Hang in There

I’ve got quite a lot coming up but, none of it is going to make it today. So enjoy a film, that will make you think a bit as well.

The Rules of the Great Game

tsar-putin-myter-makt-och-despotism

Since the end of the Cold War Western nations have proceeded as though the rules of international politics have been suspended; Mr Putin has reminded them that it is not so. International politics, like Hobbes’ state of nature, is the ‘war of all against all’, and we have, in this generation, rediscovered the truth he enunciated that ‘covenants without swords are but mere words’. Like the British at the time of the Boer War we have had ‘no end of a lesson’; but can we divine its meaning?

At the very simplest level it is that power matters. We hear much about ‘soft power’, but in fact it is hard power, as the Ukrainians will tell you, which matters. Foolishly, back in the 1990s, they believed us when we and the Russians guaranteed their territorial integrity when they gave up their nuclear weapons; does any one suppose the Russians would be behaving as they are now if the Ukrainians had kept those weapons? In fact, here is a clear case where preparing for the worst might have avoided trouble. As things stand, Putin may well, like Hitler, miscalculate how far he is allowed to go. I am not saying he is like Hitler, just that the two men both presumed on the weakness and vacillation of their opponents; Hitler got it wrong. let us hope Putin does not.

The second lesson, which means I think Putin will not get it wrong, is to know what your opponents will concede without a fight. Putin has gone for the Crimea because he knows he can get it. It is Russian in character, always was Russian since the 1770s, and wants to be part of a revived Russian Empire. For this, the West will not fight. Real power lies in a correct assessment of where your enemies will yield most easily and then going for that; Putin passes that test – so far; but sometimes appetite grows in the eating.

The third lesson is that it is foolish to assume that sanctions can work when you, yourself, would be more damaged by their implementation. Angela Merkel and the Europeans depend upon Russian gas to such an extent that they dare not impose real sanctions on Putin; the lights would go out all over Europe. It is true that Russia would suffer economic damage, but Russian public opinion has far less influence on Putin than British and American public opinion do on Cameron and Obama. Democracies find it difficult to act as swiftly as non-democracies.

The fourth lesson is that if you do not have guns you will not long be in possession of large supplies of butter. War-weariness has prompted the democracies to begin to reduce the size of their armed forces and decrease what they spend on them. This is fine, provided they realise this means that they will have far less influence in a multi-polar world where Russia and China have ambitions.

Finally, we must realise that our ways are not their ways. There is no inevitable triumph of the idea of democracy as preached by the West. It is a form of government like any other. It may be, as Churchill said, the least worst form of government, but it is dangerously dependent on being able to deliver bread and circuses to its own people, which exposes it to the risk of being defeated by those who promise even more bread and better circuses as the price for people giving up their freedom.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and striving. We have not been vigilant and we have settled into a comfort zone. It is up to us whether we wake up and take notice. If not, we bequeath to our children and grandchildren a very different world from the one we have known. That would be the ultimate failure.

Running around in circles

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You could not make it up. In the middle of a major international crisis, Obama and Biden are running round the White House like Batman and aged Robin because Mishy wants them to; I watched that on the British news and heard the sound of Mrs Thatcher whirring in her grave. It has come to this. Obama’s speech was the wettest, most pathetic, least convincing warning since ever; ‘red lines’? Don’t make me laugh. America and the ‘West’ have zero credibility in Moscow. Putin knows what he wants and is getting it; Obama can, literally, jog on.

The one person in all of this who can feel happy is Jimmy Carter. Hithertofore the most useless American President of modern times in the international sphere, he rises to second to bottom, with the great Chicago social organiser now firmly anchored in the bottom position; not even Clinton would have been this bad.

You might, rightly, ask what could the US and the West do? But that misses the point of deterrence. Whilst the Russians respected us, they feared us, and even if there was a limit to what we could do, the Russians weren’t eager to see what that was; now they laugh at the USA and really don’t care. Obama will make another speech – like the one he did about ‘red lines’ and Syria – and Putin will need help to stop laughing.

