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.

The Italian-Dutch-Anglo-American Tradition

by Michael Lind

God and Gold is a timely and welcome contribution to the rediscovery of America’s political traditions, particularly the characteristic American tradition of internationalism. In this important book Walter Russell Mead makes explicit what has been a subdued theme in his earlier books, including his groundbreaking Special Providence—namely, the rejection of the idea that because American foreign policy has been “naïve” or “idealistic” simply because it has operated on principles different from that of pre-World War I continental European states. In the second half of the twentieth century, the native American foreign policy tradition was obscured by the prominence of Central European realists like Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, who taught several generations of political scientists and statesmen that the U.S. had no respectable strategy to speak of before professors with Germanic accents arrived to instruct the childish Americans in the arcana imperii of Metternich and Bismarck. During this period, roughly from World War II until the last decade, the response of critics of German-style Realpolitik was not to explore and rehabilitate the older American internationalist tradition, but rather to accept the realist caricature of traditional American foreign policy as mindless “idealism” or “utopianism” and to make virtues of what the realists denounced as vices. Without detracting from Mead’s originality, I see his work as a landmark contribution to a rediscovery of American internationalism as a distinct foreign policy tradition in which other authors like Daniel Deudney in Bounding Power and Peter and Nicolas Onuf have participated, as well as Mead himself in previous work.

Equally welcome is his dissection of traditional Anglophobia and anti-Americanism as a manifestation of illiberalism, directed at the leading liberal powers of the modern world. Which is not to deny that even paranoids have enemies; Arabs displaced from their homes in Palestine by British-sponsored Jewish colonists, like native Americans, Mexicans and Cajuns displaced by Anglo-Americans in the U.S. and Canada, surely have reasons to object to British and U.S. foreign policy quite apart from illiberalism, Anglophobia, anti-Americanism or anti-semitism.

Mead is right, too, to root the liberal Anglo-American tradition in the early modern Netherlands. Here, however, I would suggest an emendation to his account. As Luciano Pellicani argued in his too-little-known book The Genesis of Capitalism and the Origins of Modernity (Telos Press, 1994), practically everything we think of as part of the Dutch-Anglo-American model—constitutional republicanism, capitalism, insurance, science, even double-entry book-keeping—had its origins in the city-republics of northern Italy during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. When the vitality of the Italian city-states was snuffed out by foreign invasions and the Counter-Reformation, the center of republican government and commercial society migrated to the Netherlands and then to Britain and the U.S.

Should we speak, therefore, of an Italian-Dutch-Anglo-American tradition? In one sense, adding the Renaissance Italians only slightly alters Mead’s story. In another sense, however, it shifts the whole debate. For one thing, it reduces the emphasis on ethnicity and religion. The Italian city-states were Catholic, so their success can hardly be explained by the Reformation work ethic. Indeed, Pellicani has a forceful polemic against Weber’s attempt to link early modern capitalism with Protestantism, attributing itself instead to republican government (or in the case of Britain, quasi-republican constitutional monarchy) and practical if not official secularism or latitudinarianism. And while Mead’s use of the phrase the “Anglo-Saxon powers” is refreshing as a distinction between Britain and its offspring and the continental bureaucratic states, inevitably despite his statements to the contrary it tends to lend an ethnic cast to what is clearly a philosophical system (liberalism) and a geopolitical tradition (maritime trading states). The alternative would be to find some other, non-ethnic, non-religious phrase—liberal? republican? maritime?—to describe what I see as the Italian-Dutch-Anglo-American tradition. Venice, along with Amsterdam, is part of the story too.

The Other Half of the Picture

by Chris Borgen

Like Roger, and the rest of the Opinio Juris bloggers, I want to thank Walter Russell Mead for joining us this week. I found God and Gold to be provocative and to contain wonderful insights, particularly concerning why the Anglo-Saxon powers have done remarkably well in conflicts over the last 300 years.

But my first comment in this discussion will be less about what Mead did analyze in the opening two sections of the book (discussing the “clash of civilizations” and what may be called the Anglo-Saxon diplomatic and warfighting methods), then about what he did not cover. By this, I mean that Mead has built a fascinating but largely Eurocentric (if I could include the U.S.) narrative. I question this not out of some misguided “political correctness” but rather because I think that to understand properly the Anglo-Saxon encounter with the rest of the world, and particularly to understand why some people push back, it is vital to give due weight to the beliefs, goals, and concerns of those people. Otherwise, one gets only half the picture; and a picture which is somewhat rose-tinted, to boot.

