Semidetached Politics


Foreign affairs were a big factor in the election campaign of 1980. They have almost disappeared from the campaign of 1984. The public appears convinced that the President has succeeded in reaching the two goals that it has sought since the end of World War II: peace and strength. But this may well turn out to be an illusion fostered by a master of public relations and accepted by a complacent electorate equally disconnected from the outside world.

The best that can be said about four years of Reagan’s foreign policy is that things could have been much worse. They would have been, if its ideological premises and prescriptions had been followed consistently. Fortunately, two checks have often been applied. When reality obviously turned out to bear no relation to ideological fantasy, the latter had to be abandoned—although not without damage.

The other check has been the dominance of domestic concerns, including of course the President’s reelection. It was the domestic and social program that engaged the President’s attention, not his foreign policy. As for the American public, it has remained extremely suspicious of external military entanglements, unless—as in Grenada—they can be brief and easy. This is why covert intervention and military assistance rather than the direct involvement of US forces have been used in Central America, despite the President’s claims that the region is vitally important. This is also why the American forces in Lebanon were removed as soon as things became too hot—both on the ground and in national politics.

After four years, the administration cannot claim a single foreign policy triumph—not even a limited one comparable to Carter’s Camp David accord or Panama treaties. But what matters to the public is that there hasn’t been any major disaster, a major disaster being defined either as a national humiliation (the killing of badly protected Marines or officials by unknown terrorists is received, it seems, like an act of God, unlike the seizure of hostages by a government-supported mob) or as a protracted and inconclusive war. This allows the President to boast that he was right all along: we are at peace because of his own firm leadership and because the US is “standing tall.” Both claims are unwarranted.

The rhetoric and the displays of strength may have succeeded in ousting one “Marxist–Leninist” gang from power in Grenada, and in preventing the rebels in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua from making new gains. But if one looks at the effects of Reagan on friendly and neutral countries, one cannot be impressed. In Latin America, the Contadora group has persisted in a direction toward regional accommodation that clearly makes Washington unhappy. In southern Africa, the settlement of the Namibia issue and the departure of the Cubans from Angola have not been achieved. In Western Europe, the failure of the peace movements of West Germany and Britain results more from the steadfastness of the governments in Bonn and London than from that of Washington. In the Middle East, the multiple twists and fiascoes of American diplomacy have provoked disappointment in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, consternation among those whom we supported in Lebanon, contempt both in Israel and in Jordan.

What about “standing tall” next to the Soviets? It is true that they seem frustrated and on the defensive. But how much of this reversal can be attributed to Reagan’s will or skill? He has been faced, in four years, by three terminally ill Soviet leaders. Some of the Soviet set-backs have been self-inflicted: Gromyko’s clumsy handling of West German opinion at the time of the Euromissile crisis and the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan are the best examples. Soviet prudence in Central America was not new—the only exception, a costly one, was Khrushchev’s venture in Cuba in 1962. And both super-powers have found their respective European allies reluctant to give up the fruits of détente. In the Middle East, both superpowers have been used by the very clients each was trying to use. The Soviet predicament coincides with Reagan’s rise; its real causes lie in the Soviet Union’s domestic rigidities—political and economic—and in its external blunders—brutality and overextension.

The success of Reagan’s claim about his own leadership is the triumph of image over reality. Reagan has been an excellent salesman of the scanty and second-rate products in his suitcase. The unnegotiable “zero option” proposal in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces talks looked good to the American public; his vague concessions on “build-down” and Midgetman persuaded influential members of Congress to keep the ailing MX alive—at the cost of making the American position in the START talks incomprehensible. In the case of tiny Grenada the combination of Theodore Roosevelt-style machismo, and of Woodrow Wilson-style concern for “good government” in Central America was masterful. Despite the vagueness of the President’s UN speech on September 24, the appearance of a new flexibility toward the Soviet Union cannot fail to be helpful on November 6.

