If polls are any indication, it is better than even money that Nancy Pelosi will be the next Speaker of the House. She seems confident, anyway. So it is prudent to take her seriously. For one thing, Congress sometimes does serious work. Also, she will be second in line of succession to the White House. And, then, her status will validate the stands she takes on various issues: She won’t be some crackpot representative from a district no one cares about; she will be … “the Speaker.” If she comes out in favor of banning hamburgers, it will be time seriously to consider selling any shares you own in McDonalds.
On the old reliables, like raising taxes and expanding the welfare state, there is no mystery about where she stands and what the damage will be if her views prevail. We’ve been there before, though, and the American economy has survived even Congress.
Pelosi’s positions on social and cultural issues are also fully predictable, and, safe to say, those struggles will outlast her. No matter where you stand, she won’t matter much. Forces far larger than she are in motion here.
This leaves the big eternal — war and peace. Or, in the modern vernacular, “national security.”
Let’s do something eccentric in today’s politics and take Mrs. Pelosi at her word.
Three years ago, on the matter of anti-missile defense, in a congressional debate, her exact words were:
The United States does not need a multi-billion-dollar national missile defense against the possibility of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile.
What we need is a strong nonproliferation policy with other nations to combat the most serious threat to our national security and to the safety of the world — weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists who would smuggle them into our cities.
No ambiguity there. Fair to say that between weapons (even defensive weapons) and treaties, she’ll come down on the side of treaties every time. It’s an old preference — good, in its time, for a handful of Nobel Peace Prizes — with a pretty dismal track record.
In 1929, the American secretary of State, Frank B. Kellogg, and a Frenchman named Briand ginned up a treaty that bore their names. This modest little document simply outlawed war as an instrument of national policy. You have to wonder why nobody had ever thought of it before. Sixty-two nations ultimately signed up for no more war, Germany and Japan among them. We all know, of course, how that one turned out. Fifty million dead in World War II, which began, depending on how you look at it, when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1933 or Germany invaded Poland in 1939. But if the treaty was bad for the world, it was good for Mr. Kellogg, who copped the 1929 Peace Prize. Briand already had one.
In 1931, incidentally, the award went to Nicholas Murray Butler, who was a strong influence on Kellogg and is best remembered for his robust anti-Semitism and as a longtime president of Columbia University, where he would be right at home today.
It is easy to mock Kellogg-Briand — though it was not the work of cranks — as abstract and unrealistic. Of course you don’t just outlaw war, someone with Pelosi’s views would argue. You have to get specific and go after the things you can control. Like arms.
Well, we tried that, too. It was after World War I and America’s secretary of State hosted a conference in Washington that was aimed at limiting naval construction. The august Charles Evans Hughes electrified the world when he announced that the U.S. was prepared not merely to quit work on new battleships but to scrap some that were already in existence. The conference then went on to hammer out an agreement about relative strengths of various nation’s fleets, the permitted tonnages for certain classes of ships, permissible strengthening of bases, and so forth. Since it had emerged from World War I rich and unscathed, the U.S. gave up the most to clinch the deal. America could have out-built the world in warships. It chose not to. Not, anyway, until after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Hughes’ treaty had done so littleto defend against.
Hughes later became chief justice of the Supreme Court, but for some reason, he never bagged a Nobel.
When, and if, Pelosi becomes speaker, she will bring with her a faith in treaties and disdain for weapons. The argument against anti-missile systems — since Reagan’s opponents first disdained them as “Star Wars” — is that the technology is just too complicated. But eventually most engineering problems are solved; what once looked impossible soon seems routine. Why is it that the same people who believe that larger appropriations will result in a cure for AIDS can’t imagine engineers working out a system that could intercept an incoming missile from — just to pick a nation at random — North Korea?
As a result of follies like the Washington Naval Treaty and Kellogg-Briand, the U.S. and Great Britain lost valuable time that could have been spent preparing to defend themselves and deterring their enemies. John F. Kennedy dealt somberly with this lapse in Why England Slept.
A faith in treaties and international organizations allowed people who should have known better to pretend that everything was jake and to slumber on.
These days, when it is dangerous to nod off even for a minute, Nancy Pelosi is asleep at the switch.
— Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.