One year after his return from incarceration in the united states for a crime he insists he did not commit,the irrepressibly discursive Conrad Black, Lord Black Of Crossharbour, PC, OC, met with convivium editor-in-chief Father Raymond J. De Souza in Calgary for a spirited and convivial public conversation as part of Cardus' Hill Family Lecture Series. The following is an edited transcript
Father Raymond J. De Souza: We hope to have a convivial conversation, one that will cover a range of topics that will address the many things that Lord Black has written about.
The theme of the conversation is “One Year Later,” because on May 4, 2012, Conrad Black returned to Canada from his American sojourn. We call this lessons learned and arguments advanced, which is what he did admirably while in the United States and now back in Canada.
We remember those images of a year ago, of your return to Toronto, to your home, with [wife Barbara Amiel] at your side. Our last conversation before that was in Miami, in circumstances less convivial than presently. I asked you at that point what you had learned from your time, as you put it in many columns in the National Post, as a “guest” of the American government.
You said you learned you were strong enough to survive it, which was not obvious at the beginning of the ordeal. When I asked you what helped you to survive, you said the loyalty of your wife, your knowledge of history and your religious faith. We will begin there and ask how those three things helped you to maintain your equilibrium in the midst of a very protracted and unjust process, as you detailed in different places.
Conrad Black: Thank you, Raymond. Thank you all for your generous welcome.
I would just like to clarify one thing I did say, I believe, in that conversation when I was enjoying the consideration in the American government's guest house. Even the consolations I mentioned would not have been as effective if not for the fact that I was, in fact, innocent. I'm sure everybody has gone through being falsely accused… although I trust very few have had it taken to the extremes that I endured. We're all accused of things we didn't do.
It—it empowers you to a rather high degree of moral righteousness that isn't confected and isn't affected. In those circumstances, the fact that my wife is so supportive, and all my family and a good many friends, and a growing number of supporters all over the world who follow legal cases. This was, of course, a very highly publicized legal case.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons in the United States, in order to try to raise revenues, not out of any solicitude for the isolation of the people in its maw, enables you to communicate by email. Because they want to make your life difficult, they don't facilitate that. But because they want to make money out of you, they allow only a certain number of correspondents. What they haven't puzzled out is, as in my case, you just have all the correspondents, except a couple of people, come through your office. So I was getting hundreds of emails a day from people all over the world. Australia and Israel and everywhere, saying, 'I've looked into this. I think its rubbish.' This was very encouraging. Now, I'm just adding this to what I meant by what I said: the knowledge that I was in fact not guilty; the belief that people had in me, particularly my wife, but many complete strangers and casual acquaintances.
On the second point, again anyone who reads much history is aware that people have the most astonishing changes of fortune at times. I mean, the Empress Josephine was on death row for six months. Shortly after, she emerged a very popular, beloved empress. In fact, she was considerably more popular than Napoleon. I mean, I'm not comparing myself to her. I'm just citing the fact she was a confined person. She enjoyed the hospitality of the Committee of Public Safety. Whatever my opinion of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it's the Paramount Hotel or the Sheraton Suites Hotel compared to the Committee of Public Safety.
I may say in passing that I understand that tonight I'm receiving—and this is something that I never thought that I would experience and certainly never in company with you, Raymond—the hospitality of the Dutch Reformed Church. I am grateful for it. Those of us who believe have some religious views, and they can be relatively simple or general. Those of us who have such views in general think that there is some reason for things. If that is your instinct and tendency, it is, I think, easier than it would be for an atheist, for example, to imagine that even though it was indiscernible, there was some purpose for what I was being subjected to. That was not all of what I meant, but the largest part.