But a pose is not a policy. Strong leadership requires not only a sense of political strategy but a firm control of the apparatus of power. Both have been missing. The inside story of arms control during the Reagan administration shows that the President had no clear grasp of the issues, and that most of the negotiations (or rather contests) took place among the members of his own administration, not in Geneva, where he achieved absolutely nothing.1 Moreover, the same constant infighting and uncertainty about goals can be found in the administration’s Central American and Middle Eastern policies.

Reagan’s talent for reassuring people, for making defeats or failures look minor, or for preventing them from harming him, derives from something that is the opposite of strong leadership: he appears, and is (unlike Eisenhower, who seemed to be, but wasn’t) semidetached. He is not sufficiently involved in the arcane details of arms control to be affected by its collapse—and thus gets credited for his proclaimed good intentions: the public, one might say, recognizes itself in him.

It has been the same with the misfortunes in Lebanon: whereas Carter suicidally strove to put the albatross of the hostages on his own shoulders, Reagan has managed to keep his distance from what happened there. In foreign affairs, the impression of strong leadership has been, to some degree, a product of the national willingness to believe that an armaments program is a foreign policy. The reality is a president who has tended to behave like a constitutional monarch, but without the equivalent of a prime minister. During Reagan’s four years, neither the national security adviser nor the secretary of state has been allowed to become a strong manager of foreign policy—hence the Russian-roulette aspect of decision making, and the central importance of second- or third-level bureaucrats.


The trouble with semidetachment is simple. Unless the President becomes the determined master of policy, new directions and initiatives can all too easily be blocked by skillful bureaucratic infighters capable of pretending that their obstruction expresses the President’s real desires, and conforms to his ideology. During the next four years, moreover, various problems that have been pushed aside during the first Reagan administration will again emerge, and these will require major changes from the course pursued so far.

The first problem is obviously Soviet–American relations. It may well be that Mr. Reagan now believes that the US is strong enough to engage the Soviets in a dialogue aimed at reducing tensions. But there are two formidable obstacles, which even the desire to remain in the history books as a man of peace may not be able to overcome. The first obstacle is the rise in Soviet paranoia, or at least distrust, caused by the rhetoric of the first three years of the Reagan administration as well as by specific policies it has followed, especially in the military buildup. Both have led the Soviets to believe that the US was determined that the USSR no longer be regarded as an equal, and that it be treated both as an enemy and as a pariah. One does not have to be an apologist for the Soviet regime to believe that these wounds to not only Soviet but Russian self-respect are dangerous and unnecessary, as George Kennan has kept warning.

The second obstacle is the lack of serious proposals for a resumption of a dialogue. Very little attention has been given by the administration to what a new relation with Moscow—one that means some degree of cooperation as well as conflict—would entail. Indeed, how could a team that sees in Moscow the source of most of the troubles in the world acknowledge, through serious consultations, Soviet involvement in regions such as the Middle East or Latin America, where, according to Ronald Reagan, they have no right to be?

To be sure, arms control could provide a vast field of fruitful negotiations. But arms control by itself is no substitute for a better political relationship, and cannot progress in the absence of such a relationship. Moreover, here again, the legacy of the past four years will weigh heavily on the future. Both sides keep adding new offensive systems that seem to move them relentlessly toward the preparation for “limited” nuclear wars—wars designed to be fought, as they used to be before the nuclear age, primarily against military forces and targets.

But such wars could probably not be controlled. Each side now puts at risk the “survivability” of a large fraction of the other side’s forces, and thus creates a situation in which one or the other might feel tempted or compelled to strike first in a crisis. And both sides are developing weapons, such as land- and sea-based cruise missiles, that will be impossible to detect and count through the use of satellites and other kinds of military intelligence.

The extension of the nuclear arms race into space is a phenomenon of enormous importance, in three respects. First, it risks undermining further the traditional foundations of nuclear deterrence, by reinforcing the temptation to strike first, either in the state that fears falling behind in the contest to build defensive systems or in the state that thinks it is so far ahead that it risks no or little retaliation.

