Fred Thompson’s UK Speech

The text of Fred Thompson’s speech to the London Policy Exchange, which I referenced earlier, is up at Townhall. Some excerpts:

Differences of party and domestic policy are incidental, compared to the bigger considerations that define Britain and America as allies. On both sides of the Atlantic, what matters most are the commitments we share, and the work we are called to do in common. This work is based upon the principles we hold — primarily, the right of free people to govern themselves. We also believe that the rule of law, market economies, property rights, and trade with other nations are the underpinnings of a free society.

When historians of the modern era speak of the great democracies, of civilization and its defenders, that’s us they’re talking about — we and our democratic friends across Europe and beyond.

Neither the US nor the UK is universally consistent in preferring popular sovereignty over despots who will support our policy aims. Indeed, we’re currently helping prop up a thug in Pakistan who isn’t doing much to help fight al Qaeda because we fear the alternative. The democratic choice of the Palestinians, which continues to express itself in the election of terrorists to high office, has not been greeted with open arms, either.

Often the cause of our grief is a misplaced trust in the good intentions of others. In our dealings with other nations, people in free countries are not the type to go looking for trouble. We tend to extend our good will to other nations, assuming that it will be returned in kind. No matter how clear the signals, sometimes in history even the best of men failed to act in time to prevent the worst from happening.

The United States and the United Kingdom have learned this lesson both ways — in great evils ignored, and in great evils averted. We learned it from a World War that happened and, in the decades afterward, from the World War that didn’t happen.

We must conclude that the greatest test of leadership — in your country or mine, in this time or any other — can be simply stated. We must shape events, and not be left at their mercy. And in all things, to protect ourselves and to assure the peace, the great democracies of the world must stick together. We must be willing to make tough decisions today in order to avert bigger problems tomorrow. We must be prepared to meet threats before threats become tragedies.

That’s largely right, I think, although we’ve both gone to war to advance our policy aims more often than most states.

Some who seek to check U.S. power believe that legitimacy may only be conferred by international consensus as represented by the UN Security Council. They ask, “If a country can invade another nation for its own good reasons, what is the logical stopping point?”

The American response is to ask how, then, does one justify non-Security-Council-sanctioned actions, such as Kosovo? What are nations allowed to do when the UN cannot muster the political will to act? How many countries must be involved in an action before legitimacy is conferred? Is it just European countries that count? And, how do we deal with problems in concert when many of us don’t agree on the extent or nature of the problem?

There’s likely a difference in acting when the UN fails to act versus acting against the express will of two thirds of the Security Council. Still, Thompson’s right here: Great powers must decide issues of war and peace based on their own national interest. Gaining international consensus is highly desirable but the lack of it can not preclude action. (For the record: I opposed intervention in Kosovo and, indeed, Bosnia.)

For our part, we in the United States must make a better case for our views and our actions. It is possible that things that are perfectly obvious to us may not be so obvious even to those who wish us well. We must be willing to listen and we must be willing to share our intelligence to the maximum extent appropriate.

We must be prepared to make our case not just privately, but to the people of Europe and the world in order to build political support for cooperation. The world is not stronger if America is weaker — or is perceived to be weaker. The same is true of Britain and truer still of our NATO alliance. And we must be capable of making that case.

In return, it is fair to expect that our allies will not put their trade and commercial interests above world security. It is also fair to ask that Europeans consider the consequences if they are wrong about the threat to the Western world.

That’s all well and good in theory but unlikely to happen in practice. For all the just criticisms aimed at the way the Bush Administration handled the run-up to the Iraq War, that they didn’t work very hard to build international consensus is not among them. The president, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others prostrated themselves at the alter of the U.N. in a futile attempt to get its approval. Indeed, that effort was at the root of the over-selling of the weapons of mass destruction angle, because that was the strongest case to be made in international law for ousting Saddam.

Ultimately, states will act in their own perceived best interests. The US and UK will more often have overlapping interests than the US and France. That’s not likely to change any time soon.

Many in Europe simply have a different view from that of the United States as to the threat of radical Islamic fundamentalism. They think that the threat is overblown. That despite September 11th, and July 7th and other attacks in Europe and elsewhere, America is the main target and therefore the problem is basically an American one. The fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq at a particular point in time resolves the matter for them. Also, they see no meaningful connection between terrorist groups and countries like Iran.

Admittedly, even some in America think that the threat is overblown, and that if we had not gone into Iraq, we’d have no terrorism problem.

