In an English Country Garden

by John O’Sullivan
The world situation, as seen from across the Atlantic.

Not all English country gardens are in the country. The one in which I enjoyed al fresco drinks before dinner last weekend is in the middle of Kensington, in central London, but behind high walls and a mile away from the noise of heavy traffic, it could be in rural Kent or Wiltshire or any of the Midsomer Murders counties. The weather had been forecast to be thunderous and rainy; so it was in fact the cool, dry end of a hot day under a blue sky. The lawns were clipped, the trees shady, the flowers barely moving in a light occasional breeze. In short, an idyllic scene.

Our hosts were a distinguished Anglo-American poet and historian and his American wife, herself a literary critic, who make an annual visit from California to see friends in London. As well as being hosts, they too are guests, since other friends make this historic house and garden available to them for their visit and entertaining.

Their dinner guests tonight included two prominent historians (one an expatriate, one at home in England), a novelist, a writer specializing in the Middle East, the wife of an EU government minister, two journalists (one American but living in London, another English but peripatetic), an English interior decorator, her daughter, who has just graduated from college, and the novelist’s wife, who, as a young woman (and a British diplomatic “brat”), had lived in the Washington embassy.

When we arrived, the other guests were clustered around the American journalist, who was saying resignedly: “I’ve spent the afternoon poring over photographs . . . the downed Ukrainian airliner . . . the crash scene . . . it all points to the pro-Russian separatists . . . beyond them to Putin . . . ”

We all wanted to know if there would now be any kind of serious judicial investigation into what looked like a major international crime. Apparently the black boxes were in the hands of the separatists and, according to some reports, already in Moscow. Would they be handed over to the Dutch or the Malaysians as the formal interested parties?

“Probably, but even if the black boxes are in mint condition, untouched, they will tell us only what happened to and on the plane. We know the basic truth about that. . . . What we don’t know fully yet is how close Russia’s own military intelligence was to the final decision to shoot down the airliner. . . . Did they let the separatists decide? . . . After all, Putin is still shipping masses of military equipment over the border to them. Will there be other missile firings? And if so, will we do anything about it?”

There was a general feeling that we would do something about it — eventually. An appeasement policy always reaches a point where either the other power is successfully appeased and becomes a friend or it is revealed to be a firm enemy that will be strengthened by further appeasement. Neville Chamberlain reached that point in March 1939 when Hitler took the rump of Czechoslovakia. Had that point now been reached?

“We are close to it, but not quite there,” said the European minister’s wife. “We are at the point where we all agree that sacrifices have to be made in containing a revanchist Russia, but where we each think the other nations should make the bigger sacrifice. But agreement can’t be too long in coming. Everyone can see, for instance, the absurdity of France selling warships to a country that is at this very moment invading its neighbor and shooting down civilian airliners.”

Allies around the garden table could agree easily enough on a general NATO-EU program of shared sacrifice: Britain should impose financial sanctions on Russian money; France should cancel its sale of warships to the Kremlin; Germany should reduce its dependence on Russian energy. The minister’s wife wanted to go beyond the energy sanctions by establishing a common European energy policy that would negotiate as a bloc with Moscow in order to prevent the Kremlin “punishing” a single country such as Ukraine in future.

That in turn would increase the power and influence of Berlin in this and later crises, others objected. But was Chancellor Angela Merkel someone who would take strong action, either now or later? The minister’s wife thought so. Merkel, she said, took a long time to reach a tough decision, but she got there in the end, and then she was firm in sticking to it.

“And she knows that Putin lies to her all the time,” she said. He was still telling her that Russia was not sending advanced weapons to the separatists in Ukraine. That was foolish of him. It would make a difference sometime, maybe soon.

But what should the U.S. do until then? And what was it doing? Here there was — well, let’s call it a nuanced view. Most people thought that the Obama administration was somewhat bolder than the Europeans in proposing sanctions and making modest military moves, but also that saying this wasn’t saying a great deal. And some were much more critical.

One of the historians, asked what he would do, suggested giving Ukraine tactical nuclear weapons. After all, Washington had persuaded Ukraine to surrender its nukes in 1994 under an agreement on which the Russians had now reneged. Returning those weapons to Kiev would be a very suitable payback to Moscow — not to mention a deterrent preventing the outright Russian invasion of Ukraine that lurks at the back of every discussion.

How likely was such a move, though? As others pointed out, the Obama administration has so far refused to send Ukraine even the modern conventional weapons systems that would enable the country to fight the “separatists,” mercenaries, and Russian military volunteers on its territory. Its recent battlefield successes have been won with older Soviet equipment.

Moreover, Obama’s overall foreign policy, characterized as it is by illusion and inertia, had helped the Europeans to treat the growing power of Russia as at best beneficial, at worst nothing much to worry about. He had presided over Hillary Clinton’s “reset” policy towards Russia and rebuffed the 2009 appeal from Central Europe’s leaders to strengthen America’s ties to its allies in the region. And his overall foreign policy was collapsing around him.

“Yes, he wins the George III prize,” said the English historian gloomily. “I never thought I’d say this about anyone, but he’s an even worse president than Jimmy Carter.”

