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.

Indeed, while being prepared to handle what, despite Afghanistan, may well be the least likely Soviet form of behavior in the third world—out-right aggression—we must give more thought to the ways of preventing, or reacting to, a much more likely possibility: local regimes turning to Moscow for help on their own (this is something that can hardly be suppressed by force as a matter of principle, in view of the number of instances in which we have applauded regimes that turn to us). And we must give far more thought to the way of anticipating, and reacting to, revolutions in third world countries: can we, and should we, try to squash them? How far can we afford to go in associating with regimes that dig their own graves by the scale of their own repressiveness? Do we have to assume that every force that is critical of American behavior—the behavior of officials or of business—is therefore “anti-American” and irretrievably hostile? What should we do if a new (not necessarily a leftist or a religious anti-Western) regime in Saudi Arabia should decide to cut oil production? Should we use military might against it?


  1. What should be our policy toward the Soviet Union? Should we develop a strategy that combines military power, preventive diplomacy, and the search for mutual interests? Or should we give up any serious attempt at communication and negotiation, and settle for confrontation only? Should we assume that Soviet expansionism is so relentless that only a world-wide coalition of military resistance can stop it—at the risk of feeding Soviet fears of encirclement, bred by the Soviet system’s rigidity, by the instability of Eastern European regimes, as manifested again in East Germany’s new restrictions on travel from the West, and by Chinese hostility? Should we risk strengthening Soviet determination to break such encirclement and push the Soviets into the kind of corner in which the alternative to their use of force may seem to them to be far worse than the prospect they face if they do not assert themselves (remember 1914, or even Japan 1941)? These are questions we must consider as we envisage the future of our policy toward China and the demands it may make for military and strategic assistance from the US.
  2. What should our strategic policy be? I am less concerned here with the new strategic doctrine contained in the recent Presidential Directive 59 than with some more fundamental issues. PD59, some cynics might say, merely rationalizes new targets for the two thousand planned warheads of the future MX.

The two fundamental questions are, first, precisely whether the best way to cope with the vulnerability of our land-based missiles is by providing ourselves with such a weapon, which makes Soviet land-based missiles (representing a far bigger share of their total nuclear force) vulnerable to an American counterforce strike. Should we assume that the Soviets are actually planning to wage and win a nuclear war and that we need an equivalent capacity and doctrine? Or should we consider that the Soviet deployments—in strategic forces as well as in theater nuclear forces—are above all aimed at deterring us from resorting to nuclear weapons, and therefore at making it easier for Moscow to advance with conventional forces or through nonmilitary means, and also, prudently, at limiting the damage we can inflict on the Soviet Union if deterrence fails? In the latter case, as McGeorge Bundy pointed out some time ago, we do not need to match every Soviet move, and especially Soviet “capacity for mindless first-strike mass destruction.”1

The second and related issue concerns arms control. If—as Reagan advocates—we abandon SALT II and the pursuit of a comprehensive test ban, in so far as the arms race is concerned, then the sky is the limit: each side will be free to multiply the number of warheads aimed at the other’s land-based missiles (mobile or not), and if, under pressure from our military and our civilian strategists, we try to protect the MX with anti-ballistic defenses, the Soviets are likely to do the same on their side to protect themselves against an American counterforce strike. Each side will then try to overpower the defenses of the other. If we decide that SALT II is indeed in the national interest, as well as the pre-condition for subsequent arms control agreements (on land-based missiles and on theater nuclear forces in particular), what are the political conditions we must aim to establish in Soviet-American relations (with special reference to Afghanistan) in order to make ratification possible? And what restraints should we observe in our strategic buildup (and expect the Soviets to observe in theirs) in order not to violate the treaty’s letter and spirit in the meantime?

  1. We cannot afford to deal with international economic issues as lackadaisically as in the recent past. Has not the time come for a far more coherent policy of stockpiling, taxation, conservation, and international cooperation to reduce our dependence of Middle Eastern oil? On the other hand, can we continue to separate artificially our quest for friends in the third world on the strategic-diplomatic front from our refusal to negotiate seriously on the economic front, where our performance with respect to aid—denounced by McNamara in his last speech as head of the World Bank, as well as at the recent special session of the UN General Assembly—can only encourage immoderation and foster anti-American resentment among the developing countries? A greater American effort, however, presupposes a willingness to “divert” funds from the military buildup or from military assistance programs, as well as to deal with the politically explosive issues of increasing competition from imports from those countries. In other words, in economic affairs, domestic policy and foreign policy are inseparable.

