Almost 200 years ago, French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville made one of the most profound predictions in modern history, in his book Democracy in America. At a time when Queen Victoria was barely in her twenties and Britain was still getting used to being the world’s first superpower, de Tocqueville foresaw Russia and America dividing the world between them. “Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same,” he wrote, “yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
In less than two weeks I travel to Washington, DC to gawk at the grotesque theatre de Tocqueville’s Great Republic has been reduced to. In a sense the schadenfreude is all the more thrilling because, in a masochistic sort of way, the stakes are so high. While it now seems highly unlikely, there’s still a chance Americans could choose Trump and the kind of boorish national embarrassment Silvio Berlusconi brought to Italy. What would make it worthwhile for some would be a return to the historic ‘America First’ foreign policy, which plays to a war-weariness in the country as concerned about spiralling defence spending as the some 64,500 US servicemen killed or wounded since 2001. On the other hand, it risks handing the world over to Russia, China, and God knows who else, which is hardly an attractive prospect. ‘Splendid isolation’ may have worked when Britain’s liberal empire ruled the waves but, as its successor, America ducking out just isn’t cricket. Or, for that matter, baseball.
But if, as expected, Americans choose Hillary, they will have a president far more statesmanlike, but also far more likely to escalate the conflict in Syria into open war with Russia. There are, quite rightly, concerns about whether Trump’s undoubted emotional insecurity would make him a fit Commander in Chief. But Clinton’s stated intentions to establish a no-fly zone over Syria, reiterated in the final presidential debate, would almost certainly provoke a Russian bear which is already preparing for war.
If there seems a morbid air of inevitability to all this, it’s because of one thing: geopolitics. De Tocqueville was able to accurately predict the rise of Russia and America a century before they dominated the world because he understood the ingredients which make nations into great powers. And if we are the least bit surprised to find ourselves once more in conflict with Russia, it is because the prevailing delusion of the last 30 years has been that the Cold War was purely a conflict between ideologies. When, had it been the Tsar’s armies marching into Berlin in 1945, the result would most likely have been the same. Communism didn’t make Russia a rival superpower; its enormous landmass, population, and military did. And those things aren’t going away.
Great powers must protect their interests, and Russia invaded the Crimea and became bogged down in Syria specifically to protect its naval interests. Moscow felt its continued lease on the port of Sevastopol threatened by the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, and its continued access to the Mediterranean by the potential fall of Assad. This of course put Russia on a collision course with Europe and America’s desire to bring Ukraine firmly into the Western camp, and with their humanitarian mission in Syria. Which, by the way, isn’t a million miles from why we went to war with Russia in the 1850s.
But in the words of the great bug-fancier William Kirby, war is never inevitable. And, whatever the result of the presidential election, we can only hope common sense and humanity prevail. But, if there is to be war, we can at least be confident we would be on the right side. As well as predicting the rise of Russia and America, de Tocqueville also saw the mutual antagonism between their approaches to government. “The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people,” he wrote. Whereas “the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude.”
Nothing much as changed.
This article was originally published on Conservatives for Liberty.