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Hegemony in International Society$

Ian Clark

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199556267

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199556267.001.0001

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Singular Hegemony: Pax Britannica 1815–1914

Singular Hegemony: Pax Britannica 1815–1914

(p.98) 5 Singular Hegemony: Pax Britannica 1815–1914
Hegemony in International Society

Ian Clark (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The second historical case revisits Britain's role in the nineteenth century. While conventionally Pax Britannica has been presented as one of the cases of hegemonic stability, this view has been strongly challenged. The chapter suggests that Britain can be considered a case of singular hegemony, but of a distinctive type: it depended as much on British weaknesses as on its strengths. This was especially so in its inability to control the European balance, as also in its increasingly exposed position in the Empire. Rather than rehearse the material dimensions of British economic power, the chapter turns instead to the followers, and asks to what extent Britain was viewed as a model for emulation, or encouraged a liberal order. These issues are explored in the contexts of free trade, and the roles of sterling and the gold standard.

Keywords:   economic power, empire, emulation, European balance, free trade, gold standard, Great Britain, hegemonic stability, liberal order, Pax Britannica, sterling

The repertoire of potential case studies of hegemony is already very limited: traditionally, this has included Britain in the nineteenth century. Typically, Britain is presented as a leading state that helped ‘to create and achieve shared goals’ (Nye 2008: 56). These came in the form of three sets of public goods: the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe; promotion of an open international economic system; and the preservation of international commons (Nye 2008: 64). Latterly, however, that notion has been challenged in some fundamental ways. Nonetheless, whether or not Britain fully conforms to the requisite characteristics of a hegemon, there are still some aspects of its international role, and possibly behavioural traits in its performance, that can provide useful insight into the nature and forms of hegemony. In this chapter, Britain will be considered as a singular hegemon. In conformity with the overall analytical scheme, however, its relationship to the Concert, as a collective hegemony, and the scope of its legitimacy constituency—universal or coalitional—will also be reviewed.

The leading role played by Britain in the stabilization of the nineteenth-century international economy had been a prominent element in Kindleberger's (1986b [1973]) influential diagnosis of the causes of the Great Depression. His account fostered the idea of an interregnum during the interwar years, following upon Britain's inability to persevere in this role after 1914, and ahead of the United States' willingness to adopt it after 1945. The suggestion that the international economy of the nineteenth century had taken on its liberal and open qualities as a reflection of the exercise of British power was then most fully elaborated at the hands of Robert Gilpin (1971, 1981, 1987), and his is the classic exposition of this argument. It established the prevailing view of Britain, as a hegemon equivalent to the United States after 1945:

The Pax Britannica and Pax Americana…ensured an international system of relative peace and security. Great Britain and the United States created and enforced the rules of a liberal international economic order. British and American (p.99) policies fostered free trade and freedom of capital movements. These great powers supplied the key currency and managed the international monetary system…While bringing benefits to themselves, however, the policies of the hegemonic powers were also beneficial to those other states that desired to and could take advantage of the international political and economic status quo. (Gilpin 1981: 144–5, emphasis added)

A central question is whether the emphasized passage identifies a point of similarity, or difference, between the British and US cases. What was so striking about this British role, Gilpin believed, was Britain's ability to preserve its ‘global hegemony’ at what appeared to be ‘minimal cost’ (Gilpin 1981: 136). If so, this immediately invites the question how this had been achieved. Gilpin's own short answer suggested two conditions were necessary: Britain ‘performed the task of leadership because it had the power and the will to do so’ (Gilpin 1987: 126–7). The key apparently lay in the hegemon's ‘power’, and in its ‘will’. However, he then added that hegemons were successful when ‘other states have benefited from and accepted their leadership’ (Gilpin 1981: 144). Moreover, Gilpin also sketched out another dimension of hegemony that was to become part of the received wisdom—its inevitable decline. While the rise of new industrial competitors eroded ‘British hegemony’ (Gilpin 1987: 127), British decline was likewise reflected in the sharp deterioration of the international economy: ‘My position is that a hegemon is necessary to the existence of a liberal international economy…but as British power waned, so did the fortunes of the liberal world economy’ (Gilpin 1987: 88).

Such discussions of the British role were to become the mainstay of HST. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a theory of hegemonic stability that did not include the British case, as it would otherwise have rested on a sample of one. This essential view of nineteenth-century Britain remains common enough in current writings. The image of Britain as the first member of a relay team, passing the baton successfully to the United States, has been evoked in the recent claim that ‘so smooth was the transfer of hegemony between the two powers that the last hundred and fifty years can sometimes appear as a single unbroken hegemony exercised by the Anglo-Saxons over the rest of the world’ (Gamble 2002: 129).

It is a view, however, that has not gone unchallenged. For reasons to be examined in greater detail below, it has been subjected to extensive critical scrutiny. In the softer versions, the argument draws attention to sharp contrasts between the two states, their respective resources, and the conditions in which they came to primacy. In yet harsher versions, this amounts to an outright dismissal of Britain as any kind of hegemon at all. ‘ “Hegemony”, as applied to Britain's position in the international system from 1870–1914’, it has been roundly stated, ‘cannot bear the weight of explanatory power that some have tried to thrust upon it’ (Walter 1991: 112). The most sustained (p.100) critique was spearheaded by economic historian Patrick O'Brien. Dismissing the ‘myth’ of two successive hegemonies (O'Brien 2002: 55), O'Brien summarily rejected the claims for a British hegemony, as in any way comparable to that of the United States, since the latter ‘in scale, persistence and intensity bears only an impressionistic resemblance to the foreign, strategic, commercial and monetary policies pursued by successive British governments from 1815 to 1914’ (O'Brien 2002: 27). Since Rome, there has then only ever been one hegemon, a view echoed by Hobson (O'Brien 2002: 37; Hobson 2002: 305). Major recent surveys repeat this assessment, dismissing as myth British pretensions to have been a ‘global hegemon’ (Parchami 2009: 161), while another refers to British hegemony as ‘that luxuriant myth of current historiography’, about which ‘much nonsense’ is talked (Darwin 2009: 18–19, 24).

In his own overview of British decline, historian David Reynolds stands the fundamental HST thesis on its head. With regard to the Pax Britannica—the view that British power supported a stable international order in the wider military-security sense—he adjudges that ‘[r]ather than the Pax Britannica sustaining an era of European peace, it was peace which sustained the Pax. Indeed Britain was almost a “free rider”—allowed to concentrate its resources on global expansion because of the European equilibrium’ (Reynolds 2000: 18). In the same way that the Concert has often been viewed as the effect, not the cause, of other conditions of peace, so Britain's role was parasitic upon other benign conditions, rather than productive of them. Can this case for Britain as a hegemon actually be sustained, or are we driven back on the United States as the only convincing historical example of a single hegemony?

Assessing British hegemony: some key issues

The stated reasons for the various confirmations and rebuttals of British hegemony are themselves revealing, if at times confusing. As a preliminary, it is important to make explicit some of those key issues that underlie, and often befuddle, the debate. Fundamentally, of course, the protagonists draw upon often competing conceptions of the nature of hegemony itself. Is it simply a measure of material resources? Are these resources primarily coercive, or persuasive, in nature? How functionally diverse must be these resources, or the ‘power’ they bestow? Part of the problem is that hegemony is often itself regarded as covering a spectrum of political relationships, from the directly coercive at one end, to the ‘more benevolent’ at the other. Of the latter, it is suggested, ‘benign’ hegemony ‘takes on characteristics of what might be called “weak” constitutionalism’ (Ikenberry 2001: 28). In between, there can be a variety of ‘structural’ impacts resulting from the hegemon's unique capabilities. This has led some commentators to elaborate the analysis of the (p.101) ‘three faces’ of power, and apply them to the three faces of hegemony (James and Lake 1989: 4). At the ‘benign’ end, the third face emphasizes the importance of ideas and ideology as an aspect of the hegemon's power, and this analysis often becomes indistinguishable from Gramscian accounts (Gamble 2002: 130).

