Never have the governments of the old Atlantic alliance appeared as weak as they do today. President George W. Bush, his popularity ruined and his political agenda junked, is boxed into a corner, but his position seems enviable compared to that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who just lost a decisive battle over anti-terror measures.
But both appear strong compared to President Jacques Chirac, who has let France slip into civil unrest. Germany, despite last week’s appointment of Angela Merkel as federal chancellor, in effect has no government, for the parallelogram of political forces neutralizes all parties. Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi must do his best to avoid prison after the seizure of funds from his media company.
The leaders of the West seem to somnambulate through affairs of state, oblivious to the disaster around them. In her mercy, history anesthetizes those whom she intends to destroy, wrote Leon Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution. He had in mind Czar Nicholas II’s diary entries for the days before the October Revolution of 1917, full of court gossip and the minutiae of family life, but without a glimmer of the doom soon to befall him.
No part of the political spectrum can take comfort from this predicament. Those who want to subject American policy to the counsel of the world community, as Senator John Kerry proposed, now have difficulty identifying who that world community might be? Surely not France, which has become an embarrassment, and surely not the United Nations, which has a black eye from its scandal-plagued Iraq oil-for-food program. Only in Beijing and Tokyo do we find strong governments in powerful nations.
Is it simple coincidence that the West cannot field a single functioning government? The punditry dismisses Bush as dumb, Blair as smarmy, Chirac as arrogant, Berlusconi as bent, and Merkel – well, when they discover some identifying characteristics of the new German chancellor, the punditry doubtless will find grounds to dismiss her as well. Perhaps it is just the luck of the draw, but the odds do not favor the interpretation that all the big nations of the West had the misfortune to find themselves led by ninnies at precisely the same time.
What is it about the personalities of Western leaders, though, that might explain their common predicament? Perhaps it is the fact that the leaders of the West mirror the qualities of the people who voted for them. Americans are obstreperously anti-intellectual, and chose a president with whom they can identify. The British always have been hypocrites, and elected the most hypocritical of prime ministers. The average Frenchman is no less arrogant than the president of the republic, while the Germans, at least since 1945, have devoted their storied thoroughness to becoming as nondescript as possible. Almost every Italian is on the fiddle, and it is fitting for their prime minister to be fiddler-in-chief.
That leads to a simple interpretation of the general crisis of Western politics, namely, that the people of the West, as it were, are the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is not the leaders of the West per se, but rather the voters who put them in office, who comprise the problem.
To make clear why the French are the wrong sort of people to begin with, consider why American Muslims do not sally out by night to burn cars. A very different sort of Muslim emigrates to the United States; according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, more than half of American Muslims hold a graduate degree. Among the brightest Arabs, Persians or Pakistanis, a high proportion seeks graduate training in the United States, especially in engineering, computer sciences, physics and chemistry. The median income of Muslim households in the United States is above average.
American immigration laws, to be sure, favor the rich, the talented and educated. But that sheds some light on the character of the United States, which absorbs immigrants directly into its elite. Europe, which allows barely one in eight of its school leavers into university, does not want immigrants who might displace the local talent. It has recruited an immigrant population of dustmen, whose children burn cars out of frustration. As their numbers diminish, the Europeans confront an army of 30 million unemployed young Arabs, which they neither can absorb nor expel. The reason that the leaders of France can offer no solution to the present crisis is that no solution exists, given the present demography and predilections of the population of France.
The tragedy of the Americans, I have argued in the past, is that they cannot understand the tragedy of other peoples. With force as deadly as the mounted hordes of the past, America’s influence has swept through the world and overturned the traditional order, leaving ill-prepared peoples to fend for themselves in the chaos. The president’s presumption that Americas can lead Iraq towards American-style democracy ignores the fact that Americans selected themselves according to precisely the criteria that make democracy succeed. Those who remained behind are the other sort.
Survivor bias is the most insidious of logical flaws. Americans selected themselves out of the nations of the world. Americans believe that Chinese and Indians are clever, simply because most of the Chinese and Indians they have met are clever. I can assure the Americans on the basis of personal observation that rural India is teeming with dull Indians, and that rural China is full of dull Chinese. Those are not the ones who have immigrated to America. Rather it is clever Indians and Chinese who have emigrated, either by accumulating capital in business or by passing competitive examinations to obtain a university degree.
“Many will be the night during his second term that Bush will wish he were still in Texas, and still drunk,” I warned before America’s last elections (Careful what you Bush for, August 3, 2004). Tragedy entertains us on the stage because tragic protagonists do not know that they are tragic, even after the chorus admonishes them that this is the case. Bush will go into retirement wondering what he did wrong. The trouble is not what he did, but what he is, and what Americans are.
In the classic tragedy of Greek religious festivals, the tragedy of the individual is the tragedy of a culture; the case of Orestes can be resolved only by a cultural change, in this case trial by jury at Athens. Bush, whose second administration has failed on all fronts after 10 months in office, may be less articulate than Pericles, but he is no less tragic, and his tragedy is that of the Americans as a people, just as Chirac’s tragedy is that of the French.