It is clear from a canvass of other columnists and bloggers that I am in good and numerous company in trying to find anything worthwhile to write about, and must warn readers not to be too complacent that I have succeeded in the balance of these reflections in finding one. I have a more radical solution to this problem than many: I am going overseas in a few days and will not be filing again until August or even September. It is not entirely a holiday and will be punctuated by devotions, especially prayerful and thoughtful hope that either my imagination in alighting upon subjects to write about becomes more inspired, or the menu of evident subjects becomes longer and more appetizing. Very few developments would give me greater pleasure than a firming up of the quality and credibility of government in some of the principal Western nations. It would be a particular pleasure to be able to write in praise of President Obama. Whenever in the past five years there was the tiniest wisp of a reason to express admiration for something he had said or done, I did so with what many NRO readers must have considered implausible and irritating chirpiness. Such occasions have been rare.
Though I am not an American and the United States has given me much reason not to love it, it has not ceased to be a great and estimable nation, nor the country to which the world chiefly owes the great expansion of democracy and the market economy in the modern world. No one in the world who considers democracy preferable to other forms of government should ever forget or fail to be grateful for that fact. And even if, as appears likely, this was a phase in American and world history that is now ending, it should be remembered not only for the benefits it wrought in the lives of the world’s billions of freedom-loving people, but also for its uniqueness. There would have been no great novelty in a country as powerful as the United States had become by the start of World War II choosing to assert its influence in the world forcefully, economically, and even militarily, no matter how it swaddled such action in the cover of a “civilizing mission.” There was much precedent for such expansionism and this was essentially the pretext invoked for allowing the United Fruit Company and other commercial interests, in effect, to deploy the United States Marines around the Caribbean and Central America.
But it has never before in history happened that one of the Great Powers expended billions of dollars among former wartime enemies and even directly governed them, in the interest of establishing democratic rule, reviving and equitably dispersing prosperity, and ensuring collective security — with guarantees of armed assistance if necessary — against foreign encroachment or totalitarian subversion. Of course, the United States was motivated chiefly by a concern for its own security, and had learned from the World Wars that if the United States were not directly involved in protecting the security of Western Europe and the Far East, those strategically vital areas could fall into the hands of compulsively belligerent and anti-democratic forces that would oppress the inhabitants of those areas and, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, leave the United States and everyone “in this hemisphere living at the point of a gun . . . in a prison, fed through the bars of the cells by the unpitying masters of other continents.” But an unprecedented degree of enlightenment was required, especially from President Truman, General Marshall, Secretary Acheson, and their colleagues, but also from the American leadership of both parties for nearly 50 years, to promote and protect democracy and growth economics, even when the beneficiaries of this munificence astounded the world by their ingratitude (France) or rose up to challenge the American private sector with robust free-market competition (Japan, Germany, South Korea).
Though the Western Allies all paid lip service throughout the Cold War to the desirability of the reunification of Germany, when this became a real prospect, in 1989, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and France’s François Mitterrand, as well as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, were opposed, since all three countries, with ample historical reason, feared a united Germany, as Europeans had throughout history. Only the United States was not afraid of a united Germany, and President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker worked with West German chancellor Helmut Kohl to end this radical and artificial division of Europe’s most powerful nationality. In doing so, they repaid the post-war world’s greatest single act of statesmanship, by the first West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who declined Stalin’s offer of reunification in exchange for neutrality and carried national opinion with his assertion that, since Bismarck’s time, Germany had sought allies and now it had them and would remain with them and would win reunification, peacefully, with them. This was America’s great achievement: a decisive role in the defeat of Nazism, Fascism, Japanese imperialism, and international Communism, and the democratization and economic modernization of vast tracts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America, including much successful decolonization.
This era is ending as the United States steadily withdraws from many areas and effectively renounces any serious interest in many places where it was long very active and even assertive. As I have written here before, that is not, in itself, a bad thing, but it is bad when, as now, the U.S. administration denies that this is what it is doing and muddies the water with a lot of vacuous posturing about “red lines,” “crippling sanctions,” and forced denuclearization of Iran still being an option “on the table.” Wise statesmen retreat from overexposed positions, but they do it by redefining the reconciliation of the vital and the possible in their national interest, clearly and believably, with the requisite force and demonstrated determination to execute the evolving policy. They do not fecklessly abandon policy positions and alliances that were heroically and successfully staked out and maintained, and pat themselves on their backs and heads for both continuity and originality at the same time while defaming their domestic critics as warmongers or isolationist philistines.
Both the ebbing away of time and the implacable absence of aptitude militate against the possibility that this administration, and the almost completely unfeasible quintet of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Susan Rice, will actually devise and implement a consistent and sensible foreign or national-security policy anywhere. But at least it is not too late for them to try to enunciate such a definition of a national-security interest. In quest of this, and in the spirit of Shakespeare’s Henrician call to do it one more time, I read the president’s recent speech at West Point. It was, as has been widely remarked, a great disappointment, even for one whose hopes for the occasion were as undernourished as mine. There was only the usual platitudinous waffling, which would be more endurable if it were possible to believe that the sentiments espoused (democracy, the American Way, etc.) were really embraced by the speaker. It was another presentation of weakness as moral courage, and the imputation of psychotic bellicosity or sociopathic isolationism to his critics. The White House said the president resurrected the possible use of force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear military power; and Iran stated that the president had confirmed that he had renounced the option of force.
This is not leadership. It is not even, in Margaret Thatcher’s expression, “followership.” It is just incoherence and vacuity. I wish everyone a pleasant summer and hope that when I return there are more encouraging subjects to address.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at email@example.com.