Expe rts used to be the people that we turned to for a measured response to the sound and fury of newspapers. But on more and more issues—among them climate change and the financial crisis—the experts now seem more apocalyptic than the commentators. Certainly, anyone attending a conference of international relations academics in recent years hoping for a balanced view of George W Bush’s foreign policy is almost certain to have come away disappointed. Our own coverage of Bush’s presidency over the past eight years has mainly reflected that critical consensus. But as a parting gift to the 43rd president, we thought we would find someone to stick up for the Texan cowboy. And who better to do so than the geopolitical provocateur Edward Luttwak? As Luttwak points out, the view that Bush’s foreign policy has been a disaster is now taken so much for granted by well-informed people, on both left and right, that it is usually just stated rather than argued for. Luttwak’s case for the defence is based on hard-to-measure claims about the success of the mailed fist in combating global jihadism. But even if he is right, the conclusion one might draw is that America now needs a kinder, gentler foreign policy to consolidate the respect it has acquired by force. Just as Britain needed a Tony Blair to follow the rigours of Margaret Thatcher, so America seems to be deciding that the inclusive and poised character of Obama is preferable to McCain’s peppery one (see Anatol Lieven on McCain).
Talking about character leads me to one of the new sub-plots in current British politics. Until recently, the idea of good character was associated with Victorian paternalists. But now, according to Richard Reeves, it is the missing link in making liberal societies work. Our modern political ideologies were shaped in the 19th century when the importance of character formation was taken for granted—it seemed obvious to thinkers like JS Mill that freedom would send you off the rails unless you were properly raised to defer gratification and behave responsibly. But over the past 50 years, with the decline of religion and the rise of a less judgemental society, many of the agencies of good character development—above all the stable family unit—have been in retreat. This all has a conservative ring to it. But the twist in Reeves’s story is that it is the political left that has come to realise that life chances can be damaged as much by poverty of character as poverty of resources. Indeed, the former often causes the latter, especially in a labour market increasingly in search of the “soft skills” of good character. What the return of character means for policy is less clear, beyond parenting classes for a few. But it is obvious that good societies need good people, and removing the taboo on character talk is a start.