Martin Wolf, The Financial Times
We are all Americans now. By this I do not merely mean that the leadership of the US shapes the world in which we live. The world we live in is the world the Americans or, more precisely, the Anglo-Americans have made. The US will retain a huge influence. How will it use it? That is the question we should ask about the presidential election. The choice also seems clear: it is between those who expect a world of conflict and those who believe in seeking co-operation.
In a brilliant new book, Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations places today’s US in a tradition of global power which originated in the Netherlands of the 17th century, developed in the Britain of the 18th and the 19th centuries and continued in the US of the 20th century.* Theirs, he says, is the “Anglo-American” system.
What is this system? It has three central features: it is maritime; it is global; and it combines commerce with military power. The Anglo-Americans have a distinctive civilisation: civilian, yet bellicose, commercial, yet moralistic, individualistic, yet organised, innovative, yet conservative, and idealistic, yet ruthless. To its foes, it is brutal, shallow and hypocritical. To its friends, it is the fount of freedom and democracy.
Over the past three centuries, the Anglo-Americans have brought to the world the rule of large countries by executives responsible to elected assemblies. They brought market-driven capitalism and the ongoing industrial and technological revolutions. Not least, they overthrew many powerful enemies: the Spanish empire; royal and imperial France; imperial and Nazi Germany, militaristic Japan; and, most recently, Soviet communism. They destroyed the Mughal empire in India, the shogunate in Japan and, indirectly, the last imperial dynasty of China.
The Anglo-Americans have also confronted many opposing ideologies. Marxism was just the most important alternative ideology of modernity. Its downfall as an ideological system offered Francis Fukuyama the chance to write of the “end of history”. Liberal democracy, he argued, had proved itself to be the only system consistent with modernity.
The grand historical narrative of the past three centuries has been that of the Anglo-American revolution and of the reactions it has evoked among the peoples and civilisations it has destroyed, defeated, humiliated and, above all, transformed. For this shift in global power was not merely external. The British and Americans brought with them internal transformation. The greatest civilisations – Islamic, Indian and even Chinese – were overwhelmed. The British and Americans are prone to regard their interventions as well-intentioned and their impact as beneficent. This is not, to put it mildly, how it has looked to the rest of humanity. One of the virtues of this book is its appreciation of the contempt and hatred felt, from Louis XIV to Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Putin, for Anglo-Americans.
So what is the future of this system and of the world it has shaped, in the 21st century? What, too, might this have to do with the presidential election now under way?
The first and biggest point is that the world has now largely bought into the market economy and its corollary of globalisation. This is now transforming the world’s two giants, China and India. As a result, the US is in relative economic decline.
Second, the US will, nevertheless, retain the world’s most powerful, most technologically advanced and most innovative economy over the next quarter century. It is equally sure to possess the world’s dominant military and so to remain the biggest global power over this period. It will remain the one global power.
Third, Barack Obama and John McCain are both Americans. Inside the US what seems striking is their differences. To most of the rest of the world what is obvious is the similarities. Both represent the Anglo-American tradition, this being a matter of culture, not of ancestry. They both believe in US destiny and the beneficence of its great power.
Yet they also reflect divergent elements in the tradition: the instincts for conflict and for co-operation. The first instinct seeks enemies and the latter deals. The former is manichean and the latter conciliatory.
The Bush administration has been a devotee of the former point of view. it has even embraced evil – torture, most notably – in order to fight it. Mr McCain, too, is a warrior against evil. In another fascinating book, Robert Kagan, most intelligent of the neo-conservatives, has laid out the ground for a new era of conflict.** The world’s democracies must, argues Mr Kagan, unite to shape the world, against opposition from “the great autocratic powers, along with the reactionary forces of Islamic radicalism”. This is an impressive “axis of evil”, one that links China to Russia, Iran and Osama bin Laden.
This vision is seductive, plausible and dangerous. It is dangerous because it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is dangerous because, as the world becomes smaller and the challenges of managing the global commons greater, co-operation is essential. It is dangerous, not least, because the so-called new autocracies pose no existential threat and offer no compelling new ideology. This is a huge over-reaction to a modest threat.
It is reasonable for a westerner to dislike the governmental systems of China, and Russia. But it is evident to any dispassionate observer that these are far from being the countries of three decades ago. This is particularly true of China, which has made a huge bet on integration into the world economy and the concomitant opening of Chinese society. Whether this will ultimately lead to a democratic China nobody knows. But it would be a brave person indeed who ruled it out.
This presidential election might well determine the character of the next, possibly final, epoch of Anglo-American global hegemony. The question is whether the American people will choose the instinct for conflict or that for co-operation.
Neither Mr McCain nor Mr Obama will, in practice, embrace just one alternative. Nor will just one approach be the only answer. But the difference in tendency is clear. Is the US girding its loins for another great crusade against evil? Or is it prepared to sit down with the rest of the world and talk. The right approach for today’s complex world is not that of those who see agreement and appeasement as synonyms. The choice seems clear. It will shape our era.
*God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007); ** The Return of History and the End of Dreams (London: Atlantic; 2008).