Blueprints for Empire Building

Reviewed by Shmuel Rosner

God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World by Walter Russell Mead
Knopf, 2007, 449 pages.

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What is the secret behind the impressive rise of the British and American superpowers over the last three hundred years? According to Walter Russell Mead, the answer is a potent combination of religion and money. In God and Gold, Mead tracks “the biggest geopolitical story in modern times: the birth, rise, triumph, defense, and continuing growth of Anglo-American power” in the face of constant “opposition and conflict.” In short, he attempts to explain why the United States—like the British Empire before it—has emerged as a world leader, and whether it will continue to play this role in the future.
Walter Russell Mead is the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for United States Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations as well as one of today’s most interesting and original writers on the history of the United States. To truly understand his latest book, one must recall Mead’s previous work, Special Providence, which is considered a groundbreaking study of American diplomacy. In that book, Mead made an ambitious attempt to fashion order out of the chaos that has marked American foreign policy since its very inception. In other words, he took it upon himself to expose the logic underlying the seemingly contradictory decisions and sudden turnarounds that have given American conduct in the international arena such a bad reputation for so long.
Mead identified four schools of thought that have guided American foreign policy over the last two hundred fifty years. Each set of ideas is represented by an important American statesman: “Jeffersonians,” named for third president Thomas Jefferson, favor isolationism; “Hamiltonians,” named for Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury and confidant of George Washington, focus on trade and economics; “Jacksonians,” named for seventh president Andrew Jackson, endorse an aggressively populist track; and “Wilsonians,” named for president Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into World War I, advocate an idealist foreign policy. According to Mead, the prevailing policies in every era of American history have reflected the power relations between adherents of these various approaches. While these views have often nudged American diplomacy in opposing directions, they have rarely led to complete reversals of policy. Most of the time, the changes they brought about were far less dramatic. The transition from the Clinton to the Bush administration, for example, was not “revolutionary,” but a mere shift in emphasis: A president who adopted Hamiltonian and Wilsonian perspectives was replaced by a president who saw greater value in the Wilsonian and Jacksonian outlooks.
In God and Gold, Mead elaborates on the premise of Special Providence. Both works shed light on the guiding principles of American foreign policy throughout its history. Unlike many analysts and commentators, however, Mead does not rush to interpret historical events as pivotal turning points. Even the Cold War, he argues, should be put into proportion:
The Cold War, large though it loomed at the time, and vital as it was to win, was less of a milestone in American history than many assume. The real decision, whose implications and consequences are still with us today, was to take on Britain’s old role. The Cold War was an incident in American foreign policy, not an epoch, and its end left the United States with essentially the same set of responsibilities, interests, and tasks that we had when we began.
The two books differ mainly in the degree of detail that the author chooses to include. The scope of God and Gold is, obviously, much larger than its predecessor. While researchers who prefer a microscopic study of history may see Mead’s tendency to ignore pesky details in favor of the big picture as a shortcoming, most readers will appreciate this bold approach. It is precisely through generalizations that Mead successfully synthesizes a vast amount of data, connecting events and crises while still retaining a coherent narrative and offering lessons for the future.
God and Gold presents two inter-laced theses: The first claims that the histories of Britain and the United States form a single, continuous historical narrative. This is far from obvious to most scholars of American history and even less so to readers, especially in the United States. The latter have become accustomed to detaching the American narrative from its European counterpart. And Mead is aware of the almost impossible task before him—convincing his American readers that their country’s history did not begin with George Washington, but two hundred years earlier. Indeed, Mead often laments Americans’ ignorance of the roots of their heritage:
Most Americans would not know who Great Anna (Quinn Anne) was, what three realms (England, Scotland, and, sullenly, Ireland) obeyed her, or that in the early eighteenth century “tea” was still pronounced so that it rhymed with “obey.” Given the enormous differences that separate the contemporary United States from Queen Anne’s Britain, it seems odd to claim that underneath the surface differences, the United States today remains in some ways very much like British society in Anne’s day—but that is the truth.
