The Meaning of It All

by Roger Alford

The final section of God and Gold addresses the question of why Anglo-Saxon optimism has so often been wrong, and what three centuries of Anglo-Saxon success means for world history. Much of this section focuses on American misapprehension of liberal capitalist democracy. While Americans think of it as a way to promote social peace and stability, they fail to appreciate how it also produces an accelerated pace of social, economic, and technological change. This acceleration is not always welcome in other societies, as they struggle to cope with the change, must less welcome it. (p. 16).

If one takes the long view of Anglo-American power, one can see the last sixty years of American primacy not as an isolated period in world history, but rather the latest stage in the long-term development of the maritime order. It is impossible to think clearly about questions of American power and world order today without grasping the story of the long rise of the maritime system. The history of the maritime system is the best available guide to America’s history, its current situation, and the choices that confront it. (pp. 343-44).

Far from a civilization in decline, the American maritime system is stable. The real lesson of history is that there is nothing inevitable about the decline and fall of civilizations, and that the outlook for civilizations and cultures can be transformed on short notice. Great civilizations don’t fall, they are pushed, and it takes an unusual combination of circumstances for a whole civilization to be pushed past its breaking point. (p. 347).

A narrow focus on the American world role gives something like sixty years of precedent and experience. But if we look back at the whole rise of the maritime system we find a much richer historical memory. American power seems more deeply rooted in the structure of world politics than it does when one looks at the United States alone. The United States is the leading state in a power system with a three-hundred year history, one that has flourished under many different sets of conditions. (p. 359).

The protocols of the elders of Greenwich remain the key to world power. Develop and maintain an open, dynamic society at home; turn the economic energy of that society out into world trade; protect commerce throughout the world and defend the balance of power in the world’s chief geopolitical theaters; open the global system to others, even to potential competitors in time of peace; turn the system against one’s opponents in war; promote liberal values and institutions wherever one can. This plan works and those who stick to the plan will prosper and triumph. (pp. 360-61).

The greatest disaster that came upon the United States did not come from blunders in carrying out a sea-power program. Vietnam and Iraq were disasters, but they pale before the horrors brought on by isolation, abstention, and the foolish neglect of our responsibilities abroad. (p. 362).

The study of the history of the maritime order can help us think more clearly about the relationship between the Anglo-Saxon powers and the world of Islam. Waspophobia has swept the world before, and history teaches that this struggle need not be a struggle to the death. (p. 366). In the end, when and if Islam makes its peace with the dynamic society, it will do so in the only way possible. It will not “secularize” itself into a mild form of atheism. It will not blend into a postconfessional unity religion that sees all religions as being fundamentally the same. Rather, pious Muslims of unimpeachable orthodoxy, conspicuous virtue, conservative principles, and great passion for their faith will show the world what dynamic Islam can be. (p. 372).

The imperatives of history force the world’s civilizations into contact with one another. Whether they like it or not, all civilizations today are condemned to live in close contact, to deal with one another, and to affect one another. The first four years of the administration of George W. Bush were almost a textbook example of the dangers that American foreign policy faces when it ignores the enduring importance of collective recognition in international life. The Bush administration seemed to glory in its relative isolation and its capacity for unilateral action, and it was only too happy to remind countries like Germany and France that they were not the great powers they had once been. With gratuitous slights and grandiose posturing, the likes of Donald Rumsfeld made American power odious in much of the world. It risked disturbing old ghosts best left to slumber in peace. (p. 378).

In the years ahead, we can expect some significant and hopefully benign change in American policy and attitude, but these will fall well short of what America’s most impassioned critics want. In the future we can anticipate a situation that will satisfy no one. The Whigs will not build a global Tower of Babel, a single set of laws and values that overshadows the whole world, but those who resist and oppose Whig civilization will be unable to free themselves from its presence. (pp. 386-87).

We face a quintessentially Niebuhrian situation. The Anglo-American Whigs, caught up in the enthusiasm for their global project of liberation and development, cannot lose sight either of the ways their project affects others, or of the roots of their ideology in their own culture values and interests. And yet the awareness of the conditionality of that project and of its actual and potential drawbacks and limitations cannot and should not affect their core commitment to their values, values that continue to power the global activities and transformational agenda of the maritime order. (p. 394).

Conservatives as well as liberals need to internalize the Niebuhrian stance, and mass public opinion as well as elite debate should reflect those values. Such values can only be sustained if they have wide and deep support. Evangelical Protestantism is the one social movement in the United States that has the presence and power to create a new mass of public opinion that is responsive to Niebuhrian ideals. Fortunately, there are definite signs that the contemporary American evangelical community is becoming significantly more receptive to a Niebuhrian vision of the world. The more culturally open and internationally engaged evangelicalism of the present day is one dimension in which American society is gradually gaining the capacity to play the global role to which its economic and geopolitical success has called it. (pp. 396-97, 402).

So what is the place of the Anglo-Saxon era in the long human story? They may not have built a utopia, but even so, the Anglo-Saxon era has produced changes that are as profound as they are enduring. For all its injustices and imperfections, the creation of the first truly global society is a substantial achievement; the maritime powers have effected a transformation of international relations whose consequences will be felt as long as the current civilization endures. (p. 404).

The emerging global society shares some of the key traits of the dynamic societies that grew up in the English-speaking world. Today’s world is divided among three competing sets of visions, and no one vision can impose its values on global society as a whole. In one group are the advocates of reason, who believe that universal logic, principles, and law are the only suitable or even feasible basis for an international system. For this group, the establishment of a powerful system of institutions that can enforce the global rule of law is the obvious and natural goal of international society. A second group is composed of advocates of religion: people who believe that one of the world’s great religions is the necessary foundation for any just international order. The advocates of a religion-based international order disagree on the details, but share a common commitment to base both international and domestic society on the precepts of revealed religion. Finally, there are the devotees of tradition, partisans of various form of cultural and identity politics. These are often populist nationalists who believe that their own values and culture ought to be the basis for international life. (p. 405).

No one in the world is strong enough to compel the others to conform to an international society based on reason, religion, or tradition. To the degree a global society can establish itself to serve the needs of the world’s different societies and cultures, they must proceed from sometimes contradictory assumptions. The world of international law already seems to be based more on precedent and historical accident than the results of rational principles consistently applied. The most conscious proponents of a law-based and institutionally defined international system generally deplore this condition, but that is a mistake. Tolerating and even welcoming a more diverse and less uniform approach to international life and global governance is likely over time to lead to more effective and widely accepted institutions. (pp. 406-07).

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