RJS:In the back of your book A Matter of Principle is printed the address that you provocatively gave to the court on June 24, so the feast of Saint John the Baptist. This is what you said. It's a remarkable address because it was some length and delivered all by memory. This is one relevant passage on the point you just made: 'I concluded some years later in reading some of the works of the recently beatified Cardinal Newman, that our consciences are a divine impulse speaking within us, as Newman wrote, “powerful, peremptory and definitive.” My conscience functions like that of other people, and I respond to it, if not precisely as my accusers would wish. But they are prosecutors, not custodians of the consciences of those whom they accuse. 'Your Honour, please do not doubt that even though I don't much speak of it, my family and I have suffered deeply from the onslaught of these eight years. I agree with the late pope who said, “Life is cruciform.” All people suffer. It is a stern message, but need not be a grim one.'
That strikes me, that quotation, 'Life is cruciform.' If life is cruciform, how does one, based on what you've gone through, prepare for the sufferings and the hardships that come?
CB:In some ways it's preposterous for me to tell you this, and all the many others who are here. Again, I don't mean to be pretentious, but I was quoting Pope John Paul II. I do recall, as I'm sure you and many others here do, that he often said that practically any negative thing was a challenge and therefore an opportunity.
I remember when my very dear friend, the late Cardinal Carter, Archbishop of Toronto, suffered a stroke many years ago, the Pope informed him that he should rejoice. The Cardinal, as he explained to me, said, 'Your Holiness, I accept and will try to follow your encouragement to make the most of my situation and not be daunted by it, but I am having a real problem seeing why I should be rejoicing for having a stroke,' which, as those who knew him know, made his left hand unusable and he had problems with his left leg. Well the Pope said, 'Because you have been singled out for this challenge, because God knows that you are capable of sustaining it.'
Again, I'm not a pious or a fervent person. I can't lay claim to the degree of faith that would have been altogether effective for me in response to the same advice had I had the privilege of asking so eminent a person. There was an element of that, since I believe that things happen with a purpose. In the sadistic manner of the American system, they do everything humanly possible to torment, defame and ostracize you, and run you out of money before they actually get around to charging you.
In that process, since I had never had to face anything like that, I was determined I would do my best to get through it, and am hopeful that I did. I did think that if there was a purpose to this, the purpose was for me to surmount this injustice and try to conduct myself, whatever happened, with as much dignity as I could, and not lose faith with those who had confidence in me. That's what I tried to do.
RJS:A man can't really be a judge in his own case, but after the travails of the last years, is Conrad Black a better man?
CB: You're asking me to sign my own moral expense account. Even my worst enemies don't accuse me of carrying modesty to a fault, but I can't easily answer that. The best I can do is say that I hope so.
I don't want anyone in this room to imagine that I think that there aren't a great number of people who have had greater problems. I do not want anyone to imagine that I'm presenting myself as a uniquely beleaguered person. What I went through was certainly no day at the beach, but it does not compare with people with terminal illnesses. We've all had them in our families and amongst friends. It's a terrible crisis, the worst crisis. It was a very difficult time, but I don't represent this as unprecedented or anything like that.
RJS: That quotation from Newman brought to mind a conversation we had in Florida on the eve of the first incarceration. It was February 28, 2008. I remember the date because William F. Buckley died that day. Obviously later in the day we were talking about him and his mastery and idiosyncratic use of language. In the context of that conversation, we came around to Cardinal Newman. I took the view, knowing your own devotion to Newman, that if Shakespeare was the great poet and playwright of the English language, then Newman was the great prose stylist. You disagreed. You said Abraham Lincoln.
CB: To be fair, Raymond, I think I said that they were the two greatest 19th century non-fiction prose writers in the English language I was aware of.
RJS:In the 19th century? Do you believe it's better than the 20th?
CB:I wouldn't say that. All I said was 19th. I can't think of one in the 20th. They were wonderful writers, but they had different disciplines. They were writing for different groups of readers and listeners. No one, I think, disputes they were both wonderful writers, and great speakers, from all accounts. I mean, for those physically present when they spoke, although their oratorical techniques were quite different, they were extremely effective.
RJS:You admire both Newman and Lincoln as prose stylists. Who are the models for your own prose style?
