In his new book, God and Gold, foreign affairs expert Walter Russell Mead argues that modern world history can be understood as the global application of a system of economics, religion, and culture developed and directed by the English-speaking peoples. From the time of Oliver Cromwell to the present, the British and the Americans, either individually or together, have won every major war, and have established a commercial and military dominance that remains the foundation of the modern world. "It is perhaps bad manners to say so," Mead acknowledges, "but that does not make it less true."
Mead addresses six questions which he believes can help us better understand and handle the problems and dangers that confront America today:
(1) What exactly is the agenda of the Anglo-Americans?
(2) Why have they been so consistently successful in their military and economic conflicts with other nations?
(3) How did they manage to build a global order?
(4) Why have they so frequently believed that their successes were about to give rise to a world of peace and prosperity?
(5) Why have they been wrong every single time?
(6) What is the meaning, significance, and future, of Anglo-American power?
As Mead confronts these questions, we find that the strengths of his book include his authoritative mastery of historical, political, and economic facts, which he uses liberally to support his argument, and his ability to weave together cultural, religious, economic, and political strands of history into a fascinating, coherent synthesis. Its weaknesses include a sometimes overbearing repetitiveness of key points and a rather unsatisfying response to the major contemporary criticisms of Anglo-American culture in the end. Nonetheless, the book is a very worthwhile read, both for its historical sweep and—most importantly—for Mead's lucid and useful suggestions regarding the future of American foreign policy.
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The agenda itself is straightforward. There has long been an unwritten Anglo-American strategy for economic and military dominance. The aim has been to create a world-wide system of trade, investment, and military might, based on sea power. This maritime order meets Anglo-American economic and security needs.
But why has it been so successful? The British have typically had a smaller population and fewer resources than their continental enemies. Historically, however, they employed a unique approach to world politics that consistently led to greater success in world affairs than their rivals. Their basic formula combined an open society with world trade and world power.
First of all, success required a new kind of society, a free and open society, where growth, change, and endless innovation would be encouraged—i.e., a capitalist society. Like Max Weber, Mead believes that the reasons behind the success of capitalism in England can be found in religion. Catholicism, which remained dominant in continental Europe, devalued worldly goods and worldly success. But Protestantism (particularly Calvinism) considered worldly success a sign of God's Grace. At the same time, Calvinism emphasized thrift and sobriety; as a result, successful Calvinist communities "began to develop pools of capital available for investment—and diligent, trustworthy young men ready to make profitable use of the savings of others." The grim doctrines of John Calvin would fall into disfavor, but the habits of Calvinism would persist (they could still be seen, for instance, in the proverbs of Benjamin Franklin), and this heritage would "continue to drive societies into capitalism and wealth even after the initial religious impulse had faded."
But capitalism, Mead points out, is about more than just hard work and saving. "It is about risk taking, embracing change, tolerating setbacks, and accepting the sometimes amoral or even immoral consequences of the impact of markets on cherished social institutions and beliefs." Thus the ongoing success of capitalist values requires an open, dynamic culture that is ready to accept, and even willing to help advance, the waves of social change.
The key to this openness, Mead says, can be found in the biblical "call of Abraham," a story of major import for Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. There, God tells Abraham to leave his country and his kindred, and move on to a new land. God then promises to bless him, to curse those who cursed him, and to multiply greatly the number of his descendants. Abraham has complete faith in God, he believes His promises, so he leaves his home and moves on. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, stresses Abraham's faithful response to God's call as the basis for salvation. In light of this, Abraham became the key figure in the Protestant arguments for justifying salvation by faith alone, and not through good works or by purchasing indulgences from Catholic priests. As a result, a new sense of faith as a journey away from the familiar and into the unknown became a central idea of Protestantism. Change was no longer evil; it was encouraged by God. It was this new religious system that made Protestant England, and later the United States,
a more and more suitable medium for capitalist development. To engage in the struggle for change and reform is not to oppose the religious instinct, but to give it its fullest expression. Whether they were struggling to build businesses, to change social institutions, or simply to accustom themselves to the accelerating juggernaut of change, millions of Anglo-Americans over the centuries...really did see something transcendent in their lives; they really did believe that they were struggling toward God.
