Mead’s God and Gold: Great “Great Power” Stuff, But Whither the Great Powers?

by Peter Spiro

This is a terrific read, a Big Book in all the good ways. I’m particularly struck by the way that Mead stretches The End of History out backwards as a persistent trait of Anglo-American culture. One can hardly not have heard of Norman Angell these days, as the herald of false dawns, but connecting the dots from him to Hegel on the one hand and Fukuyama on the other is nicely done here. And thanks to Walter for reconnecting me with my inner Marx.

The account should thus serve as a strong cautionary tale for international law triumphalists. Time and time again, the English and Americans have believed that peace and harmony have been just around the corner, by their hand. In the current era, perhaps no group more than international lawyers holds out such a hope, one in which global democratic and capitalist peace prevail with, yes, international lawyers at the vanguard.

But is it possible that even if the world is unlikely to become a much better place (though our Whig reflexes run deep) it may be on the verge of becoming a much different place. If I were to take the book to task for anything, it would be for its deep statist assumptions. Mead doesn’t say where he stands vis-a-vis the state. He rightly recognizes the importance of identity and group membership, and of the individual’s yearning for group recognition. At one point he tags progressives with the belief that “the state can and should play a decisive role in the development of human societies.” But even if his own premises are unstated, it seems pretty clear that he believes in the state, too, and in state-based communities as the central organizing principle of human affairs.

That may be true for now, but it may not be true forever. It seems to me that where the real challenge lies not in projecting the Great Power paradigm forward but confronting the possibility that the Great Power Paradigm may no longer apply. What of transnational communities? The book addresses global migration only incidentally, with an assumption that immigration to the United States will play out on the old, assimilationist model.

What if we find a world in which territory is increasingly decoupled from identity, in which group conflict still very much defines global interactions but not on a let’s-play-Risk basis? And what of those issues (like environmental protection) that don’t really map out on any bounded basis? God and Gold pays brief lip service to the potential of global institutions and international law (correctly arguing for its organic, Burkean evolution), but maybe it should feature more centrally, not as the mark of the end of history but as the arena for addressing the problems of global society.

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