Rule, Britannia?

Rule, Britannia?

Mini Teaser: Walter Rusell Mead glosses over British history in God and Gold; Brendan Simms paints a clearer picture in Three Victories and a Defeat.

by Author(s): Mark Gilbert

Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Knopf, 2007), 464 pp., $27.95.

Brendan Simms, Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), 832 pp., £30.00.

 

ALL THREE presidential candidates agree on the need to restore America's position in the world. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) says "America must remain a preeminent leader for peace and freedom." Her rival Barack Obama (D-IL) pledges that he will "lead the world to combat the common threats of the twenty-first century." John McCain (R-AZ) ritually evokes Ronald Reagan and urges the United States to accept its responsibility as "the last best hope of man on earth."

If the candidates, or their staffers, read Walter Russell Mead's God and Gold, they will find abundant historical justification for their rhetorical flourishes. For Mead, the central lesson of history is the rise to supremacy of the United States. The "story of world power goes UP to UK to U.S.," he writes with cheerful disregard for nuance (UP equals United Provinces, i.e., the Netherlands, in case anybody was wondering). If they read Brendan Simms's hefty Three Victories and a Defeat, they might draw a different lesson about the inevitability of American power. Simms's book is at bottom a study in the dangers of hubris for policy makers. Simms shows how Britain built up a position of dominance in the half century between 1713 and the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, but then squandered her leadership with a futile policy of often-arrogant unilateralism.

Three Victories is a heavyweight boxer of a book; one that needed to sweat off a few pounds in training camp, but which has taut argumentative sinews running right through it. Simms's style is pugilistic, too. He jabs relentlessly at the reader, reminding him of the argument at every turn, but also trying slightly too hard to swat the reader into submission. Leaving the metaphor aside, Three Victories and A Defeat powerfully recalls A. J. P. Taylor's The Struggle for Mastery in Europe. Taylor notoriously said of that book, which many regard as his masterpiece, that it was a series of learned articles which added together to make an unreadable book. Simms's book (like Taylor's) is not unreadable, indeed almost the opposite, but it is a compilation of meticulously researched analytical chapters that could in many instances have stood on their own as pieces in an academic journal (the bibliography alone runs to forty pages of miniscule type). This makes reading the book an intimidating, intense, but ultimately rewarding, exercise.

The subject matter is in a sense well-trodden ground. Simms is analyzing a short century of more-or-less permanent warfare in which Britain was several times close to absolute defeat in Europe, but in which she also marked up some of her greatest military triumphs. The period nevertheless ended in "the partition of Britain" (this is the title of the excellent penultimate chapter) at the end of a war in which Britain had found herself in conflict with the thirteen states, France and Spain, and with Holland after December 1780, while most of the rest of Europe looked on with scarcely veiled hostility.

Aside from the sheer pleasure of understanding the intricacies of British foreign policy in the eighteenth century, there are at least three present-day lessons to be learned from Simms's book. First, his narrative underlines the crucial importance of statecraft for any world power. A nation may have, as Britain did in the eighteenth century, powerful armed forces, highly developed capital markets and entrenched political institutions capable even of absorbing a foreign king (George I) who could not speak the English language, but its success on the international stage will still depend crucially on the quality of its decision makers and on their ability to assess the strategic situation that the nation is faced with at any given time.

Between 1714 and 1783, Britain's fortunes waxed and waned according to the skills, daring and strategic sense of its leaders. Stanhope (a fascinating and neglected figure) regained with his Baltic and Mediterranean policies between 1716 and 1720 the credit and prestige Britain had lost in 1713 when it abandoned its allies to sign the Treaty of Utrecht with France. In the 1750s, Newcastle discovered too late that timid diplomacy based upon the power of the English purse did not buy security. Austria signed a nonaggression pact with France at Versailles in May 1756 and immediately afterward France took Minorca from the British, an event which appears, like 9/11, to have come as a bolt from the blue to a public used to thinking that its naval supremacy made it invulnerable to attack. In its hour of need, Britain turned to William Pitt, "a vindicated prophet" of the dangers of growing French power. Pitt prosecuted the Seven Years' War with energy, strategic skill and confidence ("I am sure I can save this country and nobody else can.") and by 1759, surely until 1940, the most glorious year in British history, the nation's fortunes had been transformed.

