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

February 13, 2008

Santa Monica


Walter Russell Mead


The intricate global system of finance, trade and ideology developed by Britain and advanced by the United States over the last three centuries has created a dominating new world order to rival any empire in history, according to Walter Russell Mead, a noted historian and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Speaking at the Milken Institute, he expanded on the themes of his latest book, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, telling the audience why he believes the Anglo-American system has ruled the world for so long.

Maintaining an open society at home was the first key. British and American culture is built on a foundation of religious tolerance, and both nations have flexible and adaptive judiciary systems. Meritocracy and the free exchange of ideas have spurred Britain and the United States to produce tremendous financial, technological and cultural innovations that resonate around the globe, he said.

The second step toward Anglo-American power, Mead explained, was taking their show on the road. "Now that you have this productive and innovative society, go out and trade," he said. "Glean the best ideas from all around the globe."

That emphasis on trade led to another strategy: a foreign policy based on engagement with the world. Mead pointed out that by controlling the seas, both nations created a vast flow of goods and information. Their goal has always been to protect commerce and maintain the balance of power in key geo-political areas.

The fourth key lies in not using this power to crush and dominate. Britain and the United States have a long history of integrating emerging nations and former enemies into the fold as trading partners. Mead sees this pattern repeating itself with China and India: "To those countries, we are saying: Get rich. Enter the system. Enjoy."

The fifth strategy is one Mead calls "perhaps the most cold-blooded and calculating idea of all": promoting liberal democratic ideals and institutions abroad. Developing the rule of law makes other nations better business partners; the advent of democratic elections and a free press engages citizens in the world economy.

He also suggested that Protestantism has played a large role in Anglo-American success.

"In many societies, religion enforces conformity," explained Mead. But Protestantism is more dynamic, placing its emphasis on the individual and providing fertile ground for capitalism and innovation. "Faith in God equates to faith in the future, even if that future is risky or unknown. Americans embrace this notion of striking out on their own to fulfill their identity."

Mead dismissed those who believe that U.S. influence is waning.

"The system is in better shape than the media and the panicky pundits would have you believe," he insisted. But he cautioned against complacency. "Great empires become status quo powers who'd like to stop the clock. We'd like to maintain things the way they are, but policies from 20 years ago will not serve now. The pace of change is accelerating in the world."