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A Christmas Story; or, Why You Should Support NRI

John O’Sullivan at NRI’s 2015 Ideas Summit
John O’Sullivan shares the inside story of how NRI was born, and how it has flourished.

Editor’s Note: As part of National Review Institute’s End-of-Year Appeal, NRI fellows are sharing words of wisdom and inspiration. Today, John O’Sullivan gives an inside account of NRI’s founding and early days.

This is a solicitation for you to help National Review Institute. But first . . . 

The other day I spent an unexpectedly happy hour listening to a BBC radio documentary on the Anglosphere. It was a mildly critical analysis of the concept — which is fair enough, since the Anglosphere has been around as a topic of serious political discussion in modern times for less than 20 years — but it was also highly informative and reasonably fair-minded. You can listen to it here if you’re interested.

As it wore on, however, I was struck by the thought that this program would have been very much shorter, and maybe wouldn’t have been heard at all, if it hadn’t been for National Review Institute. For it was through NRI and National Review that the modern debate on the Anglosphere was launched. (You don’t believe me? Do a Lexis-Nexis search on the term for years before 1998, and see what you get. Small potatoes, I can tell you in advance.)

NRI entered the lists on this issue when we asked Margaret Thatcher, not long after she had lost office but while she still remained a powerful influence on British and international politics, to chair a series of annual conferences on major topics of the moment: nationalism, the welfare state versus the family, “Does the West still breed heroes?” etc. (Far-sighted, weren’t we?) In one of those conferences, James C. Bennett explained how he had written two-thirds of a book arguing that we were heading towards a borderless world when he reached the irritating conclusion that he was quite wrong. He scrapped it and started again in a different direction. We were heading instead, he realized, towards a world of cultural blocs — the Francosphere, the Sinosphere, etc. — of which the Anglosphere would prove to be the most successful politically and the most advanced technically and economically.

Jim Bennett filled out the gaps in this arresting argument in his later book, The Anglosphere Challenge, which remains the single best introduction to the concept. But his short outline had already impressed not only Lady T but other attendees at the conference, who included David Davis, currently the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union in Theresa May’s cabinet. It also led to plans for a conference in the U.K. devoted to a critical analysis of Anglospherism held by the Hudson Institute under Herb London (with advice and assistance from NRI), again chaired by Lady T but with contributions from both its advocates, such as Bennett, and its critics, such as Owen Harries and Francis Fukuyama. This conference provoked an article in the moderately leftist New Statesman suggesting that the Anglosphere was “the Right’s Next Big Idea” (by one of the conference speakers, John Lloyd, a former NS editor), and that article led in turn to other articles and reviews as our next big idea gained greater currency.

I remember being interviewed around that time by a BBC news-discussion program in which my interlocutor couldn’t quite make up his mind whether the Anglosphere was a manifest absurdity or a serious threat to the European Union. Those were, inevitably, the terms in which the U.K. commentariat interpreted Anglospherist ideas. But the Anglosphere need not have been any kind of a threat to the EU if the latter had not insisted on “exclusive” relationships with its member states on trade and other matters. A Europe à la carte could live harmoniously with an Anglospherist U.K. But Europe wanted to be a new world power with its own separate identity, and that constrained the economic and strategic options for its members.

Back in the U.S. the concept gained currency too — in part because NRI and NR took up the idea as a new way of interpreting how the U.S. might navigate in the post–Cold War world. America’s first choice would obviously be a strengthened U.S.–Europe relationship, but the Iraq War led to some questioning of Europe as America’s sole or most dependable ally. It was noted that the English-speaking countries not only spanned the globe, well beyond the NATO area, but also had been America’s most loyal allies throughout the previous 100 years. (Australia fought alongside America in every one of that century’s wars.) They were linked, too, by a powerful electronic intelligence-gathering network, Five Eyes, belonging to the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and much resented by the EU and European governments. It was increasingly clear that the word Anglosphere denoted a set of real and existing military and economic relationships that significantly influenced events even if they weren’t collated in a single organization like the EU or NATO.

But unless people notice such things and draw attention to their implications, the best developments can lie fallow and sterile. NR and NRI ensured that the concept of the Anglosphere became part and parcel of strategic conversation. There was resistance to this, mainly from self-styled “realists,” who insist that the Anglosphere is the result of a neo-imperial nostalgia. It is in fact the result of culturally similar nations’ seeing the world in a similar way; neo-imperial nostalgia explains why Europeans want to combine in the pursuit of a new European empire. So it was important that these arguments were engaged by Jim Bennett, who wrote for NR from time to time, by NR editors and NRI fellows, notably Ramesh Ponnuru and I, by visiting firemen from across the Pond, such as historian Andrew Roberts and “firebrand” Nigel Farage, by appreciative intellectual refugees from other “spheres,” notably the distinguished Chilean-Australian historian, Claudio Veliz, and of course by Margaret Thatcher, who (along with Jim Bennett and the London Anglosphere conference) played a big part in the BBC documentary I listened to.

