The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, by John O’Sullivan; Regnery, 448 pages.
Cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings
John O’Sullivan is a journalist with a fine sense of history. Thus it is appropriate that he should write a book about a time, and a set of people, who are now crossing the threshold between being the subject of journalism, to being the subject of history. Of the three — Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II — two belong now to the ages, and Lady Thatcher has become less and less active as health issues reduce her speaking schedule. The students who will be entering university this year were born in 1988 — Reagan’s last year in office — and were two when Margaret Thatcher left government. They were sixteen when the white smoke heralding John Paul II’s successor issued forth over the Sistine Chapel; if they were not Catholics, and were incurious about current events, they might have barely registered his passing.
When I was their age, even though I was keenly interested in politics and current events, the names of the equivalent figures to me, Harry Truman and Clement Attlee, had the feel of ancient history, and so Reagan and Thatcher must seem to this generation. Yet the world they are inheriting has been profoundly shaped by each of these three, individually and synergistically. To those of us who experienced these changes as adults, we must now strain to remember exactly what public discourse under Jimmy Carter or Sunny Jim Callaghan was like. To those for whom that era is entirely historical, the assumptions that underlay that era must be as inaccessible as those of, say, the Albigensians.
Thus O’Sullivan has written the right book at exactly the right time in history. It can take advantage of the author’s first-hand experience with the subject matter — O’Sullivan was an adviser to Thatcher, a journalist covering the Reagan White House, and a Catholic layman active in conservative Catholic circles throughout John Paul’s papacy. (I should disclose that John and I sit on the Board of the Anglosphere Institute together, and that I have in the past written paid work under his editorship.) Yet it comes at a time when there are many people who know those years only as history. It is sufficiently far for those who had lived through them that a reminder of how great the changes have been is useful. Furthermore, the debate over exactly what the effects of those players’ roles have been is becoming historical, rather than political.
One of the book’s great virtues is the effort O’Sullivan has made to show exactly how far we have come in our assumptions since those days. Amazingly, the economics and political science professions accepted at face value, right to the end, the claims of the Soviet system to being modern, productive, and legitimate. In fact it was backwards, unproductive, and illegitimate in the eyes of its populations to a degree that even the most hostile anti-Communist sources scarcely imagined. Pre-1989 economists debated the degree of value added by Soviet-bloc factories to the raw materials they consumed; post-1989 economists had to invent the concept of value-subtraction to describe the reality of what took place. The value of the output of many Soviet-bloc factories was in fact less than the value of the raw materials that went in to making them, particularly when they used (in an astonishingly inefficient manner) Soviet-provided fuel.
Political scientists similarly accepted that the Soviet-bloc public broadly accepted the legitimacy of their regimes, and that (for example) nationalist and religious sentiments had become things of the past. Here not only liberal sources, but even conservative sources, had little inkling of how deeply the Soviet ideologies had rotted away, or how strong the “obsolete” sentiments supposedly superseded still were. It was only at the very fringes, in the exile literature, that something like the truth could be found. And as the academic and government specialists were almost unanimous in dismissing them, they were almost entirely ignored. In 1977, I was for a time dating a woman who worked for a small press publishing samizdat literature. A part of her duties was to help entertain visiting samizdat writers, and I ended up going along sometime. Drinking with Russians is an interesting experience, and should she ever have liver problems, she should claim it as a work-related illness. But what struck me was their claim that nobody in the USSR believed in Communism, from the bottom to the top, and that sooner or later it would collapse. I tended to believe it; hardly anybody else did. Fourteen years later, this assessment was proven right.
What the experts had believed in was “convergence” — that the western and Soviet systems were becoming more and more alike. By this theory, the Western economies were becoming more and more centralized and state-directed, while (pointing to small and hesitant market-oriented reforms attempted in the eastern bloc) the Soviet bloc would become somewhat more market-oriented. This would result in a gradual defusing of political tensions, a process of which detente was to be the start, and eventually the Soviet bloc and the West would jointly rule the world through a set of transnational institutions. This theory was so widely accepted that the duality of superpowers was generally written about as if it were the product of some sort of law of nature. Science-fiction writer Ursula LeGuin, for example, produced in that period two widely-read science-fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, both set in human solar systems with separate and distinct evolutionary and historical backgrounds, well into our future. Each of these worlds was politically metastable, and each was divided into a bureaucratic-capitalist sphere and an authoritarian-socialist sphere. So, although ostensibly set in worlds distant from us in time, space, and history, each, when read today, practically screams its origin somewhere between the Nixon and Carter administrations, louder even than orange shag carpet or disco suits. This is typical of the now-vanished mindset of that era.