The second thesis, which is the focus of the book, explains the secret of America’s success. It locates the reasons for the advent of Anglo-American power in a “system” or plan that is still in motion today. In yet another in the series of puns that make him such a communicative scholar, Mead calls this system “The Protocols of the Elders of Greenwich.” He dates its birth to early seventeenth-century Holland, the perfecting of it to the British Empire, and its culmination in the empire-like United States. He delineates the details of the plan and explains how it was implemented over the last few centuries by the Anglo-Saxons, as well as how it allowed them to overcome any challenges they faced along the way to achieving hegemony.
Mead composes the story of this “system” one step at a time. Its pioneers, he writes, were not the British but, as mentioned above, the Dutch, whose country was briefly a leading and influential world power. Three hundred years ago, it was the Dutch who saw the potential in developing naval trade routes and turning their cities into global financial and cultural centers. However, Mead goes on to explain that “The Dutch invented the system but they could not maintain their place at its center.” They were too weak and overly attached to the Old World, i.e., Europe. For the Dutch, the efforts involved in developing a powerful navy would only have weakened their ability to deal with what they saw as more important land-based power struggles.
The British, heirs to the Dutch, were relatively immune to mainland quarrels and therefore able to adopt and refine the “system.” Accordingly, one of their greatest accomplishments was the signing of the Utrecht Treaty in 1713 between Britain, Holland, and the Duchy of Savoy on one side, and France and Spain on the other. This treaty, which created a balance of power between these states, served Britain’s strategic interests. While mainland European countries were busy preserving their power vis-X-vis one another, the British were kept safe from invasion by the English Channel and were thus free to conquer the rest of the world with the Royal Navy and, more importantly, their trade ships. Any continental power that wanted to overtake Britain had to first overcome the other European nations. These struggles, however, would leave them exhausted and weak, and thus unable to successfully challenge the isolated superpower. Mead claims that the very same equation works in favor of America today: No Asian power—China, Japan, or India—can surmount the United States before it establishes hegemony on its own continent.
Mead draws a comparison between the British strategy that laid the foundations of Anglo-Saxon dominance and American policy in the twentieth century. When president Harry Truman founded NATO as a counterweight to the Soviet bloc, he was following in the footsteps of John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough and the hero of the Spanish War of Succession. Today, when the United States acts to strengthen India, it does so in the hopes that this rising giant will hold China in check. If the two Asian juggernauts are busy containing one another, it is believed, they will pose no serious challenge to America’s military and economic supremacy.
Nonetheless, clever manipulation of foreign powers together with geographical isolation is not enough to explain why the Anglo-Saxon nations achieved such overwhelming worldwide success. After all, these factors are not unique to Britain or the United States, and they alone are not sufficient for a state to attain global hegemony. Indeed, Mead points to several other elements of “The Protocols of the Elders of Greenwich” that contributed to the prosperity of the British and Americans.
According to Mead, these elements, which are mostly identified with the English-speaking world, are the nurturing of an open and dynamic society; channeling economic energy into global commerce; fervent protection of free trade; opening markets to all, including competitors, in times of peace; using naval superiority against enemies during war; and promoting liberal values and institutions around the world whenever it is possible to do so without harming one’s own interests.
But Britain and the United States had at their disposal one additional asset that charged their military and economic efforts with unique vitality: religiosity. The triumph of the Protestant faith over Catholicism in these countries was, according to Mead, the decisive and central ingredient in their prosperity. Besides rejecting the traditional Catholic fear of change, Protestantism promoted two crucial ideas that made the Anglo-American adventure possible. The first was that God was on “our” side, i.e., that our enemy is God’s enemy, and the political ambitions of the state are one with the divine plan. The second, equally important idea interprets economic growth as a sign of divine favor. As shown by Max Weber, the Protestant faith (particularly its Calvinist version) sees material prosperity as a possible route to redemption. Devotion to God and the lust for gold never went so harmoniously together or, as evidenced by modern history, so effectively.
As mentioned above, Mead uses broad strokes in order to paint a big picture. In demonstrating to the reader how the Anglo-Saxons employed their “system,” he cites the usual examples found in history textbooks: wars, treaties, political intrigues, and fierce struggles over trade routes. These are the main components of his historical tale. On occasion, however, Mead presents more subtle evidence of the Anglo-Saxon takeover of human consciousness. Here, for example, is his take on sports:
Soccer, basketball, cricket, American football, baseball, rugby, golf, tennis, hockey, lacrosse, squash, boxing, swimming, track and field: each one of these sports today is played according to rules originating in North America or Great Britain. (The same can be said of more sedentary pastimes: Monopoly and Scrabble are the world’s leading board games; poker and bridge are the two most widely played card games. All originated in either Britain or the United States.)
