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September 25, 2006

Andrew Roberts's latest book shows that neoconservatism is the foreign policy mainstream of the English-speaking world, argues John Bew: History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 - Andrew Roberts

Posted by John Bew

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900
by Andrew Roberts
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006
Hardback, 25

In its dealings with the rest of the world, Britain has traditionally set high standards for itself. And with both Labour and the Conservatives still obsessed with the outgoing Prime Minister, it is worth remembering that the country has traditions and values that transcend political parties and particular personalities.

Moreover, these traditions and values extend beyond the United Kingdom; they have bolstered and sustained the far-flung community of English speaking nations - an inter-continental umbrella which includes Great Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the West Indies and Ireland - against a series of grave threats to their way of life and very existence.

This is the lesson of historian Andrew Roberts's latest book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. The title is a deliberate evocation of Winston Churchill's own four-volume work of the same name. But Churchill stopped in 1900 and Roberts, with savvy timing, has decided it was time to take the story one step further. Unashamedly, he draws parallels with the response of the English-speaking peoples to previous threats, and the world in which we now find ourselves.

The narrative revolves around the four world-historical struggles in which the English speaking nations have been engaged since 1900: against Prussian militarism in the First World War, the Nazism which led to the Second World War, the threat of Soviet Communism which followed it and the rising spectre of Islamic fundamentalism which has filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Purely in terms of entertainment, the book is full of wonderful anecdotal vignettes. We are thus introduced to Teddy Roosevelt:

Ever since shooting a crane at a lagoon near Thebes in adolescence, he loved slaughtering avifauna in vast quantities.
In another fascinating digression, we learn that the topics on which members of the Beefsteak club wagered bets during the twentieth century have included the origin of the word "weasel" in the nursery rhyme about twopenny rice, Gordon Brown's love life and whether more hardback books have been published about Beethoven or cricket.

Setting aside the world of the gentleman's club, the most important point that Roberts conveys in his introduction is that these English speaking peoples have, since 1900, largely adopted an internationalist approach to the rest of the world, projecting our values and our power onto other nations and continents. Indeed, as far back as 1833, when the British parliament committed itself to the abolition of slavery:

the English-speaking peoples had considered it their civilising mission to apply - with varying degrees of force - their values and institutions to those areas of the world they believed would benefit from them.
In many cases, it should be said, our self-confidence has been flawed and we have been guilty of hubris. Because of our own unique version of history, we assume that freedom and democracy will take on an irreversible momentum of their own, once they are given an opening: the idea that one hole in the dam will be enough to allow the waters of freedom to come bursting through.

In this way, the invasion of Iraq can be seen as an attempt to set the Middle East on a new trajectory of development, one not predicated on a rivalry of anti-Westernism, in which the Islamists do their best to outbid the autocrats:

Whether the Middle East proves too theocratic, obscurantist and in some places feudal to benefit from democracy remains to be seen, but neo-conservatism is certainly no new historical departure in the self-proclaimed mission of the English-speaking peoples.
On the one hand, as Roberts point out, the fact that 70 per cent of Iraqis turned out at the elections of December 2005, suggested that democracy is indeed a powerful draw. On the other hand, it is hard to dispute that we have underestimated the power of alternative forces, such as nationalism, tribalism and religion.

Roberts has not written a Whig history. In the history of the English-speaking peoples, there are severe failures as well as successes. Nevertheless, the important question - and the defining one for the next decade of British and American politics - is how we put things right.

To that end, one of the unifying themes in this book is that it is when we have retreated from the world that we have been at our worst and our weakest: the appeasement of the 1930s, the malaise that set in after the Suez debacle and the failure to prevent genocide on our doorstep in Europe in the 1990s. It is, moreover, no coincidence that these moments have coincided with the lowest ebbs in our relationship to the United States.

Tellingly, the most scathing critiques are reserved for the Major government of the early 1990s and, in particular, its spectacular failure to intervene to prevent the massacre of over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men at Srebrenica in July 1995. Now that some of the foreign policy "sages" from this era of laissez-faire little England conservatism are back in vogue, Roberts's work serves as a timely reminder of why things changed in the first place.

In the meantime, we are rapidly approaching the end of a small but important episode in the history of the English-speaking peoples, the premiership of Tony Blair. In the last week of August, in the pages of The Spectator, the New Labour foreign policy mandarin Mark Leonard speculated about what a Gordon Brown foreign policy might look like. On 11th September, David Cameron finally put some of his cards on the table, with a mild critique of "neo-conservatism".

If Brown's obsession is with the improvement of Africa, is he prepared to move beyond chequebook diplomacy, to protect people from mass murder as well as starvation? If David Cameron is a "liberal conservative", does he mean the "liberal conservatism" of George Canning, Tory Foreign Secretary in the 1820s and an enemy to the slave trade: bold and forthright in projecting British values in the name of freedom against autocracy and tyranny?

"Humility" is the watchword of the pretenders to the crown and it represents a comforting sop for the liberal middle classes in Britain. In the longer-term, what it means for the hundreds of thousands of Africans facing genocide in Darfur - not to mention other conflict zones - remains to be seen. Here is another recurring motif of Roberts's book: when we do not project our values on the world stage, others - think, most recently, of the nefarious influence of China in Sudan - will fill the vacuum.

British foreign policy has become so bound up with the personality of the Prime Minister that neither party has any pressing reason to challenge the lazy assumption that things will inevitably be different after Blair; even as he limps towards retirement, the Prime Minister still sets the agenda. But in the rush to draw a line under the last ten years, we should think more deeply about the shared history of the English-speaking peoples over the previous hundred. In the index of Andrew Roberts's excellent book, the word "humility" does not feature at all.

John Bew is a Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He is an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.

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