Niall Ferguson, slow learner

Tina Brown’s redesigned Newsweek is a mixed bag, but more promising on the whole than the glum tract that had been appearing under that title. One of her  coups is the addition of historian Niall Ferguson as a columnist. Ferguson writes bestselling books and is a hot ticket on the speaker circuit, but I’m starting to worry he’s not quite cut out for shorter formats.

Ferguson’s latest is typically eye-catching, from its title — “How to Get Gaddafi” — to the author’s (already familiar) contempt for the “trendy and ignorant” Obama administration. “We must hope that someone gives President Obama a history lesson,” Ferguson writes mournfully, “before thousands of Libyans share [the] fate” of Iraq’s doomed Marsh Arabs.

And here comes Niall Ferguson now with a history lesson. As if on cue!

“Yet it would also be an erroneous conclusion that the only form of assistance America can give to good revolutions is military. A no-fly zone was not, after all, what helped the Central and Eastern European revolutionaries of 1989 topple their tyrants. The assistance we gave them was not military. It was moral.”

And what was the assistance? The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, “history’s biggest-ever poison pill.”

Now, if anyone’s going to get excited by a reference to the Helsinki Accords (a big ‘if’), it’s me. I wrote about their significance when another prominent historian, Tony Judt, died. The Ford administration got Leonid Brezhnev, and the heads of other Warsaw Pact countries, to sign a document pledging support for human rights, “including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.” Brezhnev didn’t think much of it, and neither did Gerald Ford or Henry Kissinger, for that matter. But the people of those countries took the words to heart. People like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik in Poland. (A lot of readers pooh-poohed my endorsement of Judt’s suggestion that signatures on a document could have any effect on the monolithic Soviet bloc. I’ve found this book a valuable resource in establishing that, in fact, the Helsinki Final Act was an early spur to democratization.)

Back to Ferguson. Why, he asks, doesn’t the trendy and ignorant President do a Helsinki today?

“Why have we failed to learn from that success? Why have we allowed a mockery to be made of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which numbered Libya among its members until just the other day and still includes Saudi Arabia, not to mention China and Cuba?

“Memo to the president: … It’s time for a new Helsinki, aimed at discrediting all of today’s unfree states, starting with the four I’ve just named.”

Take that, President Trendy Ignorant! All you have to do is get Libya, Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba to sign a document containing what Ferguson calls “startling words,” such as Helsinki’s mention of “fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” This will keep “thousands of Libyans” from dying. So I guess its effect will be damned near instantaneous.

I have only one problem with this. Well, no, that’s not true. I have three.

1. Recall that when Ford and Kissinger got Brezhnev to sign the Helsinki accords, Ford and Kissinger didn’t think their rights language was anything more important than boilerplate. Probably if they had conceived and advertised the Helsinki accords as a Trojan-horse poison pill “aimed at discrediting” the Soviets, the Soviets would have been reluctant to sign. Similarly, if President Trendy Ignorant invites Gaddafi, the House of Saud, the Castro brothers and the Hu Jintao to a signing ceremony, their spider sense might start tingling. Especially if he says, “Niall Ferguson told me to tell you this will be good for you.”

2. Anyway, these countries have already signed language that’s awfully similar to the Helsinki Final Act. UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251 set up the United Nations Human Rights Council. Among other things, it says this: “All human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and that all human rights must be treated in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis.”

So whatever made the Helsinki Accords so potent, there is no guarantee that simply mouthing the same incantations will always work the same charm.

3. Here’s a tip for any rookie newsmagazine columnists in the audience.

When proposing a method for eliminating Mouammar Gadhafi “before thousands of Libyans [die],” to a president whose “ignorance” and need for “a history lesson” drive you to open mockery, it’s probably best not to propose a solution that took 16 years to work in the first place. Because “what helped the Central and Eastern European revolutionaries of 1989 topple their tyrants,” by Ferguson’s own account, took “two years of haggling” before it was signed, 14 years before the Central and Eastern European revolutionaries of 1989 began their revolutions.

So it’s probably not going to help anyone in Benghazi this weekend. The good news for Niall Ferguson is he has a whole week to come up with his next bright idea.

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