between the two for any conflict ever between the two, and after this time, there is never a question of conflict between the two states.

You see it in 1898 in the Spanish-American war where Britain, ostensibly neutral, and with lots of reason to not support the US, was acknowledged as an interested party who sides with the US. It was written in the memoirs of Commodore Perry who commanded the action in Manilla bay, which states that the US couldn’t have succeeded without the UK.

The next to last case is World War I, which is the first time Britain fears the US may impose a result that Britain may not want. The government does an internal study of whether the Wilson government could force British capitulation in the war, and conclude that if they wanted to, they could.

I wanted to end the book with the Washington naval accord in 1923, as that is the first time the US does impose an outcome that Britain doesn’t want. My favourite fingerprint of it, is what the UK calls the ‘cherry tree classes’ of ships – the ones the US forces must cut down to size, to meet the ration of ships that the US impose as part of an arms agreement.

Then I end with the example of World War II and the dominance by the US which is so pronounce, and what this means for managing China. On china, I wouldn’t bet my money that the rise of this China will lead to a peaceful transition as there is none of this sense of sameness that can lead to compromise that occurred between the US and UK. I am sceptical that this china can rise without liberalizing, as china do not buy our argument of being a responsible stakeholder, which is the same argument Britain made to the US that we didn’t buy.

FULL NAME OF SECOND SPEAKER: Professor Brendan Simms

My remarks are very brief.

Why do I think this is a great book? First of all, it is the best kind of living history, it is a good read, fluent and absorbent, and it is written by somebody who has worked in the real world, which I have managed to avoid for 50 years. As a result, Kori has an informed sense of policy choices and also, an idea of the sheer chaos and contingency of politics and how things dont work out how you plan, and if you read the history through this lens you get something different compared to if it is written by an academic historian. Also, Kori uses the history for illumination and stimulation as opposed to a rigid manual, giving one, an insight into how these questions are handled in the past, which is another point in favour of this book – it historicizes the book. The hero of this book is the British Empire, as it is the empire that cleverly manages this transition and enforces the Munro doctrine, long before the US had the capacity to do so.

So, some questions.

I’d be interested to learn in this discussion, how you differentiate yourself from people like Graham Alison and the Great Harvard project and power transitions which was epitomized in the book the thucydides trap which is the idea that things go wrong where the declining power precipitously sets of war. I take it you are a bit more optimistic than he is.

I would be interested to know how your argument is being taken in the beltway. How it is being listened to and taken up. The gist of the Trump administration is power maintenance not transition, and it would be interesting to hear your opinion of whether transitions can be halted or managed, and in that context, what are the lessons of the US-china relationship today. As you said, Britain and the US shared language and strategic culture, of course there are differences but crudely speaking they have tried to do the same thing from the 19th-21 century. This was more a passing of the torch as opposed to a transition. So my question would be how do you do this? Should you do this when polices are so different between the US and China?

What if, as if the case with China, if China doesn’t just want to co-set the rules but wants to create new rules completely? How does one manage such circumstances? Does history offer us a guide?

Lastly, with Europe. Few people nowadays speak of the 21st century as the European century, but President Macron has put forward a joint plan for the European Union and what he calls ‘joint sovereignty’. This faces many challenges, but let’s assume this plan has a chance of succeeding. If it does, this Europe will be the world’s superpower in terms of population, economic power and military power. My question for you here then is, what can the lessons of history have to say about such a transition? May it be an emergence of a cognate power where the US can pass the torch if not globally, then regionally? May the US hold that European sovereignty in trust for the EU, much like Britain defended the Munro doctrine, until the continent is ready for its rendezvous in the 21st century?


At a fundamental level, I feel Graham did start to write a political science book like me. Looking at case studies of hegemonic transitions that were peaceful and in order to find ends greater than one, he found odd anomalies. What he calls hegemonic transition is a shift of power from Britain and France to German post-WW2, but this is when they all have the same security guarantor, so it isn’t a useful way to think of the problem. This is my [inaudible] of Grahams work.

