Our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers.
WHAT IS A Washington Christmas without receiving a few policy books as stocking stuffers? Still, it might be better to start with America’s historical foundation. Our nation faces more than a few challenges, but it always has come through even the most serious crises. Let us hope that history repeats.
Americans tend to have a rose-colored view of the country’s founding. For instance, patriots rose up against British oppressors and united to create a new nation. But it was a bit more complicated than that. A worthwhile read is An American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781–1783, by William M. Fowler, Jr. (Walker & Company).
Although fighting ended in 1781 and the British government had reluctantly recognized the necessity of granting independence, America’s future by no means looked bright. Negotiations with London were difficult — especially since the colonies were bankrupt, Continental Army soldiers were mutinous, and nationalists were scheming to use others’ misfortune for their political advantage.
A few decades later the union cobbled together only with great difficulty fell apart. David Goldfield takes a new look at America’s costliest war in America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Bloomsbury Press). The conflict thankfully ended slavery, though Goldfield questions whether the country needed a war to do that. The other enduring impact was to dramatically transform the United States, then considered to be a plural. The outcome was a new industrial behemoth that exalted commerce, reason, and science. One of Goldfield’s more interesting contentions is that evangelical Christianity helped bring on the conflict by hampering political compromise — a theory that so offended an editor at Washington’s long-time conservative newspaper that he killed my review of the book. On this, the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, the results should give pause: extraordinary centralization of power and imperialistic nationalism threaten both liberty and virtue.
This helps explain why long ago I decided that politics was hopeless and we are all doomed. In The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America (PublicAffairs) Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch do their best to prove me wrong. I still think we are doomed, but I hope they are right when they pronounce: “the future will be so bright, we’ll have to wear shades or, preferably, money-back-guaranteed optical implants with complimentary lifetime upgrades.”
Many of the political battles that Gillespie and Welch describe are rooted in a deeper economic and philosophical conflict captured by Nicholas Wapshott in Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics (Norton). These two intellectual giants did much to drive government economic policy starting with the Great Depression. For many years Keynes was victorious, and Western economies suffered disastrously as a result. Intellectually Hayek came to dominate the end of the 20th century, but during the 2008 financial crisis, mostly caused by foolish government interventions, Keynesianism again became the rage. Yet thankfully the public continues to be skeptical of politicians claiming to bear gifts financed by more deficits and debt.
Some of America’s most troublesome issues are international. Many of them grow out of religion, to the consternation of secular-minded Washington policy-makers. The international role of religion is ably detailed by Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah in God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (Norton). In this “enlightened” age reason, science, commerce, and globalization were supposed to have marginalized and largely buried religion, but the latter is alive around the globe. In fact, it is hard to understand many of today’s international conflicts without understanding religion.
For instance, America’s most pressing foreign policy challenge is terrorism, which revolves around Islam. Muslim nations also tend to be isolated economically and authoritarian politically. While worse systems exist—North Korea and Burma come to mind—the vast majority of Muslim nations, even after the “Arab Spring,” suffer under various forms of tyranny. Genuine reform will need to come from within Islam. In Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (Norton), Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol explores elements within Islamic tradition and history that support freer and more tolerant economic and political systems. Akyol is doing important work that should have an impact well beyond his native Turkey.
Related to terrorism is Pakistan, a semi-failed nuclear state. The mess—and there seems to be no better word to describe that tragic land—is explored by James P. Farwell in The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability (Potomac). He looks at this chaotic nation’s recent history, particularly the roles of former president Pervez Musharraf and the late Benazir Bhutto, and the relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Frankly, one of the best reasons for America to leave Afghanistan is to get as far away from Pakistan as possible.
Likely more difficult over the longer term for Washington will be dealing with a wealthier and more powerful China. What to do? Panda-huggers and China-bashers take radically different perspectives. Henry Kissinger, who helped engineer the dramatic Cold War rapprochement between Washington and Beijing, assesses Chinese history and the future prospects of the U.S.-China relationship in On China (The Penguin Press). Kissinger hopes a Pacific Community might avert the risk of violent confrontation.
In A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (Norton), Aaron L. Friedberg takes a more pessimistic view. Yet even a more aggressive China would have little ability to threaten America, in contrast to Washington’s dominant position in East Asia. And the U.S. cannot permanently preserve the latter, at least at reasonable cost. Indeed, Americans would not stand idly by if another power, say, China, attempted to maintain military superiority along their coasts. Rather than attempting to defend the undefendable, Washington should back away, encouraging friendly states, starting with Japan, to develop potent deterrent forces of their own.
Finally, one of the most important practitioners of foreign policy—a true giant of international relations—was Germany’s Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Jonathan Steinberg has written an encyclopedic but fascinating biography: Bismarck: A Life (Oxford). Bismarck had much ability and knew how to do good, working to defuse conflicts and maintain peace when he believed doing so was in Wilhelmine Germany’s interest. But he was without moral scruple and did much bad, reinforcing Germany’s unbalanced authoritarian political system. Steinberg explores the complexity of this extraordinary person.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online