Why Anglos Lead

Why Anglos Lead

Mini Teaser: It's no accident of history that Anglo societies dominate the world order.

by Author(s): Lawrence Mead

It is true that in NATO and UN peacekeeping operations, non-Anglo nations often participate. But they usually contribute only token forces, or their forces are untested in battle and thus of limited value. In Africa, local peacekeeping forces have sometimes created more disorder than they solved. The sole recent case of non-Anglo intervention by a single country is France's expeditions to its former colonies in West Africa.

Many countries, of course, mobilize military force within their own borders. But in the capacity to prevail militarily far from home, the Anglos are pre-eminent. For one thing, they invest in the naval and airlift capacity needed to operate overseas. France is their only conceivable rival. Other major powers have no such capacity. Russia once could project force, as it did in Afghanistan, but its ability has degraded sharply since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In part, the Anglos' capacity reflects habit. They have been sending armies overseas for centuries. The British built their empire that way. The United States has eschewed a formal empire, but it has intervened regularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A deeper reason, however, is again good government. Just as a capable regime made Anglo countries rich at home, so it helped them project power abroad. To an unusual degree, Anglo governments combine strong executive leadership with legislative consent. Both features make for effective warfighting overseas.

Among European states, England was unified unusually early. Following the Norman Conquest, it developed the strongest monarchy in Europe. But the idea arose almost as early that government should be by consent. The Magna Carta codified the principle that the king could not change the law or raise taxes without the consent of the realm. Kings created Parliament to obtain taxes, conceding "redress of grievances" in return. As a result, British politics treated executive and legislative power as complementary, not opposed.

Both dimensions made the government effective abroad. The king had clear authority to govern, but he needed parliamentary consent to fund his enterprises. While this limited his personal power, it also allowed him to build greater political and financial support for foreign policy than in other states. Armed with these resources, English kings controlled much of France for centuries. In contrast, most continental rulers downgraded their parliaments and sought to rule on a personal basis. Such regimes were perpetually underfunded and politically insecure, as was proven by the French and Russian revolutions.

In Britain, Parliament pre-empted the power of the monarch rather than the other way around, but without compromising the authority of the regime. Still today, the essence of British government is a strong executive that requires parliamentary consent to govern. The American Constitution creates added checks and balances within the regime, but in foreign policy the arrangement is still British. The president has undoubted power to initiate policy, including war, but Congress must provide support and funding. Actions approved by both branches are highly likely to succeed abroad.

Deploying these institutions, Anglo regimes routinely out-mobilize their adversaries. The combination of unusual wealth with a unique capacity to tax and borrow allowed Britain to defeat France in the wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, even though France was then a much larger country. British military and trade pressure finally drove the Bourbon regime into bankruptcy and revolution. In much the same way, American arms and economic pressure forced the Soviet dictatorship to open up politics to get broader support, whereupon it, too, collapsed. The paradox was that the country most committed to the state was far worse governed than the capitalist one, and this was its undoing.

When the two Presidents Bush sought support from Congress before fighting Iraq, they observed a ritual that English kings initiated in the 13th century. The need for popular consent can delay Anglo acceptance of conflict, as was true in both the United States and Britain before World War II. But what looks like weakness is ultimately a strength. Once support is won, Anglo governments typically fight resolutely. Only if wars go badly for a prolonged period is consent withdrawn, as happened in Vietnam and could happen in Iraq.

Other countries that might rival the Anglos have no such tradition of forming a public will for war. In Anglo elections, two political parties typically dominate, and the use of single-member districts usually generates a majority with a clear mandate to govern. In continental countries and Japan, by contrast, there are more parties or factions, and proportional representation is often used, leading to fragmented parliaments and cautious coalition governments. In China, the regime fears any open debate, by elected representatives or the public. So its capacities to lead and to build support are far more limited.

Confidence in War

A FURTHER asset of the Anglo countries is that they approach war more confidently than their potential rivals. That partly reflects their favorable geopolitical situation. No Anglo country shares a common border with a threatening neighbor. Britain, Australia and New Zealand are islands, while the United States abuts only much weaker Canada and Mexico. So the Anglos often can wait to fight opponents until they are likely to prevail. The same cannot be said of France, Germany or Russia, still less the hapless east European countries sandwiched between Germany and Russia.

A second reason is again rooted in political success. For the past two centuries, Anglos have gone to war to defeat aggressors that threatened not only themselves but the stability of the world order. They are willing to do this in part because such struggles continue their liberal domestic political project. Their history is all about taming political power--schooling rulers to serve society rather than themselves. If they have succeeded in that endeavor at home, they believe they can do so abroad. To battle foreign tyrants is a further venture in the taming of unaccountable power. So they tend to approach war with purpose.

The Anglos think of war as confirming, not threatening, their deepest values. The British regime derived much of its confidence from its victories over Spain, then France, then Germany. That a free country, ruled by law and consent, could defeat dictatorships was Britain's pride. Both Britain and the United States look back on World War II and the Cold War as glorious crusades. Those victories led to the rebuilding of much of Europe under Anglo auspices. The same confidence has led George Bush to attempt the rebuilding of Afghanistan and Iraq, a much tougher challenge. Due to their dread of conflict, the continental nations today could not imagine such an enterprise.

The Anglo taste for war does not reflect militarism. These countries are less in love with soldiers than some of those they have defeated, such as imperial Germany and Japan. Anglo political culture promotes skepticism toward public institutions, including the armed forces. Civilian control of the military is strict. The military's ability to impose itself on politics is far stronger in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Rather, Anglo acceptance of war reflects the confidence of the political class as a whole. Regimes that have governed successfully at home naturally think they can prevail abroad as well.

The Deference of Others

A FINAL resource that promotes the Anglos' primacy is what Joseph Nye has called "soft power"--the uncoerced admiration of other countries. Traditional realists would expect that a nation as dominant as the United States is today should provoke counter-alliances. But Anglo power is used mostly for ends others perceive as disinterested, so it is tolerated. When the Anglos go to war, it is usually against widely recognized threats and in alliance with others. These brave campaigns served Anglo interests, but they also sheltered weaker nations. Relatively rich and secure, the Anglos act most of the time as status quo powers that defend the international order rather than pursuing their own narrow interests. As Charles Krauthammer argued several years ago in these pages, the United States has sustained an international system that provides for open seas, open trade and open societies lightly defended.

Foreign trust is such that most European and Asian countries would rather have the United States organize security for them than do it themselves. The Germans, Japanese or Russians would be far less trusted, because they ravaged large regions within living memory. America is also the financial mainstay of many international bodies. Far from exploiting smaller countries, America is the strong nation that is exploited by the weak.

Of course, the current Bush unilateralism has undermined American legitimacy abroad. The United States also disappointed others by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and by refusing to join several new international agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases and the International Criminal Court. In these cases, our leaders judged that international cooperation was too costly for us. However, no other nation or grouping has stepped forward to take up the burdens that America declines. Europe has begun to form a military capacity separate from NATO, but it is as yet nascent. There is still no alternative to Anglo power as a basis for world order.

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