- - Friday, April 4, 2014

A strange cyclone is building worldwide, one worth seeing clearly and placing in historical perspective. By region and nation, there is an odd, centripetal pull toward concentrating power in authoritarian leaders, a drift toward autocracy.

More troubling, this trend is occurring against the backdrop of rising nationalism. We have seen this before, and it is historically significant.

If the lawlessness of Russian President Vladimir Putin has people edgy, look beyond Ukraine and Crimea. Indifference toward individual liberties from North Korea, Iran, Syria and China may be expected, but each is becoming more aggressive, internally and externally.

North Korea flings missiles into the Pacific with impunity as Iran presses its nuclear program and plays America for the fool. Syria laughs — with Russia — at empty U.S. words on chemical weapons, while China lays new claims to the South China Sea, triggering nationalism in perimeter countries.

Extremist political movements continue unabated in Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia, Mali, Lebanon, Africa and half of the greater Middle East. President Obama cancels his attendance at the Summit of Gulf Nations owing to deepening nationalist hostility. Egypt and Thailand desperately clutch for order, at the expense of openness and pluralism.

Once secular Turkey, now led by Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blithely removes critics in the military, judiciary and law enforcement, including the police chief investigating him for corruption, then puts out the lights on Twitter. Turkey’s new foreign policy is “Neo-Ottomanism,” seeking presence in lands once belonging the Ottoman Empire. Is this not Putin-esque?

To our south, Venezuela’s autocratic president, Nicolas Maduro, locks horns daily with protesters, leading with autocratic impunity. From east to west, north to south, there is a latent sense that America — the historic beacon of liberty, paragon of democratic idealism — is in retreat or silent, no longer a meaningful player in resolving such trends, itself adrift on the global tide.

Since there is no geopolitical barometer for measuring global instability, autocracy or nationalism, there is no way to quantify the speed of geopolitical drift, but we can see its effects. Reliable alliances are weakening — and being openly challenged. Universal recognition of individual rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is in retrograde. By all appearances, democracy, rule of law and individual liberties are in retreat.

Here’s the rub: We have seen all this before. This mix surfaced in the run-up to World War I — nationalism, autocracy, fear and hubris. We saw it again during the interwar years, particularly 1919 to 1934, after which Germany’s uncontested assertion that “might makes right” accelerated, igniting and engulfing all peace-loving nations by 1939, leaving millions dead in what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “the unnecessary war.”

Ironically, Winston Churchill was ahead of both curves. He argued for a clear foreign policy, one that unambiguously anticipated, rebutted and blunted unjust assertions of “might makes right.” He argued for unmistakable conviction, tireless communication and redoubled defenses, judiciously deployed.

He wanted the Western alliance to rearm to deter aggression. His pleas fell on deaf ears. Germany rearmed as the West cut its defenses and muddled its messages.

Now Russia’s 180-degree turn away from democracy and international norms is not unpredictable, nor is Mr. Putin’s chauvinistic, world-be-damned rhetoric. If Russia is not interwar Germany, it is openly celebrating America’s ambivalence. Twenty-five years ago, it lost superpower status. It still misses it. Mr. Putin’s pugilism is a weak stand-in, but dangerous. More ominous is this: The world is watching how we respond.

If the United States shows a Churchill-like response — a strong, unquestionable recommitment to global leadership, a sagacity about geopolitical relationships informed by history, new confidence in our own idealism, an understanding of economic interdependence, an anticipatory foreign policy and a redoubled defense of the Western World, reflected in words, deeds, budgets and deployments — then peace will prevail.

Those who currently wonder if “right makes might” or, conversely, “might makes right” will have no illusions. They will pull in their horns. If we ignore history, though, the political barometer will keep falling.

The answer is from Churchill — whose bust Mr. Obama sent back to the queen, for some unknown reason. The lesson is this: Stand up, speak clearly and speak early. Go to the fight to prevent it; do not wait for the fight to come to you. When you make a promise, fulfill it. When you make a threat, deliver on it. Act as you speak, with resolve and conviction. Be completely engaged, and make sure the nation’s defenses are strong.

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