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

Again, the Anglos' political successes stand in the background. Other countries accept Anglo foreign policy goals, in part because they arise from a transparent political process that foreigners can understand and even influence. The Anglos also have an unusually long history of governing in accord with individual rights. In politics, they practice what they preach, however imperfectly. That heritage makes it implausible that they could be oppressors abroad. This open and democratic tradition is the real source of Anglo soft power.

As noted above, Anglo foreign policy tends to express domestic values; realpolitik is secondary. Both William Gladstone and Jimmy Carter lectured other countries about human rights. Such language unsettles the realist minds of foreign statesmen, but it also reassures them. It might tempt America to unwonted crusades, but it also announces an identity of ends with other countries. Bismarck, the master of realpolitik, envied Britain's "uncanny gift for provoking the jealousy yet attracting the support of European Powers." Much of the time, if not presently, America does the same.

Some Qualifications

I DO NOT say that the Anglos dominate every aspect of world politics. Japan, Germany and other European countries are major sources of foreign aid. These and other countries contribute to the UN and international development agencies and shape world trade rules. It is only in crises requiring force that the Anglos move inevitably to the fore. However, that capacity is so critical and so costly that it is enough to make them overall world leaders.

I also do not necessarily defend the foreign policy pursued by the Anglo nations, let alone the current Bush unilateralism. Traditionally, Anglo policy has emphasized maintaining law and order abroad, skepticism toward international institutions and free trade. The continental countries would rather emphasize economic relations, international cooperation, generosity to the developing world and restraints on globalization. Yet any world system must cope with aggressors and the breakdown of order. That is where the Anglo capacity for war seems indispensable, and this is what chiefly gives them their primacy.

I also do not assume that the Anglos always agree among themselves. American and British interests have sometimes clashed, most notably over Suez in 1956. New Zealand withdrew from the ANZUS alliance rather than accept American ships carrying nuclear weapons. Canada refused to support the Iraq War. Recently, Britain joined other Europeans in pursuing a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear buildup, despite American doubts. It also backs the current world initiative to reduce world poverty through increased foreign aid; America is more skeptical.

Still less do I assume that there is or ought to be any explicit condominium among the Anglos. No "Anglosphere", where English-speaking nations collaborate to run the world, is likely to emerge.1 If the Anglos so often act in concert, especially in military matters, the reason is their shared histories, geopolitical situations and regimes. Any "special relationship" among their leaders is secondary.

Path Dependence

TO A LONG view, Anglo world leadership is not due to the Bush Administration or any recent event, not even to the crusades of the last century. Rather, the key fact, as Bismarck noted, is that the North Americans speak English. Britain defeated France for the control of the New World. The Battle of Quebec in 1759, which sealed that victory, might be the most decisive of modern times. In Europe, Britain had already proven the peerless capacity of capitalism, law and consent to generate wealth and power. Its conquest of North America ensured that the United States would become, in geopolitical terms, Britain writ large. Just as Britain came to lead Europe, so the United States would come to lead the world, and for similar political reasons.

Anglo primacy will probably persist precisely because its roots lie in good government, which is deeply path dependent. It is hard for any country to become well governed that has not always been so. Somehow, the British formed an effective regime early, and it went from strength to strength. Each advance generated the confidence and the trust needed for the next. The British passed on that legacy to their Anglo heirs, and these countries, too, have had beneficent histories. In terms of political gifts, the richest countries have been English-speaking. Their wealth and power ultimately derive from this great fact.

Most other European countries were less fortunate. Their development was more delayed and uneven. Only since World War II did many of them achieve regimes that were both effective and democratic. Outside the West, political traditions are still less fortunate. Regimes have typically been venal and incompetent. Weakness persists, because past failure undermines the assurance and the cooperation needed to improve. In recent decades, only a handful of non-Western regimes, mainly in Asia, can be said to have crossed the line from bad government to good.

While elected government has recently spread widely, the actual quality of government--its ability to rule legally, effectively and responsively--grows much more slowly. What institutions do exist in third-world countries are often a legacy of imperialism. A return to empire, perhaps under UN auspices, may be the only solution to "failed states."2 Either good government must be exported to the Third World, or those peoples will immigrate to the West in search of it, which poses its own problems.

Could China become powerful despite a regime that is both corrupt and undemocratic? The jury is still out. While China's recent growth is remarkable, the country is still far below Western levels in per capita wealth and in the resources needed for a leading military. On past precedent, China will need much better government before it can truly challenge the West. While its regime has shown some moves toward legality and popular responsiveness, it has far to go.

For decades, international institutions such as the World Bank largely ignored governmental weakness, but that has changed. Increasingly, development aid is given subject to conditions on the receiving regimes. Aid donors use private organizations to run projects, sidestepping corrupt rulers. The human rights movement seeks to use American courts to indict foreign governments, in effect seeking to project American law, like American military power, beyond our shores. Thus the fortunate West works around the chief tragedy of the non-West, which is its politics.

This increasing focus on institutions, or lack thereof, highlights the real reasons for Anglo primacy. Bismarck was right; the fact that good governance arose first in the English-speaking world and was bequeathed to America is truly the most fundamental fact about world affairs. The great division in today's international system is between countries that are well governed and those that are not. As long as that divide continues, Anglo primacy will endure.

1 See, for example, James C. Bennett, The Anglosphere Challenge (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

2 See Vladislav Inozemtsev and Sergei Karagonov, "Imperialism of the Fittest", The National Interest (Summer 2005).

Lawrence M. Mead is professor of politics at New York University, where he teaches public policy and American government. He has written several books about American social policy.

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