Mead describes what he calls (tongue-in-cheek, I think) “Waspophobia” and concludes, “[w]hatever we call it, the hatred and fear of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and of all their doings is one of the motors driving the world.” (p.58, my emphasis.) A history which gave serious weight to the actual desires and fears of those in the periphery of this story (that is, the rest of the world besides Western Europe and North America) may find that, perhaps, hatred of the powerful WASPs is not as important an engine as it may seem. Maybe, instead, the people of the periphery were not just reacting against Britain or the U.S. but were acting upon their own affirmative visions of what they wanted to build. If that is the case, then understanding those plans and goals generated in the periphery–and why the U.K. and the U.S. chose to react against them, is a key part of the story of how Britain and America “made” the modern world.

If one focused equally on the encounter as it was experienced in the countries facing Anglo-Saxon power, then one would not consider the issue of “How They Hate Us” (the title of Chapter 3) without even mentioning Mossadegh or Allende. Or the U.S. backing of the Shah, Pinochet, and Duvalier, to give a few examples. It would also be less likely that post-World War II history would receive a gloss such as “America supported independence drives in the former colonies, and then allowed new states to enter the global economic system the U.S. was building.” (p. 112) To quote a Haitian folk saying: “He who is hit always remembers. He who hits always forgets.” I think the narrative in the opening sections of God and Gold has forgotten the other half of the picture.

It is by forgetting—or by only briefly considering—the various examples of bad faith or bad acts by the great powers that we come to oversimplify the interaction the U.K, the U.S., and the rest of the world. Mead summarizes:

Rich and free but also cold and inhuman: this is how the West looks from the East…

It is what Occidentalists look at when they hate and fear the West; it is what Waspophobes are talking about when they decry the global power and influence of Britain and the United States today. (p. 175)

No, they are probbly talking about more than that. And this is missed in Mead’s analysis because the opening two sections of God and Gold present an essentially a metropolitan history of international politics. As Mead puts it:

To the degree that the story of world power politics in the last few centuries has a single overarching plot, that plot is the long and continuing rise of the maritime system as its center shifted from the United Provinces to the United Kingdom to the United States. (p.173)

I agree with that, as a general matter and, as I stated in the opening, I think Mead has much of great insight to say on the geopolitical style of the U.K and the U.S. But this story only goes so far; it is one in which great powers were trying to outmaneuver each other on the chessboard that is the rest of the world. The board, and the chessmen on it, are barely described. And, at least the way the first two sections of this book read, the board and the gamepieces are acted upon, they are not actors in this story.

Giving serious attention not just to the power politics and economic and social proclivities of the U.K. and the U.S., but also to those of states on the periphery, can lead to further insights as to the role of Anglo-Saxon power in the world, besides those that Mead has presented.

The Anglo-American World Order

by Roger Alford

Let me begin by saying that God and Gold is an ambitious book. According to Walter Russell Mead, the book is not about history, but about the meaning of history. What is the overarching plot of world history? Mead argues that history is best viewed from the perspective of Anglo-American power. He writes, “It is not too much to say that the last four hundred years of world history can be summed up in ten letters. As leadership in the maritime order shifted from the United Provinces of the Netherlands to the United Kingdom and finally to the United States, the story of world power goes U.P. to U.K. to U.S.” (p. 86).

This story of power is both conservative and revolutionary. Conservative in that the United States seeks to defend the international status quo against those who would change it through violence, and revolutionary in seeking to change age-old power structures with market economics and democratic ideals. (p. 4). From an American perspective, the established liberal capitalist democratic system is the best way to promote social peace and stability in the world. But it also accelerates the pace of social, economic, and technological change for everyone in the world. (p. 16). It is a system of creative destruction in which the Anglo-American culture establishes the rules of the game and—of all the nations on earth—the Anglo-Americans are best equipped to play and win by those rules.

What follows is a brief outline of the first half of the book. Part One of the book “reviews three hundred years of clashing civilizations, explores the common Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States and Britain, and examines the rise of an “anti-Anglophone” ideology among the various forces that have opposed the English-speaking powers from the time of Louis XIV to Osama bin Laden.” (p. 13). Part Two of the book looks at the military, diplomatic, and economic strategies that led Britain and the United States to world power. The Anglo-Saxon powers did not just win wars, they changed the way the world lives, thinks, and organizes itself. (p. 13-14). The history he presents is worth the price of the book alone, for it underscores the centrality of Anglo-American power in shaping our current world order.

Not surprisingly, that power has led to fear and dread for many. Mead offers a wonderful analysis of the intensity of hatred of all things American. That hatred can best be analyzed as rooted in the creative destruction the modern Anglo-American world has wrought. While we may see the creativity in this change, others see the destruction. Mead argues that anti-Americanism is an all-consuming (albeit incoherent) worldview. The American must be hated. He must be hated because he is indifferent to the world but wants to impose his views on the world. He is a fat and lazy couch potato like Homer Simpson who is also the shrewd and relentless businessman who strips opponents of their assets through icy and malignant super-intelligence. He is a reckless cowboy and a feminized weakling. He endangers peace with unworldly idealism and foments war with ruthless and inhuman policies. (p. 73). For these anti-Americans, our country is an omnipresent, total, and terrifying menace to the world.

