American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War has gone through two full cycles—that of the cold war and that of détente—and three strategies, those of containment, Kissinger, and Carter. Today we are apparently back at square one. But the similarities between our immediate postwar predicament and our present situation are misleading. America’s condition at home and abroad is troubled. We face a difficult choice in trying to devise a new foreign policy. We can either rely on the magic of old formulas and act as if a return to the policies that worked in the days of American supremacy would ensure success, or attempt to tailor our diplomacy to the requirements and dangers of the very different world of the 1980s. The mood of the country seems to favor the first alternative. This makes it only more necessary to explain why the second one should prevail, and what its main features ought to be.
During the cold war, our priority was the containment of Soviet power, and of the power of those communist forces we deemed dependent on or allied with Moscow. It was pursued with a unique blend of Realpolitik and crusading idealism, and rested on a strong national consensus. Its biggest mistake, which led to its demise, the war in Vietnam, was a result both of misapplied idealism—protecting a small country from aggression—and of what Raymond Aron (writing about FDR’s wartime policy toward Stalin) once termed wrong realism; it was also the product of the stolid consensus.
After the election of 1968 began the second cycle, that of détente. It differed from the first in three ways: we tried to shift our relationship with the Soviet Union from a predominantly adversary one to a mixed one; the national consensus was never restored; and we went through two very different phases. The strategy of Henry Kissinger was still essentially bipolar, almost, indeed, obsessively so; but it was far more complex than the containment diplomacy which he criticizes so forcefully in his memoirs. He added to the old arsenal of containment an array of incentives aimed at inducing self-containment on the part of the Soviets, and he introduced a third player, China, into the game. Moreover, the policy was pursued with a penchant for secrecy and “unsentimental” realism that reflected both the personalities in charge, and the influence of long reflections on European cabinet diplomacy. But it failed, partly because of a revolt against its style, partly because of disillusionment with détente, partly because of what might be called the revenge of neglected issues.
The election of Jimmy Carter opened a second phase, which consisted in an attempt to continue the search for a mixed relationship with the Soviets (and for a triangular game), but also in an effort to move away from a bipolar vision of world affairs, and to concentrate on global issues and multilateral relations. It appealed, once more, to the enthusiasms always latent in American idealism, but it tried, this time, to channel those energies away from the bipolar confrontation, toward, one might say, world humanitarian causes. This policy also failed, for reasons which I have described elsewhere,1 and which concern the style, the strategic deficiencies, the economic weaknesses, and the political ineptitude of the Carter administration.
In 1980, the climate in which Americans were discussing foreign affairs reminded many observers of that of 1947. Then as now, a new resolution was rallying those who had long hesitated, or who had hoped for a more cooperative relation with Moscow. Then as now, a tough mood grew out of a sense of frustration, a fear of having been duped, a belief that the time had come to stop “babying” the Russians. Then as now, there appeared a militant interpretation of Soviet behavior, linking disparate elements into a global scheme, as well as a consensus on the need for a strong, world-wide American response. Then as now, the Soviets acted as catalysts, with moves that seemed to vindicate those who thought that a firm policy of containment was long overdue.
Indeed, in the public and in the foreign policy elite, there seems to be wide agreement on five propositions:
First, that priority must be given to redressing the military balance (in the strategic nuclear realm, in Europe, and in conventional forces generally) and to shoring up with military means the dangerous situation in the Middle East.
Secondly, that relations with Moscow offer only the perspective of “containment” and “confrontation,” i.e., that there are few opportunities for renewed cooperation, and that the benefits of past cooperation have gone disproportionately to the Soviets.
Thirdly, that Soviet behavior is intensely threatening to Western interests because of a combination of internal weaknesses and external hubris, reflected in and reinforced by a new capacity to project military power globally, and, more specifically, because of ominous strategic doctrines that envisage waging and winning nuclear war and are backed by the ability to try those doctrines out.
