The Not-So-Special Relationship: Imperial Power and Anglo American Rivalry in the World War I Era

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM
Salon C (Hilton Atlanta)
Katherine C. Epstein, Rutgers University-Camden
The United States and Britain at the turn of the century are often depicted as having been on opposite trajectories: the United States as an emerging global empire, and Britain as a declining one.  But recent scholarship, especially in naval, diplomatic, and economic history, has made clear that this conventional narratives suffer from an inadequate conceptualization of imperial power.  Although it is true that British economic power was declining relative to that of the United States, Britain still had enormous financial power.  Britain also retained massive leads in the infrastructural requirements for projecting power on a global scale in a globalized world economy, including ocean-going merchant shipping, global communications, and naval-industrial resources.  The US Navy, which is so often used as a symbol of the United States’ growing global power, remained a pygmy in comparison to the Royal Navy.  British capital underwrote major segments of US industry, including the armaments industry, well into World War I.  Politically important sectors of the US economy, like cotton, depended on British financing, insurance, communications, and cargo capacity.  When upon the outbreak of World War I Britain denied access to the global economic commons, the United States faced the prospect of mass financial collapse.  After the war, the United States took steps to create an alternative infrastructure of global empire so that it would not be vulnerable to Britain again.  Thus, a definition of imperial power that better accounts for the advantages available to the financial, communications, and naval-industrial hegemon in a globalized world economy reverses the conventional narrative: it emphasizes not British decline but continuing British strength, and not the United States’ rise but its continuing weakness.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>