Last week Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the Australian, used his column to give a slightly embarrassed account of a successful coup. He was embarrassed because the coup was his own work, it was political activism as much as reporting; and he feared that it involved more than one breach of confidence.
It began with his research for a book, The Partnership, on the U.S.-Australian military and intelligence relationship which is close and growing closer. The more Sheridan examined this relationship, the more he was struck by something else: namely, “the astonishing, continuing, political, military, and intelligence closeness between Australia and Britain.”
Even though Australia has little at stake in Europe and the U.K. only limited security interests in the Pacific, everywhere Sheridan went in the U.S.-Australia alliance, he found the Brits there too:
Our special forces train with theirs, as we do with the Americans. Our troops on exchange with the Brits can deploy into military operations with them, an extremely rare practice, but something we also do with the Yanks. Australian liaison officers attend the most sensitive British intelligence meetings and vice versa, in arrangements of such intimacy that they are equaled only in our relationship with the U.S.
Sheridan was uneasy, however, because there was no formal alliance structure to give top-level political guidance to this effective but easy-going cooperation as there was with the similar U.S.-Australian relationship.
Events came to his aid: he was invited to a U.K.-Australia Dialogue in Canberra attended by Tony Blair on a flying visit. At the reception Sheridan buttonholed Blair, Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, foreign minister Alexander Downer, and almost anyone else who would listen, to preach the necessity of a new U.K.-Australia security structure. He sensed they were unimpressed.
As he later discovered, however, at a Cabinet meeting attended by Blair the next day Downer, having apologized for springing the idea on everyone, proposed a new annual meeting of Australian and British foreign and defense ministers on the lines of their AUSMIN meetings with Washington. Blair responded enthusiastically — and AUKMIN now meets annually.
Now that all concerned are out of power, Sheridan feels free to reveal how AUKMIN began.
Well, an interesting little story, you may think, but hardly earthshaking. And if AUKMIN were an isolated incident, that would be a sensible response. As Sheridan’s account makes plain, however, AUKMIN merely brass-hatted an existing system of military and intelligence cooperation between Britain, Australia, and the U.S. that was unusually intimate and extensive.
And as it happened, this story rang several bells. I had recently been reading a Heritage Foundation study by the American writer (and a friend), James C. Bennett, in which he argued that such forms of developing cooperation were especially characteristic of English-speaking, Common-Law countries such as, well, Britain, Australia, and the U.S. There was, he argued, a definite pattern to them.
Citizens, voluntary bodies, companies, lower levels of government form their own networks of useful cooperation for practical purposes across national boundaries. Over time these networks become denser, more complementary, more useful, and more self-conscious, creating what Bennett calls a “network civilization.” In time governments see the value of these networks and underpin them with new political links — trade deals, military pacts, reciprocal immigration agreements — creating what he calls a “network commonwealth.”
Such network commonwealths, which like Topsy, “just growed,” may end up being more integrated — psychologically and socially, as well as economically — than consciously-designed entities such as the European Union. If you want to know which countries the British feel really close to, check which ones they telephone on Christmas Day. (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.S…. but you knew that.) Moreover, network commonwealths don’t demand the surrender of sovereignty that is a feature of supra-national bodies like the EU.
Bennett calls the English-speaking network civilization “the Anglosphere.” This term, coined by science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson, but unknown in political circles a few years ago, now yields 39,700 entries on Google (many of them dauntingly long and technical.)
As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in a recent article in the American City Journal, the idea is certainly in the air — and in respectable circles too. Its academic foundations are rooted in the works of historians Alan Macfarlane, David Hackett Fischer, and Claudio Veliz. Between them these historians have demonstrated that England always had a more individualist culture than continental Europe, that the “civil society” tools of this culture were transmitted to the colonies settled from England, and that those countries have since not only prospered unusually but also established a world civilization rooted in liberalism.
Bennett himself, in his magnum opus, The Anglosphere Challenge, makes unmistakably clear that it is English cultural traits — individualism, rule of law, honoring contracts, and the elevation of freedom — rather than English genes, which explain this success. These traits enable a society to pull off the difficult trick of combining trust with openness. Nations with very different genetic backgrounds that adopt such traits seem to prosper more than their similar neighbors. Hence the Anglosphere includes India and the West Indies as well as the “old Commonwealth.”
Recent books which apply Anglospherist themes more sharply to current politics include:
Reflections on a Ravaged Century by the distinguished Anglo-American historian, Robert Conquest, who lays out a hypothetical political structure for an English-speaking commonwealth;
Our First Revolution, by the acute political columnist Michael Barone who argues that the liberty and political equality hymned in the Declaration of Independence were the universalization of the ideas established by Britain’s 1688 “Glorious Revolution;”
Andrew Robert’s fine continuation of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which got the historian an invitation to the White House (and the abuse of culturally self-hating reviewers);
And, most recently, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World by Walter Russell Mead of the (usually) politically correct Council on Foreign Relations, who suggested unfashionably that it would be a mistake to bet against the future success of the English-speaking countries because of their winning combination of ruthlessness and idealism — and earned unexpectedly golden reviews.
The idea of the Anglosphere, lagging well behind economic reality, is now seeping into politics. Last year Canada’s pPrime minister, Stephen Harper, delivered an eloquent speech to the Australian parliament which praised the common heritage linking both nations. (He had delivered a similar speech in Britain the previous year which the parochial British media ignored.)
Even more significantly India ‘s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, gave a speech at Oxford, his alma mater, in 2005 that neatly stole the entire concept for New Delhi : “If there is one phenomenon on which the sun cannot set, it is the world of the English-speaking peoples, in which the people of Indian origin are the largest single component.” Hitchens noted rightly that the speech was “not uncontroversial in India,” but it was certainly popular in the large Indian diaspora on which the sun never sets inside the Anglosphere.
That raises a painful question. If Australians, Indians, Canadians, and even Americans can recognize the Anglosphere as a new and growing factor in world politics, why is it something from which the Brits themselves shy nervously?
To the best of my knowledge, the only leading politician to have embraced the idea is Lord Crickhowell, formerly David Howell, who held several ministries under Margaret Thatcher and who, from his City experience, knows that Britain’s prosperity lies with the growing markets of Asia and North America. Their fading British Commonwealth ties give them an advantage over Europeans and other competitors in these markets.
If the Brits were to pursue a deliberate strategy of strengthening such ties, as Greg Sheridan helped them to do over AUKMIN, they would discover a better “grand strategy” than the present muddled policy of shuttling back and forth between Washington and Brussels, feeling a “poodle” to both.
Is their reluctance because they fear to touch anything that smacks of the Empire? No such timidity restrained Prime Minister Singh.
Are they nervous that anything “English-speaking” might be thought incompatible with multiculturalism? Well, as Mark Steyn could have told them, the first multicultural identity was the British one; and today the Anglosphere spans every continent.
Is the idea of the Anglosphere politically dangerous because it might be seen as an alternative to membership of the Europe Union? But that would only be true insofar as “Europe” failed to meet Britain’s needs — in which case the Brits would need an alternative?
Or is it, as I suspect, that the Anglosphere offers the Brits the prospect of national adventure that in their present cultural funk they find too exciting — preferring to roll over and go back to the sleep of the subsidized?
It is still not too late to join the game. But the world — even a world that Claudio Veliz tells us was made in England — moves on.
– An earlier version of this article appeared in the London Daily Telegraph.