Fourth, that “linkage” between different foreign policy issues is not only inevitable but indispensable as a tool of policy.
Fifth, that our allies must be made to understand our sense of urgency, to share our vision, and to play their part in carrying out the policy.
And yet we are not in 1947. Neither the US nor the world looks as it did then. Then, we were not only the most powerful, but the most prosperous, indeed the only healthy political economy among the actors on the world scene. Today the contest between Washington and Moscow seems, in the words of Pierre Hassner, a contest in “competitive decadence.” It is therefore much more dangerous.
When a nation faces a crisis, there are often two possible responses. (We could think, for example, of the case of France in the late 1930s and the 1940s.) One response can be called “fundamentalist,” the other one constructive. A fundamentalist response tries to find remedies in old verities: not in the spirit that led to past success, but in the mythified recipes that worked before, in the rituals of national celebration, in the rationalizations that attribute troubles or temporary decline to internal dissolvent forces or evil men and ascribe recovery to a rediscovery of traditional ways. A constructive response aims at mobilizing all the reserves available for innovation, at using all that remains healthy and hopeful in order to master the challenge imaginatively. The first approach may make people feel temporarily better, because it not only provides an explanation for discomfort and disorientation but assures that what will work now is the familiar. However it rests on denial—it denies that there is something radically new to be faced, and that something equally new may have to be invented. France tried this remedy, or rather this poison, with the Vichy regime. The result was disaster. It tried the second approach after the liberation—not without excesses, trials, and errors. But the effects have been remarkable.
American reactions since the beginning of the crisis, in the mid-1960s, have been mixed and varied. The electorate shows a great deal of pragmatism—it repudiates whatever did not appear to work. But with each such disappointment the sense of betrayal gets deeper, the faith in “the system” becomes less ardent, and the tendencies, if not toward extremism, at least toward withdrawal, become worse. And the fundamentalist instinct gets stronger.
Carter offered a fascinating but unsuccessful mélange of fundamentalism and innovation. He wanted, he said, a government as good as the American people, and he appealed to the idealistic and humanitarian components of American internationalism. But he offered neither a vision of the future nor a coherent strategy, at home or abroad. And the electorate moved on to what appears like fundamentalism pure and simple: the “City on the Hill,” America as the chosen people, and free enterprise as the solution both to inflation (budget cuts) and to stagnation (deregulation and tax advantages for business). This is a disturbing evolution, because it shows not only a kind of collective inability to cope with complexity, but also an unwillingness to examine our present predicament seriously.
In the past, students of American foreign policy began with a verdict on the state of the world, followed by prescriptions; they rarely bothered to diagnose America itself. Today we must begin with a look at ourselves. The picture may not be quite so grim, the patient so run-down, as the friendly and subtle French sociologist Michel Crozier suggests in his Le Mal américain.2 But there is an American sickness. What is striking are the similarities between its domestic and its foreign policy manifestations.
Both show, in the first place, a divorce between Americans and their environment. Two elements reinforce each other. One is a crisis of complexity. Since the 1960s, this country has had to face simultaneously problems of enormous magnitude. The drama of the Johnson years, well recounted by Crozier, was a glut of ordeals: a major unintended war, a domestic revolution of rising expectations—the blacks, the poor, the students. Abroad, we have, in recent years, had to contend with the same kind of overload. At home and abroad, the crisis of complexity can be given another name: the end of deference.
In the past, as writers as different as Samuel P. Huntington and Michael Walzer have reminded us, the good functioning of American democracy at home rested on the general acceptance, and on the perpetuation, of certain exclusions, on the unquestioned acceptance of established authorities—in other words, on the self-restraint which Tocqueville thought essential for the compatibility of democracy with freedom, which requires an intelligent elite and a prudent people. And so we had the confident rule of the Wasps, and the seniority system in Congress, and a managed process of presidential selection. We had a system of mass public education, but residential segregation created its own school hierarchy. All of this was challenged and changed.
