"Safe Passage" by Kori Schake

Brian Gongol

Extended review:

In 1894, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "[W]e must face facts as they are. We must neither surrender ourselves to foolish optimism, nor succumb to a timid and ignoble pessimism." Nearly a century later, Margaret Thatcher echoed the same sentiment when she said, "We are too prone to believe that our devotion to peace is universal. It is not. We must see those who could threaten us as they are and not as we would like them to be."

The thoughtful reader who wants to see the world as it is, and to understand why, should waste no time in obtaining a copy of Kori Schake's outstanding book, "Safe Passage".

Few ideas about global affairs are more foundational than the notion that the United States and the United Kingdom have a "special relationship". The received wisdom on this matter is that it has always been thus, and that it is such an obvious relationship that it requires no further explanation.

Schake shatters that conventional wisdom by documenting in a thorough and engrossing way that the "special relationship" wasn't preordained, nor obvious, nor organic. It was instead a carefully cultivated product of a century-long process during which multiple generations of British leaders of state and diplomats managed their own country's loss of global strategic dominance as the United States emerged as a rival (and ultimately more powerful) hegemon.

Even most educated people are probably too dismissive of the transition. There's a simplistic popular notion that the relationship was bad in the War of 1812, then there was some neutrality on Britain's part during the Civil War, and then Teddy Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world and Britain bowed courteously as the United States took the mantle of global dominance.

The real narrative is vastly more complex and the choices made along the way tell a gripping story, thanks to Schake's masterful storytelling. "Safe Passage" isn't afraid to grapple with events as notorious as the Civil War without introducing true "Aha!" moments. Nor does it shy away from moments as seemingly esoteric as the Venezuelan debt crises of the late 1800s and early 1900s (go ahead and look them up; it's doubtful you would have encountered them in any depth outside a graduate-level history course), yet Schake manages to make them as seamless and engrossing a part of the bigger story as tales of Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders.

As history alone, it's a terrific book: Fluid, fast-paced, and vivid. The reader might choose to resist the urge to read it too quickly because it contains just so much interesting and thought-provoking analysis about historical moments most Americans assume we already know (reading "Safe Passage" will shatter those assumptions).

But the person who reads this book only for the history will miss out on the real reward, which is in what it says about the present. The United States had a remarkable head start on global political, economic, and military dominance in the present day. But quite a few civilizations have had their time in the sun as either regional or global hegemons. The core of Schake's book is that the transition from British to American dominance was the first time such a change had happened almost entirely peacefully -- and how it was no accident that Britain emerged with a claim to a "special relationship" to serve its own interests in the end.

This is, ultimately, a book about heeding Roosevelt and Thatcher by choosing to see things as they are, rather than as we might imagine them to be. In the present day, that means examining honestly how China has risen and what direction it is choosing. In the long term, it is a compelling argument for ensuring that the future of America's place in the world is shaped by choice, rather than accident. The crux of the book is contained in this one passage:

"Britain's hegemony comprised political balance among European powers, acquisition of colonies for economic gain, preferential trading within its empire, open trade and investment outside it, and military enforcement of its economic policies. As a rising power America aspired to and enacted similar policies: the United States became a responsible stakeholder in the British order, playing by the rules and seeing its interests served."

There could scarcely be a bigger, more defining question about the world today than whether America's present hegemony is secure for the future, especially as other powers gain economic and military might. Are they stakeholders in our order? And whose interests will be served?

Few books reward the reader by being, all at once, pleasant to read, deeply informative, and frequently surprising. "Safe Passage" scores high marks on all three. If you read mainly for pleasure or because you enjoy history, it's a great pick. But if you want to understand the world today and to have a contextual framework for understanding some of the epic, generational-scale events unfolding around this complex and fast-changing world, then read this book without delay. With a very light touch, Kori Schake will guide you toward convincing yourself that the future of the world really does depend on choices being made by diplomats, leaders of state, and ordinary voters right now. The future is a choice, and we are obligated to make our choices with the full knowledge of history.

Just as in Theodore Roosevelt's time (as the hegemonic baton was being passed from one power to another) and in Margaret Thatcher's time (when Britain's investment in creating the "special relationship" paid dividends probably as substantial as those it paid during the two World Wars), the only way to ensure that high ideals can be met is to make practical decisions in the present, facing the facts -- as well as our allies and our adversaries -- for exactly what they are. The shape of our world today is no accident. Its shape tomorrow ought not to be an accident, either.