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Misreading Britain’s Decline—Identifying the Real Hegemonic Contest Between China and America

By Gregory Mitrovich


How do we determine when a great power is in decline? When does this “decline” matter to the global balance of power? Since the end of World War II, perceptions of U.S. power have varied wildly, from moments of unparalleled hegemony to fears of rapid decay and a transition to a new dominant power. We’ve seen this pattern repeat many times, from the panic following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in the 1950s, the rapid decline of America’s share of the global GDP in the 1960s and 70s, and Japan’s growing dominance of the international economy in the 1980s and early 90s.

Though none of these examples of American decline led to the long-feared shifts in the balance of power, the rise of China has inspired many to argue that we are finally seeing a true hegemonic transition to an era of Chinese supremacy. Consequently, scholars of international affairs increasingly worry that an intensifying global competition between China and the United States might lead to hegemonic war, especially as heightening military tensions in the Asia-Pacific region have raised these risks of conflict to heights not seen since the worst days of the Cold War. The COVID-19 pandemic has only hardened these divisions as both nations blame each other for the crisis. America’s very public struggles with containing the disease have further empowered those who believe America’s is rapidly losing its primacy. 

To better understand this transition, academics and policymakers in both China and the U.S. are turning to the past to identify lessons that might help prevent a conflict; the results are disconcerting. Chinese historian Xu Qiyu warns that rising powers must engage in adroit diplomacy if they wish to avoid a major war. However, in Destined for War, Graham Allison of Harvard University demonstrates that such diplomatic restraints are difficult to achieve. Allison identifies 16 transitions of power that have occurred over the past five centuries but only four cases were resolved peacefully.

The one historical case that consistently stands out is the peaceful transition from British to American hegemony, a process commonly believed to have occurred in the late 19th century as the United States overtook Great Britain to become the world’s leading economic power. This historical example is being scrutinized by American and Chinese scholars for its potential lessons. U.S. academics hope to learn how America and China can prevent political crises from spiraling into a catastrophe similar to World War I. Chinese scholars are fascinated by what they perceive as Britain’s willingness to peacefully hand over the reins of power to a rising United States and the example it offers America, which has resisted doing the same for China.

However, are we discerning the right lessons from the hegemonic transition from British to American primacy? My research establishes that we are ignoring important historical factors that demonstrate instead the robustness of Britain’s position during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this in turn has caused us to misunderstand important aspects surrounding the U.S.-China rivalry that favor the United States in the global balance of power. Of paramount importance is an overreliance by academics regarding the concept of “relative decline,” the use of GDP as the principal measure of power in the international system, the failure to appreciate the structural advantages possessed by hegemonic powers, and the great challenge rising powers face trying to peacefully supplant a hegemon.

Relative decline refers to a condition in which a state’s power continues to grow, just not as fast as its rivals. While British GDP expanded throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the economies of both the United States and Germany grew at even faster rates, enabling both powers to surpass British production. That this shift occurred as the deteriorating strategic environment on the European continent forced Britain to redeploy its battleship fleet to defend the British Isles, historians have exaggeratedly referred to this period as the end of Pax Britannica.

A new generation of historians have challenged this history, especially British economic historians who contend that the extent of Britain’s decline is significantly overstated and that much of the decline that had occurred had been reversed by 1914. More critically, discussion of Britain’s decline failed to account for Britain’s continued dominance in other measures of power that prevented the United States and Germany from exploiting their supposed gains at Britain’s expense. The same is true for the United States today.

The focus on the changes in British GDP highlights a problem with the “declinist” school of thought; while critical, productivity had never been the main pillar of British power; rather it was Britain’s financial system that drove its rise to power. Prior to the nineteenth century, British production totaled only a fraction of its European rivals, particularly when compared with France, whose eighteenth-century population totaled nearly three times that of Britain while generating twice Britain’s GDP. It would not be until 1830, with the advent of the industrial revolution, that Britain would surpass France to become the Europe’s largest economy. Britain lost that advantage in the 1870s when it was outstripped by the more populous and rapidly industrializing United States.

However, by the late seventeenth-century Britain had developed a banking and taxation system superior to any of its rivals enabling it to finance a navy and merchant fleet that would dominate the world’s oceans and pay for the military expenses of its continental allies. This permitted the creation of alliances that would time and again defeat French attempts to dominate Europe. During the nineteenth century, this same financial prowess helped Britain maintain a significant naval advantage over its French, German, and American rivals while its adoption of free trade vastly expanded its commercial activity around the world. By World War I, British merchant ships accounted for half the tonnage of the world’s merchant fleets, four times as much as Germany and ten times that of the United States. To maintain its dominance in global trade, Britain constructed a world-wide network of ports and harbors that its commercial rivals soon came to depend on for their own commerce, particularly after the switch from sail to coal-burning steam engines. By the turn of the twentieth century, 80 percent of the world’s ships would burn British coal, widely recognized as the best coal for maritime use. In the mid-1800s, Britain took advantage of its monopoly of the water-resistant material gutta percha, which enabled the British to lay undersea telegraph cables that connected the world. By World War I, the Earth’s navies and merchant fleets were powered by British coal supplied by British bases and communicated using British telegraph cables—it was this network with ensured Britain’s global dominance.

The devastating costs of World War I sapped Britain of its financial dominance while its military defeats in France in May of 1940 and the fall of Singapore in February 1942 sealed the end to Britain’s global network. America’s mobilization for war marked its ascendance as the dominant power in the relationship. When the British military returned to action in Europe and the Pacific in 1944, it was under the command of American leaders General Dwight Eisenhower in Europe and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in the Pacific.  The destruction of World War II left the United States as the only nation capable of meeting the post war challenges. America now assumed Britain’s place in the world.

As the new administration determines its course of action regarding China, it is important to recognize that the true focus of China’s hegemonic challenge is on controlling these global networks—telecommunications, trade, international development, and finance. China has spent much of the past decade creating an alternative latticework to challenge American dominance, including the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Belt and Road Initiative, and Huawei’s 5G cellular network. While tensions in the South China Sea, especially regarding Taiwan, raise serious risks of war, the true hegemonic struggle between the two powers will occur in these networks, which in turn reduces the structural risks of war like those that doomed Europe in 1914. Consequently, China and the United States appear set for a long rivalry, but not a rapid hegemonic transition or hegemonic war.

Associated Reading
Aaron Friedberg. 1988. The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Gregory Mitrovich. 2020. Beware Declinism: America Remains Poised for Greatness. The National Interest. 168, July-August.
D.C.M Platt. 1993. Decline and Recovery in Britain’s Overseas Trade. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Sydney Pollard. 1995. Britain’s Prime Britain’s Decline: The British Economy 1870-1914. London: Edward Arnold.
Kori Schake. 2017. Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gregory Mitrovich is a Research Scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of Undermining the Kremlin: America’s Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956.

Associated Minerva Project
Culture in Power Transitions: Sino-American Conflict in the 21st Century

Managing Service Agency
Office of Naval Research

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