Lord Conrad Black 

The question of whether democracy is worth fighting for naturally arises at any time when it is proposed that people fight for it. This is not a question that spontaneously occurs when there is no prospect of having to consider fighting for it, other than in abstract academic debates. There was a considerable stir in February, 1933 in Britain when the Oxford Union voted that it “Would no longer fight for King and country.” Of course, six years later the same people and the same institution voted with their feet and were almost unanimous in offering, or at least agreeing to risk, their lives for king and country. In the context of the time that debate was about war against Nazism and Fascism before the nature of Nazism had been well displayed; it was not just patriotic defense of Great Britain. And when the great test came, when the British contemplated the prospect of submitting to Nazi domination or even occupation, George Orwell was nostalgic even about Britain’s red telephone boxes as he contemplated the fact that “civilized men are overhead trying to kill me.”

There may never have been times quite like these, when the leading democracy is wallowing in woke self-flagellation, asking the United Nations, an ineffable source of racist hypocrisy, to investigate and comment on the extent of racism in the United States, and when most of the leaders of the more important democratic countries are hopeless, almost witless, posturers and panderers. In such times, it is easy and tempting to be ambiguous in responding to the question about fighting for democracy. Of course, our democracies are flabby and venal and operate at a level and with explanations of official conduct adapted to the mind of a gullible child of six. In contemplating that the entire program of the present Canadian federal government for the last five years has essentially consisted of vapid gender issues, mawkishly exaggerated fables of ancestral self-hate over treatment of the natives, and an utterly insane concept of climate change, it is so depressing, the system that elevated such ciphers to important positions scarcely seems worth lifting a finger for. Even Stalin said “Democracy must be a miserable system to replace a great man like Churchill with a mediocrity like Attlee.”

Not to labour the point, but the spectacle of the great United States of America ostensibly led by a wax-works dummy seconded by a cackling California airhead as they champion a vintage socialist platform composed of policies that failed at every opportunity for decades, as millions of unskilled peasants are incited to flood across the southern border, the country's status as an energy independent nation is squandered, the full employment achieved by the previous administration is discarded in favor of undocumented cheap alien labor, America's highest officials are publicly condescended to by their Chinese and Russian analogues, and large parts of many of America's greatest cities are transformed into no-go shooting galleries as violent crime and inflation skyrocket: none of this is bracing to the democratic consciousness or conducive to a desire to protect their country and make sacrifices for democracy.

But these are just evanescent snapshots of the society or country whose defense is contemplated. These are times of unrepresentative official under-achievement and disappointment. The Oxford Union in 1933 voted not to fight for the regime that blundered into World War I, largely mismanaged the war, thoroughly mismanaged the peace, and ten days into the Third Reich (the debate was on February 9, 1933), was wobbling between hopefulness for the Hitler regime even as it spoke loudly of Teutonic racial superiority, and the first noises of justified self-defense against the spectre of resurrected German aggression. Soon enough, the British government, in Mr. Churchill's phrase, had to choose between “war and shame” and ultimately “chose shame and got war.” But when the war came, and the leadership swiftly changed personnel and became much more purposeful, the issue became a choice between an imperfect society of laws with all its official biases and inept judges and often unethical lawyers but with freedom of expression and an honest official espousal of unassailable rights for everybody; and totalitarian dictatorship. The choice was between the best of what often seemed the humdrum exemplars of democracy and what Nazi literature called “the holy imprisonment of the heart” in a wicked cause. The spirit, not just of the elite Oxbridge undergraduates, but of the entire British nation, was suddenly seized by an icy determination to defend their sceptered isle and fight for their generous, devoted, and brave king, who never sought or expected his position; and if necessary all adult citizens would defend the home islands inch by inch, to the death.  

