Peace in the Balance
Power and Equilibrium in the 1970s
The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War
The United States and the Origins of the Cold War
The pursuit of the national interest is supposed to be the goal of foreign policy, but, like happiness, it is subject to a variety of definitions. For nearly a quarter of a century Americans have tended to agree about the ambitions and methods of our foreign policy. This has extended at least from the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which codified the breakdown of the wartime alliance with Russia, until Lyndon Johnson was driven from office for waging a war that could no longer be justified under the outworn tenets of the containment doctrine.
For the moment we are in the watershed between the two eras. The cold war—that period when the fate of the world was defined by our contest with Soviet Russia and the amorphous entity we labeled “international communism”—is over. But it is not yet clear what is going to replace it. Nixon and Kissinger extol a balance of power theory which, on closer inspection, looks suspiciously like a formula to maintain American hegemony by shifting some of the cost to prosperous allies and to client regimes rich in cannon-fodder. It remains to be seen whether this can be any more than a holding operation until the whole postwar structure collapses.
At a time of such upheaval it is not surprising to find a certain nostalgia for the good old days of the cold war when a client was a friend and an adversary an enemy, the kind of nostalgia that marks Charles Bohlen’s memoirs, which I have discussed earlier [NYR, May 31], and Eugene Rostow’s Peace in the Balance. A curious combination of lament for Lyndon Johnson, resurrection of cold war litanies, diatribe against “New Left” revisionism, and appeal for an international “rule of law” adjudicated in Washington, Rostow’s book is the eloquent statement of an unreconstructed cold warrior.
Rostow assures us that although the United States has made some mistakes over the past thirty years, “it has been on the right track” and “has had no real alternative to the general course it has pursued.” Rostow was in the State Department during the Johnson administration and is now teaching law at Yale. He is one of those members of the bureaucratic-academic complex who seems equally at home in the faculty club and in the Pentagon. His government and legal experience have taught him that, in spite of some impressions to the contrary, the United States has used force against other nations only “to achieve and preserve a balance of power in the world, and the reciprocal acceptance of rules of restraint in the conduct of international affairs.”
In this celebration of cold war diplomacy, Rostow also enthusiastically resurrects some of the cold war bogeys that might have slipped our minds. We are reminded of the late Lin Piao’s vision of peasant armies surrounding the “cities” of the Western world, that Khrushchev favored wars of national liberation, and that communists can be expected to “draw on the full armory of modern guerrilla warfare, using both violence and political and psychological weapons in various combinations.” Stooping to any tactics, communists “sponsor proxy wars and guerrilla wars, kidnappings, assassinations, bombings and bank robberies.” Bank robberies! What is the world coming to? (In fact he has compiled a list of the “adventurist” and “infantile leftist” tactics that the Communist party has been opposing in Latin America.) What is worse, “organized demonstrators are thrown into the streets on any plausible excuse in order to demoralize a weak government and to precipitate police violence that could rally support.” One wonders whether Rostow has in mind the CIA-engineered coup that toppled Mossadegh in Iran.
The Fifties are apparently having a revival in more ways than one. With Rostow we are transported back to the giddiest days of the Dulles era. While Soviet expansionism has paused before an American “threat of reprisal with overwhelming force” (remember “massive retaliation”?), nonetheless “Soviet energy presses outward, patient and ingenious, flowing around obstacles, taking advantage of every opening.” Already “Europe has been outflanked in the Mediterranean, and perhaps in the northern seas as well.” The goal is nothing less than “West European neutrality and disarmament and American withdrawal both from the Continent and from the Mediterranean.” Why the Europeans, who are more populous and richer than the Russians, and have no illusions about them, will want to disarm, even in the unlikely event of an American withdrawal, Rostow does not tell us.
A useful antidote to Rostow’s agitated call to arms is Alistair Buchan’s sensible little book, Power and Equilibrium in the 1970s. Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in London for more than a decade, Buchan can hardly be accused of indulging in wishful thinking about Soviet power. Yet he calmly points out,
To take fright at the prospect of half a dozen Soviet ships in the Indian Ocean, of a squadron in the eastern Mediterranean (smaller and less well-equipped than the Italian navy), or the occasional cruiser off the coast of South America is, first, to be guilty of a form of hubris which will bedevil our thinking about the new pattern of international equilibrium, namely, that the high seas are an exclusive Western possession; secondly, to act as an unpaid public relations officer for Fleet Admiral Gorshkov.
