At the end of World War II, the Americans and the British ruled, or heavily influenced by traditional right, or occupied, or sustained by force of arms righteously exercised, almost all the world except what was under the hobnailed jackboot of Stalin’s Red Army (largely supplied by the United States as it was). The masses of the world were generally uneducated and didn’t speak English, but most of their local leaders did. Latin America admired the U.S., as Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy gave back a good deal of sovereignty and ended the practice of having the United Fruit Company and other American corporations deploy the U.S. Marines around Central America. Most of the Latin American countries joined the war effort, if only to be in at the founding of the United Nations, and the whole hemisphere — except for Canada, a dominion of the British Commonwealth and autonomous but in close alliance with Great Britain — sheltered under the shield of the Monroe Doctrine, which under its more vigorous espousers had purported to authorize the U.S. to intervene anywhere in Latin America for almost any reason.
The British Indian empire (now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal) was restless, but it, and the spine of Africa from Cairo and Alexandria in a thick red line on the map to the Cape, all South Africa, most of Australasia and the Middle East, and other chunks of territory (including Nigeria, Malaya, Cyprus, and much of the Caribbean) were British. American and British forces occupied most of Germany and Italy, and were much in evidence as liberators of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, and Greece. The U.S. occupied Japan, half of Korea, and maintained a lifeline to the Nationalist government of China. The U.S. owned and occupied the Panama Canal, and the British owned and held the Suez Canal, and the countries together had 95 percent of the naval forces in the world and controlled every sea and ocean beyond any possible dispute. The U.S. had half the gross economic product of the world and a monopoly of atomic weapons (though they had been developed largely by European fugitives from Nazi and Italian oppression). The U.N., which was being set up in New York, was man’s most ambitious attempt at coordinating government in the world, and the Anglo-Americans were assured of absolute control of its proceedings, subject only to the slight encumbrance of the Soviet veto in the Security Council. (France and China, the other permanent council members, were client states.) The other traditional Great Powers — Germany, France, Italy, and Japan — were devastated by war, and dependent on Anglo-American assistance to get back on their feet and to avoid being subverted within or simply conquered by Soviet Communism.
No one burned American flags, ever, anywhere. American and British embassies and consulates were not violated. The English-language media and entertainment industries, though they were reasonably restrained, could indulge themselves in ethnic slurs and caricatures and sectarian disparagements of non-Judeo-Christians as much as they wished. The Western Allies, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, had led the destruction of the forces of barbarism and racist aggression, though the Soviet Union, which had connived with Nazi Germany to start World War II, had taken over 90 percent of the casualties fighting the Germans. Churchill and Roosevelt were not only distinguished and enlightened democratic leaders, they were great orators and public-relations geniuses (unlike Stalin, who gave only one real speech every couple of years and was furtive and dogmatic, apart from his psychopathic paranoia), and they enjoyed an immense personal prestige, personally and for the nationalities they led, that permeated the world. When, in early 1941, Roosevelt sent Churchill a verse, from Longfellow, which, he said, “applies to you people as it does to us,” Churchill read it on a world broadcast (“Sail on, O Ship of State! / . . . Humanity . . . / is hanging breathless on thy fate!”). He replied with a verse from Clough (“Say not the struggle naught availeth / . . . And not by eastern windows only, / When daylight comes, comes in the light; / . . . But westward, look, the land is bright!”). Apart from all their other attainments, these were cultured men who did not need speechwriters and researchers to prepare their most important remarks. How fortunate we were that they so largely personified the civilization whose defense they successfully led.
Obviously, this overwhelming English-speaking pre-eminence in the world could not continue and was not even desirable. The former leading powers of Western continental Europe and Japan had to revive and America’s role in assisting their emergence or return as prosperous, democratic allies was one of the many great achievements of Western statesmen in the 20th century, especially to the credit of President Truman; Generals Marshall, MacArthur, and Eisenhower; and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. The British Empire could not continue: The 500 million people of the British Indian empire were ruled by only 100,000 resident British, an astounding feat (not to mention that the constituent countries have not been as well governed since). Many countries, especially in Latin America, as well as China, are showing the way out of underdevelopment. The English language is more widely spoken than ever as the formerly destitute masses of the world now contain billions of middle-class, literate people, connected by advanced technology to everything in the world.
It would be foolish and futile to become too misty-eyed about the era of Anglo-American paramountcy. The multipolar world, with generally declining patches of poverty and illiteracy, is a better place, and it is much preferable to be concerned about the antics of almost stateless terrorists, horrifying though their activities sometimes are, than to have to worry about immense nuclear arsenals in the hands of the Great Powers and on trip wires of massive retaliation and Mutually Assured Destruction.
But now we have gone too far. Viscount Palmerston, one of Britain’s greatest statesmen, who served the astonishing total of 45 years combined as secretary at war, foreign and home secretary, and prime minister, originated gunboat diplomacy in the Don Pacifico Affair of 1850. In 1847 a British citizen, a Jewish Gibraltarian, Don Pacifico, suffered the vandalization of his home in anti-Semitic riots in Athens, and Palmerston, who had supported the liberation of Greece from the Turks, blockaded the port of Piraeus until the award of a British court was paid to him. In a memorable five-hour speech to parliament, Palmerston reminded his countrymen that in Roman times there was no prouder statement, nor any that ensured the safety of person and property more surely than Civis Romanus sum, and changed Romanus for Britannicus. He carried national opinion, as well as intimidating the Greeks.
No sane person would suggest that the U.S. try to resurrect that degree of enforced respect, but it is becoming so routine to watch the burning of American flags, and it is so inadequate for America to respond to attacks on its embassies and the murder of a distinguished ambassador in Libya with milquetoastish platitudes from an administration that has laboriously accepted the legion of acts and conditions it has declared to be “unacceptable,” that it is time, in Monty Pythonese, for “something completely different.”
It is not clear to anyone what this administration considers to be the non-negotiable perimeter of national security beyond, one dares to assume, the borders of the United States and its territories. The U.S. is going to withdraw from Afghanistan leaving a revived civil war and is conducting negotiations with people who have no incentive to negotiate; the only hope of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the genocidal-aspirant theocrats and thugs in Tehran, apart from the still-live hope of a Romney victory (despite tactical errors, he is close in the polls), is Israel; the temporizers and haverers in charge of U.S. national-security policy now incite little hope that they are going to chance their arms again, and seem committed to dismantling the worldwide American security capability (to expand the vote-catching welfare system).
As I have written here before, some significant reduction of American military involvement in the world is certainly justified, and some corresponding reduction of the defense budget is warranted, and increased commitments to some forms of social benefit could be very positive; but the U.S. has a weak currency and an incontinent deficit, and is in retreat everywhere and in apologetic mode at every new event, the latest being slurs on the Prophet Mohammed. It barely raises its voice when scores of thousands of Christians are oppressed, injured, or murdered in scores of countries every year, and stumbles forward in its haste to apologize to the unwashed, rioting masses of Araby for the vagaries of freedom of expression when they offend Islamist opinion. I do not advocate militarism, incivility, or gratuitous provocation, but Americans and their government have to decide what rights, prerogatives, practices, and places the national interest requires to be defended, define that geographic and behavioral perimeter clearly, and then hold it; and if that means facing down some mobs and some unsavory regimes and despots, do it, and enjoy it. That’s what Great Powers do, and the ability to do it makes them great, and is what distinguishes them from countries that can’t defend themselves (and often can only represent the spitefulness of the weak as moral indignation). Sending Navy SEALs into bin Laden’s bedroom was good, but it won’t play forever.