Introductory Comments

by Walter Russel Mead

I’d like to begin by thanking Roger Alford and his colleagues for offering this opportunity to engage in a discussion about God and Gold.

Writers are like new parents; there is nothing we would rather do than discuss the latest production; if new books sometimes get a chillier reception than new babies, well, that is just the way of the world.

As God and Gold starts to make its way in the world, my first reaction is one of gratitude to so many readers and critics for their forbearance. Paul Kennedy put it very well when he said that this book would “outrage lots of readers.” This is a book that argues that WASP studies, the study of the beliefs and achievements of the English speaking peoples, holds the key to the history of the modern world. If that isn’t bad enough, it argues that Protestant Christianity and private enterprise, working together, stand at the heart of the belief system that enabled the WASPs to conquer the world. I do not even offer the meager consolation that this ancient and evil system is crumbling under the weight of injustice and wrong; God and Gold argues the unfashionable position that the era of American leadership in international affairs still has some decades (at least) to run. This is a scandalous and a disgraceful argument; I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many readers have managed to engage seriously with what I’ve tried to say despite the unpalatable nature of the case.

God and Gold is the same kind of book, though on a bigger scale, as Special Providence, my 2001 study of American foreign policy. Both books are attempts to make sense of a problem. In Special Providence I tried to make sense of the basic contradiction one finds over and over in the study of American foreign policy. On the one hand, virtually every scholar and observer, foreign or domestic, who examined American foreign policy from the time of the Revolution through the present day, concluded that Americans are not very good at making foreign policy – too moralistic and Manichean, too isolationist, too ignorant or simplistic, too militaristic or what have you. The details differ, but the conclusion is the same: Americans are just not very good at foreign policy.

But at the same time, it is obviously and incontrovertibly true that a basic trend in international life for the last 225 years has been the rising power and influence of the United States in the international system. Why does the team with the worst skills in the league win so many games? Special Providence was an attempt to figure this out.

God and Gold starts with a different contradiction: that the British and Americans have dominated world history for the last couple of hundred years – but never understand where their power is taking the world. On the one hand, for the last couple of centuries, Britain and America have seen the end of history just ahead. Free trade, free government, international
organizations: from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through the end of the Cold War, Anglo-American statesmen and intellectuals, to say nothing of broader public opinion have believed that what the rest of the world calls the “Anglo-Saxon powers” were on the verge of establishing a just and permanent world order. Over and over again, they’ve been wrong.

At the same time, gauche as it is to say so, the British and the Americans have been dominating world politics, winning wars and leading global economic and technological development now for a fairly long time – roughly since the Glorious Revolution in 1688. In God and Gold I am trying to work out how the British and the Americans could be so wrong and also so strong.

This line of thought led me to the six questions God and Gold tries to answer:

1. What is the distinctive political and cultural agenda that the Anglo-Americans bring to world politics?

2. Why did the Anglo-Americans prevail in the military, economic, and political contests to shape the emerging world order?

3. How were the Anglo-Americans able to put together the economic and military resources that enabled them to defeat their enemies and build a global order?

4. Why have the Anglo-Americans so frequently believed that history is ending–that their power is bringing about a peaceful world?

5. Why have they been wrong every time?

6. What does Anglo-American power mean for the world? How long is it likely to last, and what does three hundred years of Anglo-American power mean for the larger sweep of world history?

This investigation necessarily involves an investigation into why the Anglo-Americans keep winning – just as Special Providence was an investigation of why American foreign policy works. While some readers have found this unpardonably triumphalist, that isn’t the way I see it – and in my experience, it isn’t the way people see this analysis outside the ‘Anglosphere’. After all, the rise of the British and the Americans to world leadership isn’t exactly a secret; other people besides ourselves have noticed that Great Britain defeated France in the contest for world leadership of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and that when the British world order began to fall, it was replaced by an even more powerful and pervasive American order after World War II. With a kind of Victorian prudery, Anglo-Americans find frank discussions of this power embarrassing; in my experience people from other parts of the world find it a refreshing break from what they often see as our hypocritical and even self-serving evasion of exactly these questions of power.

Obviously, this power has not always been used wisely or well. From the aborigines of Australia to the Irish peasants dispossessed under Cromwell to the Indians of North America and Asia, the world is full of the victims of Anglo-American power. In Special Providence I paid particular attention to the extraordinary record of brutality that one finds in the American way of war (think of the mass fire-bombings of civilian targets in World War II); God and Gold also addresses these issues from time to time (particularly when it comes to Ireland), but neither book attempts to give anything like a comprehensive account of the wrongs done by either the British or their American cousins. Excellent books have been written on these subjects and more will no doubt follow; God and Gold like Special Providence is a book about how the system with all its faults still works.

Again, thanks to all the folks at Opinio Juris who are making this conversation possible. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/02/05/introductory-comments/

Comments are closed.