Yet after the war ended in February 1763, there was, Simms argues, a decline in the quality of British diplomacy, which became characterized by "mounting hubris" and indifference to her European alliances. During the war with the American colonies, this neglect of her European position came back to haunt Britain. Simms says that the "catastrophic defeat" at the hands of the American colonists was ultimately attributable to the "poor judgement and misplaced restraint" of British statesmen in their European policy: "British ministers had turned their backs on Europe, and the Continent in turn had left them to their fate."

Foreign policy, in short, requires constant attention to allies, a profound capacity to estimate the ripple effects of decisions and a certain boldness-and, if necessary, unscrupulousness-in one's deeds. It is difficult not to draw the moral for recent U.S. policy. If the "unipolar moment" is being frittered away, just as Britain lost her dominance of the state system after 1763, to what is it due? In part to the rise of new rivals. But it is also hard to dispute that U.S. policy makers have contributed to the erosion of America's hegemonic position. The benign neglect of the Clinton years and the overconfident unilateralism of the Bush administration have clear parallels in the England of George III and Lord North.

 

THE SECOND contemporary lesson to be drawn from Simms's book is that Britain is a European power. This is the refrain of the book. Simms is writing against a long academic and political tradition that regards Britain as essentially a maritime power, as an insular nation that turned its back on Europe to build a worldwide empire through trade and naval supremacy. As he says in the introduction, a "forward policy in Europe best secured Britain's maritime predominance, whereas a narrow focus on ruling the waves was in fact the best way of losing them to her rivals." The sea, in short, was not a moat, but a bridge to the European mainland to which the British "belonged, politically, if not geographically."

Simms is far too good a historian to lard his book with hints that the same truth holds good today, but I suspect that he does believe this. Britain's security in the seventeenth century depended upon defending the "liberties of Europe" from the threat of "universal monarchy" posed by the various kings of France. Euroskeptics today look at the growing power of the central institutions of the European Union and see a rebirth of precisely this danger. Mead, interestingly, notes this fear in God and Gold but dismisses it as unfounded. The EU, he says, is a conglomeration of multiple power centers, legal checks and balances, and different political cultures, and this fact makes the emergence of a "single-minded, aggressive and strategic power" from the present-day EU "very unlikely." Simms, I would guess, is nearer to the Euroskeptics.

In any event, U.S. commentators who assume that Britain can easily be drawn into an "Anglosphere" far from the fleshy temptations of Brussels should perhaps take heed of this book. Europe remains central for British foreign policy, since if Britain's influence diminishes in Europe, it will diminish in the rest of the world. Whether that implies a policy of greater participation in the "European project" or an equally active policy of trying to turn the EU into a free-trade zone guided informally by the chief member states is an open question. It is nevertheless the question British leaders face. Every bit as much as in Hanoverian times, though thankfully with less risk of sudden war and invasion, Britain is at the heart of Europe.

The third point of relevance to be gleaned from Simms's book is the role of intellectuals in the shaping of foreign policy. Simms quotes freely throughout Three Victories and a Defeat from the writings of the Hanoverian punditocracy. Whig supporters of a continental policy sounding off against the menace of France, Tory supporters of isolationism, low taxation and colonial expansionism are quoted at length and analyzed. Rightly so, since he shows that such views were again and again, notably in 1739 with the "War of Jenkins' Ear," capable of inflaming public opinion and changing the direction of foreign policy. The popular outrage against "Spanish depredations" in 1737-1738 was intense and was whipped into frenzy by powerful interest groups in the mercantile world. The Prince of Wales led a boycott of French wines and Italian opera, and "British products were exalted in their stead." Freedom fries anybody? The parallels between the intellectual climate of Hanoverian London and modern-day Washington are striking. The "patriot scribblers" existed then, as now, and their visions, fantasies, prejudices (and genuine insights) often underwent transubstantiation into real policy decisions.

Essay Types: Book Review