Friday, August 3, 2012

Churchill, Romney, and Modern American Conservatism

In Wednesday's post, I concluded with a series of questions:
How is it that a perceived slight to the memory of a British leader has come to suggest a lack of American patriotism?
How did Churchill become more "American" than the American president?
The bust of Churchill is obviously symbolic--but symbolic of what exactly?
My short answer is this: I think many of today's American conservatives who embrace Churchill do so because they embrace Churchill's vision of a world benignly managed by the "English-speaking peoples." Romney's pandering on the Churchill bust is a desperate attempt to both appeal to those conservatives and wrap himself in the image of a well-known decisive leader.

Seeing the waning power of the British Empire after World War II, Churchill sought to bolster it by forging not just an alliance with the United States, but something close to a union with it. That union, he argued, could effectively manage world affairs far into the future, as a new, updated, and revived version of the British Empire.

In a sense, Churchill became American because he sought to erase the differences between the British and the Americans. Churchill himself embodied that union--he was literally half-American. His mother was born in Brooklyn. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy even made him an honorary citizen of the United States (perhaps to immunize himself against charges that his anti-colonial Irish heritage made him hostile to Britain?), calling Churchill "a son of America though a subject of Britain."

Most importantly, Churchill almost single-handledly created the "special relationship." The phrase was in fact coined by Churchill himself in 1944, but he had held the idea for many years.  Fraser Harbutt, author of The Iron Curtain: Churchill, America, and the Cold War, writes that as early as 1931, Churchill believed that the "two great opposing forces of the future ... would be the English-speaking peoples and Communism." 

Today, most Americans tend to think of the "special relationship" in general terms to mean simply that the United States and Great Britain have been close allies since World War II. But for Churchill, it meant much more than that. The vision he sketched in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 was for a virtual Anglo-American union which would keep the postwar peace.
Churchill delivering the "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, MO, March 1946, with President Truman seated on his right.

Churchill used the phrase "special relationship" twice in his Fulton speech, and he said "English-speaking" people (or world) on five different occasions.

Churchill consciously cultivated not just a connection, but a complete identification between the two nations. The Fulton speech was a pivotal part of that. His conscious goal was to wed the two in common cause. He called the United States a "kindred nation" and said it was "necessary that the constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, and the grand simplicity of decision shall rule and guide the conduct of the English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war."

For Churchill, the combination of Britain and America was essential. He said that to fail to achieve this virtual unity of Britain and the United States threatened the world with the return of "the dark ages." Peace depended on "what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States of America."

Few people today realize that the "special relationship" Churchill envisioned was far more ambitious than what actually developed. He called for the virtual merging of the American and British militaries: "It should carry with it the continuance of the present facilities for mutual security by the joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases in the possession of either country all over the world. This would perhaps double the mobility of the American Navy and Air Force."

Churchill called for "such co-operation ... in the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and in industry, and in moral force" to insure that "there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure. On the contrary there will be an overwhelming assurance of security."

Churchill even looked forward to the day when not only he, but every Briton and every American, would be citizens of both countries: "Eventually there may come -- I feel eventually there will come -- the principle of common citizenship, but that we may be content to leave to destiny, whose outstretched arm many of us can already clearly see."

Churchill's vision was no short-term expedient, meant simply to meet the immediate postwar challenges: "if all British moral and material forces and convictions are joined with your own in fraternal association, the highroads of the future will be clear, not only for our time, but for a century to come."

What Churchill was proposing was nothing less than an Anglo-American condominium to keep the world peace; not the American Century, but the Anglo-American Century.

This, I argue, is why Churchill is even more attractive to some American neoconservatives today, 20 years after the end of the cold war, than he was during the cold war. We tend to remember the Fulton speech as a cold war warning only, but the fear of communism had a larger purpose for Churchill. Like Churchill, American neoconservatives believe that the "English-speaking peoples," by virtue of their "moral and material forces," are fit to manage the world.

Mitt Romney's trip to London not only prompted my questions; I think the complete story of that trip illustrates the above answer.

Romney made the statement about the Churchill bust at a fundraiser. He was not pandering to the British--by law Romney could only raise money from American citizens in Britain, not from British citizens. He was appealing to American conservatives who idolize Churchill.

But more importantly, the Churchill bust was not the only Romney story to come from the London trip. The controversial comments of unnamed "Romney advisors" are even more illuminating and make the connection between the bust and this larger foreign policy vision.

