Conrad Black | 13/08/03 | Last Updated: 13/08/02 5:23 PM ET
More from Conrad Black
Wikimedia CommonsAmerican soldiers clearing a Japanese bunker near Buna, New Guinea, in 1942.
It is generally recognized that the United States is steadily withdrawing from several areas of the world where it has had a large military presence for many years, especially the Middle East, Western Europe, and parts of the Far East.
It is, in fact, engaged in a broad strategic retreat. But this must not be misconstrued as the collapse or permanent decline of that country. It remains an extremely rich nation, with the most productive workforce in the history of the world, and a relatively motivated and overwhelmingly patriotic population. The great majority of Americans are proud of their country and are capable of fighting and sacrificing for it in a plausible cause. Courage is valued and revered; and the performance of the United States armed forces in recent wars has been exemplary.
The United States has never been an aggressive power. Only when the Germans insanely attacked American commercial shipping on the high seas did the United States enter World War I, just as Russia was defeated and left the war. The Americans provided the final margin of victory for the beleaguered French, British and Italians (who took 4-million war dead and nearly 7-million wounded between them). The Americans then turned their back on Wilsonian internationalism and their president’s League of Nations, and emerged from isolation only once Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spoke German and French and knew Europe well, and whose family’s fortune was earned in the Far East, concluded that the United States alone could keep the British Commonwealth in the war, ensure Stalin did not make a separate peace with Hitler (as he attempted to do with the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939), and prevent Japan from overrunning the entire Western Pacific and Far East.
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As America led the Allies to victory, Roosevelt developed atomic weapons and founded the United Nations to convince his countrymen that the world was a safer place than they had formerly thought — and to have an international cover for the exercise of America’s dominant post-war influence in the world, as Britain and its Dominions, and the Latin American countries, could all be reasonably assumed to vote with the United States in a permanent American-led majority.
In the 22 years since the Cold War ended, there has not been a serious external threat to the United States
Soon after Roosevelt died, it became clear that Stalin was promoting world-wide communist subversion, was striving for atomic weapons and nuclear parity with the United States, and was violating all his commitments to Churchill and Roosevelt to withdraw from Eastern Europe within Soviet borders. Nine consecutive American presidents, starting with Truman, imposed a containment policy on the Soviet Union, until, without a shot being exchanged between the competing alliances, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed, and international communism imploded noisily into Marx’s proverbial dust-bin of history.
In the 22 years since the Cold War ended, there has not been a serious external threat to the United States. And so it is not entirely surprising that that country gradually has receded back toward its former, Americo-centric (and not very globally preoccupied) self. The outrages of terrorists provoked the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the terrorists did not threaten the existence of America, as Soviet missiles and the alliance between German Nazis and Japanese imperialists did.
The United States successfully deterred any national aggression against it after Pearl Harbor by maintaining a mighty defense establishment, projected latterly by a force of approximately a dozen gigantic aircraft carriers and a large number of accompanying vessels and pre-positioned forces and supplies in strategic areas. All of this still exists. But Americans are taking less and less interest in the upheavals of other countries, or the sundry minor aggressions between them. Even foreign terrorism is receding as an issue for Americans: Almost everyone who was even remotely connected to the atrocities of the 9/11 attacks has been hunted down and killed with commendable thoroughness and efficiency.
The United States could have taken over every square inch of the Americas if they had wished, and all they did was seize a chunk of Mexico
The Cold War-era claim of the left, that Americans were malign imperialists, was always rubbish. Americans never cared a jot for overseas expansion. The United States could have taken over every square inch of the Americas if they had wished, and all they did was seize a chunk of Mexico that that country could not settle and didn’t really occupy (Texas, Arizona, California, etc.) — and that was 150 years ago. It would have been better for everyone, especially the Cubans, if they had hung on to Cuba when they evicted the Spanish from the island in 1898.
George W. Bush had the idea that if he could spread democracy a little farther, it would end terrorism because democracies don’t make war or commit terrorist acts. But though the premise (which was hardly “imperialist,” whatever anti-war protestors claimed) was correct, turning Afghanistan and Iraq into democracies was not so simple, given that they had no history of freedom, nor any institutional structures on which to base such an effort.
Apart from hammering America’s declared enemies, the Iraqi and Afghan Wars haven’t accomplished much and have not justified their cost. This fact has emphasized and accelerated the retirement of the American people from their country’s former active participation in the affairs of every region in the world.
The real threat to the United States is an internal one: the disintegration of their society. One hundred million Americans have inadequate health care for citizens of a rich country, public education is not competitive with the systems of at least 20 other countries, the constitutional system is in permanent gridlock and has not dealt effectively with any major national public policy priority since the Republican leaders in Congress jammed through welfare reform 15 years ago, and only Reagan’s tax reforms in the 30 years prior to that. The criminal justice system is just a conveyer belt to the bloated and corrupt prison system for anyone targeted by omnipotent prosecutors. And the national debt, which was 10-trillion dollars in 2009, is 17-trillion dollars today.
Richard Nixon famously said that “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” They are doing it, and America must come home and change course.
Note: Thanks to readers who have pointed out that the bust of Sir Winston Churchill was not sent back from the White House to Great Britain, but has instead been moved from the Oval Office to the residential quarters. That does not alter the point I was making in this column last week, but I apologize for my error.