Did the British Empire foresee America as the next global power?

Beginning with the industrial revolution and through the World Wars, the British Empire was arguably one of the most influential and powerful nations in the world. I’d imagine that it was difficult for a Briton at the time to think that this would ever change. That said, the US must be been on the radar of anyone who studied geopolitics and economics, given the size and potential industrial capacity of the country. Was it a common belief at the time that the U.S. would eventually eclipse the UK and become the superpower that it is today?

Roughly, yes. Although they did not anticipate the rate of their comparative collapse, there was an expectation that the mighty nation to the West would overtake the motherland someday: plus the hope, as mentioned in Sherlock Holmes somewhere, and in Kipling here and there ( his wife was American ) that the two English-speaking worlds would form a mighty partnership, skirting the issue of senior/junior status.
Plus it was a common theme in Victorian republicanism that the coming reign of the Great Republic to the West would at the least bring in a new world of equality and freedom for all people regardless of wealth or status.

Do you have cites for this? Victorian Republicanism was, I imagine, as marginal a force as it is today, so hardly representative of the thoughts of the country at large.

It depends. Some Brits did. Some didn’t. For instance, in the incredibly interesting 1930 science fiction novel Last and First Men, the British writer Olaf Stapledon predicted that World War I would be the first of a series of European wars that would eventually devastate the continent. Eventually (and this apparently meant after several hundred years) the two superpowers of the world would be something like the U.S. and China. However, the U.S. would encompass much of the Americas and China would encompass much of Asia.

What’s fascinating to me about this is that the Soviet Union was not considered a contender as a The Next Global Power.

It was by some. As early as the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville forecasted that the United States and Russia would rise as the two preeminent global powers.

It’s pretty easy to predict that countries with vast continental territories and large populations are going to be global powers.

Anyway, to answer OP’s question, it depends on when. In the years after the United States was founded, it’s main concern was just surviving, and was a totally insignificant player on the global stage.

However, there is historical evidence that as far back as the early 19th century, the British began to see the United States as a potential future threat, because their policy was to prevent the Westward expansion of the United States. For example, during the War of 1812, before the peace talks, the British delegation was hoping to demand that the United States give up Louisiana Purchase territory so that an independent Native American state would be formed - the British hoped that this would put an end to any American hopes of expanding. The British negotiators were expecting to hear of major victories in the United States that would allow them to demand major concessions, but then news arrived of the disaster at the Battle of Lake Champlain, so the peace treaty that followed basically restored the situation to what it had been before the war.

Even after that, the British still did their best to prevent American expansion. In 1843, they opposed potential US annexation of Texas, and even mulled going to war to prevent it. And if what I read in an American Civil War book I read is true, both Britain and France were hoping that the US government would fall during the Civil War.

In the 1880s, the United States became the largest economy in the world, and had a larger population than Britain. By the 1890s, the British fully understood that the United States could out-produce them, so they did their best to placate the Americans, hoping that if they didn’t give the United States any reason to fear them, and if they didn’t mess around in the Americas too much, the US wouldn’t begin a military buildup that would threaten Britain. This strategy worked, as the Americans saw no point in trying to become a superpower and were content to let the British run things. This continued up until World War I, when the United States began to emerge as a serious power on the global stage.

The United States caught the attention of the world as a potential coming power, rather early on. To be sure, this status arose gradually. The American “Great Experiment” of capitalist economy + democratic government was closely watched, world-over. This was apparent even by the time of the Civil War, when the whole world watched with baited (bated?) breath to see if the “Great Experiment” would self-destruct.

One literary source where this appears: Anna And The King of Siam, based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a Civil War era British (maybe) woman living in Siam in the court of the king. Even in Siam, on the far side of the earth from the United States, in that era, she notes how she and much of the world were in awe of Abraham Lincoln and how they watched to see what would happen to the United States. So the country clearly had attracted world-wide attention already by then.

In the later part of the 19th century, economists, political scientists, and sociologists came to the United States to study or “observe” the course of American development. There was a famous 19th century Russian economist (sorry, can’t remember his name. Help, anybody?) who came to the United States to study our economic system.

The USA didn’t really begin to emerge as a global power until we pulled Europe’s fat out of the fire in World War I, and even then only sort-of, due to our sudden turn toward isolationism after that. It was only after WWII that we really became the global super-power that we were for the rest of the 20th century.

But the evolution of all that was beginning to be apparent even much earlier.

