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Britain and America: world power trajectories?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: June 19, 2012 
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Hello Sir,

Could you please tell me the date when Great Britain became the first power in the world, the day when it lost the world's supremacy, and the date starting with we can affirm that USA is the first power in the world (please be as accurate as you can-day/month/year if you know along with historical evidence)? If historians have different views about this subject, please give the all the opinions you know. When I say 'the first power in the world' I mean economically and military and in the case of Great Britain, I do not necessarily mean only the period when Great Britain was an empire.

I look forward to hearing from you, and I would be grateful if you will answer these questions. Thank you very much.



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Dear Mihai,

Do you really believe that anything as monumental as a nation's ascendancy to No.1 world power status is achieved in a single day? Such things tend to occur in increments and, given the rivals they often face, are hardly done at one stroke. In Britain's case, one might say an important step would be with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763, which ended the Seven Years War and left Britain in a dominant position in North America and India, as well as alliances with several German states starting with Hanover, from which the royal family came. In spite of the setback of the American Revolution, the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, followed by Waterloo on June 18, 1815, left Britain a major power in Europe and the dominant world power at sea, laying the groundwork for colonial expansion that would extend Victorian Britain's hegemony over Africa and much of Asia.

The first step toward Britain's decline was probably the surrender of Singapore on February 15, 1942. This humiliating defeat at the hands of an Asiatic army shattered not only Britain's aura of invincibility, but that of the white European imperialist powers in general, throughout Asia and Africa. Between that and the high cost of World War II, Britain had little choice but to grant independence to its former colonies and retain influence through the more voluntary economic benefits of the British Commonwealth.

The United States likewise underwent a gradual rise, making its first serious excursions beyond its continental borders with the Spanish-American War. The Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898 was significant in leaving the United States with Puerto Rico and Guam as territories and the Philippines as a protectorate. The end of World War II on September 2, 1945 left the United States as one of two global powers and the number one power at sea. The dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991 eliminated that last comparable rival, leaving the United States the dominant world power. It currently retains that status militarily, although it faces a major challenge from China, which pursues a policy dating back to the Ming Dynasty of extending its influence by economic and diplomatic, rather than military means. This is a different rivalry from those of the past, however, due to the codependence of the two countries.

The Chinese could probably destroy the United States simply by demanding their money back—but the Americans have been so instrumental in China's economic rise that it is unlikely that China would prosper, or even survive, without the United States as a trading partner. Moreover, the Chinese do not seem to want to assume the responsibilities of a military power, stepping in to broker or even settle the differences of other countries the way the United States does. Above all else, though, it is not in China's best interests to destroy its best customer.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
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