Response to Michael Lind

by Walter Russel Mead

Mike Lind asks in effect, what makes England and America special compared to other commercial powers, especially the Italian city states – and why shouldn’t the Anglo-American political tradition be seen as more closely integrated into the history of republican, humanist letters passing through the Italian states back into antiquity? In effect he is asking whether there isn’t too little Europe in my story – have I insisted too hard on trying to see the Anglo-American story (or Batavo-Anglo-American story given the Dutch dimension) in isolation from a broader story of European development.

It’s a good question. Obviously, everything is connected, and commercial powers in a capitalist framework are particularly connected.

Clearly the Venetians and the Genoese in particular were good at some of the same things that the Dutch, the British and the Americans were good at later on. More than that, one can trace some specific elements of continuity in the story. Both the British and the Dutch begin their emergence into the modern capitalist world through their connections with the Italian trade networks; the Italian-dominated trade in wool, particular, for both Britain and the Low Countries, was the first great economic force that linked them closely with the international economy and gave them the resources and the experience they would need.

But I still think there is a clear difference to be noted between the oceanic, globe girdling maritime system originating in the Dutch era and the Mediterranean commercial ventures of the Italian city states. The Italian city states, even at their greatest, were essentially interstitial powers, occupying the spaces between empires that were almost always larger and more powerful than their own. None ever sought or reached the heights of international power or global reach that was integral to the later versions of maritime power. The British and American maritime systems, however, combined the trading interests and flexibility of interstitial commercial powers like Venice and ancient Tyre with the grand continental power of empires like Assyria, the Ottomans and Rome.

In particular, the emerging geopolitical strategy that the Dutch, the British and the Americans developed over time marks off a common approach that distinguishes these powers from earlier commercial entities. Tacitly in the Dutch case, but explicitly in the British and American case, these powers sought to construct a global order. That is, they did not just want to survive or pursue their interests in a world system which they more or less took for granted. They wanted to shape that system itself, and to a very large extent they did so. Furthermore, the Venetians and the Genoese were content to confine their concerns to a region. They wanted to carry on the silk trade from the Black Sea westward, but they didn’t spend a lot of time and effort going to China and trying to shape the development of the silk industry there. They wanted access to products coming off the Silk Road, but they left the Silk Road itself to other, more remote powers.

This is also true at the level of values and ideas. The Venetians and the Genoese wanted to deal with the Ottoman Empire, not transform it into a reflection of Venice and Genoa. They were pragmatic, taking other states as they were; the British and the Americans have sometimes been pragmatic, but at their core both the modern powers have had transformational ambitions. They don’t just want to survive Russia or China; they want to democratize them.

So while Mike is right that there are important similarities between these commercial trading nations, I still maintain that the differences are significant enough to study.

On the question of the intellectual similarities and differences among these countries, I would make some similar arguments. However, I think it might make more sense to engage on these topics after Mike has had a chance to articulate his point in the light of God and Gold’s discussion of the individualistic and ‘dynamic’ religious tradition of the Anglo-American world a bit later on.

Comments are closed.