A Tale of Two Hegemons: The Anglo-American Roots of the Postwar International System

Washington Naval Treaty 3

Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt from Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony by Kori Schake, published by Harvard University Press in November 2017.

In 1921, the United States convened a disarmament negotiation among the naval powers of the Pacific. At the Washington Naval Conference, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the United States agreed to discontinue their capital ship programs and build no more for ten years, to reduce their fleets of battleships and carriers to agreed ratios, and not to fortify their holdings in the Pacific.

The agreement was a triumph for America. President Warren G. Harding recognized flagging support for the aggressive 1916 ship-building program and bartered it away, gaining equality with the world’s dominant maritime power, containing Japan’s rise, and reducing the threat of Anglo-Japanese cooperation. Harding’s administration believed the Washington Treaties would prevent war, cost less, and have more public appeal than continued naval building programs. The president drew worldwide acclaim for his opening statement claiming that “our hundred millions want less of armament and none of war.”

The United States viewed the fleet ratios capping its navy and Great Britain’s at parity as a way for London to limit those challenging to its supremacy of the seas. By contrast, Britain viewed the limit as pejorative, given the three-ocean requirement of its empire. The British were, however, wholly ineffective in convincing the Harding administration that the Royal Navy ought to have its superior requirements acknowledged. Even worse from the British perspective, “this conference worked because the U.S. threatened to enter into an arms race with Britain and bankrupt her if Britain did not agree.” The United States also forced an end to the Anglo-Japanese defense alliance that Britain relied on to balance its exclusion from European alliances, manage its trading interests in China, and protect the approaches to the jewel in the crown of its empire, India. A risen America was willing to impose its power on Great Britain to achieve the broader goal of shaping the international order.

The most striking element of the Washington Naval Treaties is that their fundamental purpose was to prevent Anglo-American competition. Britain was still the world’s paramount naval force. In tonnage and number of ships, the Royal Navy equaled the rest of the world combined. But America and Japan were rising fast. Postwar Britain, conscious of its evaporating hegemony, was unable to match their naval spending. For all the political, economic, and cultural similarities celebrated in the Great Rapprochement between Britain and the United States, by 1922 it was American power — not Japanese — that most concerned the British government. Winston Churchill cautioned that the United States would “have a good chance of becoming the strongest Naval Power in the world and thus obtaining the complete mastery of the Pacific.” Britain had enabled America’s rise. As America pulled abreast, both countries ceased to believe their mutual interests were indivisible. If the British did not regret their policy of enabling America’s rise, they unquestionably saw the error of assuming that an imperial America would behave in the same manner as imperial Britain did.

Britain’s choices as a declining hegemon faced with a rising power created the model by which the United States shifted the paradigm of international order after 1945. The Anglo-American peace is thus key to understanding the constitution of the contemporary international system. The absence of centralized political authority did not force states to play competitive power politics, as realists would have us believe. Rather, an international order emerged modeled on the Anglo-American relationship, a convergence of values shifting the security landscape from competition to cooperation among like-minded states.

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Hegemony?

Relations among states have three modes: anarchy, in which no order exists; balance, in which states form either transient or enduring alliances to prevent one becoming dominant; and hegemony, where one state is powerful enough to establish order.

At its most basic, hegemony is the ability to set the rules of international order. It occurs when a state has a predominance of power and can impose its will on other states to create and enforce behavior. An asymmetry of power combines with the ambition to impose terms on weaker societies. Powerful states contest for the ability to establish rules that advantage them, enforcing the rules while they are able through military might and incentives for cooperation. When that state’s power abates, challengers arise.

Some of the most interesting international relations theorists have attempted to go beyond this minimalist definition of hegemony, to festoon it with more liberal trappings. Richard Ned Lebow and Robert Kelly make a distinction between control and “legitimated leadership,” which operates by consent. They even steal realists’ favorite historian, Thucydides, in support of the argument that justice as perceived by weaker states is an essential component of a hegemon’s authority. Ian Clark goes even further into consensual definitional territory, arguing that hegemony is “an institutionalized practice of special rights and responsibilities conferred on a state with the resources to lead.” That very European approach would shift hegemony from something wrested by the strongest to something given approvingly by lesser powers with a shared normative framework.

Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry argue that American hegemony has unique attributes that perpetuate it through consensual practices and make it less onerous to countries than have been previous hegemonic orders. They argue that the United States has established a liberal international order characterized by “co-binding security institutions, penetrated American hegemony, semi-sovereign great powers, economic openness, and civic identity.” The practices of American hegemony, then, made the United States a different kind of dominant power.