Second, it puts the wrong military goal first. Defensive systems might make sense, and contribute to deterrence, after offensive ones have been drastically reduced. Otherwise the buildup of defensive systems by each side will actually make arms control more difficult still, since each will be tempted to destroy the opponent’s satellites, and to overwhelm the opponent’s defenses by multiplying its own offensive means.

Third, we are witnessing again the mindless triumph of technology over politics. “Star Wars” has been launched without any clear idea of the ultimate objective. Is it the pipe dream of a perfect defense, or the very different goal of a limited defense of land-based missiles? If it is the latter, one ought to point out that there are other ways to protect them—such as making them mobile—and that there are other far less vulnerable components of the retaliatory force, such as submarines, which will soon be just as accurate.

The program has also been launched without any apparent consideration of the effect on the Soviets of the combined American effort in space and in new offensive systems. (How could their military not suspect that we are giving ourselves a first-strike capacity?) Nor has there been any concern for the fears of America’s allies, whose recurrent anxieties are revived and exacerbated by the space race: the fear of being abandoned by “fortress America”; the fear of being treated as a convenient ground for a conventional war, and of being dragged into war by an overly confident US.

The most urgent tasks for arms control ought to be clear: agreements on a comprehensive test ban and on the elimination of antisatellite weapons; negotiations on the reduction of offensive systems aimed at getting rid of vulnerable and unverifiable weapons; a moratorium on defensive systems until after an agreement on this reduction. There is no sign of the Reagan administration’s willingness to move in this direction, which would oblige it to drop some of its favorite demands and scrap some of its new weapons programs. But while arms control by itself does not make the world safe or peaceful, failure to pursue it seriously would, given present trends in the arms contest, tend to make the world a far more dangerous, perhaps an unlivable place.

The second major issue is that of regional and domestic conflicts caused by revolutionary conditions of oppression or misery—and often fueled by the superpowers’ contest. There is obviously no single or simple recipe for dealing with them. But here again, the prospects of a second Reagan administration are either dim or grim. In the Middle East, any attempt at dealing with the Palestinian issue will require strong pressure on Israel—something that has been resisted by Washington in the past, and will continue to be opposed by those officials who see in military cooperation between Israel and the US the best way of combating Soviet influence and of compensating for Arab volatility.

In Central America, both the strength of the President’s abhorrence of any Marxist–Leninist regime in America’s “front yard,” and Soviet prudence, could easily lead to a far more direct American military involvement—even if caution and the need to appease the misgivings of our main allies prevail in Soviet–American relations elsewhere. Much will therefore depend on the attitudes of the public, and even more on the composition of Congress. In southern Africa, in the Philippines, the American fear of what might happen if present conditions deteriorate, and the administration’s determination to worry only about those violations of human rights that are committed by communist or procommunist regimes, are likely to lead to continuing, but ultimately self-destructive, support for the status quo.

The third major problem is that of the world economy. The Reagan administration has so far resisted many protectionist pressures and taken emergency measures to alleviate the burden of the debt incurred by Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. But these measures mark less a retreat from the original ideology opposed to public assistance and international institutions not controlled by Washington than a need to save the American financial system from collapse. The fact is that America’s economic recovery has, to a large extent, been achieved at the expense of other countries, whose capital has flowed to the US because of our high interest rates. These rates have made the burden of debt repayment even heavier for the developing countries, many of which, in order to obtain some rescheduling, have had to cut imports and consumption so as to meet the terms set by the IMF.

Protectionism may become irresistible to such countries, and harder to resist in the US itself, since the high rate of the dollar makes American goods less competitive abroad, attracts foreign goods to the US market, and produces a huge trade deficit. It is hard to conceive of an improvement that would not require two major efforts. One is a reduction of the US budget deficit, the main cause of the high interest rates; the other is a comprehensive and long-term solution to the problem of third world debt that entails wiping out a substantial portion of it and providing public aid to the developing countries to help them meet their interest payments.

But so far, the administration has shown no willingness to reduce the deficit either by raising taxes or by cutting military expenditures, and no enthusiasm at all for a concerted effort by the governments of advanced countries to help the developing nations through longterm development funds.