By the mid-1700s, British Prime Minister William Pitt "understood how an open society and unfettered capitalist enterprise enabled a country and its citizens to succeed in global competition. He saw how this economic power could translate into military and political power." During its seemingly endless wars against the English, France was never able to concentrate all its resources on its navy: it was always being forced to deal with land enemies to its rear. Britain quickly realized that the key to world power was not supremacy on the battlefields of Europe. The key was to maintain a balance of power among its rivals so that none of them would be free to focus all its power against the British Isles. The strategy required letting the continental powers fight among themselves, making temporary alliances as needed to prevent any one nation from dominating the others, and meanwhile building England's economy while using unencumbered sea power to create a global economic system under her control.
Of course, through the centuries there have been various attempts to unify Europe, and the British, like the Americans, have seen their share of defeat. But time and again, they have been able to bankrupt their enemies by using their command of global commerce to deny resources and to create new coalitions. Napoleon conquered most of Europe, winning battle after battle, but British wealth enabled her to continue to prop up her weakened allies and carry on the war until, exhausted and impoverished, Napoleon surrendered.
Over the years, America developed a similar advantage. When Nazi Germany was starving and desperate for every ounce of fuel, a German general realized the war was lost when he saw that "Americans had enough food and enough shipping capacity to send birthday cakes across the ocean to ordinary soldiers." Bankrupting the enemy while crushing him was Ronald Reagan's strategy against the Soviet Union: placing economic sanctions against the Soviets and their satellites, sending military aid to their opponents in Central America and Afghanistan, and forcing them into an expensive high-tech arms race they could not win. Like the British economy in the time of Napoleon, the American economy became a decisive weapon of war, and the Soviet Union crumbled.
While their continental neighbors were busy draining their resources by fighting amongst themselves, the British would travel about the globe stealing their rivals' colonies and setting up more of their own, thus increasing their power and adding new trade routes. The drawback to all their empire-building was that the British had to conquer people and then keep them down. After World War II, their American heirs, who had always resented colonial empires, improved the game and increased the return: America supported independence movements in former colonies, and then encouraged the new states to enter the global economic system that the United States was building. But in both the British and American cases, there remained a constant: "When the wars are over and the other countries come back into world markets, they find the Anglo-Saxons better ensconced than ever.... It's a simple plan, but it works."
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What has all this success been for? Where does it all lead? 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"—from the League of Nations after World War I to the proclamation of a "New World Order" after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet, "if the history of the last hundred years teaches one lesson it is that the Anglo-Americans consistently underestimate the difficulty of establishing the global democratic and capitalistic peace that they want." So why have utopian dreams continued to appear achievable and even imminent, despite so many discouragements, to an otherwise pragmatic and often ruthless people? Mead suggests that "The ever-recurring belief that the world is about to become a much better place...is closely related to the positive view of change that has made such great contributions to Anglo-American success." It all boils down to Progress. Anglo-Americans have come to see history as "the story of steady improvement based on the spread of rational, scientific thought."
Given the phenomenal success of their agenda, the Anglo-Americans have unsurprisingly concluded that God is on their side (or, for more secular temperaments, that all the forces of history and nature are on their side), and this obliges them to take the lead in bringing forth a utopian future—the completion of history. In line with this divine call, the Anglo-American world has seen an explosion of movements for social betterment. "Workers are protected and women emancipated. Capital punishment is abolished. European prisons of today provide better living conditions than medieval aristocrats enjoyed...." Movements to abolish war continue as well. And of course, to eliminate war we must eliminate the causes of war. Thus, poverty can no longer be accepted, so we need a prosperous global economy. Since free democratic states are less likely to fight wars (or so the Anglo-Americans firmly believe), democracy must be spread worldwide. "Those who try to thwart this progress are fighting God's will or blocking human nature from its right to fulfill its aspirations and achieve its justly deserved freedom—and that is the essence of evil."
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But to the endless consternation of reformers and utopian dreamers, not everyone agrees. Not everyone is thrilled with the grand project. Millions of people throughout the world see capitalism as nothing more than a godless, criminal system of unbridled greed, theft, exploitation, and inhumanity. "Cruelty and greed in the service of an inflexible, absolute, and utterly inhuman will to power, made more formidable by an insolently arrogant hypocrisy and exuding irresistible but intolerable vulgarity: that is what our enemies since the seventeenth century have seen when they looked our way." Fear and hatred of the political, social, and economic basis of Anglo-American civilization is one of the most powerful forces shaping world history.
