Author Archive for
Walter Russel Mead

Final Thoughts

by Walter Russel Mead

Once again, thanks to Roger Alford and everyone else involved with Opinio Juris for a rich discussion and an excellent example of how the Internet can facilitate in-depth exchanges.

I wrote God and Gold hoping to set off a conversation about some important and often uncomfortable truths:

that the modern world has developed under the auspices of an ever growing and deepening system of politics, culture, economics and ideology rooted in capitalist social organization and Anglo-American power;

that this long era of Anglo-American predominance in world affairs rests in large part on a unique cultural fit between those societies and the challenges of rapid capitalist development;

that this cultural fit is best understood in the light of a dynamic religious sensibility that infuses both orthodox and heterodox religious faith in the Anglo-American world;

that this religious sensibility continues to shape the perceptions and values of secular as well as religious people in the United States today;

that both the cultural and the geopolitical conditions of today’s world seem favorable to the continuation of the “American era” in world affairs well into the present century;

that much of the world objects to various features of this international system and that these objections are often deeply rooted in cultural and political preferences which will not easily or quickly be changed (and which in any case many people want to preserve);

that the Anglo-Americans are not and often have not been wise, generous or just in their use of the power they’ve achieved;

that the very cultural qualities which have helped make the Anglo-Americans so strong tend to blind them to certain important features of the emerging world system;

that the accelerating social and technological changes which liberal capitalism promotes are simultaneously liberating and destabilizing;

that while it is impossible to predict where all this is heading, humanity seems fated to continue along this path.

At least from where I sit this does not look like a triumphalist message. I respect the power of Whig optimism to shape world affairs, but I cannot share the easy optimism that the Whig tradition promotes. My own view of the future is a bit darker and more Delphic than the intoxicating and enticing visions of a peaceful, stable and democratic world order resting on capitalism and the rule of law which so many British and American observers have thought they discerned during the last couple of centuries. I honestly do not know where all this will end, and I am sometimes staggered at the perils we face.

In the end I do share the Abrahamic faith that all the turmoil and trauma of human history will lead to something greater and richer than anything we now know, but I suspect that the consummation of history will be something more unsettling and unexpected than a peaceful and easy transition to the Paradise of Whigs.

What is the Future of Global Institutions and International Law?

by Walter Russel Mead

This is the question Peter Spiro poses in his response to God and Gold. While noting that I call for an ‘organic, Burkean evolution’, he wonders whether I’ve given full weight to the role these institutions need to play, not as utopian solvers of humanity’s many problems, but as ‘the arena for addressing the problems of global society.’

It’s a probing point and a thoughtful question. It would be even more probing and thoughtful if he asked me what I thought about global institutions as an institution rather than as the institution for addressing the problems of global society. That is, I think global institutions and international law will continue to develop as international society becomes more complex and the affairs of nations and peoples become more entangled – but I will be very surprised if this development becomes the predominant force in international life.

A tendency in world politics that I think the US media sometimes misses is the resistance to global institutions – not by the US, but by countries and cultures who feel that global institutions do not fully reflect their values and priorities. Thus East Asian countries since the currency crises of 1997 have been working to marginalize the World Bank and the IMF in favor of home grown organizations and networks. ASEAN, in southeast Asia, has increasingly displaced global institutions in the region. The African Union, with all its shortcomings, is where many Africans prefer to see African issues addressed; with the former colonial powers of France and Britain holding permanent seats on the Security Council, many Africans see the power of global institutions like the UN and the IMF as relics of the colonial era. Many Islamic countries are also looking for a growing role for regional groups (like the Gulf Cooperation Council of Arab countries on the Gulf) or groups like the Organization of Islamic Countries. The European Union has largely marginalized global institutions when it comes to issues affecting relations among its members; EU members in disputes with each other go to Brussels rather than to New York to seek solutions.

