National Review columnist Mark Steyn has — at last! — written a book. And it’s just as important and clever and worthwhile as his fans might expect. He recently talked to NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How is America Alone? Didn’t we have a coalition of the willing? Aren’t we always talking and meeting and have allies?
Mark Steyn: Well, the short answer to that is that after 9/11 the president told the world you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists and some of our “allies” (i.e., Belgium) checked the neither-of-the-above box and some of our “allies” (i.e., Saudi Arabia) checked the both-of-the-above box, and in neither case did it make any difference. “Ally” is largely a post-modern term these days meaning (a) duplicitous backstabber who puts you through months of negotiations to water down your U.N. Security Council resolution to utter meaninglessness or (b) NATO military comrade who requires months of schmoozing and black-tie photo-ops in order for you to crowbar out of him a token commitment of a couple of hundred troops he’s willing to deploy in-theatre as long as it’s in a non-combat role and preferably three provinces away from where the fighting’s taking place. Even “supportive” allies are deploying less than the Vermont National Guard and for a much bigger diplomatic effort. There are real allies, of course: Australia is the most level-headed nation on the international scene; Canada is at last behaving like a grown-up nation again, though its military is terribly underfunded; and the United Kingdom did a grand job holding down the southern third of Iraq in the invasion. But one of the sub-plots of my book is “Who lost Britain?”, and I find it hard to believe current trends in U.K. and European politics augur well for the Anglo-American relationship. So who does that leave? The Russians and the Chinese face down the road Muslim problems of their own, but figure that for the moment the jihad is America’s problem and it’s in their interest to keep it that way. As for India and other well-disposed nations who in essence share America’s view of the Islamist threat, you hear increasingly doubts about Washington’s will to see this thing through. If you’re watching John Kerry and Harry Reid and Jack Murtha and Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin on CNN International all week long, you can’t blame Indians and Singaporeans and Danes and Dutch for questioning American credibility. At some stage, that will reach a kind of tipping point, and even friendly nations will feel inclined to reach their accommodations with alternative forces. America has to use its moment, or lose it.
Lopez: North Korea may have tested a nuke this weekend. Couldn’t that in and of itself be “The End of the World as We Know It?”
Steyn: Absolutely. People say Kim Jong Il’s a joke who doesn’t know what he’s doing. But who do you want with nukes? A functioning nation state capable of rational calculation of its strategic interests? Or a kook who can barely operate the thing? Robert D. Kaplan refers to the failing parts of the map as “Indian territory,” which is a cute joke but misses the point, in that it presupposes that these rogue states will naturally be brought within the bounds of the civilized world. The opposite is happening. We’re seeing the reprimitivization of parts of the planet, but with a wrinkle: Primitive basket-case nothing states that can’t feed their own people are now nuclear powers. There’ll be a lot more of that in the years ahead.
Lopez: The press materials for your book announce that “Not since Samuel P. Huntington’s 1996 release The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order has there been a book this compelling and this important.” All that?
Steyn: Actually, I never saw that press release. And now you mention it I’m furious they didn’t say the most compelling and important book since Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at least. What kind of cheeseparing publicity department damns their own author with faint praise about the most compelling book merely of the last decade? It’s hardly my place to do the big butch “If you only read one book this year” commercial, and if I did I’d probably make do with “If you only read one book this year make it …the new Harry Potter. But if you read three a week you might consider getting to this one round about the eighth month.” But, all fake modesty on my part aside and with whatever caveats are necessary to avoid class-action suits from disappointed readers, I don’t think there are many books that consider demography in geopolitical terms. There are certainly social scientists who’ve written about reversing birth-rate declines through proposed new entitlements, etc. But I don’t know many books that look at demography strategically: What happens when a society’s fertility rates are in steep decline and a replacement population is moving in (as in Europe)? What happens when a failing nation has deathbed demography and nothing to slow the fall other than initiatives that are likely to be strategically disruptive to the peace of the world (as in Russia)? That sounds to me like one of the most compelling and important books of the next 48 hours, assuming Paris Hilton hasn’t got one coming out.
Lopez: You pay more attention to Al Gore than many serious people do anymore. Why? Isn’t he just a little bit of a lunatic?
