United Kingdom vs. United States
Period: Early-20th century
Ruling power: United Kingdom
Rising power: United States
Between 1890 and 1914, the US ascended from equality with the UK in energy consumption, iron and steel production, and other measures of potential war power to reach triple the British levels. Increasingly confident, the US became increasingly assertive, declaring previous practice obsolete and insisting that it would be the arbitrator of disputes between European and Latin American states. This expanded regional role led to worries about an impeding great power conflict. For example, in 1895, panic on the New York stock exchange was caused by fear that a territorial dispute between Britain and Venezuela would lead, for example, to war with the US. . In January 1896, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury advised his finance minister that “a war with America, not this year but in the not distant future — has become something more than a possibility: and by the light of it we must examine the estimates of the Admiralty.”
Six years later, Salisbury expressed the regret felt by many in Britain for having failed to challenge the American threat earlier: “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead and nothing can restore the equality between us. If we had interfered in the Confederate Wars it was then possible for us to reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions. But two such chances are not given to a nation in the course of its career.”
Rather than challenge America’s rise through war, the UK adapted, managing a “Great Rapprochement.” Facing a more ominous and proximate threat from a rising Germany and stretching to defend its imperial possessions in Asia, Britain had no choice but to defer to what many British saw as unreasonable American demands over territorial disputes in Canada and Latin America; lucrative fishing rights; and control of territory and the project that became the Panama Canal.
To the consternation of the British War Office and some in the British political class, the Royal Navy simply exempted the US from the “two-power standard” that committed the UK to maintaining a number of battleships equal to those of the next two largest competitors combined. While many Britons resented the lack of American gratitude for a century of ‘free security,’ Britain’s willingness to compromise achieved an alignment of interests and values that contributed to American entry into World War I as a British ally—a decisive factor in the defeat of Germany.
Bradford Perkins, The Great Rapprochement; England and the United States, 1895–1914 (New York: Atheneum, 1968).
- “First in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and then more ominously in the new century, it became evident that Britain’s responsibilities outstripped her resources for defense… [To confront this problem] she sought alliances which would strengthen imperial defense and enable her to speak more confidently in European politics. At the same time, making a virtue of a necessity, she abandoned the Western Hemisphere to the United States. This decision did more than anything else to further the great rapprochement, for it led to a series of Anglo-American settlements which were essential prerequisites to changes in the stance of the American government.” (156-157)
“Anglo-American Rapprochment” (Ch.3) in Charles A. Kupchan, How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
- “In 1890, the U.S. fleet did not contain a single battleship. By 1905, the United States had twenty-five battleships, making it one of the world’s premier naval powers. Britain’s fleet remained second to none, but the construction of a U.S. battle fleet made it increasingly difficult for the Royal Navy to maintain naval supremacy in the western Atlantic.” (74-75)
Aaron Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).
- “There was no getting around the fact that, as the Admiralty explained, the United States was now a ‘first class Maritime Power’ that was not only a menace to St. Lucia but to ‘all our possessions on that side of the Atlantic.’” (196)
Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
Ernest May, Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power (New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961).
William R. Thompson, “The Evolution of a Great Power Rivalry: The Anglo-American Case” in Great Power Rivalries – ed. William R. Thompson (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999): 201-221.
 Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 200-201.
 Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p.339.
 Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 38.
 In his description of “free security,” C. Vann Woodward notes that the “costly navy that policed and defended the Atlantic was manned and paid for by British subjects for more than a century, while Americans enjoyed the added security afforded without added costs to themselves.” See C. Vann Woodward, “The Age of Reinterpretation,” The American Historical Review 66.1 (Oct.1960), p. 2.
Soviet Union vs. Japan
Ruling power: Soviet Union (in Northeast Asia)
Rising power: Japan
From 1960-1975, a modernizing Japan averaged annual growth rates of over 8%. Describing this “postwar miracle,” Takatoshi Ito notes that real GDP “expanded four fold” between 1958 and 1973. By 1987, when Japan passed the USSR in total GDP, its per capita GDP was more than double that of its northern neighbor. As Gilbert Rozman observes, “The reality of late Brezhnev era ‘stagnation’ was soon registered in international consciousness… No longer was there anything left about the Soviet Union or its image to impress the Japanese.”
Technically, Japan and the Soviet Union remained at war. In the final chapter of World War II in Asia, the Soviet Union seized four small islands known by Russians as the Kurils and by Japan as the Northern Territories. Over previous centuries, these islands had alternately been under the control of Russia or Japan. This most recent dispute remains unresolved to this day.