CB:Well, now I would really be engaging in monstrous self-flattery to claim much right to say that I emulated them, greatly though I admire them. Newman had this technique of writing in quite a simple way and then having some blast of big adjectives. He also had a technique of building up a righteous wrath and then presenting it with tremendous force. He had a kind of poetic quality. I mean, I can write polysyllabic adjectives and I can string them together. I can get pretty righteous and wrathful, but there's nothing very poetic about my writing. On that subject, Mr. Lincoln in his second inaugural, which I think was perhaps the greatest speech of his, said, 'Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.' That was, in fact, a line of poetry. It was a remarkable thing to insert in such an address. He had a kind of symmetry in the way he wrote and spoke that was… I wouldn't presume to try to emulate it, but the fact it inspires me is enough. I wouldn't claim to emulate it.
I'll keep trying to take from great writers in bits. Although most of his opinions were nonsense, Orwell was a lovely writer. Albert Camus, he was a pretty strange cat, but he was a lovely writer. All these people, you can get something, even from someone like Ernest Hemingway, who was pretty stylized. 'I shot the elephant. It was a good shot. It was a clean shot. He fell.' I am not going to write that, let alone do such a thing. We learn from everybody who's any good. We try to, anyway.
RJS:So, it may be my preoccupation here, but you have a bust of Cardinal Newman in your home in Toronto?
CB: I own two busts of Newman. I [also] have busts of Charles de Gaulle and Abraham Lincoln. I've got a lot of busts in my house.
RJS:What's his importance to you? Why more busts of Newman than Charles de Gaulle, to put it that way?
CB: He was a gigantic intellect and an artistic and magnificent writer. He was absolutely devoted to a search that lasted more than 80 years for insight into how the cosmos worked and man's relationship to the infinite and to God in particular. While I have never been able to say, as he did, that he was as sure of God's existence as he was of the existence of his own hands and feet, he makes the most persuasive case that I ever read. I'm not particularly intellectually qualified to judge Thomas Aquinas or even, beyond a certain point, Saint Augustine. He has such panache in the way he does it in the Grammar of Assent. He builds this logical case for God's existence. He was such an ingenious arguer, despite his allegedly crabby temperament. Goodness knows he could be pretty scathing in what he wrote sometimes. He had a wonderful sense of humour and that great sense of change of pace. Do you think I'm talking rubbish? I mean, you've read more Newman than I have.
RJS:I'm an admirer of Cardinal Newman. I put a window of him in our chaplaincy at Queen's. I'm edified to hear your account of why he fascinates you so. One of the things about Newman that was striking is that this figure, who is principally a figure of philosophy and theology, was also a major cultural force. Reflecting in 19th century Britain on the importance of religious ideas and religious personages in public life, in the common life of that day. Britain in the early 21st century is not that same kind of place. Instead, we encounter the idea that perhaps if not irrelevant, religion in our common life may even be malevolent or a threat, a danger to the common good. What changed between his day and ours?
CB:I think the condition you described, accurately, has afflicted different societies in different degrees. I mean I don't think that Canada and the United States are such irreligious places. I agree that the more visible and audible elites in the media are, and I think in general our national media are quite atheistic and hostile. They are infested with atheists, even going back to people we all rather admired. They were incontestably distinguished journalists, and indeed rendered some service to greater causes, like Edward R. Murrow or Eric Sevareid, people like that. They were all atheists, which is fine. They have a perfect right to be atheists if they want.
But I'm always struck by how grudging the major American media are to accept that anything that happens in the Roman Catholic Church, other than the molestation of people in the care of the clergy or financial or other scandals, has any relevance.
I'm putting the Catholic Church forward because they're a cheap target. There is one piercing glimpse of secular revelation in the coverage that I was watching on CNN, of all places. Wolf Blitzer was once an employee of mine at the Jerusalem Post, and he was the most avaricious journalist I ever met; and I've met some, believe me.
As they were describing the funeral of John Paul II in these endless, tedious references to a Church in crisis, somebody said, 'Well, we keep talking about it being a Church in crisis, but I'd just call your attention to a few facts. One, there are twice as many Roman Catholics now as when this man, whose funeral is going on, was elected Pope. Two, the normal population of Rome has increased by between two and three million people who have come from all over the world to attend this funeral, even though they won't get within miles of it.
