The Way Of The Wasp

The setting was not quite as august as the cruiser on which Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met in the North Atlantic, off Nova Scotia, on Aug. 9, 1941, to sing Anglican hymns and imagine a world rid of fascism. On April 9, 1975, Ronald Reagan, just out of office as governor of California, met Margaret Thatcher, newly chosen as the first woman head of the Conservative Party of Britain, at her cramped party office in London. Reagan was, as usual, debonair and immaculately groomed in a dark blue suit and white shirt. Thatcher was frumpy; she had not yet begun to dye her white hair a dark blond. But it was, politically speaking, love at first sight. Throughout their long friendship as president and prime minister in the 1980s, Reagan was genial, Thatcher was hectoring, but they were "soul mates when it came to reducing government and expanding economic freedom," writes Nicholas Wapshott in his new book, "Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage" (319 pages. Sentinel. $25.95). One day, taking a call from Thatcher while he was meeting with aides at the White House, Reagan listened patiently as his friend went on and on. Placing his hand over the mouthpiece, he smiled and gushed to everyone around the room, "Isn't she wonderful?"

Those were the days. As Americans gloomily ponder the wreckage of George W. Bush's civilizing mission in Iraq, and Britain's Tony Blair is hounded into retirement to taunts that he was Bush's "poodle," it seems the Anglo-American partnership has fallen on dark times. The triumphal sermons of Reagan and Thatcher—that the world would be a better place, if only everyone were more like their countrymen—now seem a little hollow and tinny. In most places around the world, about the last thing you'd want to be is an overbearing Anglo-Saxon, blundering about like some Colonel Blimp from imperial times.

Well, chin up. At least that's what Walter Russell Mead tells us in "God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World." (449 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95). Americans and their British cousins have stumbled often in the last few centuries, sometimes with disastrous effect. But in the long run, they seem to stay on top, and their ideas of equality and freedom, while unevenly applied, tend to prevail. "It is unpardonably vulgar to say so," writes Mead, "but in three hundred years of warfare, the English-speaking powers keep winning … The Anglo-Saxon powers did not just win wars. They changed the way the world lives, thinks, and organizes itself as much as any of the great civilizations of the past."

Mead, a sweeping thinker, knows he will be mocked as a jingoist, so he has some fun while making a serious point. He writes, tongue-in-cheek, about the "Protocols of the Elders of Greenwich, the secret Anglo-Saxon plan for global rule." The plan was "never written down," but includes aggressively protected free trade, faith in God and Mammon, and individual rights. The Anglo-Saxons (no longer an ethnic term, but rather a cultural one, says Mead) see themselves as "advancing liberty, protecting the weak, providing opportunity to the poor, introducing the principles of morality and democracy into international life." This all seems so self-evidently wonderful that, again and again, the Anglo-Saxons have been surprised when other nations see them as ruthless, greedy and cruel. Peaceable Kingdoms and Liberal Utopias always seem just around the corner; then a Hitler or a bin Laden appears to spoil the march of progress. "We worship God by loathing America," says Islamic jihadist Tareq Hilmi, "the latest in a long line" to reach this conclusion, writes Mead.

Fortunately for the Anglo-Saxons, their enemies seem to run out of money and resources. Mead recounts the story of a German general who knew the war was lost when his men overran the Allied lines at the Battle of the Bulge and discovered chocolate cakes sent to American soldiers from the folks back home. Nazi Germany was starving by late 1944; the Americans were feeding their boys cake. Mead is not absolutely sure that prosperity and democracy will win out in the end in an age when terrorists can get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. He says that the Anglo-American world needs to do a much better job of listening to the hopes and fears of other peoples and religions, and quotes the late British statesman-thinker Isaiah Berlin: "To be the object of contempt or patronizing tolerance on the part of proud neighbors is one of the most traumatic experiences that individuals or societies can suffer." He might invoke another old-WASP rule: if you've got it, don't flaunt it.