The Infrastructure of Empire: Great Britain and the United States in Comparative Perspective

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM
Washington Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Katherine C. Epstein, Rutgers University at Camden
On this roundtable, I propose to rethink the periods known as “pax Brittanica” (1815-1914) and “pax Americana” (1945-present). These were times when Great Britain and the United States were able to exert preponderant power on a truly global scale, and I argue that two separate infrastructures – one material and the other cultural – worked together to make British and American superpower status possible. Military historians always focus on the military hardware of “power projection” – warships and later airplanes – but that is just one part of the story. Being able to move men, arms, and influence around the world also required bases and coaling stations, global communications systems, robust and reliable financial services, an advanced domestic economy, merchant ships, tax revenues, and international creditworthiness. There was also a cultural infrastructure of empire: a set of narratives and assumptions that yielded a supportive (or at least compliant) domestic population and political elites that saw global power projection as beneficial to their interests.

In my brief remarks, I will explain how these imperial infrastructures developed in both countries. The key events in Britain were the Glorious Revolution settlement and the wars with France – events which pressed the country to develop the necessary material resources for global power projection and to embrace the “fiscal-naval state” as ideologically legitimate and indeed as central to national identity. America’s empire developed later: it was not until World War II that most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the fiscal, naval, federal, financial, and other means necessary to build the infrastructure for preponderant global power projection. Not until Americans permitted their central government to tap the internal wealth of the nation in the 20th century could the United States attain superpower status.

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