'Three, in the ceremony right in front of us, under our eyes, there are 74 heads of state and government, which is more than attended the combination of the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. No doubt there are crises, but let's not talk about this organization as if it was a corpse.' Occasionally, you get a piercing glimpse of reality.
RJS: You mentioned the funeral of John Paul II, which I was very blessed to be present for. You recently attended the funeral of your friend, Margaret Thatcher. Upon her death, there was actually a lot of commentary precisely on this, I want to say partnership, or at least phenomenon of Mrs. Thatcher and Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan and the peaceful defeat of communism and dismantling the Soviet Empire.
Do you read history, as a historian, in a providential way? Can you read history in a providential way? Namely, these three were sent for a great historical task, and opposed by great forces, malevolent forces in that all three faced assassination attempts.
CB: I hadn't particularly thought of the last, but of course you're right. They did. While I must confess that I haven't particularly thought of them in that way, that doesn't mean I thought of them in any less respectful or admiring a way. I had occasion to meet the Pope a couple of times, but only to exchange a few sentences. I didn't know President Reagan, but I certainly knew Mrs. Thatcher very well.
I think if we're assessing credit for winning the Cold War, we must go back to those who devised and maintained the whole policy of containment, which is a genius policy. The great powers never exchanged a shot and their enemies in the end simply imploded, fell like a soufflé, collapsed. It was a genius policy.
There were many who contributed to it, and indeed the very greatest single act of states-manship, I think, was the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who declined Stalin's offer of reunification in exchange for the neutrality of Ger-many and said, 'No. Germany will remain with its allies. For all its history, the wish is to have allies, and it finally has them. We will remain with them and we will be reunified with their support.' He carried German opinion. That was statesmanship. A statesmanship as great as [that] achieved by Thatcher and Reagan.
I thought of [Thatcher and Reagan] as more renovators, if not saviours, of their jurisdictions. I mean Britain was in an absolutely shocking state before Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. Everybody was on strike. You couldn't take out the garbage. You couldn't bury the dead. I was staying in Claridge's Hotel and the power went out two days of the week I was there. I asked the manager if I was getting a rebate. It was unbelievable. It was Britain.
Certainly when we took over the Daily Telegraph, we didn't know if the paper would get out the next day. If some shop steward had an argument with his wife or stubbed his toe or something, it was 'all right, lads, down tools, out.' The paper doesn't come out.
[Thatcher] stopped all of that. She, as she put it herself, put the 'great' back into Great Britain.
Thing weren't as far gone in the United States, but certainly there was, as Jimmy Carter said, a malaise in America. I'm afraid that the chief symptom of it was his presence in the White House, but there was that malaise. The Russians were out of control in Afghanistan and Central America.
I don't want to be disrespectful of Pope Paul VI, but the Roman Catholic Church got pretty shaggy and indistinct to all of those who really studied it closely and had an intuition for it. They were all strong leaders and institutions, great historic institutions and jurisdictions that needed strong leadership then. I mean, any institution can endure indifferent leadership and all institutions did, but it was a time for strong leadership and [Thatcher, Reagan and Pope John Paul II] provided it. I know that I've seen them in that role more than as the people who won the Cold War, although they were that.
RJS: There's a new book that just came out last week. I haven't had a chance to read it all the way through yet. It's called Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl. It has on the cover Deng Xiaoping, Ayatollah Khomeini, John Paul II and Mrs. Thatcher.
I've argued from a religious point of view that 1979, the return of the Ayatollah to Iran and the return of the Polish Pope to Poland, reshaped the end of the 20th century by putting religion, both for good and for ill, in geopolitics. [Caryl] makes that argument, but then he adds to it that he thinks that Deng Xiaoping and Mrs. Thatcher, in unleashing great market forces, also shaped the end of the 20th century.
