I just finished reading two books I purchased at the World War II museum in New Orleans: Clive Ponting’s 1940: Myth and Reality, and Jeffrey Record’s A War It Was Always Going To Lose, the former about Britain’s entry into, and persistence in, war with Germany, the latter about Japan’s decision to attack the United States in 1941. Neither book is new, and I don’t intend to use this space to “review” either – they were both worth reading, and neither is some kind of definitive “must read” text.

What struck me, after reading them back-to-back, was the similarity between the two island nations’ situations on the eve of war, notwithstanding their radically different cultures and histories, not to mention the different points in development of their respective empires.

Britain, on the eve of World War II, had an enormous problem of over-extension. It confronted a rising Germany on the Continent that already far outclassed it in terms of industrial prowess. In Asia, it confronted a rising Japan. It had global military commitments that far exceeded its ability to meet. And it had no money. Once Italy sided with the Axis and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, it faced the prospect of a multi-front war with only France for an ally. Once France fell, it faced such a war in fact, with no real allies at all.

The obvious thing to do would have been to appease Germany, but of course even if it could have been appeased (if, in other words, Hitler didn’t actively seek war), Germany could read the tea leaves as well as Britain could (better, actually, since they had a better measure of their own industrial capacity than Britain did). Given Britain’s relative weakness, and given that the power differential was progressively shifting in Germany’s favor, it’s hard to imagine anything Britain could have offered Germany that would have sufficed that wouldn’t also have been cripplingly humiliating to Britain, effectively making the British Empire dependent on German goodwill for its very survival. Attempting to avoid war without preemptive surrender, instead Britain got a war it could not possibly win on its own, and from which it was only able to emerge victorious by putting itself completely at the mercy of the United States.

Japan, meanwhile, notwithstanding that its empire was still under construction, faced a similar situation vis-á-vis the United States to the one Britain faced vis-á-vis Germany. Its empire-building ambition brought it into conflict with the United States, an enemy it could not possibly hope to defeat. And America’s strength was only growing; time was not on Japan’s side. The logical thing to do would have been to appease the United States. But again, America could read the tea leaves as well as Japan (better, because we had a better appreciation of just how vast our industrial capacity was relative to theirs). Appeasement would have meant accepting permanent dependence on the United States, and a humiliating renunciation of Japan’s imperial ambitions. If this course was ruled out, then war was inevitable, and it was better for Japan to fight on its own terms, and hope for a miracle – perhaps the Americans were cowards; perhaps Germany would defeat Britain and the Soviet Union, and give the Americans pause about fighting – than to suffer slow strangulation.

None of this is news. But it felt instructive, to me, to focus on the objective situation of these two powers, and ignore factors – culture, history, regime ideology, the personalities of the major leaders, even geopolitical strategy – that are so often the focus when we think about war and peace. After the fall of France, a humiliating peace with Germany may well still have been possible for Britain. War, by contrast, meant the very real possibility of outright defeat by and subjugation to Germany – and if it didn’t mean defeat, it meant permanent dependence on America and a loss of the Empire. Britain opted to continue the war. How different is that behavior from the behavior of the Japanese leadership – whom we rightly anathematize as monsters, but wrongly consider to have been mad to even have considered war with America.

I think about this often in respect to what America’s situation is going to be in twenty-five or fifty years. I think Daniel McCarthy is right that America’s rise as a neutral power was substantially made possible by Britain’s insouciance. We were free-riders, in effect, on British liberal imperialism, and then we took over the job when Britain went bankrupt. Nostalgia for America’s position in the late-19th century, or the 1920s, is therefore pointless (as nostalgia usually is). But the position we find ourselves in currently is a precarious one, because every rising power implies our relative decline, and precisely the powers we will most need to accommodate (because of the objective fact of their power) are the ones that it will be hardest for us to accommodate (because they will have a clearer understanding of that fact than we will).

The central geopolitical question of the next few decades, it seems to me, is whether a liberal order – based on free trade and mutual nonaggression – can be sustained on a genuinely multi-lateral basis. I hope so. The alternatives don’t look very palatable.