Under normal conditions, such a dramatic economic transition would be expected to lead to a more assertive effort by the rising power to recover its lost territory. Indeed, as Rozman notes, a significant group within Japan’s ruling circles have sought “to ‘normalize’ the country’s military” to press the Northern Territories issue. Nonetheless, the continuous role of the US as the guarantor of Japan’s security—namely through the US-Japan defense treaty, the presence of American troops, and a nuclear guarantee—has constrained these impulses.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The Northern Territories Dispute and Russo-Japanese Relations (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1998).
- “A Yomiuri Shimbun commentator identified two views prevalent within the Gaimusho [the Japanese foreign office]. The first took the position that the Soviet leadership could no longer ignore Japan’s economic power, particularly when it wanted to launch major economic reforms… The second took the view that Gorbachev had begun to take Japan seriously as a counterweight against the United States in a restructuring of the balance of power.” (235)
Gilbert Rozman, Japan’s Response to the Gorbachev Era, 1985-1991: A Rising Superpower Views a Declining One (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
- “As the Japanese were reflecting about Soviet decline and the collapse of an era, they were simultaneously beginning to appreciate their own rise as a central agent shaping a new era.” (3)
Hiroshi Kimura, Distant Neighbors: Japanese-Russian Relations Under Brezhnev and Andropov (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2000).
Joseph Ferguson, Japanese-Russian Relations, 1907-2007 (London: Routledge, 2008).
 Takatoshi Ito, “Japan and the Asian Economies: A ‘Miracle’ in Transition,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1996), p. 206.
 Gilbert Rozman, Japan’s Response to the Gorbachev Era, 1985-1991: A Rising Superpower Views a Declining One (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 94.
United States vs. Soviet Union
Ruling power: United States
Rising power:Soviet Union
At the end of World War II, the US emerged as a uniquely unipolar power. It controlled half of global GDP and had a monopoly on what Bernard Brodie astutely named The Absolute Weapon. Its World War II ally the Soviet Union, however, had liberated the nations of Eastern Europe from Nazi rule, and Soviet armies never left. Moreover, Soviet leaders remained deeply committed to an expansionist revolutionary ideology. Nine months after VE Day, George Kennan’s “long telegram” of February 1946 (followed by Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech less than two weeks later) identified Soviet Communism as an existential threat as large or even larger than the Nazi evil that had just been vanquished.
When the Soviet Union successfully broke the US monopoly by testing its own nuclear weapon in 1949 and its economy began to surge, Americans feared a Soviet Union that could rival and even surpass the US and threaten the American way of life. In 1945, Navy Secretary James Forrestal wrote that Soviet communism “is as incompatible with democracy as was Nazism or Fascism because it rests upon the willingness to apply force to gain the end.” The successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 prompted fears that Soviet technology had already surpassed America’s. Paul Samuelson’s best-selling 1960s textbook, Economics: An Introductory Analysis, projected that Soviet GNP would overtake the US by the mid-1980s. Though Samuelson’s prediction never came to pass, the USSR did overtake the US in key power metrics of military spending and production of iron and steel, both in the early 1970s.
To meet the challenge, the US employed all of the traditional instruments of warfare short of bombs and bullets. This confrontation thus came to be known as the “Cold War.”
Over four decades of Cold War, the two adversaries sought to destroy each other by all means except hot war. Despite a number of close calls (e.g., the Cuban Missile Crisis) and several proxy wars (e.g. in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan), direct conflict between the two militaries was averted. Historians have offered various explanations for why the Cold War never went hot. Most credit the specter of nuclear destruction, while some emphasize the geographic distance between the US and USSR, and others point to their mutual recognition of constraints in the competition that allowed the use of all instruments of war except direct conflict.
In time, the US strategy of containment worked. The contrast between the success of free-market democracies and stagnation of command-and-control authoritarianism became evident for all to see. Together with fundamental contradictions in a Soviet command-and-control society that hollowed out the regime, and its inability to provide both guns and butter, this led to its collapse in 1991.
