Democratic Ideals and the Problems of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age

A paper delivered at a Conference on the European Peace Movement: Implications for Western Security, Bonn, West Germany, June 23-5, 1983, sponsored by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and the Konrad Adenauer Stistung.

Were I to be obedient to my assignment this afternoon, the one thing I would surely be in no danger of being accused of is excessive modesty. War, peace, democratic, ideals — these are all immensely large words. Far too large, taken in the abstract, for me, certainly, to be able to enlarge upon in our deliberations here. Indeed, tomes have been written — and by the world’s greatest thinkers — on each of these freighted terms. Forgive me, then, if I set out to bring us down to the more humble earth on which we today, here and now, find ourselves planted.

When we, here and now, speak of war and peace, for example, what we are actually talking about is the perilous state of relations between East and West. Indeed, even the terms “East” and “West” are too vague and general: essentially they refer to the United States, Western Europe, and Japan on the one side and the Soviet bloc on the other.

The term “democratic,” on the other hand, is too precise. When we use it, we almost always mean something broader and more elusive than governance through the will of the majority: as we know, majority rule, un-moderated and unhampered, is tyranny. No, what we mean by “democratic” is no more than a rough, shorthand designation of that group of nations, most of them descending from Christendom, whose political institutions have for a little over two centuries successfully extended to ever greater numbers of their citizens the liberties of free men. We mean, in other words, that collection of institutions and traditions, attitudes and values, that goes by the name of Western Civilization. If these definitions are neither elegant nor altogether satisfactory, at least we all understand them, by our common experience — both good and bad — in the same way.

As for ideals, I hope I won’t appear to you to be too contentious if I suggest that the time has come when we should not speak of them at all. For those of us who have managed to survive intact into the 1980s, ideals are debased things. Too many crimes have been committed in their name. Too many criminals have been absolved from ordinary human responsibility on the ground that they have been guided by some imputed higher aspiration.

For nearly two decades now we have watched the privileged youth of our respective countries set out to destroy themselves, and the rest of us along with them, all the while seeking, to our shame, and finding justification in something they and we have seen fit to call “ideals.” What awaited these young people in the adult world, honeyed over though it was with wealth, ease, and the full range of private choices, was nevertheless only an imperfect mortal existence. Life promised them difficulties and obligations and moral necessities. So they simply refused that world — and the life it offered — with evasion, narcissism, drugs, suicide, and infantile (in this case literally infantile) leftism. And spoke always, and were commonly spoken of by their elders, in language that harkened to their ideals.

In some important sense, the young were right to speak of themselves in this way. They were being idealistic. Not, God knows, in the honorific sense of putting principle above love of self but in the sense of rejecting that which was in actuality there before them — in rejecting, in other words, ordinary life. There may be no greater truth for our time than that contained in the old adage: the perfect is the enemy of the good. The perfect has also long provided a handy antidote to the need to make serious moral choices, as in the question, “Since Western society is wanting in this or that respect, why should we differentiate it from the society of the Soviet Union?” To be idealistic, utopian, then, is to do away with the need to be moral.

The peace movement of today, in Europe and the United States, is the true spiritual legacy of those much touted and self-deceived young people of the ’60s and ’70s. The peace movement does not love peace: it hates the world.

Politicians who wish to display their bona fides as feeling, sensitive souls never refer to the peace movement without pointing out that it is made up of decent people. Particularly when such politicians are engaged in tracing the influence of the Soviet Union on this movement do they seem impelled to express their conviction that most of its members, though perhaps misguided, are moved by the highest motives. The truth is, they are not decent people. They may not be Soviet agents, but they are in a certain sense something worse. They are idealists, which is to say, moral evaders, people looking for a quick fix in a situation that offers none — looking for the unattainable because it feels more pleasing to do so, and damn the consequences.

Among human transgressions, being idealistic may not rank with murder, but it is anything but noble and, in truth, far from decent.

Let us, then, set aside any careless impulse to speak of democratic ideals and speak instead of democratic realities. And let us not speak of war and peace but of that messy condition which is neither of these things and which happens to be the state of play between democratic societies and totalitarian ones.

First, as unhappily we do not need to be reminded, the number of nations even attempting to guarantee liberty to their citizens is a small one, whereas the number of nations in the grip of grim and/or bloody totalitarianism appears to grow year by year.

Second, Soviet Communism has, since its rise to power in Russia, been an expansive, aggressive, revolutionary force, seeking by subversion, intimidation, now of course nuclear blackmail, and, where necessary or possible, outright military conquest, to achieve hegemony over the world.

Third, the only thing that has stood between the Soviet Union and the realization of its international ambitions has been an alliance headed by the United States and supported by the nations of Western Europe and Japan: an alliance enjoying no such imperialistic ambitions for itself — quite the contrary — and whose only raison d’etre (and that is part of the problem) has been to arrest the spread of Soviet domination.

