Looking for Allies: Magnet and Wedge in Western Civilization

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Looking for Allies: Magnet and Wedge in Western Civilization

March 19, 2003 15 min read
Balint Vazsonyi
Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy


Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.

The world lost an extraordinary man when Balint Vazsonyi passed away on January 17 of this year. Fortunately for us all, his words and wisdom live on. It is with great pleasure that we are able to publish below the text of Mr. Vazsonyi's last major speech, given on October 22, 2002, at The Heritage Foundation. His remarks were unscripted and appear here only lightly edited. They were based on years spent in contemplating the place of the United States and Europe in the world.

The roots of Mr. Vazsonyi's understanding of the United States are found in his remarkable personal history. A naturalized citizen since 1964, he appreciated his adopted country as only those who have felt the heavy hand of oppression really can. His first experience of socialism came in the shape of National Socialism as the Nazis marched into his native Hungary in 1944.

After the war, Hungary fell into the grip of Communist rulers. The Hungarian attempt at rebellion against the stranglehold of communism ended with the Soviet occupation of the country in 1956. That was the year Mr. Vazsonyi and his mother walked out of Hungary, literally, on foot through the mountains into Austria. Three years later, he arrived in the United States.

Balint was not only a scholar and a writer, but also an accomplished concert pianist. He wrote about art and culture, philosophy and history, and he thought deeply about the United States, which he loved. His book America's 30 Years War, published in 1998, became a best seller. It struck a deep chord with Americans concerned about the assault on the values that have made the United States so strong.

Months before the United Nations Security Council and its endless Iraq resolutions became a fiercely contested battleground between the United States and Britain on one side and France and Germany on the other, Mr. Vazsonyi presented the philosophical reasons for this clash of European cultures. As we sort through the wreckage of Transatlantic relations that has resulted, this speech will be a valuable guide.

All of his admirers in the United States and around the world will miss Balint's insights and provocations. We are grateful to Barbara Vazsonyi, his widow, for her assistance in bringing this lecture to print.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is President of The Heritage Foundation.

Looking for Allies: Magnet and Wedge in Western Civilization

It seems that every other year or so, I wake up with a thought. The Heritage Foundation has been kind enough to give me an opportunity to come here and talk about one such thought.

The thought with which I happened to wake up this time concerned the bewilderment of Americans everywhere about the apparently strange behavior of our closest friends and allies. Americans, who really are generous to a fault, do not seem to be able to understand--even accept--that nations with which we had had not just friendly relations, but which by all reasonable considerations owe this country a great deal, behave as if there had been nothing in the past to engender some kind of togetherness with America.

It occurred to me that, although there are very strong reasons for this situation, most Americans would have no particular way of knowing about them. Perhaps it takes somebody like myself, who has traveled these two continents life-long and who has given this situation a lot of thought already, to try to suggest a few reasons not only why we do not seem to have allies just now, but why we never will have them, and why we should not expect to have them.

What Is the International Community?

I thought I would start with the whole world, because much is being said about the international community. We always worry about the judgment, the opinion of the international community. The question presents itself: All those people who brandish this term about with great gusto, what do they actually mean? What is the international community? It is a wonderful phrase, and we live at a time when people just throw about wonderful phrases, and rarely are they asked to explain: What does that mean?

The United Nations, as you know, has 191 members--unless you accept the other count, which is 192 members, because there is the Taiwan question. Although I do not want to talk about this in detail because you all know about Taiwan, for some reason, it is not counted. So let us stay with 191-and-a-half, and that is the international community.

What are these countries that make up the United Nations? It seems to me they fall into three categories. There are those who receive vast amounts of food and money from the United States. There are those who depend on the American military to rescue them when their neighbors invade and occupy them. And there are those whose existence looks back on the marathon distance of five to ten years and who have not quite figured yet what they are, who they are, and where they are on the map. Indeed, maps cannot be made quickly enough to accommodate all those countries that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Kofi Annan have declared a country.

So my question is, when we worry about the opinion of the international community, which of these countries is going to decide for the President of the United States what he should do? I think we can start narrowing the field when we are looking for allies or expecting people to stand by us. We are not expecting Chad, I think, to stand by us, or Belize.

Going continent-by-continent is a little bit difficult because of the fashionable dictates about what one is and is not supposed to say. But I have never been very fashionable, so please forgive me if I won't be now.

I think one can say that there really is not a leader in Africa, for instance, or for that matter in Asia, whose opinion could sway the President of the United States. I cannot think of one who would have the first idea of the responsibility that the United States carries in this world. I think we can say the same about South America.


