The Italian-Dutch-Anglo-American Tradition
God and Gold is a timely and welcome contribution to the rediscovery of America’s political traditions, particularly the characteristic American tradition of internationalism. In this important book Walter Russell Mead makes explicit what has been a subdued theme in his earlier books, including his groundbreaking Special Providence—namely, the rejection of the idea that because American foreign policy has been “naïve” or “idealistic” simply because it has operated on principles different from that of pre-World War I continental European states. In the second half of the twentieth century, the native American foreign policy tradition was obscured by the prominence of Central European realists like Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, who taught several generations of political scientists and statesmen that the U.S. had no respectable strategy to speak of before professors with Germanic accents arrived to instruct the childish Americans in the arcana imperii of Metternich and Bismarck. During this period, roughly from World War II until the last decade, the response of critics of German-style Realpolitik was not to explore and rehabilitate the older American internationalist tradition, but rather to accept the realist caricature of traditional American foreign policy as mindless “idealism” or “utopianism” and to make virtues of what the realists denounced as vices. Without detracting from Mead’s originality, I see his work as a landmark contribution to a rediscovery of American internationalism as a distinct foreign policy tradition in which other authors like Daniel Deudney in Bounding Power and Peter and Nicolas Onuf have participated, as well as Mead himself in previous work.
Equally welcome is his dissection of traditional Anglophobia and anti-Americanism as a manifestation of illiberalism, directed at the leading liberal powers of the modern world. Which is not to deny that even paranoids have enemies; Arabs displaced from their homes in Palestine by British-sponsored Jewish colonists, like native Americans, Mexicans and Cajuns displaced by Anglo-Americans in the U.S. and Canada, surely have reasons to object to British and U.S. foreign policy quite apart from illiberalism, Anglophobia, anti-Americanism or anti-semitism.
Mead is right, too, to root the liberal Anglo-American tradition in the early modern Netherlands. Here, however, I would suggest an emendation to his account. As Luciano Pellicani argued in his too-little-known book The Genesis of Capitalism and the Origins of Modernity (Telos Press, 1994), practically everything we think of as part of the Dutch-Anglo-American model—constitutional republicanism, capitalism, insurance, science, even double-entry book-keeping—had its origins in the city-republics of northern Italy during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. When the vitality of the Italian city-states was snuffed out by foreign invasions and the Counter-Reformation, the center of republican government and commercial society migrated to the Netherlands and then to Britain and the U.S.
Should we speak, therefore, of an Italian-Dutch-Anglo-American tradition? In one sense, adding the Renaissance Italians only slightly alters Mead’s story. In another sense, however, it shifts the whole debate. For one thing, it reduces the emphasis on ethnicity and religion. The Italian city-states were Catholic, so their success can hardly be explained by the Reformation work ethic. Indeed, Pellicani has a forceful polemic against Weber’s attempt to link early modern capitalism with Protestantism, attributing itself instead to republican government (or in the case of Britain, quasi-republican constitutional monarchy) and practical if not official secularism or latitudinarianism. And while Mead’s use of the phrase the “Anglo-Saxon powers” is refreshing as a distinction between Britain and its offspring and the continental bureaucratic states, inevitably despite his statements to the contrary it tends to lend an ethnic cast to what is clearly a philosophical system (liberalism) and a geopolitical tradition (maritime trading states). The alternative would be to find some other, non-ethnic, non-religious phrase—liberal? republican? maritime?—to describe what I see as the Italian-Dutch-Anglo-American tradition. Venice, along with Amsterdam, is part of the story too.