Rule Britannia, and the United States too

Review History

November 04, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

God and Gold

Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World

By Walter Russell Mead

Alfred A. Knopf / 449 pages / $27.95

"If the Anglo-Saxons of Great Britain and the United States are true to each other and to the cause of human freedom," wrote Abbott Lawrence, ambassador to the Court of St. James's, in 1850, "they may not only give their language, but their laws to the world, and defy the power of all despots on the face of the globe."

Like Lawrence, Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, is a Pan-Anglian. In the elegantly written and erudite God and Gold, he brings into the 21st century a variant of their account of the Anglo-American rise to power and prestige unmatched in the modern world. Unlike his 19th-century forebears, Mead uses "Anglo-Saxon" as a cultural and not a genetic or ethnic term, denoting ideas and values. But he agrees that the "English-speaking world has been in the vanguard of humanity's march deeper and deeper into the world of democratic capitalism" because it is less constrained by tradition, more willing to embrace change, tolerate dissent and accommodate painful social and economic dislocations. Its maritime strategy, Mead adds, emphasizes trade routes, access to markets, and relationships with "developing" countries that foster a global system dominated by the Pax Americana.

Drawing on the work of Max Weber, Karl Popper and the "consensus school" of American history, which dominated the profession in the 1950s, Mead argues that "anglican" societies owe their dynamism to pragmatism, pluralism and a "golden meme" that balances reason, religion and tradition. In the Anglo-American free market, denominational and political orthodoxies flourish but no single one of them dominates. Capitalists embrace new technologies and the "creative destruction" of older enterprises but cannot silence voices denouncing greed, materialism and exploitation. In England and the United States, "Goldilocks can follow her westward path through the dark and threatening woods" to the "vanguard of the global caravan" because "like the Magi before her, she is following a star."

A belief in God's beneficence toward his chosen people and a long record of political and economic success, Mead reminds us, have created a grand narrative that includes the conviction that modern democratic capitalism represents a new chapter in Anglo-America's "manifest destiny." Mead seems to associate himself with its "triumphalist" tendencies. His Anglo-Americans govern themselves, promote enterprise and limit corruption. They embrace ordered liberty, ethnic diversity and religious toleration. Glossing over substantial conflict, Mead maintains that the great struggles of the English-speaking world have occurred "within a framework which both sides accept." The exceptions, like slavery and the American Civil War, prove the rule: a "broad consensus on key issues."

Whether or not it fully captures the realities of the Anglo-American experience, "triumphalism" helps explain the behavior of "waspophobes." Since the 17th century, animus against England and the United States has been "one of the most powerful forces shaping world history." Why do they hate us? President Bush is wont to blame it all on envy against those who possess freedom and gold. But, Mead demonstrates, "waspophobia" reflects an integrated world-view. It feasts on perceptions that Anglo-American civilization is "cruelty and greed in the service of an inflexible, absolute and utterly inhuman will to power, made formidable by an insolently arrogant hypocrisy and exuding an irresistible but intolerable vulgarity." And, Mead adds, an "arrogance of impotence" encourages "wronged peoples to attach a cosmic importance to those wrongs," demand the impossible and reject compromises as pacts with devils.

History, Mead concludes, suggests that Americans should prepare for even "sterner tests than they have so far endured." They might begin by jettisoning the notion that any combination of carrots, sticks, sanctions, and shock and awe can transcend "the limits of the human condition and age-old scourges like war." But no act of commission, not even the catastrophe in Iraq, Mead insists, can be as costly as global disengagement. The United States should retain the plan that has served it so well: Maintain an "open, dynamic society" at home; promote liberal values and institutions abroad; remain mindful of the balance of power in regions vital to our security; and extend economic energy out into world trade, opening the global system to potential competitors as well as friends. To avert a "clash of civilizations," we must talk less and listen more.

These principles, Mead believes, constitute the "best guide" to a grand strategy for the United States: "Easy to state," they are "more difficult to put into practice." But politicians and policy makers of almost any ideological stripe can embrace - and have embraced - them. And so, God and Gold drops us off where we came in: on our own to conduct "a strong debate over how, exactly, this grand strategy can best be carried out in the changing circumstances of the contemporary world."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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