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The Unhappy Choice

No American election campaign has ever provided the occasion for a thorough and enlightening national debate on foreign policy. All too often, the candidates’ promises turned to dust as soon as the campaign was over—especially when it had been a promise to stay out of war. Since the beginning of the cold war, each presidential campaigner has tried to present himself both as a man of peace and as a firm champion of American strength and power. In this respect, 1980 offers nothing new.

For several months now, Jimmy Carter has attempted to invalidate charges of naïveté and “softness” by stressing new defense measures, a new strategic doctrine, new weapons, and a more active stand in the Persian Gulf; while Ronald Reagan has fought charges of irresponsible militancy with an emphasis on moderation and peace. Once again, nobody knows exactly what policy each of the two leading candidates would follow if he got elected. In Carter’s case, this is due both to the short-term, indeed the emergency, nature of many of the new moves following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and to the disarray of his foreign policy making team.

Much will depend on whether, in a second term, Carter would choose to preserve a system of institutionalized schizophrenia, with conflicting advice from, and a power struggle between, the national security adviser and the secretary of state, or whether he would—as his current, but apparently disgruntled, secretary of state suggests publicly—restore the primacy of the State Department. And in this case, it would make a great deal of difference if the successor of Mr. Muskie is someone with views close to those of Cyrus Vance, or if he is Zbigniew Brzezinski, at last able to carry to its culmination his long pursuit and imitation of his ex-Harvard rival Henry Kissinger.

One would think that the public had a right to know what view of the world it was endorsing in voting for Carter; and particularly, whether a vote for Carter means the final triumph of Brzezinski, a man of many talents but who happens to be caught periodically between the facile, kaleidoscopic rationalizations that spring from his fertile mind, and unchanging instincts and reflexes that are not all that different from what we find in Kissinger’s own reflections. Brzezinski, moreover, has none of the diplomatic skills that made of Kissinger a brilliant negotiator and a statesman widely respected even by those who, abroad, distrusted his methods or disliked his views. And the absence in Brzezinski’s modus operandi of what could be called a strategic level, halfway between sweeping, fleeting theories and shifty, quirky tactics, compounds the absence in Carter of a strategic conception between the preachy pieties and the “pragmatic,” disconnected decisions.

Nor does one know much about either the substance or the key officials of a Reagan foreign policy, notwithstanding the rumors that Haig or Shultz or even Kissinger will be named as secretary of state, perhaps before the election. The candidate’s own statements are too vague—deliberately—to provide much light: any light would offend some of the followers, either the true believers or the recent converts. What he says (usually on other issues) when he departs from the script is scarcely reassuring; but the main trouble is that nobody knows either how free he would feel, once elected, to depart from the script (as governor, he did not have to deal with foreign affairs) or who would write the script: the so-called “moderates,” men of experience who served under Nixon and Ford, and are known abroad, or the figures from the right who defeated détente, despised Kissinger, and often seem to want to demonstrate the continuing grip on American politics of what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style. Already, the rivalries among advisers, the clashes of cliques, the struggles for the candidate’s ear are intense. This allows many to hope that Reagan in office would be a new Reagan, or a second Eisenhower. But the new Nixon, for all the surprises of his diplomacy, had the same basic character flaws as the old Nixon. And Eisenhower, for all his non-chalance, had had a great deal of experience as a coalition leader, and instincts and inclinations that were not those shown by Reagan so far.

If 1980 is as disappointing as past campaigns, why should one be particularly worried? There are three reasons. The first is that this campaign—so far—has been not merely uninformative but particularly sterile in the discussion of foreign affairs. Past televised debates among the candidates may have been shoddy or even, at times, dishonest; issues certainly were not discussed in depth. But at least they were mentioned, and from time to time candidates tried to offer a new vision, beyond the twin appeals for peace and power. Maybe one should be grateful for the absence, this year, of the rhetoric that flowed on the Republican side in 1952—the fantasy of “rollback.” But the public is being offered no vision of anything, only charges of weakness and incompetence, counter-charges of extremism, and a list of military requirements. In 1968, at feast, Richard Nixon talked about a plan for peace in Vietnam—albeit a secret one.