From accommodation with Communism to pushing it into collapse, and from gradual motion to a more bureaucratic and managed capitalism to the entrepreneurial-led (and continuously accelerating) creative destruction of the past thirty years, the United States and at least some parts of the West have contradicted all the assumptions of the trends and destinations of social change of that time. Such assumptions were not so much received opinion but seemingly the ground assumptions from which all political, economic and social debate (outside of a few wild fringes) flowed. I still recall that in my introductory economics class at the University of Michigan in 1966, my teaching assistant (who must have been all of twenty-two or -three, and therefore far more sophisticated than me) responded to my invocation of the opinion of Milton Friedman by threatening to fail me on the spot for any further such mentions. (Twenty-five years later, I had the opportunity to relate this personally to Friedman, who laughed and said this wasn’t the first time he had heard such stories.)
The larger question remains, whence came the great U-turn of the English-speaking world? And are the three subjects of O’Sullivan’s book merely agents of inexorable social forces which, had they not existed, would have found other agents, or did this turn of events depend on the presence of these three people in their particular roles, and in their particular time and place?
It is plausible to say that it all would have happened anyway. Yet it is not clear why that would be the case. Both Reagan and Thatcher had made the assessment that the Soviet system had broken down and was merely coasting on inertia. This was very much a minority judgment at the time, as O’Sullivan demonstrates ably. There were alternative outcomes, sans Reagan and Thatcher. One would have been a prolongation of the status quo, with the Soviet regime propped up increasingly by Western credit. Assuming Gorbachev would still have been at the helm (and his accession was independent of Reagan or Thatcher’s presence in office), we can assume he would have tried to reform Communism and failed — we now know that the Soviet system was far more broken down that even he had assumed at the time.
The danger here is that failing regimes often lash out in desperate adventurism to stave off collapse. Like a collapsing star, the Soviet system first expanded, acquiring Third World clients that became further liabilities rather than assets. It’s entirely possible that the Soviet intelligence bureaucracy, never under very tight control from the Kremlin, might have adventured a bridge or two too far. Under a Carter or a Ted Heath, the Soviets might have succumbed to the “democracy trap”, in which weakness or confused signals from the democratic power is taken as acquiescence to an expansive move on the part of a totalitarian system — only to bring an unexpectedly strong response from the finally-awakened democracies, leading to war. The Argentine invasion of the Falklands (covered well by O’Sullivan) is itself an example of this trap — the Argentine junta undertook the operation to distract attention from its general failures in all other arenas, and they had read the British withdrawal of naval forces from the area as acquiescence to a coup de main.
With a weak or confused leadership at the helm in the US and the UK, it’s entirely possible that a desperate Soviet leadership (perhaps replacing a Gorbachev who had gone too far in his reforms, as indeed was eventually attempted) might have made an attempt at expansion or distraction that could have inadvertently sparked a nuclear exchange, even if it had only initially triggered a direct conventional clash between Soviet and Western troops. As we discovered later, Soviet doctrine called for automatic use of tactical nuclear weapons once a conventional engagement had escalated to a serious level.
Another alternative outcome might have been a direct turn to an aggressive nationalistic fascism by Soviet authorities, with no devolution of dissatisfied nationalities, or slackening of control in the Eastern European satellites. This would have amounted to an abandonment of the useless shell of Communist ideology but the retention of the full apparatus of repression. This could easily have led to major armed clashes in the satellites, in the Baltic nations, and in the Caucuses and the “‘stans” — the Muslim-majority republics of Central Asia. The objection will arise that this seems to be happening now, as Putin gradually disassembles the democratic structures put in place at the fall of Communism.
However, even the incomplete transition to democracy and the unravelling of the imperial structure of the satellites and former Soviet republics represents a substantial ratchet toward freedom, and one that will never entirely be undone. Eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak states, the Baltic states, and Slovenia have all made essentially complete transitions to democracy. Bulgaria and Romania have done better than expected, as has perhaps Ukraine. Of the rest of the non-Central Asian states, only Belarus is a substantial failure, and the Central Asian ‘stans are at least no worse than most of the rest of that region.