At the very least, there is a fundamental distinction to be made between those versions that operate on an assumed deterministic law of material power, and its structural consequences, on the one hand, and the more ‘voluntaristic’ theories of hegemony that emphasize social rule-following, on the other. Of those former neorealist versions, it has been said that ‘a change in the structure of the international system…must produce certain specified consequences’ (Friedberg 1988: 7). Typically, such state-power analyses conclude that ‘a hegemonic distribution of potential economic power is likely to result in an open trading structure’ (Krasner 1976: 317–18). Elsewhere, the emphasis is placed instead on the hegemon as agent, and the focus moves beyond simple measurement of its resources and comparative advantages, and towards the policies of proactive leadership that it pursues (Walter 1991: 19). This latter perspective is echoed in the complaint that the ‘debate over hegemony has failed to characterize adequately the distinction between hegemonic power and its use by policy-makers in the hegemonic state’ (Pigman 1997: 185). What this seeks to capture is not just the ‘ability’, but also the ‘willingness’ of the hegemon to act, and crucially also the qualities that it brings to the task, beyond the material resources at its command.

What is so important about these diverging conceptions is that each demands a different set of historical evidence in its support. Once again, we encounter the widespread conflation of primacy with hegemony, as the evidential basis of these debates so amply confirms. Too much of the discussion of British hegemony remains rooted in (primarily economic) data about relative shares of resources: British power is measured quantitatively against world economic indices, and hegemony is thereby made reducible to a variety of statistical analysis.

Where this is not the sole preoccupation, the parameters remain restricted in other ways. The decline of British hegemony is often depicted as a necessary consequence of the ‘shifting balance of world forces’ (Kennedy 1988: 226). What had given rise to it in the first place was not the ‘traditional criteria of military hegemony’, but instead the fact that Britain had become ‘a different sort of Great Power’ by mid-century. This difference, however, continues to be traced to the portfolio of its material resources (navy, empire, and finance), albeit that these are deemed non-traditional in character (Kennedy 1988: 154). On this accounting, British hegemony rested upon a different set, but upon material resources nonetheless.

Such measures, to be sure, are one necessary element in any assessment of British primacy. They are, however, on their own inadequate as the decisive (p.102) yardstick of British hegemony. What this study then seeks to establish instead is the degree to which a social condition of hegemony actually developed in these historical conditions, and if so what form it took. This requires clarification of a number of fundamental issues. Firstly, measurements of power capabilities, understood as material resources, are important: some overview of them is, therefore, needed. Secondly, if stability is one putative effect of hegemony, what might we adduce about British hegemony from its apparent ‘effects’ on nineteenth-century international affairs, and how sure can we be that there was a causal relationship between them? Finally, given the concentration on hegemony as a social role, the parameters of investigation need to be shifted accordingly. Instead of exclusive preoccupation with British power and resources, taken in isolation, it becomes instead all the more necessary to view the British role through the eyes of others. Hegemony, thus understood, depended upon more than an ‘ability’, and a ‘willingness’, to play such a role: it demanded additionally, and critically, an acceptance of this role on the part of others. What is the evidence that others were, indeed, voluntarily compliant with British preferences?

Even if evidence of social conferral can be discovered, it is necessary to investigate its basis, and the admixture of coercion, interest, and normative approbation that might have given rise to it. For instance, in one appeal to ‘widen the scope of inquiry into the nature of hegemonic power’ (Ikenberry and Kupchan 1990: 67), two pioneers in the field used Britain's position in nineteenth-century India, and argued that its costs were reduced, and its longevity increased, by successful legitimation. This occurred principally through the transmission to Indian elites ‘of ideas as much as by military and economic might’ (Ikenberry and Kupchan 1990: 65–8). Such an approach requires a body of evidence different from that dominant in the debate about British hegemony. Gilpin had already recognized as much, in indicating that hegemony is a more complex phenomenon than any narrow accountancy approach might initially indicate. He conceded that hegemony entailed that ‘other states accept the rule of the hegemon because of its prestige and status in the international political system’ (Gilpin 1987: 73). This directs us, in our assessment of Britain, towards a concept of hegemony that is clearly distinguishable from primacy.

Beyond those issues, another problem to emerge—especially in light of the previous chapter on the Concert—is how, if at all, we are to reconcile the two competing claims to a collective hegemony in the shape of the Concert, and also a singular hegemony under Britain, each apparently existing at the same time. Can both cases be pressed simultaneously? One response requires a closer look at the chronology, and this will be reviewed below. The other possible answer is in terms of a division of labour, and turns upon the functional scope of the putative British hegemony. If the Pax Britannica is viewed restrictively to apply solely to the international economic order, there (p.103) is potentially less tension between these two claims: we can adduce that British hegemony operated largely within the economic sphere, leaving to the collective hegemony other matters political and security. Certainly, nobody regards the Concert as the effective manager of the nineteenth-century international economy. On the contrary, it is explicitly acknowledged that there was no semblance of any economic settlement at Vienna (O'Brien 2002: 15). In short, it is possible to posit a functional division, whereby the Concert exercised its collective hegemony in the politico-security sphere, whilst Britain maintained its separate hegemony in the economic domain.

That would amount to a more limited version of British hegemony, providing less than the full range of public goods specified by Nye (2008) above. Additionally, the problem with any such solution is that it rests on a stark separation between these dimensions of the international order. This is artificial and untenable: any understanding of Britain's economic role is, in principle, inseparable from the geopolitical environment in which it found itself. In any case, Britain's ‘blue water’ approach towards both its commercial development, and its concept of insular security, precluded simultaneous investment in the large standing armies favoured on continental Europe, and as a result severely restricted Britain's capacity to intervene militarily in the continent's affairs. An incomplete British hegemony, shared in this way with the Concert, is a seductive idea but must not be pressed to the point of demanding a radical separation between those domains of action.

The other way in which the two claims might possibly be reconciled is chronologically. Thus viewed, it is just conceivable that the division was not one of functional space, but of chronological succession. There was a collective hegemony during the first half of the century when the Concert was at its most effective. This was then succeeded by a British hegemony that dawned in the middle part of the century when British economic primacy reached its peak. To address this issue, we need to consider the time frame in detail.

There is no great clarity on this front, and the lack of settled chronology does little to bolster credence in a British hegemony. Such claims as there are tend to reinforce the view that British hegemony operated essentially within the economic realm, as the evidence adduced relates almost exclusively to degrees of economic primacy. Unfortunately, this very chronology heightens the dissonance between the economic hegemon and the security hegemon, as the zenith of British economic power largely coincides, as we will see later, with its apparent exclusion from the fundamental changes taking place in the map of Europe during mid-century. If Britain was indeed a hegemon, there is a disconcerting lack of chronological consistency between the various manifestations of its exercise.

