The United States and Britain should not be so downhearted about the present strategic malaise in which they both now find themselves. True, it is mainly their own fault and it will be for future historians to allocate blame, or pity, as events in the Middle East, South Asia, or even within NATO, play themselves out. But strategic malaise is a normal condition for powers at the apex of a dominant civilisation; lesser powers and revisionist powers are the ones who have clear strategies.
Dominant powers wear their strategies as if they were simply facts of international life. So it is with the United States, and even with twenty first century Britain. For the fact remains that Britain or the United States, either individually or together, have prevailed in every major – strategically important – conflict of the last three hundred years. Every single one. From the War of the League of Augsberg, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence (where only one of them decisively won), the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, the Second World War, to the Cold War, one or both powers have prevailed. Their defeats have been in strategically unimportant conflicts. This has been both a symptom and a cause of the dominance of the ‘Anglo-sphere’ in modern international history, and though it may be a politically incorrect to talk about it these days, it nevertheless stands as a basic fact of modern history.
The converse, of course, is that the policy-makers in London and Washington have never really known what to do with these strategically significant military victories. But they must have been doing something right to have dominated so much of the modern history of the world, even without much strategic vision. These ideas are wonderfully expressed in the latest masterly work of Walter Russell Mead in his ‘God and Gold’ book – how Britain and America shaped the modern world. And the point of Russell Mead’s work is not lost on analysts of the current strategic malaise. If the dominant Anglo-sphere powers do not know quite how to interpret, let alone employ, their stunning victory in the Cold War, we should not be surprised. But equally, we must ask whether perhaps we have got ourselves, for the first time, into a strategically important conflict in the ‘war on terror’ that we might not win in a meaningful sense; and whether that 300 year old domination of the rules of international politics is coming to a natural end. Russell Mead would say not – or at least not necessarily, as long as we can be honest with ourselves and recognise our inherent strengths and weaknesses. But others would vociferously disagree. Even if the ‘Anglo-sphere’ ever really existed in this way, they argue, it is surely finished now in the face of complex globalisation. The rules of the game are everyone’s rules, the victories and defeats are everyone’s problem in an interdependent world.
It’s a tough circle to square. But lamenting the lack of ‘strategy’ in Washington or London – or for that matter in Berlin, Paris, Tokyo or Ottawa – is not really the point any more. The arguments about power, influence and ‘who makes the rules’ is much more about what sort of societies we are than about what sorts of strategy our leaders claim to be pursuing. And that’s the fundamental prize at stake in the war on – or is it just the problem of? – terror. We will win or lose that war according to who we are, much more than by what we do. Britain and the US have different circumstances to confront in their campaigns against terrorism. But the prize is the same for both: societies that are not frightened by terrorists, that prevail over terrorism without having to transform themselves into something they are naturally not, and which continue to represent a standard of freedom and liberality in a world where these attributes cannot simply be taken for granted.