When British policy makers assembled in a cabinet meeting on the January 11, 1896, they faced two unexpected challenges. The first was an impending confrontation with the United States in South America. The second was young Kaiser Wilhelm’s uninvited interference in South Africa. Both crises were contained and eventually petered out; and both had lasting but opposite effects. The course of Anglo-German relations after January 1896 swelled in ever-amplified waves of irritation while, in contrast, the Anglo-American spat over Venezuela proved to be a catalyst for a lasting Anglo-American rapprochement.
Britain’s example, on the one hand, of a successful accommodation of one great power, the United States; and Britain’s failure to either co-opt or tame the rising aspirations, on the other, is instructive. America, in no small way, is now in Britain’s stead. Like Britain, the United States is a leading power. And today, as old challenges slip away, again, on the periphery—in China, India, and perhaps, elsewhere—new aspirants challenge American hegemony as both Germany and America once contested British primacy at the close of a previous century.
Essentially, there are only two possible reactions of a preeminent power to novel claims for status, position, influence, and wealth: confrontation or appeasement. In the abstract, either strategy could be employed, depending on the circumstances and interests at risk. At the moment, for instance, when faced by a rising Chinese challenge, the United States finds itself painfully pursuing, at the same time, seemingly divergent paths: on the one side, trying to “engage” China and “enlarge” Chinese markets and free-