Reagan Abroad


If an ideology is a set of beliefs about the state of the world, about how it got to be that way, and about what should be done to change it, the Reagan administration came to power with an ideology of foreign affairs. The lesson most observers have derived from the first year of Reagan’s foreign policy is simple: an ideology is not a strategy, a set of attitudes is not a policy. Moreover, in so far as the view of the world was plain wrong, the divorce between convictions and realities puts policy makers in a dilemma. Either they act on their beliefs, with potentially disastrous effects; or else they merely express and trumpet their beliefs, which may be enough to scare or antagonize others; or else they try to close the gap and to adapt to reality, always a slow and painful, and often an incomplete, process for true believers.

The Reagan ideology was shared by all the factions that had come together under Reagan’s leadership: his old California associates; Republican moderates whose own preferred candidates had bit the dust; Henry Kissinger, whose Canossa had been the Republican convention in July 1980; the neoconservatives who had deserted the Democratic Party. It could be summed up in a decalogue.

One: Carter’s foreign policy fiascoes resulted from incoherence, itself the outcome of conflicting world views; a unity of views must be restored.

Two: In so far as there had been a dominant world view under Carter, it had entailed an almost criminal neglect of American power, a drift into and an acceptance of weakness; the first imperative of the new policy is the restoration of American strength.

Three: The Soviet Union is on the march; its expansionism has entered a new phase, the most dangerous yet for the West, because of both new Soviet military strengths and growing internal Soviet problems; America must contain and confront the adversary.

Four: The Soviet Union is the key factor in most of the world’s disputes, because it either initiates conflict and subversion, or exploits troubles at the expense of the West. The United States must, in coping with regional affairs, give priority to removing or neutralizing the mischief caused by Moscow and its proxies.

Five: It should be the policy of the US to mobilize as many states as possible against the Soviet danger.

Six: Carter’s problems with the allies (as well as with the Russians and with many nonaligned countries) were caused by a lack of will. If decisiveness is restored, if Washington leads again, the allies will stop bickering with us or among themselves and be grateful for clear leadership.

Seven: The next few years will be particularly dangerous because of the “window of vulnerability”—the vulnerability of America’s land-based missiles, and that of military targets in Western Europe to the SS-20 and the Backfire bomber; these imbalances must be eliminated as fast as possible.

Eight: The United States should cease being always on the defensive, allowing Moscow to pick the ripest opportunity; Soviet expansionism could be checked by an American strategy aimed at exploiting Soviet weaknesses, and particularly at retaliating against Soviet puppets and clients.

Nine: The solution to the problems faced by the countries of the third world will be provided mainly by their own efforts, and residually by foreign assistance, but in both cases private enterprise is the key, capitalism the answer.

Ten: The American people, tired of humiliation, weakness, and decline, are eager for a policy of strength and decisiveness.

If coherence and consistency of views were the only conditions necessary to produce an impressive foreign policy, this new orthodoxy would deserve the highest marks. But this ideology—the views of the Committee on the Present Danger—has, not surprisingly, proven to be better as a ram against the rather flimsy diplomacy of Jimmy Carter than as a compass in the jungles of the real world. It has turned out to be utterly deficient as a strategy because it fails to address many real problems, it aggravates others, it provides no priority other than the anti-Soviet imperative, and precious little guidance even in connection with the new cold war.


The policies followed during the first year of the Reagan administration fall into four categories: those for which the principles of the original decalogue have turned out to be wrong or insufficient; those cases where the attempts to apply the decalogue have been actually dangerous; those cases in which it has become necessary to adjust to reality and to give up the initial assumptions; and those policies which show signs of schizophrenia because of the conflict between the ideology and the need for adaptation.

In the first category, one finds the excruciating troubles of foreign policy making in the Reagan administration. Whatever happened to the promise of coherence made by Secretary of State Haig at the beginning of 1981? Clearly, a common philosophy has not sufficed to restore harmony and smoothness in the process of making decisions. There are many reasons for this, but two are of special importance. When there is a shared world view (as there was not under Carter), subtle differences of personality and temper, past experiences, and separate career patterns can become inflated factors of opposition. Nuances are elevated into barriers, since the normal instinct of bureaucrats in fragmented bureaucracies is to splinter; small divergences in perspective (or, sometimes, retrospective ones) substitute for philosophical splits. Indeed, the fiercest struggles for power often are the pure ones (maybe pure isn’t the word: I mean, those in which the contest for preeminence is untouched by ideas, and different world views play no role at all as fig leaves in a battle of naked bodies).