He says, 'These five stories: the Iranian revolution, the start of the Afghan Jihad, Thatcher's election victory, the Pope's first Polish pilgrimage, and the launch of China's economic reforms, deflected the course of history in a radically new direction. It was in 1979 that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.'
Are you inclined to see history in terms of these great sweeps? Would you accept that as a plausible explanation of the end of the 20th century?
CB:The century of the triumph of market forces. And democracy. One of the great ironies of contemporary times is that when that great strategic team assembled by Roosevelt, although he himself was [then] dead, recognized the nature of the Cold War and said, 'All right. We're in mortal contest here between the totalitarian, godless communists and the free world'—never mind that the free world included Franco and Salazar and the Shah of Iran and all those bemeddled juntas in South America. That's how they put it out there, and democracy triumphed and the free market triumphed with it.
The United States is not, today, a particularly well-functioning democracy. Democracy and the free market did triumph. It was a significant measure of the triumph of the recognition of spiritual forces, let's say. You see this particularly conspicuously in some form really in the communist countries, including Russia.
The answer to your question is emphatically yes. If I may say one little vignette for, I hope, everyone's amusement, I once asked Margaret Thatcher what she thought of Deng Xiaoping. She said he's a very capable man and what he's doing with China is terribly important and very remarkable. I said, 'Well, did you like him?' She said, 'No. He's a repulsive little man. He did nothing but expectorate into his spittoon the whole time we met.'
RJS: All right. We don't provide spittoons here.
CB:I want to assure you I have no need of one.
RJS: From the perspective of history, 21st century religion certainly is a more prominent part of geopolitics than it may have been a century prior. In your own writings, I'm thinking about your columns now, you are more attentive to the role of religion, in particular in recent months, years, to religious persecution and religious liberty. Why is that?
CB:I cannot possibly be the only person in the room who thinks it is absolutely scandalous how little note our media take of the persecution of Christians. I mean, there's a reasonable amount of publicity of the problems Jews have, as well there might be, because goodness knows they've had plenty of problems.
I believe, and the Vatican is my authority for this, 200,000 Christians on average have been persecuted to death each year for at least the last five years. That's a million people. I'm hearing, basing this on Convivium magazine's article about this, that it's 124 countries or 130 countries, something like that, of 195 in the world? This is a shocking thing. Yet it gets very little recognition.
I want to emphasize I'm opposed to all persecution, including all religious persecution, not just of Christians. We happen to be talking about Christians. They get practically no relevant support from the secular governments whose duty it is to support them and to object to what's going on. You get the odd bit of lip service to it, but nothing more than that. You get a sort of glazed pall of official prevarication, 'Well, these are internal matters,' and all that kind of ghastly, cowardly evasiveness.
I think it is shameful how we fail to try to defend as much as we reasonably can. I don't mean we should be going to war with everybody who persecutes a Christian. Name and shame and try to do some countervailing thing to dissuade them from continuing this persecution… and our governments don't do it. As far as I can see, the only serious organization of an official kind that even raises that point is the Catholic Church. I know that chiefly because I'm the co-owner, with my friend Sir Rocco Forte, of the Catholic Herald of the United Kingdom. We publish this stuff every week. It's out there, but it's never taken up by the British national media. It's never taken up by anybody else.
RJS: Last Friday, Convivium sponsored a discussion on financial sector reform. We had the Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, the Dean of the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin, and myself, discussing financial sector reform and the role of institutions and the role of values, virtues and ethics, and you were present for that discussion. You're known as a publisher, a writer and a historian, but you've actually spent a large part of your life in the world of business and finance.
CB:I'm still in it, too.
RJS: How did the financial crisis change your view of that industry and those who lead it?
CB: It significantly diminished my view of their ethics. I accept that the senior management of Goldman Sachs didn't know this was happening. Most of the references to Chinese walls are complete fiction. I was in that business myself, and it's an absolute fraud. There isn't much of a Chinese wall most of the time, and there's no desire to have one. There's only a desire to be able to claim one if it's expedient to do it.
