Response to Roger Alford

by Walter Russel Mead

In God and Gold I write about three elements of England’s success. Roger asks how I combine the three into one story – and wonders whether the whole story hangs together. In response, let me describe the three pieces of my story, and show how I think they fit.

First, England was a lucky country – the Goldilocks of early modern Europe. It wasn’t too big – like the Holy Roman Empire or France; it wasn’t too small like Holland. It was just right. The English Reformation wasn’t too hot – as in Germany where it set off religious wars that killed something like a quarter of the population. It wasn’t too cold, either – so that one religion established a secure position and cracked down on dissidents and new ideas as in Italy and Spain. It wasn’t too far from the centers of European innovation and culture – like Russia, always behind and slow to develop. But it was insulated by the Channel so it wasn’t periodically devastated by constant warfare. And so on.

Second, England adopted a clever geopolitical strategy that helped it win wars. I call this strategy “the protocols of the elders of Greenwich” and a five point plan for global domination. To summarize:

Point One: have an open society at home. That is, allow intellectual, political and economic freedom. Don’t keep immigrants and religious minorities out. Allow scientists, professors and business people to innovate. Keep careers open to talent – let that clever peasant kid rise to become a powerful merchant or industrialist.

Point Two: take the show on the road – engage with the world. The commercial and intellectual dynamism of the open society can fuel a very profitable engagement with the rest of the world through trade. The open society has new products, more efficient financial and industrial techniques; a more meritocratic system puts more talented people in key positions. When this society engages with the rest of the world, it makes a lot of money.

Point Three: use the money to fund a global grand strategy based on commerce, sea power and the balance of power. Protect the sea routes for your commerce and back up your trading interests. Make sure that no single country can dominate a key geopolitical theater and use the military and commercial resources of that theater against you.

Point Four: having built this global system, open it up. Let other countries benefit from the secure international trading environment. Encourage them to integrate their economies into your global system. This makes war less likely; other countries are getting rich by participating in your system so they have less desire to go to war. If they do go to war, you can use your control of the sea lanes and the international economic system to cut them off from the resources and markets they need.

Point Five: promote liberal values in other countries. Values like an independent judiciary and a reliable code of law create a safer and more profitable environment for your merchants and traders. By adopting these values other countries become more able to participate successfully in your system, and are therefore less likely to go to war with you.

It seems to me that the relationship between these two pieces of the story is reasonably clear. The “Goldilocks” part of the story explains why England had a good head start on the race to world power. The clever strategy, the five point plan, shows how the British and then the Americans managed to turn this initial head start into a long term lead.

But there is another question. It is one thing to say that having an open society – here, a society eager and able to develop along liberal capitalist lines – is the first step on a path toward global power. But why were the English and the Americans able to take this step? What gave them the cultural and psychological and political ability to maintain an open society through so many pitfalls and vicissitudes of fortune for so many centuries?

The answer to this is the third part of my story: the set of cultural values, habits and conditions that made Anglo-American society so quick to embrace capitalism and so unusually able to preserve their political stability as the consequences of capitalism led them into one radical social transformation after another. Subsequent sections of the book go into this in some detail and I expect we will be getting into this as the discussion progresses, but some of the cultural forces I have in mind include Anglo-American religion, and a faith that providence, or an ‘invisible hand’, is bringing a benign order out of chaos.

So England’s success was due to a combination of good luck and good strategy. Fate gave them a good hand of cards and the skill to play; they found a winning line of play and followed it out, and they won. (Sometimes, they cheated; they were pretty good at that part of it too.)

Roger, I don’t know if this clears it up for you; I’d be interested in your response.

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