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|July 9, 2003||
Vol. 1, No. 65
Let all the rest be like us
by Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large
What gets into the minds of men who build and/or preside over superpowers?
Lord Palmerston was British secretary of war (at age 25), Britain's longest-serving foreign secretary, and prime minister practically fulltime from the age of 70 until his death at 81. He spent 58 years in Parliament and was rarely out of high public office.
The enemy was France, and would be throughout his lifetime (1786 to 1865). Russia was a menace, China was to be put in its place, Egypt (an encroaching Mehemet Ali) was whacked across the ear for its audacity, and Brazil, British gunboats in its harbors, was told to end slavery or else. It did. Palmerston was a lifelong abolitionist.
He spoke fluent Italian, excellent French and passable German.
He rode, he wooed. In his earlier public years he was known as "Cupid," for his many affairs. In his middle years as, "John Bull," sobriquet for Britain, and in old age as "Pam," fondly corrupted from Palmerston.
And he knew when not to fight, a key element of superpowering.
He had every opportunity and excuse to involve Britain militarily during the American Civil War, and many Americans were afraid he might. He forbore.
The comments of this man who molded a modern superpower are offered because of their modern resonance.
At 22, he wrote, "to disband our forces and dismantle our navy would be, in the existing state of things, impossible, as no reliance could be placed on Bonaparte's pacific professions … a large military and naval establishment has to be kept up."
Six months later, after Britain has seized the Danish fleet from under the noses of the French to prevent them getting it, Palmerston told Parliament he was as willing as anyone to pay his respects to the principles of right, policy and international law -- "and to recommend their application wherever circumstances would permit," but in the Danish expedition Britain had applied them "in conformity to the law of nature, which dictated and commanded self-preservation."
Forty years later in Parliament, Palmerston, as usual speaking at length without notes, told his parliamentary colleagues and the nation, "our duty -- our vocation -- is not to enslave, but to set free; and I may say, without any vain-glorious boast, or without great offence to anyone, we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilization. Our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations."
In old age, Palmerston, as determined as ever that Britannia -- as she had since Nelson's time -- would continue to rule the waves, pressed for a steel-clad "line of battle ships" with ever more powerful armaments.
And he concluded his life, with this. (Substitute American for Englishman and the analogy still holds, as relevant to superpower posturing as any other analogy):
"If I were not an Englishman, I should wish to be an Englishman."
Chauvinism's a fine sentiment when one has the best weapons, and the most of them.
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