Will he have equally bad consequences?

When a superpower declines, it creates neurotic state behavior among its clients. Alliances are difficult to manage at the best of times, because states see allies as rivals too. Sometimes they are more conscious of an intra-alliance rivalry than of the hostility of an avowed enemy. Thus a superpower never really likes a lesser ally’s taking independent action, even in the common interest.

In 1956, at the height of postwar U.S. dominance (recalled the Daughter of the Embassy), the U.S. State Department ordered its officials to cease all communication with British diplomats in Washington, even to the point of refusing their telephone calls, following Anglo-American differences over the Suez crisis.

“This official cold shoulder lasted six months,” she said sweetly. “I think it must have ended about the time that John Foster Dulles said to [the British foreign secretary] Selwyn Lloyd, who was visiting him in hospital: ‘Hell, Selwyn, why did you stop? Why didn’t you go through with it and get Nasser down?’ Which left the Brits gasping for breath, since Dulles and Eisenhower had stopped the Anglo-French operation to appease Arab nationalism. So, you see, if Europe is to take stronger measures over Ukraine, it will need to be absolutely clear that America can take strong action and that it will take strong action.”

The mention of Suez prompted a change of subject to the Middle East. That weekend had seen in London a large march — estimates of the marchers ranged from 15,000 to 100,000 — of people protesting Israel’s incursion into Gaza. It meandered from Parliament through London to the Israeli embassy in Kensington, three minutes away from our country garden.

It passed off peacefully enough, perhaps because of the massive police presence, with helicopters and medics, along the route. It was an odd combination of a traditional English Left carnival, with the sandal-wearers and fruit-juice drinkers from Orwell’s time, and a Muslim religious procession, with bearded men waving anti-Israel placards and women in burqas trailing children behind them. But it was something else too.

“I didn’t like the way that the march spilled over from the streets onto the sidewalks,” said the novelist. “That’s new. Ordinary passers-by and shoppers were pushed to the side. It was like a show of force, and slightly threatening — especially outside the Israeli embassy. The dogmatic ignorance of the marchers is sinister too. If they were really informed about the Middle East, they would go to the embassy of Syria, which has killed far more people than Israel without the remotest excuse of self-defense.”

“Or they would go to the embassies of Egypt or the Gulf states, which are quietly delighted by the deconstruction of Hamas and its network of tunnels,” added the writer on Middle Eastern topics. “But I suppose that wouldn’t fit the narrative of Israel as the sole cause of conflict in the region.”

The interior decorator was puzzled about that: “But why is that narrative so dominant? Not only on the BBC and in the Guardian but in the universities, in the government, even in newspapers editorially sympathetic to Israel. And we know that a march to the Russian embassy protesting the real outrage of a downed airliner would never attract such a large crowd. Why not?”

“London has given refuge to political exiles since Metternich and Marx,” replied the other historian after a pause. “But the numbers of any one group were never large enough to sway domestic politics. Their children soon became British. Tony Blair, by enabling massive immigration, helped to create Londonistan, with a disproportionately Muslim population. That’s bound to influence national debate until Britain’s Muslims are assimilated and their children fully British — which may take some time. Ironically, Blair’s immigration policy helped to undermine his own foreign policy.”

The interior decorator persisted: “So the result is . . . ?”

“That debate in Britain is skewed against Israel, whereas debate on Ukraine is more likely to be decided on its merits. So we’ll snipe at Israel diplomatically and urge sanctions on Russia to help Ukraine,” responded the historian.

There was a pause as the guests drank in this summary.

“Gaza . . . Donetsk . . . Kiev . . . Tel Aviv . . . they all seem so far away from this lovely garden,” said the Daughter of the Embassy. “But I suppose that’s what we said about Czechoslovakia in 1938, and probably about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand 100 years ago next month.”

“Of course, it didn’t take long before we intervened in those conflicts voluntarily,” interjected the historian.

“Yes, I know we did,” she replied with a sigh. “But suppose we hadn’t. Order doesn’t keep itself. Wouldn’t the Fascists and the Communists, the terrorists and the jihadists, and all the other forces of anarchy eventually have come clambering over those walls to destroy a garden they could never plant and nurture for themselves? And won’t they do so in future if we give them the chance?”

Our hostess made a timely intervention with the news that dinner was on the table. And twilight settled on the garden.

Author’s note: Last weekend I was a guest at two dinners in the same English country garden. This squib of a piece is an attempt to capture the mood, tone, and sentiments of both occasions, which indeed were very similar. My fellow guests were as described in the piece, but some were present at the first dinner, some at the second. Some of the quotations are remarks actually made around the table; others are my summary of such remarks; still others are my remarks attributed to others; and all of them are framed in an argument designed and written by me (as film credits usually put it). It is not therefore a factual journalistic report. I think it comes close to being a dramatized documentary. But the safest way of describing the piece is probably as a piece of fiction drawing on actual events and actual people. Please don’t bother to try identifying the actual people, though; in the piece some are composites, some have been split into two persons, and some are dummies to my ventriloquist. All that said, one of the guests who was at both parties assures me that this is how it was.

—​ John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

Did you like this?