As this confusing year wends to an end, it is hard not to wonder what has happened to the underlying, continuous, almost immutable national interest of the United States. When George Washington declined the advice of his aides and supporters to seize the government of the country, and instead handed over control of the Continental Army in 1783, he charged the Continental Congress with the task of preserving an “indissoluble Union,” of protecting the independence and territorial integrity the new country had just achieved after seven years of struggle, and of endowing it with a trustworthy currency. He had no confidence that this would be achieved, as he (quite justifiably) considered the Continental Congress a worthless talking shop of embezzlers, cowards, and schemers. He and Benjamin Franklin turned a minor inter-state boundary dispute into the Constitutional Convention, and he accepted the last real draft in American presidential history to take the headship of the nascent republic, pledging to do what he had urged upon the Continental Congress.
As in all things, he was as good as his word. He kept a standing army of at least 10,000 — which, he calculated, would be sufficient to conquer Canada and provide an adequate deterrent to Britain’s exploitation of its advantage as the world’s greatest naval power to inflict high-handed outrages on America at sea. His chosen successor, John Adams, continued this policy, but Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who followed, effectively disbanded the army, removing the deterrence and leaving Britain resistless against the temptation to seize and impress (i.e., conscript) the crews of U.S. vessels on the high seas.
Jefferson famously wrote that the conquest of Canada “is a mere matter of marching,” but disbanded the force to do the marching, and when Madison was finally goaded into the War of 1812, he had no force to take Canada with and was still working on it when the war ended after three years, just before the British freed up the Duke of Wellington’s battle-hardened army of Spain and Waterloo for a rematch of the Revolutionary War. From then until 1865, the United States was walking on eggshells over the slavery question and Britain held the balance of power in Europe and ruled the world’s oceans; those two powers accepted the Monroe Doctrine as effectively an American fig-leaf on the policy of the British Foreign Office, enforced by the Royal Navy, to keep the Europeans out of the Americas.
After the noble agony of the American Union in the Civil War, the United States was, with the British and German empires, the greatest nation in the world and was unchallenged in its own hemisphere, or by any other country across the oceans. It almost tripled its population and quadrupled its economy between the Civil War and World War I. Theodore Roosevelt assumed the vocation of a Great Power with the construction of the Panama Canal, with the expansion of the Navy and its dispatch around the world, and with the mediation of the Russo-Japanese War. Woodrow Wilson, whose punitive expedition in Mexico was a fiasco, and who was essentially a pacifist, was yet a brilliant war leader. When forced by the lunacy of the German emperor’s submarine attacks on American merchant ships to enter the war, he galvanized the war-weary, blood-let Allies, and all mankind, by declaring it a war to end war and to make the world safe for democracy, making the terrible hecatomb comprehensible. He rapidly built up and sent to France a formidable army and it fought with distinction in the last phase of the European War. He was the first person to inspire the masses of the world with the vision of enduring peace and with the first tentative notions of enforced international law.
Of course, it didn’t fly; he could not negotiate a reasonable peace after the millions of dead the French and British and Italians had endured, and bungled the process of gaining American adherence to the League of Nations. The United States rushed back into isolation like a cuckoo bird slamming the door on the clock behind it. With Germany and Russia revived by totalitarian dictators who made a devils’ pact with each other, and imperialist Japan colliding abrasively with the British and Americans (after the Russians gave it a good trouncing in Mongolia and Siberia, in “border incidents” involving up to ten divisions), Franklin D. Roosevelt saw that the British and French were not strong enough to prevent the Nazi and Communist dictators from taking over the Eurasian landmass and Africa, even if the British Isles were able to repel boarders.
The policy of “all aid short of war” was devised, with an embargo of oil and scrap metal (for steel production) on Japan until it ceased its invasion of China and Indochina. The German attack on Russia and the Japanese attack on the Americans and the British furnished the democracies the correlation of forces necessary for victory. The Marshall Plan and the post-war Western Alliance system enabled the American-led West to enforce the policy of containment: The Soviet Union eventually imploded under the strain of an arms competition it could not win, and Richard Nixon’s careful exploitation of Sino-Soviet differences helped transform China into a largely capitalist country.
These were all strategies for the times. Then, abruptly, it ended: the Cold War, and, for a time, any strategic insights in the highest policymaking circles in Washington. The country had kept a trustworthy currency, though all the world’s currencies started down the slippery slope to inflation during the Great Depression. Lincoln (and Grant and Sherman) had settled the matter of the indissolubility of the Union. And the nation had not endured any direct attack: After Pearl Harbor, all succeeding presidents and Congresses have ensured that, in Roosevelt’s words in his war message in 1941, “This form of treachery shall never again endanger us.”
The terrorists thought they had found a way around this with attacks generated from failed states in which there were no national governments involved. It has been and is a terrible nuisance, but it won’t work, and ultimately even compulsive mischief-makers like the Russians and Chinese are unimpressed with terrorist outlaws.
George H. W. Bush spoke of a “New World Order,” but not much came of it and he wasn’t reelected. Bill Clinton did well with the “Partnership for Peace,” a face-saver for bringing most of the old Soviet satellite states — illegally occupied after World War II — and some parts of the Soviet Union into NATO. George W. Bush responded to the terrorist attacks of September 2001 with a crusade for democracy, as democracies don’t engage in aggressive war, but the democratic process elected aggressive and anti-democratic regimes such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
President Obama strengthened the commitment to Afghanistan and relaxed the previous administration’s preoccupation with democracy, but the Iranians took his appeasement of their fraudulent and brutal elections as a sign of weakness (which it was), and the president is retrenching in the world without much altering the purposeful rhetoric of previous presidents who were prepared to back their words with force. The result has been confusion and the perception of weakness, though the recent overflight of B-52 formations in what the Chinese had preposterously claimed to be a no-fly zone in part of the China Sea was a small step back to the conduct of a Great Power.
Germany and Russia are now in a barefaced contest for prevailing influence in the critical country of Ukraine; the U.S. is absent, but the ineffable Senator McCain, undaunted by having made a complete ass of himself in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, said the U.S. was doing a good job in supporting the pro-European faction, in its massive demonstrations in Kiev. But the views of the administration, which is supposed to conduct foreign policy, on this question are in fact a mystery.
But where George Washington’s formulation of the national interest has really collapsed is with the currency. The federal public debt is 94 percent of GDP (Canada’s is 34 percent). The deficit is $650 billion this year, the lowest in six years; there is a $73 trillion actuarial shortfall in Social Security, which had 16.5 people working for each recipient in 1950 and now has a ratio is 3.4 to 1. If “generational accounting” — the calculation of the future value of debt — is taken into account, the federal government and all its agencies are facing a $205 trillion shortfall, 100 times the money supply (which is considered to have quadrupled in four years, but in fact has multiplied by seven or so, because much of the debt is covered only by notes issued from the Federal Reserve to its 100 percent owner, the U.S. Treasury).
Only a combination of large revenue increases and spending reductions is going to deal with this, and there is no sign that the political community has any will to face it. The music will have to stop, and it will stop. America’s friends can only prayerfully hope that when that day comes, a president worthy of the task is in place. “The sucker could go down,” and Obamaist bloviation will not work on that day, which can’t be far off. Where is America’s strategy? It needs one, as much as ever.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].