Anglo-American history

Posted: Nov 20, 2003 12:00 AM

It is not often that President Bush has invoked William Tyndale, the martyred reformer who translated the Bible into English in the 16th century, in the course of defending the war on terrorism. But Bush's speech at Whitehall Palace in London was different. It was not just a defense of the war on terror, but of a common Anglo-American civilization whose leadership is indispensable to the security and freedom of the world.

Bush defined American qualities that have sometimes prompted international eye-rolling and criticism during the past two years -- a faith in liberty, a crusading moralism, etc. -- as part of this country's British inheritance. Hence, Tyndale's appearance in a terrorism speech. "It's rightly said that Americans are a religious people," Bush said. "That's, in part, because the Good News was translated by Tyndale, preached by Wesley, lived out in the example of William Booth." They weren't the only great British historical figures appearing in Bush's speech -- there was John Locke and Adam Smith and Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce.

Bush was summoning the men who created the greatest miracle in human governance ever, the shared British and American experiment with liberty that has so increased human freedom and prosperity through the centuries. In their mutual attachment to this experiment, Americans and the British are brothers. As Bush put it, "There remains a bit of England in every American," and our common beliefs hold "whether one learns these ideals in County Durham or in West Texas." This connection is crucial to understanding the Bush-Tony Blair bond during the past two years, and the increasing U.S. tensions with Continental Europe, as represented by France.

It is no accident that Britain has been the staunchest ally of the United States since Sept. 11. In both countries, power bubbles up from below in decentralized political systems that depend on popular sovereignty and give a wide berth to commercial energies. Then there are the common bloodlines. Liberty in its modern sense was -- to simplify terribly -- born in East Anglia, the hotbed of the reformist forces in the English Civil War and the source of many American settlers who carried their ideals with them to these shores. A distinctive worldview therefore unites Britain and the United States, and the rest of the English-speaking world. The staunchest U.S. ally in the war on terror besides Britain has been Australia.

Continental Europe has a different tradition, more centralized and less democratic. When a Stuart tyrant was losing his head in 17th-century Britain, other monarchs were consolidating their power in the rest of Europe. Distrustful of nationalism, suspicious of the use of force after two world wars on its soil and increasingly secular, Continental Europeans naturally look askance at Bush's muscular war on terrorism, with its religious overtones and its populist, patriotic backing in the United States. The passage in Bush's speech that might have jarred Cornell European ears most was his simple insistence on, when necessary, "restraining aggression and evil by force."

The European Union, with its "democracy deficit" and its ambition to erode away the nation state, stems from this distinctive Continental worldview. One of the most important geopolitical questions in years ahead will be whether Britain is submerged into this project entirely, or maintains its flexibility and ability to preserve its special relationship with the United States. It is paramount that the United States work to keep Britain from being lost to the E.U., that London become a leader of the peripheral and post-communist states in forging a looser European community that doesn't cede sovereignty to a Franco-German superstate.

Then Anglo-America can continue its march. Britain and America have spread liberty to the world across the centuries, and, as Bush made clear in his Whitehall speech, there is still work to be done. If that work is successful, perhaps Bush and Blair will someday earn their own small place on the honor roll of Anglo-American history -- a questing, dynamic tradition that is not done yet.