Skip to main content

Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World

Reviewed by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor

Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2007. 449 pages. $27.95.

Although you would not guess it from reading the major daily newspapers and weekly news magazines or watching television news shows and documentaries, American foreign policy has been remarkably successful during its 230-year history. Most of what passes for “journalism” today, unfortunately, has a very narrow and unhistorical focus which tends to distort reality. America’s success in the “big picture” of history is often obscured by reporting and analysis of the minutia of individual foreign policy problems and failures. Popular journalism shows us some of the trees, but not the forest.

To be sure, the United States throughout its history has suffered its share of costly setbacks and failures — the pillaging of U.S. ships by the Barbary pirates; the burning of its capital during the War of 1812; a string of early military defeats in the Civil War; the Philippine insurrection after the Spanish-American War; the attempts at arms limitation, utopian peace agreements, and appeasement of dictators between World Wars I and II; the intelligence and diplomatic debacle that resulted in the successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the early military fiascos in North Africa in the Second World War; the failure to prevent Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe following World War II; the loss of China to the communists; the Korean stalemate; the damage to NATO resulting from the Suez crisis of 1956; the U-2 incident; the fall of Cuba to communism; the Bay of Pigs fiasco; defeat in the Vietnam War; the loss of allies in Nicaragua and Iran in the late 1970s; the Iranian hostage crisis; the destruction of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in the early 1980s; the Iran-Contra scandal; the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon; and the difficulties posed by the current Iraqi insurgency — but, in the long run, the United States has emerged victorious and stronger after every great global challenge.

Walter Russell Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, in his new book God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World, takes a “big picture” view of U.S. foreign policy, and finds the roots and success of that policy in British history and a unique Anglo-American geopolitical approach to the world. Mead’s book is in many respects a throwback to the broad, general geopolitical works of writers such as Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Like those intellectual forebears, Mead presents a sweeping overview of Anglo-American foreign policy within the broad context of four centuries of global history.

A Winning Record
For Mead, the inescapable historical truth is that, “in three hundred years of warfare, the English-speaking powers keep winning….[E]ither the British or the Americans or both have been on the winning side of every major war in which they have participated since the late seventeenth century.” Beginning with the Hapsburg Empire of Charles V and Phillip II, a series of would-be European or Eurasian hegemons threatened to upset the global balance of power, but were ultimately frustrated and defeated by British-led coalitions, and later American-led coalitions. Louis XIV, Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany and Nazi Germany, and, most recently, the Soviet Union, all met the same dismal fate at the hands of Anglo-American power. The bulk of Mead’s book is an effort to explain the remarkable success story of Anglo-American foreign policy.

That Anglo-American global success, according to Mead, is fundamentally the result of two factors: capitalism and sea power. Over three centuries, the English-speaking powers constructed, exploited, and dominated a global financial system that made them generally more prosperous and more technologically advanced than other societies. They developed and sustained sophisticated methods of banking, transportation, trade, marketing, investment, public and private credit, and debt financing, operating within a complex financial infrastructure and legal system that produced remarkable commercial expansion, wealth, and technological and scientific innovation, all of which enabled the Anglo-American powers repeatedly to build and sustain powerful military forces and to extend financial support to crucial allies in global conflicts.

Mead is not the first observer to identify this important ingredient of Anglo-American global success. In his masterful book Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), Mackinder examined it at length in discussing the importance to successful great powers of what he called “social momentum.” Productive, innovative, wealth-producing societies, Mackinder wrote, are “Going Concerns,” whose organizers and administrators help maintain and channel the resources — human and material — of society to sustain and increase the relative power position of that society in the world at large. Mackinder believed that the steady, relentless advance of the “social organism” was essential to the geopolitical success of nations.

