Washington, DC
John Gross, the great literary critic and high gossip, who died just a year ago, once lamented to me that no one had written the great novel about wartime London. Yet from the fall of France until D-Day, London was the world capital of liberty. Governments-in-exile set up shop across Kensington. Broadcasts were beamed to their occupied countries from a stiff-upper-lipped BBC. Someone walking down a Mayfair street would pass the military uniforms of half of Europe. And a diner at the Savoy might find himself defying an air raid because at the next table Pamela Churchill and Ed Murrow were staying put to hear Judy Campbell sing an impromptu ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ with Noël Coward at the piano. Well, anyway, that’s how it seems from diaries of the period. London remains a great world city. But even post-Libya London is no longer the sanctuary for the leaders of nations rightly struggling to be free.

•••

Does it have a successor as the world capital of liberty? Not Beijing, it seems fair to say. Not the paralysed foreign policy bureaucracy of Brussels either. Washington is the one city where almost every week some opponent of
a despotic regime arrives on Capitol Hill or at Foggy Bottom to ask the US to protect human rights NGOs, ensure honest elections, or release political prisoners at home. Last week it was the turn of Stanislaw Shushkevich, former president of Belarus and now its leading opposition figure. Shushkevich may not be a household name, but he is
a world-historical figure. As Belarus’s first president, he joined Boris Yeltsin and Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk in signing the decree that dissolved the USSR. He fell from power when false charges of corruption were levelled against him by the current president, Alexander Lukashenka, a.k.a. ‘the last dictator in Europe’. The struggle continues. Lukashenka denied him an exit visa to keep him out of Washington; Shushkevich left through Lithuania; Lukashenka issued crude threats against him on Russian television; Shushkevich, partly as a result, found the doors of Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom opening easily to him.

•••

He is a critic of America’s ‘reset’ policy towards Russia, and said so at the conservative Heritage Foundation. That deterred neither congressional Democrats nor the State Department from meeting him. In tandem with Republicans and East European ethnic lobbies (still flourishing from ‘Captive Nations’ days), they lip-synched along with his requests: funding to beam radio and television programs into Belarus; pressure on the EU to expand the sanctions process; visas and scholarships to admit young Belarusians into Western universities. After which he received the Truman-Reagan Medal at Heritage, gave an interview to Radio Free Europe, laid a wreath on the Victims of Communism Memorial, and left for perhaps a different kind of warm welcome back home.

•••

Incidentally, how many other capital cities besides Washington have a monument to the victims of communism? Canada is gradually getting around to building one, but the project met a snag three years ago when the official committee on national monuments insisted that the wording should be to the ‘Victims of Totalitarian Communism’. (There is no other kind.) Otherwise, a spokesman explained, it might offend those Canadians who were, ahem, communists. No word so far from the victims.

•••

Not long after the end of Apartheid in South Africa, a highly original argument appeared in the journal The National Interest (edited then by Owen Harries of this parish), that offered one explanation for Washington’s singular role in influencing other people’s politics more or less successfully. It was written by John Chettle, Washington director of the South Africa Foundation for 20 years, who as such had a front-row seat for the end of apartheid and hardly a worse one for the collapse of the USSR. The subtitle of his essay — ‘how the chaos, unpredictability, contradictions, complexity and example of our system undid communism and apartheid’ — gives some of the game away. He maintains that the divided character of the US government, far from ensuring dysfunctionality as foreign governments argue, instead enabled Washington to deal effectively with the complex unknowns inherent in the politics of faraway nations.

•••

To oversimplify a brilliant argument, almost every foreign faction believes it has a friend in Washington. Each player in the bureaucratic game of nations will make concessions to stay in it. To appease a powerful player in Congress, State will try to see his client at least partly satisfied. And so everyone walks crabwise into a series of compromises at the Washington craps table — and empires go into peaceful liquidation. Ominously for Lukashenka, he has no friend in Washington. No problem. As Harry Truman said: if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.   

•••

Though the US is alleged to be ‘sliding down the razor blade of life’, as Tom Lehrer too graphically puts it, Washington doesn’t seem to be losing its allure as a destination for visiting Western statesmen. The British Tories, for instance, have been distancing themselves from any Blairite nostalgia for the special relationship almost since David Cameron became party leader. Yet when he arrived here for a recent official visit, his entourage included the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chancellor’s principal economic advisor — less than a week before an annual budget that by common consent proved to be disastrously misjudged. Paris may be worth a Mass, but is a White House dinner worth the loss of Downing Street — even if only Number Eleven?

•••

Cameron himself is widely thought to have Gone Too Far in sucking up to President Obama, almost playing a gentlemanly extra for one of his forthcoming election videos. He is now in dire straits back home too. So his value as a political friend is reduced for Obama, and Republicans have understandably never enjoyed his expressions of distaste for them.

•••

Canada’s Stephen Harper was here in the Rose Garden this week too. He’s the Cool Hand Luke of North American politics, respected by all sides for his tough defence of Canadian interests, popular with the Right for candidly disagreeing with Obama over the oil pipeline, but too calm and cerebral, too Canadian, to strike a chord with most Americans.

•••

All of which explains the growing interest in Tony Abbott — and in Australian politics. Political anoraks dining with the Liberal party’s Brian Loughnane at a Washington restaurant all knew the results of the Queensland election a day later. But they whistled when he read out the latest national two-party preferred figures from his cellphone. Basically, all Aussies are popular with all sides in the US. But Abbott looks more and more like the next PM, which in a city like Washington makes him still more popular. And Republicans are starting to think of him as they earlier thought of Thatcher: a more competent and exciting version of themselves. He’ll have a large and attentive audience on his next visit.

•••

After the fall of Saigon and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, refugees poured into Washington and nearby Alexandria and started up various businesses. Historian Richard Brookhiser coined an epigram to describe the West’s shoulder-shrugging acceptance of its own defeats: ‘Lose a country, gain a restaurant.’ But would this apply to the cuisine of Belarus? Somehow I doubted it. And when I joined Dr Shushkevich for dinner, it was at a Moroccan restaurant. He’s obviously not giving up.

John O’Sullivan, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and editor of National Review in New York and the National Interest in Washington, DC, is author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.