The disintegration of the Western Alliance was a predictable response to the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of a threat to the security of the entire democratic world. For most of the 20th century, first an imperialist and then a rabidly nationalist and racist Germany, and then Soviet Russia and international Communism, threatened the West, led by the Americans, British, and French, as the premier democracies. The United States provided the margin of victory at the end of World War I and furnished emergency assistance to Great Britain to keep it in the war in 1940–41. Roosevelt compared unlimited assistance to Britain and Canada to lending your garden hose to a neighbor fighting a fire, as he extended U.S. territorial waters from three to 1,800 miles and ordered the U.S. Navy to attack any German vessel on detection. (He declared most of the North Atlantic “a neutrality zone,” but it was an odd definition of neutrality.) The only time a U.S. president sought a third term, our civilization depended on his receiving it.
Germany, allied to the USSR, Italy, and Japan, had overrun France and crushed half of the shield, composed of the French army and the British navy, that had been America’s front line of defense for most of the previous century. The U.S. provided most of the war supplies of the Allies, and most Western military capacity in World War II, although the Russians serendipitously absorbed more than 90 percent of the casualties and physical damage incurred subduing Germany, after their shameful alliance with the Nazis blew up. And the U.S. was the overwhelmingly preeminent leader of the Western Alliance that contained the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
When Stalin unleashed the Cold War, he committed the third-greatest strategic error of the century, after Wilhelm II’s recourse to indiscriminate submarine war against neutral American shipping in 1917 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. President Truman and his chief advisers led the reconstruction of Europe with the Marshall Plan and the protection of the West with the purely defensive North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in which an attack upon one was an attack upon all. The Free World was deemed to include Franco, Salazar, Syngman Rhee, the Shah, Saudi Arabia, and the over-bemedalled Ruritanian juntas of Latin America, but almost all of those countries became democracies in the course of the Cold War. There were errors, most conspicuously Vietnam, but it must be said that American strategic direction was masterly, from Roosevelt’s Quarantine Speech in Chicago in 1937 to the fall of the Berlin Wall (officially the “Anti-Fascist Defense Barrier”) in 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union like a soufflé.
There followed the brief shining moment when America, the omnipotent superstate, bestrode the world as an unassuming, unaspiring colossus. It had no strategy to execute such a role, and was under no particular pressure to devise one. There has been no mortal threat. Of course the terrorists and militant Islam generally are a terrible and often tragic nuisance, but try as demographers might to conjure up the proliferation of swaddled terrorists as an existential threat, the Islamic countries do not remotely possess the ability to endanger the entire West and other more or less civilized areas such as India and China, as Nazism and Soviet Communism did. The post–Cold War United States made a few purposeful noises, such as George H. W. Bush’s “new world order” (reviving a phrase of Hitler’s from the Thirties, which Roosevelt dismissed with the comment that it “is not new and it is not order”).
Unthreatened, though not unprovoked, like an athlete that goes out of training and affronts the mayor of New York City’s dietary restrictions, the United States quickly built up an $800 billion current-account deficit, which in the last five years it has topped up with $1.5 trillion annual federal budget deficits, and an explosion of debt that has all the characteristics of deferred, vastly inflationary money-supply increases. It accounts for 46 percent of world military spending, but practically all of its conventional ground-forces military capacity was tied up for a whole decade in the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, which do not now look like they accomplished anything even slightly worthy of the 6,000 American dead and the nearly $2 trillion that have been lost there.
George W. Bush abused the solidarity of the Western Alliance and even the United Nations after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by ushering 48 countries into Afghanistan, and then largely decamping to Iraq. The beneficiary of Western largesse in Afghanistan, the arch-thief and ingrate Karzai, played footsie for a decade with terrorists financed by Pakistan, to some degree with American aid, and now has the effrontery to accuse the United States of fomenting Taliban aggression. No sane person mourns the passing of Saddam Hussein, whom the senior Bush could easily have disposed of in the Gulf War of 1990 (and who died with comparative dignity, his hanging filmed on a cell phone, having been fished ignominiously by American soldiers out of a hole in the ground). But almost nothing connected to the U.S. national interest has been achieved by these exertions.
Now we have the demeaning spectacle of the administration’s blundering into sequestration and claiming that budgetary constraints prevent sending the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf, as Obama’s lassitude has practically ensured a nuclear-armed Iran. (It is even claimed that school tours of the White House are now unaffordable.)
This administration has abdicated from world leadership, and the “pivot to Asia” is really a retrenchment to America. The regions of the world can and should resume the management of their own security. The only one that is really a high-explosive area is the Middle East, and the U.S. has not shown any aptitude to ameliorate political conditions there since the Bush-Sharon agreement that accompanied the Israeli departure from Gaza in 2005. The Middle East will probably become a nuclear-armed camp bristling with atomic weapons in the hands of all the major local players, from Turkey to Pakistan. I do not think this has been well thought out by the recent and current American leadership, but the U.S. never promised to take care of the security needs of the world permanently and most of its allies, all but the British, Canadians, and Australians, were just hangers-on anyway.
This process of disintegration is evident in every region. China is acting out the old playbook of bumptious new powers, like Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and like Germany after Wilhelm II, in a premonitory bout of insanity, dismissed Bismarck in 1890. The Chinese are claiming the international waters around them as their “lake,” like Mussolini describing the Mediterranean (before the British navy smashed his fleet). Latin America is riven between the witless and larcenous populism of Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, and the countries that are actually progressing toward or have arrived at mature government, led by Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Peru. Africa and the Arab world are in convulsive turmoil.
The most startling realignment is in Europe. France, having perpetrated one of the most astounding acts of contrariety in its modern history by electing to the presidency the utterly unqualified François Hollande on a platform of outright hostility to every economic activity except a sort of fatuous arts-and-crafts communalism, and having been rewarded with the greatest flight of capital since the Reign of Terror, has staged its greatest U-turn since the Munich Conference with an incomprehensibly complicated system of commercial-tax rebates that equals a 6 percent cut in unit-labor costs. It won’t work. Britain is floundering, and Italy’s fate is now in the hands of the ineffable Berlusconi and the even more astounding political figure Beppe Grillo, a television comedian, who in 2007 convened a national “F*** You Rally” that attracted 2 million people.
The real European leadership is in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is now being outflanked on the right by German Alternative, a group that wants to ditch Europe and the euro, and — like the UK Independence party, which recently outpolled the Conservative government in a by-election — is now cutting heavily into the governing party’s support. Chancellor Merkel has so far clung to her former leader Helmut Kohl’s euro policy, but she turned on a pfennig and abandoned her nuclear-energy policy after the Fukushima meltdown, and will do the same on Europe. A Grosse Deutschland that was the dream of Bismarck and less reputable German nationalists is emerging, with Germany benignly conducting Austria, and the Dutch, Scandinavians, Poles, and Czechs, to a powerful third position in world economic power (and military power as well if there is any need for it) behind the United States and China. A world of regional leaders in reasonable relationships with one another is emerging. The United States need not fear such a thing, but it will then be too late to lament that it isn’t the world’s superstate anymore.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].