Strange Device

Excelsior!

In his book Special Providence Walter Russell Mead characterized the forces or influences that have shaped American foreign policy throughout her history. In Power, Terror, Peace, and War he continued his analysis of American foreign policy with a discussion of what America is trying to do in the world, how it has failed to succeed completely, and how it can get the grand strategy back on track.

In his most recent book, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead expands his analysis of the forces that have shaped American foreign policy, linking American notions to their antecedents in British history. The book is a history of what Mead refers to as “the maritime order”, sea power as an engine of trade and military power, yoking the maritime order to what Mead refers to as “the Whig narrative”. The Whig narrative is

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.

This is apparently a reference to the English historian Herbert Butterfield’s notion of “Whig history”, first presented in his 1931 book, The Whig Interpretation of History. Mead, oddly, never refers to Butterfield although he does make prominent mention of the 19th century British Liberal politician Thomas Babington Macauley whose history, History of England from the Accession of James II, is one of the best examples of Whig history and certainly the most popular. I’m not sure whether Whig history and the Whig narrative are synonymous. A couple of the characteristic features of Whig history, namely inevitability and heroes, don’t seem to be features of the Whig narrative as presented by Mead. The history I learned in school was Whig history. I have no idea what’s taught now.

God and Gold opens with a lengthy section on the clash between the English-speaking powers and its various opponents throughout history. The chapter using Charles Dodgson’s poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter as an allegory of “Anglophobes’” mistrust of the Anglo-American combine:

“I weep for you,”, the Walrus said.
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size…

Beware the Brits’ and Americans’ offers of help and their notions of what constitutes a better world order! These are very much the reactions of today as well:

Today, when countries like Brazil and the Philippines contemplate the similarly inspiring American movements against third world sweatshops and tuna nets that kill dolphins, their admiration for our naive and unworldly idealism is at least slightly tempered by their sense that such policies would redound to the benefit of American textile workers and tuna companies in much the same way that limiting Brazilian slave imports once benfited British colonial sugar producers.

It’s important to recognize that it’s not just American (and British) neo-cons or neo-colonialists that inspire mistrust. It’s American environmentalists, labor organizers, and women’s rights activists as well.

The diction of both the English-speakers and the Anglophobes has been remarkably consistent over time:

“We worship God by loathing America,” writes Tareq Hilmi, latest in a long line of Anglophobes and anti-Americans to reach this conclusion.

echoing Spanish, French, German, and even Russian predecessors over the last four hundred years.

Our enemies, said Oliver Cromwell, “are all the wicked men of the world, whether abroad or at home, that are the enemies to the very being of this nation…from that very enmity that is in them against whatsoever should serve the glory of God and the interest of his people; which they see to be more eminently, yea most eminently patronized and professed in this nation—we will speak it not with vanity—above all nations in this world.”

is a clear antecedent to George W. Bush’s remarks following the attacks on September 11, 2001:

On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars — but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war — but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks — but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day — and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.

Americans have many questions tonight. Americans are asking: Who attacked our country? The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al Qaeda. They are the same murderers indicted for bombing American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and responsible for bombing the USS Cole.

Al Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money; its goal is remaking the world — and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.

[…]

Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

The second section traces the origins and structure of the Anglo-American “master plan to dominate the world”, which Mead characterizes as the “Protocols of the Elders of Greenwich”. This is a predisposition, embedded in the habits, assumptions, and institutions of the English-speaking world, towards commerce based on a financial system invented by the Dutch in the 17th century and spread and supported by sea power. This system has withstood assault by the Spanish, the French, the Germans, and the Russians each in their turn.

Alluded to but I suspect not completely appreciated by Mead are today’s control of the air and flows of capital and information by American companies and Americans. English is the langugage of all of these activities and bids fair to continue to be so for the foreseeable future. That’s a form of soft power that should not be ignored.

