Is This the End of the Anglosphere?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Look around the Western world. Which country’s politics seem the most shambolic? In the past, your eyes might have headed instinctively toward southern Europe. The politicians in Athens, Madrid and Rome are certainly trying hard, but if you want dysfunctionality, there are only two places to go: Washington and London.
America’s government was shut for a long stretch of this year — and now President Donald Trump is stuck in a row with Congress over whether there is a national emergency on the southern border of the United States. Britain’s government is meandering toward Brexit with all the discipline of a drunk on an icy road. If nothing changes, the United Kingdom will topple out of the European Union in five weeks.
Is this the end of “the Anglosphere”? For nearly four decades, America and Britain have touted the benefits of open markets, globalization and personal freedom. Now that voice has either shrunk to a murmur, or is singing a very different tune. It is not silent yet, but the faltering partnership that has set the mood music for much of the world is something that matters far beyond the English-speaking world. You may not like pontificating Anglos, but everybody who cares about liberty and the rule of law should pray for them to be heard.
By “Anglosphere,” this pontificating Anglo means something narrower than the fifth of the world that speaks English; this is about the U.S. and Britain. And yet it’s a definition that is also meant to encompass something much more powerful and evangelical than the tweedy “special relationship.”
A half-century ago, Britain was certainly America’s closest ally, with strong historical, military and personal ties and a shared aversion to communism and the Soviet Union. Still, it was hardly evangelical. In the 1970s, Britain was both farther left and far less successful than America; not that the United States, limping through Vietnam and Watergate, looked especially inspirational either.
All this changed in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The Anglosphere broadcast a message that handbagged the world: Words like “privatization” and “deregulation” became commonplace, first in the West and then in the emerging and ex-communist realms. As Victor Hugo once pointed out, “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come,” and globalization jumped forward, driven by technology as well as ideology. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton; Blair and George W. Bush; David Cameron and Barack Obama — a succession of youngish prophets walked the world, telling people what to do, with various degrees of smugness.
Again the United States was the bigger and more influential partner; Britain’s economy is smaller than California’s and its total defense budget is less than half the size of the U.S. Navy’s. But the fact that America had a partner that spoke the same language (on many different levels) made the alliance greater than the sum of its parts. Britain gave the Anglosphere a voice in the European Union (indeed, French moans about Disneyfication and le défi américain were gradually replaced by ones about Anglo-Saxon capitalism and mondialisation). Britain also brought a lot of soft power. It came to the table with an unusually global media, Oxbridge, and, of course, London, a commercial entrepôt rivaling New York in finance and cosmopolitanism.
Gradually, the Anglosphere became a presumption. Some countries hated its message; many more wanted to adapt it to their needs, or delay it. Nevertheless, the presumption, even in places as hostile to it as Brussels and Beijing, was a grudging acceptance that most countries, if they wanted to do well, would have to become more Anglo. The recognition that Silicon Valley had such a hold on technology only added to this sense of inevitability.
Looking back, this presumption was more vulnerable than anyone realized. Although the Sept. 11 attacks initially united the world behind the Anglosphere, the idea that Britain and America were on the right side of history was brutally questioned by the bloody quagmire in Iraq, the illiberal horrors of Guantanamo, and then the credit crunch. What’s more, as China continued to rise, a rival trumpet began to sound that was especially attractive to governments across the emerging world: The “Beijing consensus” promoted the idea that authoritarianism was a better spur for prosperity than “chaotic” laissez faire.
It wasn’t until 2016, however, that the Anglosphere fell to pieces. First came Brexit, which has silenced Britain almost completely. It is not just the unseemly, all-consuming chaos that it has unleashed. The sense of Britain as a liberal, outward-looking country has been reversed. Even if a few Brexiteers want to create a free-trading Singapore on the Thames, the movement is dominated by Little Englanders scared of Johnny Foreigner. Britain has gone from the emerging world’s lecturer to its beggar: When Theresa May shows up in Africa, it is to plead for trade deals. The strutting home of the Rolling Stones has become like the fallen heroine of “Like a Rolling Stone”: “Now you don’t talk so loud/Now you don’t seem so proud…”
The election of Donald Trump has proved a bigger blow. Nobody could accuse the U.S. president of singing quietly or walking unproudly; the problem comes with the song he is bellowing. The Anglosphere is now led by a man who dislikes globalization, wants to quit pretty much every global institution, and yearns to protect his border with a wall. Soft power has no value to him. He shuns the language of Liberty. In the past, America was accused of either being hypocritical — hiding national interest behind words like “freedom” — or naive. Now America has a president who seldom mentions freedom or human rights, and whose slogan is simply “America First.” It is a stunning change.
Worst of all, the Anglosphere is no longer very popular with Anglos. Far from viewing globalization as “their” movement, many Britons and Americans associate it with a rootless elite trampling on John Bull and Uncle Sam. Witness Theresa May’s attack on these “citizens of nowhere,” or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s joyous tweet that Amazon’s withdrawal from New York was a sign its citizens had triumphed over “corporate greed, worker exploitation and the power of the richest man in the world.” Like Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, AOC wants to take her country back to the 1970s, before Reagan and Thatcher ruined everything.
Good riddance, some will say. A world with fewer pontificating Anglophones is one that many people will find reassuring. But look at the collateral damage. The place on the stage that America and Britain used to occupy has not been filled by worthy European social democrats like Emmanuel Macron; instead autocrats spouting fake news have come to the fore. In a world of “America First,” tyrants of all persuasions don’t have to go through the motions of mentioning freedom. Economically, free trade is in retreat. The beliefs that the Anglosphere promoted were, on the whole, useful ones that helped pull a billion people out of poverty. The global institutions and laws that the Anglosphere supported generally helped keep the peace.
The hope is that the Anglosphere will recover. Note that eight of the world’s 10 biggest companies are American. The Anglosphere still dominates higher education, technology and finance. China is slowly being forced to open its markets. The schadenfreude that continental Europeans felt about the woes of Wall Street and the City of London after the Great Recession has been replaced with misery about the fragility of their own banks and the euro zone. And don’t write off the appeal of freedom: Look around the developing world, and the enthusiasm that autocrats feel for the Beijing consensus does not seem to have reached their people. Who knows? The Chinese middle classes may yet discover a need for democracy and representation. Of course, the Anglosphere’s politics can change, too: Donald Trump could be a one-term president, and even if Brexit looks unlikely to be reversed, there is a decent chance of avoiding both a chaotic no-deal exit and a Corbyn premiership.
Still, if a recovery is to happen, it has to happen soon. History does not wait for dysfunctional countries to sort themselves out. An idea whose time has come can soon become one whose time has passed: Old roads do indeed “rapidly age.” The Anglosphere changed the world for lots of reasons, but one was because it had sustained momentum. Let’s hope it recovers it soon.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
John Micklethwait is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News.
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