Many thanks to readers who have inquired about me during my absence over the summer. I was on an overseas holiday and engaged in other projects and taking and granting a rest from weekly lamentations, here and in other outlets, about the state of Western political leadership. Unfortunately, the summer has not brought improvement in that area. We are lurching erratically through uncharted waters.
The guidelines of American and strategic policy for 60 years were laid down by Franklin D. Roosevelt in two addresses he gave to the Congress in January and December, 1941. In his State of the Union message in January, he said that “we must always be wary of those who ‘with sounding brass and tinkling cymbal’ would preach the ‘ism’ of appeasement.” And in his war message following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said that “we will make very certain that this form of treachery never again endangers us.” The determination of the United States not to be an appeasement power and to retain sufficient deterrent strength to discourage any other nation from attacking it has been generally followed and has been successful. America’s most fanatical enemies thought they had found a method of evasion, with the terrorist attacks launched from failed states and without direct identification with any national government. But the country has been generally safe from such attacks since September 2001, despite the verbose threats of the late Osama bin Laden to send suicide attackers to revisit and torment America.
But in more conventional international relations, the current administration has effectively adopted a policy of appeasement. Candidate and President-elect Obama promised transformation. And this is the principal transformation he has wrought, and the consequences of this policy about-face, if it is not reversed, will be extremely grave. Since the rise of the nation-state in the 16th century, there has been a discernible pattern to world affairs that established and confirmed the countries that in each era advanced the Western ideas, at first embryonic but broadening fairly steadily, of respect for human rights and free-market economics as the most influential states in the world. Western civilization has spread from the time of Queen Elizabeth I and the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), and of Henry IV of France and the Bourbons, and especially the regime of Cardinal Richelieu (1624–42), who established central royal authority and atomized Germany in the Thirty Years’ War. From then until the end of the Napoleonic Era in 1815, France was Europe’s preeminent land power, but not so predominant as to be able to subdue most of the Continent, and Britain was the world’s premier sea power, kept invaders out of its islands, and took what it wanted to colonize in the world overseas.
Obviously, the British mismanaged the American colonies and committed the classic error of assessing a tax they could not collect. But that conflict was essentially a civil war in the community of English-speaking peoples, which was organized on the principles of the rule of law, respect for individual rights and for free markets, albeit unevenly and with imperfections that still persist. In striking out on their own, the Americans, as Benjamin Franklin foresaw, were giving away the opportunity that would have come to America in the following century, to lead the entire British Empire and, as it became, Commonwealth, which would have been an association so overpoweringly strong and vigorous that there would not have been any world wars that threatened Western civilization. But in seceding from the British Empire, the United States created a relatively civilized rivalry that led eventually to the premier national influence in the world, and the scepter of the seas and of international commerce, being gradually and peacefully handed from Britain to America like a torch between relay runners. Misguided and unsuccessful though George W. Bush’s crusade for universal democracy was, he was correct that democracies do not go to war with one another, and the last time there was such a conflict was the relatively unsanguinary War of 1812, conducted mainly along the U.S.-Canadian border.
After 1815, Europe was divided between its principal powers, France, Prussia, Russia, and the Austrian Empire, which were exhausted by their exertions and could be manipulated by the British, leaders of the Industrial Revolution and masters of India, Canada, Australasia, and much of Africa. The American opening of the Japanese ports, Japan’s sudden determination to be a modern Pacific power, the unification of Germany (as well as of Italy, and of Canada), the renaissance of France as a serious republic, and America’s noble and terrible resolution of the crisis of secession and slavery all made the world more multi-polar than ever, spawned rival alliances, and gradually required the participation of all the major powers (today’s G-7 or G-8) in the great conflicts of the 20th century. A century ago, democracy was really confined to the English and French-speaking countries and a few small European neutral states. The French and British barely managed, with the last-minute assistance of the United States, to defeat German imperialism and autocracy in World War I. and the British and Russians overcame Germany and Japan in World War II only because of the overpowering collaboration of the United States, which then led the Western Allies to a relatively bloodless victory in the Cold War. After each of these epic struggles, the democratic and capitalist worlds expanded, and they now embrace almost all of the Americas and Western and Central Europe and much of east, south, and off-shore Asia.