In the third section of the book Dr. Mead locates the origins of British and American “aptitude for capitalism” in the society that came into being as a consequence of the British Reformation in which no individual sect was sufficiently strong to put down the others completely, creating the need for a remarkable degree of religious pluralism. Honestly, I think that’s more true here than in the United Kingdom where it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that laws preventing Catholics from attending university or holding public office began to be removed from the books. But I do agree that English society produced a remarkable confluence of capitalism and piety, presumably with Calvinist roots, and this joining of capitalist dynamism with millennialist Christianity created a society with not only a tolerance for chance but an appetite for it.

God and Gold’s fourth section explores the implications of this synthesis of capitalism and religion, noting the strong affinity among the progress of science represented in the works of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, the progress of economics as represented in the work of Adam Smith, and the developments in political thought represented in the works of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The basic idea is that of the world guided by the hand of God or the Invisible Hand or the natural order in such a way that “unrestricted free play creates an ordered and higher form of society”. While Americans and Britons may be predisposed towards this view, it is far from a universal belief:

That was not, of course, the way much of the world saw the global situation. To many others throughout a troubled world, it was not the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and failures that accompanied the American march to world power that they hated. It was the ideals and the goals. For these principled, frightened, and enraged opponents of the Anglo-Saxon juggernaut, what the Walrus and the Carpenter were so industriously and irresistibly building wasn’t Jerusalem, the City of God; it was Babylon, the Mesopotamian metropolis that became to the biblical writers a symbol for an evil, crushing power. And many of the critics of the Pax Americana, such as it was, weren’t angry primarily because the city wasn’t quite finished yet, or because some of the neighborhoods were nicer than others, or even because the police sometimes used excessive force, especially in the bad neighborhoos where many of the critics lived; they were angry because they rejected and even loathed the project as a whole.

In this section Mead develops a line of thought with which I wholeheartedly agree that places him in contradiction with more optimistic writers: greater education, communication, trade, or “connectedness” will not lead to the “Parliament of Man” envisioned in Tennyson’s Locksley Hall:

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapped in universal law.

The Kantian world of universal reason, universal law, and universal peace is unlikely to come about in the foreseeable future simply because different people have different views of what constitutes a just and decent order, and in many cases these views are governed by ties of nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, or tribe and they won’t give them up however unscientific they might be.

Are we then doomed not only to conflict but to conflict that is ever-escalating in its destructiveness, pushed along by modern technology? That’s the subject that Mead considers in the final section of God and Gold. In this section he considers the future of the “maritime system” to which I would add air travel and the worldwide flows of capital and information which America defends, insures, and controls in ways both subtle and not so subtle. All roads lead to Rome and I think that America’s position is unlikely to be challenged by any single power or combination of power for the foreseeable future.

Mead proposes that we deal with the challenges that the future may bring by “sticking to the plan”:

The “protocols of the elders of Greenwich” are still the best guide to grand strategy. For almost four hundred years, taking the Dutch experience into account, the countries that have been willing and able to follow this strategy consistently have prospered, even triumphed. Such a heritage should not be lightly cast aside. Spain, France, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union: all these great powers once fought great wars against the maritime order. Once each of these powers seemed wrapped in an air of power and triumph; their armies bristled with advanced weapons, their military leadership included men of great courage and wisdom; their brilliant diplomats dominated world politics and they assembled great and intimidating alliances; often, the world’s leading intellectuals sang hosannas to the glory and the wonder of the philosophy or religion in whose name they marched.

More than once, the maritime powers have been foolish and divided. At times they have been late to recognize danger and slow to act. At other times they have rashly embarked on campaigns that increased the dangers they faced and strengthened the coalitions they fought. Greed, cowardice, arrogance, complacency, sloth, and self-righteousness: every vice known to history has flourished in the politics and policy of the maritime states. They have committed almost every possible folly and crime. They have neglected the rise of great and dangerous rivals. They have antagonized vast swaths of the world population through cruelty and injustice. They have suffered staggering defeats. They periodically lost their grip on the stubborn realities of international life and squandered great opportunities to make the world better in an ill-advised rush to make it perfect.

And yet, despite these failings and more, three centuries have seen the Walrus and the Carpenter advance toward more democratic, more affluent, and more open societies at home, while defending and developing the maritime system abroad.

