Posted on January 20, 2006

Why Anglos Lead

Lawrence Mead, The National Interest, Winter 2005/06

Over the last few years, due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many commentators have discerned the emergence of a new American empire. Some critics blame the Bush Administration, arguing that, but for Bush, there would be no crisis over American “unilateralism” or “hegemony.” Others blame the end of the Cold War for “unleashing” America on the world.

Actually, American pre-eminence extends much further back — to World War II or before. It really continues a British primacy that dated back at least to 1815. During the 20th century, Germany, Japan and Soviet Russia challenged the Anglo ascendancy, but they were turned back. So today the world order bears a remarkable resemblance to the late Victorian era. Now as then, the world is globalizing, and English is its lingua franca. The United States has merely supplanted Britain as the leading power.

American primacy is not an accident of this or that administration. It reflects the special capacity of English-speaking countries to lead the world order. These “Anglo nations”, or the “Anglos” as I will call them, include Britain and the chief territories that were settled initially from Britain — pre-eminently the United States but also Australia, Canada and New Zealand. What makes a country Anglo is that its original settler population came mainly from Britain. So even though a minority of Americans today have British roots, they inherit a political culture initially formed by the British. Some other countries that Britain ruled, such as India or South Africa, are not Anglo in this sense because British settlers never formed the bulk of their populations. They may be English-speaking, and their public institutions have British roots, but British culture did not form the society as it did in the Anglo countries.

The Anglo nations — singly or in concert — have taken a special responsibility for the world order. Somehow, they are available to deal with chaos and aggression abroad, as other countries usually are not. One or another of the Anglos has led all the major military operations of the last fifteen years. Besides the current Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, instances include the 1991 Gulf War, the ensuing no-fly zones over Iraq, military operations in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, and humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Sierra Leone and East Timor.

What explains Anglo primacy? One immediate cause is that other rich countries that might show leadership have abdicated. Following the devastating wars of the 20th century, the continental nations and Japan sought to banish war by subordinating themselves and other states to international institutions — the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. Germany and Japan even adopted legal curbs on the use of their militaries abroad or for offensive purposes. The ethos of most of the developed world now runs strongly against war, even for a good cause. Thus, in moments of military crisis, America seems “bound to lead” because no other country can do so.

But beyond this, the Anglo nations also possess, to an unusual degree, the resources needed for war — wealth, a capacity to project force, confidence in war and the deference of other countries. Other commentators have noted these assets. What I add is chiefly the argument that all these resources ultimately stem from the Anglos’ political achievements: Good government at home is the ultimate reason for Anglo leadership abroad.

Wealth and Law

BRITAIN AND America came to primacy in part simply because they were the richest countries of their day. They had the wealth and the technology to build dominant militaries and sustain them. The British built a bigger and better navy than rival European powers. The United States has overwhelmed its major opponents by both quantity and quality of arms. Washington funds high-tech weapons development on a scale that no other country can approach. The Anglos also buy influence abroad. The British financed alliances against their European rivals. They exported capital overseas just as they did colonists. The United States lavishes economic and military aid on its clients.

But why are the Anglos so rich? Principally because they are comfortable with capitalism. A special propensity to “truck, barter and exchange” appeared in England even in medieval times. The English became rich by developing a larger and freer internal market than rival countries. They also had an aristocracy more open to enterprise than continental rivals, and other entrepreneurs arose outside the landed elite. Due to these assets, the Industrial Revolution appeared first in Britain. The resulting wealth largely explains Britain’s hegemony during the 19th century. It took Britain’s European rivals most of a century to catch it.

The United States, lacking any premodern social order, built its culture and institutions even more fully around the market economy. And where Britain was an island, the United States was a continent. The American combination of confident capitalism with massive scale is equaled nowhere else. So the United States became a powerhouse of wealth and innovation with which it seems no other country can compete.


The success of the market in Anglo countries did not occur in a vacuum. It reflects good governance. As early as the twelfth century, independent royal courts gained authority over all of England. The rule of law protected property and contract against force and fraud, and that was critical to the country’s early economic dynamism. A broader tradition developed that government should be impartial. It should publicly explain its policies, and functionaries should be honest.