Moreover, a common philosophy provides no principle of organization. Indeed, it has not been enough to distribute faithful believers in the decalogue at various key points in the government. A system in which foreign policy is run neither by a strong secretary of state, nor by the president aided either by a secretary of state whom he fully trusts (as in the Eisenhower-Dulles team, or in the Nixon-Kissinger team in 1973-1974) or by a powerful national security assistant, is a recipe for trouble—whether trouble comes in the form of the Vance- (or Muskie-) Brzezinski split under Carter or in the more bizarre Reaganesque form. What we have had is a weakened national security adviser, a secretary of state regularly contradicted by other officials, a secretary of defense with his own views on foreign affairs, a White House triumvirate concerned above all with protecting the political power of the president and looking after his domestic base of support, but uninformed about external affairs, and a genial president who spends most of his energies on economic issues and intervenes in foreign matters more as a rescuer in extremis than as a constant leader. But in the AWACS rescue a great deal of capital had to be spent, and in the weeks preceding the November 18 speech on arms control in Europe, a great deal of capital was lost.

The second article of the decalogue—the restoration of American strength—has, alas, proven to be an inadequate guide to action. To be sure, the defense budget has been increased even beyond what Carter proposed. But there remain two major ambiguities. One is the compatibility of the armament effort with Reagan’s domestic priority, economic recovery. Only supply-siders still seem to believe that there is no conflict here, that it is possible simultaneously to spend much more for defense, to reduce taxes considerably, to tolerate a vast budget deficit, and to expect both a drop in the rate of inflation and a new wave of investments.

So far, the tax cut and the deficit, as well as the anti-inflation priority of the Federal Reserve, have, because of the high interest rates, led to a serious recession. If the budget deficit—which recession will worsen—and the inflationary effects of military spending should first slow down the decline in interest rates which results from the recession, and later produce a new increase of these rates (should, in other words, the anticipated recovery not occur), Congress will have to choose between highly unpopular further cuts in the civilian budget (cuts which would, this time, affect the voting middle classes, and not merely or primarily the nonvoting poor), higher taxes, and cuts in the defense budget.

The other ambiguity concerns military priorities. More of everything is not a policy. Neither between conventional and strategic forces nor within each category have clear choices been made yet. The quarrel between those who believe that the greatest risk of military imbalance between the US and the USSR lies in the erosion of American nuclear superiority and those who think that the conventional advantages enjoyed by the Soviets in Europe and on the periphery of the Middle East are far more dangerous has not been settled or even confronted.

Concerning conventional forces, the pressure toward more sophisticated weapons systems (including vulnerable battleships and aircraft carriers that need whole fleets to protect them) seems once again to have prevailed over more mundane concerns such as improving the state of readiness of existing forces. Nor has a choice been made among the various conceptions of the Rapid Deployment Force, which range from a mere air and naval presence to an army actually stationed in the Middle East. Neither in the conventional nor in the nuclear realm has the administration offered a strategic doctrine that would provide a rationale for the catalogue of measures it has announced.

But no article of the decalogue has proven to be more defective than article five—the search for a global anti-Soviet strategic consensus. In the Middle East, to take the most acute example, the new American team had to rediscover what Carter had already found out—that Israel, in the near future, deems its Arab enemies more dangerous than the Soviet Union; that Saudi Arabia fears too close an American embrace, and deems the disruptive effects of the Palestinian issue more threatening than Soviet machinations; and that even Egypt won’t provide bases for the Rapid Deployment Force as long as the Palestinian issue remains unsettled.

Even more numerous are the cases in the second category—those in which the attempt to enforce the decalogue has been dangerous and counterproductive. The mere declamation of articles of faith has sometimes sufficed to sour relations between the US and other countries. Concerning North-South relations, Reagan has proclaimed the merits of private enterprise and “the magic of the market” to countries many of which are actually too poor to attract foreign capital and have very important economic sectors (sometimes including their entire “infrastructure”) that are rarely profitable enough to interest foreign investors. For such countries, capitalist development, uncorrected, may lead to serious economic distortions, social inequities, and, often, external dependence.

