The Arrogance of Power
It is hardly a sensational discovery that the foreign policy of the United States is in urgent need of radical rethinking. We have been living off the capital of the great innovations—containment, the Marshall Plan, and the Truman Doctrine—which, in the Spring of 1947, transformed American policy. These policies were appropriate to the challenges they were intended to meet, and they succeeded. Yet the political world has changed almost beyond recognition during the last two decades. To think and act in 1967 as though we were still living in 1947 is at best useless, and at worst fraught with great risks. Our modes of thought and action must be brought into harmony with the new objective conditions of the world: we must come to terms with our allies, with the Communist world, with the uncommitted third of the world. with nuclear power, and, finally and most importantly, with ourselves.
Our policy makers are rationally aware of these new conditions, but are unable to act according to that awareness. Two years ago, a high official of our government told me that whenever he mentioned to General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the new polycentric character of the Communist world, Wheeler would agree; but there was no trace of that recognition to be found in his policy recommendations. How can that gap between awareness and action be explained? The answer, I think, must be found in the success of the policies that were initiated in 1947. This success was limited to Europe, to which alone those policies were originally applied. Our national propensity for legalistic and moralistic abstractions turned policies, which happened to be appropriate to, and successful in, a particular political situation, into dogmas of universal validity. Reality is perceived through the distorting perspective of these dogmas, and in consequence action conforms to dogma rather than to reality. The rational awareness of empirical, fragmentary reality has thus far been unable to prevail over the coherent view of the world, however distorted, which the dogmas present. Whenever dogma has clashed with experience, dogma has tended to win out: When there has been an opportunity to apply military force against recalcitrant reality, as in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, we have done so in the name of dogma. When there has been no such opportunity, as in our relations with our European allies, we have resorted to evasive and patently unworkable devices, a kind of technological dogmatism, such as the multilateral sea borne nuclear force (MLF). Or we have yielded to the pressure of intractable circumstances, and tried pragmatically to adapt our obsolescent routines to them.
There is great wisdom in the statement of Winston Churchill:
Those who are possessed of a definite body of doctrine and of deeply rooted convictions upon it will be in a much better position to deal with the shifts and surprises of daily affairs than those who are merely taking a short view, and indulging their natural impulses as they are evoked …