So how durable was this British hegemony purported to be? Some see it loosely as lasting throughout the century between 1815 and 1914. Its basis had been laid in those areas deliberately not addressed by the Vienna settlement, (p.104) namely British maritime supremacy and the further development of its maritime interests outside of Europe. If the public good of freedom of the seas is regarded a key feature of British hegemony, its provision can be dated to the decades after 1815 (Friedberg 1988: 139). For quite separate reasons, Wallerstein concurs, and adamantly claims that ‘I date British hegemony as 1815–1873’ (Wallerstein 2002: 357). The problem is that this is far from fully synchronized with provision of other public goods in the economic sphere—the encouragement of a free trading system, the effective operation of the gold standard, or the dominant role of sterling as a reserve currency. In the first, the key British role emerged mid-century, and in the others much later still. There is therefore a substantial consensus in the literature that British economic hegemony must be viewed within a more restrictive time period, and falls mostly within the middle decades of the century. Thus for Gilpin the critical years are 1849–80 (Gilpin 1981: 135; McKeown 1983: 75). For Darwin, it was the period from the 1830s to 1870s that was decisive in the emergence of Britain ‘as a global power in command of a world-system’ (Darwin 2009: 57). In terms of the trajectory of economic primacy, the ‘pinnacle of British dominance’ is to be found in the quarter century from the late 1840s (O'Brien and Pigman 1992: 97). For Kennedy, the ‘peak’ or the ‘zenith’ of British economic dominance occurred in the 1860s (Kennedy 1988: 151, 192). Happily, this seems to coincide with the zenith of the liberal era (Cox 1987: 151), and thus prima facie to substantiate the idea that there was some direct connection between the primacy of British economic power, and the liberal order that developed at the same time. Others concur that 1880 then represented some kind of culmination, or turning point. For Krasner, ‘the peak of British ascendance occurred around 1880, when Britain's relative per capita income, share of world trade, and share of investment flows reached their highest levels’ (Krasner 1976: 332). The open economic order subsequently stagnated or faltered during the final two decades of the century, before experiencing a brief renaissance early in the twentieth. This faltering, it is assumed, was a reflection of the decline of British power, and of its ability to sustain the public goods it had hitherto provided.

As already noted, there are a number of problems with this chronology. If certain aspects of British dominance were already well established by 1815 (such as its naval and colonial mastery), it remains equally true that Britain was a firmly mercantilist state in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Protectionism was the order of the day in 1815, and this was to change only slightly over the next twenty years (Stein 1984: 360). British naval mastery, during this phase, was not directly associated with liberal commercial and trading policies. Furthermore, it would then appear that the zenith of British economic power coincided with its manifest inability to provide other public goods—such as Nye's claim for a European balance of power—in the security sphere during the territorial upheavals that took place in Europe from the (p.105) 1850s to 1871 (Darwin 2009: 255; Parchami 2009: 155). If, instead, Britain's leading role in the international monetary system is thought to be the key evidence for its hegemony, then this role was played most prominently during the very period when, by common consent, British economic leadership was already passing, and the sense of British ‘decline’ had already become widespread, both within Britain and overseas. In other words, if we first disaggregate the various potential components of British hegemony, then when reassembled they do not fit into any coherent chronological pattern.

At this point we must return to the supposed functional and geographic scope of British hegemony. Functionally, how extensive was British hegemony, as regards leadership in the economic, political, and security orders? In short, was Pax Britannica merely a set of economic arrangements, or should it be, as its name suggests, more widely conceived as a fully fledged security regime? Geographically, in turn, how extensive was this hegemony: did it operate within Europe, within the empire, or globally? More pointedly, did its distinctiveness reside in its voluntary denial of intervention in that sphere of major concern to the principal secondary powers (namely, continental Europe), in return for a free hand elsewhere? Was this the implicit bargain that allowed an otherwise under-resourced Britain nonetheless to carry out its idiosyncratic project of hegemony? If so viewed, what made British hegemony legitimate in the eyes of others was as much its areas of weakness, as those of strength, because these conveyed reassurance that the hegemony would not be abused in ways detrimental to their interests.

The first question is then whether the British case should be construed as applying exclusively to the economic domain. One historian of British power suggests otherwise, and seeks to broaden the ambit of discussion: ‘These theories of international hegemony have been developed particularly with reference to economics. But they can also be applied to the strategic sphere’ (Reynolds 2000: 310). Others argue along similar lines. In endorsing the HST approach, Calleo commented that this ‘thesis can apply to every sphere, from keeping the peace to stemming financial panic’ (Calleo 1987: 130).

How so? The brief answer emphasizes the necessary interlocking between these two realms. For Britain, the preservation of a stable balance of power in Europe was not a separate end in itself, but a precondition of the ‘small state’ that underpinned the British economy, and the sine qua non of its freedom to concentrate largely on its overseas interests (Simms 2008: 684). A security threat within Europe would, by definition, disturb Britain's economic equilibrium, and force a prioritization of European, as against global, interests. This, of course, was the very logic of the adjustments imposed on British policy in the first decade of the twentieth century. Analytically, therefore, we can separate out the functional and geographical spheres of British hegemony. In practice, they were heavily interdependent, and no such separation could readily be made. Britain may have acted for much of the period as (p.106) if it believed that the two could be kept distinct. The reality was more complex, as the strains of retrenchment became ever more apparent at the century's turn. At that point, all these disparate elements—the economic and the strategic, the European and the global—came together in the acute dilemmas facing British policy. If maintaining a ‘world-system’ was the key to British strength, it was to become also its potential weakness (Darwin 2009: xi). Ultimately, these multiple tensions within the British hegemony were to contribute to its undoing. For the moment, the evidence in these various areas can be reassessed.

An economic hegemon?

The economic details of this argument will be presented first. Even within this domain, Britain's role needs to be disaggregated into its component parts: its pre-eminence is generally understood to have fallen into the categories of trade and manufacture, finance, and international monetary relations. In each, but not necessarily at exactly the same time, Britain enjoyed comparative advantages during parts of the nineteenth century. Equally, in each, there is reasonable evidence that a discernible order had been established, such as to promote the activity in question: international trade expanded significantly, there was considerable international mobility of capital, and both of the former rested palpably upon an increasingly assured system of monetary exchange. It is this package of economic roles and activities that forms the basis of the claim to British economic hegemony. If, as is assumed by some economists, economic life displays an inherent propensity to instability, any stabilization must presumably have been provided by political action (Kindleberger 1986b [1973]; Walter 1991: 2).

There are a number of points that should be made before the evidence in these areas is reviewed. The first is the comparative one with regard to the United States. In some respects, at its peak, British salience in the nineteenth-century international economy was even greater than that of the USA in the mid-twentieth (Reynolds 2000: 8). At the same time, there were major differences in their economic roles, reflecting the respective sizes of their populations, and the scale of their domestic markets. The British economy was always much more heavily dependent on international trade (Darwin 2009: 274), and its deficit in visible goods was more than made up by its surplus in invisibles, and this ‘structural’ role was essential to the viability of the international economy as a whole (Gamble 2002: 132). Secondly, there was a distinctive political economy to the nature of the British state. One characteristic was its relatively low share of gross national product (GNP), and particularly its expenditure on the army, compared to its continental rivals. The other (p.107) was greater state access to fiscal resources, apart from external duties. British introduction of direct taxation in 1842 created a financial stream that reduced dependency on other duties, and made it easier for Britain to sponsor free-trade policies (Howe 2002: 93–4). More generally, its liberal representative form of government had also contributed to its financial power, by giving it greater access to credit, on better terms (Schultz and Weingast 2003). Thirdly, we must be careful to note that there is some danger in speaking of the nineteenth-century international economy as if it were one single integrated system. It was, in fact, a composite of various sub-systems, and hence we find the apparent contradiction that Britain sponsored free trade, while at the same time parts of its empire implemented protection (Howe 2002: 88). Similarly, the policies of emulation that Britain might have inspired (or actively encouraged) amongst its European near neighbours were replaced by much more explicitly coercive policies against states such as China, Turkey, and Persia. In this respect, as we shall see, while Britain did become the hub of a much more free-trading system by the 1860s, this was far from universal, and even the great emerging economy of the United States was able to stand clearly apart from it (Krasner 1976: 336; Stein 1984: 367).

