Can’t Count on Luck

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Every couple of generations, the West gets lucky. The civilizational collapse of the 1930s, in reaction to the Great War and then the Great Depression, could well have led to an unbelievably brutal world dominated for decades by tyrannical communism, barbaric National Socialism, and fanatical Japanese militarism. Winston Churchill wasn’t exaggerating in June 1940 when he said that if Britain, which then stood virtually alone, failed, “The whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

We did not so sink. Churchill, and then Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the citizens of the great democracies under their leadership, braced themselves to their duties. So it seemed in 1945 that “the life of the world [would] move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” 

Thirty years later, the West was again reeling, seemingly incapable of facing up to an older and less vigorous Soviet Union abroad and soft nihilism and civilizational decay at home. Today, from the safety of hindsight, we tend to minimize that latter threat. But in the late 1970s serious people thought the West could fail. And the West might have, if not for the improbable emergence of Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan, among others but above all the others. They shaped world history for a decisive decade. And by the end of 1989 the West was triumphant.

But as T. S. Eliot remarked, “There is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” Everyone with eyes to see can see that the gained causes of 1945 and 1989 have been slipping away. At home, decadence is flourishing—if decadence can be said to flourish. Abroad, fanatical versions of both Sunni and Shia Islam are on the march, and garden variety authoritarianism—not less dangerous for being commonplace in world history—is thriving. Neither appears to be receding before or being tamed by the globalization of commerce and investment. It is true that none of today’s particular threats approaches the danger of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union—but the Roman Empire fell to barbarism and decadence, not to a great power or a formidable ideology. A world of chaos and brutality, of the proliferation of terror and weapons of mass destruction, seems a not-too-remote possibility for the not-too-distant future.

It’s one we’re certainly doing as much as possible to ignore, and as little as possible to prevent. Has there ever been a more striking display in our politics today of a fundamental lack of seriousness and deep failure of resolve?

The foreign policy elites are more exercised about a speech by the Israeli prime minister than by an Iranian nuclear bomb. Presidential candidates squabble over vaccines. Prominent journalists invent war stories. Political leaders focus on trivialities. Many conservatives show a remarkable ability to miss the forests—rebuilding our defenses, stopping Iran and ISIS, repealing and replacing Obamacare, and saving the Constitution—while obsessing over the trees—minor policy adjustments, conservative crotchets, and internecine squabbles.

The commentator and former White House denizen David Gergen, a reasonably thoughtful and representative voice of the establishment, realizes things are getting serious. Earlier this week he asked, “How much longer will the world permit the brutality of ISIS? Why can’t we go after them harder?”

To which the obvious answer is: “The world” seems ready to permit the brutality of ISIS to go on quite a long while. But we are not the world. Of course we could “go after them harder.” But that would presume that we have a president who wants to act.

It was bad in 1935. It was bad, in 1975. It is bad in 2015. More perhaps than in the earlier years, there are impressive leaders elsewhere—from Stephen Harper in Canada to Narendra Modi in India, from Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel to Tony Abbott in Australia. But we have Barack Obama. He has chosen, quite purposefully, to play the role of Neville Chamberlain or at least Jimmy Carter. It’s probably too much to hope that he will be succeeded by a Reagan or a Thatcher. Each age has to find its own leader, with his own qualities, suited to his time.

The Republican presidential contest provides us with the occasion for finding such a leader. But we can’t find what doesn’t exist. We were lucky to end up with Thatcher and Reagan. They themselves benefited from some luck. But they didn’t depend on luck. They worked hard, thought big, took risks, and made their own way against the odds. Will any of the candidates prove their worthy heir?


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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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