Mead does not appear to be particularly troubled by this hatred. Since Elizabeth I we have fought wars with illiberal opponents and have won. “It is perhaps bad manners to say so, but that does not make it less so. The Anglo-Saxon powers have established the most extensive, powerful, and culturally significant hegemony that history records—and this in the teeth of bitter opposition by rich and powerful states capable of waging both military and ideological campaigns against the Anglo-American order.” (p. 80). One cannot help but wonder if God is a liberal, for every century has seen Anglo-Americans face imposing, illiberal opponents and yet every century the Anglo-Americans and their world order is stronger at the end than it was at the beginning. The walls keep coming down, and Americans see in that destruction the hand of Providence. (p. 81).

The current world order is not modeled on British imperialism, but Mead suggests that it is akin to an empire nonetheless. With empires you have to conquer and control. With order people freely choose to belong. And in that order there is control. Anglo-Americans control the turf, the trade routes, the market share, the financial markets, and the key relationships. (p. 112).

The picture that Mead draws is a compelling and in many respects disturbing one. At bottom, he argues that democratic capitalism imposes a constant imperative to change, in what may appear to be a never ending Darwinian struggle. The rest of the world looks on with fascination, horror and envy at this economic model, a model which has given the English and Americans an economic edge that has sustained them in their battles with evil empires down the years. (p. 186). The world order is not rigged in our favor, but it is imbued by our culture such that we are predisposed to succeed in that environment. And others are predisposed to struggle just to keep up.

The Six Questions

by Roger Alford

In order to get our readers thinking about Mead’s book, let me highlight the key questions he seeks to answer in his book. These questions are, in Mead’s view, the “six key questions about the world we live in” (p. 12):

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?

Book Discussion With Walter Russell Mead on “God and Gold”

by Roger Alford

We are very pleased to introduce Walter Russell Mead to Opinio Juris readers to discuss his most recent book, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

Walter Russell Mead is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and one of the country’s leading students of American foreign policy. His book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), was widely hailed by reviewers, historians, and diplomats as an important study that will change the way Americans and others think about American foreign policy. Among several honors and prizes, Special Providence received the Lionel Gelber Award for the best book in English on international relations in 2002.

Mr. Mead writes regularly on international affairs for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Washington Post, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, and Esquire. He serves as a regular reviewer of books for Foreign Affairs and frequently appears on national and international radio and television programs. In 1997, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in the category of essays and criticism.

Mr. Mead’s chief intellectual interests involve the rise and development of a liberal, capitalist world order based on the economic, social, and military power of the United States and its closest allies. He is interested in the implications of this evolving world order for American foreign policy and for American and international society.

The plan is for us to discuss Parts One and Two of the book on Tuesday, Parts Three and Four on Wednesday, and Part Five on Thursday. Mead will also offer some concluding thoughts on Friday.

Michael Lind, Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, will be a guest respondent. The regular contributors to Opinio Juris also will add their thoughts.

Feel free to post comments or questions in the comment section or otherwise email me your comments, reflections, and questions which I may post as additional guest posts.

Book Discussion with Walter Russell Mead

by Roger Alford

Opinio Juris is pleased to announced that in cooperation with the Council on Foreign Relations we will be sponsoring a book discussion with Walter Russell Mead about his new book, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

The book discussion will be held the week of February 4, and we wanted to announce it early to give our readers the opportunity to buy the book and participate in the discussion. In addition to Mead’s participation, we will have prominent guests as well as the participation of the permanent contributors.

God and Gold is currently a bestseller on the Foreign Affair’s Bestseller List. The book posits that Britain and America were singularly responsible for shaping the modern world, helping to create the liberal, democratic capitalist system whose economic and social influence continues to grow around the world.

The New York Times has a nice review of the book, which includes this choice summary:

[Mead] believes every age needs a “liberal empire” to control the world’s seas and make free trade possible. This was discovered by the United Provinces of the Netherlands four centuries ago, then by the United Kingdom — and now by the United States. Indeed, “the last 400 years of world history can be summed up in 10 letters. … The story of world power goes U.P. to U.K. to U.S.” Each of these “liberal” maritime empires defeated towering, glowering rivals. From the Spanish Armada to Soviet tanks, they prevailed for one reason: they adhered to an unwritten code that the author wryly terms “the Protocols of the Elders of Greenwich.” These are simple. Build an open society at home. Channel its dynamism outward, toward the global economy. Use the full force of the state to control the oceans, protect commerce and defeat illiberal adversaries abroad. Open the global system to others, even your enemies, if they agree to abide by the rules. Then the world’s waters — and markets — will be yours.


Please go buy the book and join us the week of February 4 for a lively discussion with Walter Russell Mead.