The first area to be considered is that of manufacture and trade, and arguably this formed the first wave of British commercial primacy. There is no need to rehearse British leadership in industrial manufacture. This came soon to be reflected in British exports, and its dominant share of world trade. Between 1842 and 1870, British exports increased in value from £47m to £200m (Friedberg 1988: 29). By century's end, and when they had already passed their peak, Britain's share of world exports of manufactured goods still stood at close on 40 per cent (de Cecco 1974: 26). There was, during this period, a very significant rise in world trade, relative to world product (Kenwood and Lougheed 1992: 79). The question to which this naturally leads is whether, as the leading economic power, it had been in Britain's interest to provide the public goods that made this expansion possible.

The evidence that it did so is normally found in the conjunction between what happened in the world trading system, set alongside the directions of British policy, such as to invite Krasner's conclusion linking the two. ‘The period from 1820 to 1879 was one of increasing openness in the structure of international trade’, he records, while then adding that it ‘was also one of rising hegemony. Great Britain was the instigator and supporter of the new structure’ (Krasner 1976: 335). It initially led unilaterally, and by example. The number of dutiable items in Britain, as a result, fell from 1,146 in 1848 to 48 in 1860 (Fielden 1969: 82). The reduction in British tariff rates between 1841 and 1881 has been calculated at 21 per cent (Foreman-Peck 1995: 44). If the ‘hegemon must get others to agree to lower their tariffs as well’ (Stein 1984: 358), what is the record of British success in this regard? British unilateralism was succeeded by the wave of bilateral trade treaties that followed in the 1860s (p.108) in the wake of the Anglo-French (Cobden-Chevalier) treaty of 1860 (Howe 2002: 90; James and Lake 1989: 27; Kenwood and Lougheed 1992: 64; Porter 1987: 47).

The evidence from subsequent decline is then presented to bolster the original case. It was in the aftermath of the zenith of British economic power that this free-trade regime began to falter, although again straightforward correlation is not possible. Levels of trade, even if they decelerated during the so-called depression years, again accelerated in the years before the outbreak of war in 1914. Nonetheless, as Britain was first caught and overtaken by the United States, and then Germany, in a number of indices of manufacturing production during the last quarter of the century, the liberal trading order became more closed, such that Britain ended by heading a group of followers of one in its continuing commitment to the verities of free trade. In the first decade of the twentieth, there was to be a political challenge even within this citadel, as the fair traders squared up to the free traders, even if to little immediate avail. These economic revisionists had begun to suggest that Britain grasped its own economic history the wrong way round: its industrial revolution had taken place ‘in a mercantilist state’, such that ‘free trade was a consequence, not a cause, of Britain's success’ (Cain 2002: 107). At the very least, however, Joseph Chamberlain and his supporters reflected the changed temper of the period. In a world where relative gains might count for more than absolute gains, British commitment to provision of hegemonial public goods was called increasingly into question (Friedberg 1988: 79). What had sustained the British position during these more difficult decades, as the competition in the world of visible exports became much more severe, was the reliance upon the surpluses from the invisibles (Cain and Hopkins 1993: 161). This pushes the discussion to the general British role in finance.

Britain's role in the international financial system followed a broadly similar trajectory to other aspects of its economic performance, but arguably declined less sharply towards the end of the century than did its pre-eminence in manufacturing production, and in exports of manufactured goods (Walter 1991: 88). London's role as a financial centre had been greatly augmented during the Napoleonic Wars, when the potential vulnerability of other capital cities reinforced confidence in it as a ‘safe city’ (Lythe 1969: 32). One of the major trends was the growth in British overseas investments during the century. From some £6m annually in the years immediately after Waterloo, these had risen to £30m a year by the middle of the century, and to £75m by the 1870s (Kennedy 1988: 156). They stood at £4 billion immediately before the war in 1914, representing 44 per cent of the world total (Darwin 2009: 274). As a result, it is widely claimed that ‘Britain was at the centre of the market for international finance after 1850’ (Cain and Hopkins 1993: 173). The most commonly used phrase to denote the British role is that it contributed the ‘lion's share’ (Bartlett 1969b: 2; Lythe 1969: 46), so much so that (p.109) by 1870 the London market ‘was twice as large as the capital markets of its rivals combined’ (Gamble 2002: 131). Although this eased towards century's end, it was never eclipsed before 1914.

Britain's role as a source of overseas investment, as well as the heart of the market for funding the great expansion in international trade (Darwin 2009: 115), also located it at the centre of the developing international monetary system. The role of sterling, in conjunction with the wide adoption of the gold standard, is often regarded as the principal manifestation of British economic hegemony at this time. Gilpin sees the gold standard as a key example ‘of an economic regime in which the hegemon establishes and enforces the rules of a liberal market regime’ (Gilpin 1987: 75). Elsewhere, he insists of the gold standard that it was ‘organized and managed by Great Britain’ and that the ‘City of London, through its hegemonic position in world commodity, money, and capital markets, enforced the “rules of the system” upon the world's economies’ (Gilpin 1987: 124). Thus, he maintains, the system did not operate automatically, but depended upon British leadership (Gilpin 1987: 123–4). Sterling became the pivotal currency of the system as confidence in London grew, and other countries became increasingly happy to hold large sterling balances (Foreman-Peck 1995: 163). ‘The stability of sterling’, we are told, ‘was unrivalled’ (Kenwood and Lougheed 1992: 109–10).

By common consent, the role of sterling was as important to the international monetary system as was that of gold. This is the core of the suggestion that, even at its peak, the gold standard did not operate in its classic sense, as most countries used the pound, rather than gold, to manage their own currency (Calleo 1987: 139). ‘Hence, it is reasonable to argue’, suggest two eminent historians of the period, ‘that, before 1914, there was a sterling standard in operation rather than a gold standard’ (Cain and Hopkins 1993: 177). This, of course, provided Britain with immense potential leverage to adjust rates to manage its own problems. It is widely suggested that Britain's control over the Indian economy provided the major buffer to facilitate this role (de Cecco 1974: 122). The key question then becomes to what extent the gold standard was actively promoted and managed by Britain, and this is where the dissenters appear on the scene. ‘In short, for roughly a century before 1914, the potentially anarchic sphere of international monetary relations seems to have maintained a regime of stable exchange rates and operated reasonably smoothly’, O'Brien opines, ‘without any discernible exercise of British hegemony’ (O'Brien 2002: 27). Compared to its efforts on free trade, there is no evidence of a British policy to promote the gold standard as a public good in the same way (O'Brien 2002: 24). Another critic challenges the conventional view on at least three grounds. He argues that Britain ‘played a very limited role in the establishment of the gold standard in the 1870s’ (Walter 1991: 111). Moreover, he contends that the standard did not provide a public good ‘equally available to all’, as it seemed to benefit most the already (p.110) advanced economies, and to create yet greater instability in the developing capital-importing states (Walter 1991: 97). Thirdly, he points out that there was greater ‘pluralism’ in the financial supports for the system than the traditional view would seem to allow. It relied upon ‘cooperation from the central banks of other great powers’ (Walter 1991: 106–7), a suggestion that seems to reinstate at least some rudimentary ‘collective’, rather than singular, hegemony as the basis of the system's operation. In short, it is his clear view that ‘the theory of hegemonic stability does not provide a satisfactory account of the relationship between the international balance of power in the pre-1914 era and the operation of the international gold standard’ (Walter 1991: 111).