However, most Americans feel differently. We understand that the Western world is in an international struggle with jihadists who see this struggle as part of a conflict that has gone on for centuries, and who won’t give up until Western countries are brought to their knees. I agree with this view. I believe that the forces of civilization must work together with common purpose to defeat the terrorists who for their own twisted purposes have murdered thousands, and who are trying to acquire technology to murder millions more.

Here, I disagree. Europe fully understands the dangers of terrorism. Not only do they have a much longer experience with the problem but several countries there have a large Islamist population with actual home-grown cells plotting and conducting attacks. There is just a profound difference of opinion in how to deal with the threat and, unfortunately, the mess in Iraq has only strengthened their resolve that our path is the wrong one.

Substantively, this is a speech that any of the Republican candidates could have given, aside from perhaps Ron Paul. Indeed, It wouldn’t take much re-rewriting for Hillary Clinton to be able to say these things. I’m not sure, therefore, that this does anything to set him apart from the field.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. RepublicansAgainstFred says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

    Editor’s note: You can post comments for or against candidates but this site is not a forum for cut-and-paste propaganda not directly related to the topic of the post.

  2. yo says:

    I see do Fred setting himself apart from the field because I don’t feel as though he’s trying to blow sunshine up my skirt (as it were).

    The nod to the ideological kinship between the UK/US comes across as genuine, and his mixture of Churchill quotes was a nice touch of knowledgeable respect. Neither of those two things do I see coming from candidates on either side of the aisle.

  3. anjin-san says:

    Admittedly, even some in America think that the threat is overblown, and that if we had not gone into Iraq, we’d have no terrorism problem.

    Who thinks this? No one I have ever spoken to. This sort of nonsense only exists in Rush’s imagination…

  4. Triumph says:

    If this was Thompson’s effort to build up his foreign policy credentials, it seems to be an utter failure.

    He offered really no substantive discussion of how to deal with the mess in Iraq and, curiously, nothing about Russia’s increasing belligerence–which is a bigger threat to US national security than Iran, which he does spend time talking about.

    The entire speech consisted of platitudes showing that Thompson is basically the Obama of the right.

    Of course, the other Republican candidates have pretty dismal foreign policy records as well, especially with Giuliani’s admission that he didn’t want to serve on the Iraq Study Group because it would hurt his earning power on the lecture circuit.

    Nevertheless, Thompson doesn’t really impress with this speech.

  5. Tano says:

    Actually this sounded to me like warmed over Bushism. Not exactly the the kind of product that the voters will be looking to buy next year.
    And, I suspect, it will go over like a lead balloon in the international community, if that is who he was trying to impress.

    But hey, he is an experienced statesman now. He had his picture taken with Thatcher!

  6. Eneils Bailey says:

    “if we had not gone into Iraq, we’d have no terrorism problem.”

    Ooookay,
    That is an interesting theory but totally neglects the historical record of Islamnist terrorism before we invaded Iraq.

    “Who thinks this? No one I have ever spoken to.”
    Maybe the smart people just ignore you.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Enis,

    Work on your reading comprehension dude. I was questioning a position the Mr. Thompson put forth, not stating my own opinion.

    Perhaps the smart people are ignoring me. That would explain why you responded to my post, and in a manner that makes no sense…

  8. Beldar says:

    Dr. Joyner wrote,

    Europe fully understands the dangers of terrorism. Not only do they have a much longer experience with the problem but several countries there have a large Islamist population with actual home-grown cells plotting and conducting attacks. There is just a profound difference of opinion in how to deal with the threat and, unfortunately, the mess in Iraq has only strengthened their resolve that our path is the wrong one.

    Hello? Are we talking about the same Europe?

    Your factual observations about their experience and local Islamist populations are correct, and you’re also certainly correct that many EU countries insist that our path is the wrong one (although Spain and Italy were pretty strong members of the Coalition of the Willing for a while). But do you claim that any EU country actually has a coherent plan — other than “oppose the U.S.” plus either “do nothing” or outright appeasement — that they’re pursuing in competition with ours?

    With the exception of Blair, European leaders seem to me to be pretty well stuck in 1938. Do you really have a different view of them?

  9. James Joyner says:

    But do you claim that any EU country actually has a coherent plan — other than “oppose the U.S.” plus either “do nothing” or outright appeasement — that they’re pursuing in competition with ours?

    I don’t think their plan is so much “oppose the U.S.” as “hope it’ll go away if we don’t rile them up.” That’s not much of a plan, to be sure, although “invade Iraq” hasn’t proven to be so hot yet, either.

    But Thompson argues that they’re just clueless about the threat and that they think it’s overblown. I contend they fully understand the threat, are scared out of their minds, and don’t think there’s much they can do about it. Which, incidentally, may well be the case.