So I think it is not very difficult to narrow the entire field to Europe. Even that is a little bit tenuous, because I do not think when we say Europe, anybody thinks of Macedonia or Belarus deciding what United States should do, and perhaps not even Greece or Portugal, and, when the chips are really down, not even Belgium or Italy. I really do not want to offend any of these wonderful countries, all of which have distinguished histories and have contributed a great deal.

Even when we say "Europe," that is a wild exaggeration. This point came home to me a couple of years ago, when I had the great honor of being a part of what the Hudson Institute calls the Thatcher Weekend. At this gathering, Lady Thatcher honors with her presence a group of people who talk about various things and spend two days in intimate discussion of those things.

This particular meeting had a lot to do with the American Century, so-called, and our relationship with Europe. It was interesting that every time one of the speakers mentioned Europe, it took about a minute and 23 seconds before that speaker really started talking about France and Germany. There were some cases where someone spoke explicitly about Germany and France. But when people said Europe, it never meant Europe. It meant France and Germany.

I think it is appropriate to have narrowed the field because, really, Europe's fate is contingent on the relationship between France and Germany and has been for some time. That is really where the ideas come from. And people look to these two great countries for political philosophy, unless they look to England or America.

It is a very interesting thing, something that a lot of people find quite difficult to digest: that it is really only these four countries that have ever concerned themselves, in an ongoing way, in an ongoing manner, with political philosophy. This is the point that really holds the key for us. So I would like to talk a little bit about how these ideas got started and why we have a situation that we had better accept--because it is reality.

Political Philosophy: English-American and French-German Differences

For the longest time, the cohesive force in various societies was religion. People believed in the same thing, and that held them together, whatever differences they might have had among themselves. Political philosophy, very slowly and fairly late in the day, began to offer an alternative as the cohesive force. But how did it happen?

It began in a little island off the European Coast called England, Britain, whatever name you prefer, but very interestingly, in the Magna Carta, which really is all about law. Aspects of political philosophy began to enter in, because when you hear declarations like "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice," the no one is very much a matter of political philosophy.1

To no one. Look around the world--today, for that matter, but certainly in 1215. Who would automatically grant the same rights, same privileges, same protection to everyone in the realm? There is no parallel for it anywhere else. Or where it said every person shall have the right to come and go and stay in the land? Every person?

This aspect of political philosophy really harks back to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In no other original tale, original legend of a nation, do you have a situation in which people sit at a round table so that there is no place of precedence. And that is where it started. It continued in the Magna Carta, and it ended up in the Declaration of Independence. Because without a shadow of a doubt, this idea that all men are created equal comes from King Arthur's Round Table, and nowhere else do you find such a beginning.

Not only are these particular statements unique, but the time was unique. Not only was this the first time that such thoughts ever entered anyone's mind, but the possessors of power were acknowledging the rights of their subordinates.

The next place where they began to think about political philosophy as a cohesive agent alongside or instead of religion was France. But there, it happened much later and as part of the Enlightenment--as part of that process in which human reason began to assume a far more important, a far more central, role than hitherto.

There was a different motivation for the French to start thinking about and creating political philosophy. It flowed from a vision of the supremacy of the human mind as preferable to religion, which is partly perhaps just superstition, they might have thought. In the English model, the motivation was simply an attempt to be fair--not because we are so clever, which is what the French thought and may, I suggest, still think, but because there was a desire to be fair.

This concern was not only different; it was characteristically English, because the very word exists in no other language. To this day you cannot translate this word into another language. When you speak German or Hungarian or whatever you want, you have to resort to using the English word fair. The other languages still do not have a word for it because they do not have the concept.

So there were completely different beginnings to political philosophy between England and France. Also, these traditions became very much a part of legal thought. And by the time the Magna Carta came around, there had already been a new idea by King Henry II, by the end of the 12th century, of constituting juries to deliver legal verdicts. The Magna Carta already acknowledges that no one may be imprisoned and nothing untoward may happen to anyone unless so judged by his peers in a trial.

That is where our legal systems, of course, parted company. The jury system has been one of the truly great contributions of the English-speaking world. This also has something to do with political philosophy: that, instead of rulers and the clever people or the powerful people judging guilt and innocence, this is done by a jury of your peers.

But I cannot emphasize enough the beginnings, the motivation, and the raison d'être (I'm using a French term) for political philosophy, which developed so differently in England and France.


I already mentioned that religion provided the cohesive force before the advent of political philosophy. As an aside, may I say at this point that we should be reasonable about not expecting all sorts of people on the face of the Earth to make common cause with us, since they still know religion as the only cohesive force.