I accept that Lloyd Blankfein did not know that in fact, well, Goldmans were shovelling out scores of billions of dollars of real estate bank paper that they had to know was worthless, despite the fact that the ratings agencies claimed it was investment grade. As if they were Hydro-Québec bonds or something. At the same time, at the back door, Goldman Sachs was short selling the very same assets for their own house accounts. I will accept that the senior executives of Goldman Sachs did not know that was happening.
The fact is it was happening and I think it is utterly shameful and disgraceful. I am a capitalist, but my definition of capitalism does not extend to such a terrible abuse of the investing public. I singled Goldman's out, but they are far from the only offender.
I was shocked at the utter incompetence of our entire financial community. Nobody saw that crisis coming except for a few notoriously eccentric commentators. [Nouriel] Roubini, for example. He got that one right. He was like the Ancient Mariner. He got one of the three. He's a kook. I don't blame anyone for not listening to him because he normally doesn't make sense.
The central bankers, the lending bankers, the merchant bankers, the academic economists, the financial media, the legislators, the people in the treasury, treasuries of the principal countries, nobody gave any indication of what was going to come. I was absolutely shocked that… I would take a phrase from de Gaulle, 'In the light of the thunderbolt, the regime was exposed in its ghastly infirmity,' and that did shock me. It really shocked me.
RJS: Do you have confidence that it can be successfully reformed? I take that as a no.
CB: I don't think the problem is really so much reform as an improvement in the judgment of the managers. No, I don't have that confidence, I'm afraid. I do not. You see, I am a capitalist because it is the only system that's basically aligned with the human ambition for more.
I mean it is a myth, and we should acknowledge it's a myth, that people really fundamentally want to share things. I mean they do, up to a point. Of course they do. They want to be generous. They want to take care of their family and their friends, and some people are more interested in that than others. That is an instinct. In general, people want more. That is the motivation; that is the engine for progress.
The challenge obviously is to deal with the fact that in the quest for more, we always get to the point of going too far and going over the brink and doing things that in hindsight are seen as absolutely insane, bound to lead to terrible results. You've had that with the crash.
I mean how on earth could the United States sit there like one gigantic suet pudding with all its economic indicators moving sideways or even slightly downward? The stock exchange skyrocketing up to the roof, all on borrowed money without anybody saying, 'This could be a problem.' I mean a few smart investors saw it, but very few people said anything.
I don't think it is so much a reform thing. Let me just mention, just comparing crises here. They're not quite of the same degree, but in the late '30s, of course, we had this terrible problem of the impending war and the hope that appeasing the dictators would bring peace. It was a policy that failed completely. There were people who warned that it was a mistake and it wouldn't work. When it was clearly seen to be a mistake, they were there to be brought in to try and save the situation.
I mean, Churchill in particular in Britain and de Gaulle in France. De Gaulle had to leave the country to do it but he at least, as Churchill said, brought with him the honour of France in his little plane. That's how much of it was left at that point. They were there and they did rebuild their countries, both of them. Then people looked where there are collaborators. There wasn't a problem in the U.S. because Roosevelt was never in favour of appeasement. We didn't have that.
Now it's not the same level of crisis, of course. We had nobody that we can say, 'Right. X or Y had it absolutely right. They warned us about this stuff.' That person should be secretary of the Treasury or governor of the Federal Reserve or something. They weren't there. That really does worry me.
I don't think the answer is bringing in more regulations. Look, let's be serious here. The regulatory authorities had all the power they needed. They just didn't use it. Having failed to use it, they then demanded more power. Let's not fool ourselves, there were terrible commercial mistakes made. The politicians are the chief culprits here. As soon as everything went to pieces, they locked their arms from right to left and then blamed the private sector. It was the politicians in the United States who forced Fannie and Freddie to put 51 per cent of their money in the non-commercial mortgages and forced 25 per cent of the mortgages of the entire lending commercial banking system to be non-commercial. Unjustifiable, bad loans in advance, deliberately. That was the political community that we have to thank for that brainwave. They don't just escape the pillory quite so easily, at least not as far as I'm concerned. I'm digressing again.
