Politics & Policy

A Sobering Farce

After the Iron Curtain fell, history kept on going.

The world is now somnambulating toward bone-cracking economic and strategic crises, sporadically and intermittently aware that grave outcomes impend, and generally aware that it is all very unsatisfactory, but afflicted by various versions of prevarication.

In the United States, it is an uncharacteristic version of mañana; the system of government to which ten generations of Americans have pledged allegiance with such fervor that omissions of the Pledge of Allegiance at anodyne public occasions have at times, as in the 1988 presidential election, been a viable political issue, has broken down. The two groups of party leaders, each controlling a branch of the federal government, are incapable of agreeing on anything, including, critically, the individual composition of the chief organ of the third branch, the Supreme Court.

Republicans are so preoccupied with defining the Constitution in terms that give effect to the Tenth Amendment allocation of unspecified powers to the states and the people that they nominate justices who have acquiesced in the evisceration of the individual-liberties sections of the Bill of Rights. The notion of the grand jury as insurance against capricious prosecution, due process, the guarantee against seizure of property without just compensation, and the promises of access to counsel, an impartial jury, prompt justice, and reasonable bail have all gone over the side as prosecutors terrorize the whole country with an absolute immunity through the hideously deformed plea-bargain system. And the Democrats put up candidates who have some regard for civil liberties but appear to regard the constitutional prerogatives of the federal government as ramifying to almost any activity. Election campaigns are crushingly expensive and begin as soon as the preceding election is concluded. Lobbyists exercise a baleful and ineradicable influence; the money of interested parties lubricates the system at all levels, and attempts at campaign-finance reform make the system worse.

It is this seething, tottering, ear-splitting tower of Babel that now governs America. Following the greatest, most bloodless strategic victory in the history of the nation-state, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and international Communism collapsed without the chief protagonists’ ever having exchanged a shot, the quality of American leadership, in the public sector and in industry, academia, the media, and the bar and bench, has eroded and the greatest and wealthiest nation in history has become, in conventional parlance, insolvent, financing colossal federal deficits by a shell game of issuing Federal Reserve notes to the Treasury, its own parent, to buy federal-government bonds representing mountainous deficit spending with all the characteristics of money-supply increases. The administration has done absolutely nothing even to suggest a method of reducing these deficits in 40 months of profligate incumbency, and the Republicans haven’t done much better. They are stentorian choirs, the one shrieking no cuts in benefits and the other no increases in taxes. It is the most colossal and prolonged failure of American federal-government leadership since the decade before the Civil War. And as this crisis ripened and worsened and pullulated, the nation has been treated to a sequence of disputes of archeological inanity, from an argument over the circumstances of the president’s birth to the allegation that the Republican party is conducting a war on women, and is trying, in the words the New York Times’s ineffable Maureen Dowd, to wrestle American women “back into their chastity belts.”

In Western Europe, it is the prevarication of misdiagnosis. The preparedness of the German government to have its pockets picked by neighbors entering a common currency based on the Deutschemark — in order to embed Germany in a cocoon of happy and grateful allies all in military alliance with the United States, the strongest possible geopolitical circumstances for the avoidance of a return to conflict — led to massive fraud in the valuation of some incoming currencies, and sharp inflation of the entrenched European overconfidence in the social hammock: ever-smaller percentages of working people; ironclad guarantees for the employed, the farmers, and the students; and luxurious benefits for the unemployed and pensioners and other disadvantaged people. The balm of Berlin’s mighty currency would turn European life into a paid vacation for most, and secure, gentle work for the comparatively hyperactive minority, the whole idyll guaranteed by the military might provided by the American taxpayer. During the Cold War, the Europeans tried to justify their free-riding on the U.S. defense juggernaut with feeble sophistries that the unequal burden-sharing was balanced by Europe’s greater risk due to its proximity to the common Soviet enemy, as if the U.S. should materially reward Europe for its geographic misfortune of sharing the continent with the Russians. Now the risk has gone and the burden is reduced, but America is assumed to be happy to bear all of it.

Germany has made it clear that it will not assist countries that don’t reduce spending and don’t adopt policies that encourage and incentivize employment and increased productivity. The euro zone’s second-greatest nation, France, has responded by electing a nonentity to the headship of the state on a platform of accelerated collective self-indulgence, in an election in which 30 percent of the votes were cast for extreme socialists or overtly racist rabble-rousers, and the margin of victory was provided by Islamists of doubtful loyalty to France. Even in Germany, recent state elections show about 30 percent of the vote scattered almost equally between Communists, nihilists (calling themselves “Bandits”), and greens running the gamut from butterfly collectors and bird-watchers to advocates of the blowing-up of oil refineries.

China, from which not one economic statistic can be trusted, shares with some of its neighbors the prevarication of denial. It acknowledges slowing growth, rampant inflation in some circles, and serious internecine problems within the governing apparat. India, lately converted to the virtues of economic growth, is mired in corruption and political fragmentation. Russia ostensibly prospers with increased energy and base- and precious-metals prices, but these are vulnerable to the economic slowdown. The country is ruled by a fantasist as authoritarian and disconnected to reality, if not as addicted to bloodletting, as some of the more storied former occupants of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin assists Iran in achieving a nuclear military capability and insolently demands an unimpaired right of nuclear blackmail over the West, while the U.S. administration is still fumbling with the reset button on the relationship.

The international organizations are completely impotent (except, to some degree, NATO), as the United Nations operates a completely ineffectual peace effort in Syria on behalf of the 89 percent of Syrians not part of the Alawite terrorocracy, and the IMF makes chirpy noises, apparently prompted by its leader’s relief at no longer being the French finance minister rather than by any discernible silver lining in the heavy economic clouds enshrouding almost the whole world.

It is not as grave a state of affairs as obtained in the late Thirties, but has many similar characteristics. Almost all major countries are propelled by bad policies to inevitably bad ends; the United States was the exception then, Germany is now. There are not Satanically destructive figures at the head of great nations or factions, as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were then, but nor is Angela Merkel capable of or interested in playing the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt — rallying the forces of democracy and social justice in the whole world, and leading resistance to aggression. Germany has neither the geopolitical weight nor moral authority of Roosevelt’s America, nor Frau Merkel the galvanizing magnetism of FDR, but in the thin gruel of the world’s principal current leaders, she is the best we have. Her people, ashamed of the belligerency of their forefathers, distracted by cranky old pacifists like Günter Grass, are in a liaison dangereuse with an absurd and wildly implausible Teutonic pacifism, but the leadership-thirsty world must take such guidance from ostensible authority as it can find, and the leaders of most of the other major countries don’t deserve an audience, and, fortunately, are not receiving much of one.

But also in the Thirties, there were voices of dissent in Britain and France (dissent was not possible in Germany, Italy, Japan, or the USSR), and Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle were available, when the call came, very late, to recover the martial aptitudes of olden time, rebuild their nationalities, and join Roosevelt and his successors in securing the victory of Western civilization. The U.S. Republicans may yet develop some of this in what seems at this point a close election. Merkel will hold Europe’s clay feet to the fire, and we are threatened only by our own lassitude, not by fire-breathing monsters at the head of hundreds of jack-booted divisions and huge air and submarine fleets, as we were 75 years ago. And the solution to our problems is just as obvious and not as grim as it was in the Thirties. But what was widely announced as the benign end of historical evolution, when the Iron Curtain came down, has become a dismal and sobering farce.

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

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