Mead also urges a “diplomacy of civilizations” between Americans and both the Muslim and Confucian worlds. Some degree of conflict is unavoidable:

Americans cannot become less Anglo-Saxon. They may well reform their capitalist system, but they will not abandon it, nor will they abandon the attempt to amke the maritime system work. And as long as Americans are concerned with the health of the world economy and the state of world politics, they cannot look with indifference on the state of Middle Eastern oil markets. American culture will not stop creating attractive and, to some people, disturbing cultural products, and and technology will not stop; making these products ever more cheaply and easily available all over the world.

nor should we expect the Arabs to become less Arab nor the Chinese less Chinese. To this end he urges a greater attention and reliance on the teachings of the American Lutheran theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In Niebuhr’s view human beings derived a considerable portion of their identity from the groups, e.g. family, tribe, religion, party, nation, race, profession, etc., to which we belong and these various groups will intrinsically be morally more problematic than individual human beings:

The larger and grander the abstraction, the less critical we are of the claims, and the less need we feel to recognize the just claims of those who belong to competing camps.

[…]

Evil was not only resident among our enemies; it was among us as well—and not just as a fifth column of potential traitors within. America itself was subject to evil; Americans themselves could be and sometimes were guilty. “We will incarnate the democratic cause the more truly,”, Niebuhr wrote, “the more we can overcome the pretension of embodying it perfectly.”

[…]

We face a quintessentially Nieburhian situation. The Anglo-AmericanWhigs, caught up in 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 intheir own cultural values and, indeed, their interests. And yet their 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—and those values continue to power the global activities and transformational agenda of the maritime order.

I found God and Gold a real treasure trove of ideas, anecdotes, and background on the nature of America, its future, and the troubling and hopeful prospects for that future. Like Longfellow’s youth we bear a banner with a strange device, “Excelsior!”, and our journey will be a blast into the farthest reaches of space not to a rest home.

12 comments… add one
  • fabius.maximus.cunctator

    THX for pointing out this book. Sounds highly interesting.

    Two thoughts:

    “English is the langugage of all of these activities and bids fair to continue to be so for the foreseeable future. That’s a form of soft power that should not be ignored.”

    When Wellington and Blücher met on the battlefield of Waterloo Blücher is supposed to have said: “Quelle affaire” several times. It has been suggested – rather unkindly – that was all the French he had. Well, the soft power of French culture did not help “Boney” much, did it now.

    Furthermore and on a more serious note, soft power wd be the capability to negotiate, work or interrogate in Chinese or Arabic or whatever. The elite Brit Empire adminsitrators were often fine linguists. Where are such people now in the anglosphere ?

    German Anglophobes: a quotation from Bismarck comes to mind: “I cd find it in my heart to like the English but these people do not want to be liked by us.”

  • FM, I was trained as a linguist (and am fluent in a number of languages) so you’ll get no argument from me about the value of being able to communicate in several. However, although French was at one time considered the language of diplomacy that was never the case to the extent that English is the language of air transport, medicine, or computing, for example. All jet pilots speak English (at least after a fashion). It’s a requirement. In many of the countries of the world medicine is taught in English regardless of the native language of the country. So, for example, medicine has been taught in English in Iraq for decades. English is the language of computing to the extent that the Chinese require English in their schools not so they can communicate with Americans or Englishmen but so that they can use computers more effectively.

  • Good stuff! I suppose it’s also germane that, while the hegemony of Britain and then the U.S. has certainly benefited Britain, and then the U.S., it also has benefited much of the rest of the world in greater or lesser degrees. Crushing the South in the Civil War benetfited the New England industrialists who backed Lincoln. It also, however, benefited the slaves, more or less.

    Even our rivals, and suspicious neutrals, have prospered under the world order we’ve maintained. Perhaps that’s why there’s no widespread move to take the next dimension of it — the Internet — out of American hands.

    The worst, except for any other.

  • PD Shaw

    I enjoyed the book, particularly some of the anecdotes he weaves together from a pastiche of cultural, political and religious sources. His take on the Walrus and the Carpenter is . . . er . . . curious, but has been the most persistent with me since reading it this Winter.