Once you lose respect, you don’t get it back. As long as Obama is in the white House, Putin knows he can do what he likes. Unlike the great Chicago social organiser, Putin is a man of power, not rhetoric. He knows what he wants, he knows how to get it, and he knows that America poses zero danger to that. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power(less) can say to Putin that ‘actions speak louder than words’, but that one cuts both ways – the US does not act, and that says everything.

Throughout the Cold War one could have said that it was unlikely that the USA and NATO would have been able to wage a real war against the Soviets; would they really have nuked the Russians? That, in a way, is the point – no one, including the Soviets, knew. What they did know was that Harry Truman had nuked the Japanese, and that was all they needed to know; who is going to run the risk that the other side is not bluffing?

Obama has made the classic liberal mistake; he has assumed that words without swords mean something; Hobbes was right – covenants without swords are mere words. Putin is afraid of power, not words. If words were actions, Obama would be the best President ever; as they aren’t, he’s just the best President the liberals have – a legend in his own lunch-hour. But does he then have to put on a stunt running round the White House?

Can anyone imagine Thatcher and Reagan being filmed running round the White House at the behest of their spouses in this sort of situation? If there ever was an image which summed up the sheer useless, media-focussed, let’s everyone feel pink, warm and fuzzy ‘cos that’s cool, tone of the Obama White House, this is it.

In early 1943 Stalin is said to have commented, when Churchill and Roosevelt refused to go for a second front in Europe, that he would send some Polish women to invade Italy, as they, at least knew how to fight. But for all his scorn, he didn’t, because he knew he needed the fire-power America packed. How the mighty have fallen.

From now until the next Presidential election, the rulers of the Axis of Evil can relax – Obama is on watch, so whatever they want to do, they can.

What is America for Mummy?

[This is one of Jessica's first posts here, I was looking through our records and it struck me that we often become bogged down in detail, in theory, in the mundane day-to-day stuff that we deal with. We tend to forget what it's all about, and we shouldn't. Almost from the beginning America has been a dream; a dream of freedom above all, but also of material prosperity.

It was such a potent dream that Italian peasants told each other that the streets were paved with gold, although they knew what really awaited them was hard work, and bias against them because of their language and religion but, they came anyway, and if they didn't have much but hard work and cramped tenements, their children did. And that's really what the dream has always been: for our children to have a better life than we did. In the nineteenth century, Russian immigrants who had never had anything but black bread, except maybe on holidays, wrote home ecstatically that "in America, we eat wheaten bread every day." And that too was part of the saga of America.

That's what we have built over the last 400 years, a dream of freedom, of individual liberty, yes, but also of freedom from material want by virtue of hard work. And you know, as Jess is going to tell you again here, that is really pretty damned heroic as well. Neo]

When I was ten, I lived in America for a year – in the mid-West. I remember when we got to O’Hare airport looking at its size and marvelling; it seemed bigger than the town in which we lived in Wales. I recall going to St. Louis and seeing the Arch, and going up it and looking across the vastness of the city and asking my mother: ‘What is America for mummy?’ I can’t remember what she answered – she probably thought it was me trying to be clever; but it was a real question, and one I came to ask a few times whilst I was there.

I think I asked it for the reason many foreigners ask – there is something different about America.  I remember going with my mother to a Kiwanis Club and being struck by the way everyone put their fist on their breast as they swore the oath of allegiance to the flag. Indeed, I was so impressed that I memorised it so that the second time we went, I could do it too. I remember a nice man smiling but saying that I couldn’t do it because I was not an American citizen.  ‘How do you get to be one of those’, I asked? ‘Well, little lady, you could always marry an all-American boy’, was the answer.  I think I said something about ‘smelly boys’ and never wanting to get married because I wanted to be a nun. But a bit later I recall thinking that maybe the kind man had a point.  America, the very idea, seemed Romantic.