British power and the politico-security order

If there are hard questions to be asked of Britain's role as a putative economic hegemon, it would initially seem that its role as the provider of a wider security order is even more suspect. Not least was this due to the nature of British power, and the very ethos of the British state, in the nineteenth century. Its industrial revolution had not been organized to provide ‘access to military hardware and manpower’ (Kennedy 1988: 152), nor did the political balance within the British state allow such resources to be extracted. Strikingly, Kennedy assesses that mid-Victorian Britain ‘was probably less “mobilized” for conflict than at any time since the early Stuarts’ (Kennedy 1988: 152–3). If so, this demonstrably restricted Britain's capacity to influence, by coercion, the behaviour of other states. So what was the remit of the much touted Pax Britannica in the security sphere?

Much depends upon the theatre within which its hegemony is deemed to have been exercised. Clearly, a number of distinct theatres suggest themselves. There were, first of all, its traditional rivals on the continent of Europe, and its task of ‘managing’ the European balance of power. Secondly, by the late nineteenth century, this was becoming overlaid by conceptions of a wider global balance (Clark 1997), as the ‘struggle for mastery in Europe’ gave way to new conceptions of world power, in which the United States and Japan had become more visible, and Russia's non-European role loomed large. Thirdly, there was of course Britain's role as an imperial power, at a time when the formal empires of all the major European states were expanding rapidly. In which of these theatres specifically is it suggested that Britain played a hegemonic role? In other words, what was the constituency within which British hegemony operated and found acceptance? Tellingly, a recent survey of the concept of the Pax Britannica suggests that, in its Victorian and Edwardian variants, it was thought to apply to the dependencies within the empire, and to the Anglo-Saxon dominions, and it was only subsequently that this came to be (p.111) interpreted as applying to the international order more generally (Parchami 2009: 133–7).

On the relative lack of a leading British role in the European theatre, there is a widespread consensus. If Britain was a European hegemon, then it was unusually quietist in its performance of that role. For most of the century, ‘Britain virtually withdrew from active engagement in European power politics’ (O'Brien 2002: 12). Its involvement remained largely peripheral (Chamberlain 1988: 7; Kennedy 1988: 153). Schroeder's judgement, although more nuanced, still ends on an equally dismissive note. During 1815–55, Britain played ‘a certain kind of leadership in Europe’, and he therefore depicts that period as one of ‘half-hegemony’. But this was wholly eclipsed over the following two decades—often, as noted, taken to be the zenith of British economic power. ‘It is hard to find two decades in British history from 1688 to 1945’, he pronounces unequivocally, ‘in which it exerted less influence in Europe or control over the international system than 1855 to 1875’ (Schroeder 1994: 144). Indeed, its inability to control the system was a measure of the type of state that Britain had become and, as will be shown below, it was the Pax Britannica that made possible this state formation, just as much as the Pax Britannica derived from British power (Cox 1987: 125).

The limits of British intervention and control are best demonstrated, as Schroeder suggests, in the middle decades of the century. If we are to consider Britain as a hegemon in the politico-security sphere, this period offers a good case study precisely because it marked a fundamental remaking of the Vienna settlement that is taken to have underpinned the main elements of British power in the first place. Any revision of Vienna necessarily portended a shift adverse to British interests. The supposition must be that a hegemon, at the height of its economic powers, would have acted in ways such as to minimize the damage to those interests. In the event, it appeared neither ‘willing’ nor ‘able’ to do so.

This can be illustrated by some brief, but telling, examples from the key episodes of this period, all retrospectively seen as milestones in the subsequent unification of Germany. In the crisis over the Danish duchies in 1864, and the drawing of the boundaries of Schleswig, the assumptions of British policy were that ‘as long as it was supposed that France would on no account interfere but with advice, England would not be listened to’, and accordingly Denmark was abandoned to its fate (Mosse 1958: 196–207). The outcome was that this yet further ‘reduced the probability of effective British intervention in future continental disputes’, and British inaction ‘appeared to leave Napoleon the arbiter of Europe’ (Mosse 1958: 212). Two years later, war broke out between Prussia and Austria. The new British Prime Minister, Lord Derby, confirmed his view that the war was one ‘in the objects of which the honour of this country is in no degree involved and a war in which the interests of this country are very remotely, if at all, involved’. His foreign (p.112) secretary warned that Britain should not be dragged into a peace Congress since a ‘Congress under such circumstances is one in which our practical power will be exceedingly small’ (Mosse 1958: 240). Britain thus stood by, while the war ‘completed the destruction of the political order established by the Congress of Vienna’ (Mosse 1958: 249). This is scarcely the stuff of which hegemony is made.

Finally, and of no less moment, was British inaction in response to the likely outbreak of Franco-Prussian hostilities in 1870. There were many who believed that decisive British action could have averted war, but one historian's verdict is to the contrary: ‘The conclusion…is difficult to escape that no action psychologically or constitutionally open to British ministers could have prevented the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War’ (Mosse 1958: 388). The full import of war's outcome was seized on by Benjamin Disraeli, then in opposition to Gladstone's Liberal government. He lamented the passiveness that had been demonstrated, and the immensity of the consequences for Britain. ‘The balance of power has been entirely destroyed’, he bemoaned, on the formation of the German Empire, ‘and the country which suffers most, and feels the effects of this great change most, is England’ (Disraeli 1871: 81–2). These repeated evidences of British impotence seriously challenge the Pax Britannica, understood as any system managed by Britain for the maintenance of peace and stability on continental Europe.

But possibly this is not the central claim that is made in any case. Secondly, then, there is the widespread depiction of Britain as seeking its future outside of Europe, and relying upon stability on the continent only in the negative sense, as a permissive condition: British ambitions, to this extent, did not amount to establishing stability in Europe, but simply required it as a precondition of its objectives elsewhere. It is in this sense that Reynolds's (2000) claim, cited above, that the Pax Britannica was an effect, not a cause, of peace should be understood. This, however, then presents a further paradox. If Britain had limited tutelage over the European balance, and its main priority lay outside, why then did it play such a restricted role elsewhere? For instance, during the American Civil War, which coincided with major events in Europe, it has been noted that Britain was the ‘missing hegemon’ in this theatre as well (Thompson 2007; Little 2007b). The shift from a European, to a seemingly global, field of forces towards the end of the century, and certainly during the first decade of the next, served only to reinforce this order of priorities. Unfortunately, the logic of limited resources compelled Britain, paradoxically, to concentrate more on Europe at the very moment that the game was moving beyond its bounds. There was considerable irony in such an outcome: its global role had to be truncated to meet European exigencies in a way that cut across the main objectives of the policy. ‘After 1901–1902 Britain's leaders simply gave up trying to retain world wide supremacy’, is one such verdict, ‘and traded it in for a lesser form of European sea control’ (Friedberg 1988: (p.113) 299). Another captures the multiple themes at work in the British strategic predicament as it arose in the context of this ‘rupture in world politics’, which marked ‘the end of the European balance of power and of British world hegemony, and the shift from a European to a world system in which neither balance of power nor hegemony could be re-established’ (Cox 1987: 153). These diagnoses do not, however, fully explain the nature of the relationship that was now undergoing transition. Could it really be that Britain had enjoyed a world hegemony that did not extend to its European neighbours, and what sense are we to make of the idea that world hegemony had finally to be forsaken simply to establish the conditions of national survival in Europe?