Reagan’s advice to these countries is not the best way of winning friends, even (indeed, especially) if it is right to emphasize the need for domestic measures of self-help, to criticize the failures of “command economies,” and to warn against entrusting all negotiations to the General Assembly of the UN at the expense of specialized agencies.

More significant even is the effect of the Reagan rhetoric on the NATO allies. The shrill anti-Soviet statements made in the first eight months of the administration by the president, Haig, and Weinberger, combined with all the talk about restoring military superiority (or a “margin of safety”) and about the need for a nuclear “war-fighting” strategy, and aggravated by the president’s decision to produce neutron bombs, have been largely responsible for the growth of the antinuclear movement in Western Europe.1

The strident and sometimes contradictory pronouncements of the administration put several allied governments in a very difficult position—squeezed between a sizable fraction of their public and their 1979 commitments to NATO. The planned deployments of Pershing IIs and cruise missiles were intended to make it impossible for the Soviets to believe that if they launched a nuclear attack on NATO’s military forces, or a conventional war in Europe, their own territory would be immune from nuclear retaliation because the US would hesitate to use strategic nuclear weapons and because NATO would not have enough theater nuclear weapons capable of reaching Soviet territory. In other words, the deployments of new missiles, scheduled to begin in 1983, were obviously aimed at “recoupling” Europe’s security with the strategic nuclear arsenal of the US, and thus at strengthening deterrence. (They were also viewed as bargaining chips in a negotiation for mutual reductions of those nuclear weapons left unregulated by SALT II, whose imminent ratification was expected at the time of the NATO decision.) That they should nevertheless have come to be widely interpreted in Western Europe as steps toward making possible a nuclear war limited to Europe would be largely incomprehensible were it not for clumsy American statements suggesting precisely that possibility.

Beyond mere rhetoric, it is the attempt to carry out the initial ideology that has caused trouble, or risks being very dangerous, in three different sets of cases. In the first place, the sale of weapons to clients and friends whom the Reagan administration considers threatened by the Soviets and their allies risks embarrassing Washington whenever the beneficiaries of our solicitude happen to be one another’s enemies, tempted to use weapons not against Moscow but against one another—or whenever one of our clients is engaged in a dispute with a state which it is in our interest to keep friendly, or whenever our military support of a friend endangers an important negotiation.

Again, the most acute case is that of the Middle East: the promise of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, a kind of substitute for a Middle East policy and a step toward the elusive strategic consensus, obliged the administration to try to reassure Israel by acceding to a deal of strategic cooperation with Begin. This in turn obliged Washington to try to assuage the Saudis by an all-out commitment in the AWACS fight, by an attempt at minimizing the significance of the agreement with Israel, and by saying a few kind words about the Saudi peace plan. This, of course, angered the Israelis, who reacted by annexing the Golan Heights. Reagan’s decision to suspend the strategic accord with Israel and Israel’s own reaction to this have exposed both the hollowness of the strategic consensus and the incompatibility between, on the one hand, the kind of military support of Israel which the accord symbolized and, on the other, sustaining a peace-making process to resolve the Israel-Arab conflict.

Similarly, campaign commitments to Taiwan and the later promise to help China arm have displeased both sides. Indonesians and Indians worry about possible American supplies of arms to China, even though no such agreement has yet been completed, and relations between Beijing and Washington are cooler than at any time since 1971, even though nothing has yet been decided about Taiwan. America’s new arms sales to Pakistan, justified by the Soviet threat on the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan, are of a sufficient scale to worry India and reinforce Delhi’s ties with Moscow.2 The Reagan administration’s enthusiasm for the military junta in Turkey has made relations with the new Greek government very difficult indeed. Its support for the Duarte government has collided with its attempt to negotiate a modus vivendi with Nicaragua and, as under Carter, its military aid to Morocco hinders a negotiated settlement of the Western Sahara dispute.

