Politics & Policy

Sphere of Influence?

From the March 14, 2005 issue of National Review.

The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century , by James C. Bennett (Rowman & Littlefield, 352 pp., $39.95)

As soon as most people hear the word “Anglosphere,” they have a fairly good idea what it means; this is a considerable achievement for any author developing a new term. By taking up and promoting the word, James C. Bennett has sharply identified an increasingly visible historical development. Whatever else Bennett’s new book accomplishes, it will put the movement it describes firmly into the public consciousness. For that reason alone, this is a momentous work.

Bennett’s thesis is enormously ambitious. It is a prediction about the future shape of the world’s security alliances, cultural affiliations, economic progress, and technological development. It provides a political justification for the world it envisions, and offers policy guidelines for how to bring it about. But unlike most of the grand blueprints of the past that have sought to redefine the world, Bennett’s is conspicuously anti-utopian and, indeed, decidedly conservative.

The Anglosphere he envisages would be a “network commonwealth” of English-speaking nations based on the existing shared values of Anglo-American cultural and political traditions. His concept offers the prospect not of radical change but of a reaffirmation of deep cultural roots. Politically, it is diametrically opposed to the two major movements that, since the demise of socialism, have absorbed the Western intellectual Left: radical multiculturalism at home and bureaucratic internationalism abroad.

At a time when the United States, England, and other English-speaking countries are absorbed with the awful, bloody business of the War on Terror, Bennett has arrived to put a mercifully positive item onto the contemporary agenda.

The idea that Bennett is advocating has been around for some time. In The Clash of Civilizations (1996), Samuel Huntington wrote of the possibility of a “civilizational” alliance of English-speaking nations. In 1999, Robert Conquest raised the prospect of a mutual association of English-speaking states as a counter to the growing centralism of the European Union. Historian Paul Johnson provocatively suggested that, since Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were such natural partners of the U.S., they should become states of the union. Last year, Johnson argued that, by the end of George W. Bush’s second term, economic growth and population change would create a triumvirate of three great power groups: India, China, and the English-speaking world. Declining population and productivity would leave continental Europe, including Russia, marginalized.

Bennett has been making his case for the Anglosphere in numerous publications, and in a weekly column, The Anglosphere Beat, that he wrote for UPI for three years. In his book, he argues that this is an especially propitious moment for the Anglosphere. The major existing sources of international association are in deep trouble. The palpable failure of the United Nations to act on the crises in Kosovo, Iraq, and Sudan has largely sidelined it as an international force. Even in its purported specialty of humanitarian aid, the U.N.’s attempt to coordinate relief efforts after the December 26 tsunami was conspicuously ignored in the worst affected areas of Indonesia, where the real job was done independently by American and Australian naval and military forces.

At the same time, a growing political sentiment has emerged in Britain against further integration with Europe. Since 1999, when the Euroskepticism of the Tory party gave it a decisive victory over Labour in elections to the European Parliament, monetary union and the euro have become increasingly unpopular in Britain. Many British now realize that, once adopted, the euro would become very difficult to scrap; it would irreversibly commit the U.K. to the European system. Faced with taking an irretrievable step into a continent plagued by low economic growth, rising welfare dependency, and demographic decline, Britain no longer sees its entry into the European Monetary Union as inevitable. Doubts are rising even about the once apparently settled issue of political union.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the past decade has seen a historic reappraisal of American cultural roots: a recognition of the Britishness of American culture, and of the profound extent to which the British colonial period still influences American customs and assumptions. Last year, Huntington’s book Who Are We? argued against the long-standing “melting pot” or cultural-pluralism model of American identity, which holds that individuals of all nations were transformed in America into a new race. Instead, Huntington argued for the preeminence of the original Anglo-Protestant cultural identity. Each wave of immigrants to the U.S. entered a society where Anglo-Protestant values prevailed; each generation quickly conformed to these values, thus swelling the numbers of those to be encountered by succeeding generations. Huntington argued that this model accurately described the cultural absorption of all immigrants until the 1960s.

Bennett has constructed his own thesis of the Anglosphere out of this Anglo-Protestant historical inheritance. “It is our core values and characteristics that have made us dynamic,” he writes, “and it is to those values that we must return”: individualism, rule of law, the honoring of covenants, and an emphasis on freedom. The core of Bennett’s Anglosphere comprises the countries where these values are dominant: the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, English-speaking Canada, and the English-speaking Caribbean. He also includes the educated English-speaking populations of South Africa and India as important “nodes.” He describes some other former colonies, including Zimbabwe and the Philippines, as outside the inner circle but still closer to the center than to the periphery.

Bennett wants to distinguish the Anglosphere from other models of international alliance that he believes have outlived their usefulness. The principal one is the concept of “the West”: the European-descended countries that constituted Western civilization. The widening gulf between continental Europe and the U.S. shows that the concept of the West is already anachronistic. It was artificially prolonged anyway, Bennett argues, by the need for an identity to tie NATO together during the Cold War. In the post-Soviet era, there is nothing to inhibit the development of a separate identity for the English-descended civilizations.

He also rejects the model of World War II’s “special relationship” between the U.S. and Britain. A number of conservatives skeptical about his ideas have used the example of the 1956 Suez crisis, when the Eisenhower administration curtailed British intervention in Egypt, to show that nation-states have their own interests that sometimes do not coincide. Bennett agrees that “special relationships” might not endure, but he argues that he is not talking about short-term national interests and conflicts: His Anglosphere would not be a traditional treaty alliance based on geopolitical strategy or the sharing of a common enemy. Instead, Bennett sees the Anglosphere as a long-term civilizational relationship, more between the citizens of its various nations than between their governments.

His “network commonwealth” would be a series of links to promote the flow of informational products, software, and people, bypassing the gatekeeper institutions of the past. The main policy mechanisms to do this are the familiar ones of security alliances and trade and immigration agreements. Bennett emphasizes, however, that the network commonwealth cannot emulate the nation-state. Indeed, it is not a state at all, though it could potentially fulfill some of the traditional economic functions of the state. It is a means of linking smaller political communities so that they can deal with common concerns and take up common opportunities.

This network would be maintained largely through the Internet. So central to his thesis are the latest electronic communication systems that Bennett devotes his first chapter not to the Anglosphere itself but to the social and political implications of recent technological developments. He argues that technology has brought us to the verge of great breakthroughs: “The Internet and informational technologies will soon change the way the basic goods of everyday life are produced and sold, how we will all make our livings, and how these changes affect the abilities of government.” And the cultural environment needed to make the most of these changes is not something new but one built upon traditional Anglo-American values.

Bennett is aware that critics are likely to misinterpret his proposals as an attempt to breathe life into old imperialist ideas about the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon race. Far from it, he says: The Anglosphere is a cultural union that has nothing to do with race. “It recognizes that the English language and cultures derived from our common Anglosphere values are today borne by people of all races and origins.” Moreover, there is another similar cultural regime emerging in what Bennett calls the Hispanosphere, which is similarly composed of peoples from many races and origins.

Bennett knows that what he envisages cannot be created by government social engineering. It has to arise as a cultural phenomenon among those individuals who would benefit most from it. The people who constitute the Anglosphere simply need to recognize its existence and begin articulating what they already understand instinctively: They have more in common among themselves than with people of other cultures.

Nonetheless, he does have a small number of policy recommendations for national governments. He wants immigration regulations to recognize a new category of “sojourner” to make it easier for people to work in one country and return home frequently. This would eventually result, he hopes, in a reciprocal set of agreements permitting the free movement of peoples throughout the Anglosphere. He also wants a substantial extension of international free-trade agreements: If made among the core English-speaking countries alone, they would create a common market 50 percent greater than the U.S. itself.

This Anglosphere concept, Bennett contends, also has the potential to redefine American alliances in the post-Cold War era: Given that Europe’s NATO members, with the sole exception of Britain, have let military spending lapse to the point where their armed forces are technologically incapable of operating side by side with Americans in a serious conflict, it is time to build coalitions for the future in the form of permanent security alliances within the Anglosphere. Bennett notes that three coalition powers–the U.S., Britain, and Australia–are geographically situated to provide near-global security coverage.

Bennett has been working on this thesis long enough to be able to counter most of its critics. He is extremely well read in British and American history and his case is everywhere based on the most recent and impressive scholarship. Over the past decade, the trend of this scholarship has both shaped and confirmed his views. In book form, the Anglosphere thesis amounts to a formidable piece of work. Its single biggest test hinges on whether Britain fully commits itself to Europe. If it does, his drama will lose its central character and thus most of its appeal. Perhaps the major value of Bennett’s book lies in the convincing case it makes for Britain’s adhesion to the Anglosphere. Given the most recent U.N. demographic predictions for Europe–a 13 percent population decline by 2050, matched by an aging of the population that will subtract an extra 8 percent of GDP for health and welfare costs–the EU’s economic attractions are swiftly waning. On the other hand, the U.S. and Australia–with respective population growths over the same period of 36 and 27 percent–should remain economic powerhouses. Add to this the cultural connection with India, which by 2050 will pass China to become the world’s most populous nation (1.5 billion), and the prospect of an Anglosphere looks far more promising than being tied to Europe.