Such profound transformations generally occur when stark questions of what is worth fighting for cease to be abstract musings and become genuine life-choices based on fundamental values and principles. It was one thing to debate it in the middle of what W.H. Auden described as “the low dishonest decade” of the 30’s, but something altogether different when there was an imminent possibility of being militarily overwhelmed and propelled at bayonet-point into the un-appealable regimentation of Nazi totalitarianism, a regime largely devoted to genocidal notions of racial superiority. Somewhat comparable evolutions of opinion occurred in the other major democracies. Scores of thousands cheered wildly when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, breaking a tradition as old as the Republic in seeking a third term, told an election wind-up audience in Buffalo, New York, (of all places): “Your president says this nation is not going to war!” Roosevelt was running on a platform of peace through strength and had already put in train the greatest arms buildup in the history of the world. He said that only if America were armed to the teeth could it deter attack and that in order to keep war on the farther shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific, the United States would have to assist the democracies who could otherwise be overwhelmed, leaving the entire Eurasian landmass in the hands of hostile totalitarian dictators. “We in this hemisphere would be living at the point of a gun.”

Roosevelt spoke German and French and knew those countries well, and always spoke German to even bilingual German visitors, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. He had been part of the Wilson administration's effort to secure a League of Nations and a continuing defensive military alliance between France, Great Britain, and the United States. He knew that without American participation in Western Europe and the Far East, the whole future of democratic civilization would be at stake every generation. He gradually mobilized a formidable majority in support of his views, even as he instituted the first peacetime conscription in American history and loaned the British 50 destroyers in the middle of the 1940 election campaign. On the last Sunday before the election, New York's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Francis J. Spellman, caused to be read in every service in every Roman Catholic Church in the United States a statement that included the assertion: “It is better to have protection and not need it than to need protection and not have it…We really cannot longer afford to be moles that cannot see or ostriches who will not see…We Americans want peace, but not a peace whose definition is slavery or death.” Similar statements were made by Protestant and Jewish leaders, but Spellman was representing almost all the Irish and Italian Americans and many of the German-Americans, all of whom, for historic or contemporary reasons, could be assumed not to have unlimited goodwill for Great Britain.                  

A little over a year later, Japan, without warning, had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere and Germany had declared war on the United States, apparently because the German Führer had it in his febrile mind that Jewish influences had manipulated Roosevelt and turned the United States against Germany. In 1940 Roosevelt had promised “the mothers and fathers of America-your sons will not be sent into any foreign wars.” He extended territorial waters from 3 miles to 1800 miles and ordered the United States Navy to attack any German or Italian ship within that area on detection. He passed the Lend-Lease Act which effectively gave Britain and Canada anything they wished and they could pay for it when they were able. It was an idiosyncratic definition of neutrality, but as the nature of the European war was highlighted by the contrast between Churchill and Hitler, it became clearer to the American public that their preparedness to go to war to defend some recognizable version of the rule of law and a relatively generous definition of the rights of individual people was involved and support steadily rose for Roosevelt's unabashed democratic favoritism. An adequate majority supported him when he said the country was not on its way to war and a higher majority supported him a few months later when he said that America would not be deceived “by the pious frauds of those who serve the interests of the dictators” in America's domestic political debates. “No dictator, no combination of dictators,” would deter the American government and people from doing what their clear moral duty and national interest required. This was for the United States to become “the Great Arsenal of democracy.” And once the United States was in the war, Roosevelt spoke for a united people when he said: “In these circumstances, as our nation fights for its very life and for all that we stand for and believe in, it is not a sacrifice to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States, it is an honor.” The time had come when there was no question in the minds of people in both democratic states that had been occupied and those making war against Hitler and Mussolini, of the preference of democracy and the justification to risk everything to preserve or regain it. (The Soviet Union was embraced as an ally for tactical reasons, and it is a testament to the statesmanship of Roosevelt and Churchill that the USSR took over 90 percent of the casualties in subduing Germany, while the Western Allies retrieved France, Italy, Japan, and 80 percent of Germans for the democratic West.)

