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William Thorsell: Grow up, America. It’s time to share the world stage

Commentary
President Joe Biden speaks during the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Saturday, May 20, 2023. Susan Walsh/AP Photo.

Let me take a moment to respond to Conrad Black’s remarks about my views in these pages last week.

When communism disintegrated in China and Russia in the 1990s, replaced by the embrace of market economics, triumphalism swept through the Western world. The West had “won the Cold War!” There was to be a New World Order, a la President H. W. Bush. Even the end of history postulated by Francis Fukuyama. The whole world would now mimic Western societies, not only economically, but socially and politically as well. How long would it take, after joining the World Trade Organization, for China to become a liberal democracy? Sure, it’s been 5,000 years, but maybe a decade or two. Capitalism does that.

Events in Europe might have checked this hubris off the bat as the former Yugoslavia quickly descended into tribal warfare of vicious proportions, culminating in the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, war in Kosovo, and the American bombing of Belgrade. Surely this was evidence that cultural identities remained potent indeed, right in the heart of Europe, far out-weighing love of democratic capitalism in the balance. Check Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Slovakia today.

It should have been clear that the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of capitalist China with borders opening to the world signified two things, not just one: classic communism was dead, and classic nationalism was reborn. The West revelled in the death of communism and, despite tragedy in the Balkans, pooh-poohed the significance of Chinese and Russian nationalism in particular. In each case, that nationalism expressed centuries of culture, indeed of distinct civilizations. And it presaged a return to the classic dynamics of international relations—cooperation and competition among multiple poles expressing different interests and values.

The end of the Cold War was the beginning of a global renaissance of cultural diversity, freed from the shackles of European communist ideology that had oppressed a whole half of the world in the 20th Century. China and Russia were the leading examples, but India, many parts of Africa, and the Islamic countries similarly revived their histories and insisted on their differences. Having thrown off European Marxist ideology, they were not about to embrace American values in exchange.

Intellectuals in the West largely missed this historic shift, proceeding with the liberal democratic “rules-based order” that assumed all major countries would come into the tent, implicitly accepting American dominance in a proudly “uni-polar world.” If Russia was just “a gas station with nuclear weapons,” China was a nation of worker bees enriching the capitalist world order within the rules of the game.

Imagine then the consternation of triumphant, proud Western leaders when deep, repressed world civilizations re-emerged and began to act like America itself—like great powers with distinct interests, values, and views of life. Conrad Black expresses this wounded pique with typical colour, force, and erudition, all the while denying its validity, or even fact.

America, he says, is “the greatest country in the history of the world, the most benign leading power in the history of the world…All the United States has ever sought in foreign relations is not to be threatened…America’s activities and alliances are entirely defensive…The United States is not a hegemon.”

Was America under threat or attack when it provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine through its support of the 2014 coup that overthrew the elected president of Ukraine from the Donbas and then established NATO training bases within Ukraine to support its chronic military conflict in the east?

Is America under threat or attack as it overtly provokes China on the issue of Taiwan, effectively abandoning “strategic ambivalence” in its recognition of “One China” to define Taiwan instead as a strategic American asset surrounded by an iron-red line (dressed in Nancy Pelosi’s pink suit)?

Is America under threat or attack as the only global power fuelling Israel’s horrific war in Gaza and the West Bank?

America has set out to upset a workable status quo in Ukraine and Taiwan in which the strategic interests of Russia and China were respected. Overtly claiming Ukraine and Taiwan as prime American interests and assets, backed by direct military support right on foreign borders, tips the odds toward war in both cases, war provoked by the United States.

The issue is not the quality of American culture, it is the quality of its management in a multi-polar world. In part because America sees itself as a primary force for moral good, it bridles at the existence of competing value systems based in ancient cultures, and insists on its civilizing mission around the world—a new form of the “white man’s burden.” It is understandable that America would lack the intellectual context and practical skill sets to manage effectively in a world that is so new to it. And it is essential to global peace and security that it gains them.

Yes, this means co-existence with major countries that do not share Western concepts of human rights and democracy. It means appreciation for the legitimate security interests of other great powers as seen from their capitals. The big job for America now is competent management in a dynamic, unpredictable, lively, and competitive human landscape in which America is a leading player, one among many. It is not missionary liberalism.

President Xi said to President Biden at their recent meeting in San Francisco that the world was “big enough for the two of us.” Mr. Biden’s national security summary had just stated: “We will not leave our future vulnerable to the whims of those who do not share our vision.” The “whims” of Chinese civilization? It is telling that this needed to be said and sums up the problem well indeed: Mr. Black’s good-hearted bully needs to grow up.

Howard Anglin: The U.K. Tories are going to lose—and in catastrophic fashion

Commentary
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street in London May 22, 2024, as he announces that he is to call a General Election for July 4. Kin Cheung/AP Photo.

The first leader’s debate of the U.K. general election took place on Tuesday night, and if you weren’t aware of it, it’s not just because it wasn’t televised in Canada. It would probably come as news to most Brits as well.