John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
- “The incontestable fact that the United States over-reacted more than once during the subsequent history of the Cold War to the perceived threat of Soviet and/or ‘communist’ expansionism has, to an extent, blinded us to the equally demonstrable fact that in the immediate postwar years the behavior of the Russians alarmed not just Americans but a good portion of the rest of the world as well.” (46)
Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
- “Expansionist communism had been escalating its challenge with each postwar year. It had gained a foothold in Eastern Europe in 1945 as a byproduct of occupation by the Red Army. It had prevailed in Czechoslovakia by means of a domestic coup in 1948. It had taken over China in a civil war in 1949. If communist armies could now march across internationally recognized boundary lines, the world would have returned to the conditions of the prewar period. The generation which had lived through Munich was bound to react.” (476)
Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).
- “Truman was a straightforward man who saw things in black and white. What he saw now was the incipient rise of another totalitarian power with an expansionist ideology. He was motivated not by Stalin’s brutality – indeed he rarely talked about it – but by the challenge he saw to America’s way of life. Our foreign policy, he said, ‘is the outward expression of the democratic faith we profess.’” (82)
John Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin, 2005).
Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).
Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
 James Forrestal, Letter to Homer Ferguson on May 14, 1945. See Walter Millis, ed., The Forrestal Diaries (New York: Viking Press, 1951), p. 57.
 Paul Samuelson, Economics: An Introductory Analysis, Sixth Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), p. 807.
 Data from Correlates of War Project.
 See Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall, America’s Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap, 2009), p. 357; Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), p. 465; John Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 261.
 See John Gaddis, The Long Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 225.
 See Graham Allison, “Primitive Rules of Prudence” in Allison, Ury, and Allyn, eds., Windows of Opportunity: From Cold War to Peaceful Competition in US-Soviet Relations (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1989).
Europe (led by United Kingdom and France) vs. Germany
Ruling power: United Kingdom and France
Rising power: Germany
The division of Germany at the end of World War II constituted for many strategists, especially in Europe, the solution to the “German problem” that had been at the root of two world wars. In the oft-repeated quip, NATO’s triple mission was “to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” When the issue of German reunification arose again after the collapse of communism, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did her best to prevent it. In private conversations with President Bush, she expressed fears that “the Germans will get in peace what Hitler couldn’t get in the war.” To counter this threat, she and French President Mitterrand explored a “closer Entente Cordiale.” As Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice note, “Europeans, particularly the French, believed that any revival of German power had to go hand in hand with European structures that would keep the German state from endangering France.”
Yet as Thatcher expected, Germany has reemerged as the dominant power in Europe. With the establishment of a single European currency and Berlin-led central bank, Germany has become the economic driver of the region and is becoming its strongest political voice as well. As Henry Kissinger recently noted, “The paradox is that seventy years after having defeated German claims to dominating Europe, the victors are now pleading, largely for economic reasons, with Germany to lead Europe.”
How has this occurred without Thucydidean consequences? Because Germany is not a ‘normal’ power, as defined by students of international relations. In fact, militarily it remains a eunuch. Moreover, as long as the US continues as Europe’s security overlord through its leadership of NATO, and provides its nuclear umbrella, structural stresses that would otherwise create risks of military conflict between Germany and its EU allies will likely remain muted. As Hans Kundnani writes in The Paradox of German Power, at present the country “is characterized by a strange mixture of economic assertiveness and military abstinence…in geopolitical terms, Germany is benign.”
Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
- “A powerful united German state evoked obvious historical anxieties for [France], a country that had been invaded three times by such a state in little over a hundred years. The possibility of German unification would also call into question France’s relative stature within European politics and the European community.” (97)
Martin J. Dedman, The Origins and Development of the European Union, 1945–2008 (New York: Routledge, 2009).
- “France was no longer the most powerful partner, no longer the guide and condescending helper to the defeated nation, West Germany. Germany’s economic and political weight had turned France into a more supplicant state that needed answers.” (127)
Helga Haftendorn, Coming of Age: German Foreign Policy since 1945 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
- “Not only in Poland and France, but in Britain and the United States as well, concerns were voiced that the German national character and misled ambitions might lead the country to aspire to a dominant position in Europe. This perception of united Germany as an influential and ambitious but possibly unpredictable power may not have reflected the actual facts, but it became a reality that German politics had to address.” (352)
Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005).
Stephen Green, Reluctant Meister (London: Haus Publishing Ltd, 2014).
Hans Kundnani, The Paradox of German Power (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2014).
 General Lord Ismay, first NATO Secretary General.
 Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 207.
 Jacob Heilbrunn, “The Interview: Henry Kissinger,” The National Interest, 19 August 2015.
 Hans Kundnani, The Paradox of German Power (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2014), pp. 102-103, 107.