Thirdly, and as if integrating the former two sets of claims, there is the British position within its own imperial possessions. Historians have long puzzled at the seeming confidence trick that sustained the British empire, given that there was such inadequate material support for it (Parchami 2009: 142–3). Ironically, it is often objected that, even within this realm, Britain fell well short of primacy (Darwin 2009: 1). ‘Throughout the empire’, is one considered summary, ‘the British were generally a paramount not a dominant power’ (Reynolds 2000: 27). The empire rested ‘on a delicate balancing act of coercion and persuasion, all done on the cheap’ (Reynolds 2000: 30–1). Somehow, nonetheless, this position was integral to the British performances both within Europe and beyond.

By the late nineteenth century, the mood had become more pervasive that only those European states with global possessions would qualify as truly world powers in the new global balance of power (Darwin 2009: 263). Empire was not, in that sense, an end in itself but a ticket of entry to the new arena of global competition. For this reason, the British imperial position sits most uncomfortably with those versions of nineteenth-century international history that posit Britain as the stabilizer or balancer of European affairs. Instead, Britain's quest to become a world power, on a par with the United States and Russia, could not but encourage others to emulate that example. Ironically, in the German case, it was the emulation resulting from Britain's own example that disturbed the European equilibrium in ways that forced Britain to make unpalatable choices, and finally undercut her global aspirations. At the same time, Britain's economic role in the empire, not least in India, remained a key instrument of its economic and financial leverage. In the end, the empire was to be profoundly ambivalent for British hegemony. While it is almost impossible to conceive of any plausible version of British hegemony that does not emphasize the imperial role, the empire spurred also that very competition that made its role unsustainable in the long run.

To assess these various arguments and counter-arguments, we must turn finally to the issue of whether the nineteenth-century liberal international order was indeed a conscious artefact, and whether Britain was its creator. Does the evidence of the watch necessarily imply the existence of a British (p.114) watchmaker? This will be done in two interconnected stages. The first examines the extent to which British policy can be discerned in the emergence of this liberal order. The second poses the question critical for a ‘social’ theory of hegemony, namely to what extent was British leadership acceptable to the other states, and the adoption of its values a matter of voluntary compliance? When this has been completed, we should be in a position to offer a more rounded appreciation of the nature and extent of British hegemony, and of its principal forms, during this period.

Leaders and followers: Britain and the institutional forms of hegemony

‘Hegemons may lead’, it has been observed, ‘but they need followers’ (Stein 1984: 358). To what extent did Britain lead, and to what extent was it followed? Is it the case that the public goods supposedly provided by Britain were in fact public, and was it actually Britain that provided them? Were other states receptive to the lead that had been given? These issues lie at the heart of any sensible appreciation of British hegemony.

On the face of it, if any state was capable of leading at this time, it could only have been Britain. This was certainly so with regard to free trade. ‘Yet in this “liberal interlude” from 1846–70’, it has been maintained, ‘only Britain had the power to change the political debate…within those states by its propagation of liberal ideology and to make those states not only do what Britain wanted, but also to want what Britain wanted’ (O'Brien and Pigman 1992: 112). The British self-perception was certainly that the rest of the world felt reassured that the global commons had been entrusted to British primacy, as testified by Eyre Crowe in his famous memorandum of 1907: ‘in proportion as England champions the principle of the largest measure of general freedom of commerce, she undoubtedly strengthens her hold on the interested friendship of other nations, at least to the extent of making them feel less apprehensive of naval supremacy in the hands of a free trade England than they would in the face of a predominant protectionist Power’ (Crowe 1926/38: 402–6). Was this simply self-serving, and self-deluding?

These issues have been investigated most directly with regard to free trade and the gold standard. The first point that needs to be made with respect to a British policy for promotion of a liberal economic system was the general diffidence in British policy circles, and especially in the foreign and diplomatic service, with respect to such economic promotion. This has been well documented as a general feature of policy during the nineteenth century (Platt 1968). As regards the promotion of commerce, the main task of foreign policy was to be as ‘inactive’ as possible (Porter 1987: 28, 37). That said, was Britain (p.115) consciously creating public goods, and to the extent that a regime emerged, are we entitled to conclude that it did so at Britain's behest? The evidence is ambivalent, as also are some of the analysts. Walter, as we have seen with regard to the gold standard, is generally critical of the view that it was established, or continued to function, largely as a result of British initiatives. He is equally sceptical about the regime of free trade (Walter 1991: 90–1). Even so, he is prepared to make some concessions that allow the argument to resurface, after having seemingly been irretrievably sunk. While restating his objection that ‘British power had little to do with the emergence of the international gold standard in the 1870s’, he nonetheless is prepared to admit that ‘[p]erhaps the model of industrial and financial success which Britain represented played some role in encouraging other states to move to the adoption of the gold standard’ (Walter 1991: 91–2). Here the argument shifts from what Britain did, to what it was, as its source of influence.

This same ambivalence can be found in the various writings of O'Brien, although by the end he adopts a largely dismissive stance towards the idea of British hegemony. On the specifics of free trade, his argument is more modulated. On the critical side of the argument, he challenges ‘the established wisdom that Britain consciously provided collective goods to the international system’, reminds us of the lack of efficacy of any British hegemonic policy in the three decades after Waterloo, and denies that British policy-makers ‘owed or exercised responsibilities towards the world economy as a whole’ (O'Brien and Pigman 1992: 92, 94, 111). On the other hand, there are exceptions to these blanket disavowals that result in a more temperate judgement. He admits that Britain did deploy ‘political and cultural influence to persuade European states to sign up to more open trade’. In sum, and at its height, Britain persuaded other great powers ‘to go along with British initiatives’, and in this we can see ‘the cultural, as well as the coercive, nature of Britain's nineteenth-century hegemony’ (O'Brien 2002: 17–18). Having been summarily evicted through the front door, British hegemony has surreptitiously crept in again by the back. The distinguishing feature of this hegemony was not simply the resources available to Britain to command acceptance, but the model it offered to others of the way to social and commercial success (Imlah 1958: 2–6; Parchami 2009: 161).

There is, nonetheless, a generally sceptical strain running through much of the pertinent literature, especially that on free trade. That scepticism extends to the degree of effort made by Britain on its behalf, as well as to the reasons for compliance on the part of others. In combination, these render the salience of the British role even more questionable. Just how concerted and systematic was the British effort in establishing a free-trade system? A number of empirical studies express doubts. ‘The level of British effort seems less than that suggested by the theory’, is one such finding, ‘and it is clear that the effort (p.116) was uneven’ (McKeown 1983: 88). It is not that there was no effort: it was simply intermittent, as were its successes, and there is no clear evidence ‘that Britain was making a major impact on the tariff policies of the European states’ (McKeown 1983: 85). Moreover, this lack of British leverage was demonstrated negatively by its inability to stop the tide turning back towards protectionism after the 1870s (Pigman 1997: 190). Even that arch apostle of free trade, Richard Cobden, gave vent to his own despondency over his failure to convince his European counterparts, in the wake of his free-trade promotional tour in 1846. Cobden returned home, we are informed, ‘disillusioned, convinced there was much ignorance of “sound principles” in Europe, much uninterest among statesmen, and no likelihood of immediate conversion to Manchester's dogmas’ (Fielden 1969: 76–7). Cobden's despondency may have been somewhat premature in 1846, but it certainly suggests that any British victories were not cheaply won.