There’s another problem. Global institutions are and are likely to remain very inefficient and hard to reform. The veto system in the Security Council, the utter fecklessness of the General Assembly, the poor management of much of the UN bureaucracy, the demonstrated inability of global institutions so far to come to terms with problems ranging from Darfur to climate change: all this will reduce their influence into the future. I am not happy about this, and I fear that this means that many serious problems will not be addressed, but I think the most likely future is one in which global institutions continue to play a limited, frustrating and partial role.

Peter’s question about global institutions is part of a broader concern. He worries that I could be too state-centric both with respect to supra-national organizations like global institutions and sub-national or trans-national organizations based on tribal, religious or other cultural or issue-oriented groups found within the boundaries of a particular state or scattered across many states.

I guess I’d say in response that God and Gold isn’t as state-centric as Peter’s read would suggest. The emphasis on culture and civilization in the book goes well beyond the nation state. The analysis of relations between the Islamic world and the Anglo-American project, for example, isn’t limited to a state-to-state analysis. God and Gold highlights the importance of culture in world politics; this factor can operate at the level of states, but it operates at other levels too.

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.

Response to Chris Borgen

by Walter Russel Mead

Chris Borgen taxes me with not paying enough attention to the ways in which the responses of non-Anglo-American powers to the Anglo-Americans may reflect their own hopes and plans for the world, rather than a simple dislike of Anglo-American plans or values. I think the two are connected; people dislike the Anglo-Americans both because they don’t like what we have in mind and because our plans and activities frustrate hopes and wishes of their own. God and Gold deals with these issues at some length in the last section; rather than argue with Chris about this now I think it’s better to wait until the discussion moves to the later sections of the book and see what he thinks then.

But there is one point I would like to make now. One difference between the perspective of God and Gold on the world and the conventional approach is that the conventional narrative sees ‘Europe’ as part of the core – and non-Europe, excluding the US and other English speaking countries like Canada and Australia, as a ‘periphery’. From the God and Gold point of view, Europe is also the periphery, at least as far as power and geopolitics are concerned. Spain, France, Russia and Germany have been (some of them still are) as frustrated, alienated and embittered by the progress of the Anglo-American project as much as Iran, China, Egypt and India have been.

And for the same reasons. On the one hand, the Anglo-Americans have blocked the development of institutions, power relations and social dynamics that they did not like; on the other, the Anglo-Americans have furthered a set of changes, institutions and relationships that they did like. The Hapsburg dream of a universal Catholic monarchy; the French visions of Catholic hegemony, Jacobin world revolution, or Napoleonic grandeur; the deeply held belief of idealistic German nationalists that Imperial Germany stood for a higher and nobler way of life than Anglo-American commercialism; the various forms of communist and fascist visions of the twentieth century: these are not just negative anti-American or anti-British world views. They are each based on a set of values and beliefs that arise from the experiences and aspirations of other peoples and other cultures – but they are quickly forced to engage in a struggle with the global commercial vision of the Anglo-American world.

So Chris is right to point out that others have hated the Anglo-Americans not only because they dislike what we are doing, but because the rise of our system has blocked or frustrated the achievement of other goals and other visions. But this has not just been true for people in what he now calls the ‘periphery’; this has been the experience of everyone, far or near, European or non-European, who cherished a vision of either a global or a local civilization built on values and priorities different from those of the Anglophone paradigm.

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.

Introductory Comments

by Walter Russel Mead

I’d like to begin by thanking Roger Alford and his colleagues for offering this opportunity to engage in a discussion about God and Gold.

Writers are like new parents; there is nothing we would rather do than discuss the latest production; if new books sometimes get a chillier reception than new babies, well, that is just the way of the world.

As God and Gold starts to make its way in the world, my first reaction is one of gratitude to so many readers and critics for their forbearance. Paul Kennedy put it very well when he said that this book would “outrage lots of readers.” This is a book that argues that WASP studies, the study of the beliefs and achievements of the English speaking peoples, holds the key to the history of the modern world. If that isn’t bad enough, it argues that Protestant Christianity and private enterprise, working together, stand at the heart of the belief system that enabled the WASPs to conquer the world. I do not even offer the meager consolation that this ancient and evil system is crumbling under the weight of injustice and wrong; God and Gold argues the unfashionable position that the era of American leadership in international affairs still has some decades (at least) to run. This is a scandalous and a disgraceful argument; I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many readers have managed to engage seriously with what I’ve tried to say despite the unpalatable nature of the case.

