Once more his words could do nothing to turn the public against the war. Something else did. Over and again the same thing has happened: an honorable objection to war is ignored, and the pacificists then win the day, not through their own eloquence and logic but thanks to the way the war is conducted, or misconducted. That was true of the Crimean and Boer Wars, of Vietnam and of Iraq.
Having sunk to the depths of unpopularity, Cobden and Bright were rescued: by the charge of the Light Brigade; by William Howard Russell of the London Times with his reports of the sufferings of ordinary soldiers at Balaclava and in the disease-ridden hospital at Scutari; by Lords Cardigan, Raglan and Lucan, the aristocratic bunglers who commanded the British Army, just as Americans would one day be turned against the Vietnam War less by love and flowers and noninterventionist politicians such as Senator William Fulbright (or even Jane Fonda) than by the boastful incompetence of General Westmoreland. Indeed, such was the revulsion after the Crimea that England fought no other European war for nearly sixty years.
WHEN COBDEN and Bright first made their case in the 1840s and 1850s, it might have seemed remote to Americans, little knowing that their own country’s most destructive war was soon to begin, fought between Americans on American soil. But their two names were known on the other side of the Atlantic. Bright was an ardent opponent of slavery, and Cobden, on the strength of his travels, was one of the first to perceive that here was an enormously powerful economy in the making which might one day overshadow England and all of Europe.
But America had no need at all to be taught the doctrine of noninterventionism by a Manchester businessman: it was the very heart and soul of the republic, its reason for being. Nowadays, American politicians, left and right, neocon and liberal, are incurably addicted to invoking the Founding Fathers; you might wonder whether they have ever read any of them. See two of the greatest utterances by presidents, and then see how long it has been since anyone in the White House has taken them to heart and acted upon them.
In 1796, George Washington bade farewell as first president, with an explicit affirmation that the newborn republic had no wish to take part in the quarrels of others:
Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations, cultivate peace and harmony with all; religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? . . .
Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humour or caprice?
He also gave what sounds like a clear warning to his recent successors, when dealing with Southeast Asia or the Middle East:
nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others should be excluded; and that in place of them just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. . . .
A passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.
Rather more than four years later, Thomas Jefferson echoed Washington in his inaugural speech: “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political: Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
For very many years, the United States did in fact follow those principles. Attempts have been made, perhaps more ingenious than convincing, to show that there was an aggressive and interventionist vein in American policy from the beginning—Robert Kagan has done his best to prove this in his book Dangerous Nation, without convincing some of us—but the fact remains that no American troops set foot on European soil for more than 140 years after the Declaration of Independence. The heirs of Washington and Jefferson really did follow their precepts. There were no passionate attachments, nor any permanent “inveterate antipathies against particular nations”—except maybe one. For all the quaint notion of an immemorial “special relationship,” the United States was not only detached from but also frequently hostile to England throughout the nineteenth century and into the next.
As to that rival, although Great Britain greedily and sometimes mercilessly expanded its empire during the same period, it was remarkably pacific in the sphere of European politics, in part because it was the only great power which could not in any conceivable circumstances make territorial gains on the Continent.
When the twentieth century came and England did enter two great and historically decisive wars in 1914 and 1939, it was with the utmost reluctance. One London columnist, who was uneasy about the Iraq War and the way that Downing Street was taking Great Britain into it on flagrantly distorted claims, said that the government was obviously exaggerating the case for invasion, but that was what governments always did when these sorts of conflicts began. To the contrary, British governments and prime ministers have historically habitually exaggerated the case for peace—up to and notably including Neville Chamberlain.
And that explains what happened to noninterventionism. It was seemingly tainted and discredited, in England as “appeasement” and in America as “isolationism.” Quite how these terms have been used and abused is another story for another day, but they doubtless conditioned policy after 1945—and after 1989, when NATO, instead of being shuttered once it fulfilled its purpose with the collapse of the Soviet empire, survived and was expanded and adapted to American interests, real or perceived.
THEN CAME Tony Blair. He was a self-taught interventionist, having shown little interest in—or knowledge of—foreign affairs until he was converted, he tells us in his weird and rather horrific memoir, A Journey: My Political Life, by seeing Schindler’s List; if that dubious movie really was responsible for the Iraq War then Steven Spielberg has much to answer for. Blair long captivated many Americans as well as his compatriots, and in April 1999, he gave a celebrated speech in Chicago which supposedly outlined a new philosophy of liberal interventionism. It was hailed by people who may have known a little more history than Blair (which is not saying much) as the “end to Westphalia,” intending the Peace of Westphalia which itself had concluded the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War by establishing the principle of national sovereignty, as well as cuius regio, eius religio: the nation will follow the religion of its ruling prince (a principle silently adopted by both sides in Europe during the Cold War. Stalin and his successors were not going to attack Western Europe to impose Communism, and the West was not going to attack Russia and its dependencies to get rid of it).
In his grandiose, ill-informed and ultimately calamitous attempt to repudiate Westphalia, Blair outlined conditions to
decide when and whether to intervene. . . . First, are we sure of our case? . . . Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? . . . Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? . . . And finally, do we have national interests involved?
This was delivered in the context of Kosovo, the Western-led intervention against Serbia. Cobden and Bright would have been appalled. Whatever was said at the time, we now know this to have been a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. A report at the end of last year from the Council of Europe, an entirely detached and austere body, described Kosovo today as a gangster state, a hub of the drugs trade and also of human trafficking and young women sold into prostitution, not to mention illicit trade in human organs, although nothing like the bloodbath of Iraq.
Not that Blair is in any way penitent. At the time he left Downing Street in the summer of 2007, Timothy Garton Ash described him: he “bounds into the garden of 10 Downing Street, looking as if he’s ready for another 10 years there.” Asked what his legacy was—“What is the essence of Blairism?”—he gave an answer that “could not be clearer: ‘It is liberal interventionism.’” And Blair has expanded on this in his book. Such interventionism “requires a whole new geopolitical framework. It requires nation-building. It requires a myriad of interventions deep into the affairs of other nations. It requires above all a willingness to see the battle as existential and to see it through, to take the time, to spend the treasure, to shed the blood,” and he cannot be faulted when it comes to spending the treasure and shedding the blood, albeit someone else’s treasure and the blood of others.Image: Pullquote: Over and again the same thing has happened: an honorable objection to war is ignored, and pacificists then win the day, not through logic but thanks to the way the war is conducted, or misconducted.Essay Types: Essay