My father was fifty when I was born, and his tastes in movies became mine. When other teenage girls were swooning about Kevin Costner (really???), I was dismissive. John Wayne was my hero – and remains so. He summed up America for me. Strong, but never boastful about it. I remember crying when I saw ‘The Man who shot Liberty Valance’ – it was so unfair – it was Tom Donovan, not Ransom Stoddard who shot Liberty Valance, so why did the latter end up with the girl? Huh, I remember thinking, if I had been ‘the girl’ there was no way I’d have chosen Jimmy Stewart over John Wayne – what was she thinking?  But, as Tom Donovan might have said: “Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim”.

The film’s message, which passed me by in my indignation, was about the passing of the old West, and the place of myth in the making of a nation. America is a nation build around myths and legends. That is not to say they are wrong, it is to say that those movies told a bigger story about the making of a great nation and what made it that. All nations need myths, and the point about the American one seemed to be encapsulated in my second favourite John Wayne film – ‘She wore a Yellow ribbon.’ Captain Nathan Brittles was the quintessential quiet American. A man who, having lost his family, was married to army, and who did his duty, no matter what. My teenage heart went out to him, and I was very sniffy about the heroine going off with those ‘boys’ rather than a ‘real man’.

What John Ford caught in those films – especially the great trilogy which began with ‘Fort Apache’ and ended with ‘Rio Grande’ – was the very idea of America.  Call me a Romantic (no, do) – but that idea of America remains with me to this day. God Bless America – the land of the free.

[I think Jess is very right, America is romantic, and yes, you can call me one too. But if we take the romance, and yes the legend and the saga out of our history, we are left with a strip of dirt, and just another group of people. That's not my America, either. Here's a piece of the legend. Neo]

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Optimism in America?

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One thing which has always struck me about America, and it is one of the reasons that FDR and President Reagan stand so pre-eminent, is that it is built on optimism. When you think of the situation of the Founding Fathers, goodness, what a leap of faith! They literally laid their lives on the line in a fight for independence against the great British Empire with its huge military might; but they triumphed. Their Republic consisted of twelve States on the eastern edge of a great, and largely unexplored Continent, with French and Spanish territory to the south and south-west; Louisiana essentially barred the route westward; Spanish Mexico barred the route to the south. Yet, within fifty years of the founding of the Republic, these barriers had vanished.

West of the Missouri, however, despite Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition, was more or less terra incognita, and even within the United States, tension was growing between the slave-holding States and the Free, so much so that by the 1860s, the Republic was tearing itself apart in one of the bloodiest of civil wars. Until the end of World War II there was hardly a decade when Bruce Springsteen’s lines about having ‘no work, because of the economy’ were not true; forty-odd years of exceptional prosperity in a material sense may have inculcated the belief that somehow the Republic’s people would always live on easy street – but that, whilst being part of the American hope, was never necessarily something most people actually achieved; you only have to look at the history of the Irish and Italian immigrants to see how it was for many first generation ‘Americans’; and of the suffering of the slaves, well, that is indeed a scar on the conscience.

But, despite of these things, America got on with it. Shady politicians? Crooked businessmen and bankers with their hold over the politicians? Politicians who were in it for themselves? Pork-barrelling? Faction fighting? Bitter insults hurled by political opponents at each other?  These are not new, these are American history; and you know what? America is bigger than them all. Sure, there are worrying developments – that FDR and his attempts to use SCOTUS to put in place that socialistic ‘New Deal’, with that Communist Wallace and Harry Hopkins, that really worries me! What’s that, that happened in the 1930s? Oh well, I mean Obama and Pelosi – except they don’t have an ounce of the talent and drive of FDR and his ‘Brains Trust’. The Great Republic remains standing. Does that mean that the fears of FDR’s opponents were wrong? Or does it mean that their vigilance stopped the worst happening? Or does it mean that the realities of America proved too great even for FDR’s ambitions? I confess I don’t know.

