One hundred years ago, the British Empire and Commonwealth comprised one-fourth of humanity. There were British colonies on every continent, and nations on every continent with whom Britain was their greatest trading partner.
Yet this power was largely an illusion. Britain no longer had the industrial and financial power to maintain a global empire and, 50 years later, it was no longer a world power.
Today the United States is seemingly as supreme as Great Britain was then. The USA has more than 800 military bases in 160 countries; it can project its military power to places as far from home as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet this, too, is largely an illusion. Our American industrial and economic power is as hollow now as Britain’s was back then. I don’t think it will take as long as 50 years for this to become apparent.
A few weeks ago, I happened to pick up Paul M. Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976, 1983) in a second-hand bookstore. Kennedy has a deep understanding of the relationship between military power, economic power, technology and geopolitics, and the ability to explain complex matters clearly.
His book is fascinating for itself, and for its implications for American power. His story begins in the 16th century, when England depended on sea power, diplomacy and a balance of power to preserve its independence from the powerful Spanish Empire and French Kingdom. The English Navy was under-financed and under-paid; it used privateers and buccaneers as a kind of guerrilla navy.
In the 17th century, Britain was torn by internal conflict, including a full-scale Civil War. The British avoided conflict with France and Spain, the great European powers, but built up their merchant marine and fought three wars with the Dutch for rule of the seas.
The British established naval bases worldwide and founded colonies in North America. Maritime commerce became a source of national wealth and power. By the end of the century, Britain had subdued Scotland and Ireland, and overcome its internal religious divisions.
From 1689 to 1815, Britain fought a succession of wars against France, all of which (except the French-backed U.S. War of Independence) left Britain richer and more powerful and at the point of becoming the world’s only global power.
The growing British merchant marine added not only to Britain’s wealth, but her number of seamen and access to naval stores. Wars on French commerce enriched British merchants and shipowners. Victories added to her colonies and naval bases. Britain’s new wealth, plus its commercial spirit and resources of coal and iron, gave rise to industrial revolution.
In the 19th century, British supremacy at sea was unchallenged. There was a kind of naval-industrial complex. The British Navy created a market for the shipbuilding industry, iron industry (for cannon) and other products, and spurred industrial innovation.
As the first industrial nation, Britain was for a time the workshop of the world. Industrial power reinforced sea power, and sea power helped open markets for the products of British industry.
During all this time, as Kennedy noted, Britain never tried to dominate the continent of Europe, and could not have done so if it tried. Instead it tried to maintain a balance of power among the great European countries. The British could not avoid fighting in Europe, but were unable to win without the support of allies, often financially subsidized allies.
The 19th century British tried to make their world empire acceptable to other European nations. The British Navy suppressed piracy and the African slave trade (which had been a big source of British wealth in previous centuries). It financed scientific expeditions, laid oceanic telegraph cables and public navigational charts–all to public benefit.
But in the middle of the 19th century, technological developments shifted the advantage from sea power to land power.