Snubbing the Anglosphere

Samuel Gregg rightly concludes that the political cooperation required for the nations of “the Anglosphere” to act as an effective international bloc rests upon choices by leaders. Cultural ties and longstanding security relationships open possibilities, but pursuing them requires conscious decision. To elaborate on Gregg’s analysis, one would have to consider what presuppositions and concerns guide Anglosphere leaders’ foreign policy. Before we even get that far, though, we are likely to encounter resistance. The Anglosphere concept is dismissed by many as either fantasy or an exercise in nostalgia. It obviously strikes a chord that keeps it in circulation, though, notwithstanding questions from our intellectual elites about how it works in practice.

Two cultural points Gregg mentions involve anti-Americanism, and the negative interpretation of the Anglosphere world’s own history that prevails among elites. Anglophobia, linked with the insecurities of a cultural cringe that former colonies express towards the mother country, offers a parallel to anti-Americanism. Both reflect conflicts within other societies more than the reality of either Great Britain or the United States. Note, for example, how Anglophobia in the United States once provided a language for opposing established bourgeois elites on the Eastern seaboard. Anti-Americanism in Europe gave the Left, and not only the Left, a way to attack liberal capitalism and aspects of plebeian consumerism. Resentment coupled with fears of being culturally dominated underlie both anti-Americanism and Anglophobia. The result feeds an undercurrent promoting distance instead of deeper cooperation.

Ambivalence about the past also works against fostering Anglosphere connections. Where Lord Macaulay famously presented England’s history as the story of moral and material progress, academics over the past few generations have recast that history as an unfolding oppression narrative. Slavery, conquest, and the dispossession of indigenous peoples overseas accompany miseries inflicted upon the British poor at home through industrialization. Other parts of the story fade into the background of this bleak tale, leaving scant cause to celebrate. Since the 1960s, that picture has seeped into popular culture with critiques from post-colonial theory reinforcing its influence within the academy. Perversely enough, rejecting the Anglosphere past seems to have become a criterion of acceptance in bien pensant circles among the elites of the Anglosphere.

The Anglosphere heritage is thus seen to have little relevance to the present. Just as unease among Western European nations over aspects of their troubling 20th century histories drove an integrationist project aimed at transforming nation-states into member-states, negative interpretations of Anglosphere history justify rejecting longstanding ties among British colonies. The future, after all, lies elsewhere.

And proximity trumps culture. So Australia’s ties with Asian countries in the “near north” outweigh relations with Britain and Canada. The United States should similarly embrace a hemispheric identity that includes Mexico, Central America, and other non-Anglophone regions. Britain’s future likewise involves ever-closer union with its European partners instead of more distant connection from a receding past. Choosing new partners matters less in itself than breaking with or turning away from older ones.

Deconstructing the Anglosphere ties that have been discredited by post-colonial perspective helps create an alternative, chosen identity that political groups on the left find attractive. It also matches a separate project involving globalization that has significant backing within business circles in the United States.

Over much of the 19th through the early 20th centuries, the focus on a national economy underpinned a larger national orientation. The German-born economist Friedrich List provided an intellectual framework that justified and reinforced it. A shift even before World War II stressed engaging global markets overseas. American companies developed multinational structures to evade barriers protecting domestic markets, and became good at operating inside these protected spheres. Regardless of where they originated or had their main headquarters, these subsidiaries operated as German companies in Germany, Australian companies in Australia, and American companies within the United States. A pattern from the 1920s accelerated in the 1950s and afterwards. Barriers that fell with end of the Cold War forced the pace of globalization while expanding its reach.

Multiculturalism within the academy thus found an ally in corporations deeply committed to globalization. This generally overlooked phenomenon, over the later 20th century, downplayed aspects of older American culture that fit or fostered Anglosphere ties. Indeed, such ties became suspect if they went beyond an affinity for the costume dramas that British (and sometimes Australian) television produces so well. Highlighting an Anglosphere identity might interfere with engaging cultures beyond the English-speaking, let alone European, world.

This shift in outlook driven by globalization matches an observation about elite culture that Samuel Huntington made in his controversial 2004 book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity. Transnational or cosmopolitan identities among those who control power, wealth, and knowledge in the United States provide more common ground with similar elites in foreign countries than with their own fellow citizens. Huntington notes a conscious distancing from the primacy of national identity among most Americans, as part of a deeper split between elites and the wider society. Anglosphere ties that build out from historic identity rooted in a shared English-speaking culture have few proponents among those who reject or downplay that foundation.

It may seem a paradox at first glance, but the cosmopolitanism Huntington decried has the practical effect of impeding Anglosphere cooperation, which is now viewed as the older nationalist orientation stemming from the independence struggle against Britain—and the American wariness of entangling alliances—that underlay the isolationism of Robert Taft.

Does the same pattern apply to elites in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom? Gregg’s reference to Nick Clegg, leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, suggests it does. Where Gregg rightly points to the political center-Left, where many of Huntington’s transnational elite find a comfortable home, the division really seems to be between modernizers eager to transcend the past, and their traditionally-minded counterparts, who prefer to work within its contours. Many on the center-Right embrace or accept the modernizing project. Tracing how political and cultural leaders fall on this scale would give a clearer picture of the constituency for an Anglosphere choice.

