In the closing days of 1993 two familiar specters, recently absent from our nightmares, returned to haunt the global consciousness: the Russian bear, in the person of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the Yellow Peril, in the form of North Korea. There were, of course, other bugbears to frighten the children of democracy—the parade of new Hitlers led by Miloshevitch and Aidid, but neither the Serb nor the Somali possess the great talisman of fear, nuclear weapons.

Why is the bomb so important? After all, even our conventional weapons could pave over North Korea in a matter of days, and until the Russians can manage to subdue Ukraine and Kazakhstan, they are hardly in a position to menace Poland, much less Western Europe. But the bomb is a symbol both of American supremacy—we are, so far, the only nation barbaric enough to use it—and of the Cold War, whose principal strategy consisted of a vast computer game that measured victory in terms of potential megadeaths.

Yes, the world is a dangerous place. It always has been. Only in America could an idiot become rich and famous by predicting the end of history. The same people who promoted Francis Fukuyama are the type to laugh at our ancestors for table-rapping and witch-hunting, but no superstition of the past can possibly rival the absurdities promulgated every day by university professors prophesying doom and bliss in virtually the same breath.

There is more than one way to confront a dangerous world. The governing classes of the United States, knowing that much of their power derives from the terror they have systematically inspired for 50 years, would like us to go on wringing our hands and rattling our sabres till the end of time. But after so many years the sabres sound more like rattles designed to pacify a baby—in this case, the American people.

Pacifists have their own perilous answers to the problems of violence—unilateral disarmament, and turning the other cheek until the victim’s head spins and there is no more cheek to punish. The older American attitude, which might be described as an armed and dangerous neutrality, was summed up in Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim, “walk softly and carry a big stick.” Our first flag, the coiled rattlesnake, bore the legend; “Don’t Tread On Me,” and we have adopted it here as our personal motto, both in foreign and domestic affairs. Leave others alone; respect their property; treat them fairly; and punish them swiftly and severely, whenever they break faith or violate your rights. Such a “Tit-for-Tat” strategy is the long-term winner in the computer games analyzed by George Axelrod, and it is the most secure basis for all human relations.

It was also the American foreign policy, in a nutshell, down to World War I. (In the Spanish-American War we managed to deceive ourselves into thinking we were the injured party.) But the “war to end all wars” was, in Woodrow Wilson’s opinion, a crusade to change the world, and in sending an army onto European soil, the President was repealing the policy of isolation that had been declared by George Washington. Ironically (in the modern sense of “inevitably”), we went to war not for the sake of France but for the very empire from which we had to liberate ourselves in two wars.

“Lafayette, we are here.” This famous declaration was made on July 4,1917, in the Parisian cemetery where the Marquis de Lafayette lay buried. On behalf of the entire American Expeditionary Force, Charles E. Stanton proclaimed that “here and now in the presence of the illustrious dead we pledge our hearts and honor in carrying this war to a successful issue.” An army of conscripts was an odd tribute to a man who had gone to America as a volunteer, but the Wilson administration knew that world power could never rest upon a basis of citizen-volunteers. Empires require conscripts and mercenaries, and even though there were plenty of red-blooded Americans itching to take a crack at the Kaiser, the army preferred compulsion to patriotism.

From another perspective, though, the July 4th tribute was symbolically appropriate. The nephew of Lincoln’s dictatorial Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton was an ideal choice for announcing imperial America’s arrival on the European continent. His chief, General Pershing, had first acquired fame in the campaign against Geronimo, and he was later to command American forces against the Philippino insurgents who preferred not to take lessons in democracy from an occupying army.

From the very beginning. General Pershing had insisted upon an independent American command. The French openly condescended to the Americans, whose troops were ill-trained and whose officers were not up to the logistical and strategic demands of modern warfare. Acknowledging the obstacles that lay before him, Pershing nonetheless resisted every move to amalgamate American forces into a joint command under French authority. Indeed, the fear of foreign entanglements was still so much a part of the American character that President Wilson never formally joined the alliance—we were associates rather than allies.