In the second place, the attempt to put pressure on states considered to be secondary troublemakers or proxies for the Soviet Union has often led to two bad results: it has either functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy or conferred a kind of Robin Hood prestige on our targets. Denouncing the Cubans’ aid to revolutionary forces in Central America and the Sandinistas’ drift toward authoritarianism and repression has not helped the US gain much support from Latin American countries (not even from those, like Venezuela, who support the Duarte government in El Salvador). And it has neither stopped the Cubans nor deterred the Sandinistas. Asking for the repeal of the Clark amendment and staging meetings with Savimbi won’t exactly persuade the Angolan government to throw out its Cuban protectors, just as persisting in supporting Pol Pot will do nothing to loosen Hanoi’s ties with Moscow. The recent campaign against Libya has not been endorsed by America’s allies, and it makes it more difficult for the Arab moderates—who fear and loathe Qaddafi—to act against him. For a great power to put smaller ones into the headlines in the Reagan manner is to elevate their nuisance value into might and to provide them with a kind of vicarious glamour.

In the third place, in El Salvador as in the Middle East, the US has committed itself to supporting regimes of dubious solidity, and it is not always clear (as in the case of the president’s vague and blanket promise not to allow Saudi Arabia to become a second Iran) whether we plan to defend them against external threats only, or also against domestic ones. Egypt, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan are all countries whose regimes face a host of internal and external dangers. The problem with the broad but vague commitments the administration has been making is double: they exceed our means and they are sure to give a needlessly anti-American impetus to domestic opposition forces. They make the US appear both as the champion of a frequently ugly status quo (as in El Salvador), and as a kind of neo-imperial bully—or sheriff—that extends its heavy protection even to some who didn’t ask for it. This is a perfect recipe for becoming, in effect, the dependent of a reluctant client, whom we must keep helping so that he remains obliged to us.


There is a more reassuring side: a process of adaptation to reality has been intermittently noticeable. Two major discoveries explain it. First, the administration has been obliged to recognize that axioms five and six, about the readiness of others to follow us in our new crusade, were plain wrong. It found itself caught, therefore, in a contradiction between what it thought its mandate meant, and the need to safeguard America’s alliances and friendships. Secondly, American politicians, eager not to let America be pushed around any more, and keen about a stronger defense, nevertheless turned out to be far less enthusiastic about either the Carter MX basing mode or the participation of American forces in wars abroad: strength is fine, as a way of not having to use it.

The public’s response to the original campaign raising alarms about El Salvador was negative, and part of the coolness in the press and in the opinion polls toward the AWACS sale came from the memory of arms sales to the Shah. In other words, the “Vietnam syndrome” has left some traces: axiom ten, positing an eagerness to display national strength, was only partly true. It is perhaps not surprising that the State Department should have been particularly sensitive to the dismay of allies and friends abroad, as the Defense Department and the White House were to the coolness of the public here.

Indeed, it is the State Department that has initiated a return to reality in two matters where other countries had manifested their displeasure. One is Namibia. While some in the Pentagon and White House saw in South Africa a rich potential ally against Moscow, Haig and Assistant Secretary Chester Crocker, impressed by Lord Soames’s achievement in Zimbabwe and by the arguments of our European partners, and aware of the need for support from the black African states that protect and promote SWAPO, have tried to find a solution that entails some concessions to Pretoria but no sacrifice of essential principles. It is too early to know whether the attempt will succeed, and whether, here also, the friendly attitude of the Reagan administration toward the South Africans, which has encouraged them to raid their neighbors repeatedly, will not prove incompatible with a settlement for Namibia; but clearly, so far, realism has prevailed over dogmas such as the division between good moderates and dangerous radicals.

The other matter is the theater nuclear forces in Europe. The administration’s tepid endorsement of the arms control part of the December 1979 NATO decision to deploy new weapons had to be turned—when the advice of European leaders could no longer be ignored—into a ringing endorsement of arms control in Reagan’s November 18 speech. The US has thus temporarily regained the diplomatic initiative: “option zero” happens to be exactly what many of the Western European demonstrators—and their governments as well—would like. Moreover, in the process, Washington has given up its original, disastrous, intention of linking arms control negotiations to Soviet good behavior generally.

The White House and the Pentagon have also been eager to accommodate American political opinion in such decisions as the abandonment of the mobile MX scheme and the lifting of the grain embargo, and through repeated assurances that ground forces are not being sent to fight in Central America.

