Skip to content

Liberation or catastrophe?

Sir Michael Howard’s Liberation or Catastrophe? (Hambledon Continuum, £25) is an emphatic commentary on the West’s continuing struggle to deal with the basic legacy of the Enlightenment: ‘the freedom to starve’.

Beginning with the rise of nations, Sir Michael analyses a century-long global war which destroyed the old European order and witnessed a maelstrom of competing revolutionary and counter-revolutionary ideologies which led us, eventually, to the present situation: a Western civilisation grudgingly reliant on Pax Americana – American statesmanship backed by American economic and military force.

Pleasingly direct, occasionally humorous (he likens Fukuyama to Sellars and Yeatman), Sir Michael is not afraid of being unfashionable: ‘We are all born Fascists and have to be expensively educated out of it.’ In every man is a vicious schoolboy with an unhealthy predilection towards scout-camp and nationalism: the march is all, the destination irrelevant.

Ultimately, our 20th-century conundrum (he quotes Gide) was that ‘to free oneself is only the beginning. The real problem is to know how to live in liberty.’

The lectures collected here were mostly written during the post-Soviet peace dividend, when it seemed like maybe we had worked it out; but then came Al Qaeda and the stark reminder that we had not (alas) reached the End of History.

Sir Michael’s immediate responses to 9/11 exemplify the depth of his historical understanding. In late 2001 he cautioned against the terrible implications of using ‘war’ terminology; predicted a decades-long process in Afghanistan that military chiefs have only recently accepted; and warned that allowing the crusade against terrorism to drift, unchecked, into Iraq could have irreversibly dire consequences, leading to another full century of conflict.

Though resolutely unsentimental about things past, he is troubled by present realities. In order to be effective as guardians of the West, the Americans still need the legitimising cooperation of the international community: their general unwillingness to acknowledge this does not bode well. While diplomacy without arms may be useless, Sir Michael warns that arms without diplomacy is almost certainly worse.

For The First Post

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *