The Other Half of the Picture

by Chris Borgen

Like Roger, and the rest of the Opinio Juris bloggers, I want to thank Walter Russell Mead for joining us this week. I found God and Gold to be provocative and to contain wonderful insights, particularly concerning why the Anglo-Saxon powers have done remarkably well in conflicts over the last 300 years.

But my first comment in this discussion will be less about what Mead did analyze in the opening two sections of the book (discussing the “clash of civilizations” and what may be called the Anglo-Saxon diplomatic and warfighting methods), then about what he did not cover. By this, I mean that Mead has built a fascinating but largely Eurocentric (if I could include the U.S.) narrative. I question this not out of some misguided “political correctness” but rather because I think that to understand properly the Anglo-Saxon encounter with the rest of the world, and particularly to understand why some people push back, it is vital to give due weight to the beliefs, goals, and concerns of those people. Otherwise, one gets only half the picture; and a picture which is somewhat rose-tinted, to boot.

Mead describes what he calls (tongue-in-cheek, I think) “Waspophobia” and concludes, “[w]hatever we call it, the hatred and fear of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and of all their doings is one of the motors driving the world.” (p.58, my emphasis.) A history which gave serious weight to the actual desires and fears of those in the periphery of this story (that is, the rest of the world besides Western Europe and North America) may find that, perhaps, hatred of the powerful WASPs is not as important an engine as it may seem. Maybe, instead, the people of the periphery were not just reacting against Britain or the U.S. but were acting upon their own affirmative visions of what they wanted to build. If that is the case, then understanding those plans and goals generated in the periphery–and why the U.K. and the U.S. chose to react against them, is a key part of the story of how Britain and America “made” the modern world.

If one focused equally on the encounter as it was experienced in the countries facing Anglo-Saxon power, then one would not consider the issue of “How They Hate Us” (the title of Chapter 3) without even mentioning Mossadegh or Allende. Or the U.S. backing of the Shah, Pinochet, and Duvalier, to give a few examples. It would also be less likely that post-World War II history would receive a gloss such as “America supported independence drives in the former colonies, and then allowed new states to enter the global economic system the U.S. was building.” (p. 112) To quote a Haitian folk saying: “He who is hit always remembers. He who hits always forgets.” I think the narrative in the opening sections of God and Gold has forgotten the other half of the picture.

It is by forgetting—or by only briefly considering—the various examples of bad faith or bad acts by the great powers that we come to oversimplify the interaction the U.K, the U.S., and the rest of the world. Mead summarizes:

Rich and free but also cold and inhuman: this is how the West looks from the East…

It is what Occidentalists look at when they hate and fear the West; it is what Waspophobes are talking about when they decry the global power and influence of Britain and the United States today. (p. 175)

No, they are probbly talking about more than that. And this is missed in Mead’s analysis because the opening two sections of God and Gold present an essentially a metropolitan history of international politics. As Mead puts it:

To the degree that the story of world power politics in the last few centuries has a single overarching plot, that plot is the long and continuing rise of the maritime system as its center shifted from the United Provinces to the United Kingdom to the United States. (p.173)

I agree with that, as a general matter and, as I stated in the opening, I think Mead has much of great insight to say on the geopolitical style of the U.K and the U.S. But this story only goes so far; it is one in which great powers were trying to outmaneuver each other on the chessboard that is the rest of the world. The board, and the chessmen on it, are barely described. And, at least the way the first two sections of this book read, the board and the gamepieces are acted upon, they are not actors in this story.

Giving serious attention not just to the power politics and economic and social proclivities of the U.K. and the U.S., but also to those of states on the periphery, can lead to further insights as to the role of Anglo-Saxon power in the world, besides those that Mead has presented.

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