Whereas Rostow tells us of our duty to protect the Third World from the machinations of Russia, China, and Cuba, acting “separately or in various combinations,” Buchan reminds us that both the communists and the Western powers have lost their zest for intervening in the developing world, except where their own primary interests are directly affected. “The major powers,” Buchan observes, “today are more concerned…with milieu, not possession, goals—to create a climate that is favorable to extension of their influence rather than to annex territory.”
In contrast to Nixon’s warning in early 1972 that “if the Soviet Union continues to expand strategic forces, compensatory US programs will be mandatory,” the former director of the West’s leading research institute for strategic studies declares that “given the vast second-strike capability which the United States in fact maintains, I find it hard to see how any level of Soviet strategic power, except of a size that would bankrupt the country, can seriously threaten American security.” Indeed, as he observes, this was confirmed by Nixon himself when he signed the SALT treaty a year ago.
In Buchan’s view the bipolar world of the American-Russian confrontation is over and we are moving toward a new kind of balance of power, one that “resembles not a pair of scales, but a mobile” with varying components of different weights, “the whole system being in a constant state of gentle movement and vibration.” Power can no longer be defined as simply military force, but as the exercise of political influence. In such a world it is impossible to view events in every part of the globe as equally important. Peace is in fact divisible and technology has not annihilated distance. He argues that the key to maintaining a stable power balance in Europe and East Asia, where the two superpowers are actively engaged, is what Marshall Shulman has described as “access,” or the right of interpenetration, the resistance of claims to exclusive spheres of influence.
Buchan understands the difference between power and force, showing that it was a misunderstanding of the global balance of power that led to Vietnam. As a result, he told his audience at the Council on Foreign Relations where he gave the lectures that comprise this book, “the United States has come, for the time being, to be regarded in Europe, in Pacific Asia, in the developing world, less as the mainspring of civilization and more as the generator of crude power.”
While hardly a revisionist, Buchan destroys many of the cold war assumptions on which Rostow’s book depends. Central to Rostow’s thesis is the view that nothing very much has changed since 1947: “Soviet energy” is still relentlessly pressing outward and American interventionism is designed only to uphold freedom and the rule of law. Naturally this leads him into sharp disagreement with liberal critics such as J. W. Fulbright, but his most strident comments are directed against the cold war revisionists. In one of the many sweeping generalities in which Rostow’s book abounds, he declares that “most of the members of this group would consider themselves relatively orthodox Marxists in their intellectual formation”—a conclusion that would come as a surprise to many revisionists. He concedes that historians of the radical left “hardly march in goose step,” but he seems to have considerable difficulty in telling them apart. By choosing Carl Oglesby as the quintessential revisionist and attacking Containment and Change as though it were some kind of revisionist I Ching, he avoids dealing with the complex and disparate arguments of such revisionist historians as Kolko, Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, and William A. Williams.
Rostow’s attack upon the revisionists rests upon a dubious interpretation of the historical record. For example, in denigrating the revisionist accusation that the United States must at least share responsibility for the cold war, he declares that the Russians had innumerable opportunities to show their good faith by accepting such generous American offers as the Baruch plan or the Marshall Plan, both of which were “dramatic episodes in a long list of American proposals for general detente.” Other such dramatic episodes, according to Rostow, include plans for troop reductions in Europe and creation of denuclearized zones.
Surely Rostow must think his readers are babes in the woods. The Baruch plan would have perpetuated the American monopoly on nuclear weapons production, and the Marshall Plan, as Charles Bohlen has shown, was designed so as to make Soviet participation impossible. As for troop reductions and denuclearized zones, it was the United States that consistently rejected such proposals—as Kennan relates so mournfully in the second volume of his memoirs—preferring a Europe divided into hostile blocs rather than a settlement involving withdrawal and neutralization. In the early 1950s, when the Russians seemed seriously interested in the neutralization and reunification of Germany, it was John Foster Dulles and Rostow’s hero, Dean Acheson, who stood opposed.
Rostow’s respect for the historical record is highly flexible. In discussing the accords ending the Indochina war in 1954, he makes the statement, remarkable for a professor of law, that the development of “separate and independent regimes” in North and South Vietnam was “exactly what the Geneva conference contemplated.” In fact, it was the precise opposite, since the final declaration of the conference plainly stated that the “military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.”
In his argument that SEATO obliged us to defend the various regimes in Saigon, Rostow neglects to point out that such justification was not even mentioned until North Vietnamese units began to appear on the scene to counter the American forces fighting the Viet Cong. Even then, as Ernest Gross, former legal adviser to the State Department, reminded Rostow in a letter to The New York Times (November 24, 1972), the terms and legislative history of SEATO make clear that the treaty “did not contemplate armed intervention without prior Congressional sanction, which had been neither sought nor granted.”