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.footnote1

While parallels and analogies in the history of great-power politics are not hard to find, the argument here is that since Rome, no state (Britain included) has attained a scale of domination through force and consent—Gramsci’s classic characterization of the hegemon—comparable to that exercised by governments of the United States since 1941. An appraisal of the singular external contexts in which the two powers arose, their distinct domestic economies, the patterns of their inter-state relations, their differing deployment of naval and military force and the operation and status of their financial systems within the international economy, suggests rather that the clear and significant contrasts between the roles played by Britain, from 1793 to 1914, and the United States, from 1941 to the present day, overwhelm superficial similarities. If we are to speak of the hegemony of the latter, then ‘primacy’ might be a better description of the first. Conceptual ellision of the distinct world roles of these two states serves only to confect a theory devoid of history.

As rulers of a small, not particularly advanced economy, located on an offshore island, Tudor and Stuart regimes had always taken full cognizance of their realm’s place in a wider, largely European and Atlantic economy, as well as its vulnerability to attack and invasion from the sea. Before the Glorious Revolution they lacked the fiscal resources to play anything but a peripheral role in geopolitics on the mainland and relied on the sea, together with a modest allocation of national resources to a partially privatized Royal Navy, to defend their kingdom against external aggression. England’s detached position in the hierarchy of contending European states and economies began to change after the Civil War when its rulers, Republican and Royal alike, reconstructed a fiscal system capable of providing the state with the taxes and loans required to invest in naval power, hire mercenaries, subsidize military allies on the Continent and play an altogether more active and aggressive role in power politics.footnote2 Between 1651 and 1802, the British state fought ten wars against major European rivals (the Netherlands, Spain and above all France) to maintain the security of the realm, preserve its highly inegalitarian system of property rights, jack up the nation’s share of the gains from trade and the profits from servicing an expanding global economy; and safeguard the kingdom’s growing portfolio of assets—concessions, territories, natural resources and colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia.footnote3

By 1815, the recently united kingdom could boast the largest navy in the world and the most extensive occidental empire since Rome; extraordinary shares of the profits derived from overseas commerce; and a domestic economy that stood halfway through the first industrial revolution. Even then, in global terms, the economy remained small; but its endowments of fertile land, cheap energy and a skilled workforce, together with its navy, had enabled the offshore island to reallocate more of its national resources to manufacturing industry than its main European rivals and to convert inputs into outputs somewhat more efficiently.footnote4

The Continental powers’ problems in contending with the rise of Britain, between 1651 and 1815, emanated in part from inferior natural endowments, especially of coal deposits, and from marginally weaker economies. Retardation persisted and widened because their fiscal and financial systems could not provide the mainland states of ancien régime Europe with the taxes and loans required to match British expenditures on naval and military power. Between 1688 and 1815, as real expenditures on its army and navy multiplied by a factor of 15, while domestic product increased just three times, the Hanoverian state appropriated and borrowed a rising share of national resources, which it used overwhelmingly to secure strategic, political and related economic gains. Neither France, Spain, the Netherlands nor any of Britain’s competitors or clients could match London’s ever-expanding capacity to tax, borrow and spend on ships, arms and troops. Their fiscal constitutions and inefficient institutions for the assessment and collection of taxes constrained the power of continental central governments (monarchical and oligarchical alike) to raise revenues. Furthermore, after three centuries of active engagement in state formation, reformation, wars of religion and imperial ventures overseas, their fiscal systems had become almost impossible to reform. Resistance to their rulers’ ever-increasing demands for revenues solidified; the capacities of most European states to tax and borrow ran into diminishing returns. The Hanoverian regime and its domestic economy thus reaped the benefits of a latecomer to power politics, rivalry for colonies and overseas trade.footnote5

After nearly four centuries of mercantilism (1415–1815), the entire system of international relations was rent apart by twenty-two years of disruptive warfare associated with the French Revolution and the attempt by France to dominate Continental Europe. When Napoleon’s ambition was finally thwarted the British state, its fiscal and financial system, royal navy and domestic economy, emerged from the most destructive of European conflicts in much better shape than the devastated economies, dilapidated fiscal bases and defeated armed forces of its rivals. Plenipotentiaries who gathered at the Congress of Vienna to re-establish some kind of stable international order recognized that the one clear outcome of the French Revolution had been to promote British trade, commerce, finance, industry and naval power to unmistakable positions of primacy. Nevertheless—and despite the fact that Britain had cobbled together four coalitions, subsidized the armies of Austria, Prussia, Russia and several minor powers, committed troops to campaigns in Iberia and Flanders, provided the bulk of the naval power to defeat France and its allies at sea—no European state looked to Britain to play the role of global hegemon. On the contrary: they looked to the recovery of their economies, the reconstruction of their fiscal and financial systems, the rebuilding of their armed forces—and even the reconstruction of monarchical government in France—to bring back a balance of power that might preserve the status quo and check any latent British ambitions to exploit their economic, naval and military weaknesses.footnote6 Nor did Britain’s rulers themselves ever contemplate or presume to occupy the place retrospectively assigned to them by social science whose theories ‘predict’ that the systemic properties of global international relations would prompt them and their rivals to do just that at the Congress of Vienna.footnote7

By contrast, during the century which preceded its emergence on to the world stage, the United States was virtually untroubled by warfare with peer powers. Before 1917, and perhaps as late as 1941, the geopolitical context in which governments in Washington operated was largely confined to the Americas, north and south. In 1823, prompted by Canning, President Monroe explicitly reserved the entire western hemisphere as a sphere of influence for the new Republic.footnote8 Tacitly protected by the Royal Navy from all further attempts at colonization by an Iberian, Dutch, French or other European power seeking territory and wealth in the New World, us diplomatic confrontations thereafter were overwhelmingly with its wary and rejected mother country. Over Texas, Oregon, California, Venezuela, Panama, even Canada as well as the far more serious issue of the Confederacy, London invariably appeased Washington.footnote9