Book Review: Safe Passage by Kori Schake
Review by LTC Patrick Walsh
What can the transition of power from Great Britain to the United States of America in the 19th and 20th centuries tell us about the modern-day competition between China and the United States? That is the question Kori Schake attempts to answer in her 2017 book Safe Passage: The Transition From British to American Hegemony. Dr. Schake states that the transition of global hegemony from the United Kingdom to the United States was the only peaceful transition of power in world history. Safe Passage uses key historical moments to study and explain the tense, but ultimately peaceful events that highlight the engagements between these two nations.
The book focuses on nine key events, the Monroe Doctrine, the Oregon boundary disputes, the American Civil War, the American concept of Manifest Destiny, the Venezuela monetary crisis, the Spanish-American War, World War I, The Washington Naval Treaties, and World War II. In each instance, Schake examines the conflict from both the U.S. and British viewpoints and explains the actions and strategies of both nations. She uses these events not to merely discuss history, but as key examples of the nature of hegemonic transitions. Her focus is on how unique the transition from Britain to the U.S. was and how it was possible that this hegemonic transition avoided armed conflict.
Each chapter illustrates one of the nine events. For example, during the American Civil War, Great Britain had to decide whether to recognize the Southern Confederate States as a sovereign nation. Doing so would have strengthened the Confederacy at a key point in the war and weakened the Union. However, the British feared that familial and cultural ties from decades of emigration might cause the U.S. to push the English further towards democracy, and perhaps even for the Union to call for the independence of Ireland and Scotland. In the end, the British kept silent, and the relationship between the two nations remained strong. The ultimate outcome of the British reluctance to recognize the South, according to Schake, is that the British slowly became more democratic and the United States became more imperialistic. Both countries grew to be more aligned in their democratic values and imperialist aims which further strengthen their ties.
Dr. Schake is the right person to write this book—one of five she has authored—because of her extensive experience in national security matters and impressive academic credentials. She has worked in key positions at the U.S. State Department, Department of Defense, and National Security Council. She also has experience teaching at Stanford, West Point, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and the National Defense University, and currently serves as a senior fellow and the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Her combination of academic excellence and practical government experience brings a unique and valued perspective to the transition of power between nations.
While the content of the book has true value, reading it is challenging. The book is written for an academic audience, not for the average government practitioner or military professional. The writing style, with the exception of the introductory and conclusory chapters, favors academic precision and technical correctness over readability. The extremely long sentences with multiple independent clauses will make the average reader review a sentence several times to comprehend its complete meaning. Reading Safe Passage requires a quiet place, an extensive vocabulary, and serious contemplation. In the end, the reader gains insights on nine key events in U.S. and U.K history, but finishing it requires intellectual effort.
Schake’s conclusion about her ultimate question—whether one can apply lessons from the British-American hegemonic transition to the current competition between China and America—is somewhat unsatisfying. She concludes that the hegemonic transition of power from Great Britain to the United States is very unlike the possible transition from the U.S. to China. Little about the former can be informative of the latter, except that any transition will likely not be smooth or without conflict. If China does succeed in supplanting the United States as a hegemonic power, this book will provide little instruction on how to manage it.
Safe Passage provides valuable insight into the relationship between the United States and Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially for those in academia who will feel comfortable with the doctoral dissertation style of writing. For those looking for something easier to digest, or a guide to help current national security professionals navigate the current competition between the United States and China, this book offers only the conclusion that the past transition provides little insight into how to navigate the current hegemonic tensions.
The views expressed herein are my own views and do not reflect the opinion of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.