Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World

God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World
by Walter Russell MeadWRM - Gold & Gold

Some books become greater than the sum of their parts. Others, like ‘God & Gold’ feel like the parts are still at war with each other. Which is perhaps ironic given Walter Russel Mead’s (WRM) central praise of the pluralistic and competitive nature of Anglo-American societies.

The book sets out to tell the story of the impact of Britain and America on the world as a joint project. Along the way there are some sparkling sections of insight and provocation. WRM is one of the best analysts of US politics and culture, and when he strays towards this territory —which he covered brilliantly in Special Providence— the passages are compelling. Likewise, his defence of the Anglo-American world as capturing something moral and essential in human nature — in the face of its many critics — is important if not always clearly articulated throughout. A paragraph near the end of the book does perhaps the best job:

“The quest for more scientific and technical knowledge, and for the application of the fruits of that knowledge to ordinary human life, is not simply a quest for faster cars and better television reception. It is a quest to fulfil the human instinct for change, arising out of a deep and apparently built-in human belief that through change we encounter the transcendent and the divine. The material and social progress that is such a basic feature of Anglo-American society and of the broader world community gradually taking shape within the framework the Anglo-Americans have constructed ultimately reflects a quest for meaning, not a quest for comfort and wealth (p.409-410)”

There are many other sharp lines and sections, but you tend to trip over them rather than the author leading you to them. As such, I never quite felt the sense that their true nature of these gems had been sufficiently clarified or supported. Instead of a dozen carefully polished nuggets, we get a heavy sack of rocks, some with obvious potential, but many clearly grabbed at random by the author and yet to be properly worked on.
To be unfair, it feels like something less of a book than a series of long blog posts carefully tied together to feel united, but of varying quality and never quite going beyond such a depth as one might find online. I put this book down a few times and had to push on to finish it in the end. WRM is a blogger and one of the best out there, but if this book is anything to go by I fear it has had a negative impact on his efforts to write longer pieces of work.

Notably when WRM uses the insights or structure another author or book to base his analysis (from Lewis Carroll’s parable of British and American power as the Walrus and the Carpenter, through to Johann Gottfried Herder & Reinhold Niebuhr) the sections shine, in part thanks to the anchoring of the other work to a core set of topics or issues. Without that, especially on the sections of European history or religion the text seems to flutter and float, less like a butterfly and more like a paper bag, blown by powerful intellectual winds but never quite in control of its own course.

As such the book doesn’t manage to make as compelling a case as it ought. Nor deal with the inevitable and important criticisms it faces. Yes we should be open to praise of Anglo-Americanism just as we are to its critics. But a book ostensibly about the issue has to deal seriously with both. Instead there is often a Panglossian type optimism that while the English and Yankees are not more virtuous they somehow manage to do everything right. And will probably continue to do so.

Inherent tensions and close run chances of fate are smoothed out. Everything is given an honourable place, especially religion which has spent so long battling the open society forces WRM praises. Yet in his telling actually forms a vital part of why open society forces work in the West. How these elements interact with each other is rarely discussed. At one point geography is the determinant of competition, with Europe’s micro kingdoms battling to thrive vs the stagnate open plains of empires in greater Asia. 50 pages on and it is now religion which kept competition afloat in the UK/US while its absence led to the deadening hand of communist purges on the mainland. Conservatism and tradition and religion do matter and do help explain the success of the West, but it has never been neat or easy and it is the nature of their defeats, not their successes which do far more to explain the outcome we see before us.

This is unfortunate, a book which took on these themes and had a slightly better sense of what it was trying to show or say would have been useful in this time of strategic realignment. I’d liked to have been able to recommend this book to others, as I have been with WRM’s Special Providence as the best book on US foreign policy – my review here – but I can’t say the same for this one.

At one point the author describes the book as a ‘thought experiment’. It feels like it, and it feels underdone. Then again, I get that sense with much of this genre of pro-west writing by those such as Henry Kissinger, Niall Ferguson and the like. Unfortunately I feel neither these authors — nor their most dismissive critics — give this vital issue of what the west represents the serious thought it requires.

This book has the intellectual capital to have done so, it just can’t quite get it onto the page properly. As such, this is a missed opportunity by a writer I continue to admire.