It was perfectly in order that the United States should retrench after the satisfactory end of the Cold War, and, in Asia, the local forces are aligning themselves as a counterweight to Chinese assertiveness, as last week’s visit of the new Indian leader, Narendra Modi, to Japan, indicated. (Modi won a clear mandate three months ago to Thatcherize India, and the country’s anticipated economic-growth rate for the year has already risen by a full percentage point.) The determination of the countries of the region, not any fictitious American “pivot,” should be adequate to assure that chronic local imbalances do not arise. And it is understandable that Americans are war-wary after incurring scores of thousands of casualties and spending $2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan to little or no discernible strategic benefit to America. But the pell-mell retreat of America, virtually to the status Richard Nixon warned of more than 40 years ago, of “a pitiful, helpless giant,” incites more and greater provocations, and has revealed the post-de Gaulle, post-Thatcher Europeans as torpid and cowardly. So long did Europe shelter under the wing of the United States that it apparently lost, at least temporarily, the ability to do more than carp, whine, and pose.
Germany, which has not acted like a responsible great power since Bismarck’s time, but was a solid ally for most of the Cold War, seems now to have a resurgent public opinion and an agile chancellor (Angela Merkel), but to be hobbled by the ancient schism between the pro-Russian and pro-Western factions of the Social Democrats, Merkel’s partner in the governing grand coalition. Germany joined the West when Allied armies occupied most of it and up to 10 million Germans fled westward before the Red Army in 1945. The West absorbed East Germany, and then Poland. China has largely Westernized its economy, a process that is accelerating in India, already a largely English-speaking democracy. The big prize is the vast Eurasian land mass of Russia, and in order to attract the immutable Slavonic masses of that country to the West and away from the primitive pseudo-romantic nativists like Putin, the West must be strong, firm, and conciliatory. Led by a flaky, distracted, almost adolescent American president, a toothless Germany tenaciously dependent on Russian natural gas, and the hopelessly irresolute duo of the Anglo-French, the West meets none of those criteria. Concentrations of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who wish to be Russian have that right, with acceptable safeguards of the validity of popular expression, but the great majority of Ukrainians who wish to adhere to the West must be encouraged with something more than the contemptible posturing the Western leaders have offered so far (except for the Poles). There is no excuse not to supply and assist the Ukrainian forces, or to fail to endow the Poles and Czechs with the full missile defense that was originally promised them, or, in the Middle East, to refuse to carpet-bomb ISIS and assist the Kurds. And the creation of a sham “spearhead force” for the benefit of exposed NATO members is slightly reminiscent of the last months of the Third Reich, when Hitler was deploying divisions that had ceased to exist.
This administration’s doubling in eight years of the U.S. national debt accumulated in the previous 233 years of American independence, the shambles of Obamacare, the incitement of illegal immigration, the endless scandals of corruption and abuse (IRS, AP, etc.) are essentially domestic American matters that another quadrennial election could correct. (It’s true that the 2008 election deepened and amplified the blunders of the previous administration, which had built not on the successes but on the failures, especially subprime-mortgage encouragement, of the preceding administration. But the quality of presidential leadership can’t keep deteriorating indefinitely.) But this feckless, incoherent absence of any identifiable foreign policy (in which Hillary Clinton, the most visible candidate to be the next president, is not blameless, though she seems almost Kissingerian compared with the slapstick farce of John Kerry), accompanied by the ludicrous political incontinence of Europe, threatens the entire momentum and security of the advance of the West. Roosevelt also told the Congress in January 1941 that he would not “acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the expense of other people’s freedom.”
What he promised to avoid is now very close to Western policy in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East. The proportions of the cumulative Bush-Obama failure, if much more prolonged, could imperil our entire civilization. Apart from anything else, they should cause Americans to think prayerfully and creatively about how to resurrect the quality of their public officials and ethically strengthen the functioning of their governments. It is a sobering time.
— 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.