Steyn: I’d say so, even before he goes into that eye-rolling Al Jolsonesque “Gee-aw-juh Boooo-ush be-ah-tray-uhd us” routine. But the fact is, around the world, Bush is seen as the lunatic and Gore is Saint Al of the Lowered Emissions. In Britain the other day, David Cameron stood up at his party conference and in his keynote speech urged everyone to see Al Gore’s movie. And Cameron is the leader of what’s supposedly the Conservative party. My old Daily Telegraph colleague Alice Thomson wrote an orgasmic paean headlined “Can Gore Save The Planet — And Politicians?” — i.e., Gore is not just the man to save the polar ice caps and the Gulf stream and the Maldive Islands and the ozone layer but his tremendous courage on this issue will also rescue politics from the total contempt it’s held in by civilized peoples. As evidence, Alice cites the fact that Gore’s movie is acclaimed by great thinkers from Cameron to Scarlett Johansson. And the Telegraph is a supposedly conservative newspaper. The reality is that if all the time and money and great brains presently devoted to “climate change” were devoted to Internet porn instead, the planet’s climate in 2050 would be exactly what it was going to be anyway. Whereas if we don’t do anything about the far more urgent geopolitical changes anyway, we’ll lose our world.
Lopez: Why is it significant that the median age in the Gaza Strip is 15.8?
Steyn: Because the best measure of how a state will behave is the people who comprise that state. For the last 30 years, the same bespoke figures have touted the Palestinian cause on the western TV networks — Saeb Erekat, Hanan Ashrawi — and they seem terribly urbane and reasonable. But they are not Palestine. The Gaza Strip has one of the highest birth rates in the world. It has an almost endless supply of teenage boys. If you say “Well, what would you rather have? An economy and a highway system a home in the suburbs? Or waste another three generations trying to take out the Zionist Entity?”, you can make that argument to a middle-aged fellow like Saeb Erekat, but it has no appeal to most 15-year old guys raised in a death-cult society like Gaza. Jihad is way cooler. It’s like a geopolitical version of gangsta pathologies, but with unlimited manpower.
Lopez: You talk a lot about demographics and Muslims. What’s so wrong with more Muslims in the West?
Steyn: The short answer is: in theory, nothing. But we’re talking about immigrants with a strong sense of identity emigrating to countries with virtually no sense of their own identity. And the history of the last few decades in Europe is that, when you’re raised in the nullity of cultural relativism and invited to despise the inheritance of the land whose citizenship you hold, you look elsewhere for identity: The modern multicultural identity is too weak to have any purchase on most people, and so some of them look elsewhere and find the jihad. Not all of them, but enough. The man behind the Daniel Pearl beheading, the Tube bombers, the Torontonians plotting to behead the Canadian prime minister: these are all citizens of the west — British subjects born and bred, second- and third-generation — but their primary identity is not British or French or Belgian. My book argues that Islamism is merely the first of many post-nationalist identities to threaten the nation state.
Lopez: The war on terror is a civil war in Europe already? Is there any hope for our friends across the pond?
Steyn: Yes, to this extent. The first Western European nation to collapse into total civic breakdown over its fundamentally contradictory bicultural tensions will, I hope, concentrate the minds of others. The best sign that you’re about to go over the waterfall is if the canoe 200 yards ahead suddenly disappears. That gives you a chance at least to pull for shore.
Lopez: You say we need to end the Iranian regime. How?
Steyn: By internal destabilization. They’re doing it to us in Iraq and we just sit back and take it. Just as there’s a natural constituency for the mullahs in Iraq, so there’s a natural constituency for reform and freedom and opportunity and women’s rights in Iran. Radical Islam is bankrupt and all but exhausted there. If America can’t apply serious internal pressure for the amount of money the Federal budget has on tap for these things, we might as well throw every dollar at that bridge to nowhere in Alaska.
Lopez: You also write in a list of ways we can help Muslims reform Islam — that we should “Support women’s rights — real rights, not feminist pieties — in the Muslim world.” Are American feminist lefties mature enough to do that — and work with Mark Steyn on that endeavor?
