Lost in translation

It was the arch Anglo-American Sir Winston Churchill who gave currency to the phrase "English-speaking peoples" as shorthand for the inhabitants of Great Britain and the US, not forgetting Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Last year, British historian Andrew Roberts sought to revive it by adding a 20th-century volume to Churchill's four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Now comes the American Walter Russell Mead whose contention is that people such as himself - here usually referred to as "the Anglo-Americans" - "made the modern world".

Mead is a scintillating writer who greatly adds to the gaiety of the often monotonous debate on US foreign policy. His last book, Special Providence, was a persuasive typology and history of the four main currents in US strategic thinking since 1776. However, a cursory visit to Amazon.com reveals that there are currently more than 30 books in print with the phrase "Making of the Modern World" in their titles or subtitles (one of them by me). Everything from the British Empire to Genghis Khan - as well as clocks, drugs, dynamite, English naturalists and war - is now said to have made the modern world. Mead's first challenge is therefore to convince the reader that his Anglo-Americans have been the real transformers of the globe.

His case is a remarkable hybrid: apart from Churchill, its identifiable ancestors include Alfred Thayer Mahan, Max Weber and Lord Macaulay. According to Mead, a defining characteristic of the Anglo-Americans is that "they keep on winning", and that the key to their victories has invariably been command of the seas.

Second, the English speakers had the benefit of the Protestant ethic. Theirs was a spirituality that was not merely compatible with capitalism; it positively encouraged hard work and the accumulation of wealth. (Hence God and Gold.)

Third, the Anglo-Americans arrived by trial and error at a political via media, in which individual liberty was reconciled with the existence of an externally strong state.

When Mead talks playfully about the "golden meme" - a way of reconciling political differences that migrated from Amsterdam to London to Washington - he is offering an international version of Macaulay's Whig interpretation of history.

The US today, he suggests, is like Britain in the time of Queen Anne (1665-1714): poised between "reason, revelation and tradition". Mead argues that it is their ability to strike this balance that sets the Anglo-Americans apart from the other civilisations of the great monotheistic religions.

The trouble with Anglo-Americans, he laments, is that they don't appreciate how lucky they are. Addicted to "permanent revolution" in the realm of economics, they constantly agitate to make the world more like Adam Smith's vision of a perfectly free market.

This elicits resistance from peoples who gain less from applying the theory of comparative advantage. Yet these periodic backlashes are invariably defeated. No rival power, it seems, can hope to overcome the magic Anglo-American "trifecta" of free markets, evangelical Protestantism and representative government.

When Special Providence was published in 2002, Mead's timing was good. The cold war had been won, the war against radical Islamism had just begun and Washington was in the market for historians who knew precedents for pre-emption and unilateralism. God and Gold, however, comes at a less propitious moment.

The resurgence of China and India as global economic powers - to say nothing of the "energy empires" of Iran and Russia - means that in relative terms, the Anglo-American hegemony is already on the wane.

Above all, Mead overlooks the extent to which the very un-Weberian culture of consumption, which has become the motivating force of the Anglophone economies, has rendered them as dependent on foreign capital as were the moribund empires of the Ottomans, Qing and Romanovs a century ago.

Meanwhile, over the situation in Iraq, fissures have opened within the English-speaking world. There is abundant evidence, not discussed here in this book, that other Anglophone peoples feel a diminished affinity with their US counterparts. Mead is quite wrong to assume, for example, that religion is as "persistent" in the rest of the Anglosphere as it is in the US.

While there's no harm in celebrating what we English-speaking peoples have in common - and Mead does it well - the differences between Anglos and Americans are much greater than he implies. Divided by more than just a common language, it will take more than a hyphen to reunite us.

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