Anglo-American Dominance, or Anglo-American Decline?
Walter Russell Mead's thesis 13 years ago is a lot worse for wear today.
It’s been thirteen years of bad luck for Walter Russell Mead and his thesis of Anglo-American global dominance, which he laid out in his once widely-hailed God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. No less than The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Washington Post credited God and Gold—which in its Whiggish view of history lauds the dynamism and individualism of the Anglo-American world—to be one of the best non-fiction books of its year.
Thirteen years later, the liberal progressivism and individualism that Mead so glowingly honors seems not only inadequate to address the many troubles that ail us—foreign policy overextension, family collapse, manifold types of addiction, racial identity politics, to name but a few—but perhaps in some senses is even inimical to human flourishing.
Mead published God and Gold in the final years of a George W. Bush presidency that after 9/11 had transitioned from focusing on education reform (remember “No Child Left Behind”?) to an aggressive foreign policy aimed at promoting liberal democracy around the globe. In 2007 there were 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, many of whom were engaged in defeating a Sunni insurgency that threatened Shia Nouri al-Maliki’s “coalition government.” There were another 25,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan supporting Hamid Karzai’s fledgling democracy, as well as another approximately 15,000 more soldiers from a variety of U.S. allies, with some of the largest contingents from our “Anglo” allies: the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
A 2020 study reported that Washington to date has spent over $2 trillion on the Iraq War—an average of about $8,000 for every taxpayer. We have spent another $2 trillion on Afghanistan. Thirteen years later, Iraq is one of the most unstable countries in the region, while Afghanistan remains violent, with a corrupt, incapable central government still threatened by the Taliban. The U.S. military, in turn, suffered about 60,000 casualties, not counting however many more thousands suffered, or continue to suffer from PTSD. Moreover, since 2007, U.S. foreign policy has contributed to instability in Libya, Syria, and Yemen that have resulted in humanitarian disasters and millions of new refugees, many of whom are likely to permanently change the political and cultural identities of European nations where they have settled, likely permanently. Islamic extremism — which Mead believed capable of complete integration into the West — appears an even more global, intransigent threat than it was at the time of 9-11, given the rise of ISIS and the spread of thousands of Saudi-funded Wahabbist madrassas across the world.
Things in the homeland, meanwhile, have also deteriorated across many indicators. While Mead praised the dynamism of the low-trade-barriers global economic system, the American middle-class, that great socio-political stabilizing force, was shrinking, suffering from stagnant wages, the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and 2010 foreclosure crisis, among other factors. While Mead extolled global capitalism for blessing both Anglo-America and the world, the nation’s infrastructure was failing, requiring trillions of dollars of new investment. (Too bad we spent so much on those Iraqis and Afghans!) While Mead noted the amazing vibrancy of Anglo-American learning and research, the quality of American education and average American IQ were declining. Education expert Mark Bauerlein has labeled millennials the “dumbest generation.” Mead lionized our academic freedom, but that now seems misplaced given how our radicalized campusestreat those who won’t conform to progressivist ideology.
Religion, Mead argued, provides “the psychological strength and social support” that undergirds Anglo-American dynamism and “help[s] human beings cope with the new demands of life an open, changing society.” Yet in with the rise of the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated, as well as rising distrust of American ecclesial leaders in the wake of sex and corruption scandals, the faith seems more like a sideline spectacle. Mead’s wonderment at “the remarkable revival of American evangelical religion” now seems like a description of a distancing historical curiosity, given the slow, but noticeable decline of that religious demographic. Religiosity, that quality of American culture that French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville deemed essential to the preservation of our national civic character, is plummeting among younger Americans.
Nor is this decline unique to the United States. The United Kingdom, whom Mead describes as our great older brother who first established Anglo political and economic global dominance in the 17th century, has also been struggling. Even before the coronavirus contributed to a significant contraction of the UK’s economy, Britain had been weakening in the face of a Scottish independence movement, dangerously high immigration, and social alienation and disruption evidenced in the need for a “Ministry of Loneliness.” In the wake of political oppression in Hong Kong, many of that region’s residents would prefer to be governed once more by the Brits—yet John Bull is too impotent to hoist the Union Jack on any foreign shores. Australia, in turn, is so dependent on Beijing for its economic vitality that China may be capable of cowing Australian politicians into submission. Canada has likewise been intimidated by Chinese threats following Ottawa’s arrest and attempts to extradite a corrupt Huawei executive.
Brexit, like the election of an American president who ran on an anti-globalist, anti-immigration policy that declined international economic treaties like the Transpacific Partnership and promoted building walls on our borders, manifest what Russian thinker Eugene Vodolazkin has called “The Age of Concentration.” By this Vodolazkin means various Western global powers—like the Anglo-American “Five Eyes” alliance—are entering a period of disengagement and turning inward from a globalist system has perhaps been more of a curse than a blessing
Mead’s analysis possessed a strong sense of optimism regarding Anglo-American dynamism:
Have strip malls and townhouses sprung up in the meadows and forests where one played as a child? Are gender roles melting and changing even as new immigrant groups fill the land? Is the old industrial economy of union labor and stable employment mutation into something mysterious, complex, dynamic and new? … For the dynamic believer, change is both a sign of progress and an opportunity to show the crowning virtue of faith.
Such words, in light of the description of American social and economic collapse in flyover country as described by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, seems inadequate, at the least. The economic crisis, as Vance’s memoir so bitterly observes, is compounded by the American family crisis—the number of children raised by their biological parents has dramatically declined, while children raised by a single parent has tripled since 1960. University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, among others, has noted the disastrous consequences of these trends. Substance abuse (another Vance theme) has ravaged entire American communities.
“The world is about to become a much better place,” is a central tenet to the Anglo-American worldview, noted Mead. It may well be, but that our irrational cancel-culture is engaged in debates about the legitimacy of transgenderism or whether or not to eliminate the police—ideas that Americans a generation ago would have found preposterous and socially suicidal—suggests our nation is going in the wrong direction. Mead praised the unprecedented “level of dignity and security” reached in western Europe, which also seems risible given the continent’s low birth rates, rising immigration and terrorism, and growing social acceptance of abortion and euthanasia. The West is killing itself, not only demographically and culturally, but quite literally.
Mead sees social and economic disruption as emblematic of a dynamism necessary for man’s good. Perhaps in some senses he’s right—if a society isn’t seeking to grow and improve, it’s on its way to decline and death. Yet one has to wonder whether the kinds of dramatic upheavals America has witnessed in the last two generations have been so disruptive as to essentially undermine the survival of our democratic experiment. Social and economic distemper, as many pundits have noted, has reached fever pitch. Progressivism and individualism—two pillars of what Mead perceives to be essential to Anglo-American success—don’t seem to be solutions to our nation’s current crises, but their cause. We need less radicalism and atomism; more patriotism that promotes civic engagement, more rationality that tempers emotivism, and a more Thomistic impulse that prioritizes our immediate neighbor over solving problems elsewhere. In reference to those, at least, Mead’s thesis is accurate—we’ll need God to persevere.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.