Steyn: No. The trivia of identity-group politics in America is beyond parody: Women are now so dominant at, say, U.S. law schools that feminist groups are reduced to complaining about the lack of female pipe-fitters. If this keeps up, circa 2015 NOW will be complaining that there are too few female wait staff. And circa 2020 that there are too few female prostitutes. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan women were prevented by law from feeling sunlight on their faces and the only guy who did anything about it was George W Bush. We have “honor killings” now not just in Jordan and Pakistan, but in Britain and Germany and Scandinavia. Where are the feminists on that? This is the biggest lever we have in the Muslim world — the fact that half their populations are chattels. They don’t want to be navel-pierced Britneyized slatterns but a lot of them want something other. That’s a huge opportunity.
Lopez: Could which party wins in the November congressional elections change the course of history?
Steyn: I think so. A vote for the Democratic party is basically a vote to return to Bill Clinton’s holiday-from-history. It would be nice if the Dems were full of Joe Lieberman types who are serious about national security or even Joe Biden types who at least talk in a portentous voice and pretend to be serious about national security. But you know that Peter Beinart book? “Why Liberals — And Only Liberals — Can Win The War On Terror”? If that’s true, we’re all doomed. It’s like publishing a book in 1942 called “Why Swedes — And Only Swedes — Can Win The Second World War.” The truth is 99.99 percent of them have got zero interest in getting in the game. They want to return to the Nineties when politics was about new Federal regulations for mandatory bicycling helmets, or whatever the hell Bill Clinton’s “legacy” is. I understand why, if you’re the proverbial soccer mom or John Edwards’ Dickensian shivering coatless girl, a bunch of nuclear mullahs doesn’t seem terribly relevant to your life. But what I try to do in America Alone is connect up the war and the big macro-trends with the home front. The fact is the assumption at the heart of Democratic-party thinking is that the natural destination of every advanced democracy is Scandinavia and that America’s just taking a little longer to get there than the Europeans. That kind of thinking is what’s done for Europe: it’s resulted in unaffordable welfare structures on declining human capital. In the end, Big Government is a national security threat. A vote for Nancy Pelosi — and don’t get me wrong; unlike many of my NR chums, I find her an oddly attractive woman — but a vote for Nancy Pelosi is a vote for the same complacency that’s killing the rest of the West.
Lopez: When was the moment when you realized you were a pretty clever writer — and could make a living off it?
Steyn: I’d been fired as a disc-jockey, I was broke, and I had no skills. That doesn’t leave much except writing.
Lopez: Your book is grim. How do you manage to be funny about it? I would have just taken my family and run for the hills before I finished if I were you.
Steyn: Well, I’ve sort of already taken my family and run for the hills. I look on myself as a kind of preemptive refugee to New Hampshire. We had my kids’ British cousins out to stay recently. They’re fantastically English in a 1950s Marmite-soldiers-with-Derb-and-Stuttaford sense. They came through the door at International Arrivals like they were coming through the wardrobe back from Narnia. In fact, they would have made much better kids for that movie than those Equity moppets the producers signed up. But their mom — my sister-in-law — basically takes the BBC line on the war: it’s all a scam cooked up by Bush, etc. Indeed, one of the fascinating things about British public opinion is how mainstream middle-class England and your crazy incendiary imams largely share the same worldview. It’s very hard to persuade the British just how fast things are moving. But I wouldn’t mind betting I’ll be sponsoring those kids and my various relatives all over Europe for U.S. immigration before 2015, 2020 or so. I’m very gloomy about things these days, but you might as well do a few gags about it. After all, one of the big differences between us and the Islamists is that they’re plonkingly humorless. If you can’t have a laugh about the jihad, then — as we used to say — the terrorists will have won.
Lopez: Does George W. Bush have the confidence you’re arguing for in America Alone?
Steyn: I like to think so. He looks further ahead than almost any other figure on the political scene, and certainly than these ludicrous stability fetishists like Scowcroft and co. There is no “stability”: history is always on the move and if you’re just standing on the escalator you better be pretty sure it’s headed in your direction. Bush understands that. But I find his public rhetoric just doesn’t connect with most people. I wish America’s leaders would take a few leaves out of the Aussies’ book on that front. They pitch the war in no-nonsense common-sense terms and it seems to work. My bottom line in America Alone is that long wars can’t be left to even the best militaries. Armies don’t win wars, nations win wars — and that’s especially true of long existential struggles. The pacifying of the Sunni Triangle can be left to the Third Infantry Division. But the recovery of civilizational confidence — which is the real long-term battlefield — is something every American needs to get real about.