Part of Power and the United States

The Future of American Power

How America Can Survive the Rise of the Rest

On June 22, 1897, about 400 million people around the world -- one-fourth of humanity -- got the day off. It was the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria's ascension to the British throne. The Diamond Jubilee stretched over five days on land and sea, but its high point was the parade and thanksgiving service on June 22. The 11 premiers of Britain's self-governing colonies were in attendance, along with princes, dukes, ambassadors, and envoys from the rest of the world. A military procession of 50,000 soldiers included hussars from Canada, cavalrymen from New South Wales, carabineers from Naples, camel troops from Bikaner, and Gurkhas from Nepal. It was, as one historian wrote, "a Roman moment."

In London, eight-year-old Arnold Toynbee was perched on his uncle's shoulders, eagerly watching the parade. Toynbee, who grew up to become the most famous historian of his age, recalled that, watching the grandeur of the day, it felt as if the sun were "standing still in the midst of Heaven." "I remember the atmosphere," he wrote. "It was: 'Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.'"

But of course, history did happen to Britain. The question for the superpower of the current age is, Will history happen to the United States as well? Is it already happening? No analogy is exact, but the British Empire in its heyday is the closest any nation in the modern age has come to the United States' position today. In considering whether and how the forces of change will affect the United States, it is worth paying close attention to the experience of Britain.

There are many contemporary echoes. The United States' recent military interventions in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq all have parallels in British military interventions decades ago. The basic strategic dilemma of being the only truly global player on the world stage is strikingly similar. But there are also fundamental differences between Britain then and the United States now. For Britain, as it tried to maintain its superpower status, the largest challenge was economic rather than political. For the United States, it is the other way around.

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