Apart from the stupefyingly offensive act of attacking the United States Navy in its home anchorage without any warning at all, sinking five battleships and killing thousands of sailors, all that had happened was for Americans to think more clearly about the comparative merits of democracy and its principal rival, totalitarian dictatorship. Even the most vociferous critic of government, if over 15 years of age, will have seen enough to be disabused of any notion of the virtues of anarchy. It is terribly difficult, when one sees the depths of violent disorder which many great American and some European cities regularly sink to, to contest the need for some form of maintenance of order and other essential services, including military defense from hostile foreign powers.

I accept that the stirring example of World War II, which I have invoked, is overdone and has faded a long way into the past, though even now, to some degree, the Gloriana of Churchill's resistance against the Nazis, updated somewhat by Margaret Thatcher's gallantry opposite all enemies foreign and domestic, give the British a prestige in the world somewhat above where it would rank by statistical analyses alone. But when democracy has needed outstanding leadership from the Great Powers, it has received it-for four or five years, the entire future of Western civilization rested on the shoulders of Roosevelt and Churchill almost alone; they were greater and more effective leaders than Hitler and Stalin, (who were not without their satanic talents).

But the point to remember in answering the title question of this essay is that the present is about as bad, as boring, venal, tasteless, contemptible, and cynical as democratic government can be, without any of the charm or cunning of well-thought-out cynicism. It is difficult to believe that the present American or Canadian leaders have intelligence quotients in triple figures. The German leader, Angela Merkel, could have been Bismarck in drag but after 16 years as Federal Chancellor she is a failure. Emmanuel Macron is intelligent and gives substantive addresses at appropriate occasions, but he attempted everything at once and for the most part, his opponents are more sensible than he is. There was no excuse for provoking and being unable to contain the yellow jackets for over an entire year. He's bought into a Europe that won't succeed and overtaxed his countrymen for an environmental program that is not rational. Boris Johnson, the only one of them that I know well, could be a great prime minister. His buffoonery is deliberate and endearing, though one can tire of it. But he got Brexit done and polls show 70 percent of the British are now grateful for that. Despite many blunders, he has got Britain through the Covid debacle, which was more a governmental than a public health disaster; Britain did better than most other advanced countries.    
Since the only rival to democracy in the necessary choice of a government is dictatorship, we have to reflect on the fact that all dictatorships are based on the principle of the prevalence of the collective interest over the individual interest and that individual rights, apart from those exercised by the leaders of the government or their friends, if they exist at all, are fragile and easily violated with impunity. Our Western justice systems are vastly overrated, are frequently unjust and in many places corrupt. But they exist, are celebrated, and the ideal of justice is officially and popularly proclaimed and not infrequently produces equitable results. Even Rousseau, and certainly Marx, spoke of “the people” with admiration, possibly even sincere or at least romantic admiration, but at no point did they isolate and elevate or even mention the notion of the absolute rights of individuals.

The usual argument for a good and benevolent dictatorship rests on people like Kemal Ataturk or even Marshall Tito. They were exceptional men and they achieved great progress in the war-torn states that they took over and governed for many years. They made no pretense either to democracy or to any serious body of rights and freedoms enjoyed by every citizen. And their successors gradually fumbled away most of what they had achieved. Churchill was probably right when he famously said that democracy was “the worst system of government except for all the others.” The only negative answer to the question posed in the title of this column would have to be based either on the theory that other systems than democracy served individual freedom better or governed countries more effectively and efficiently. I submit that the first is never the case and while the second is sometimes accurate, it is rarely accurate at the most critical times in the history of states, and almost never long survives the benefactor-dictator.

