Walter Russell Mead at Hopkins China Forum

We were very pleased to host Walter Russell Mead at our lecture series last week.  At The American Interest and at The Council on Foreign Relations, Mead has been one of the foremost foreign policy thinkers of the past decade.  His thought has straddled the academic and think tank worlds, combining deep cultural and historical analysis with contemporary international affairs, and has resulted in number of influential books, including Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001), and God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (2007). Special Providence was especially influential in arguing that U.S. foreign policy since 1776 has been based on permutations of a small number of deeply-rooted political/cultural outlooks embedded in the American experience – and indeed that foreign policy outcomes can be explained by these cultural factors. His magnum opusGod and Gold, which we read in the book club, took this analysis a step further, arguing that commonalities in British and American culture have enabled their combined 300+ year global hegemony.

At Hopkins China Forum, Mead addressed the conventional wisdom about U.S. prospects in Asia.  With China set to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, and the U.S. mired in economic crisis, American decline and Chinese dominance of Asia appear to be inevitable.  According to Mead, however, a closer look at the geopolitical situation would argue for a more sanguine view of America’s prospects in Asia.  Unlike the previous challenge to the Anglo-American hegemonic order, in which Germany was a rising power surrounded by declining powers in Europe, China is surrounded by other rising powers such as India, South Korea, and Vietnam, and by a still-formidable Japan.  As he writes in the Wall Street Journal, “unlike Europe in 1910, Asia today looks like an emerging multi-polar region that no single country, however large and dynamic, can hope to control.”  Mead is optimistic about the role that the U.S. can play as an offshore balancer in Asia in the 21st century, in the way that the U.K. played this role vis-à-vis the continental European powers in the 18th through 20th centuries, preventing the hegemony of any one European power on the continent.  If, according to Mead, today’s Asian powers, including China, can remain strong and balance one another, and America is able to renew those enduring sources of cultural and economic strength that have enabled its hegemony, then the future geopolitical situation in Asia will favor American interests.

Mead’s optimism about the U.S. was a breath of fresh air in China, where conventional wisdom about U.S. decline and schadenfreude about its setbacks are as prevalent as anywhere.  However, Mead could have better addressed the Chinese audience, and further explained some of the theoretical underpinnings of his optimism.  Mead did not address the question of how the U.S., with an economy perhaps half the size of China’s by mid-century, can keep up in terms of global heft (the kind of sheer market size and economies of scale that produce world-beating firms and products and enable market dominance), which is to say nothing of agenda-setting in global institutions and bullying power over developing countries via investment, trade, and financial inducements.  Mead would counter that global heft may not matter so much for an offshore balancer (as it didn’t for Britain before the 19th century), but for Mead’s balancing strategy to really work, the U.S. must promote the strength of each of the Asian powers, and should be seen as such, so as not to engender the suspicion that Asia would be stronger and more prosperous under Chinese hegemony.  That the U.S. would want to encourage a positive-sum outcome through leadership in Asia – and a strong, stable, and prosperous China, in particular – is hardly an intuitive idea in China, where the U.S. is seen as engaged in a zero-sum competition with China, its despite positive-sum rhetoric about win-win outcomes.

At the heart of Mead’s optimism is the idea (elucidated more fully in God and Gold) that the U.S. will continue to reap outsized benefits from the global capitalist system, because the system was created by the Anglo-Americans and embodies Anglo-American values.  If, as Mead said, version 1.0 of this system was the Dutch hegemony of the 17th century, versions 2.0 and 3.0 of this system have been the much longer British and American hegemonies since the 18th century.  For China to play in this system (assuming it has no intention of overturning it) is to play by Anglo-American rules, which prioritize the values of change, innovation, and openness.  The U.S. plays with home court advantage.  In his lecture, Mead spent much time talking about the accelerating pace of change in today’s world, puzzling the audience with what seemed a long digression, only to come to his punch line — that “the U.S. was made for change.” (In his book, he actually says that “if Brazil is the country of the future, then the U.S. is its hometown.”) God and Gold is more or less an extended argument that the Anglo-American system has defeated all illiberal challengers in the last 300 years (France, Germany, the USSR) because liberal hegemons with open markets can best adapt to (and are most likely to initiate) economic and technological change — ultimately leading to innovation and growth that has outpaced all adversaries.  In Mead’s view, a number of enduring cultural strengths have supported the Anglo-Americans during this period and enabled the rise of the U.S. in particular (a 200 year record of growth more spectacular than China’s rise), one of which Mead calls America’s “dynamic religion.”  This refers to how American culture encourages an enthusiastic (often heroic) response to the need to adapt to and make part of our own life-narratives the social and economic changes all around us (e.g. the American myth of the pioneer, the entrepreneur, the tech startup, etc.).  Although American culture is seen as embodying a soulless modernity by much of the world (continental Europeans and non-Western cultures in particular), Mead thinks that it expresses more fully than any other a faith in the spiritual benefits of change that suits today’s pace of technological progress.

This constitutes one small part of the theoretical background to Mead’s lecture at Hopkins China Forum.  Mead may or may not be right about American culture (and, from a realist perspective, culture may or may not really impinge on being an offshore balancer), but he writes at a level of abstraction and cultural insight far above other writers in his field.  To my mind (as someone whose degree is not in International Relations), he does the best job of connecting the big picture of world affairs with social explanations (closer to my own specialty), integrating culture, history, and comparative politics.  More than that, he connects these wide-ranging explanations with considerable authority on the meaning of the American experience.   Those of us who are Americans and have lived in China for a long time will have had ample to time to think about the meaning of the American experience, primarily because we are constantly confronted with the need to explain America to Chinese and other non-Americans.  There are few other authors in his field whose work I can easily point to and say that this will give you deep insight into America.

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