By the way, Lady T was proudly NRI’s Honorary Chairman.

I can’t recall who had the idea of NRI first — possibly Gay Gaines, an energetic and visionary conservative fund-raiser; possibly Wick Allison, a serial entrepreneur; but I know it wasn’t my idea.

Other magazines and institutes took these themes up — The National Interest, Hudson — until Andrew Sullivan noted one day that the word Anglosphere, never having been uttered until a few years back, was suddenly on all tongues. It’s now being seriously discussed as providing the U.K. outside Europe with new economic allies and a different world role. Odd how that happens.

My life and times with NRI neither began nor ended with the Anglosphere, however. Indeed I was present at the creation of National Review Institute, which took place beside the swimming pool attached to the home of Gay and Stanley Gaines in Palm Beach, Fla., way back in 1991. Wick Allison and I, then publisher and editor of NR respectively, were ministers plenipotentiary for Bill Buckley, visiting their home one weekend to discuss how the ideas and principles of National Review might best be advanced outside the magazine. I can’t recall who had the idea of NRI first — possibly Gay, who is an energetic and visionary conservative fund-raiser; possibly Wick, who is a serial entrepreneur; but I know it wasn’t my idea.

And though it wasn’t Bill’s idea initially either (nor that of Lisa Nelson, who was there and who became NRI’s first executive director), he was soon a keen evangelist for it. He could see that the invention of the Internet was changing the flows of information in ways that no one could fully foresee but that probably threatened all existing vehicles for journalism, including journals of opinion. But he could also see that developing a new kind of organization to spread conservative principles, one different from think tanks such as Heritage and AEI, might prove an even more expensive proposition than NR itself. (National Review had already helped to found Town Hall, but, as often happens with pioneers, Town Hall needed deeper pockets than we had, and others took it to the next stage, where it has since flourished. We think of ourselves as its grandparents.)

Bill wanted to be sure that NRI would be a sound financial proposition, albeit a nonprofit one, that would last for the long haul. Wick’s entrepreneurial experience — he had founded the Dallas magazine D — was a plus, but he couldn’t afford to launch the new institute entirely from his own resources. Gay and Stanley made all the difference. Gay provided the drive, energy, vision, and political contacts in GOP circles that were needed to make a mark; Stanley provided the calm realism, CEO experience, and (occasional) restraining hand that reassured; both gave generously to the initial seed capital. They converted Bill wholeheartedly to the practicality of the idea; a strong supervisory board of investors was put in place; an energetic organizer, Lisa, was hired to manage its daily affairs; and within an astonishingly short time, NRI was up and running.

Our first big event was — there is no equally appropriate term — a smash hit. On the weekend of Inauguration Week 1993, just four days after William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as president, we held what became a giant protest meeting in the Mayflower Hotel, a few blocks from the White House. I write “giant” advisedly. The massive ballroom of the Mayflower was not large enough to accommodate all those in attendance — more than 1,100 people as I recall. The hotel had to open overflow rooms, to which the proceedings were piped in electronically. The conference throbbed with energy and good humor. We had representatives of every wing of American conservatism debating one another in a series of lively panels and plenary sessions.

The New York Times was sufficiently alarmed to devote almost a whole page to a pretty fair-minded report of our first day. It reported that American conservatives were in good heart at the close of that grim week and seemed to think the Clintons would be a temporary disease, like the measles. Ah, the optimism of a young movement! (Minor complaint 25 years later about the Times: Hadley Arkes, rebutting the slur that conservatives were anti-gay, asked rhetorically, “Who among us here would not prefer to have dinner with Noel Coward rather than Al Gore?” — a laugh line that, along with other good quotes, disappeared from later editions. Heigh-ho!)

And NRI went on as we began. Later large-scale conferences like the post-Inauguration bash were held in San Diego, Washington, D.C., Hollywood, Chicago, and Charleston, with local audiences that were generally in the mid-hundreds. We capped them all (except the first) with the first International Conservative Conference, in 1997, with Newt Gingrich and Margaret Thatcher. The annual Thatcher seminars started the following year and continued throughout the decade.

Our first big event was — there is no equally appropriate term — a smash hit. The massive ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel was not large enough to accommodate all those in attendance.

