Walter Russell Mead
God and Gold

The rise of the formerly insignificant kingdom of Prussia to great power status had destabilized European power relations. France and Austria, formerly bitter enemies, overcame their differences and joined with Russia to crush the upstart. If successful, this coalition would unite Europe under anti-British powers; Britain needed to protect its overseas empire from the French while helping Prussia. As the fighting spread, in May of 1756 Britain declared war on France, and the war officially began.

French victories in North America continued through 1761, but as the war went worldwide, the new British leader, William Pitt, decided to assemble the full resources of the maritime system for an all-out global war against the French. Pitt was an extraordinary figure at an extraordinary moment. Known as 'the Great Commoner' because, unlike most leading British politicians of the era, he did not have and, apparently, did not seek a noble title, Pitt came to public notice when he accepted the position of paymaster-general, one of the most lucrative offices in the British government—and promptly and ostentatiously refused to accept the very large customary bribes, fees, and other emoluments that went with it.

Pitt not only stood for a more modern, efficient, and meritocratic state; he had an instinctive understanding of global strategy and the maritime system. The Pitt family fortune was established by Thomas Pitt, who set out to trade illegally in India in defiance of the East India Company monopoly. The outraged company agents fined and imprisoned the interloper, but he was so determined and canny that the company ultimately gave up. They put the fox in charge of the chicken coop: they made him the governor of the company post at Madras. While ensconced there, Pitt bought a 410-carat diamond despite its surprising checkered past (the man he bought it from maintained that he had bought it from an English sea captain who had stolen it from a slave who had smuggled the stone out of the mines in a wound in his leg). Pitt realized a considerable fortune from the sale of the diamond (cut to 136 carats) to the French regent, who placed it among his country's crown jewels. Stolen in the French Revolution, it was later recovered, and Napoleon subsequently wore it on the pommel of his sword. It can still be seen in the Louvre.

With the fortune he made in India, Thomas—who soon became Sir Thomas—acquired control of the 'rotten borough' of old Sarum. Once a prosperous country town, by the time of Queen Anne Old Sarum mainly consisted of a few uninhabited ruins dotting a grassy hill near Stonehenge. Fortunately what it lacked in population it made up in parliamentary representation, and the empty borough retained a seat in the House of Commons. In effect, this seat became the property of the Pitt family, and ensured that William Pitt could face the electorate with calm and equanimity whatever the political weather.

But this also meant that Britain in 1757 had a prime minister who understood how an open society and unfettered capitalist enterprise enabled a country and its citizens to succeed in global competition. He saw how this economic power could translate into military and political power.

As no one before him, Pitt understood the full shape and nature of British power. He understood that he was fighting a world war, and that Britain's twin advantages were its global sea power and its prosperous economy. He determined to use the one to increase the other, and, taxing the British people as never before, he used Britain's credit rating and its financial markets to borrow sums that boggled the minds of his contemporaries. He spent lavishly to bring Britain's military power to a new peak of size and efficiency. With one hand, he sent prodigal subsidies to help Britain's desperate Prussian ally to survive its encircling enemies in Europe. With the other, he ordered armies and fleets to the major theaters in the global war: India and America.

Bankrupting the enemy while crushing him: this was the strategy that Ronald Reagan would use against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Reagan attacked Soviet economic interests by placing sanctions on its economy and the economies of its satellites; he sent military aid to the USSR's enemies and opponents from Central America to Afghanistan. And, while doing all this, he inaugurated a high-tech arms race that the Soviet Union could not win. The American economy became a decisive weapon of war, as Britain's had been against France under Pitt.

In India, the Seven Years' War in 1756 came at the height of an escalating Anglo-French struggle to control the south. Determined efforts by resourceful French agents had built a network of alliances with local rulers, and the French nourished hopes of driving the British out of their lucrative trading post in Madras. A string of island bases—Reunion, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar—could shelter French forces and trading ships making the long run from Europe. For the French as for the British, communication with their home base was the key to their local strength. Weapons and supplies had to come from the homeland; without secure communication home trade withered and died, and without trade their local power would do likewise.

Pitt's navy drove the French flag from the Indian Ocean. As the final contest for supremacy between French and British agents in India began, the French were completely cut off—while the British had secure lines of communication and supply.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.