The last argument could be made on behalf of Richelieu and Bismarck, arguably, along with Charles de Gaulle, the greatest statesmen in the history of the continental European nation state. De Gaulle was an authoritarian democrat who resolved the ancient dispute between French monarchists and Republicans by creating an elected monarchy and calling it a republic. But he was a scrupulous democrat. Richelieu and Bismarck were autocrats who served at their monarchs’ pleasure, which was in Bismarck's case withdrawn after 28 years as head of the Prussian and then German governments. Richelieu directed the French government from 1624 to 1642, at a time when the British Queen Henrietta Maria was the sister of the French King and cordial relations prevailed between the two countries. Richelieu concluded that the British parliamentary system weakened its government and believed that he was conferring a great comparative advantage on France by endowing it with an absolute monarchic state. He was right when the absolute state was directed by a genius like himself, but not otherwise. The French revolutionaries demonstrated 150 years later that he was mistaken.

Bismarck confounded all those who for centuries had sought to assure that Germany was divided, as Richelieu, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Metternich all warned of the dangers of a united Germany. Bismarck put Austria and France in their places without trying to occupy or completely subdue them, and conducted the foreign policy of the united German Empire that he created with great prudence and ingenuity. But Germany has not since then exercised its role as Europe's most important country in a prudent manner. It was either governed recklessly or even insanely by the German Emperor William II after he removed Bismarck in 1890, and during the Third Reich, or has been governed prudently but diffidently in the Weimar era, and as West Germany-a divided country with large foreign armies billeted on its soil. Even as the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Bloc were crumbling, Soviet leader Gorbachev, French President Mitterand, and British Prime Minister Thatcher all told the Federal German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that they personally approved of a united Germany but that the other two did not. The reunification occurred in large part because the United States was the only major Western power that never feared a united Germany. Not since the post-Napoleonic Holy Alliance have any serious countries gone to war against democracy, as opposed to contesting national interests with democratic opponents. And President Wilson electrified the war-exhausted allies when he entered World War I after intolerable provocation by German submarine warfare and declared that it was a “war to end war…to make the world safe for democracy.” He failed, but the cause has remained an inspiration. His junior, Roosevelt, was more successful, partly by his pioneering development of atomic weapons.

I submit that the preceding, admittedly rather selective and even syncopated analysis, demonstrates that dictatorships can do great things for a country, though usually they do not, but never serve individual liberty at all adequately, and rarely assure much stability after the founding dictator hands over to a successor, whatever the precipitating event. Democracy began on a very limited basis with the Athenians in the sixth century B.C. and was more popularly based among the Romans when the Hortensian Law of 287 B.C. gave the right to a popular assembly to exercise equal powers with the Senate. Democracy largely vanished in the Dark Ages but proceeded intermittently and desultorily, coming out of the Middle Ages, in Scandinavia, Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and in a few of the Italian republics. It could be deemed to be well-established in the United States in the late 18th century (despite slavery), and in Britain and France and Canada in the 19th century. By the end of the 20th century, passably democratic regimes governed about half of the world’s nearly 200 countries, and democracy is more or less steadily gaining approval. It is thus being legitimized by adoption by ever-increasing numbers of people. Democracy is gaining by every form of measurable competition, and is particularly evident where its growth accompanies increasing prosperity, as in Spain and South Korea, that metamorphosed from poor dictatorships to prosperous democracies during the Cold War.

It is true that like most people and institutions, democracy responds well to challenges. Even the western leaders who won the Cold War, Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Mitterand, Mulroney, and John Paul II, were all of a high relative competence though their successors in the post-Cold War era have been less adequate. But it seems that we may now rely upon the People's Republic of China to jolt us out of our torpor. It will not take much reflection by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat of the West to figure out that Communist Chinese preeminence in the world, the displacement of the Western languages and civilization, of Judeo-Christian values emphasizing the dignity of life and of the individual person, of a prevalent market economy, would be a nightmare worth fighting against. Fortunately, in these nuclear times such combat is rarely conducted by the discharge of large quantities of live ordnance, so fighting for democracy should be somewhat less physically taxing than the Second World War. And this should help to provide and elicit an enthusiastically positive response to the question posed in the title of this essay. If necessary, any such resistance would constitute fighting for democracy yet again, for all its failings.