NRI helped to launch another important cause in 1996. With encouragement from Bill, Gay, Stanley, and others, Dorothy McCartney and I (writing innumerable letters every weekend to potential donors and attendees from NR’s office) established the New Atlantic Initiative, which recruited 400 distinguished Americans and Europeans — headed by Vaclav Havel, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Margaret Thatcher, Leszek Balcerowicz, and Helmut Schmidt — to press for the entry of Central and Eastern European countries into NATO, the EU, and the institutions of Atlantic democracy. Launched with fanfare at the Congress of Prague, that initiative was extraordinarily successful against quite high odds, giving those countries both stability and security. To those who now believe NATO and EU enlargement to be a mistake, I would ask them to consider how much more unstable and dangerous those countries would be if unprotected by America’s strategic guarantee. They would all be Ukraines — and the Cold War, having been won, would be lost again in the second round.

After this success, the New Atlantic Initiative had earned its own place in the world of institutions. NR and NRI continued to support it in the magazine and at conferences, but it was almost at once the successful object of a very friendly takeover by the American Enterprise Institute. AEI’s then-president, Chris DeMuth, and I became its co-presidents, Jeff Gedmin and later Radek Sikorski ran it as executive directors, and it was soon the go-to place in Washington for all visiting prime ministers from the new market democracies of Europe. More recently NAI has moved on to different areas of interest. (Watch this space.)

I too moved on from the editorship of National Review not long after the Prague Congress, never losing touch with NRI, remaining editor-at-large of the magazine, and writing regularly for it, but no longer exercising managerial direction of either. My career has taken me to United Press International, the Hudson Institute, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague, all very agreeably. More recently I’ve been holding down senior editorial positions on Quadrant in Sydney, Australia, and the presidency of the Danube Institute in Budapest. Quite a commute, but as Bacon said: “All rising is by a winding stair.” And in these years I’ve felt very fortunate to be asked back as a Senior Fellow of NRI.

This isn’t simply a matter of sentiment, though it is certainly that too. I liked my fellow staffers at NR when I joined them in 1988, and I’ve continued to enjoy their company and, when asked, their help ever since. It’s great when you enjoy coming to work, and when your co-workers are also your friends, and give or take the odd office vendetta, that’s been my experience, initially at NR and a few years later at NRI. But it’s more than that. I know from my experience in the various jobs in which I’ve worked that I enjoyed much more impact because I had the contacts and reputation of NR/NRI at my elbow. Those things add immeasurably to any personal clout I may have.

This story will make the point: When Bill Buckley offered me the editorship of the magazine, I was committed to remain as a special adviser to Margaret Thatcher for another 18 months. Bill agreed to six months. I went along to see the prime minister and told her of his offer.

“Oh dear,” she said. Then, after a pause, she added: “But you’ll have to take it. It’s actually a job of world importance.”

At the time I thought she was exaggerating. Not now. Having seen how the names of Buckley and National Review open doors throughout Europe (but in Central Europe especially), in Australia and Canada, and even in countries where you don’t think American conservatism will ever be the flavor of the month, I am very realistic about the degree to which the work of NRI has changed the world for the better. In a world in which government and supranational bodies have been infiltrated by radical cranks at every level, NRI plays both Buckley’s role in spreading conservatism and Orwell’s role in defending plain common sense.

As an NRI Fellow I see both as part of my mission. Of course, I enjoy being a NRI Fellow. I get called back to the U.S. to take part in NRI symposia. I get invited to cities and towns in America I might otherwise not visit. I debate with formidable opponents. I socialize with clever people from other disciplines. I learn a great deal, and I hope that I manage to teach a little of the truth too. And I call freely on my NRI colleagues to take part in the Danube Institute’s debates and conferences or to contribute articles to Quadrant on issues of freedom and security important to America but to our allies too.

I’ve written above about the early successes of NRI. Today, under Lindsay Craig’s leadership, it is enjoying one of the most fertile, lively, and intellectually impressive periods in its life of almost 30 years. I congratulate her. I’m delighted to be aboard, and I hope you will want to join us in our never-ending voyage of freedom and discovery.

The Institute is engaged in an End-of-Year Appeal in which it seeks to raise $250,000 to support its many excellent programs. Contributions are appreciated, and tax-deductible. Make your donation here.

Discover what others are saying about NRI and why it merits your support. Rick Brookhiser explains the benefits to the conservative movement of NRI’s Regional Fellows ProgramKevin D. Williamson highlights NRI’s exceptional writer-training effort, better known as the William F. Buckley Fellowship in Political JournalismJay Nordlinger explains how important defending and advancing the Buckley Legacy is to NRI’s mission, David French explores NRI’s mission as a conservative institution in our shared culture, Jonah Goldberg looks at the breadth of NRI’s programs, and Kathryn Jean Lopez discusses NRI’s focus on the big issues that affect our society.

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