Usually applied to the era between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the start of World War I in 1914, the term Pax Britannica has both geopolitical and economic connotations. That period, in contrast to preceding and subsequent periods, was comparatively free of military conflict between major powers (with notable exceptions: the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Spanish-American War, and the Russo-Japanese War). It was also relatively free of full-blown trade wars. Britain was unquestionably the strongest country, militarily and economically. But there is no consensus among international relations scholars and economists over the extent to which British power and statecraft should be credited with the century-long “pax.”
The idealized picture of Pax Britannica features nineteenth-century England as a benign global hegemon, providing the international public goods of peace and unrestricted commerce primarily through the instrumentality of its superior navy and (after the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1832) its policy of international free trade. The realist version roots the policies of naval superiority and global free trade in the self-interest of an industrializing island country dependent on a far-flung empire of raw-material producers.
Successive British governments employed the navy and the country’s economic power to intimidate, if not coerce, nations—not only in the British Empire but also sovereign states—to open up their ports and domestic markets to British goods and investors. Nor was Britain willing to tolerate challengers to its ability to “rule the waves.” Determined to maintain a fleet capable of defeating the combined fleets of any two countries, London took umbrage at Berlin’s decision in the 1890s to significantly augment the German navy in order to support the kaiser’s growing imperial appetite. In response, Britain entered into spheres-of-influence agreements with France to preempt German ambitions in Africa and elsewhere.
In theory, not only did Britain’s free trade policy require the peace (which the Royal Navy was supposed to enforce), but also unrestricted global commerce, as conceptualized by Adam Smith (1723–1790), David Ricardo (1772–1823), and their disciples, would itself advance world peace. Free trade would deepen the interdependence of nations—each of which, according to the principle of comparative advantage, would specialize in producing most efficiently products that would advance the commonweal. But by the start of the twentieth century, with other major powers seeking, like Britain, to comprehensively industrialize and to modernize their militaries, mercantilistic rivalries again became the order of the day, and Pax Britannica was now widely castigated as a cover for unbridled British imperialism.
SEE ALSO Colonialism; Imperialism
Ferguson, Niall. 2003. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books.
Kennedy, Paul M. 1998. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.
Williams, Judith Blow. 1972. British Commercial Policy and Trade Expansion 1750–1850. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.