Cultural Roots
The roots of British and American capitalist-driven global success, Mead contends, can be found in the unique Anglo-American culture, including its religious dimension. “The decisive factor in the success of the English-speaking world,” Mead writes, “is that both the British and the Americans came from a culture that was uniquely well positioned to develop and harness the titanic forces of capitalism as they emerged on the world scene.” The Anglo-American culture rewarded individual initiative and risk-taking, and more readily adapted to economic and social change than competing cultures. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” converted the self-interest of millions of individuals into growing, prosperous national economies. Meanwhile, the religious pluralism of the English-speaking peoples accommodated the dynamic aspects of capitalism, while religious devotion constrained individual appetites to help preserve social order. Mead accurately describes the Anglo-American social momentum as a “Promethean drive to acquire all the power that can be acquired, to do everything it is possible for humanity to do, to learn what can be learned, to build what can be built, and to change what can be changed…” It is this phenomenon, writes Mead, “that impelled the…maritime powers to their global position.”

The second fundamental factor underlying Anglo-American geopolitical success, sea power, had its roots in the great Dutch maritime empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, Mead explains, relied on a navy that “dominated the oceanic trade routes of the world.” Amsterdam became the financial center of the world, while “Dutch scientists and scholars astounded the world with discoveries and inventions.” British sea power succeeded the Dutch, and in turn, was succeeded by the United States. The world’s financial center shifted from Amsterdam to London to New York. Sea power enabled the establishment and supported the maintenance of a maritime world order.

Mead invokes Mahan to explain the broad, geopolitical meaning of sea power:

In Mahan’s sense, sea power is more than a navy. It is more than control of strategic trade routes. It means using the mobility of the seas to build a global system resting on economic links as well as on military strength. It means using the strategic flexibility of an offshore power, protected to some degree from the rivalries and hostilities of land powers surrounded by powerful neighbors, to build power strategies that other countries cannot counter. It means using command of the seas to plant colonies whose wealth and success reinforce the mother country. It involves developing a global system that is relatively easy to establish and which, once developed, proves extremely difficult to dislodge.

Here, Mead grasps the fundamental geopolitical advantage that inures to insular sea powers by virtue of their geographical position. British domination of the British Isles and U.S. domination of North America freed both powers from what Mead calls “the tyranny of neighborhood” — challenges and distractions from land powers — and, thereby, enabled them to devote their energies outward toward the great Eurasian landmass.

Eurasia, which Mackinder in his seminal 1904 paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” called the “Great Continent,” contains most of the world’s people and resources. Recognizing that important geopolitical fact, British and American statesmen repeatedly sought to encourage, sustain, and reinforce a balance of power on the Eurasian landmass by, in Mead’s words, “promoting the weaker states against the strongest as its allies in any geostrategic theater.” In the memorable words of Sir Eyre Crowe in his famous Foreign Office Memorandum of 1907, Britain (and later, the United States) maintained its security “by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single State or group at a given time.”

Sea Power Is Key
The key element in the British and American promotion of the balance of power was, and is, sea power. As Mead explains, “[i]n Anglo-American strategic thought, there is one world composed of many theaters. The theaters are all linked by the sea, and whoever controls the sea can choose the architecture that shapes the world.” Mahan, in his classic The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890), compared the oceans and seas of the world to “a great highway…a wide common.” Mackinder, in his book Britain and the British Seas (1902), reflected that “[t]he unity of the ocean is the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.”

Mead’s arguments for the superior value of dominant sea power throughout history are similar to those made by the strategic analyst Colin Gray in his important book, The Leverage of Sea Power (1992). Gray introduced that book by noting that “Great sea powers or maritime coalitions have either won or, occasionally, drawn every major war in modern history.” To support his thesis about the strategic leverage of sea power, Gray used case histories from ancient times to the Cold War, and included in his analysis the same Anglo-American geopolitical struggles dating from the late sixteenth century that Mead discusses in God and Gold. Gray further expanded on this analysis two years later in The Navy in the Post-Cold War World: The Uses and Value of Strategic Sea Power (1994).

For Mead, capitalism plus sea power equals the “maritime order,” which has been dominating the world for at least three centuries. To understand the past success and future prospects of U.S. foreign policy, Mead explains, it is necessary to view it in the context of “the long-term history of the maritime order [which] highlights the geopolitical, economic, and cultural foundations of America’s global position.” The broad goal of American foreign policy, therefore, should be to perpetuate that maritime order in the face of inevitable future challenges.