Fourth — and let us be blunt about it for the sake of our common and mutual mental health in a time of crisis — that alliance is now coming unstuck. We might discuss where and how it is coming unstuck in detail, but that would keep us here for days exchanging mutual recriminations and add only further, within these four walls, to the sad condition we were trying to explain. Suffice it to say that the West Europeans, not without a great deal of justice, have lost faith in the capacity of the United States to play the role history has handed it, and that the Americans, with, equal justice, have lost faith in the West Europeans’ commitment to bearing their rightful share of what must be a common burden. The specific charges and counter-charges here are not only divisive, they are irrelevant. For our real problem, within ourselves and among us, lies in any case not in our respective shortcomings but in our virtues as societies.

It is not in the nature of Western democratic societies that they remain steadily and staunchly mobilized, as we are now required to do. The liberties we enjoy; the wealth and widespread well-being that only liberty seems able to produce; the notions of equity and civic propriety and private happiness that underlie our political institutions — in short, those things that rightly make us the envy of the whole world — also make us peaceable, unmilitant, and slow to act until we are acted upon. There is that in Western democratic man — it is, up to a point, an attractive thing to say about him — there is that in Western democratic man which does not love to bear or use arms.

Not altogether unlike the youth of the ’60s and ’70s, we members of democratic societies tend to resist the dirty business that life sometimes imposes upon us. The gaudiest case of this was, of course, to be found in the 1930s, when Britain, France, and the United States, against everything they could see and hear and were actually being told, pretended to themselves that Hitler was only out to rectify a couple of his borders. This trick of self-deception is being repeated in our time in the assertion that the Soviet Union is only a nation among nations, a power among powers, seeking merely to assure its national self-interest. The purpose of this self-deception, like the self-deception of the Allies in the 1930s, is to evade the necessary and possibly politically unpopular need to arm ourselves to the teeth, draw a line, and say to our enemy and mean it, “You step over that line at your grave peril.”

The result of that earlier evasion was a war, a war, it may be hard to remember in the face of the condition of Western Europe today, that came that close to dooming our entire civilization. (Those who live in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany, for example, would have reason to say, did doom it.) The result of our present evasion, should it completely overtake the policy of our governments as it has now and then threatened to do, would be the same.

Let me state my position here. It is not, unhappily, the position of all my countrymen; nor, perhaps even more unhappily, does it appear to be the position of all West Europeans. I happen to believe that this precious gift we call Western democracy is indivisible. I cannot cite you political, historical, nor even strategic evidence for this belief: strictly speaking, there is none. But should Western Europe go down, however it were to go down, by surrender or by defeat, so too would the United States. And vice versa. What sustains our societies is not only the safeguarding of our respective national interests narrowly understood but our common political, social, and moral ethos. A major blow to that ethos on either side of the Atlantic will have dire consequences for the other — in demoralization, dissolution, and despair. We are too small a minority among the world’s nations. We cannot, spiritually, survive, as we did in the ’30s, the defection of Germany, or as we did in the ’40s, the fall of France. Nor could the West Europeans survive intact the final fulfillment of the true threat to the United States contained in the fall to Soviet domination of Central and South America. Unpleasant as the thought might be to many people, or even to everyone in the United States and Western Europe, we are stuck with one another. With those of my fellow Americans and those West Europeans who are skeptical about this proposition I can only plead: do not put it to the test. We should then, too late, all find ourselves in societies restricted to that life so famously described by Thomas Hobbes as nasty, brutish, and short. And history would look back upon us and declare: Look what they had … and did not deserve to keep.

What, then, are we, disadvantaged as I have said by our very virtues, to do at this most critical juncture of our political existence? What we must do in the first instance is something we must do to ourselves. That is, we must face and admit the cold, brutal truth about our situation. That being accomplished, we shall have far less difficulty dealing with our enemy.

What is that cold, brutal truth? Quite simply that we are threatened, not, as the “idealists” in our respective countries have been so lustfully declaring, with the extinction of the planet, but with the collapse of our finely and delicately balanced societies beneath the weight of that advancing, dynamic barbarism called Communism. Furthermore, this onslaught finds us not — not yet — spiritually prepared to save ourselves.