Most Americans must have assumed that victory would mean withdrawal from Europe. The President had other ideas, and among his Fourteen Points was a proposal for collective security in Europe. The Republicans shrank back in horror from the League of Nations and were able to recapture the White House by promising an end to the experiment in command economy and a return to normalcy.

Twenty years later a new German menace brought American troops back to Europe, this time under a “Supreme Allied Commander,” Dwight Eisenhower. There are those who said—and some who still say—that we could have sat out World War II: that it was a result of the vindictive peace terms imposed at Versailles; that nothing good could come of an alliance that included the master-butcher of the century; that the war that began as a crusade to liberate Poland ended by turning her over to the tender mercies of Joseph Stalin; that war was a godsend to the planners, socialists, and traitors who staffed the New Deal. Once the shooting started, the arguments lost their point, and by the time the shooting stopped, most of the great isolationists were either dead or in retirement.

For a brief period—roughly the five years between 1945 and 1950—there was a political debate on America’s future role in Europe. The contest could be seen as a struggle between two major parties: on the one hand, the dupes and traitors, such as Henry Wallace, Harry Dexter White (the author of the World Bank), and Alger Hiss; on the other hand stood the infant cold warriors, Harry Truman, Arthur Vandenberg, and Dean Acheson.

If Truman and Acheson were willing to be warriors, it was only cold warriors, and the administration refused to back up the military men who were willing to fight for victory. There are people who want to believe that when Truman sacked MacArthur, it was a victory for the Constitution. Where in the Constitution does it say that a President may commit American troops to an undeclared war, under the auspices of an international agency, without having victory as an object? If MacArthur slipped in disobeying his Commander-in-Chief, he could be defended on the logic of the Nuremberg Trials. Korea was an unconstitutional and immoral war in which American soldiers were slaughtered for some vague idea of containment, and the fault does not lie at the door of Douglas MacArthur but with the U.S. House that did not impeach Harry Truman.

Meanwhile in Europe, General Lucius Clay was insisting that a determined military resistance to the Berlin blockade would bring the Russians swiftly to their knees. But Truman had no taste for a real war, and his successors have, ever since, preferred to fight with surrogates, to bomb Third World countries, and to fund insurrections that have cost untold lives in Africa and Central America. By now, the very term “freedom fighter” ought to sicken an honest American, no matter what his politics.

If the hot warriors in uniform were a different breed from the cold warriors in striped pants, there is another party at the other end of the spectrum, men who knew the Soviets for what they were but who refused to enlist in a global crusade, whether hot or cold. The prototype for the pragmatists may have been Truman’s Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes. Often regarded as an appeaser, Byrnes was a South Carolina conservative who loathed everything he knew about communism. He had been a major figure in the Democratic Party, and many had assumed that he would replace Henry Wallace as FDR’s Vice President. As it turned out, “Mr. Jimmie” was too conservative for the leftists who ran FDR and chose, instead, a harmless machine politician from Missouri. Unlike Truman, Byrnes had a mind of his own, and even when conducting the most important business with the Russians, he kept his President in the dark.

Considering the President, how could he not? He had known Truman since the little haberdasher entered the Senate, and to know Harry was to despise or, if you were his friend, patronize him. Intelligent foreigners could not get over the fact that such a little man could be the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Evelyn Waugh, who did not know him, found Truman “a wholly comic man,” and Malcolm Muggeridge, who did, describes his reelection as a “really comical turn of events. Thought of the little man, as I remembered him, so utterly asinine . . . and how inconceivably funny it was that he should have been voluntarily chosen, against enormous odds. . . . “

Jimmie Byrnes knew how to be tough on the U.S.S.R. without entering upon a war, either hot or cold. In his dealings with the Russians, he made Yalta a dead letter, and already in 1946 he was saying that the Germans ought to be put in charge of their own affairs. Because he was willing to deal with the Russians without tipping his hand to either the President or his subordinates, Byrnes was often thought to be either an appeaser or a prima donna. George Kennan, who was irritated with the secretary’s aloofness in Moscow, began to think deeply about the proper American response to the Soviets. Both in his famous telegram and in his more famous “Mr. X” article. Kennan outlined a strategy for containing Soviet aggression, a combination of hard realism in dealing with the Soviets and a rebirth of American idealism.

