December 6, 2007


How the U.K. and U.S. Made the Modern World (Heather Wilhelm, 12/05/07, Real Clear Politics)

In "God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World," foreign policy specialist Walter Russell Mead argues that America's place in the world is, in some senses, where it has always been: at the top. It's an Anglo-Saxon world, he writes, with Anglo-Saxon rules. Everyone else is just living in it...and they'd better get used to it.

Sprinkled with economic tidbits and Elizabethan poetry, "God and Gold" traces the history and strategy that have made the English-speaking powers the belles of the global ball--or, more accurately, the "the dread and envy of them all." The United Kingdom and the United States, he argues, quickly mastered a maritime system born in the tiny Netherlands, paired it with a global view, and left the rest of the world in their unruly wake. The systems that they spread around the world, including international commerce, finance, the English language, and democratic political systems, "were also the instruments that would allow them to rule it."

England was blessed with many "just right" qualities (Mead nicknames the chilly isle "Goldilocks" through much of the book), but the most important ingredients of Anglo-American success were flexibility, an open society, and a propitious balance among what Mead describes as the three competing visions of the world: reason (as found in Enlightenment thinking), tradition (cultural or nationalist narratives), and revelation (religious belief). The rise of England and America, he adds, wasn't just a phenomenon of secular capitalism. It was based on a dynamic, quasi-religious drive derived from the ancient narrative of Abraham--a narrative that views life as a project to be planned, sees history as a process, and embraces change. Britain and America, while not immune to good old-fashioned stake-burnings, were nonetheless in better shape than their neighbors to allow "the chaotic and sometimes painful transformations that capitalism creates and demands."

These chaotic and painful elements, exhibited in the squalor of Dickensian London and 19th century New York, were endured by Britain and America over the course of decades and, ultimately, buffered by time. Many in the path of the "historical tsunami" of Anglo capitalism, Mead notes, don't have that luxury. "As the pace of the march increases," he writes, "more and more people find themselves in a colder, more dangerous, and more inhospitable climate than they might prefer." Mead is rather sanguine about the creative destruction liberal capitalism and the American order unleashes on the world.

It seems likely that the reason the tsunami has been able to pick up so much steam--to mix a metaphor--in recent decades is that mass culture, produced almost exclusively in America, is preparing the way. American politics, books, television, movies, etc. prepares peoples to be--or to desire--liberal democratic protestant capitalism before we physically intervene to help them achieve it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 6, 2007 8:22 AM

It doesn't hurt to have won two world wars, and provide the muscle to hold the world together.

Posted by: ic at December 6, 2007 1:52 PM

It's a terrific book. I found myself wishing it was longer.

Posted by: Earl Sutherland at December 6, 2007 2:07 PM

Thus the exposition of the influence of culture upon sea power and the influence of sea power on history.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 7, 2007 5:28 AM

Which ended in '45.

Posted by: oj at December 7, 2007 7:04 AM