ITV introduced the contest like a heavyweight title fight: Sunak vs Starmer! The reality was more like paint drying vs grass growing. Tryptophan vs Sudafed. Two navy suits, two white shirts, two pained smiles. The only difference was that Sunak’s tie was blue while Starmer’s was mauve—presumably beige would have been a little too daring.

The charisma deficit was larger than the country’s current budget deficit (£120 billion pounds and counting—yes, after 14 years of Tory government, the country has its highest ever tax burden and still has to borrow to cover its expenses, a fact that rather blunts Sunak’s warning that life would cost more under Labour).

What the candidates lacked in interest, however, they made up in energy. Whether it was nerves or the caffeine their handlers plied them within their green rooms, both Starmer and Sunak came out babbling and didn’t let up for the whole hour. They repeatedly talked over each other and over moderator Julie Etchingham, heedless of her increasingly plaintive attempts to bring order to the cacophony.

Viewers tuning in late must have wondered if there were any format at all. “Ok, thank you, ok, I just, thank you, THANK YOU, ok, I am, no, I am just, ok … thank you very much, I am just going to … thank you, THANK YOU, no, actually, actually, if I can just intervene there, ok, thank you …” Alas, energy doesn’t make boring interesting, it just makes it manically boring. Excitable is not the same as exciting.

Attacking early, Starmer repeatedly brought up Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, who is taking a break from flogging her delusional memoir-cum-manifestoAt 344 pages, the book has one page for each day in office … plus 300. to run again. Perhaps sensing the limited potential of tying Sunak to the woman he opposed for his party’s leadership, Starmer soon switched tactics. “Desperate” became Starmer’s word of the night, often muttered off-camera while Sunak was speaking.

Oddly, Sunak didn’t try to link Starmer with his own predecessor, even though Starmer had staunchly backed the electorally toxic Jeremy Corbyn at the last election. On tax, foreign affairs, labour unrest, and immigration in particular, I kept waiting for Sunak to respond: “You wanted the [bolshy/terrorist sympathiser/radical/open borders] Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister!”

The only time a Canadian watching the debate might have perked up is when the audience member “Steven from Warrington” asked: “Why should I trust either of you about such large numbers of people risking their lives to cross the channel to gain access to the U.K. illegally?” Not exactly a question that would make the studio cut in our own election debates, at least not outside Quebec.

Even more surprising to a Canadian viewer, both leaders actually answered the question. Sunak went first. There was no waffling and no throat-clearing about what a generous and welcoming country we are. “Immigration is too high,” he began, and for the rest of the segment he and Starmer accused each other of being less likely to reduce annual net migration—legal and illegal—to the U.K.

For more decades, more Canadians have thought immigration is too high than too low, only to elect governments who raised annual levels, expanded temporary workers, and failed to remove visa overstays or stop illegal border crossings.A notable exception was the crackdown on fraud, the tightening of standards, and the capping of certain categories of permanent and temporary immigration under then-Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney. Never once have they heard a leader—or, heck, an MP—of any mainstream party agree with them, let alone heard unanimous agreement from both Right and Left.

If that exchange briefly roused your Canadian viewer, the rest of the debate was forgettable. Both leaders claimed to have plans. At one point, Sunak even claimed to have bold plans. Starmer, who could make a windsock look decisive, wouldn’t go quite that far, offering only the promise of situational boldness—and only then, he gave the impression, after prolonged and careful consultation.

If there was little excitement in the room, there is finally some in the race. The day before Sunak and Starmer staged a debate that was the political equivalent of browsing a rack of sweater vests, Nigel Farage announced that he had changed his mind and would, after all, assume the leadership of Reform UK and stand as a candidate in Clacton. You could hear the collective buzz of giddy relief from the media. Farage had just tagged the grayscale election with neon graffiti.

Normally the candidacy of a man who has lost all seven of the seats he has contested wouldn’t arouse much interest, but Farage is different. Whatever else you can say about him (and there is plenty), he is the one thing neither mainstream party leader is today: fun. Announcing his candidacy in an online video set to Eminem’s “Without Me,”“I said this looks like a job for me / So everybody, just follow me / ‘Cause we need a little controversy / ‘Cause it feels so empty without me.” Farage entered the ring with a flying elbow from the top ropes. A meme personified.

Vague on policy (he has that, at least, in common with other parties), but heavy on brio, Farage is the Tories’ worst nightmare. He may have only an outsider’s chance in his chosen seat of Clacton, but the ripples his campaign will cause across the country, the media attention he will draw, and—most importantly—the vivid technicolour contrast he poses, make an already embattled Tory party look enfeebled.

Entering the election, polls showed Labour winning a massive majority of 420 out of 650 seats in the House of Commons. Some Conservative party pessimists even whispered about a sub-100 seat wipe-out. I didn’t believe them. I thought that the more voters saw of Starmer, the more enthusiasm would ebb from Labour and the Tory vote would steady. I thought they would lose badly, but not catastrophically. With Farage in the mix, I’m now on team wipeout.