November 18, 2007


American Treasure: Giving thanks (Mark Steyn, 11/18/07, National Review)

“The New World” is one of the oldest settled constitutional democracies on earth, to a degree “the Old World” can barely comprehend. Where it counts, Americans are traditionalists. We know Eastern Europe was a totalitarian prison until the Nineties, but we forget that Mediterranean Europe (Greece, Spain, Portugal) has democratic roots going all the way back until, oh, the mid-Seventies; France and Germany’s constitutions date back barely half a century, Italy’s only to the 1940s, and Belgium’s goes back about 20 minutes, and currently it’s not clear whether even that latest rewrite remains operative. The US Constitution is not only older than France’s, Germany’s, Italy’s or Spain’s constitution, it’s older than all of them put together. Americans think of Europe as Goethe and Mozart and 12th century castles and 6th century churches, but the Continent’s governing mechanisms are no more ancient than the Partridge Family. Aside from the Anglophone democracies, most of “the west’”s nation states have been conspicuous failures at sustaining peaceful political evolution from one generation to the next, which is why they’re so susceptible to the siren song of Big Ideas — Communism, Fascism, European Union. If you’re going to be novelty-crazed, better the zebra-mussel cappuccino than the Third Reich.

Even in a supposedly 50/50 nation, you’re struck by the assumed stability underpinning even fundamental disputes. If you go into a bookstore, the display shelves offer a smorgasbord of leftist anti-Bush tracts claiming that he and Cheney have trashed, mangled, gutted, raped and tortured, sliced’n’diced the Constitution, put it in a cement overcoat and lowered it into the East River. Yet even this argument presupposes a shared veneration for tradition unknown to most Western political cultures: When Tony Blair wanted to abolish in effect the upper house of the national legislature, he just got on and did it. I don’t believe the U.S. Constitution includes a right to abortion or gay marriage or a zillion other things the Left claims to detect emanating from the penumbra, but I find it sweetly touching that in America even political radicalism has to be framed as an appeal to constitutional tradition from the powdered-wig era. In Europe, by contrast, one reason why there’s no politically significant pro-life movement is because, in a world where constitutions have the life expectancy of an Oldsmobile, great questions are just seen as part of the general tide, the way things are going, no sense trying to fight it. And, by the time you realize you have to, the tide’s usually up to your neck.

So Americans should be thankful they have one of the last functioning nation states. Because they’ve been so inept at exercising it, Europeans no longer believe in national sovereignty, whereas it would never occur to Americans not to. This profoundly different attitude to the nation state underpins in turn Euro-American attitudes to transnational institutions such as the U.N. But on this Thanksgiving the rest of the world ought to give thanks to American national sovereignty, too. When something terrible and destructive happens — a tsunami hits Indonesia, an earthquake devastates Pakistan — the U.S. can project itself anywhere on the planet within hours and start saving lives, setting up hospitals and restoring the water supply. Aside from Britain and France, the Europeans cannot project power in any meaningful way anywhere. When they sign on to an enterprise they claim to believe in — shoring up Afghanistan’s fledgling post-Taliban democracy — most of them send token forces under constrained rules of engagement that prevent them doing anything more than manning the photocopier back at the base. If America were to follow the Europeans and maintain only shriveled attenuated residual military capacity, the world would very quickly be nastier and bloodier, and far more unstable. It’s not just Americans and Iraqis and Afghans who owe a debt of thanks to the U.S. soldier but all the Europeans grown plump and prosperous in a globalized economy guaranteed by the most benign hegemon in history.

Of course, the key to this turn of events is that the European version of sovereignty was premised on nationalism, the cancer of the continent, while we've redefined sovereignty in our own liberal democratic image.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2007 10:32 AM

Sovereignity redefined: military capability sufficient to win, or at least to inflict unacceptable losses on the aggressor.

So-called "sovereignity"--make-believe sovereignity--exists only on the sufference of the world government.

What confirms this arrangement is the extent of acquiescence we see from the make-believe stagtelerts.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 18, 2007 12:36 PM

Steyn's historical insight doesn't apply only to Europe.

China might be, in the opening words of the PRC's latest constitution, "one of the countries with the longest history in the world." Compared with America's two century-old document, however, China's constitutions are incredibly new. The People Republic of China's newest constitution went into effect only in 1982, and the Republic of China's constitution was enacted only in 1947.

China's oldest political party, the Kuomintang, was only founded in 1912, and can't begin to compare for longevity with either the Republican Party, established in 1843, or the Democratic Party, founded even earlier in 1792.

Nor is any of China's academic institutions - Fudan University, one of the country's oldest, was created in 1905 - as old as even the youngest of the Ivy League schools, Cornell University, which was established in 1865. Certainly, no Chinese institution of high learning has as long a pedigree as Harvard University, founded in 1636.

Steyn understands what many ignorant and arrogant Europeans and Chinese don't know: that the so-called young United States actually has many powerful political and cultural institutions that are far older and much more stable than anything to be found either in Europe or China.

Perhaps, it's time for the immature upstarts in Europe and China to learn from their sophisticated elders.

Posted by: X at November 18, 2007 1:42 PM


You're making the same mistake that cost Jerry Ford the presidency. Military reality has nothing to do with America's definition of sovereignty.

Posted by: oj at November 18, 2007 1:51 PM