Recently, expressing opinions, let alone writing them down, has felt like wading through mud. Given the absolute flood of bad, unfounded, wrong, nonsense opinions that is The Internet, one less take is not necessarily a bad thing. Still, if I want to become a white middle-aged male columnist paid absurd sums to write vacuously on topics I have no real expertise on in The Guardian, I need to get the practice in.
Naked aggregating wasn’t actually a particularly good way to do so, and while I do still occasionally reach for the “add to favourites” button on Pocket like it’s a missing limb, the reading list is ultimately an experiment I’ve moved on from*. I’m not ready to let go of the crutch of other people’s work to buttress my own though**, so I’m going to try something here. Here endeth the navel-gaze, which I’ve put in italics for you. Post begins now.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that an essay by a man who can get commissioned by both the leftish*** New Statesman and the (seemingly) broadly neo-con/liberal hawk American Interest magazines should have such an interestingly broad reach, but there you go. Dr. John Bew’s “Pax Anglo-Saxonica”, published in The American Interest in April 2015, is the rare essay on the special relationship, benevolent hegemony, and the liberal world order that a) doesn’t include a call to bomb a single country (explicitly) and b) might not entirely alienate The Left.
Bew argues that the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the USA is founded not simply on strategic interests so much as a shared set of norms and ideological assumptions, perhaps drawn from their shared sense of relative security:
“Wolfers argued that the distinguishing characteristic of Continental theorists was that they operated in the face of constant external threats to their national existence. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Americans had the advantage of relative security from foreign invasion; they were both islands of sorts. Theirs “was a philosophy of choice, then, which was bound to be ethical, over against a philosophy of necessity, in which forces beyond moral control were believed to prevail.””
The key is Bew’s articulation of the hypocrisy at the heart of what he calls “the higher realism”. Both the British Empire, and in turn, the USA, acted aggressively to maintain the status quo, defending it as a liberal, rules-based international order, “while failing to mention that those laws had been crafted in their image and in their interests.” Both powers created self-serving myths to set themselves apart from each other:
“The British myth is that the United Kingdom wielded a softer, more subtle form of power, replete with a more sophisticated diplomatic armory […] The American myth is that the British Empire of the 19 century represented something immeasurably different from the American Century that followed it.”
This account is helpful for understanding the past two centuries, and the continuities between British and American foreign policy, and like most of what I’ve seen of Dr. Bew’s work, it’s just generally quite interesting in that anecdote/reference-rich way good historians have****. What is, I find, more interesting, is the unspoken assumptions in this:
“the world today could still benefit from a Leviathan with a skin thick enough to bear the allegation of hypocrisy, all in the name of a higher realism. Alas, for that to work the Leviathan must believe in its own benign nature, however self-serving that may be. Too much humility and not enough ethical egoism, it turns out, is not good for international security.”
And it is, of course, here, with the “benign” Leviathan and the “ethical egoism” of the British Empire and the USA, that one must turn left. Not even that far left, really. In the recurrent debates over American retreat*****, a point that the better critics often make is that what the Kagans and Fergusons of the world wilfully obscure is that the golden age of hegemonic stability, while obviously devoid of the horrors of great power war in Eurasia, was pretty grim for lots of people in lots of the world.
There is almost a dishonesty in claims for the benevolence of empire and hegemony that don’t mention the cruelty, violence and aggression they are all founded on. Bew toes this line in this piece, but I think what saves him from the bin Niall Ferguson lives in is that he doesn’t pretend the positive side-effects of British self-interest were the point – he makes a realist case for British foreign policy, not the sketchy case that the Empire and its intentions were noble.
Nevertheless, this problem recurs when you try and extend the logic in this essay to the present. Bew discusses how the German and Japanese challenges to this liberal world order were born of their resentment of their place behind the “noble Anglo-American vanguard”. Particularly in the European context, this is fair enough as an explanation, encompassing strategic rivalries and ideological differences. This has the advantage of ultimately being resolvable by a conflict of arms. Implicit in the idea of benevolent hegemony is that at the end of the day, it’s backed by a big stick.
Bew provides more optimism than most on hegemonic transitions:
“Britain was swift to reconcile itself to the fact that the United States had inherited its role as the strongest nation on earth”
Which invites the possibility that when the United States face the same challenge from China, they might also ‘swiftly reconcile’ themselves to that fact. Except while Britain and the United States shared a culture, history, and interests which helped them through the transition******, it is less clear that the United States and China share anything similar – there is not, to my knowledge, a Chinese Castlereagh.
I’m stretching here, but I can’t help but read Bew as suggesting that the USA either faces, or will face, another situation akin to the World Wars, where it was reluctantly dragged in despite its attempts to stay aloof from the world’s problems. There are about three steps from this argument to the credibility fairy and American support for literally any war that should crop up. Once you concede that the USA can’t “avoid suffering the consequences when [the Anglo-Saxon world order] began to unravel due to neglect” you invite more vigilance for signs of neglect or unravelling.
This is where, as much as I like Dr. Bew’s work, and this piece, my wariness leads me to tense up and compose some snarky tweets.
There is a very strong case to be made that despite being driven by elite self-interest in the respective countries, the Pax Anglo-Saxonica has been more benign than it could have been.
It is nevertheless undeniable that the Pax Anglo-Saxonica has been very bad for a really large proportion of humanity. From the Bengal Famine to concentration camps in Kenya to literally any U.S. policy south of its borders until about last week, you don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to concede that the Pax hasn’t been universal.
Again, not the worst. I genuinely don’t know where I stand on the truth of this but I think there is a case to be made that, even accepting the very worst claims made by critics of American foreign policy, you could do a lot worse as far as hegemons go.
But the fact that you could also do a lot better leaves me very uncertain about the implications of this argument for the future. Bew posits some inherent qualities to Anglo-Saxon ideology******* that make it more benevolent, which would then suggest that this particular hegemony is the best we can hope for, and therefore worth seeking to protect, aggressively if need be. This is unclear, at best.
I’ve yet to see challenges to the Pax Anglo-Saxonica that aren’t from that strand of the left that critique the current order without offering anything else. I’m far from convinced a 安******** would be better. Nor am I convinced that it would be so much worse that we should be supportive of future great power (and nuclear) war to prevent it.
I have gotten this far without losing faith in my own words********* and I am not about to pretend I can offer a glib conclusion on the future of great power relations, the Asia pivot, liberal internationalism, the rules of the game as we know them, and imperial power in the 21st Century. This is where I trail ineffectually away in true mediocre columnist style.
You should read Dr. Bew’s essay********************. He’s smarter than me, tbh. I just hope I’ve offered some Food For Thought for when you’re done with it.
*although I did get to use it fairly credibly in a job interview earlier which was interesting – I didn’t mention the Kanye gifs
**which to be completely fucking honest I’m going to put down in the “pro-Gabby_L_M” column, as there are altogether too many amateurs writing authoritatively on stuff they don’t know about and even though I’m mostly refraining out of insecurity, I’m going to reframe it as a moral stand against the student bloggers of the world
***despite its best efforts to drag itself down by standing on all the worst sides of every internet feminism debate going recently
****dude looks young which makes him all the more impressive
*****cf. the grand strategy section in at least one post a month from the reading list
******pretty sure the bit about Britain during the American Civil War is my favourite in this essay just because of Germany being all “SMH England you’re weak man”
*******am I being unfair here?
********this is ‘peace’ in Mandarin and don’t you ever say that I don’t treat you, dear reader
*********at the cost of a bottle of cheap wine and a ton of asterisks
**********once a content-aggregator….