But what I do know is that at his first election Obama spotted something important – he knew that the American people are optimists, ‘can do’ people; after all, how many of their ancestors would have been there had they not been so?  So when he ran on a rhetoric of ‘hope’ he struck an authentic chord in the American people. It was one his opponents did not catch and still show insufficient sign of catching. It is all very well to call Obama out for being pretty useless, and to prophesy that the skies will darken and the waters rise and doom will fall upon the land; but is it a political programme to put before a People founded on the optimistic dreams of a bunch of guys who, if they’d calculated, would have paid the tax on tea and gotten on with feathering their nests?

I am an outsider who loves America. But I can’t help thinking that unless President Obama’s opponents get away from negativity (after all, if people feel, as they do, negative about him, they don’t need to be told to feel it) and offer a vision of the America its people recognise as optimistic, then for all her many faults, it will be Hillary in ’16. At which point, even my capacity to be Sunny will vanish :)

America: Decline & Fall?

A US flag

If, as yesterday’s post argued, America is in many ways modelled on the best of the Roman Republic, the question naturally arises as to whether it will suffer its fate?  There is certainly much about which to be pessimistic, and oddly, for an outsider (as I am) one of those is actually the tone of political debate. This may be one of those things no non-American can understand (a bit like the rules of cricket if you aren’t English, or the ‘off-side’ rule in soccer if you aren’t a British man), but to me it seems at times as though each side thinks no virtue at all attached to the other Party; and quite how one runs a democracy when both sides slag each other off in the vilest terms, I can’t quite imagine. I found, for example, much of the language used by the Left about Sarah Palin (whom I rather like) vile and sexist, and, had it been directed at a Democrat woman, those using it would have been the first to criticise it. As for President Obama, he seems a fair bet to make Jimmy Carter safe from being the worst President since World War II by some margin, but to portray him as the anti-Christ and un-American seems to me a bit un-American. However poor he is as a leader, he did get elected by the American people, and they might be more willing to think seriously about what lies behind the rhetoric next time.

The economy, well, that gives cause for concern, and I am with those who think that since Governments don’t create jobs, they should get out of the way of those who do, and create, as far as they can, conditions in which those people can do so. But one would have to be several sorts of fool to ignore the elephant in the room. As long ago as 1960, ‘Ike’ was warning of the dangers of the ‘industrial-military complex’ – and he was no pinko commie. Ike was in many ways a figure the Romans would have recognised; the soldier turned politician/public servant. As a good republican, he recognised the dangers of foreign intervention and high spending on war; that was the beginning of the downfall of Rome.

America, although one would hardly know it in Europe, deserves well of the free world; without it there would be no free world. But America paid, and still pays, a huge price. Those cost of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has been colossal, and no one can really think it has been worth it. But if, as may be the case, it has made Congress and the People think again about such interventions (think Syria here) then it may well be a lesson almost worth the cost.

The republican virtues include a willingness to serve in the military, and (as the ex-wife of a serving soldier I know this only too well) to pay the price this demands; a free people has to be prepared to defend itself. But it is not a virtue to go abroad to seek new beasts to slay. American needs to remain strong to defend itself and its interests, but too many ill-judged wars like the last two serve only to weaken the economy and the State.

But America has not succumbed to the imperial delusion, even if at times it has been a close-run thing. It remains what it has always been, republican to its heart and mistrustful of imperial ambitions and men on white horses promising utopia. Whatever the shortcomings of its political system, it has not succumbed to the temptations of imperial power, and it has preferred even the messiness of the pork-barrel to the clean lines of imperial autocracy; even if some Presidents have found this inconvenient.

America is the only country in the world founded on a dream. It remains the only country in the world where, if they had the chance, most people would say they would live if they did not live where they do. So, for all its problems, I do not see that America will go into some decline & fall – it has within its democracy tough roots, deeply planted in fertile soil; and its people remain, despite the worst attempts of some of its politicians, the most enterprising, entrepreneurial and energetic resource any great country could wish to have. Sure, the skies get dark at times – but westward ho, the sky is bright.

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