Turning to Constructivism

What information do we need to predict and explain state choices in the international order? Realists and neo-realists posit that the distribution of power is sufficient. States have interests, and they use their power in service of those interests. Knowing a state’s military strength determines its ability to preserve its sovereignty and expand its influence.

Yet the richest countries do not always dominate, the strongest militaries do not always derive from the most prosperous economies, armed forces prove more brittle than anticipated in combat (and adversaries more determined), and wars won do not always translate into increased power or autonomy. As Samuel Eliot Morison succinctly puts it, “history is chancy.”

Perhaps most important for conceptualizing the international order is that the distribution of power alone does not explain why states do not fight. Why do strong powers permit the rise of rivals and what triggers decisions to fight? If interests are immutable, why are states not perpetually in conflict?

Alexander Wendt posits the distribution of power approach as “undersocialized” — that is, it treats the social science of international relations theory as though it were a natural science of immutable laws. It presumes state behavior is dictated according to enduring interests and the material conditions needed to advance them. Realism thus becomes “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Wendt relaxes realism’s iron fist of determinism, instead positing national identity as socially constructed and therefore malleable. Social structures and arrangements can be formed on the basis of identities, and those affect both the definition of national interests and the identification and creation of means to secure those interests. So what might have caused war between, say, Britain and Germany in one epoch would not in another because how those states view their interests and each other’s behavior would have changed.

Wendt outlines a “constructivist” theory of international relations in which the zero-sum power politics of realist theory is an institution of one kind of international order, not an essential feature of all kinds of international order. He argues:

[T]he structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature.

The trajectory of relations between Great Britain and the United States from 1923 through the transition of hegemony and into the post-World War II era illustrates how profoundly constructivism’s description has contributed to understanding state behavior in the international order. In the British-U.S. transition, material conditions clearly mattered. America would not have been of interest had it not thundered to prosperity and sought an international role. But ideas also mattered.

As voting reforms democratized Britain in the mid-19th century, conquest of the West gave America an imperial cast of mind. As the exigencies of early industrialization pushed both economies out into the world, the two countries began looking alike to each other. The sense of sameness was not just racial, although it certainly had some racial characteristics. But, crucially, the sense of sameness precedes its congealment into a racialized Anglo-Saxonism. This sameness owes as much to the end of slavery in America, the hard realities of administering control over foreign territories, the peaceful expansion of franchise in Britain and its settling into lawfulness in the United States, patterns of transoceanic investment and capital-intensive infrastructure, and trading advantages to early industrializing economies (which both Britain and the United States were). What began as wariness in mutual perception became a celebration of characteristics the two countries considered themselves to uniquely share.

The exclusive nature of the convergence between Britain and the United States evaporated relatively quickly, by 1920 or so, precipitated by American involvement in World War I. Americans quickly became disaffected by European squabbling to uphold an international order that they didn’t consider worthy of preservation.

The asymmetry in British-American relations was made manifest in the 1923 Washington Naval Treaties. As Adam Tooze has argued,

The train of crises that reached their nadir in 1923 ended Lloyd George’s tenure as Prime Minister and exposed for all to see the limits of Britain’s hegemonic capacity. There was only one power, if any, that could fill this role—a new role, one that no nation had ever seriously attempted before—the United States.

It was only after the cataclysm of World War II that America committed to establishing and enforcing order in the international system. When in 1945 the United States did become the hegemon of the international order, it consciously constructed an order of cooperative security among states that shared its domestic political principles. Britain sought to, and to some extent did, sustain a privileged partnership with the United States. As Martha Finnemore’s work explores, rules and institutions gave participants in the order overlapping interests. She argues that those practices led to fundamental shifts in state identity in which the distribution of power was replaced by a structure of common values that created a collective identity.

Shared Values and a Shifting Order

At the inception of the hegemonic transition, Britain viewed itself as a liberal government and the United States as a reckless usurper, an irritant and a danger to the rules-based order Britain had established. It neither sought nor would welcome a strong America active in the international arena. And the United States viewed Britain with an especial hostility, having fought it twice and defined its sense of itself as a nation in contravention to Britain.