Not only does it represent greed, arrogance, and violence, the United States, like the old British Empire, is seen by many outsiders as "a horrifying mix of Puritanism and permissiveness, a ghastly blend of parsons and prostitutes." On the one hand, our enemies see the "stuffy hypocrisy of Victorian England." On the other hand, they cringe at "the fierceness of the American appetite." As Mead explains, the anti-American feeling reflects a profound cultural unease:
It was the vulgar popular culture, already visible in British music halls, that would exemplify both the hideous depths to which the Anglo-Saxon world had fallen and the existential threat that world presented to everything good, true, and beautiful in Europe itself.... This hideous underculture, revolting but somehow dangerously seductive, puritanical yet salacious, has been horrifying foreigners for nearly two centuries.
Mass production and technology have magnified the impact of this vulgar low culture on the rest of the world. Ordinary people all over the planet go to the movies and
see the American lifestyle for themselves: the uppity women, the young people ready to start lives of their own without deference to tradition or parents. Cultural products designed for the American mass market began to pour out in a steady stream, with unwelcome political and social consequences for elites and traditionalists everywhere.
For many people, accepting capitalism would be tantamount to accepting the supremacy of America and Protestant Christianity—a proposition which cannot help but offend their nationalistic and religious sentiments. It would also mean bowing to a culture of vulgar consumerism and obscenity. Perhaps most daunting of all is how "Industrial and social revolutions that took decades or even generations to unwind in the Anglo-American world suddenly appear in far less developed countries where the consequences of several revolutions must be digested at once." We tend to forget that capitalism and democracy took a long time to develop in England and America, and went through difficult and painful stages of development. The steam engine changed the marketplace in the eighteenth century. Railroads did not appear until a generation later. Radio and automobiles awaited the early twentieth century. Television and mass air travel came in the middle of the century, and the computer and the internet have been transforming our lives just since the end of the Cold War. All of this progress was slow and steady compared to what other peoples are now facing.
We complain, for example, when we see corruption in new governments that we are supporting. Yet, by modern standards, "eighteenth-century English governments were staggeringly incompetent and corrupt. High government officials considered bribery and theft part of the job.... Elections in nineteenth-century America were disorganized, dangerous, and notoriously corrupt." Population growth was another challenge that took a long time to cope with. Of the 3.4 million New Yorkers in 1900, for instance, "[m]ost of them lived in squalor."
The point is that capitalist development presented Britain and America with problems they could not easily solve. Over two centuries, in the two countries best suited to manage capitalist change, one challenge after another relentlessly overwhelmed authorities who could barely respond. "It is small wonder then," reflects Meads, "that so many countries today are having a hard time making the adjustments and improvements that the accelerating pace of global change demands."
The ability to compete successfully in the new global capitalistic world is the only modern route to wealth and power. But people who do not like the system to begin with, and people who are ill-equipped to play the game well, become poorer and less powerful, and then they become alienated and angry. "Far from satisfying the deepest desires of human beings, the present world system and world order frustrate and enrage many people." And so, for four hundred years, two world views have been taking shape. The Anglo-Americans
have seen themselves as defending and sometimes advancing liberty, protecting the weak, providing opportunity to the poor, introducing the principles of morality and democracy into international life, and creating more egalitarian and more just societies at home and abroad. Their enemies have looked at the same set of facts and seen a ruthless assault on every kind of social and moral decency.
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How is this to be reconciled? Mead, a Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, advocates an enlightened diplomacy based on a fresh understanding of our own history and acknowledgment of the legitimate concerns of our adversaries.
His first lesson is: if the plan works, stick to it. Maintain an open, dynamic society at home. Bring society's economic wealth out into world trade. Defend a balance of power in Asia and the Middle East, just as Britain did in Europe. Open the global system to others, including competitors, in times of peace. Use economic force as a weapon in times of war. Promote liberal democratic institutions and values around the world.
Yet it is just this last piece—promoting democracy abroad—that has to be reexamined.
