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Reluctant Goliath: how America became a superpower

John Bew reviews The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order by Adam Tooze.

The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 
Adam Tooze
Allen Lane, 644pp, £30

In November 1928, ten years after the Entente’s victory in the First World War, an official at the Foreign Office sat to compose a stark assessment of the new global order in which Britain found herself. Russia, Germany, France, Japan, Italy and China were all locked in spirals of revolution and repression, and were being crippled by successive financial crises.

Although the UK was “still staggering from the effects of the superhuman effort made during the war . . . loaded with a great burden of debt . . . [and] crippled by the evil of unemployment”, it was better off than most. The empire was still intact – albeit in an altered state – and the domestic polity had survived the arrival of mass democracy in 1918, notwithstanding scares such as the General Strike of 1926. But in 1928, a year before the Wall Street Crash, one country stood supreme above all the others. In the United States, the official wrote, Great Britain was faced “with a phenomenon for which there is no parallel in our modern history – a state twenty-five times as large, five times as wealthy, three times as populous, twice as ambitious, almost invulnerable, and at least our equal in prosperity, vital energy, technical equipment and industrial strength”.

In 1917, Germany’s suicidal U-boat campaign in the Atlantic had finally forced President Woodrow Wilson to drop his position of disapproving neutrality in the war. When the United States finally entered the arena, the door to the American century was not so much unlocked as blown off its hinges – and in came a hurricane.

The Deluge tells two stories, neither of which (and this is the point) can be told with­out the other. The first is America’s coming of age as a superpower on a scale that the world had never seen and that frightened Americans as much as anyone else. The second is the way in which the other great powers – winners and losers in the First World War, from Europe to Eurasia – came to terms with the new dispensation.

Tooze is a professor of history and co-director of the international security studies programme at Yale, the intellectual home of “grand strategy” – a form of history, much beloved of statesmen, which abandons the usual “firewall” between domestic politics and foreign policy and examines how states mobilise the totality of their assets to the ends of security and power. This book is the best example of the genre since The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), produced by another British historian at Yale, Paul Kennedy. Tooze’s own previous book was a world-renowned, prize-winning study of the Nazi war economy, and in The Deluge he brings the same depth of analysis to the interwar period, covering much familiar ground but offering a bold reconceptuali­sation of the making and breaking of the liberal international order.

For Britain, which had paid for the Great War with huge loans from US banks, it was a case of “improvise or die”. There was no question of retreating meekly to the sidelines yet. It was in the interwar period that the British attempted “feats of intervention, co-ordination and stabilisation to which they had never aspired in the empire’s heyday”. But crucially, rather than push back against American hegemony, they accepted it as a fait accompli. Winston Churchill was among the first to see the selfish strategic interest in what he later called the “special relationship” but there were few dissenting voices; Britain’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was as staunch an advocate of an Anglo-American alliance as any. As Leon Trotsky put it, MacDonald “points with pride to this dog collar, calling it the best instrument of peace”.

In Weimar Germany from 1923 to 1927, Gustav Stresemann’s foreign policy was predicated on a similar logic, reconciling himself to US power. Yet others began to object to the shackles imposed by the new behemoth on the block, and what they saw as an attempt to impose a stifling status quo. In 1928, the Austrian-born radical politician Adolf Hitler warned that the “threatened global hegemony of the North American continent” would reduce the rest of the major powers to the status of a Switzerland or a Holland. In Mein Kampf, he even called for an Anglo-German alliance to resist it.

The 1929 Wall Street Crash confirmed that now, when America sneezed, the rest of the world caught much worse than a cold. Hedging one’s bets on the superpower’s next move was a risky business, however, as the inner workings of American democracy were complex. Woodrow Wilson could convince the world of his vision for a League of Nations, but not the American people.
In 1931, when Congress slapped down President Hoover’s offer of a moratorium on European war debt – which had been made to protect Wall Street investment in Germany, rather than in a spirit of benevolence – the exasperated British ambassador in Washington, Sir Ronald Lindsay, called it an “exhibition of irresponsibility, buffoonery and ineptitude that could hardly be paralleled by the Haitian legislature”.

By the 1930s, for all their differences, the leaders of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union began to unite as insurgents against this oppressive Pax Americana. Indeed, one of the great ironies of the Great Depression era was that it was the rebellious nationalist camp that adopted “positive” economic policies, in contrast to the austerity and deflationary orthodoxy preferred by defenders of the liberal order. As Stalin told factory workers in 1931, at the outset of his Five-Year Plans, “To slacken the pace would mean to lag behind, and those who lag behind are beaten.”

Some have seen the collapse of the peace movement, disintegration of the liberal order and insipidness of the League of Nations as the ultimate rebuke to the naive democratic idealism of the interwar years, embodied by Wilsonianism. For Tooze, this is the wrong lesson to learn. In his view, in fact, “the restless search for a new way of securing order and peace was the expression not of deluded idealism, but of a higher form of realism”. Its failure was not inevitable and can be explained in two ways.

The first was the determination of revanchist (fascist and revolutionary) powers that mobilised every resource they had in an effort to escape the “chain gang” of nations marching behind the US. The second, more important, was that America itself remained a reluctant Goliath, hamstrung in its attempt to construct a viable grand strategy by a strange anxiety about its own fragility. Thus Wilson appears as not a naive internationalist, but a Burkean conservative, deeply concerned by the prospect that foreign entanglements with the “Dark Continent” of Europe or the “Oriental races” of Asia would corrupt the health and vigour of the American republic.

Here was the paradox: “At the hub of the rapidly evolving American-centred world system was a polity wedded to a conservative vision of its own future.”

The Deluge leaves us with a picture not of the clichéd brash and unthinking Yankee new imperialist power, but of an oddly insecure superstate: preferring to sit aloof from the rapacious battles and power games played by others; not quite at ease with its own recent tumultuous past; and still coming to terms with modernity having presented it with responsibilities that it had never envisaged.

From the British perspective, as the Foreign Office official put it in 1928, it was always better to have America in the game than out of it. The problem was that “in almost every field, the advantages to be derived from mutual co-operation are greater for us than for them”. 

John Bew is a historian and New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war