Secondly, what makes this sterility so distressing is that it comes at a time of strategic bankruptcy—I am referring to political strategy. Within less than fifteen years, the United States has tried three foreign policies, and all three failed. The grand strategy of containment, brilliantly successful in Europe, worked far less well in the Middle East, and led to disaster in Southeast Asia. Dissatisfaction with it, in the late 1960s, was not limited to the left-wing critics of the Vietnam War, as the pamphleteers of Commentary seem to believe; it extended to such certified cold warriors as Nixon and Kissinger. The equally grand, but far more complex, strategy of Nixon and Kissinger led not to an era of peace or an era of negotiation, but to a renewed competition between Washington and Moscow, and to a whole series of challenges to American power in the third world. The view of the world on which this strategy was based had been both too bipolar and too optimistic; and the methods employed on its behalf had produced a reaction comparable to the revulsion that had forced Lyndon Johnson to retire to his ranch.

Carter offered instead, not a new strategy, but a series of policies derived from a view of the world that turned out to be, once more, too optimistic, but this time insufficiently realistic in its assessment of the Soviet problem. Kissinger had treated it as not merely central, but almost all-determining. Carter looked at it as manageable and secondary. The problems that were supposed to be primordial—the relations between “North” and “South,” and among the NATO allies, global issues such as nuclear proliferation, arms sales, human rights—had not been thought through: they turned out to lead to more conflict rather than cooperation, to be mutually contradictory, and their solution was impeded by the absence of a coherent policy toward the Soviet Union. Just as Kissinger’s policies in 1975 and 1976 were far different, and much more ad hoc, than in 1970 and 1974, Carter’s moves in 1980 bore little resemblance to the diplomacy of 1977.

After three fiascoes, one would have hoped that a new and more satisfactory strategy would be offered. But the debate on foreign policy, in the campaign as well as among the so-called enlightened public, suffers from exhaustion: one side recriminates and postures, the other side dodges and warns, both ask for blind faith. There seems to be, in the land, a kind of intellectual battle fatigue: panels, papers, programs offer either short-term tactics or a nostalgia for simplicity, either quick fixes or familiar schemes. We now have, it seems, an invisible plane. This campaign offers an invisible foreign policy, for which stealth would be the wrong code name.

And yet—this is the third and most serious cause of concern—rarely has it been so necessary to look at the world outside with keen eyes. Here are the issues which any administration will face.

  1. It will have to decide whether, as not only Reagan but also Kissinger now argue, practically all the problems we encounter are caused by the Soviet Union, and can be reduced to a colossal struggle between “moderates” and “radicals,” or whether many of the troubles are of a local nature, have deep historical roots, stem from ancient rivalries or internal ethnic, religious, tribal, and class conflicts, and are most susceptible to exploitation by Moscow whenever the United States and its allies have made serious mistakes. Kissinger, referring to the war between Iraq and Iran, once again analyzes it as a contest between superpowers: it pits Soviet against American weapons; and Moscow, by providing Iraq with weapons, is responsible for the “avalanche” provoked by such throwing of stones. This is the kind of logic that he practiced over Bangladesh. What its effects would be in Latin America or southern Africa should be clear. It may seem an appealing view, in so far as it offers a master key; it is an appalling view in so far as it opens few doors, and would ruin many of the locks into which one would try to force it. It plays to the combination of American moralism and American combativeness, in offering help to all our “friends,” who are mainly defined as the foes of our foes.

Yet it offends both morality and sound diplomacy, in leading us to support some hideous regimes (under the pretext that they are either less awful than our enemy, or theoretically improvable), and in throwing not only real radicals but often even non-radical nationalists or reformers into that enemy’s arms: Reagan seems to have already written off as “Marxist” the Nicaraguan coalition for which Carter’s administration obtained with some difficulty $75 million from Congress.

  1. The administration will have to decide whether America’s position in the world requires an obsessive concentration on the military balance, on the deployment of new forces, on the quest for bases, or, above all, a subtler kind of balance, between necessary military measures on the one hand and a variety of imaginative diplomatic and economic measures on the other. With respect to the region that is likely to remain the most dangerous—the Middle East—because of internal instability, of the contest between the superpowers, and of Western dependence on oil, there is a need for a serious discussion of the kinds of uses to which force can be put intelligently, of the contingencies in which the resort to force would be inappropriate or entirely counter-productive, and of the policy we ought to follow toward regimes to which we are closely tied, which risk going the way of the Shah, and-which we cannot hope to rescue by armed force in all circumstances.

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