As shown here, one of the book’s charms is Mead’s ability to find entertaining examples that support his arguments. Even Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Through the Looking Glass finds her way into Mead’s tale. Indeed, his book could easily have been titled “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” after the poem Tweedledum and Tweedledee recite to Alice. Mead uses the Walrus and the Carpenter as allegories for Britain and the United States and employs the poem to explain why these two nations incite so much hatred.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand!”
Mead claims that, much like the heroes of Carroll’s nursery rhyme, who aspire to rid the beach of sand—an impossible mission but admirable for its ambition—the United States and Britain see themselves as leading humanity in the direction of growth and progress, toward a kind of “end of history.” And similar to the Walrus and the Carpenter, who ask the oysters to join them at the beach, the United States and Britain have often recruited allies and partners, promising them their perpetual support. Just as Carroll’s hungry pair break their pledges of friendship and devour the oysters for dinner, all the while shedding crocodile tears, so too have the United States and Britain turned their backs on their friends out of purely selfish motivations—at least in the eyes of those who find Anglo-Saxon hegemony objectionable. When it is convenient for them, they befriend you; but when they are ravenous, they swallow you whole.
Following this line of thought, Mead does not satisfy himself with presenting the case for the adherents of the “system”: the Dutch, the British, and the Americans. He also gives voice to their defeated and humiliated enemies. These enemies, from seventeenth-century Spain through the Soviet Union to radical Islam, have borne witness to the Anglo-Saxon capacity for ruthlessness cloaked in an idealist guise. Though Mead has no doubt that the ambitions of the Anglo-Saxon powers are largely noble, he does not neglect to point out their frequent hypocrisy:
The British role in suppressing the slave trade was endlessly gratifying to British opinion, a nineteenth-century forerunner of American human rights policies. This did not, however, prevent Brazilian sugar producers in particular from noting that Britain’s inspiring moral conversion occurred at just the time when Britain’s sugar-producing colonies feared the increasing competition from more efficient, slave-importing plantations springing up in Brazil.
It is important to note that while Walter Russell Mead does not believe Anglo-Saxon nations to be as terrible as their enemies claim, he still encourages his readers to keep their eyes wide open. He wants to understand why so many detest American hegemony, just as they previously detested the British, and he sees these hatreds as a single phenomenon. He admits that, in some cases, this animosity is not baseless. The determination to protect vital interests at all costs is indeed a strong motive, and it can sometimes overcome moral considerations, even within groups who view themselves as the champions of progress.
Waspophobia, Mead’s catchy name for the hatred directed toward the English and the Americans, has many causes. Some are understandable and justified, others not, and they do not all sit well together. There is, however, one overarching explanation: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) have ruled over a large part of humanity for the last three hundred years. Their worldview, cultural tastes, and preferences dominate the globe. Nations that have adopted their strategy have become rich and strong, while others have been left behind. “The Anglo-Americans have gone from strength to strength, from riches to riches, while their opponents suffered ignominy and humiliation until they learned to accommodate themselves to the Anglo-Saxon order,” writes Mead. Even without recourse to conquest and direct coercion, the hegemony of the English-speaking peoples has left its enemies no choice but to play by its rules. Is there a more powerful motive for resentment?
Toward the end of his book, Mead puts the past aside and looks to the future. Surprisingly, his outlook is quite optimistic. His belief in the “system” is so strong that he is convinced it will keep the United States from losing its status as the world’s leading power. Even though the final chapters of God and Gold criticize the Bush administration’s conduct of the War on Terror, Mead does not see this as an indication of American decline. Contrary to other writers on the subject, who are constantly predicting the “end of the empire” and are eager to crown a successor to the United States—usually India or China—Mead argues that Anglo-Saxon hegemony has a good chance of survival. America, he believes, will not be ousted from its leading position so quickly—at least, not if it remains loyal to the strategy that brought it there in the first place.
