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New Left Review 24, November-December 2003

How far are the systems of British and American international power historically comparable? Can the imperium presided over by Clinton and Blair be regarded as essentially a sequel to the Victorian order guided by Palmerston or Salisbury, or does it represent something quite new—the first true hegemony in history?



From British Primacy to American Hegemony

In recent years it has become commonplace to identify the exercise of hegemony, and the rule of a particular hegemonic power, as systemic components of a geopolitical order which began in 1648, if not many centuries before. Scholars from traditions as different in ideological outlook as the World-Systems and Hegemonic Stability Theory schools have applied the term to powers as varied as the Sung dynasty, the United Provinces, the Italian city-states—Venice, Florence, Genoa, Milan—Great Britain and the United States. Crucially, they have sought to portray the Pax Britannica as a precedent, and antecedent, for the current global dominance of the United States. Thus, according to one widely accepted paradigm, after a destructive interregnum of interstate violence and neo-mercantilism that lasted from 1914 until 1941, the us succeeded to the benign hegemonic role that Britain had played in the world order from the French Revolution down to the Great War. [1] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead, New York 1990; Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, London 1988. I am very grateful to Niall Ferguson for giving me the opportunity to disagree with his unpublished paper, ‘British Imperialism Revisited: the Costs and Benefits of Anglo-globalization’, Stern School of Business, New York 2003.

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Patrick O'Brien, ‘The Myth of Anglophone Succession’, NLR 24: £3

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