On the one hand, the story of today's radical Islamic reformers is not so different from the story of Christian reformers, and this suggests that the outcomes of these stories may also be the same. The Puritans wished to return to the original, pure source of Christianity, just as contemporary Muslim reformers wish to return to the original, pure source of Islam. Both groups have sought to build a commonwealth based exclusively on the revealed word of God. Both groups have been intolerant of heresy. And both groups have been ready to defend and promote their religious views by war.
But looking back at history, we see that it was precisely out of the Protestant Reformation that today's modern dynamic society grew. It was the Puritan "failure to establish a permanent theocracy in Britain that enabled British society to take the next step forward." Similarly, Mead sees signs of the same thing occurring in Islam. "The reformers are unlikely to achieve their ambition to remake the entire religious landscape of the Islamic world." There are too many rival traditions, deeply rooted in the souls of many pious Muslims. Furthermore, against the reformers' drive for a more closed and narrow view of Islam, "the Internet is making the great works of Islamic scholarship available to tens of millions of Muslims, including women, who can and will be free to draw their own conclusions about what their faith means and how it should be lived. Theological diversity within Islam seems bound to increase."
On the other hand, it is imperative for Americans to acknowledge their role in the world, to fully grasp "the paradoxical relationship between the success of American society at home...and the level of global unhappiness with the American project and the American way." We need to address the profound differences that divide Islamic civilization from Anglo-American civilization. For three hundred years, Christian powers have been carving up the Islamic world; for many Arabs, the Crusades never really ended. Because "the maritime system and the European civilization from which it sprang lack legitimacy from nearly every point of view." Mead believes, "There is no way forward without a much deeper encounter between the United States and the Arab world, and this encounter cannot succeed unless [we] can learn to talk less and listen more."
In pursuit of this higher diplomacy, Mead turns for inspiration to the American philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, "whose insight contributed so much to America's moral and political self-understanding during the Cold War." Niebuhr sought to balance effective global action with serious self-questioning. America's active struggle against communism was completely necessary, but the central problem for our national destiny "was whether the United States could maintain an appropriate humility before God and man even as it embarked on a life-and-death struggle with the Soviet Union." We know, Niebuhr noted, that the position of power we hold in the world is partly due "to factors and forces in the complex pattern of history that we did not create and from which we do not deserve to benefit. If we apprehend this religiously, the sense of destiny ceases to be a vehicle of pride and becomes the occasion for a new sense of responsibility." Niebuhr told Americans that we needed to combat Soviet influence around the world and remain conscious and critical of our own moral and political claims, not confusing our "own aspirations, however noble they appeared or however virtuous it felt to revel in them, with the good of all mankind." This approach, Mead believes, is even more necessary today than it was during the Cold War. To understand the terrorists, the United States "will have to come to terms with rage and frustration that is more deeply seated, more diffuse, and harder to reconcile" than anything we faced with the Soviet Union.
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Finally, Mead challenges us by probing an uncomfortable question: what is the point of preserving Anglo-American power? He begins by reviewing the case against capitalist society. A society with no higher purpose than mere affluence becomes materially strong, but morally and intellectually weak.
After all the fire and storm of the historical process, the struggles between good and evil, progress and reaction, the long and difficult climb from barbarism and slavery up into the light of civilization and finally of free civil society, at last and at length we struggle up to the peak of the mountain to encounter the culmination of generations of human striving: Homer Simpson.... The world turns into a big mall, and we all go shopping: forever.... Were all the heroism of the past, all the suffering, all the passionate faith, the sacrifice, the religious and political contests simply to build a shopper's paradise? Does liberal society really stand for nothing more that the accumulation of material possessions?
This is precisely the empty, meaningless society that many people around the world see when they look to the West, and it is a criticism that needs to be taken very seriously. Unfortunately, Mead's response is predictable and unconvincing. "The best and I think decisive response to this critique...[is] that humanity has an instinct for growth and change." This may well be true, but humanity has many other instincts as well. It is one thing to say that openness to change creates an ideal milieu for the development of capitalism. It is quite another to say that this capitalistic drive suffices as the spiritual meaning of life. But Mead believes he sees the true "grandeur of the human race" in the Anglo-America "quest to fulfill the human instinct for change, arising out of a deep and apparently built-in human belief that through change we encounter the transcendent and the divine." This amounts to little more than saying that the Anglo-American way of life is good because the Anglo-American way of life is good. We would do well to seek a more convincing explanation.