Unfortunately, the effect of Kennan’s warnings was greater than he anticipated. Kennan’s hope was that the United States, in opposing communist aggression, would help to put the European countries back on their feet, with the ultimate goal of making them independent of American military aid. What actually happened was the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Kennan was present at the working group sessions where NATO was born, but one member of the British team, Sir Nicholas Henderson (in his memoir The Birth of NATO), recalled Kennan’s participation as largely negative and critical. In their zeal for world order, the American leadership pushed aside Kennan’s vision of a vigorous and independent Europe as antiquated. NATO’s court historian (Don Cook), conceding that “Kennan had one of the best and most stimulating minds ever enlisted by the U.S. Foreign Service,” goes on to criticize his “nineteenth-century concept of the future of Europe—a view, incidentally, that was shared by General Charles de Gaulle. It was to be a Europe standing on its own feet, sorting out its own affairs, its Iron Curtain divide gradually giving way to a Pan-European understanding, with America intervening only from a distance to maintain peace and the balance of power, the kind of role that England had played for two centuries.”

But other heads prevailed—the same heads that were declaring the Constitution an outmoded document—and NATO would become a collective security organization presided over by one dominant power with a virtual veto power. The Spartans had called their own hegemony “Sparta and its Allies,” and it was in that sense that Britain and France entered into alliance with the United States. Kennan resigned from the Foreign Service, and the voice of pragmatism was stilled by impotence as surely as the voices of isolation had been silenced by persecution.

The test came early, in the Suez Crisis of 1956. When the French and the British attempted to respond in force to the closure of the canal, they were sternly rebuked by the United States. The British were willing to accept their new role as very junior partners in an Anglo-American enterprise, but the French—being, after all, French—sulked and eventually withdrew from NATO. To this day, the French preserve more of their national dignity than Britain—look how M. Balladur beat us down in the GATT talks—and for all their problems, they continue to display a more robust sense of national identity than most European nations.

Britain, on the other hand, was one of the great casualties of the Cold War. Churchill’s dream, long before the speech in Fulton, where he declared the Cold War, had been of a union of English-speaking nations. Practically, this would have meant putting American men and resources at the disposal of the Commonwealth. Americans might not enjoy the implications, but such a union could have had a civilizing influence on the United States as much as it would have reinvigorated the languishing virility of the English. What happened, instead, was that the United Kingdom was reduced to dependency on her former colonies, and while Mrs. Thatcher might, from time to time, find the means to overawe her less forceful American counterparts, the overall effect has been to turn Britain into a sulky and resentful colony of the United States.

Common sense tells us that enough is enough. We do not need another set of Fourteen Points or another Atlantic Charter or, God help us all, a New World Order. What we do need, however, is a clear sense of purpose and priorities. The first priority, dwarfing all others, should be to defend the security and interest of the American nation, and the second—if I am not being blasphemous—is like unto it, that we should allow—or even compel—the nations of Europe to look after their own interests without consulting us.

I am not sure that Britain is ready for such freedom. Last fall, British public opinion was thrown into a panic by reports that America was, in effect, getting a divorce from the Anglo-American marriage. In an interview with the Washington Post, President Clinton tried to pin the blame for the Bosnian mess on England and France for refusing to go along with his plan to lift the embargo against Bosnian Muslims. Warren Christopher went further, and like an earlier Christopher (namely, Columbus), the secretary discovered that Europe is no longer the center of the world. The special relationship, declared Secretary Christopher, was over.