When there were victories, there still remains reason to doubt the decisiveness of the British role in their achievement. The picture that emerges consistently from the historical work in this area is the diversity in motives that shaped tariff policies, and the primacy amongst them of incentives bearing little relationship to the wish to espouse free trade for its own (or for Britain's) sake. The major breakthrough is taken to be the British treaty with France in 1860, not least because this led to a succession of other bilateral French treaties, and hence was a key trigger of liberalization as a whole. French motives, however, can be put down neither to unalloyed conviction about the wisdom of the principles, nor to any simple emulation of British policy. They rather reflected a self-interested regard for French foreign policy, especially Napoleon's ambitions in Italy. In entering into the treaty, we are told, ‘Napoleon mixed a desire for tariff liberalisation…with a hope that Britain would be compliant in Italy’ (Fielden 1969: 89). Some economic historians have tended to stress the dominance of the latter consideration over the former (Foreman-Peck 1995: 43–5). In sum, the myriad of considerations seems too complex to be reducible to British initiative and leadership alone (Fielden 1969: 92). Even in the British case, its own reasons for the 1860 treaty fell short of unadulterated commitment to economic principle. In a retrospective memorandum on the treaty, Gladstone later recalled its importance in ‘promoting European peace’, and felt years later that it had indeed ‘averted a real risk of a war against France’ (Platt 1969: 87–8). That avoidance of war was something in which the British state had a genuine stake is not in doubt: it is simply not the reason normally given for Britain's preparedness, as hegemon, to take on the task of providing such public goods.

From a different perspective, we can think of Britain's role in forging a liberal international order in terms of its contribution to specific types of state formation. This refers to the ‘social balance of power’ in which British hegemony was both manifest, and had a considerable stake. It takes us some (p.117) way from traditional conceptions of hegemony in a world of interstate relations and balances, and towards a conception of hegemony closer to the ideological variant found in Gramscian interpretations. Unsurprisingly, one principal exponent is Robert Cox. Britain's hegemony was embodied not just in economic primacy (although it was not divorced from this), nor in its naval supremacy and global interests (although not divorced from these either), but in the model of the successful state that others might seek to emulate (Schultz and Weingast 2003). All this depended upon a period of relatively sustained peace to encourage others to develop along the same lines. Fully to appreciate the nature of British hegemony, it is then necessary to locate it at the centre of a developing liberal world order, created partly in Britain's own image, and encouraged in large measure by British resources (Cox 1987: 129, 144). Central to this interpretation is the suggestion that British power was decisive, not just in persuading states to adopt liberal policies, but also in producing the political space that allowed other liberal states to form in the first place (Cox 1987: 148). Britain's key contribution was then as the provider of a ‘permissive environment’ in this political sphere: its role lay not just in free trade, or stable monetary relations, but in actually making possible liberal state formation elsewhere.

Finally, as this implies, we must turn to the perceptions of others about this British role. European responses have been conveyed as a mixture in which Britain was ‘needed yet feared’, and her example both ‘repellent yet attractive’ (Fielden 1969: 92). This ambivalence is a recurrent motif, expressed as early as the French Revolution: ‘England is our model—and our rival, our light—and our enemy’ (quoted in Gibson 1995: 108), and a survey of Anglo-French mutual perceptions during the nineteenth century is revealingly entitled ‘Love, Hate and Suspicion’ (Gibson 1995: Ch. 6). In short, whether or not hegemony can be said to exist is a function, not merely of the material capabilities and resources of the would-be leader, but also of the degree of voluntary compliance on the part of others. In the words of one critic, the lacuna in HST is this lack of understanding of the ‘motivations and capabilities of the non-hegemonic states that are most likely to rival the hegemonic power’ (McKeown 1983: 76). How well does Britain score from this perspective?

According to the critics, the answer is not very well. This, however, was largely a result, not of British behaviour per se, but more importantly of the general context in which British power came to be deployed. This forms the decisive distinction between any assessment of British hegemony in the nineteenth century, and United States hegemony in the middle of the twentieth, a topic to be confronted directly in the next chapter. On this reading, the general context and resultant perceptions held by other key actors produced a permissive condition for the emergence of US hegemony in a way that was not available to mid-nineteenth-century Britain: (p.118)

Above all, the geopolitical context which prompted, encouraged and allowed the United States to occupy that unique role had not appeared before 1918…No wonder resistance to the exercise of a benign and well-funded hegemony by a power seemingly untainted by the burdens of European and Asian history virtually collapsed. (O'Brien 2002: 51)

The key points to emerge from any such claim are twofold. Firstly, the reception accorded to hegemony depends on situational conditions (not just hegemonic resources or behaviour). Secondly, these conditions can be treated as a given: they are a matter of contingency, and not themselves a function of the behaviour of the would-be hegemon. We can concur on the first point, but perhaps the second claim must be treated with greater caution. What were the situational conditions that faced Britain, and had it indeed contributed to their appearance? The available judgements are far from uniform, and once again straddle the economic and security domains.

With regard to the first, there was certainly substantial ambivalence in the assessments of Britain's role. There is no doubt that it served as a pole of attraction, and as a model to be emulated. This sentiment, however, was quite capable of coexisting with the concern that British policies were self-serving, and that their appeals to the common good did little to cloak national interests. In this way, admiration for British achievements shaded quickly into degrees of envy and resentment. Friedrich List, writing in his National System of Political Economy (1840) well reflected this note of ambiguity. He was ready enough to admit that the world had been ‘immeasurably aided’ in its progress by Britain, but that was no reason to wish that ‘she may erect a universal dominion on the ruins of other nationalities’ (quoted in Fielden 1969: 85). In short, in attitudes towards free trade, there was ‘profound ambiguity’ exactly because of its close association with Britain, and the fact that ‘the commercial strength and commercial policy of Britain…[b]oth smacked of nationalism’ (Fielden 1969: 84–5). If anything, this more negative viewpoint tended to become even more prominent towards the end of the century, as Britain pursued formal empire more openly, and eventually flirted with ‘fair’ rather than ‘free’ trade. Even liberal commentators abroad, we are told, ‘became sceptical towards Britain's cosmopolitan ideals as purveyed through the rhetoric and attempts of the Foreign Office to co-opt them into the global regime for free trade’ (O'Brien 2002: 19).

The same was just as apparent with regard to Britain's wider political stance and security role. It has been suggested that there is negative evidence on behalf of the acceptability of British primacy in the very absence of any active resistance against it. In particular, historians note the lack of a counter-hegemonic coalition against Britain, unlike those against Spain and France before, or Germany subsequently. Whether this can be interpreted as convincing evidence of voluntary compliance with British preferences is perhaps (p.119) thrown into some doubt by the admission elsewhere that the lack of visible balancing against Britain was due largely to ‘her own restraint, physical isolation from Europe, and sheer good fortune’ (Bartlett 1969c: 172–3). Apart from the first of these, the others seem to be matters of contingency. Others deny the very existence of evidence for support of Britain's position. If it is in any way true that Britain saw the balance of power as ‘a system enabling Britain to enjoy hegemony and pass its costs to others’ (Schroeder 1994: 142), then this was surely a recipe for engendering widespread resentment. There is behavioural evidence that this was indeed present. It is best demonstrated, as previously noted, in the stimulus that the success of Britain's far-flung imperial position provided to others. This was a source not of hegemonic stability, but of profound instability:

From the perspective of a balance-of-power view of world order, the blame for the conflict that led to World War I can just as logically be placed on the British. Britain's immense world empire can be seen not as a precondition for the nineteenth-century peace, but as a principal cause of its breakdown. By creating a world power out of scale with traditional European states, Britain inevitably promoted imitation. (Calleo 1987: 137–8)

This certainly confirms the view that situational conditions were inhospitable to any positive reception for British primacy, such as to transform it into an accepted hegemony. It also reinforces the doubt as to whether British behaviour was wholly innocent of those conditions.

What this finally raises is the question about the institutional form of hegemony best demonstrated in the British case. Britain has been used here to illustrate the characteristics of a singular hegemony: the hegemon is a single dominant power, and its target constituency is undifferentiated throughout the remainder of international society. It is subject to acceptance vertically from this constituency, and there is no horizontal axis in play to further socialize the relations amongst the great powers collectively. While this does capture some central features of British hegemony, it also requires some additional qualifications to render it an acceptably accurate portrayal.

