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.

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).

European Utopians

by Roger Alford

One of the key arguments in that latter half of Mead’s book is that Anglo-Americans are particularly given to visions of history working itself out toward some greater purpose. Mead believes that Anglo-Americans are distinctly oriented toward utopian visions of fixing human affairs. Of course, there are ample examples to support naïve and idealistic American dreams of a new world order. So while I think Mead is correct that Anglo-Americans are prone toward such idealism, I’m not sure they are distinctly given to such an orientation.

Some of the most important utopian visions of the past century do not have their origins in the Anglo-American world. To offer just a few examples, the early 20th century pacifist movement was largely a European construct. The great populist pacifists of the day— Frédéric Passy, Élie Ducommun, Albert Gobat, Bertha von Suttner, Klas Arnoldson, Frederik Bajer, Alfred Fried, and Henri La Fontaine—were all Europeans. These populist pacifists genuinely believed that a world without war was imminent. Of course, there were a few notable exceptions, such as the Englishman Randal Cremer or the American Andrew Carnegie, but they were a distinct minority.

It was an Austrian, Bertha von Suttner, who in 1889 penned the monumentally significant pacifist manifesto Lay Down Your Arms, a book that Leo Tolstoy described as the pacifist equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She proclaimed in 1906 that the old system of militarism was doomed to fail and that anyone who understood the laws of evolution recognized that “the future will always be one degree better than the past.” And it was the Swiss pacifist Albert Gobat who said, “I am not one of those who laugh at utopias. The utopia of today can become the reality of tomorrow. Utopias are conceived by optimistic logic which regards constant social and political progress as the ultimate goal of human endeavor.”

During the interwar years, the utopian vision of a world without war returned, this time to Switzerland with the Locarno Pact. The chief negotiator of the Locarno Pact was the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, who with the German Gustav Stresemann and the Englishman Austen Chamberlain, signed the 1925 agreement that would end war in Europe. When the Locarno Pact was signed on October 16, 1925, one first-hand account by Mercedes Randall reported that “jubilation broke out as if a new gospel had been proclaimed. People embraced each other, some of them even wept—no more conflicts—no more wars—no more victors and vanquished—the word was becoming one great family of friends and brethren!… Henceforth the name of that little city on the beautiful lake was to be not merely the designation of a town, but a new conception of the unity and friendship of mankind.”

The Kellogg-Briand Pact was originally the brainchild of again, the Frenchman Aristide Briand. When it was eventually signed in 1928, Briand proclaimed: “War, formerly considered an attribute of divine right, and continuing to live in international ethics as a privilege of sovereignty, is at last by law deprived of that which constitutes its greatest danger: its legitimacy…. Freed from such a serfdom, the peoples who adhere to the new treaty will soon become accustomed to the idea that national prestige, national interest, is no longer connected with the conception of violence.”

There are other examples one could offer. And of course, I’m not telling Mead anything he doesn’t already know. But suffice it to say that naïve idealism and utopian triumphalism is not unique to Anglo-American stock. Anglo-American utopias may be different than European utopias, with the former unusually committed to the invisible hand of democratic capitalism and the latter uncommonly oriented toward liberal international institutionalism. But utopians know no nationality, and utopians of all nationalities share the common mistake of misapprehending the difficulties of achieving their visions.

The Societal Benefits of the Anglo-American Protestant Work Ethic

by Roger Alford

Mead’s discussion of the Anglo-American Protestant work ethic ventures into the fascinating subject of the sociology of religion. I am by no means an expert in this area, but I once was a student of the subject and I do have some reflections on his discussion of the societal benefits of the Anglo-American Protestant work ethic.



His thesis that Anglo-American Protestants are working out their religious calling in a way that inures to the benefit of the broader society is a familiar and fairly convincing interpretation of the American experience. There is a common Protestant acceptance of the doctrine of vocation, in which each individual has a particular calling and obligation to fulfill that calling. (Of course there is the other well-known Christian doctrine of salvation by grace, which embraces the notion that nothing we can do will ever merit God’s favor. One would think that such a doctrine would not offer the societal spillover benefits that a doctrine of salvation by works would).



Accepting the benefits that flow from a Protestant fixation on calling, I’m not sure that this story of the sociological impact of the Anglo-American Protestant work ethic should apply in an increasingly secular culture. If Mead is correct, one would think that Protestant cultures that remain deeply religious would continue to reap the benefits of the Protestant work ethic, while cultures that stray from that path would increasingly cease to benefit from a culture permeated with a sense of divine calling. That, of course, is not what we see. To be sure, American society is deeply religious and also remarkably productive. But the rest of the Anglophone world is increasingly secular, and yet remains astonishingly productive. The correlation one would expect to associate with the Protestant work ethic would be diminished as more and more secular citizens reject any notion of a personal destiny or calling.



