This way of seeing our country has driven public policy for many generations and has a rich history of analysis by varied observers, but as we see in this excerpt of an excellent book review of Walter Russell Mead’s recent book, “God & Gold: Britain, American & the Making of the Modern World“
A unique set of circumstances have given us the opportunity to be able to provide the type of leadership that has resulted in the exportation of the very qualities that have made us unique; democratic freedom, respect for the individual, technological progress, and universal education, and though we are a nation with deep Protestant roots, these ventures are certainly congruent with Catholic Social Teaching.
By Peter Berkowitz
Peter Berkowitz on God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World by Walter Russell Mead
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD. God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. ALFRED A. KNOPF. 449 PAGES. $27.95
IN THE ATTEMPT to explain America’s rise to global preeminence — as in ambitious explanatory efforts more generally — historians, political theorists, and social scientists typically succumb to the temptation to isolate a single cause. Favored single-cause explanations for the unprecedented power that twenty-first century America exerts in world affairs include its military might and distinctive strategic doctrines; its geography — guarded by two great oceans, sharing the continent with benign neighbors to the north and south, and blessed with extraordinarily varied and abundant natural resources; its free market economic system grounded in the priority that the law gives to the protection of private property; and its Protestant religious spirit that has encouraged disciplined productivity, deferred gratification, and the propensity to seek progress through social change.
In fact, these causes and more, Walter Russell Mead shows in his marvelous book on the making and meaning of American power, cannot be isolated. They have combined and intertwined in America to form a nation whose ability to project military force to all parts of the world, to expand the international economic order and integrate its commercial life with nations around the globe, and to disseminate its moral principles and popular culture far and wide greatly surpasses anything ever before seen. With due appreciation for the folly, hypocrisy, and injustices that have accompanied America’s exercise of power, Mead’s book also concludes that on balance the world order that America has taken the lead in making has served humanity’s interests because it is well-suited to human nature.
With God and Gold, Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, cements his reputation as one of our nation’s most learned and lucid students of foreign affairs. In Special Providence (2002), which won the prestigious Lionel Gelber Award, Mead argued against a consensus that held that America lacked an authentic foreign policy tradition, showing instead that America has a fertile tradition of thinking about foreign affairs that extends back to the Founding and, when well understood, helps makes sense of current challenges.
Mead discerned four strands running through the tradition. He named them after four legendary figures, but they describe idealized sensibilities or outlooks rather than settled doctrines or organized schools. Hamiltonians put the emphasis on making America a world power by forging a stable international order hospitable to commerce and trade among nations. Jeffersonians tend to downplay America’s role in the world by defining U.S. foreign policy in terms of what is necessary to preserve and promote democracy at home. Coming into their own in the twentieth century, Wilsonians contend that moral principle and political interest converge in obliging America to bring all nations of the world into the family of democracies. And Jacksonians are driven by a populist pride that distrusts international institutions and is inclined to leave the world alone provided that America is undisturbed — but when the nation is endangered, Jacksonians seek to marshal the full force of American power to crush the adversary. Versions of each can be found on the left and the right. Moreover, these ideal types, Mead emphasized, rarely exist in isolation: “Various blends coalesce in the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens, office holders, and policymakers. Because each sensibility captures an important aspect of the American spirit and reflects a significant interest of the American people, the task of statesmen is to strike the proper balance among them.”
STRIKING THE PROPER balance or giving competing claims their due is a pervasive, if understated, theme of Mead’s new book as well. In exploring the causes and consequences of American power, Mead demonstrates the importance of the country’s genius in reconciling the claims of rival outlooks and undertakings, institutions and associations, interests and ideas. But this genius did not burst forth suddenly from the New World in the late eighteenth century. American power and the American order are outgrowths of British power and British order.
Accordingly, argues Mead, it is misleading to attribute the rise of the modern world to the West or to Western Civilization. This “disguises one of the oldest and most bitter clashes of civilization in world history: centuries of warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and continental Europe.” And it conceals the victory of the Anglo-American order, dominated since the end of World War II by the junior partner, which over the course of four centuries has repeatedly defeated its chief competitors for global preeminence — Spain, France, Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union. In the process, American has inscribed its language, its economic system, its morals, and its political ideals on the international system and the family of nations that participate in it.