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Temptations of a Superpower’

In response to:

What Are American Interests? from the October 5, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book, Temptations of a Superpower [NYR, October 5, 1995], Tony Judt takes me to task for inconsistency and naiveté. He charges that although I deplore US military interventions merely for “reasons of virtue,” I also presumably say that the US should nonetheless intervene where there is a “suppression of minority rights and a descent into ethnic warfare.” This might be inconsistent if I said it, but I didn’t. The passage he quotes has nothing to with intervention, but rather is part of a discussion of the dangers of a knee-jerk approach to the principle of self-determination regardless of circumstance. What I wrote was: “There can be no automatic right to self-determination when the almost inevitable result—as in the case of the secessions of Croatia and Bosnia—is a suppression of minority rights and a descent into ethnic warfare.” Mr. Judt may think there should be such an automatic right, and that it is the obligation of the US to defend all secessionist regimes. But if so, he should have confronted that issue.

Mr. Judt has a more Wilsonian view (that is, more interventionist, moralizing, and mechanistic) than I, and this leads him to positions which seem as naive to me as mine apparently do to him. He argues that strong democracies (i.e., the US) must come to the aid of weak ones in trouble because otherwise the “precedent is encouraging for other would-be enemies of democracy or liberty.” Presumably he means this as a general principle, for he draws no distinctions among such states: whether they are would-be, quasi-, or pseudo-democracies, for example, or whether they have brought their problems on themselves by their own foolish behavior. A serious foreign policy does not rely on a blind adherence to general “principles.”

By the standards of Mr. Judt’s argument, the US was morally compelled to rescue South Vietnam, which was, after all, a besieged, independent state that, however imperfect its institutions, was more democratic than the aggressive, totalitarian dictatorship to the north that sought to, and ultimately did, wipe out its independence. Like Mr. Judt, such officials as Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk argued that to abandonSaigon “would be to encourage would-be enemies of democracy.” Mr. Judt may find this a useful or inspiring precedent.

Mr. Judt also maintains that “genocide” is a compelling reason for US intervention. But, as everyone knows, the word is loaded. Through loose usage it has been cheapened, as has “holocaust,” to encompass a wide variety of misfortunes suffered by people of a distinct ethnic, religious, political, or even class identity. (The “holocaust” of the black ghettoes, the “genocide” of Hispanic children obliged to learn English, etc.) My book tries to differentiate the kinds of conflicts in which people suffer at least in part because of their group identity, and suggests that we must try to distinguish a Holocaust, where an entire race was singled out for extermination, from conventional civil wars in which grave abuses occur. Even among evils there are degrees, and it is in this realm that foreign policy has to operate.

While reasonable people can disagree on the merits of US intervention in the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia, as Mr. Judt and I apparently do, it is absurd for him to argue that under my “restrictive criteria, no US administration could invoke the danger of genocide to intervene against mass murder anywhere today.” On the contrary, I wrote that there are times when the US should intervene precisely for “considerations of morality”—both where it has the power quickly to stop the horror, as in Rwanda and Cambodia, and “where the horror is on such a scale as to undermine the foundations of Western civilization itself, as in the genocidal madness of Nazi Germany.”

Mr. Judt’s third complaint concerns military alliances, particularly in Europe. Citing the former Yugoslavia, he declares that the US must not retreat from its long-standing preoccupation with European affairs lest the new generation “see no reason to concern itself with the US, with American advice or American needs.” But here the key issue is surely in which European affairs the US chooses to become involved.

Not all of Europe’s problems are critical, nor do they all critically affect the US. To maintain that Americans must see every European issue the way that (some) Europeans see them, lest Europe cease to “concern itself with the US” is to mortgage our policy to others. No country can afford to do that, especially a global power like the US, with its global interests.

The Atlantic alliance, like all others, is not based on love or admiration, but on mutual self-interest. The Europeans have supported us when they found it advantageous to do so, and opposed us at other times. They favor NATO, as do the East Europeans who are clamoring to get in, because it—and especially our nuclear umbrella—offers them protection from the East. We provide it because we have not minded the cost, because we want to restrain the spread of nuclear weapons, and because it provides a role for our military and our diplomats now that the Soviet peril has disappeared. In my book I argue that all of the Cold War arrangements should be reexamined rather than being ritualistically reaffirmed.

As a general plaint, Mr. Judt mounts his straw horse to warn of the dangers that will occur “if the US retreats from the world today.” No doubt, but I never suggested that it should. I state in my book that the US cannot be an isolationist power. But I also warn against Cold War conceits of political sanctimony and military omnipotence, and warn that “utopianism is just as unrealistic, and as dangerous, as isolationism.” Mr. Judt’s quixotic review underscores my point.

Ronald Steel
Professor of International Relations
University of Southern California

Tony Judt replies:

I owe Mr. Steel an apology. The ill temper of his letter appears to have been provoked by my unsuccessful attempt to discover in his book some sort of coherent reasoning. He doesn’t have a consistent argument, and I didn’t traduce it; to suggest otherwise flatters us both. Sometimes he favors US foreign intervention on moral grounds, at other times he dismisses such “moralizing.” And the only unequivocal instance of genocide justifying intervention in his eyes was that of Nazi Germany; a case made the more cheaply for being comfortably behind us. At the time “realists” saw things otherwise, with US interests purportedly unaffected until December 1941 and then for quite different reasons. In his own day Mr. Steel is more inclined to blame victims for bringing problems on themselves by “their own foolish behavior”; he has Croatia and Bosnia in mind, but inter-war Czechoslovakia and Poland were no less feckless and irresponsible in some of their domestic and foreign policies, as many remarked at the time. On Mr. Steel’s reckoning they hardly deserved to be defended. That is why principles (what Mr. Steel calls “principles”) matter. It was not the “defense of democracy” that got the US in trouble in Vietnam—that was the flimsy expost facto cover for a policy ironically grounded in just the sort of geo-political “realism” Mr. Steel now advocates (I think). Facts help, too. For a small book Temptations of a Superpower makes a lot of mistakes, all of them about far-flung countries of which he evidently knows depressingly little. But in its way this should be counted a virtue of the work, unintentionally illustrating as it does the true temptation of a superpower (and its advisers) which is to imagine that it can identify and pursue its own interests in ignorance of the circumstances and opinions of others. How can Mr. Steel hope to identify those European affairs in which the US should become engaged, if he lumps Azeris, Armenians, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians as all indistinguishably engaged in “cruel and relentless wars…against one another” (page 98), the product of “ancient enmities” and “age-old conflicts”? Instead he is reduced to charging his critics with guilt by association, of cohabiting with the likes of Rostow, Rusk, and Wilson. One of the “Cold War arrangements” most urgently in need of reexamination is just this ill-advised practice, which makes reasoned disagreement difficult and inhibits fresh thinking.

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