However, at the end of Reagan’s first year, one is struck by two facts. The first is the frequent incoherence that results from the tug of war between ideology and reality, between assertion and accommodation. The second is the absence of a genuine foreign policy in a number of important spheres, because of the wide gap between Reagan’s dogmas and the world.

Part of the incoherence in the foreign policy machine results from divisions between those (often in the White House and the National Security Council or in the Defense Department) who resent our allies’ independence and recalcitrance and remain true believers in something like an American crusade, and those (often in the State Department) who are willing to take into account the scope of our allies’ worries and fears and who are aware of the gap between the way in which the allies see their own interests and the way in which the decalogue assumes they must define these interests.

A policy toward the Soviet Union that is based on a particularly alarmist view of Soviet behavior yet avoids reestablishing the draft, despite the stated magnitude of the threat, and lifts the grain embargo, despite the absence of any Soviet concession or retreat, is not very impressive. Nor is a military program that provides for a B-1 of questionable usefulness and for a vulnerable MX placed in existing silos—just threatening enough to tempt Soviet preemption, yet incapable of coping with the fatuously proclaimed “window of vulnerability,” although satisfying the citizens and politicians of Utah and Nevada.

The administration also proposes the construction of cruise missiles to be put on submarines, perhaps because of an expectation that the ground-launched cruise missiles planned for deployment in Europe will either not be deployed or will be reduced by arms control agreements; but this plan thereby gives a powerful and valid argument to demonstrators who deny the need for the ground-launched missiles, and who consider them to be far more dangerous for Western Europe (which they are supposed to protect) than sea-based cruise missiles. And it makes the arms control negotiations more difficult.

Nor can much be said for a policy in Central America that is just blustery enough to discourage Duarte from negotiating with his adversaries, as well as to reinforce the suspicions or paranoia of the Sandinistas about American intervention or subversion. (We have, after all, canceled economic aid, asked for specific ceilings on the Nicaraguan army, and allowed enemies of the Sandinistas to engage in military training in the United States.) Yet this policy is not capable of either stopping the flow of arms to the left in El Salvador or helping the Duarte government to win its war and stop the terror of the rightwing paramilitary forces. Nor is there much to be said for a policy that praises the Saudi peace plan just enough to harden the Israeli position during the last phase of the Camp David process and to encourage the Saudis to submit a doomed scheme for settlement to their Arab friends, rivals, and foes. Especially after Israel’s strong reaction, the US endorsement was so weak it ensured the failure of the Saudi plan at the Arab summit in Morocco. The episode was a miracle of bad timing, both in Washington and in Riyadh.

Coherence and clarity do not characterize the Reagan policies on human rights and nuclear proliferation either. On human rights, adaptation to reality has begun, with the appointment of an official in the State Department more plausible than Mr. Lefever, and with the recognition that a human rights policy cannot either be superseded by the fight against international terrorism or simply ignore the crimes of “merely authoritarian” systems friendly to the US. The famous distinction between unchanging totalitarianism and perfectible, limited authoritarianism has been badly battered by reality. A regime’s brutality cannot be inferred from its “essence”; in Poland, we have seen a would-be totalitarian government having great trouble in its struggle to control society and to prevent change. The vicious current attempt at “normalization,” i.e., at wiping out not only Solidarity’s gains but also the other liberties tolerated in the 1970s, results less from the essence of the Polish regime than from the pressures of the Soviet Big Brother and the intimidating role of the Red Army. Without these pressures a weak and demoralized Communist Party of Poland would probably have succumbed to the popular wave for freedom and renewal, and not entrusted its own survival to the Polish army. On the other hand, some authoritarian regimes, such as Argentina’s, continue to remain beyond fundamental reform.

Moreover, the purpose of a human rights policy is not to change a regime, but to ensure a basic floor of rights for all. As long as the main purpose of the policy remains one of crudely showing up the Soviets and as long as the policy is treated as a cold war propaganda instrument, it is difficult to figure out what it will amount to, especially when security assistance and loans continue to be granted unconditionally to “friendly” governments engaged in violations of human rights.

Indeed, having taken effectiveness as anti-Soviet propaganda as a criterion of its policy instead of effectiveness as an instrument for change or a price imposed for intolerable wrongdoing, the Reagan administration found itself caught short when the Polish tragedy took the form not of an invasion but of a ruthless assault on human rights by the Polish army and police. For no thought had been given in advance to the kinds of measures that ought to have been taken in order either to induce the military dictatorship to restore essential freedoms or to punish it for not doing so, or to the need to coordinate such measures with the allies. (The government’s embarrassment, or the paucity of effective measures, should of course not stop private citizens, professional associations of every sort, and the press and television from expressing their outrage and their solidarity with the Polish nation.) Effective or not, the sanctions applied to Poland and Russia point up the difference between the treatment of the Soviets or their allies and the lenient attitude toward delinquent friends.

As for nonproliferation, it was the Israeli raid on Iraq that gave the administration the necessary push to define a policy—against creating new weapons facilities—after its initial indifference (and criticism of Carter’s zeal). But in the case of Pakistan, a test case par excellence, the decalogue has prevailed.

The most disturbing conclusion concerns the almost complete absence of a coherent policy to deal with several major issues. There is no satisfactory policy toward the economic demands of the countries of the “South.” Dogma has been maintained here in toto—and has led to American demands for a revision of the draft treaty on the law of the seas, at the request of mining companies (and despite the protests of the Pentagon, whose interests the draft safeguards). While the economic conditions in the advanced nations make concessions to the demands for a “new international economic order” unlikely, many of America’s allies, both among the developing and among the industrial nations, are unhappy with America’s lack of response and its apparent belief that the market, or existing international financial mechanisms, will be able to cope with the formidable problems caused by the slowing down of growth in the industrialized countries and the financial plight of many of the developing countries.

The failure to consider the internal or regional causes of conflicts—as in El Salvador and Guatemala—and the tendency to concentrate on the cold war aspects—except in Namibia—have also helped to produce the present crisis with Greece (because of the long-festering and long-neglected Cyprus dispute) and above all to a complete policy vacuum in the Arab-Israeli conflict. To put it bluntly, American policy in 1981 has consisted of trying to gain time through questionable weapons sales, and through Philip Habib’s excellent management of the crisis over Lebanon in the summer.

But the time thus gained has not been well used. The administration has not tried to give some meaning and chances to the only process to which is it committed—Camp David—by appointing a successor to Mssrs. Strauss and Linowitz and by seeking to obtain from the Israelis an autonomy scheme for the West Bank that could appeal to the Palestinians who live there (one sine qua non being an end to Sharon’s settlements policy). Nor has it prepared a new plan for the period after April 1982, when all the fruits of Camp David will have been consumed, and when Egypt will probably try to build bridges to the other Arab states.

In a sense, Sadat was a casualty of an American policy that both contributed to increasing the strains of modernization and to raising excessive expectations of prosperity within Egypt, and failed to help him with his gamble on the momentum of peace abroad. Begin’s annexation of the Golan Heights showed the lengths he is prepared to go to test and embarrass the Egyptian government as well as to take advantage of the Reagan administration’s passivity toward peace-making. His moves actually make it more obvious than ever that the Camp David process cannot go beyond the restoration of peace between Israel and Egypt, more certain than before that Egypt will, after April, seek to rejoin the Arab side, and more likely that the Arabs will try to overcome their divergences. Creating a more promising policy is of the highest importance. It would have to be prepared in cooperation with the so-called moderate Arabs—the Saudis, Jordanians, and Egyptians—and, through them, with the PLO, as well as with the West Europeans. And it would require a willingness to confront Begin—not only to stop him from impeding peace but also to push him toward a settlement. There is no trace of any such preparations so far.

The biggest void remains where it was under Carter—what I once described as the hole in the middle of the doughnut: a long-range policy toward the Soviet Union. Reagan, in the beginning, seemed to offer only two prospects—confrontations in the near future (given the axioms about Soviet expansionism and American determination) and, in the long term, a Soviet acceptance of “moderation,” caused by successful containment and the costs of the arms race to Moscow. This was exactly the vision of Acheson and Dulles. But it was a utopia, not a policy: the Soviets have often demonstrated their refusal to endorse our concept of stability, their ability to leap over (or sneak under) the barriers of containment and to embarrass Washington by exploiting crises in which the US finds itself on the losing side, on the wrong side, or incapable of acting.

Moreover, while American economic resources far exceed the Soviets’, a game of chicken over armaments is a risky one for us: just as—despite Herman Kahn’s predictions—we cried “ouch” before the North Vietnamese did, the Soviets’ ability in peacetime to squeeze consumers and to shift resources to the military is far greater than that of the US. Unlimited arms races, like deflationary policies, provoke the anguish of the voters long before the promised success materializes.

The need for a policy has never been greater. A vista of recurring confrontations provides no inspiration for American allies—eager as they are to preserve a mixed relationship, not a purely adversary one, with the USSR—or even for the American people. West German resistance to a policy of pure confrontation, Japanese resistance to American pressure for a greater defense effort, and the American public’s own continuing support for arms control show this very clearly.

Moreover, the evolution of nuclear armaments is exactly as disturbing as George Kennan tells us.3 The distinctions that made arms control agreements possible and reliable—between strategic and tactical, conventional and nuclear, weapons—are getting blurred. The coming vulnerability of land-based missiles will force both sides to choose (in the absence of arms control) between costly, internally disruptive, and fanciful (or nightmarish) attempts at mobility and the kind of jitters that lead to thoughts of preemptive strikes. The coming proliferation of cruise missiles will heighten insecurity all around. We will be living increasingly in an absurd world, in which there will be too many uncertainties to be sanguine about the ability to keep war limited if nuclear weapons are used, and in which this danger is likely to keep such weapons from being used even though conflicts, armed and unarmed, will persist. The accumulation of nuclear arms will thus be both a huge waste and a potential calamity.

Finally, political and economic conditions in this world, and particularly in many of the countries that are currently our friends or clients, in Africa, Latin America, or Asia, are such that some understandings with our chief rival about the management and limits of the competition will be essential. Indeed, it is only if such understandings develop, and if the tone, level, and nature of the contest get milder, that those armament measures that are in fact necessary (such as the strengthening of command and control procedures) will not also appear as threatening,4 and that ultimately some liberalization of the regimes in Eastern Europe might be achieved.

A future filled with confrontations means a choice between another increasingly less plausible game of chicken—preventing Soviet advances and offsetting Soviet conventional advantages by threats of nuclear war—and the grim prospect of conventional wars all over. The incipient retreat of the administration from this ghastly prospect in November 1981 has been partially reversed by the Polish crisis, and the sum of the administration’s acts does not yet amount to a policy.

The administration’s hypnotic concentration on external uses of force by the Soviets and their clients—and the preparations it therefore made in case of a Soviet invasion of Poland—meant that when martial law was imposed by General Jaruzelski at the instigation of, or under threat from, Moscow, we found ourselves with inadequate means of reaction. Improvised economic sanctions against Poland risk, if they concern loans and credit, hurting the Western creditors who have engaged in a some-what mindless, and dangerously unconditional, expansion of loans to Poland in recent years. And if they concern food, sanctions risk hurting the Polish people themselves. (Indeed, can we starve the Poles while feeding the Russians?)

As for economic sanctions against Moscow, however justified, they are being resisted or resented by our allies, whose cooperation is indispensable to the success of restrictions on the sale of industrial products or technology, and they risk leaving us without any further political instruments to use in the event of Soviet military actions in Poland (except for a total ban on trade, which would have little effect, and for one more suspension of arms control talks, which would be contrary to our interests). Never has the need for a coordinated, long-range economic policy of the Western alliance toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe been greater. But it cannot be adequately defined in emergencies or case by case, for each case will then bring forth the reluctance of the Western Europeans, especially the Germans, to end the benefits they derive from their considerable trade with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (and also, in Bonn’s case, from the Berlin agreement). But their willingness to arrive at a common policy that would provide the Soviets both with incentives for political restraint and with the certainty that intolerable acts will incur sanctions cannot be separated from a long-range political and arms control strategy acceptable to the allies, as the sharp dissonances at the end of 1981 have shown.

