The last time the United States and Britain threatened to go to war against each other was in 1895. As European powers raced to expand their empires, Britain coveted a mineral-rich slice of Venezuela along the border of its colony British Guiana. Invoking the Monroe Doctrine, President Grover Cleveland vowed to "resist by every means" British adventuring in the Caribbean. The prospect of taking on Britain thrilled some jingoistic Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, who was at the time a New York City police commissioner. "Let the fight come if it must," he wrote to his friend Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. "I don't care whether the seacoast cities are bombarded or not; we would take Canada."
Fighting a war with England, whose Navy floated 55 battleships against America's three, because of a border dispute in Venezuela was a preposterous idea. (TR was still going through the Sturm und Drang period of adolescence, explained philosopher William James.) Both governments calmed down when Britain realized it faced a bigger threat--Germany--to the British Empire's designs on Africa.
The naval bombardment of New York thus averted, British and American leaders saw that their peoples were better served as partners than rivals. So began the "Special Relationship." The partnership has been a good thing for much of the rest of the world, argues Andrew Roberts in his new book, "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900." Roberts takes his inspiration from Winston Churchill's four-volume work by the same title. Churchill's history ended in 1901, just at the beginning of the high age of the English-speaking peoples (defined as nations in which a majority are English-speakers). The idea is redolent of Mahan, Kipling and imperialism; even the most devoted adherents of the Anglo-American world view are hard pressed to square the English-speaking peoples' love of liberty and the rule of law with the condescending and cruel racial views that prevailed in London and Washington in the age Churchill and now Roberts have so lovingly chronicled.
The Anglo-American century was not predestined. In the early 1900s, the great European powers were competing on more-or-less equal footing. "The idea that a century later the English-speaking peoples would hold unquestioned sway in the world, challenged only--and even then not mortally--by some disaffected fanatics from the rump of the Ottoman Empire, would have astounded Kaiser, Tsar, and French president alike," writes Roberts. (Germany's Reich Minister Otto von Bismarck was more prescient. Asked just before his death in 1898 what was the decisive factor in modern history, he replied, "The fact that the North Americans speak English.")
The spread of English-speaking hegemony was at times ruthless and self-indulgent. "Manifest destiny was on the march, and it was unfortunate that Mexico stood in the path," Churchill wrote in volume four, with only mild irony. But America and Great Britain shared values and institutions that helped them to at once prosper and foster democracy, freedom and the rule of law. Roberts uses as his basic sermon a 1943 speech by Churchill at Harvard: "Law, language, literature--these are considerable factors. Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice, and above all a love of personal freedom ... these are the common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples."
Churchill's words may seem like platitudes, but, historically speaking, they're a unique formula for success--not perfect or always honored, but to paraphrase Churchill from another context, better than all the alternatives.
Allied throughout the 20th century, the two nations fielded the most powerful militaries in the world. Britain, which by law in the 19th century required its Navy to be larger than the next two largest navies combined, bequeathed rule of the seas to America before the mid-20th century. But just as important, their great rulers--Churchill and the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan--did not depend on armies at their backs to preserve political legitimacy. The same cannot be said for a long list of 20th-century power-grabbers, including Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Churchill and Roosevelt may have stirred themselves by singing hymns on the deck of a battleship in August 1941, but their sensibilities were tolerant, not theocratic, unlike those of so many of history's troublemakers up to the extremist Osama bin Laden.
The English-speaking peoples have been seriously threatened by force four times: twice by German aggression, once by Soviet totalitarianism, and most recently by Islamic fanaticism. The forces of freedom and democracy reeled after the first blows--at Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor in World War II and at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. "The English-speaking peoples rarely win the first battle," writes Roberts, "but they equally rarely lose the subsequent war." They have been saved time and again "by the tendency for the right men to come to the fore in times of crisis," he writes. This is no accident: liberal democracies breed men and women who, like Churchill and Roosevelt, can possess a powerful, even hubristic sense of self, yet also the humility to know they lead governments of law, not men.
It has long been fashionable, particularly in academic circles, to run down Anglo-American hegemony as one more egregious example of patriarchal oppression. The proud Anglo-Saxonism of Churchill and Roosevelt now seems quaint and parochial, if not downright racist. Thanks to the recent blundering of the Bush administration, America is widely hated around the world, and Bush's partner in the Special Relationship, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is ending his years at Downing Street with his popularity at a low ebb.
All hegemonies are resented and envied, Roberts notes, and economics is destiny. World leadership, Roberts predicts, "will only be ceded to whichever world power--possibly China or India--is capable of producing better products cheaper than they, in a similarly politically secure environment." An old hymn foretells: "Earth's proud empires pass away." This one will, too. But, as Roberts justly concludes, when the next empire rises, the essential fair-mindedness of the Anglo-Americans may be mourned. One thing is certain: its merits will always be debated, to use a phrase of Churchill's, as "the long history of the world" unfolds.