Those who hope that a second Reagan administration will follow a “centrist” or moderate rather than a confrontational course have in mind the precedent of Eisenhower’s second term, the pragmatic elements they find in Reagan’s own character, and the President’s desire to keep the US out of a major war.

Yet one should probably keep one’s hopes fairly low. One reason for pessimism is the President himself—his heavy ideological simplicities, his lack of interest in a workable process of decision making, his failure so far to distinguish speeches from policies and to conceive even the outlines of a pragmatic foreign policy. There are other reasons. Neither the two major parties nor the public seem able or willing to push the President in a moderate direction. The Democratic party is not likely, if its candidate for the presidency is badly defeated, and especially if it also loses control of the House, to be able to offer much resistance to a dangerous foreign policy or to provide ideas for a more sensible one. It suffers both from incoherence and from loss of blood—not to mention the lack of money. As was ably documented by Thomas B. Edsall in his recent book, 2 the split between its traditional, but declining, base in the industrial labor unions and its more affluent middle-class constituency has made it difficult for the party to define a program that satisfies both groups. Moreover, a sizable fraction of the industrial workers has deserted the party—at least in part on foreign policy grounds, and many of its middle-class supporters also threaten to desert it—at least in part because of sympathy for some of Reagan’s domestic ideas.

The opposition between those Democrats who remain faithful to the old liberal vision as well as hostile to Reagan’s world view, and those who think that the way to the party’s recovery is to offer just a bit less, or more or less, of the same as Reagan, can be found even in the oscillating statements of Mondale on foreign policy.

As for the Republican party, it showed at its Dallas convention no qualms about ideological extremism. To be sure, a president determined to move away from extreme positions need not be deterred by the party platform. But a president who continues to care for the support and affection of the ideological factions that helped him rise to power, and turns to compromises only when he has to, is likely to find in the party’s propaganda another reason to avoid changing his course. After all, the Republican platform’s charge that the “Carter–Mondale administration” neglected national security merely echoes Reagan’s countless and groundless statements proclaiming that his predecessors allowed the Soviets to achieve military superiority.

In Dallas, the President was surely strong enough to try to tone down the shrillness of the platform, if he thought about the need for a more moderate policy in his second term. He did not choose to do so, and he allowed Mrs. Kirkpatrick to surpass even the drafters of the platform in flag-waving Manichaeism and attacks on critics for “always blaming America first.”

Would then the American public itself be capable of prodding its leader away from his own deepest beliefs? Studies of public opinion show that its concern for peace is not weaker than its concern for security, that there is considerable anxiety about nuclear war, longing for arms control, willingness to return to a mixed relationship with Moscow, and an aversion for military interventions abroad.

Yet, what makes these tendencies at least partly ineffectual is a phenomenon that deserves careful study. It is not a new isolationism, insofar as few people believe that the US can really or ultimately let the rest of the world go its own way—the amount of American military and economic involvement abroad rules this out. But there is a decline of the old internationalism, both in the electorate generally and among the new elites, and a rise of a new form of nationalism that, like the President, can be called semidetached.

For this new mood fits neither of the two archetypes of American attitudes toward the outside world that prevailed in the past: the High Noon sheriff who restores order so that the good people can do their business unharmed by evil ones, and the missionary who is out to cure bodies and souls among the miserable and the suffering. What is missing today are the sheriff’s willingness to step in and shoot it out, and the missionary impulse itself. All that is left of both are self-righteousness and a sense of moral and material superiority—such is the “pride” that President Reagan has brought back. The militancy of the two archetypes has given way to the complacency of happy self-contemplation. The mood is one of mild euphoria, a sort of holiday during which people want to forget about the hectic chores and the heavy headaches of ordinary days, and merely relax and enjoy themselves.