One could also use inductive reasoning from the world we all experience to reject Mead’s conclusions of the Anglo-American Protestant work ethic. We all know examples too numerous to mention of highly religious individuals who are remarkably unproductive (at least in terms of benefitting broader society). Conversely, the examples are legion of individuals who have no faith commitment—much less a sense of divine calling—and yet they are among the most prolific and productive members of society. One could even argue that it should be the irreligious members of society who are the most productive, for their only hope of immortality is whatever legacy they have been able to leave from their labors here on earth. They may well believe that their only salvation is their works.



Mead briefly suggests that the secular culture is subconsciously part of the Abrahamic tradition, but he never really discusses why there is no obvious differences in productivity along the secular and religious divide. Perhaps Mead is suggesting that the secularization that is sweeping the rest of the Anglophone world is nonetheless subconsciously imbued with a modern variation of calling and vocation. These modern-day Anglo-Americans are not seeking a religious calling, but they nonetheless are pursuing a purpose-driven life.




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.

The Golden Meme of Anglo-American Progress

by Roger Alford

Part Four of Gold and Gold builds upon the previous sections to discuss what Mead calls the golden meme of Anglo-American history and politics. The English-speaking world has adopted a dominant paradigm representing a deeply rooted vision of how the world works. The idea that the world is built (or guided by God) in such a way that unrestricted free play creates an ordered and higher form of society is found in virtually all fields and at virtually all levels of the Anglo-Saxon world. It makes people individualistic and optimistic, and it climaxes in what many have called the “whig narrative”—a theory of history that sees the slow and gradual march of progress in a free society as the dominant force not only in Anglo-American history but in the wider world as well. (p. 15).

Anglo-American politicians and intellectuals have frequently put forward the idea that the purpose of the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy is to usher in a peaceful, liberal, and prosperous world order. Yet if the history of the last hundred years teaches one lesson, it is that Anglo-Americans consistently underestimate the difficulty of establishing the global democratic and capitalist peace that they want. The ever-recurring belief that the world is about to become a much better place is deeply rooted in Anglo-American culture. (pp. 271-72).

We live in an age of competing grand narratives. The oldest of these narratives is the Abrahamic story. (p. 274). The call of Abraham became a grand narrative in which the people of Abraham would prosper and multiply and thereby bless the nations of the earth. The human story is one of progress with a purpose. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all believe that human beings can grasp the nature of the universe and that the normal course of natural events is subject to laws which can be understood and predicted by human beings. History is not simply the passage of time, it is accomplishment of a task. History is the process by which what is wrong is set right, what is broken is mended. (pp. 280-81).

Even secular modernism is part of the Abrahamic tradition, for it too sees history as a process of moral and political struggle through which truth is gradually discovered and proclaimed. Modernists acknowledge a higher power based on natural law or human nature that shapes history, even as they reject many features of traditional theism. (pp. 282-84).

The attempted transformation of the human condition has not only been fueled by hope but also by fear. Because war is woven so deeply into the fabric of history, the abolition of war requires a thoroughgoing social and political revolution. If the human race reaches a point of development at which organized mass violence is no longer the supreme arbiter of human affairs, then we have clearly solved the fundamental problem of human society. (p. 294).

The younger of the two narratives is the rise of capitalism. The social system of capitalist globalization has transformed cultures and social relations on every continent to generate a cascade of social, technological, economic, cultural, and political revolutions in every dimension of life on every part of our planet. (p. 274). The optimism rooted in Anglo-American culture unites with the biblical roots of Anglo-American religion to create a distinct grand narrative that ties the Abrahamic story of Israel and Christ together with the intuition that capitalist modernity represents a new call from God. (p. 298).

Today the cult of the invisible hand may be the chief difference between the English-speaking world and the rest of the world. It is the principal reason for the Anglo-Saxon rise to world power and a leading influence in how Anglo-Saxons have understood and interpreted their rise and their role. (p. 298). Today, the Anglo-American mind approaches virtually any social, political, scientific, or economic question with the belief that, somehow, some kind of invisible hand is the answer. Believers in the invisible hand are confident that the historical process is carrying forward some great if unknown purpose. We do not fight it; we believe that we must let capitalism and its revolutionary potential loose upon the world. (pp. 304-05).

The “whig narrative” refers today to a distinctly Anglo-American concept of history told as the story of slow, sure, and irresistible capitalist progress under the guidance of the invisible hand. (p. 305). The whig narrative is a powerful and all-embracing synthesis of the Abrahamic narrative and the story of capitalism. It links capitalist development with the unfolding will of God. (p. 310).