Practical considerations operate alongside the cultural presuppositions or prejudices that tend to push elites against formalizing cooperation among core Anglosphere countries. Institutional constraints—not least relations with other groups, particularly the European Union—shape thinking. So do calculations of national interest that weigh the costs and benefits of cooperation. Insofar as strengthening the Anglosphere means breaking or downgrading other ties, inertia weights against it. Picking up new commitments or extending perceived strategic liabilities has the same effect.

Support for the European Union—and British membership in it—has puzzled many proponents of the Anglosphere. Why build up a rival, still less push Britain as a close partner into it? Some, including Continental Europeans themselves, view Britain as Trojan Horse to divide Europe and extend American influence. I think a very different logic toward Europe long operated within Washington policy circles.

American diplomats and strategic planners concluded from their view of the two world wars and unrest in the interwar years that Europe amounted to a kind of political firetrap that could not be rebuilt in the same way after 1945. European integration—really, integrating Europe west of Elbe River—promised to dampen conflicts that had brought destabilizing wars. Pooling resources and heavy industry facilitated a general economic recovery while denying Germany the means to rearm on its own. Economic recovery mattered in the Marshall Plan era. American officials saw reviving employment and raising consumer living standards as essential to avoiding the political extremism of the interwar period, which unleashed fascism. Without prosperity European democracy would be fragile at best. The American economy also needed Europe as a trading partner if it was to avoid a sharp contraction.

The Cold War sharpened these considerations with threats of communist subversion and a conventional military challenge from the Soviet Union. Once the United States (along with Britain and Canada) committed to defend the independence of Continental Europe, it sought an effective partner to share the burden. Integration seemed the surest way for European countries to match the military potential their collective economic and manpower resources indicated. Plans developed by European leaders themselves served an American aim. Why question them? If NATO, as Lord Ismay purportedly quipped, served to keep the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out, European integration offered a viable pillar for transatlantic relations that also prevented another round of war.

Strategic considerations turned the outlook of American policymakers in a direction along which it developed over the Cold War decades and beyond. NATO and the EU complimented one another even after the Berlin Wall fell. They provided overlapping institutional definitions of Europe that allowed Washington and other Western capitals flexibility in handling problems over the post-communist transition. One focused on economics, the other on security, and ties with either could be a carrot to encourage countries to adopt Western best practices.

British skepticism toward the European project has accordingly found limited support in Washington. Conventional wisdom here easily dismisses the idea of a British reorientation toward Anglosphere countries, whether through a North Atlantic Free Trade Area linking the United Kingdom with Canada and the United States, or through a revival of older Commonwealth ties that were frayed by British entry into the European Economic Community in the 1970s.

Moreover, divisions within the British political class—and strong backing for European integration at the Foreign Office—reinforces those views. The academic field of international relations in the academy and think tanks alike takes European integration as a given. Seriously opposing it risks professional credibility. A considerable infrastructure of publications, grants, and career opportunities upholds support for the European project, and this shapes the outlook of policymakers.

It would require a significant change to prompt the kind of paradigm shift needed to make Washington reassess its view of the European Union. Problems facing the single currency, plus the gap between elites and voters in Europe that populist movements increasingly have exploited, suggest that change may come. Until it does, however, the old paradigm is likely to hold.

Gregg rightly emphasizes the close military cooperation among core Anglosphere countries. Those ties at present are as close as might be without the institutional framework of an integrated alliance. Does formalizing those ties by treaty provide substantial further benefit? Or can the current “special relationship” work just as well given the advantages it provides the parties involved?

Focusing on what partners can offer to facilitate cooperation, especially enhancing key capabilities, seems more important. Britain and Australia particularly offer conventional capabilities and basing opportunities. Recent events highlighting the unconventional threat from Islamist terrorism shift attention to different capabilities. Continental European partners and Israel bring strengths in policing and intelligence that demonstrate the value those relationships hold. An either/or choice between them and Anglosphere cooperation is problematic for both Washington and London.

While the discussion of practical concerns largely focuses on the view from Washington, other Anglosphere countries have their own concerns. Skepticism about the judgment of American strategy over the past decade and a half differs sharply from anti-Americanism. Efforts to transform the greater Middle East have been controversial, to say the least, even among informed Americans. Critics have strong ground to argue that these efforts present as great a failure of strategy and execution by the United States as the single currency has been economically for the European Union. The result has made Anglosphere countries leery of signing on for the next adventure.

Indeed, former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser recently warned in the National Interest that his country should preserve itself from America’s reckless overreach. Australia, he argues, risks being drawn into a conflict in the Western Pacific by U.S. commitments without making an independent decision of its own. The presence of American military installations on Australian soil make Australia a strategic target for enemies of the United States. Fraser, who broke with the Liberal Party he once led as a kind of antipodean version of Britain’s Ted Heath, takes many of his points from a center-left suspicious of the Anglosphere. But his concern that the United States has acted in “an arbitrary, imprudent, and capricious fashion” strikes a chord more widely. Many American conservatives looking at foreign policy since the late 1990s would agree. Restraint, along with reliability, matters in political cooperation.

Gregg makes a strong case for commonalities within the Anglosphere while asking what it would take to institutionalize those ties into a closer relationship as an actor on the global stage. The cultural links and ties in defense and foreign policy will doubtless persist, as he suggests. But even those who share Gregg’s support for Anglosphere cooperation can see the impediments to choices that would promote it.

Addressing them offers the best chance for overcoming objections that sometimes have little to do with the pros or cons of the Anglosphere itself. Framing the choice in terms of “yes and” instead of “either/or” makes it easier for political relations to follow a natural course shaped by culture and history.