In a story in The Telegraph, those anonymous sources were quoted criticizing President Obama and explaining why a President Romney would be better for Britain. It is important to look at everything they said, to get the full effect:
"We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: "The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have."
"Obama is a Left-winger," said another. "He doesn’t value the Nato alliance as much, he’s very comfortable with American decline and the traditional alliances don’t mean as much to him. He wouldn’t like singing 'Land of Hope and Glory'." [This is roughly equivalent to criticizing a British leader for not being comfortable singing "God Bless America."]
The two advisers said Mr Romney would seek to reinstate the Churchill bust displayed in the Oval Office by George W. Bush but returned to British diplomats by Mr Obama when he took office in 2009. One said Mr Romney viewed the move as 'symbolically important' while the other said it was 'just for starters,' adding: 'He is naturally more Atlanticist.'
After criticism of those comments (particularly the racial implications of the phrase "Anglo-Saxon heritage"), Romney "distanced himself" from them. "I don't agree with whoever that adviser is," Romney said.

Nonetheless, I think it is important to view Romney's Churchill bust remark in the context of these other comments. The Romney aides themselves made the connection--it was all of one piece. They said that Romney appreciates the "Anglo-Saxon heritage" (not all that different from "English-speaking peoples"), was "more naturally" comfortable with British culture and the "special relationship" and correctly predicted that Romney would say that he plans to make the "symbolically important" step of returning the Churchill bust to the Oval Office to signify all of those things.

In doing so, Romney is singing the Churchill-adoring, neoconservative tune.

The neoconservative choirmaster is Charles Krauthammer. It was Krauthammer who, in his column last week, revived this nonsense over the Churchill bust. The point of his piece, however, was that Romney's choices of destinations on his trip were meaningful. He would be the anti-Obama, affirming support for Britain and Israel and, via the trip to Poland, animosity toward Russia (they have trouble completely letting go of the cold war).

Krauthammer is an unabashed advocate of American unilateralism in foreign policy. Churchill's Fulton speech, despite the occasional nod to the new United Nations, is an argument against the kind of multilateralism that neoconservatives such as Krauthammer hold in utter disdain. Krauthammer believes--like Churchill--in the idea of a "benignly" managed empire.

As the cold war was ending in 1990--a time of transition not unlike 1946 in some ways--Krauthammer published "The Unipolar Moment."  He wrote: "The immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is an unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies." He argued that the West needed to develop "antiballistic missile and air defense systems to defend against those weapons that do escape Western control or preemption." [emphasis added]

In Krauthammer's world view, the sin of multilateralism is that it seeks to "restrain the American Gulliver and remake him into a tame international citizen." For Krauthammer, the United States should always be the tamer, never the tamed.

A dozen years later, he argued that one "effect of September 11 was to accelerate the realignment of the current great powers, such as they are, behind the United States." It was, in a sense, Churchill's Fulton vision finally come to pass.

Writing on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, Krauthammer concluded confidently: "The new unilateralism argues explicitly and unashamedly for maintaining unipolarity, for sustaining America’s unrivaled dominance for the foreseeable future." That dominance would be "managed benignly" by the United States, he said. Americans had the duty to manage the world: "To impiously paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: History has given you an empire, if you will keep it."

This, effectively, was also what Churchill was saying to the United States in 1946. Churchill sought, of course, to be America's equal partner, while Krauthammer sees Britain as merely one of its attending allies. The vision is fundamentally the same: by virtue of its "moral and material forces," Americans must dominate the international system.

To the extent that Mitt Romney has had a foreign policy vision, this is it. As I noted in an analysis of Romney's speech at the Citadel back in October, the Romney foreign policy amounts to little more than mindless muscle-flexing. He said then, in a passage he repeated a couple of weeks ago in a speech to the VFW: "This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President. You have that President today." In ominous tones reminiscent of the Fulton speech, he warned of a "global alliance of authoritarian states." His simple-minded answer was a "strategy of American strength" leading to a new "American century."

Romney's foreign policy advisors are working hard to cast him in a Churchillian mold, to present him as strong where President Obama is allegedly weak and "eager to address the world with an apology on his lips."

This superficial attempt to claim the mantle of Churchill should make all Americans suspicious. Recall who started all of this by requesting that bust of Churchill in the first place: George W. Bush.

Why did Bush want the bust? It seems Churchill reminded him of, well, himself:
People said why would you be interested in having a bust of an Englishman in your Oval Office and the answer is that he was one of the great leaders in the 20th century. He stood on principle. He was a man of great courage. He knew what he believed, and he really kind of went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me, wasn't afraid of public opinion polls, he wasn't afraid of, he didn't need focus groups to tell him what was right, he charged ahead and the world is better for it.
Bush wanted to associate himself with those leadership traits that he identified in Churchill, and we know how that turned out. Bush was, to say the least, no Churchill.

Now Mitt Romney is doing the same thing. As Bush once tried to say, "Fool me once ..."

[In the course of working on this post, I concluded that I have two separate explanations that I'd like to explore--one more respectable (above), another more disturbing. I'll examine the latter in a subsequent post.]

1 comment:

  1. Mark, you are in the zone, my friend. Can't wait to here the disturbing explanation.