With regards to how this looks like for the belt way. You are right in stating that President Trump sees himself as preserving the US’s power. As I am an unrepented signatory of letters criticizing Trump, he doesn’t understand the economics but second of all, what he fails to understand is that the real genius of the US dominated international order was the lesson we learnt from Britain, which is that the only way to make victories sustainable and cost-effective is to strike up alliances. The President is burning through the good will and support that has made the US order affordable for Americans and has prevented other counties from ‘band wagon-ing’ against US power. It may not surprise you that the secretary of defence thinks the lessons are useful and is practicing them – whether he can remain an outlier and an effective one is a separate question.

On the ‘should you allow a different China to emerge that can change the rules’ question, I think we should prevent it, because will not like a tributary system of the international order, a global economy where the Chinese state picks winners and losers and forcibly requires political commissaries, so yes, we should resist it. I am more optimistic than Graham as I think the US as Britain before it, because of who we are as domestic political cultures that is as democratic political cultures, we are good at identifying ways for everyone to succeed. That is what Britain does with the US, and the US did with post-war Germany, japan, etc. There a lot of examples of how to encourage success and we have been good at it, and if china doesn’t want to have success on these terms, that is useful data itself on the nature of Chinese aspirations.

Europe is a superpower. My entire professional life I have listened to Europeans stating that Europe is willing to spend more for European defence outside of NATO, remembering the former Luxembourg Prime Minister state in 1992, that ‘this is the time for Europe, not for the US’. We, being the US, who pulls Europe along with them, and Britain, dealing with ensuring Europe takes matters serious, both have the problem of ensuring continental European countries who can contribute, do contribute. I don’t think Macrons vision of Europe is thus possible, as I cannot imagine Germany bankrolling this, or Italy’s five star government that wants to withdraw from the euro – there is not this sense of sameness. It is still a national Europe. I would love to have the problems of a superpower Europe shaming the US to uphold their values, not being so narrow and militaristic, instead having developing assistance being the same as military force, but I am not worried of this force emerging.

‘Q AND A’ WITH Kori Schake

Q: In your book, you state that values and ideology play a role, which HJS hold close to their work. Yet, how do you see, going forward with China and the values system you describe as being antithetical to what we perceive to be Western? How do you see this playing out? How can these values be used as a policy maker?

A: Two answers relevant to your question. The Chinese have twice in the past, sent their senior general, who has gone on to get fired after his comments in Singapore, the second time it was because Vietnam raised a question about aggressive Chinese behaviour in their territorial waters, and the Chinese representative said ‘we are always going to be the bigger country you have to deal with it’. This is china’s behaviour but the government don’t own up to it. China are using a bare-knuckled strategy which in the time of a reckless US president, the Chinese are cementing our power structure in Asia, as what you see is everybody clinging to the US, having a lot of doubts of reliability and direction on China. Last year General Mattis gave a speech in Singapore which would have been unacceptable in any other administration for the past 70 years – whereby ‘we care about your security, our values matter, that’s what undergirds our alliance commitments, and we see trade as buttresses these values and agreements as trade benefits everyone’. This would have been seen as unacceptable for any administration – except the one he works for now. Every question he got asked last year was some version of ‘how can we trust you due to your president’ – this is the tension. Thus by squandering our advantage in this competition, we are driving up difficulties to maintain the international order that has served the US so well. Yet China are playing this game even worse.

Q: (James Kiddner from ‘Improbable’ – a tech start up specializing in simulation) Going back to dissect the current risk of China who are getting noisy about American vessels sailing through the south China sea – can you give us some examples, from 1823 to the second world war, where we came quite close? As it is not difficult to imagine China and US can become close.

A: Yes. The organ boundary process of 1845 plays out in an interesting way as British diplomats played the US into a trap where they said you have problems elsewhere which are bigger, and we are a strategic backwater, thus burn the white house and go home was plenty good enough. During 1845, Polk was campaigning for President on a platform on taking the Southern rim of the US from Mexico as that government couldn’t prevent American degradation on US soil, taking Oregon territory out of UK control. The reason that joint sovereignty worked was because no one lived there, and Britain had trapping interests around there, because California wasn’t an American state, they need a pacific state, and it was thus the mouth of the Columbian  river that was the issue of contention between the two states. If Polk was a better strategist, he could have waited and let the flow of immigrants across Oregon River to solve the problem, but like many before him, he was not, and only recants when Great Britain starts marching soldiers westwards from Ontario, starting to pull together a fleet to bombard American cities on the East coast. Polk is astonished. So this is not only the nearest they have come to clashing, but force majeure by British diplomacy nearly led to capitulation.