Success depends on whether an Anglosphere can offer its potential members some tangible short-term benefits as well as long-term promise. To date, however, the short-term gains have been thin on the ground. Some of Bennett’s prescriptions have been realized, but in ways that appear to undercut his cultural optimism. Last year, for example, the U.S. signed a free-trade agreement with Australia. Unfortunately, because the agreement was popular in Australia and Prime Minister John Howard wanted it delivered before the October 2004 election, U.S. negotiators knew they could drive a much harder bargain–so they put the interests of their domestic farming constituencies ahead of those of a loyal military ally with close cultural connections.

There has also been some action taken in line with Bennett’s call for freer global movement of people. The U.S. now waives its entry-visa requirement for short-term visitors from some 27 countries. But while the British, Australians, and New Zealanders can all take advantage of this, so can the citizens of 24 other, mainly European, countries. Hence, there is nothing about it peculiar to the Anglosphere. Further liberalization along these lines is more likely to be determined by issues of compliance and security than by cultural connection or English-language ability.

Thus, even in trade and immigration–the areas most open to potential reform in Bennett’s direction–the Anglosphere nations are unlikely any time soon to put cultural, linguistic, or sentimental connections ahead of narrower foreign-policy interests. This provides some further reasons for skepticism about how quickly and how extensively an Anglosphere could become a political reality. Far from being obsolete as Bennett suggests, the nation-state remains the bedrock of global political organization. While the Left still pins its hopes on transcending nations through organizations like the EU, and Bennett thinks nations will gradually be replaced by communications networks, there remains no other plausible way to organize an acceptable constitutional and legal system: Democratic politics, the liberal constitution, and civil society all depend upon the nation-state. The undemocratic bureaucratic centralism that dominates the EU is a clear demonstration of the lack of an acceptable institutional alternative.

Bennett is also wrong to suggest that the notion of “the West” is obsolete. The West was not simply an artifice created in 1946 to counter the USSR. Far from being an imagined community, Western civilization is an ancient historical reality that still exerts a profound cultural influence. While Bennett is right to stress Britain’s tradition of political freedom, he downplays what the heirs of Western civilization have in common. The very way Westerners think about the human condition–through the intellectual disciplines of philosophy and history–derives from ancient Greece. All of modern European culture, including that of the Anglos, is utterly dependent on the Greco-Roman cultural inheritance.

This suggests that the prevailing differences between continental Europe and the Anglosphere are unlikely to be so deep as to be immutable. In fact, it is most probable that the bureaucratic centralism to which Europe is now committed will not be permanent. Rather than fulfill the current predictions of their economic and demographic demise, at least some of the nations of Europe are likely to wake up and stage the kind of free-market economic turnaround enjoyed by Britain and the U.S. in the 1980s.

One further problem with Bennett’s thesis is his rather excessive faith in technological change. Bennett’s day job involves him in futuristic high-tech industries. He knows a great deal about their potential and is bound to generate enthusiasm among people of a like mind; the rest of us, however, are likely to remain cool until we see the results in practice. In the last ten years we have all gone through the Internet revolution, which has radically affected almost every industry and profession. Yet at the same time, we have been subject to so much speculation that has turned out to be empty or mistaken–the paperless office, self-replicating robots, all the overblown claims made during the dot-com boom–that most of us will believe it only when we see it. A network commonwealth with the kind of political impact Bennett envisages may well be a viable proposition, but it has yet to prove itself so.

Plenty of networks of the kind he envisages have spontaneously emerged in the professions, science, and academia. There is no doubt that at least some of Bennett’s technological determinism is warranted. But the political consequences he predicts are chancier: An Anglosphere is one prospect, certainly, but it is also possible that technological change will affect a far broader international spectrum, with English as the lingua franca but extending to most of the world’s developed countries and dragging into the same orbit some of the underdeveloped ones as well.

Whatever the outcome, The Anglosphere Challenge is one of the important books of our time. It establishes the centrality of British culture to the economic, technological, and political prospects of the world. The ancient traditions of the British–individual rights and responsibilities, minimal government, and a strong civil society–constitute the most reliable formula for a future that works. Even if that future turns out to be less confined to countries of British descent than Bennett predicts, it is highly likely still to be dominated by their cultural values and traditions.

Mr. Windschuttle is the author of The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past.


The Latest