Here is another aside, and it may not be fashionable. In my humble opinion, it is quite irrelevant whether Islam is a good, bad, or indifferent religion--because the fact that Islam embodies religion and law in a single book, not separated, makes Islam incompatible with our ways. And it does not matter what else we think about it. The same is true of all places in the world where religion also serves as the law. The reason lies in the beginnings of this English initiative and the fact that it happened before the Enlightenment.

Something else took place that is very, very interesting: It did not occur to the English that political philosophy should in some way interfere with religion. The time had not yet come for human reason to declare itself as supreme. So the English never picked a quarrel with religion and never intended for political philosophy to displace religion.

Of course, as you know, the most glorious flower of that fact is the way that America's Founders figured out this unique way of guaranteeing religious freedom to all. Unlike those among us who keep talking about the separation of church and state--which, as you probably know, is nowhere in the Constitution--America's Founders tried to protect the state from religion and religion from the state. That is why today in America, religion is fine and dandy and thriving and well, while in Europe it is practically non-existent.

Why? Because the French and later the Germans--who, toward the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th century, took the torch from the French in political philosophy--were not able to figure out a way for political philosophy and religion to co-exist. They could only see political philosophy as taking the place of religion, which is why, at its most extreme, at its worst, political philosophy became religion.

I do not have to tell you when and where that happened--obviously, in National Socialist Germany and in Bolshevik Soviet Union. And, indeed, Hitler and Lenin, and later Stalin, became religious God figures because, then as now, the Franco-Germanic approach to political philosophy is incapable of seeing a side-by-side, undisturbed existence between these two things.

On the other hand, the Anglo-American way--whether this was inspiration, cleverness, or I don't know what--from the beginning incorporated religious faith into the law by making the oath to be taken in the courtroom an integral part of the process.

What really drives our trials and our legal system is that the Ninth Commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," became the foundation of the processes in the courtroom. When we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God, we have in fact successfully incorporated religion into the law and into our political philosophy. This is something the French and the Germans were not capable of doing, but the Founders of America contemplated these matters and created something that would truly serve for the ages.

The French, when they arrived at the moment of their revolution in 1789, instituted all sorts of measures that we find incompatible. One was the slaughter of entire classes of people just for who and what they were, not for anything they had done. Another was that, even though they were such masters of words, they decided to conduct business from then on with slogans: liberté, egalité, fraternité are empty slogans to be shouted from the rooftops.

You might say that declaring those three words to be the ultimate good at that time has resulted, in our time, in identifying three words that signify the ultimate bad: racist, sexist, homophobe. But this whole approach of speaking and thinking in slogans was a development that the Anglo-American way of thinking would never accept.

So here is the situation: These two countries, France and Germany, have contributed so immensely to Western Civilization that we would be foolish indeed to forget for one moment the almost unthinkable storehouse, arsenal, treasury of literature, art, music, philosophy. There would be practically no music history without Germany. Although it would be a great tragedy not to have the Italian composers, not to have Chopin and Liszt, or Debussy--if you take the Germans out of music history, there is pretty much no music history. Their contribution to science is just about everything.


No one needs to persuade me, or any of us, of the great contribution these countries have made. But how and why these countries of immense talent and intellectual power have not been able to figure out a successful way of organizing society baffles me. And now, after all the tragedies and after everything had been said and done, they are now creating the European Union, which is really a 21st century (or 20th century) remake of feudalism.

They cannot accept power for the individual or even for the community. It has to be passed up a hierarchy, getting ever narrower until it gets to the top where all power resides, which is really how feudalism worked. It is unbelievable that the countries of Europe cannot figure out another way.

One can only say: Sorry, let's hope that perhaps the next few hundred years we will see you do better. But we have to understand that, for deep-seated philosophical and historic reasons, you really cannot come with us, because we don't understand each other. Because, in fact, however much we go to the same concerts and the same art galleries and read the same books, when it comes to these fundamental ways of law, government, and economics, we represent the greatest opposition in the world. Because we are the four countries that really think about these matters, and from the beginning, we have been on opposite sides.

That leaves us with the one ally that has been proved and tested for a long time, and that is, of course, Great Britain because the thinking not only is compatible, but it came from there. It functioned very well in World War II, and I think, whatever trials are ahead of us, it will continue to function even if England has its own problems and even if Tony Blair is not always what we imagine to be the leadership. But England is England, and England and America together represents perhaps more power than ever existed on the face of this Earth.

We should think about this for a moment. There has never been this much power concentrated, but never before was such immense power threatening to none--threatening to none but the rogue, the insidious, and indeed the truly evil.

Balint Vazsonyi, who died January 17, 2003, was a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Foundation and Founder and Director of the Center for the American Founding.


1. Magna Carta 1215, Avalon Project at Yale Law School, at http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/medieval/magframe.htm.


Balint Vazsonyi

Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy