American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War has gone through two full cycles—that of the cold war and that of détente—and three strategies, those of containment, Kissinger, and Carter. Today we are apparently back at square one. But the similarities between our immediate postwar predicament and our present situation are misleading. America’s condition at home and abroad is troubled. We face a difficult choice in trying to devise a new foreign policy. We can either rely on the magic of old formulas and act as if a return to the policies that worked in the days of American supremacy would ensure success, or attempt to tailor our diplomacy to the requirements and dangers of the very different world of the 1980s. The mood of the country seems to favor the first alternative. This makes it only more necessary to explain why the second one should prevail, and what its main features ought to be.
During the cold war, our priority was the containment of Soviet power, and of the power of those communist forces we deemed dependent on or allied with Moscow. It was pursued with a unique blend of Realpolitik and crusading idealism, and rested on a strong national consensus. Its biggest mistake, which led to its demise, the war in Vietnam, was a result both of misapplied idealism—protecting a small country from aggression—and of what Raymond Aron (writing about FDR’s wartime policy toward Stalin) once termed wrong realism; it was also the product of the stolid consensus.
After the election of 1968 began the second cycle, that of détente. It differed from the first in three ways: we tried to shift our relationship with the Soviet Union from a predominantly adversary one to a mixed one; the national consensus was never restored; and we went through two very different phases. The strategy of Henry Kissinger was still essentially bipolar, almost, indeed, obsessively so; but it was far more complex than the containment diplomacy which he criticizes so forcefully in his memoirs. He added to the old arsenal of containment an array of incentives aimed at inducing self-containment on the part of the Soviets, and he introduced a third player, China, into the game. Moreover, the policy was pursued with a penchant for secrecy and “unsentimental” realism that reflected both the personalities in charge, and the influence of long reflections on European cabinet diplomacy. But it failed, partly because of a revolt against its style, partly because of disillusionment with détente, partly because of what might be called the revenge of neglected issues.
The election of Jimmy Carter opened a second phase, which consisted in an attempt to continue the search for a mixed relationship with the Soviets (and for a triangular game), but also in an effort to move away from a bipolar vision of world affairs, and to concentrate on global issues and multilateral relations. It appealed, once more, to the enthusiasms always latent in American idealism …