This mood was perfectly expressed by the summer Olympics in Los Angeles, whose somewhat mindless, rather than aggressive, chauvinsim thoroughly shocked European commentators. What Americans celebrate is their regained success: the focus is on themselves, not on the outside world. It isn’t that they have all come to share the very traditional conservative values cherished by their leader—work, family, and fatherland, if one can thus evoke the trinity once so dear to Marshal Pétain—but that they like the results, and half-believe that these values may have something to do with them. It isn’t so much America first, which has old, isolationist connotations, as it is America as number one.

This mood reinforces, of course, the administration’s tendency toward unilateralism. It expresses a certain battle fatigue about consulting troublesome, unreliable, or unfriendly foreigners; exasperation toward international agencies whose members bite the hand that feeds them; an inclination to look after one’s interests by oneself—either in order to protect them or in order to pull back from them. These are features common to the public mood and to the Reagan policy. They are also a guarantee of longterm difficulties for the US and disorder for the world, whatever the short-range gratifications may be. The administration’s repeated failures to engage seriously abroad in anything beyond new arms programs and fine speeches is matched by the public’s drift toward indifference.

The outside world matters only insofar as it causes pain or fear—when some official braggart seems to come out for nuclear war, or when Americans get killed. The minute Americans abroad no longer appear in danger, or nuclear rhetoric softens, the problem that caused the peril disappears from the public radar. When the President withdrew the Marines from Lebanon he may have undercut America’s position in the Middle East, but he also undercut the opposition at home, and the issue ceased bothering the voters. They are semi-detached for understandable reasons: forty years of external turbulence, twenty years of domestic turmoil, culminating in a highly traumatic period of inflation and in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. One should not perhaps be surprised that the voters are only too eager to accept the President’s glowing account of his own achievements and of their own “new dawn.”

The trouble with this euphoria lies in the estrangement it produces between Americans and the outside world where one often finds growing resentment at America’s apparent indifference to misery and injustice, and at its condescending conviction that what is good for America will trickle down and be good, ultimately, for the others. Even where the natives are friendly, or a bit envious of America’s return to growth and to optimism, they are offended by the cosmic ethnocentrism that seems to come with success.

As for Americans, their level of information about and concern for a world of which they are so integral a part appears to decline: what is spreading is a desire not to be bothered or battered by data, a desire caused by the complexity of the issues and rationalized by the belief that other people must ultimately solve their problems by themselves.

To some extent, this mood could offer a sort of soft protection against a militant foreign policy of the Jeane Kirkpatrick sort. But it does not provide the base of support a moderate, active, internationalist policy would require. And precisely because of its own nationalist core, its ignorance, and its undercurrent of fear of getting hurt, this climate allows skillful politicians or special interests to arouse the public about sudden perils that must be eradicated fast so that people can return to pleasant dreams in safety. Or the same politicians can lull the public into believing that not-so-benign neglect of international problems really poses no dangers. Protectionism and Central America come to mind in the first category, arms control, the Middle East, and the third world in the second.

In the film Being There, Peter Sellers, a TV-addicted gardener, becomes a presidential adviser by not being able to distinguish between what is going on on the screen and what is happening in the streets. He becomes a national figure by not being quite there. President Reagan, in foreign affairs, has improved upon this: it is he who is on the screen, and he is president, not merely an adviser. But he too often seems to believe that what is on the screen is the only thing that is real. Not being quite there has its advantages. The President is able to continue to appear as the man who comes from the outside to clean out the mess made by the established insiders. The messy workings of government are hardly visible. What is left is Reagan’s well-staged ease on television, in a country where, more and more, what doesn’t show up on the screen doesn’t exist, and what shows up badly is doomed.

But for America as a whole not being quite there is neither a morally attractive nor a winning proposition. Semidetachment is something we can’t, in the long run, afford, and in the short run it allows those who govern either to keep wasting time or to pursue with impunity their ideological drives. The battle between ideology and reality is far from over; the search for a sensible policy has not even begun; the combination of a nation with its head in the clouds and a president who seems to walk on water may be picturesque, but it is also scary.

  1. 1

    For a perceptive account of this, see Strobe Talbott’s Deadly Gambits, reviewed in this issue.

  2. 2

    The New Politics of Inequality (Norton, 1984).