Imperial Crossroads: Britain and the United States in the Far East, 1853–1945

International History/Diplomatic History/Modern East Asian History/International Relations

With the astounding rise of China as a global economic and military superpower, challenging the world leadership of the United States, the question of imperial transition has once again come to the fore. Perhaps nothing shows it more clearly than the recent renaissance of the so-called power transition theory in the field of international relations. First set forth by the Italian-born American political scientist Abramo F. K. Organski in the same year as Mao Zedong’s misconceived utopian project Great Leap Forward, the theory of power transition has, until lately, been dismissed as irrelevant with no policy implications. In the era of Pax Americana, order and stability prevailed over dynamics. However, the situation has changed dramatically with the rapid ascendancy of China. Faced with uncertain futures, the search for historical precedents to learn from past experiences has become à la mode.

Yet the peaceful transition of power from Great Britain to the United States in the early 20th century has by and large escaped analysis. It is widely regarded as a rare exception in the history of hegemonic shifts, and Organski himself was no exception. While emphasizing the inevitability of war between the dominant power and the rising challenger, Organski singled out the Anglo-American power transition as something of an anomaly. Like many others, he ascribed it first to their common Anglo-Saxon heritage, and second to the traditional American policy of isolationism. The United States was a reluctant empire, so to speak, or as Geir Lundestad has put it, “an empire by invitation.” Not only did the United States support Britain in times of difficulty and peril, but, more importantly, they shared a common language and culture. For example, in his speech entitled “Kin beyond Sea” delivered in 1878, William E. Gladstone, then leader of the opposition in the British Parliament, proclaimed that the Anglo-American relationship was comparable to that between a parent and a child. Fifteen years later, while laying out his imperial vision, the great American naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan in turn described the British as “our kin beyond sea.” In this respect, Fareed Zakaria has recently affirmed that America’s world role has unusual origins.

The main objective of this research is to contribute to the current debate on the future of Sino-American relations by revisiting the history of Anglo-American relations. More specifically, this study purports to investigate imperial rivalry between Britain and the United States in East Asia, focusing on the period from the Perry Expedition to the conclusion of the Second World War.

I am looking for a research partner who is able to read Japanese, and preferably who has some background knowledge of the history of the region. The student will check the seconary Japanese material related to the topic, and in so doing will not only learn about the East Asian entry into international society but also develop a critical perspective with which to understand the “Special Relationship” between Britain and the United States.