Whether “option zero” in the theater nuclear talks is the beginning of a bargain, or the kind of not-so-clever trick, used before, that consists of proposing something we know the Soviets will reject in order merely to demonstrate their wickedness, is also unclear. Even at best, the negotiation will be difficult, both because our bargaining position is weak and because the technical issues (especially the distinction between so-called intermediate nuclear forces and others) are formidable. The Soviets are unlikely to accept the dismantling of their intermediate missiles unless NATO agrees not only to cancel the deployment of new ground-launched missiles but also to reduce either some of its forward-based systems aimed at the Soviet Union (which we do not want to include in the current talks) or some of the planned sea-based cruise missiles which we define as strategic, not intermediate, forces.

While we are committed to resuming talks on strategic weapons, moreover, Eugene Rostow has made a sweeping repudiation of past efforts. He is enthusiastic for “deep” cuts, some of which—where the Soviets have an advantage—may be immensely hard to negotiate and some of which may not be to our advantage. He insists on stricter methods of verification but has not shown these to be truly necessary. Such an attitude leaves one, again, wondering whether the administration is trying to define a policy or to prove its ideological points.

During most of 1981, the Soviets’ behavior was relatively prudent. They had difficulties within their own system—in Poland, in the economy, in the leadership. They were skillful rather than crude in exploiting the opportunities provided by cracks in NATO. They were evidently concerned to reassure the Islamic world after Afghanistan and not to tempt Washington to move from rhetoric to action. They continue to suffer from the intellectual rigidity that makes a new, post-détente rationale for Soviet diplomacy hard to find as well; they continue to cling to the residual hope that the Americans might climb down a bit. All of this argued for some restraint, but as we have seen in Poland, restraint in form can be deadly in substance; and even the form may not last. If opportunities for a less risky relation between the US and the Soviet Union are not seized soon—particularly in arms control where, for instance, much could be established by a comprehensive test ban—the danger of serious crises between the superpowers, and of a widening gap between Washington and our main allies, will grow.


The reason why the administration is finding it so difficult to turn a pose into a policy is simple: no sane policy can be derived from the original decalogue. Kissinger had criticized the architects of containment for having failed to blend force and diplomacy. This is even more the case today. Either diplomacy is missing, or it tends to be the continuation of the (cold) war by other means. For a blend to succeed, the Reaganites would need first to abandon some of the most cherished assumptions that had been so useful to them on the road to power, and then to replace a simplistic view of the world with a more sophisticated one.

They would, in particular, have to replace a demonological view of the ambitions and objectives of the Soviet Union outside its sphere of imperial control—not, of course, with a Panglossian one that ignores the brutalities of the Soviet regime and of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, but with a conception close to the balanced and by no means idealized or overindulgent view recently presented here by George Kennan.5 They would have to recognize both that a policy of arms buildup and lavish arms sales creates more problems than it can ever solve and that a curtailment of arms would not, by itself, be any more a substitute for patient diplomacy dealing with the local causes of conflicts than is a policy that relies on military measures alone.

They would also have to curb the urge, so strong in this administration, toward grand unilateral action, which makes them take bold initiatives that offend or dismay the very friends and allies without whom, in the world of the 1980s, no American policy has any chance of succeeding. This is a doubly dangerous urge, since the reluctance or annoyance of our friends then gets interpreted as evidence of cowardice, blindness, or cynicism on their part, and feeds a rather ugly and illusory belief that we could somehow punish them by leaving them to their own resources and by taking care of our interests all by ourselves. Finally, the administration would have to realize that the restoration of power is only a beginning, and that the reassertion of will can be a dead end (or merely a way of making oneself feel good); for if there can be no international politics that is not about power, power is about politics, and will without the skill to use it is either foolish or dangerous.

January 1, 1982

  1. 1

    For a more detailed analysis see my article, “NATO and Nuclear Weapons: Reasons and Unreason,” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1981-1982.

  2. 2

    See Selig Harrison’s analysis, “Fanning the Flames in South Asia,” Foreign Policy, No. 45 (Winter 1981-1982), pp. 84-102.

  3. 3

    See his essay, “On Nuclear War,” The New York Review, January 21.

  4. 4

    See John D. Steinbruner’s analysis, “Nuclear Decapitation,” Foreign Policy, No. 45 (Winter 1981-1982), pp. 16-28.

  5. 5

    In his essay “On Nuclear War,” cited above.