Mead packages his proposed grand strategy to “maintain the health and vitality of the maritime order” into five broad policies:

(1) preserving our open, dynamic society at home;
(2) continuing our economic, cultural, religious, and political engagement with the rest of the world;
(3) preventing the emergence of another would-be hegemon in Asia by promoting a regional balance of power;
(4) further integrating the American-led global economy; and
(5) promoting institutions, practices, and values in strategic areas of the globe.

Favorable Prospects
Despite America’s current difficulties in Iraq, Mead argues that global conditions “seem broadly favorable to the continuation of a unique American global role and to the absence (or the failure) of great-power challenges to the maritime system.” Europe is geopolitically quiet, while Asian geopolitics is emerging in a manner that portends a potentially stable balance of power between major powers such as China, India, Japan, and Russia, and lesser powers like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Vietnam, with the United States acting as an offshore balancer.

Mead, though highly critical of what he calls the foreign policy missteps of the George W. Bush administration in the struggle against Islamic terrorists, cautions against both apocalyptic visions of a clash of civilizations and an all-consuming despair over our current troubles in the Middle East. “[T]his is far from the greatest crisis in the long history of the maritime system,” he writes. He compares the current challenge of Al-Qaeda and other Wahhabi-inspired Islamic terrorists to previous non-Islamic movements, such as the Xhosa’s in southern Africa in the mid-nineteenth century, the Shawnee followers of Tenskwatawa in early nineteenth century America, and the Boxers in early twentieth century China, that sought to resist or challenge the maritime order. All ended up being small blips on the screen of history. Indeed, Mead, perhaps too sanguinely, envisions a growing diversity and pluralism within Islam that will enable Islamic societies to reconcile with the liberal maritime world order.

Mead concludes his profound and intellectually stimulating geopolitical analysis by urging Americans to approach the world with the wisdom and insight of the great Lutheran clergyman and intellectual, Reinhold Niebuhr. “No twentieth-century American,” Mead writes about the author of Moral Man and Immoral Society and other great works, “so fully and completely articulated and simultaneously critiqued the core elements of the Anglo-American worldview as this intellectual Protestant clergyman.” Niebuhr understood man’s imperfectability, the flaws in human nature (based on the Christian doctrine of original sin) and the consequent necessity in foreign policy of frequently having to choose among evils. He was profoundly skeptical of abstract ideals and utopian schemes. He also understood that force, duplicity, and coercion were sometimes necessary elements of our nation’s foreign policy. Finally, Niebuhr knew that there were no permanent, all-encompassing solutions to conflicts among peoples and nations; and, therefore, statesmen have to settle for partial victories and temporary advantages, even as they prepare to meet future challenges. “As Americans strive to understand the nature of the threat revealed by the terror attacks of 9/11 and to develop a foreign policy stance that can guide them through this latest challenge to the maritime order,” Mead writes, “Niebuhr’s ideas seem more compelling and vital than ever.”

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been waiting for a new “Mr. X” to emerge from its foreign policy establishment, as George F. Kennan did in 1946-47, to set forth in vivid and persuasive prose a broad grand strategy to guide its policymakers in a dangerous and uncertain world. Walter Russell Mead, with God and Gold, can plausibly lay claim to Kennan’s intellectual mantle. Hopefully, our nation’s policymakers will react to Mead’s book the way President Harry Truman and his advisors, and their successors, reacted to Kennan’s “Long Telegram” and his “X” article in Foreign Affairs where he outlined the strategy of “containment.” Our nation’s future prosperity and security are at stake.


Francis Sempa
Francis Sempa

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, and has written lengthy introductions to four other books on U.S. foreign policy. He is the author of numerous articles and book reviews on historical and foreign policy topics that have appeared in American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, National Review, The Human Rights Review, and Presidential Studies Quarterly. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. He is also a contributing editor of American Diplomacy.

Comments are closed.