All that being said, however, President Havel is surely right that “the headaches are never over,” and that the present American and Western insouciance toward world politics, and especially toward the future of freedom in those countries whose effective resistance to Communism immeasurably enhanced the security of the West, is unworthy of us. But rousing the American people (not to mention people of the western European democracies) to “win the peace” is going to require political leadership. And that, alas, seems notable for its absence these days.
One of the more depressing aspects of the Scandal Fever now gripping Washington, D.C., has been its effect on U.S. foreign policy. On the day before the Whitewatergate affair “broke out” in the grand manner. President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine was scheduled to visit the White House. The meeting was held, but the administration was in damage-control overdrive, and all that anyone remembers about it was that the President agreed to invite Olympic figure-skating gold medalist Oksana Baiul to the White House. Yet here is a country whose future could well determine the course of politics in eastern Europe for the next century. For as Zbigniew Brzezinski has put it, “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
No doubt the task of securing Ukraine’s independence has been made immensely more difficult by the terrible mess that the present Ukrainian government has made of things, economically and politically, since 1991. But such mistakes don’t change geography or geopolitics: they only reinforce the urgent need for U.S. and Western assistance to Ukraine aimed at a rapid transition to a real democracy and a real free economy. Will the administration be able to free itself from its Talbottian “Russia-Firstism” and its absorption with scandal-management in order to provide the international leadership that is essential on this front? Or will we someday think of the Clintonites’ attitude toward eastern Europe in the 1990s the way we now think about the Baldwin-Chamberlain government’s attitude toward central Europe in the 1930s?
The Republicans have not exactly rushed to fill the leadership gap left by the administration. The only Republican “mentionable” who regularly discusses foreign policy out on the stump is former defense secretary Dick Cheney; and while his comments are always insightful on various questions of national interest, he does not seem, as yet, to have formulated a compelling vision of national purpose in the world that could arouse the country from its semi-isolationist torpor. Some of this Republican reticence is probably due to an unwillingness to challenge the party’s Buchananite wing. But might there also be an imagination-gap in the party that redefined American internationalism in the end-game of the Cold War?
At present, then, there seems to be no one at the upper altitudes of American presidential politics willing, much less eager, to respond to Vaclav Havel’s challenge. That challenge is not without its analytic deficiencies. But it is also a powerful reminder to a country that, for the better part of three years now, has assiduously avoided serious debate about its role in the world: a reminder that there are men and women of experience and integrity who believe that the future of the world in the twenty-first century will have much to do with what the United States does and does not do in its role as the lone superpower.
And for that powerful, if painful, reminder that we still have duties beyond our borders, we ought to be grateful.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.