God and Gold is the same kind of book, though on a bigger scale, as Special Providence, my 2001 study of American foreign policy. Both books are attempts to make sense of a problem. In Special Providence I tried to make sense of the basic contradiction one finds over and over in the study of American foreign policy. On the one hand, virtually every scholar and observer, foreign or domestic, who examined American foreign policy from the time of the Revolution through the present day, concluded that Americans are not very good at making foreign policy – too moralistic and Manichean, too isolationist, too ignorant or simplistic, too militaristic or what have you. The details differ, but the conclusion is the same: Americans are just not very good at foreign policy.

But at the same time, it is obviously and incontrovertibly true that a basic trend in international life for the last 225 years has been the rising power and influence of the United States in the international system. Why does the team with the worst skills in the league win so many games? Special Providence was an attempt to figure this out.

God and Gold starts with a different contradiction: that the British and Americans have dominated world history for the last couple of hundred years – but never understand where their power is taking the world. On the one hand, for the last couple of centuries, Britain and America have seen the end of history just ahead. Free trade, free government, international
organizations: from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through the end of the Cold War, Anglo-American statesmen and intellectuals, to say nothing of broader public opinion have believed that what the rest of the world calls the “Anglo-Saxon powers” were on the verge of establishing a just and permanent world order. Over and over again, they’ve been wrong.

At the same time, gauche as it is to say so, the British and the Americans have been dominating world politics, winning wars and leading global economic and technological development now for a fairly long time – roughly since the Glorious Revolution in 1688. In God and Gold I am trying to work out how the British and the Americans could be so wrong and also so strong.

This line of thought led me to the six questions God and Gold tries to answer:

1. What is the distinctive political and cultural agenda that the Anglo-Americans bring to world politics?

2. Why did the Anglo-Americans prevail in the military, economic, and political contests to shape the emerging world order?

3. How were the Anglo-Americans able to put together the economic and military resources that enabled them to defeat their enemies and build a global order?

4. Why have the Anglo-Americans so frequently believed that history is ending–that their power is bringing about a peaceful world?

5. Why have they been wrong every time?

6. What does Anglo-American power mean for the world? How long is it likely to last, and what does three hundred years of Anglo-American power mean for the larger sweep of world history?

This investigation necessarily involves an investigation into why the Anglo-Americans keep winning – just as Special Providence was an investigation of why American foreign policy works. While some readers have found this unpardonably triumphalist, that isn’t the way I see it – and in my experience, it isn’t the way people see this analysis outside the ‘Anglosphere’. After all, the rise of the British and the Americans to world leadership isn’t exactly a secret; other people besides ourselves have noticed that Great Britain defeated France in the contest for world leadership of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and that when the British world order began to fall, it was replaced by an even more powerful and pervasive American order after World War II. With a kind of Victorian prudery, Anglo-Americans find frank discussions of this power embarrassing; in my experience people from other parts of the world find it a refreshing break from what they often see as our hypocritical and even self-serving evasion of exactly these questions of power.

Obviously, this power has not always been used wisely or well. From the aborigines of Australia to the Irish peasants dispossessed under Cromwell to the Indians of North America and Asia, the world is full of the victims of Anglo-American power. In Special Providence I paid particular attention to the extraordinary record of brutality that one finds in the American way of war (think of the mass fire-bombings of civilian targets in World War II); God and Gold also addresses these issues from time to time (particularly when it comes to Ireland), but neither book attempts to give anything like a comprehensive account of the wrongs done by either the British or their American cousins. Excellent books have been written on these subjects and more will no doubt follow; God and Gold like Special Providence is a book about how the system with all its faults still works.

Again, thanks to all the folks at Opinio Juris who are making this conversation possible. I’m looking forward to the discussion.