There were hidden collective dimensions to Britain's position. One critic suggests that it is misleading to concentrate solely upon British hegemony, as this ignores the importance of ‘the general dominance of the European great powers over their own spheres of influence’ (Walter 1991: 111). Was Britain's singular hegemony then dependent on a concurrent collective version? The same thought that a singular and collective hegemony operated in tandem is implicit in Hinsley's observation: ‘It is not unreasonable to regard the Concert of Europe’, he considered, ‘as being from one point of view the system which naturally replaced the aim of universal monarchy during the period of British predominance’ (Hinsley 1963: 223). At the other end, it was the final demise of the Concert that left Britain's strategic position so badly exposed (Walter 1991: 109).

(p.120) On the politico-security side, a singular British hegemony at the very least coexisted with the European Concert, and was subject to both empowerment and constraint as a consequence. Thus it has been concluded that ‘Europe was militarily policed not by the unilateral actions of a British hegemon but by the multilateral actions of the great powers set up at the 1815 Congress of Vienna’ (Hobson 2002: 312). This is straightforwardly a measure of Britain's impotence in this area, not the result of any functional division of labour, consciously adopted in coordination with the Concert, and as a trade-off for a free hand in matters economic.

As regards the economic dimension, the collective elements were present in more subtle and diffuse forms: there was certainly no institutional equivalent to the Concert. That said, its presence must be acknowledged. In a general sense, the economic order has been depicted as resulting not from British hegemony alone, but from ‘the collective hegemony of the European center relative to the non-European periphery (Eichengreen 1987: 33). Ultimately, any stability created by the monetary system depended upon ‘hegemonic cooperation’, not just on the exercise of economic dominance by the leading state (Eichengreen 1987: ii–iii). This repeats the already noted observation that the gold standard depended upon coordinated activities from other European central banks (Walter 1991: 106–7). It has been roundly claimed that ‘England alone did not manage the gold standard’, but that this was a ‘collective endeavour’ (Broz 1997: 61). In terms of serving as the lender of last resort, ‘the real “hegemon”…was the Bank of France’, and Germany too participated in this role for its own reasons (Broz 1997: 67, 82). It can then be said that, both with regard to the security and the economic order, British singular hegemony demonstrated some limited disposition to tip into a collective form.

What can be said of the constituency within which the hegemony found some degree of acceptance? The constituency was not structured in any obvious geopolitical way, as it was to become after 1945. There was not, in that sense, any restricted coalition that offered a natural basis of support for Britain's position. That said, there was an inchoate ‘liberal’ community scattered throughout Europe which responded in some measure to Britain's appeal. If usually more prominent in France than elsewhere, it was nonetheless widespread. There was then this latent constituency, even if it did not overtly map on to any fixed geopolitical boundaries. Just as much to the point was the scope of the constituency which potentially benefited from the order that Britain came to represent. Economically, this was restricted, and so it is misleading to regard these benefits as amounting to a universal public good. This was certainly so with respect to the stability offered by the gold standard (Eichengreen 1987: 33; Walter 1991: 97). Gilpin acknowledged as much: as far as the less developed commodity exporters were concerned, their position remained highly vulnerable, and the system was imposed by the powers in the centre, rather than consented to in any meaningful way (Gilpin 1987: 127). (p.121) From this perspective, Britain's principal constituency remained its major economic competitors. Paradoxical as this may seem, it is fully intelligible within the general ethos that characterized nineteenth-century European imperialism.


‘Clearly the critical challenge to the hegemonic state is to win the adherence of its rivals’, says one commentator interested in the question ‘how the hegemonic state manages this victory’ (McKeown 1983: 77). What light does the British case shed on this issue? From the evidence already presented, it would seem that any such British ‘victory’ was partial at the very best. Nonetheless, are there any facets of Britain's behaviour that contributed to whatever degree of acceptance and legitimacy proved attainable?

The conclusion of this survey must be that there is no overarching account of British hegemony that offers a fully convincing explanation across the economic and security domains. The explanations on offer are, at best, themselves partial. When the evidence for economic hegemony is reviewed, two particular features recurrently emerge. These are ‘self-restraint’ and ‘force of example’. To the extent that British promotion of a liberal international economic order carried conviction elsewhere, this seems to have been as a result of these two predominant characteristics. The first is a motif highlighted by many analysts. Gilpin typically comments that Britain followed the ‘path of self-restraint’ (Gilpin 1987: 89). Others too point to British policy being marked by ‘a certain measure of restraint’ (Bartlett 1969c: 183–4). In this sense, British behaviour is to be understood as much by what it did not do, as much as by what it did.

The second follows logically from the same point. In the absence of a capacity to mobilize the British state to adopt other forms of (less restrained) action, Britain was compelled to fall back upon the force of its own example. The limited endeavour to promote free trade exemplified this condition. It meant that overseas ‘converts should be won by example alone’ (Fielden 1969: 91). In its advocacy of free trade, Britain was limited to persuasion ‘by fact and example rather than to coerce by virtue of hegemonic power’ (Howe 2002: 88). Both features—self-restraint and force of example—were the opposite sides of the same coin. What united them was the very constitution of the contemporary British state, and its inability to use its diplomatic muscle in other ways to promote more directly its economic objectives. This self-restraint should not be seen as one policy choice amongst many, adopted at random by British policy-makers, but as a logical consequence of what the British state then was (Semmel 1986). It is symptomatic that Cobden, for all his missionary zeal, (p.122) could devise no more radical scheme for the exercise of British hegemonic power to promote free trade than that the Foreign Office should establish a Free Trade Department (Platt 1968: 143–4). Needless to say, even this was too much for the Foreign Office, and it came to nought.

However, even if these motifs of ‘self-restraint’ and ‘force of example’ provide some limited purchase in understanding the dynamics of economic hegemony, they seem unhelpful when our gaze shifts to the politico-security domain. Far from being the magical ingredients that stabilized the order in conformity with British interests, these appear instead as to the two features that most threatened to overturn it. One signalled potential weakness; the other stimulated disruptive imitation. Neither was a good recipe for a stable hegemony. Even if self-restraint could plausibly have been presented as the feature of British behaviour for the first two-thirds of the century, it scarcely struck a convincing note after 1875. Moreover, the force of example it provided did little more than provoke others to actions that brought out the contradictions in Britain's objectives, and upset the equilibrium on which its various compromises had so precariously rested. Self-restraint and reliance upon example may tell us something about British economic behaviour, and why it attained a degree of acceptability amongst others. It sheds little light on the security domain, and may even be misleading. Self-restraint could be seen by others as no more than a truthful measure of British impotence within Europe. In that case, it stood to be challenged. Alternatively, it could be seen as a decoy, in the quest for that more fungible power that the age of global politics seemed to require. In that case, it provided a potentially disruptive example. Neither amounts to a model for a successful hegemony.

To conclude this survey of the recent historical precedents, the book now moves on to consider the case of the United States after 1945. On the face of it, if this offers a model of hegemony, then it surely also is one of singular hegemony. Possibly even more so than in the British case, the United States during the Cold War developed a hegemonic form that conspicuously lacked any collective dimension. That said, it will be argued that this is not what captures its most distinctive feature. Instead, it will be suggested, the most interesting form found in US hegemony lies in its vertical constituency, rather than in its missing horizontal axis. What characterized this, above all, was a coalitional constituency, restricted to the ‘free world’ in the Cold War. It is to an exploration of the peculiar dynamics of this form of hegemony that we must now turn.