Impartial governance worked over time to liberate enterprise. The medieval economy, in Britain as elsewhere, was riddled with monopolies, guilds and other restrictions. But over the centuries these came to be seen as corrupt. In a regime where policies had to be explained, special privileges could not ultimately be justified. So mercantilism was ended, monopolies abolished and financial markets developed. Adam Smith proved the superiority of the free market, and in the 19th century Britain became the first country to adopt free trade.

The British passed the rule of law, like capitalism, on to their colonies, and it was the most precious of their gifts. In America, political and economic competition can look like a free-for-all, but it is undergirded by a formidable legal order. Enterprise is free yet regulated to limit collusion and other abuses. Most people pay their taxes and obey the law. A civic ethos suffuses the regime. Abuses and corruption occur, but they are exposed and redressed, as in the recent Enron scandal. American judges and juries are not for sale, which is why drug kingpins fear extradition to the United States. Equal opportunity, based on an elaborate education system, is generous. The whole system rests on a commitment to public impartiality that America imbibed, like mother’s milk, from its British forebears.

In the Third World, in contrast, lack of the rule of law is a worse hindrance to development than any economic problem. Regimes are systematically corrupt. While nearly all economies today are formally capitalist, few are fully competitive. Officials often shield favored firms from answering to the law or the consumer. Without an ethos of impartiality, democratization achieves little. Elections merely change which politicians have their feet in the trough.

Thus, nurtured by the rule of law, the Anglos’ economies became a golden river, pouring forth the wealth needed to sustain their ascendancy around the world. No country without an equal trust in markets and in law is likely to challenge them.

The Projection of Force

WEALTH AND law, however, cannot fully explain Anglo primacy. By the end of the 20th century, Britain was no longer the richest country in Europe. Germany is larger and potentially more powerful. The affluent European Union might potentially outspend even the United States on arms. But neither Germany nor the EU has made any serious attempt to challenge the Anglos’ military leadership.

It is true that in NATO and UN peacekeeping operations, non-Anglo nations often participate. But they usually contribute only token forces, or their forces are untested in battle and thus of limited value. In Africa, local peacekeeping forces have sometimes created more disorder than they solved. The sole recent case of non-Anglo intervention by a single country is France’s expeditions to its former colonies in West Africa.

Many countries, of course, mobilize military force within their own borders. But in the capacity to prevail militarily far from home, the Anglos are pre-eminent. For one thing, they invest in the naval and airlift capacity needed to operate overseas. France is their only conceivable rival. Other major powers have no such capacity. Russia once could project force, as it did in Afghanistan, but its ability has degraded sharply since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In part, the Anglos’ capacity reflects habit. They have been sending armies overseas for centuries. The British built their empire that way. The United States has eschewed a formal empire, but it has intervened regularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A deeper reason, however, is again good government. Just as a capable regime made Anglo countries rich at home, so it helped them project power abroad. To an unusual degree, Anglo governments combine strong executive leadership with legislative consent. Both features make for effective warfighting overseas.


A FINAL resource that promotes the Anglos’ primacy is what Joseph Nye has called “soft power” — the uncoerced admiration of other countries. Traditional realists would expect that a nation as dominant as the United States is today should provoke counter-alliances. But Anglo power is used mostly for ends others perceive as disinterested, so it is tolerated. When the Anglos go to war, it is usually against widely recognized threats and in alliance with others. These brave campaigns served Anglo interests, but they also sheltered weaker nations. Relatively rich and secure, the Anglos act most of the time as status quo powers that defend the international order rather than pursuing their own narrow interests. As Charles Krauthammer argued several years ago in these pages, the United States has sustained an international system that provides for open seas, open trade and open societies lightly defended.

Foreign trust is such that most European and Asian countries would rather have the United States organize security for them than do it themselves. The Germans, Japanese or Russians would be far less trusted, because they ravaged large regions within living memory. America is also the financial mainstay of many international bodies. Far from exploiting smaller countries, America is the strong nation that is exploited by the weak.