In the perspective of eternity, this is an astonishing thing to recognize. For no one any longer has the right to any illusions about Communism. Those who have doomed themselves, or have been doomed by Western cupidity (or stupidity), to live under Communist tyranny hate it. No matter how ugly or cruel the government replaced by it, Communism has created even greater immiseration: more poverty, more cynicism, more murder, more despair. As Daniel P. Moynihan once observed, no one has ever climbed into a leaky boat to sail to the Soviet Union, or to Cuba, or for that matter to China. Sixty-five years of hard-won experience by millions upon millions of our utterly hopeless fellow humans must have left us all perfectly disabused on this point. On the other side are modern Western societies whose discovery of the principle of liberty has provided their citizens not only with freedom, public and private, but with the means to create untold, undreamed of, wealth and to distribute that wealth more broadly, more equitably, than any other societies in human history. There is, as we say in the United States, no contest.

Yet there are those in these societies who ask us not to resist. Some of them, Communists themselves, seek no more than to come to power. In this, they need not trouble us. Communists do not come to power by democratic means in democratic societies. The danger they represent lies only in their opportunities to poison the minds and sap the will of others. Such opportunities, however, are being plentifully provided.

They are provided, as I said earlier, in the repetition of the noxious idea that any society falling short of utopia, is not after all worth defending.

They are provided, far more insidiously, in the idea that international relations is a matter which concerns the behavior of nations understood as nothing more than powers acting as powers, without reference to their internal political morality. Here, of course, I am speaking of that habit of mind that goes by the name of Realpolitik. Adherents of Realpolitick will tell you that America’s commitment to Western Europe at the close of World War II was merely a means of self-interested, self-protection (and also, let us never forget, a means of opening up markets). Adherents of Realpolitik will tell you that the Soviet Union, too, has interests like any other nation and that these can be traded off, adjudicated, like those of any other nation, through diplomacy. In the United States (and I’ve no doubt in Western Europe) there has been a thirty-year debate, sometimes friendly, sometimes touched with asperity, between the so-called hard-headed realists and the anti-Communist ideologues about the needs and purposes of Western power. The ideologues have been accused by the so-called realists of failing to understand the subtleties and flexibilities of East-West relations, of being crusaders, moralists, of bringing in principle where principle does not apply — of being, in a word, childish. But when the time came, it was the hard-headed people who created the policy of detente — a policy whose intention was to ensnare the Soviet Union in a web of international economic and political entanglements but whose real effect was, on the contrary, to entangle us instead. The economic, the political, the technological, not to mention the military, advantages of detente have all moved one way in the wrong direction; at every juncture, we discovered there was to be no quo for the quid. The debate has been settled. To be an anti-Communist ideologue is precisely to be in the position to provide far better, far more practical, hard-headed, serviceable advice about how to understand and deal with the Soviet Union than all the accumulated wisdoms of ordinary statecraft.

All this aside, it is these voices of so-called hard-headedness among us that help to undermine our capacity to face the hard and brutal truth and that provide the richest opportunities of all for those who seek our downfall. Ronald Reagan’s use of the simple (not simplistic) word “evil” in speaking of the Soviet Union was salutary. Had it not been, neither the Soviets nor the Western press would have been so agitated by it. For in the face of such a word, one is obligated to do something: to rouse oneself, to mobilize, and to remain ever alert. It is not the Ronald Reagan who speaks of good and evil who threatens the peace of the world. It is the Ronald. Reagan who succumbs to the abuse of the peaceniks, the stridency of the world press, the contempt of the realpolitikers, and the cheap anxieties of his political counselors and sends his minions to pursue the fruitless, bootless expedient of arms control — it is this Ronald Reagan who threatens the peace of the world.

The democratic West, though presently hampered by its reluctance to make hard choices, is far from helpless. We possess that greatest of all assets, a healthy and productive populace. If our elites are decadent — and they are; whose children, after all, march in the streets of Bonn and London and New York demanding our surrender? — if our elites are decadent, our ordinary citizens are not. Our economies, to the extent that they remain free, cannot only out-produce and out-distribute all others; they can also be vibrantly responsive to new demands, to innovation, to the need for moving quickly. Our political institutions, despite all the careless pressure we have put upon them in recent years, are sound. If guns and missiles, planes, tanks, and armies in a state of readiness must be added to the list of our governing ideals, we can admit them to our national lives without fear of corruption. They are costly and inconvenient, to be sure, but they are not ignoble.

When we speak of democratic ideals, true democratic ideals, in the year 1983, we are commanded to subsume them all under one emblazoned statement: “The alternative is simply unacceptable.” The alternative is unacceptable to us, to those who must languish under it, and to those who will come after us.

“The tree of liberty,” it was once long ago said, “is watered by the blood of martyrs.” We here today have no right, and we have no need, to let the precious legacy left us by those martyrs in blindness, in trembling, and with no thought for the future, slip through our fingers.


  • Midge Decter

    Midge Decter is a neo-conservative journalist and author of The Liberated Woman and Other Americans (1971), The New Chastity (1972), and Liberal Parents, Radical Children (1975).

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