As early as 1776, Adam Smith wrote:

" The distance of America from the seat of government, besides, the natives of that country might flatter themselves, with some appearance of reason too, would not be of very long continuance. Such has hitherto been the rapid progress of that country in wealth, population, and improvement, that in the course of little more than a century, perhaps, the produce of the American might exceed that of the British taxation. The seat of the empire would then naturally remove itself to that part of the empire which contributed most to the general defence and support of the whole."

It was not nearly as obvious (even in retrospect) a choice. Like the United States, Russia (and the Ukraine and the Baltic Republics) had enormous untapped natural resources, but unlike the US, prior to the late 19th Century and the economic reforms of Alexander II Russia was not heavily industrialized. It was not until WWII that Soviet Industrialization really hit its stride (such as it was) and the aggregation of East Bloc nations under the Warsaw Pact which gave the USSR access to a wide array of industrial capabilities upon which it was heavily dependent, particularly Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Given a slightly different set of circumstances, other Eastern European nations such as Hungary could have become the central unifying power of a centrally planned economy; Hungary was, if but briefly, one of the leading socialist/Marxist states in Eastern Europe and was, like the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (the central political power in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and the successor state to a long-lived imperial monarchy. However, Russia, for a number of reasons, became the dominant Marxist power in Europe, using the other East Bloc states as a military buffer zone and economic support, and was able to invest enough technical and industrial might in the post-WWII environment while the rest of Europe was just rebuilding (albeit, at the expense of social liberty, personal comforts, and consumer economy) to seriously compete with the United States. While there are many people who foresaw–or after the fact claimed to have forseen–the rise of the Soviet Union as the predominate threat against liberal democracy in Europe and around the world, it was not entirely obvious that Russia would lead the pack of socialist nations.


The king at the time, King Mongkut or Rama IV (the Yul Brenner character), r. 1851-68, offered to send war elephants to Abraham Lincoln, who politely declined.

Imagine what Civil War reenactments would be like had Lincoln accepted the offer :eek:

Not at all. The British were acutely aware that the position of Top Nation changes all the time. Round about the time of American Independence the British were Top Nation, but they knew perfectly well that a hundred years previously it had been France, and that France was still a very serious contender. Later on in the ninteenths century Germany came to be seen as a serious contender to British dominance.

That the US was a country with great economic potential was recognised pretty much from the get-go. But as the next global power? As noted above, there were other countries ahead of them in the queue. Plus, America was a long way from the Centre of the World, which was of course Europe, so no matter how wealthy it grew it would have seemed that it would always be difficult for the US to project the kind of military power you needed to project in Europe to be Top Nation. Plus, until well into the Twentieth century, the US was notably uninterested in acquiring global dominance.

As I understand it, the British just wanted to get the biggest slice of the pie compared with the Spaniards, French and Russians.

Sort of… But the main point of Empire is not to accumulate for oneself, however delightful that may be, but to stop others having it.

I am studying Britain from 1900 to 1950 at A level, and can therefore tell you that the British government in this period were extremely anxious of the increasing economic power of the USA. However, you are correct in that most Britons could not believe that the ‘Great’ British Empire would ever fall.

In reality, the Empire had started to fall many years before 1900. In 1800, the USA held slightly over 5% of world trade manufacturers, compared to Britain’s 35%. During the 1850s the USA witnessed a spike in manufacturing, and as a consequence by 1900 her share was 36% compared to Britain’s 15% (Lynch).
These figures alarmed the British Conservative government - individuals such as Joseph Chamberlain pushed to introduce ‘imperial preference’ to outmaneuver both the USA and Germany. Imperial preference basically taxed imports from anywhere other than British colonies.

The reaction from the British public was extremely negative towards imperial preference, causing a Liberal landslide in 1906. The Liberals were much more interested in social and political reform, which shows the general sway from economic worries to social worries in the public consciousness. Of course, everyone was still kinda pissed about how the Conservatives had built concentration camps in Africa.

Furthermore, the USA went on to effectively fund WWI in Britain. She loaned $4 billion to Britain as well as $1.6 billion to Italy and $2.7 billion to France (Lynch). This served to push Britain even further under during the Great Depression; whilst the USA suffered the most, Britain was already on the decline in the 1920s and came across globally as an unstable empire. Ireland had already massed militia (~what is the plural of militia? Militias?) to fight for independence from Britain, just as India would in years to come.

In answer to your question, I think any economist or politician worth their salt would have predicted the USA would eclipse the UK eventually. It is simply that the country constantly had other issues that prevented the public from focusing on the USA’s rise. And of course, do not forget that we have the benefit of hindsight.

Hope that helped, I signed up just to post that :stuck_out_tongue: