Fog From the West

Published March 1, 1987

Tone-deafness to the message of men such as Adam Michnik, Vaclav Havel, and George Konrad is not a disability of Western activists alone, of course. Several senior Western political leaders have done their bit, over the past months, to blow fog over the terrain that the new Central European intellectuals have laboriously worked to clear. In November, for example, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez of Spain, visiting Cuba, praised Fidel Castro as a “freedom-fighter.” Castro responded with Cuba’s highest decoration, the Order of Jose Marti. Previous recipients, the Economist noted, were a “small, elite band of leaders: such as the late Leonid Brezhnev, Erich Honecker of East Germany, [and] Kim II Sung of North Korea….”

The British Labour party officially adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, vowing to end Britain’s independent deterrent and to expel all U.S. nuclear forces from the United Kingdom, should Neil Kinnock lead it to victory in the next parliamentary election.

(Trying to illustrate his residual commitment to NATO, Mr. Kinnock then proposed building an underground explosive pipeline the length of central Europe that, if detonated, would “make the front virtually impenetrable” to Soviet tank battalions.)

Egon Bahr, foreign policy impressario of the West German Social Democratic party, proclaimed that “the ideological struggle” was “redundant in the nuclear age.”

Johannes Rau, recent Social Democratic candidate for the West German chancellorship, pledged during his campaign to rid his country of American cruise and Pershing II missiles (installed at the request of one of Rau’s predecessors as leader of the SDP, Helmut Schmidt) and promised to cancel West German participation in Strategic Defense Initiative research.

The Canadian Liberal party convention declared as party policy that Canada should be a “nuclear free zone” on the model of New Zealand, and that U.S. cruise missile tests in the Canadian Arctic should cease.

One of the advantages of being an opposition party is that one is not responsible, day in and day out, for the conceptualization and execution of policy. Oppositions can ventilate all manner of ideas in the public debate, serene in the confidence that somebody else is minding the shop in the real world. This ventilation can, on occasion, sweep away cobwebs in the mind of officialdom. But there are—or ought to be—limits.

No one should doubt, for example, Felipe Gonzalez’s commitment to democracy. But isn’t the common cause of the West hurt when one of its most attractive young leaders—the prime minister who kept Spain in NATO—embraces the man who kept Armando Valladares in stygian torment for over twenty years?

Neil Kinnock is undoubtedly appalled—who isn’t— at the possibility, however remote it may be, of nuclear war. But shouldn’t he work to explain to his Labour colleagues the dangers of unilateralism and appeasement, lessons Labour giants such as Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin tried in vain to explain to Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain a half century ago?

Why, in short, isn’t the West European left more attracted to the kind of peace-and-freedom agenda sketched by Adam Michnik, George Konrad, and Vaclav Havel? Answering that question in detail would require a book. Two key points may be flagged now.

First, those interested in peace must confront, as the Central European intellectuals have done, the profound moral issue at stake in the East/West contest: the contest between the Lie and the civil society. Nuclear weapons haven’t changed the nature of that contest; they’ve profoundly changed the ways in which those who would stand for peace and freedom can work effectively against the Lie. Nuclear weapons have changed, in other words, the ways in which the East/West conflict can be prosecuted; but they certainly have not resolved the conflict itself. Thus the importance of Michnik’s and Havel’s work on nonviolence. But nonviolent protest and resistance are more accurately aimed at the overseers of the Soviet empire than they are at Greenham Common or the Rhein-Main Airbase. One only comes to understand this when one understands the utter falsity of Egon Bahr’s assertion about the redundancy of the “ideological struggle.”

Second, Western leaders in this generation have done a singularly inept job at presenting the West to its citizens as the party of liberty in the world. What the West is for, is a question that has to be answered time and again, in and out of season. The Western alliance exists—or ought to exist—not just as a military deterrent against the USSR (essential as that is), but as a cooperative party of liberty in world politics. Absent such a positive agenda, the least common denominator of survival fills the horizon and, as Michnik says, the West adopts the Soviet pattern of thinking, that “arms are more important than people.”

These points are worth pondering in an American context, not simply because of NATO, but because the themes adumbrated by Messers. Gonzalez, Rau, Bahr, and Kinnock remain tempting to many in our own party of opposition, the Democratic party. There, too, the fog needs ventilating by the clear, cool breezes blowing from some quarters in Central Europe.

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.

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