Is the Pax Anglo-Saxonica worth defending?

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….

23rd of November: Excellence

It’s late and I’m tired – not much preamble this week. Regular reminder that if you’d rather receive this list to your inbox every week instead of having to make the long trek to …click on a link, you can do that (you lazy bastard) by subscribing here.

Song of the week was already going to be this one off Watch the Throne, and then it was discussed in one of the links down below in a really interesting way and that cemented it’s place. Keep an ear out for the most casually matey address you will hear to the 44th President of the United States of America. Delightful.

  • To make up for the absence of IR articles last week, a pair of essays on American grand strategy – similar in intent, I think. The longer, at Foreign Policy, argues for the US to craft a more stable international order while they’re still dominant, and this shorter one simply points out the obvious flaws with the “world police” ideal
  • Really interesting on a controversial photoshoot featuring West Point cadets
  • Interview with Ukrainian soldier fighting in and around Donetsk airport.
  • As tedious as I find the drone debate, this case for a moratorium on drone strikes is well-argued (I’ve only just noticed it’s a year old), while this piece from the first soldier to make a lethal drone strike is an interesting look into the realities drone warfare.
  • Now, to Syria. A cynical discussion of martyrdom. A profile of some British jihadis*. This piece is quite sad, but in the little ceasefires it depicts across Syria, there’s an element of a slightly better future maybe?
  • A part of me really just wishes that ISIS would murder someone who turned out to be a knob because the victims (those whose stories we hear) just seem to be the best of humanity and it’s desperately sad – a couple of tributes to Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig.
  • On a similar note, account of an almost-kidnapping in Yemen.
  • As a sort of exercise in academic accountability, this post from Marc Lynch on what scholars got wrong about the Arab Spring is excellent. Also generally interesting.
  • Two on China – one on how it is assuming its role as a great power, and Daniel Drezner advocating less panic over said rise
  • IDK if this has been a long week or if this was meant to be last week, but a solid rebuttal to the Band Aid vision nonetheless
  • I knew about Brazil’s role in the international court cases on HIV medication but had 0 idea of how ambitious treatment was within the country – this is cool.
  • Gary Younge, excellent as ever, on Obama’s announcement of an amnesty for undocumented immigrants
  • Hadn’t read anything by Ally Fogg in a while – this is good on male violence
  • Again, this feels like it’s done the rounds on Facebook twice since I read it, but whatever, it’s a good summary of how screwed younger generations are
  • Alex Proud says we should all vote. This article from Novara dreams bigger, looking at a 24th Century Post-Capitalist Future.
  • While we’re on the inter-generational warfare, this article (seems to be) by an older bloke experiencing job applications today and being stunned by how. annoying. they are. Welcome to the party, pal. (It’s a good article, tbf, and on point).**
  • Stinging review of Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill***
  • Speaking of slams, this review of a book on ‘Anonymous’ is generally interesting
  • As British politics chases UKIP down into the gutter, a welcome reminder that this leads us nowhere good
  • There is one line in this generally decent article that is so good it jumped into the list – I straight-up copied it out to text it to my flatmate from the bus
  • Talib Kweli, who I should probably know as more than “bloke off early Kanye songs”, writes a great response to Piers Morgan on [and here, tbh, IDK what to say. I’d rather keep the blog slur-free, but at the same time, the Louis CK bit he quotes is very true, so… IDK I’ma white guilt to the end of the parenthesis here]
  • Giles Coren is brilliantly stinging here on coffee, going further than I would, but in a righteous cause so I’ll allow it
  • Made the jump to an iPhone ‘recently’, and so as part of my ongoing quest to stay down with the kids****, I’ve been trying to get on board with the Emoji. This is a brilliant article on them.
  • Really interesting on how the Shazam app has affected the music business
  • Chelsea Peretti (Brooklyn Nine Nine)is such a bizarre figure, and this review of her stand-up special has me intrigued
  • Far Cry 3 runs on my computer! This discussion of how the series, and other blockbuster games, try and fail to handle racism is a bit old (I think it emerged in response to the whole thing around the cover) but very good
  • Possibly a bit more critical than I would be, but this is a cool look back at Half-Life 2 ten years on
  • OK, here’s that discussion of Murder to Excellence, but first, a process. I’ve been meaning to point you towards Bim Adewunmi’s (great writer and, I believe, currently women’s editor at The Guardian) “Ten Things” on Twitter for a while, but it’s a bit awkward to link – it’s basically a little ritual every Friday for ten minutes and it’s kind of lovely. During said countdown, Bim linked to Rembert Browne’s, of Grantland, new podcast. The first episode features the wonderful Cord Jefferson and it’s a great, funny, little chat to listen to – unlike bloody Serial, I didn’t resent it for replacing my gym playlist. And they talk about Kanye and Jay. Circuitous, but I got there!

God, got a bit chatty there, sorry. Hit the 1,000 word barrier again. Have a lovely week x

*I’m still very unsettled by the idea of lads from Portsmouth being vaporised by American airstrikes, tbh. I mean obviously they made their bed and all, but it’s a sad state of affairs.

**shouldn’t complain, I’m technically gainfully employed now. Also, just saw that said “old bloke” is Ian Jack – the byline didn’t appear when I downloaded the article

***the fucking state of that man. Not only is he not doing anything of value with City Hall in favour of writing a book, it’s a shit book. At least Russell Brand was only taking time off “pissing about” to write his shit book.

****mostly so I can work out how best to be contemptuous of them