RJS:We're almost at the end of the digressions. This is Lord Black's newest book [holds up a copy of cover of Flight of the Eagle]. Obviously, this isn't the actual book—it's coming out later this month.
CB: Actually we decided to economize.
RJS: This is the new post-financial-crisis paperback here. [Laughter.] It's called Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States.
CB: The big selling point is the identity of the author of the foreword.
RJS: The author of the foreword?
CB: I'm trying to promote sales. I'm trying to hustle.
RJS: It's Henry Kissinger. If you've observed the last few years, it's at least something of a modest surprise that he's writing a foreword to Conrad's book, but a pleasant one, I'm sure, for you.
CB: We have, figuratively speaking, kissed and made up.
RJS: We have that image after dessert, thanks.
CB: He phoned me on Saturday to congratulate me on my first anniversary. He was damn thoughtful. The old gentleman [is 90] and I wouldn't have thought he would know that that was the anniversary, but he did.
RJS:This is from Flight of the Eagle: 'After 1991, there wasn't much American strategic policy because there wasn't much need for one.' Then you detail a summary of the American strategic challenges since the founding. 'One adversary after another was laid low. Economic and psychological depression, the threats of Nazism and Japanese Imperialism, and then international communism: the country had run out of adversaries, except a ragtag of terrorists abroad.
'Almost two years before Richard Nixon enumerated his geopolitical reasoning for the outreach to China, he told Americans in the Senate Majority Speech of 1969 that, “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” This was the real challenge to American supremacy. The ability of the United States to sustain a will to greatness would have had nothing left to prove, no foreign power to surpass. The United States in 2012 was in full decline by all normal measurements.'
If America is in full decline and Europe is in more rapid decline and China is approaching decline, are we in the era now of global decline?
CB: I refuse to sign on to any such gloomy scenario.
RJS: You're gloomy about the United States?
CB: Not terminally so, and I certainly don't agree with these people who think it's like the latter days of the Roman Empire or anything like that. It's a great nation. I mean the fact that they persecuted me half to death doesn't mean that they aren't a great nation. It is in decline, but it's not an irreversible decline; and the United States does not have a death wish. It is a country that is proud, sometimes to a fault. Sometimes, through a degree of complacency, aggravated by their America-centricity that makes them, except for foreign policy specialists, completely ignorant of the rest of the world, including this country.
I mean, the average American, as we all know, couldn't find any foreign country on the map, not even Canada or Mexico. They wouldn't know. That's not the point. It is a proud country, and they're right to be proud. It's a great country.
I think and I believe my actual very last words were something to the effect that when they see it plain and see—as a great many Americans are very uneasy and all the polls show that—when they see just how completely incompatible the conduct of public policy is with the requirements of a great nation to face problems, deal with them squarely, face up to them, as they have done in their history. It's a marvelous history. As I said in [the book], the rise of the United States in 200 years, from a few colonies along the Atlantic to a level of preeminence in the world that they had at the end of the Cold War is without precedent or parallel in the history of the world. It was an astonishing thing.
The point of the book is it didn't just happen because they had half of the continent. It was a rich continent and a lot of immigrants were allowed in. Of course that is true, but that isn't really the reason. The reason was that American statesmen at key points did brilliant and courageous things.
That's really all they need. There's nothing really fundamentally wrong with that country. That leadership is a level that they've had at their most needful moments, from the most famous personalities in their history, from Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt. I mean, Teddy had his moments, but he's a bit of a cowboy. It's not a country that is prepared simply to circle a drain and go down. Europe is another matter. Do you want me to comment on Europe?
CB: Again, the irony there, I think, is that since the rise of the nation-state, all serious European States have known that in order for them, if they were not Germans, to maintain their positions, they had to prevent the unification of the Germans. That was Cardinal Richelieu's lesson in the Treaty of Westphalia, where Germany was fragmented into 300 different principalities. It took Bismarck, more than 200 years later, to reassemble them.