Over the course of a century, both nations and their perceptions of each other changed. The debate within Britain about political liberalization revolved around the American experience, both as hope and as cautionary tale. The industrial revolution was changing the country profoundly, increasing pressure for political inclusion and requiring the British government to take public attitudes into account in foreign policy. That accounting dramatically favored the United States because of its political creed and because immigration to the United States from Britain positioned America uniquely to affect British domestic political debate.

Britain also began to feel the weight of its international commitments. The summation by Henry John Temple, Third Viscount Palmerston, of Britain as having no permanent friends, only permanent interests was ideally suited to a maritime power, but was called into question as continental European powers began aligning. Recognition of its isolation led Britain to actively seek to share its burden through American involvement in the Western Hemisphere, the Pacific region, and eventually Europe itself.

Britain’s search for partners occurred just as the United States began uncharacteristically behaving as a traditional great power. The United States had always loudly championed its republican principles and insisted that this made the nation exceptionally virtuous, even as it fought wars to acquire land in every direction there was contiguous territory. But the United States had refrained from international involvement, considering itself unlike other nations and principally consumed with consolidating its domestic empire. With the advance of industrialization and the closing of the American West, the United States began looking abroad. America was in some cases a reluctant colonizer (Cuba), and in others an enthusiastic one (Hawaii), but it had given cause enough for the British government to believe America’s desire for influence and need for open markets could dovetail with Britain’s interests.

And those interests did dovetail for the crucial years of passage from Britain leading the international order to the United States replacing Britain in that role. A more democratic Britain and a more internationally engaged America felt similar to each other and different from other states. More than an alignment of interests, there also grew an affectionate regard between the governments and between the publics of Britain and America. Charles Campbell notes that “if a more democratic Britain had greater appeal for the ordinary American, the United States no longer seemed a subversive rabble-rousing republic to upper-class Britons.” Their national identities, if not collective, overlapped much more than either perceived they did with other countries. Britain materially assisted America’s defeat of Spain in 1898 and supported American expansion across the Pacific. America became the enforcer of Britain’s interests in the Caribbean and reinforcer of Britain’s side in World War I. Adversaries saw the United States, ostensibly neutral, as an ally of Britain.

The international order also changed, but only after the transition in hegemony. While the affectionate relationship between Britain and the United States has survived, the belief of being uniquely alike diluted once the United States became the dominant power. America proved itself not to be a traditional great power after all, episodically advocating and assisting self-determination across the international order — changing the rules in consonance with its domestic political values. The spread of American domestic political ideals around the world presaged the breakup of Britain’s empire and resulted in Britain being only one among many democracies that shared U.S. values. The United States, for its part, turned out not to behave as Britain had when dominating the international order. The increased acceptance within the international order of the political values Americans proclaim to be universal diminished Britain’s unique claim on U.S. cooperation.

A peaceful outcome of the transition in hegemony from Britain to the United States was by no means inevitable. In fact, it was exceedingly unlikely for a hegemon and a rising power to recognize commonality in each other and work to common international purpose. Peaceful transition was a highly contingent outcome, even between two countries with significant commonalities in history, philosophy, and language. It depended on the convergence of their foreign and domestic practices, the timing of domestic change, the alliance of continental European countries, technological innovation disrupting military advantage, the occurrence of international crises, and a lack of democratization in other countries. None of these variables could be controlled for, and they strongly suggest that future hegemonic transitions are unlikely to remain peaceful.

The complexity of this case suggests that for future hegemonic transitions to be peaceful, the hegemon being displaced would need to have a strong belief that the rising power shared both its interests and its values. Such similarity might allow the rising power’s effort to be considered additive to the hegemon’s, rather than a challenge. Only if the relative power of both states becomes less important in this way, as did happen between Britain and the United States, would the hegemon permit the rising power to replace it uncontested.

It also merits noting that even with the two nations’ wide cultural similarities and overlapping interests, Britain was disappointed in the end. A hegemonic America did not prove to be a faithful guardian of the order Britain bequeathed. Rather, it proved a revolutionary power that would change the rules such that its domestic order became the basis for the international order. Perhaps that is the most worrisome lesson for America as it contemplates other rising powers: Future hegemons, no matter how much similarity they exhibit through the passage of power from one state to another, will eventually seek to remake the international order in their own image, just as the United States has.


Dr. Kori Schake is a distinguished research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. She teaches Thinking About War, and is a contributing editor to War on the Rocks and also the Atlantic. This is an excerpt from her book Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony.

Image: U.S. Army