    For those who haven’t read it, the Carpenter and the Walrus, as depicted by Mead, are the UK and the USA. They have been moved by the vast quantities of sand at the seashore to conceive of a project to sweep the beaches clean, an impossible task of perfecting the world. In due course they solicit denizens of the world, the oysters, to talk of fine things, like human rights, free trade, and improvement. And in the end, the oysters are absorbed into the stomachs of the Carpenter and the Walrus.

    Textually it does some injury to the poem, but it is a useful picture to hang Mead’s depiction of Anglo-American character from the outside and in. For one, its a useful construct for the recent Burmese crisis. It also addresses the self-interest outsiders to the liberal world order see in the reforms preached by America and the trauma that can be caused by entering that dynamic world. Ultimately, Mead does not seem to see any other choice, but onward and upward. He seems to prescribe a wiser Hamiltonian / Wilsonian course that adopts a more nurturing role to countries on the periphery of the liberal order.

  • Judging from my backchannel correspondence with Mead he is, like me, a Jeffersonian reluctantly pushed towards a Hamiltonian/Wilsonian stance.

  • PD Shaw

    A couple of problems I had though:

    1) Mead makes good his point Anglo-American leaders have demonized their enemies and even tended to depict their enemies as the final obstacle to a just and providential order. But historically its hard to place King Phillip II of Spain and Louis XIV in the same category as Hitler and Stalin. In fact, placing Napoleon in between, it appears that each enemy to the liberal order is followed by a far worse threat. Pattern or coincidence?

    2) I had some difficulties with the religious discussion and its focus on Anglicism. I can see Anglicisms contribution to religious moderation (steering a course between Protestantism and Catholicism) and diversity (the inability to satisfy Protestants and Catholics in doing so), but the Anglican theology he discusses does not appear in the religious enthusiasms of Americans.

  • Yeah, I’d meant to comment on that. Mead is weakest when writing about theology. He’s obviously outside his metier there.

    However, don’t confuse what he’s writing about i.e. “anglicanism” with Anglicanism. There’s almost no relationship. By small-a anglicanism, as best as I can tell a term of his own invention, he seems to mean the balance among Bible fundamentalism, tradition, and reason, a common characteristic of orthodox Christianity but especially Roman Catholicism.

    That’s why I glossed over that part of the book in my commentary. I think the balance of religious forces has more to do with the power and allegiances of Britain’s great nobles than it does with some sort of balance of power amongst competing ideas.

  • PD Shaw

    Sorry to bogart your comments, but its your fault I read this book. Someone was asking me last Nov/Dec for books I might want for Christmas and I happened to have your post saying that you had ordered the book in front of me.

    I’m probably a Wilsonian/Hamiltonian who could see himself being pushed into the Jacksonian camp.

  • Exceptional post. I have never read Mead, but his ideas sound fascinating. As does his previous book that you have reviewed. Thanks for the heads up on that. I will be looking for his books when next I make my way to the local book mongerer.

  • Bucky Ball-C60

    Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
    That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:

    For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
    Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

    Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
    Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

    Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
    From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

    Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
    With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

    Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
    In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

    There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
    And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapped in universal law.

    This is code for a hidden message. The cypher is in infinite format. Good luck. I took me a day and a half to figure it out.
    Aside from that.
    “Elders of Greenwich”… is an interesting concept.
    I firmly beleive that no one man can dominate a group let alone the masses of humanity, so the concept is not out of bounds. But, I categorize people as individuals, and no two people share one immense common goal. The primitive structure of our way of thinking is based around envy. Envy creates power and power creates destruction.
    “No organized group of people have control.” it is the one that has control. This can be proven by waking up tommorow morning and realizing that your conciousness dictates others and theirs to yours. If you wake up tommorow sharing a friend’s thoughts and feelings inside your own head then perhaps there is a flaw in the system. A raging anomoly that is founded to create fear, bloodshed, and death.
    We are thousands of years away from psychologically performing discussions with one another. Until then, I see no way that a small fraction of the human race will conquer the masses.
    Good read none the less.

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