It is a truism to say that Germany was too late unified. I could never determine whether it was an eastward or westward-facing country, and whenever it set out to assure its own security, it en-dangered the security of its neighbours, usually by invading them. The fact is, this chancellor [Angela Merkel], and to a degree her immediate predecessors, have achieved what previous German leaders who are more forceful in galvanizing… I mean, Pius IX called Bismarck 'Satan in a helmet.' It was a pretty fair description by the way.
What they could not accomplish by the assertion of force—namely almost all of Germany's neighbours have a heroic history of resisting its overlordship, and most of them are now beseeching Germany to help them—Germany is accomplishing by kindness and benignity. I think we're going to see a modified gross Deutschland, a sort of German Bloc, including all the Baltic countries and the Dutch and Austrians, up to the Czechs and the Poles. That will be a strong block. I think that is actually a bigger growth story or emerging power story in the world than China is.
I mean the rest of them, they'll be in a common market, but I don't think France's ability to present itself as a rival to Germany looks very viable right now, nor does Russia. Germany is not threatening. I think other countries are in fact doing well, and some of them are heartwarming stories like Brazil and even parts of subSaharan Africa.
If I can just close this, I think it is a great thing for Canada, not because we should rejoice in any discomfort of the United States. I personally hate the spirit of envy. I've sometimes been the subject of it. No sane person would envy what I've had to go through in the last decade, but prior to that I was sometimes the subject of it.
I have always thought that success is a good thing, and whoever achieves it, I salute them. We should take no comfort in the difficulties of the United States but, we were talking about this at our table earlier, this is an opportunity for Canadians finally to realize that what de Gaulle described to Mackenzie King as the overwhelming continuity of the United States is not something that should obsess us. The fact is we do more than tug at the trouser leg of the Americans; this is a better-governed country and in many ways it's a better country.
It's not to say the U.S. isn't a great country. Of course it is. It's a more important country because it's bigger. But this is in many ways a better country, and we can actually take some comfort from that in a confident way that doesn't require us to repeat it. I think that this is an opportunity for a psychological great leap forward for Canadians. Not rejoicing, I repeat one last time, in any difficulties the Americans are having but recognizing that we have come through these crises and we have come through them well because we do have a technique of crisis management that works for us, and it's proper to us and unique to us and it's a good thing. It's hard to present heroically. You can't present endless discussions of the first ministers meetings about the Constitution in a heroic way. It's boring and it's appalling. It was in good faith and it worked. It avoided a horrible crisis.
I mean the Americans had a magnificent war, but they killed 750,000 people in a population of 31 million. They had Lincoln and Grant and Sherman and Robert E. Lee, and they were great men, but it was a horrible war. Five states were smashed to rubble and scorched to ashes.
RJS: In your first autobiography, A Life in Progress, you opened it by saying that having moved more or less to live in London, you owed your countrymen an account of the decisions that you have taken and the life that led up to them. Now, we're here one year after you're back in Canada. Your attitude toward Canada, which you've outlined, changes somewhat. Are you happy to be back?
CB: Yes. I will say that at the end of that first book, I did say that my activities in Canada and committing time to it, it could very likely increase if I thought the country would stop being completely obsessed with the appeasement of Quebec nationalists and this terribly repetitive and slightly retarded relationship with the United States. I believe that has happened.
I'm not saying I am back here because Canada has pulled up its socks. I'm not saying that. The fact is Canada has changed, too. With that said, I want to be clear, I'm proud to be Canadian, but I'm proud to be British, too. [Britain is] a great country also. They've treated me very generously. My British friends have been magnificent. Many of them came to see me when I was in prison. I was very generously received when I was there last autumn and very generously received when I was there at Margaret Thatcher's funeral—Barbara and I were. It is possible to be a citizen of both countries and like both countries. I don't want to make invidious comparisons, but they're both great countries in different ways.
RJS: We'll leave it at that as your last word. We're glad to have you back in Canada. We're glad to have you here with Convivium.
CB: I'm honoured to be here. Thank you so much.