These are the key issues of the 1980s that ought to have been discussed in the campaign. I said in the beginning that one could not predict how either Carter or Reagan would deal with them. And yet there are good reasons to fear a Reagan victory (while not putting excessive hopes in a second Carter presidency). On a number of important questions, the principles and tendencies of Reagan and of his advisers strike me as extremely dangerous. There is, first of all, the tone of their campaign, particularly on international issues. It reminds one of the Republican on-slaught—in the days of Joseph McCarthy—on Truman and Acheson in the early 1950s. Then as now, Americans were being asked to blame the incumbent for the “loss” of allies (Chiang then, the Shah now), for the loss of America’s will-to-win, for the decline of America’s prestige. Then as now, we were being told that since no agreement with Moscow could be trusted, we had to force the Soviets into the kind of arms race that would lead them to throw in the towel rather than overstrain their economy. Then as now, we were being told that nuclear superiority would help to solve our problems (as “massive retaliation” would spare us more Koreas, and a return to superiority would help us restore extended deterrence in Europe or apply it to the Middle East).

These ideas are not only manifestations of a nostalgia for times gone by, they are also wrong. The arms race did go on, in the 1950s and 1960s: we reacted to alleged gaps (the bomber gap, the missile gap, the ABM gap), we launched vast new programs—and the Soviets matched our efforts. According to the CIA at least, they vastly outspent us. Even if one accepts the contrary view,2 the fact remains that they built more launchers than we did, and made qualitative advances we did not expect so fast. It is more likely that we shall cry “ouch” before they do, since it is much easier for their regime to sacrifice domestic needs and to resist domestic demands, and since nothing could lend more plausibility to the Soviet regime’s drive for a strong defense than an American quest for superiority.

Also, if I am right in believing that there is really no rational scenario for nuclear war (whether “limited counter-force,” or massive counterforce, or countercity), and if the only rational function of strategic nuclear weapons is to deter from their use, to put one’s main military effort into nuclear weapons rather than into the conventional forces that are—alas—much more likely to be used is doubly dangerous. This is the case first, because serious conventional imbalances are an invitation to trouble; secondly, because the only way of either avoiding or overcoming that trouble then becomes a resort to the threat of nuclear war—i.e., a game of chicken that may not be credible and is in any case risky—or even the actual use of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, it is hard to see how a policy that gives priority to the military budget while promising balanced budgets and a return to unfettered free enterprise could find either the funds for or the interest in the problems of development assistance raised by third world countries. Indeed, many Reagan supporters believe that such aid is wicked or want to reserve it for proven “friends.” Nor does Reagan’s cheerful denial of the seriousness of the energy crisis inspire anything but amazement. Indeed, the rhetoric of Resolve and “Pre-ordained Destiny” clashes with the reluctance to request the sacrifices which an emphasis on conventional forces or on an effective energy policy would entail. Nor does Reagan’s approach to arms control and negotiations with Moscow—which consists, in effect, of asking the Soviets to accept our terms, while rejecting SALT II under the pretext that it forces us to accept their own, by ratifying their “one-sided buildup”3—show any promise at all: even when the Soviets were far weaker than they are now, agreements with them either endorsed retreats they had decided on for their own reasons (i.e., the Austrian peace treaty of 1955), or ratified the status quo (Helsinki), or entailed highly balanced deals.

Above all, the Reagan view of the world, now shared by Nixon and Kissinger, is an immensely dangerous over-simplification. Consider what he has said about Central America—interpreting domestic turmoil essentially as a matter of Soviet-Cuban plots—or about our “friends” in Argentina; and what many of his supporters have said about Africa, and particularly about South Africa; what he and they have failed to say about attempts at solving the Palestinian problem. Consider as well the illusions that are embedded in Reagan’s idea of coping with a universal Soviet threat by extending and reinforcing alliances—another echo of Dullesian pactomania—without any apparent awareness of the fact that our present allies do not share this view of the world and want to keep détente and arms control alive. Indeed, Reagan and his advisers hardly seem aware that those in the third world who would like us to protect them nevertheless shun formal alliances and want to escape entanglement in superpower conflicts. All of this suggests either a series of disasters, should the new team act according to so warped a map, or, at best, a protracted period of confusion, tensions, and incoherence, in which the painful shedding of nostalgia and a rude awakening to realities would take place.

We have already gone through such a period with the Carter administration. I have not, in the past, been uncritical of its intellectual assumptions, strategic impotence, and tactical blunders; nor do I know where it is planning to go. However, in the shipwreck of its original ambitions, there are worthy, even brave lifeboats that should be saved. Carter’s African and Latin American policies have been wiser than earlier ones. The record in the Far East and in Southeast Asia has many positive aspects. For all Carter’s retreats and concessions, the nonproliferation and human rights measures—to which Reagan is indifferent or hostile—have had some useful results. Camp David was imperfect, but marked a beginning. SALT II was a sensible treaty. In all these areas, the chief flaw was timidity, not foolhardiness; and all these gains, limited, insufficient as they are, might easily be wiped out. This is why—on foreign policy grounds—despite my awareness of past mismanagement and my fear of further blunders, and my utter lack of enthusiasm, I will vote for Carter: because a vote for Anderson now clearly amounts to a vote for Reagan, and because I do not want either the risks of Reagan’s revivalism, or the pain of Reagan’s reeducation.

This Issue

November 20, 1980