Abroad, the end of deference has taken the form of an assault on American authority: witness the relentless growth of the Soviet Union, whose arms build-up did not stop when it reached parity with us, and whose self-restraint in the third world—after the Congo crisis and the Cuban missile fiasco—ended quite spectacularly in the mid-1970s. At the same time there has been increasing restlessness among our allies, whose willingness to question American initiatives and interpretations has extended far beyond the old Gaullist enclave; and of course the revolt of the developing nations, whose most devastating expressions have been the oil embargo of 1973 and the policies of OPEC. We thus face, at the same time, a major security challenge and a major international economic crisis; in the case of oil, the two issues are intertwined.
The second element of this divorce is a crisis of possibilities. Our domestic system has worked on the assumption of unlimited resources (allowing both for experimentation and for waste—including the waste of human resources, as in the quick and often heavy layoff of workers in recessions); and it was uniquely geared to technological innovation—in a country where labor was expensive but energy and raw materials were abundant and cheap. In the postwar world, the US acted as the universal pump primer, with its Marshall Plan aid, its Point Four program, its training of others in matters of management and productivity, its faith in the do-it-yourself of economic development.
The new discoveries of the 1970s were grim: the limits of growth—both the material ones heralded by the Club of Rome (temporarily at least vindicated with respect to energy), and the social ones so incisively analyzed by the late Fred Hirsch—and the growth of limits. These include the mounting resistance of our allies to accepting our dollars, the need to take domestic measures in order to shore up our position in the international economy, and the loss of our quasi-monopoly of innovation as others, particularly the Japanese, began to use the recipes that had worked so well here. Being more dependent than we were on the outside world, they also turned out better at scanning it in order to understand and meet the needs of their clients.3
In the second place, the domestic and the external troubles are also the product of a severe crisis of the American polity: our own policies have powerfully contributed to our difficulties, and we have shown ourselves rather inept at adjusting to a world that is no longer favorable. Here again, we find two components. One is the inadequacy of traditional solutions. In domestic affairs, we have had roughly two traditions. The liberal one, in favor since the Great Depression, relied, for a mix of Keynesian and political reasons, on the virtues and effectiveness of federal spending for the solution of social problems. But, as we have also often discovered abroad, in our foreign aid programs and our flings at “nation-building,” when the obstacles to change and progress are built into the structures of economic and political power, “throwing money” at problems is not only futile but ruinous. Our welfare mess and urban debacles testify to this.
Liberalism also relied on change through law—the law handed down by a judge or drafted by Congress. But in the new conditions created by the end of deference, and by fierce resistance to it, the law, far from being an instrument for orderly change—a way of avoiding turmoil or revolution—can become a source of chaos, a tool in the hands of all the parties. What has happened with respect to the participation of the poor (“maximum feasible misunderstanding,” in Daniel P. Moynihan’s words), to affirmative action and quotas, to school integration, shows that legal reform, not supported by radical policies of economic and social change, can backfire.
While liberal methods have done much to promote social integration and to increase prosperity, they also ended up adding not one but two patterns, or “games” as Crozier would call them, to the pre-existing two which were characteristic of the American polity. We already had the model of the market and of free enterprise, and that of the political system, based on bargaining, log-rolling, compromise, and sometimes corruption. We then added the bureaucratic model, based on regulation and on technocratic rationality, and a model of “participatory democracy” which Johnson tried to establish in social affairs by bureaucratic means (with dreadful results) and which was later extended to the electoral process (with very mixed ones). All these games had different rules, whose flaws combined, or fought each other, into paralysis.