While this whig narrative has helped Anglo-Saxons dominate modern history, it has not helped them understand it. Anglo-Americans fail to understand why so many foreigners despise, reject, and resist the blessings of free markets and democratic government. They also underestimate the difficulties and obstacles other societies must overcome before they can play the game of free politics and free markets. (p. 316). Far from satisfying the deepest desires of human beings, the present world system and world order frustrate and enrage many people. Americans will not understand their role in the world until they have fully grasped the paradoxical relationship between the success of American society at home (and even internationally) and the level of global unhappiness with the American project and the American way. Success builds American confidence in the whig narrative; it creates resistance to it as well. (p. 339).

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.

The Religious Roots of Anglo-American Open Society

by Roger Alford

Part Three of God and Gold focuses on the question of how the Anglo-Saxons were able to put together the economic and military resources that enabled them to defeat their enemies and build a global order. Mead argues that the decisive factor in the success of the English-speaking world was that they came from a culture that was uniquely well positioned to develop and harness the titanic forces of capitalist. Anglo-Americans have been consistently among the best performers at creating a favorable institutional and social climate in which capitalism can grow rapidly. The roots of this aptitude can be found in the way the British Reformation created a pluralistic society that was unusually tolerant and unusually pious. The English-speaking world reached a new kind of religious equilibrium in which capitalism and social change came to be accepted as good things. (pp. 14-15).

The English Reformation was unusual in that it steered a middle course between the unacceptable extremes of scriptural literalism and Roman Catholicism. Tradition, they concluded, could provide an unerring guide to the worst perplexities of the religious controversies of the day. (p. 212). Some leading Englishmen—most notably Edward Gibbon—rejected both scripture and tradition and turned to the third alternative of reason. But in the end, English society recognized that reason cannot be separated from interest and passion and reason alone could not stand as the basis for human society. The excesses of the French Revolution—supposedly based on reason and logic—fortified this impression. (pp. 216-19).

Juggling scripture, tradition, and reason, the English-speaking world embraced an open society in which religion constantly adjusted to the demands of social and economic change. The prevailing Anglo-American view came to be Adam Smith’s: “that religion, even fanatical religion, is necessary to the health and happiness of society, and that free competition among religions is the best way to achieve the benefits of religion at the lowest possible cost.” (p. 228). The history of the Anglophone world suggests that the most vigorously open society, the society that presses hardest and fastest toward the West, is a religious society. Societies that marginalize religion and that are based purely on reason are less flexible, less open, and less dynamic. (p. 230).

Mead also underscores the religious roots of the Anglo-American embrace of change. The Anglo-American version of Protestant Christianity is particularly oriented toward Calvinism, which reinforces God’s grace working through people. It is not just that Calvinists are running from fear of a hideous fate, they are reaching out toward something positive: a transcendent calling. Embracing change is not a necessary evil; it is a religious sacrament in which the pursuit of change is the encounter of the meaning of life. As such, each person’s calling becomes a type of project to achieve, and that plan manifests itself in the broader society. Over the course of centuries, millions of Anglo-Americans have adopted this mindset to improve their personal forturnes and make society a more suitable medium for capitalist development (pp. 240-47).

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.

Luck and The Spoils of War

by Roger Alford

There is an interesting paradox in Mead’s book between luck and the spoils of war. On the one hand, Mead spends much of the book suggesting that the English were just plain lucky. “By luck or … the providence of God, England was in the right place with the right mix of social and economic conditions at the right time.” (p. 176). England had the Goldilocks touch. Within Europe, England was in the Goldilocks spot of real estate: close enough to benefit fully from Europe’s acceleration, but out of the way to avoid repeated invasion and ruin. England had a Goldilocks reformation, not so hot to result in ruinous civil wars (like Germany) and not so cold that one Christian denomination could establish a secure position and drive out all rivals (like much of southern Europe). It also had a Goldilocks state, neither too soft like early modern Germany, where the Holy Roman Empire had dissolved into hundreds of tiny local jurisdictions incapable of acting on a wide scale, nor too hard, as in Spain and France, where increasingly powerful kings and rigid bureaucracies crushed local authority and private initiative. (pp. 178-183).

On the other hand, much of his historical analysis would suggest that England was able to secure its favored position as a result of the spoils of war. “During all these many wars, while the continental powers wore one another out with titanic ruinously expensive struggles on land, the Anglo-Saxons occupied themselves with the crown jewels of their power strategies: they entrenched themselves more deeply than ever in the global system by stealing the colonies of their warring rivals. The British forced France out of India and North America using this technique; they used it to take the Cape Colony from the Dutch…. Sometimes the lands the British grabbed belonged to their enemies; sometimes, whoops, they belonged to their allies, but over time the British systematically dismantled rival colonial empires.” (pp. 111-12).

I would be quite curious about how Mead reconciles these two versions of the story. After all, five hundred years ago it was far from expected that the center of gravity in world power would shift dramatically toward England. (p. 173). But when Mead gets to the question of exactly why Anglo-Saxons became king of the hill, he falls back on benign notions of luck and culturally affinity and fails to return to his earlier assessment of England’s cunning history.