Nonetheless, Mead is not content with buttressing his American readers’ faith in their country’s future. He also makes some demands. In order to secure their continued success, he claims, Americans need to understand themselves better. They must recognize that their motives are not always pure, and they must learn to accept this, for better or worse. The world, after all, is not a perfect place.
Mead’s demand for greater self-awareness on the part of Americans is inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. Mead attempts to incorporate some of the arguments made by this complex and deeply religious philosopher into his own thesis. Like Mead, Niebuhr also asked America to recognize its own shortcomings. “Niebuhr told Cold War America,” Mead writes, “that it needs both to combat communism and Soviet influence around the world and to maintain a critical stance toward its own moral and political claims.”
Always attentive to long-term trends, Mead argues that the present-day challenges facing Anglo-Saxon hegemony contain elements from past struggles that are all too familiar. Thus, he rejects the widespread notion that the confrontation between the West and radical Islam will inevitably lead to a clash of civilizations:
From its emergence in the revolt of Dutch Protestants against the Catholic empire of Spain, through the long struggles between Britain and France, and on through the wars of the twentieth century, the maritime order repeatedly found itself engaged in conflicts which have been, among other things, wars of religion. While each struggle has its unique features, a look back at the long history of these conflicts can help us now as we seek to avoid a great confrontation with Islam, and to help the world of Islam find an appropriate and satisfactory place in the global system.
Mead, as a strong believer in the “system,” thinks that if applied correctly, it can successfully overcome its current opponents. Mankind has known many religious wars, he writes, and terrorism is neither new nor an Islamic invention. There is no reason to believe that Islam, which is in the midst of an identity crisis, will not eventually become accustomed to a dynamic world ruled by the Anglo-Saxon agenda. As generations of devout English-speaking Christians have proved, there is no contradiction between this agenda and the religious worldview. Rather, the reverse is true. Muslims would be wise to follow in their footsteps.
God and Gold is a rich, fascinating, and extremely diverse book. However, like any net cast over a wide area, it is too broad and has a number of holes. In this sense, the book’s advantage—its bold, panoramic view—is also its weakness. At times its arguments are fascinating and convincing; at others, they are somewhat strained. This, however, is not such a bad thing. Any all-encompassing theory has to cut a few corners and overlook some evidence to the contrary. Of course, there are some regrettable omissions. For example, Mead does not devote enough of the book to the ideological revolution created by the American constitution, and he attaches little if any importance to the catastrophe brought upon the native population of North America by the colonists. Mead’s latent assumption that the Americans and the British are one nation that happens to be separated by an ocean is also highly debatable. Winston Churchill, who referred to “the English-speaking peoples” as a united entity, might have agreed; but others, such as historian Niall Ferguson, would strongly differ.
At certain points throughout the book it appears as though Mead is trying not only to cast his net over a multitude of subjects—history, literature, philosophy, strategy, four hundred years of “everything”—but also to appeal to everyone. He winks to the right by emphasizing the superiority of the American system, and nods to the left by criticizing George W. Bush and his aggressive foreign policy. Following long chapters written from a bird’s-eye view, he suddenly shifts his focus to specific current events, whose eventual historical importance is still a matter of speculation.
The strength of God and Gold, however, aside from the sheer enjoyment it provides the reader with its colorful diversity, lies in its opposition to the current barrage of books pronouncing the demise of American hegemony. Contrary to the doomsayers, Mead reminds the reader that not every bump on the road implies the end of a journey. The “system,” he insists, is stronger than any leader and tough enough to withstand obstacles and challenges.
As such, Mead’s book has been published at a critical moment, in which the United States faces a series of trials: a severe financial crisis the likes of which we have not seen in decades; seemingly endless military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan; the swift rise of China; an aggressive Russian foreign policy reminiscent of the not-so-distant past; and an explosive situation in the Middle East. These developments may eventually shake the very foundations of Anglo-Saxon power. Even so, this may be the perfect time for God and Gold to be published, because if its analysis is correct, it is far too soon to eulogize America. There is room for hope, which is good news not only for the English-speaking world but for all those who think that the Walrus and the Carpenter, despite their shortcomings, are much better than the alternative.

Shmuel Rosner is a columnist and an editor.

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