Politics & Policy

A Great Country That Could Be Better

A Pax Atlantica would have been a boon to the world.

The Supreme Court of the United States having vacated all of the spurious charges that have caused me to spend the last three U.S. Independence Days as an involuntary guest of the American people, I expected I would be in more celebratory mood this July 4 than on the last two. I wasn’t, and could not bring myself to attend the comparative gastronomic treat it prompts here. (One of the many irritations of my enforced dalliance is that the weekend newspapers arrive well after the weekend, and I have just discovered that the admirable Peggy Noonan also wrote on a related subject. But that is not unusual on that holiday, and to use a ghastly cliché, so camp it might not offend her, I’m sure she would not wish me to start over again.)

The United States has not ceased to be a great nation because it has persecuted me half to death, and some readers will recall my exchanges a couple of months ago with Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg over the meaning of “American Exceptionalism.” The point I was making about America’s championship of democracy was not that the American Revolution was chiefly about who was going to pay for the British eviction of the French from North America in the Seven Years’ War, nor even about the division of authority between local and overseas jurisdictions (perspectives that rankled somewhat with my correspondents). It was that apart from France (sporadically), democracy in the world scarcely progressed at all in the 162 years from the end of the American Revolution to the start of the Cold War. (The democracies, at the beginning and end of the period, were the English-speaking and the Low Countries, Swiss cantons, and parts of Scandinavia.)

#ad#Once the U.S. foreign- and security-policy team that had been the great wartime Roosevelt entourage — Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Acheson, McCloy, Kennan, Bohlen, and others — announced that the superpower rivalry with the Kremlin was a contest between totalitarian Communism and the Free World, democracy took off like a steroid-hyped gazelle. Germany, Japan, and Italy were reprogrammed as democratic allies, and uneven but irresistible pressures were asserted on such allies as Spain, Portugal, South Korea, Greece, Turkey, Taiwan, most of Latin America, and ultimately, Central and Eastern Europe. Democracy has conquered most of the world, even if those pressures sometimes backfired, as in Iran and Cuba.

America, exceptionally, and in the greatest service any nationality has rendered the world since Britain gave it the English language, common law, and parliamentary government, democratized huge tracts of the world, including by aggressively encouraging the decolonization of its closest allies, especially in India and Israel. But as America has steadily become more of a prosecutocracy and carceral state, and the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendment guarantees of civil liberties and individual rights and due process have largely putrefied (which is why I write from a federal prison), and politics has been severely corroded by the insidious seepage of unselflessly motivated pecuniary activities, there are now many better functioning democracies than the U.S. There are dozens, and on every continent except Africa and Antarctica (and I’m not sure about the penguins). In a democracy, the people are always right, and if Americans are happy with their country as it is, of course, that opinion is sovereign and determining. I don’t think most Americans have the remotest idea of how badly some areas have deteriorated, but that is neither here nor there.

Of course, the colonists had the better of the argument in 1776 (though not so one-sidedly as Americans like to pretend), but it was tragic that this terrible fissure in the English-speaking world occurred at all. The debacle in America finished the exercise of power by the monarch through “the King’s friends,” and contributed to George III’s incapacitation, from porphyria. The forces of indigenous British parliamentary democracy, led by the Pitts, Fox, and Burke — all opponents of official policy in America — made this sort of capricious meddling from the throne impossible. But the American horses had fled. Britain and America then began a benign competition toward an ever-less-imperfect democracy, and Canada was the main beneficiary of more enlightened British colonial government, peacefully acceding to independence in 1867.

Burke estimated that in the American Revolutionary War, a third of the British supported the colonists, and John Adams thought that about the same proportion of Americans were loyal to the British Crown. So it was a civil war, both in the English-speaking world and within its two principal components. (Those decrying disharmony in the Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Vietnam Wars, should know their antecedents.)

If the British and Americans had remained in some sort of association, there would not have been a delicately close balance of power in Europe after the unification of Germany, one that put all civilization at risk every generation and required American intervention like a trans-oceanic 7th Cavalry in Manichaean struggles in both World Wars. The Pax Britannica and Pax Americana would have been an unchallengeable Pax Atlantica, undisturbed by Nazism and Communism, as there would have been no World Wars, and it would be about to celebrate its 200th anniversary after Waterloo. Cities of real alabaster would have been relatively undimmed by human tears.


These lamentations of what might have been are generally fruitless and tiresome, but can be useful, because the perverse topiary work of historians often needs questioning. I will not agitate the horses in this stable with further reflections on the American Revolution. But the defeat of Napoleon in Russia, from which Britain more than made up for its échec in the New World, is generally reckoned a good thing.

Apart from a few obscure Frenchmen, I am the only historian I know of who recognizes what a disaster the defeat of Napoleon in Russia was for the world. As a result of it, the Russian nativists prevailed over the Western-emulating successors of Peter the Great and traditionalist myth-makers led by Tolstoy put over the fraud of the nobility of medieval, barbarous, yet somehow Holy Russia, with its hopeless serfdom, mindless oppression of the dull Slavonic masses, pogroms, and indifference to Dostoyevskyan, not to say Stalinist, violence.

#ad#Napoleon, as Goethe and Beethoven famously decided, was no great agent of democracy. But by his lights, and certainly by the primitive standards of Eastern Europe, he was an agent of enlightenment. If he had been able to assert any influence at all on Russia, as he did on most of the rest of Europe, he would have ended serfdom, created some sort of legislative tradition, and modernized the creaking Russian state. He would have anchored Russia in the West, as Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, de Gaulle, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan, working with Adenauer and Kohl, anchored Germany in the West. The lives of Lenin and Trotsky would have been the longer and less violent annals of Ulyanov and Bronstein, and the life of Stalin, the Siberian bank robber Djugashvili, shorter and less consequential. Charles XII was an adventurous, swashbuckling Swedish parvenu, Hitler a genocidal maniac; Napoleon was the only serious invader Russia has had who would actually have improved the country, however inexcusable his presence in the country at the head of the Grande Armée was (and inexcusable it was).

Napoleon famously said that “history is lies agreed upon.” He was both the artful beneficiary and the victim of that practice. (And Americans may wish to reflect that if he had been more content to bide his time at Elba convincingly and durably, General Jackson could have faced the Duke of Wellington and his battle-hardened Peninsular Army at New Orleans, and not the rag-tag of his distant in-law Pakenham. The dispatch of the Duke with heavy units to Canada was in contemplation right up to the formal end of hostilities. Yet again, things would have been very different.) Certainly, Americans should celebrate their national day with pride; this is an incomparably great country and whatever its shortcomings, they can be put right. But they should not imagine that they too, have not been very proficient confectioners of the past, and of the present.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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