The English political class reacted like a jilted lover to the latest shift in Clinton’s lurching and reeling foreign policy. The pathos requires a Browning at least: “All’s over then. Does truth sound bitter as one at first believes?” Over here in prosaic America, no one noticed. The Post‘s stories were not picked up by other major newspapers, and among the many blunders with which President Clinton was taxed, his petulant outburst against the European allies has gone unnoticed.

There was another reason for American indifference to the President’s remarks. We were too busy celebrating the release of a helicopter pilot captured in Somalia. Inevitably described as a “hostage” rather than a prisoner of war, Michael Durant was the object of parades, prayer vigils, and presidential speeches throughout his captivity. In fact, every American casualty in Somalia was front-page news and an occasion for much soulsearching. Is this the stuff of empire?

I wish I could say that the new isolationism in the United States is only the reemergence of an old American tradition that stretches back to George Washington. It is that, of course, but it is also the manifestation of weakness. It is one thing to carpet-bomb an Iraqi village or machine-gun a crowd of civilians in Mogadishu, but quite another when American troops are actually fired upon. Don’t count on us.

Then again, why should they? Singly, the major nations of Europe are important world powers. In alliance, they might constitute the major power, politically as well as economically. As usual, Secretary Christopher is wrong. Europe is, now more than ever, the dominant area of the world.

The nations of Europe have sat in America’s shade for too long. Ever since Anthony Eden’s humiliating failure in the Suez crisis, Britain has been the lapdog of the U.S. State Department, but when I raise the subject with English journalists, they ask, beseechingly, “Who will save us from the Germans?” If their fate is really in our hands, my advice is to start learning the words to “Deutschland Uber Alles.”

It is time for Uncle Sam’s nephews to grow up and take responsibility for their own affairs. We shall be lucky to save our own country from the ethnic and social conflicts that are turning major cities into miniature Bosnias. We cannot save the world. American isolation may be inevitable, now that the Soviet threat no longer justifies our world empire. But the liberation of America’s colonies should be the occasion not of estrangement but of a new special relationship based on mutual respect and common ground rather than the servility and dependency that marked Britain’s side of the Cold War alliance. The United States only makes sense as a cultural province of Europe, and we are indebted to Britain for our laws and Constitution, our literature and our language. American history has no meaning except as a continuation of England’s story.

The real threat to the special relationship does not come from American isolationists but from internationalists who, like Mr. Christopher, would like to jettison our “Eurocentric” prejudices and make Washington the seat of world government. When the internationalists—Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson—drag the United States into war, it is always the isolationists who are willing to honor commitments and fight the battles. In 1917, William Jennings Bryan, who had resigned from the Cabinet to protest the President’s support for England, offered his services as soon as the United States entered the war. At the same time, our greatest isolationist poet, Robinson Jeffers, volunteered for the balloon corps. Jeffers and Bryan hated war, but they loved Britain as their ancestral and spiritual home.

The growing indifference to Britain, here in the United States, is due less to isolationism than to the low level of our education. English history is almost never taught below the university level, and even in universities it is rarely studied. English literature fares hardly any better. In many colleges there are more courses in Irish than in English literature, and an American lawyer is fortunate if he can boast of reading one play of Shakespeare and one Dickens novel. As for European languages, hardly anyone here can read, much less speak, a second language. In the current state of American education, it is small wonder if our universities are flooded with Chinese scientists, our magazines run by expatriate Englishmen. For most Americans, including well-to-do Americans with advanced degrees, Europe exists only as a sprawling Disney World of ancient cathedrals and modern hotels connected by an umbilical cord of tour buses.

Two years ago I took my daughter to London. At the Tower, one of the warders asked if there were any Americans present. Looking out at the show of hands, he bellowed out, “Welcome home.” My first reaction, as I looked at the Central and Southern Europeans with their hands up, was skeptical. How could they possibly regard England as home? On second thought, the warder was right, and wherever the ancestors of our mongrel race came from, we must be artificial Englishmen if we wish to go on being American, and if we wish ever to be free ourselves, we must begin by liberating our colonies.