As for Russia itself, it is better than expected by the pessimists, although substantially worse than hoped by the optimists. Although freedom of the dead-tree press has been gradually curtailed by Putin, Russia has gone onto the Internet, which is now sufficiently integral to the Russian economy that it is not likely to be rooted out. Thanks to the dismantling of the Soviet empire, millions of ethnic Russians now live beyond the borders of the Russian state, and almost three million of those live in states (the Baltics, Cyprus) that are part of the EU (these “Eurorussians” outnumber several nationalities whose languages are official EU tongues — perhaps they will be pushing soon to have Russian made an official EU language.) This has resulted in an “ru.net” — a Russian-language Internet that is substantially beyond the control of Putin’s censors.
This and other structural speedbumps on the road to complete authoritarianism will probably prevent any sliding all the way back to Soviet imperial days. Russia over the next few decades is more likely to resemble the Mexico that emerged after 1928 and the institutionalization of the Mexican revolution — a corrupt, crony-ruled state spreading the rents from its oil wealth, strong-arming those who try to disturb the cozy (for the rulers) status quo, but maintaining at least formal democracy and a market-economy structure. It will likely be too preoccupied with its demographic crisis, its Muslim insurgents, and its encroaching Chinese neighbors to be a huge threat to anybody outside of its own near abroad.
Looking at alternative outcomes to the Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul II world, it is hard to see how any other leaders in any of the three seats of power could have done better, and very easy to see how they could have done worse — all the way to outbreak of nuclear war. Therefore, while leaving any actual theodicy to more venturesome commentators, it is easy to see why some considered the advent of these three leaders (and their not-statistically-likely serial survival of assassination attempts) to be providential. Since I find theodicy to be too problematic to consider (if God does move human events directly, there’s far too much moral dark matter assumed in the problem for we poor three-dimensional observers to be able to draw any conclusions from it), I think O’Sullivan spent either too much time or too little discussing that possibility. If we assume we cannot intuit divine knowledge or intention in specific human events, then that is all one can really say about the matter; if we assume one can understand such things, then the events O’Sullivan discusses would be one of the principal theological events of our century, and could easily merit not just the bulk of O’Sullivan’s book, but a library full of books.
It is the addition of John Paul II to the list of ose who truly mattered that is O’Sullivan’s particular contribution. There are many studies of Reagan’s presidency, and Thatcher’s prime ministership, and quite a few studies of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship. To view John Paul together with the two political figures adds a missing dimension, and I think a substantially more complete picture of the great U-turn that took place in the 1980s. The critical impact of John Paul was to force the intelligentsia of the West to readmit a moral dimension in opposing and ending the Soviet system. By the 1970s, the intellectual world of the West had developed a wide agenda of human-rights advocacy, and a network of activists who exhibited great concern about the people of Zimbabwe and South Africa, but to whom the inmates of the Soviet empire were more an embarrassing inconvenience than worthy of solidarity. O’Sullivan documents the non-violent and largely non-confrontational, but steady pressure placed on the Soviet system by first the Catholic clergy of the occupied nations, and ultimately the Pope drawn from among those astonishingly brave and unrelenting heroes. As O’Sullivan documents, the indifference of the human-rights establishment spurred the emergence of a parallel, impromptu human-rights movement in solidarity with Poland and the rest of the Soviet empire, that ultimately made part of difference in its extinction.
At times the detailed discussion of the theological issues facing Catholicism in that era can be heavy going for non-Catholic readers. However, O’Sullivan successfully demonstrates that in fact the turn away from a trendy, shallow, and wrong-headed “liberation theology” was an important component of the changes that marked the Eighties. O’Sullivan argues, I believe successfully, that John Paul’s contribution was furthermore an essential component of these changes; that there was a synergy among Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II that would have been much less had any of the three been absent. Reagan by himself would have been powerful and effective, but he would have changed a nation, not a world. Thatcher affected that both through reviving Britain and through using the power of a revived Britain on the world scene. But Reagan and Thatcher were both primarily political leaders, and had it merely been the two of them, the changes of the Eighties would have been confined to the political realm. The addition of John Paul II moved the action from the Anglosphere alone to all Europe, the whole West, and ultimately the world, and moved it from the political sphere alone to a much wider sphere. Merely by being a Pole, he helped move the “other Europe” from the shadow into the light, and changed the definition of Europe in modern times. By being the Pope that he in fact was, he changed the Roman Catholic Church, and ultimately the world, in ways that politicians, no matter how virtuous, alone could never do.
In examining this synergy and in offering this chronicle of a critical time of change, John O’Sullivan has made a unique and worthwhile contribution to the discussion of this era.