Q: (Edward Ben-Nathan – HJS) We have perhaps reached peak democracy, seeing it retreat in places like Turkey, and we see China purporting its model, saying their model of good governance should apply to the world. Is anyone around the world taking note of this?

A: The problem with Chinese salesmanship about themselves as guarantors of the International order and the only ones who care about globalisation and good governance, is that the Chinese themselves don’t seem to believe it. The Obama-administration ambassador to China posted every day the air-quality index in Beijing, and china went nuts about it. We tend to think much too narrowly about the tools that hand for us, and of course the major tool is, as the great Justice Brandeis told us Americans ‘sunlight if the best disinfectant’. Thus china can easily popularise the ridiculousness and disgracefulness of democracy in the US, but they will not outrun my parents on telling this story, who get exacerbated by this government. This difference is my parents can throw this government out of power – unlike in China. There are 185,000 Chinese students in the US every year and they don’t go home every year hoping their daughters are dressed up as US daughters, but they probably do go home, knowing that the Sonoma country zoning board can prevent the train agencies from confiscating properties as they go home to the nicest areas of California – this is what china needs to fear. The question is who is taking up the Chinese model? Is Britain? Russia? No. Whether the Chinese model can continue to succeed is the big problem.

Q: What role will other powers such as Russia, China and Europe play in the pacific century?

A: I hope European countries will play a large role, as China isn’t just riding for the US but also for Britain and Europe as well. European counties have an interest in the sustainability and existence of rule based order – Russia do not see themselves as European in this sense and don’t have a role to play here. Our challenge with Russia is their failure not their success, and helping Russia see a positive future for themselves, is a challenge we face, but I don’t see them as a major player involving China.

Q: Since the 1820’s, we have spent time controlling Russia’s rise in Asia, and Germany’s rise in Europe, and then in 1923, our naval policy and alliance with Japan was dictated by the US. At any point were we aware that the US was to displace us as the main maritime power? If we knew that, would we have focused so much on Russia and Germany? Will the US now have to accommodate for bad actors such as Iran and Russia, to control the rise of China?

A: No Britain sees the rise of the US favourably. People understand what this means if Britain is not the setter and enforcer of the rules. If the royal navy is your major chokehold, because transport has to be by sea until 1870, that once the Russia can move by train to Afghanistan, the control and significance Britain has starts to erode, and from 1870s forward there are unrealistic hopes on the British government that they can produce the land power they need to hold the empire and hold the balance in continental Europe. The good news is that the country who provides these land powers to the UK was the US, providing 10,000 soldiers a week to the Western world in WW1. Thus not a terrible outcome for the UK.

Q: Britain may not have wanted the outcome they got, but they did want an outcome, believing the old order could not persist. Britain wanted to break the Anglo-Japanese alliance, positioning the alliance into a tri-lateral alliance, with the US involved. Do you have any comments on this? And whether they wanted an outcome and that this was the best outcome they could get?

A: So, I read it differently than you do. That the conversations coming out of Versailles for example, where British government officials are worried the US can be a naval power more threatening than Germany in the dreadnought race. I agree with you that the British did not think the old order was sustainable, but there was the 1916 naval law in the US that was willing to poor money off the rooftops to build a bigger navy than the British. The US from the 1960s onwards, thus viewed its ability to sustain naval parody with the US as a rapidly diminishing assets, and so, it is not that they were welcoming this new American order, it was that Warren G Harding at the opening of the Washington naval accord said if ‘Britain wants an arms race, ‘goddamit’ we will give it to them and win it’. That was the nature of the interaction by 1923. On the trilateral order, I know that’s what Britain wanted – but nobody in the US is going to be open to that, and one of the reasons that the Washington naval accord is such an interesting time, is that everybody except for Britain gets some carve out – the French get submarines, the Japanese, and even the Italians get a carve out. Britain is the only country that cannot persuade the US to give them any special accommodation to their needs, and that is their tenure to that moment.

Q: A comment that strikes me as being ironic – the fighting words that every American sings is the star spangled banner which is anti-British. I wondered if there was some move to get rid of this in your research.

A: No, because in the politically correct age the only safe people to make villains in American movies are the British. Everybody else is off limits so I don’t expect this to go anytime soon.






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