The other tradition that is inadequate is the conservative one. To get the state off our backs is a good slogan; it appeals both to the instinct to find scape-goats and to the legitimate irritation created by the excesses of bureaucracy (even if it conveniently forgets that many of these merely enshrine, or encrust, popular demands for protection). But when a nation faces a major crisis of its economy, the automatic pilot of laissez faire does not work. The policy aimed at overcoming the crisis and the strategy for redirecting the economy toward competition at home and competitiveness abroad both require imaginative public guidance. Deregulation and tax benefits may not suffice to encourage oil production, or the development of alternative sources of energy. Deregulation and budget cuts may make public services even more ineffective, and replace a taxpayers’ revolt with a users’ rebellion. A policy of industrial relocation and (as the French would say) redeployment is urgently needed; but, everywhere, free enterprise—especially in an economy of giant corporations—leads not to a smooth adjustment to a new international division of labor but to strong pressures for protectionism.
In foreign affairs, our policies pushed us into our present predicament. Our response to challenges was to maximize our power, and to spend our resources. In the 1960s we launched a huge new nuclear arms program; this, when combined with the Cuban missile fiasco, determined the Soviets to prevent any possible repetition of such humiliations, and to begin a long-range effort of nuclear and conventional rearmament which became a nightmare in Washington during the late 1970s. Our oil import quotas policy of the 1960s “stimulated production levels that eroded domestic reserves”4 and led to an increase in our dependence on imported oil. Our butter-and-guns economic policy in the Johnson years led to the deterioration both of the American economy and of the international monetary system, to the “dissipation of political and economic resources” in Robert O. Keohane’s words.
In the new conditions of internal constraints and an undeferential world, we can no longer use so freely and abundantly the two great instruments of power we used in the past—military assistance and economic aid; choices have to be made. Our experience in recent years shows that neither grand designs—détente, the Nixon or Carter doctrines, the quest for reliable allies, such as the Shah, in each region—nor mere incrementalism, in such areas as in energy policy, arms control, NATO, have been very effective.
Of our historical traditions, one—isolationism—is so obviously ruled out by the very scope of American interests and commitments, as well as by the realities of strategic interaction and economic interdependence, that only a handful of people abroad (often, strangely enough, in France) still worry (or hope) about a possible reawakening of the urge to cultivate one’s virtues alone and apart. The other grand tradition, internationalism, is split by the rift between those who want it to be tough and emphasize military power and the United States as the world’s policeman, and those who want it to be evangelical, problem-solving, and enlightened. The present world fits neither variety of internationalism. Indeed, we have learned that when we throw either our weight or our virtues around, and gain neither respect nor results, a formidable backlash rises at home.
The inadequacy of traditional solutions is compounded by that of traditional institutions. Clearly, one of the most hallowed—American enterprise—suffers from serious flaws, such as the tyranny of short-term financial results, caused by the dependence of firms on the market for funds, and resulting in risk-avoidance and managerial sclerosis. The political system of checks and balances has also frequently led to paralysis. The presidency often looks like a huge beached whale: the bigger it has grown, the more difficult the problems of executive coordination have become, and the more pathetic it appears when it is stymied from within or, by Congress, from without. The decline of the parties and of traditional structures of authority in Congress, combined with the reassertion of congressional initiatives and the increase in the Congress’s ability to control policy, has made its own contribution to the domestic and foreign policy crises. And while pressure groups, and even single-issue pressure groups, are not new, their effects are far more crippling in an undeferential society, at a time of economic trouble, when economists discover that we have become a “zero-sum game” society, and when there is neither (as there was in the 1930s) agreement on what the dominant issue is nor a clear recipe for dealing with it.
American institutions are aimed at thwarting excessive authority by one man, excessive influence by any one faction, excessive power by the majority of the people. But they function well only when there is an underlying consensus. The trouble is that such a consensus tends to fragment and disappear when there is no single, overriding goal. And when it is replaced by division, or by skepticism, the president has much less freedom of maneuver. When there is a consensus on a strategy, an occasional failure—say, the Bay of Pigs—can be overcome: it can be presented as a fumble along the way, and balanced against the wisdom of the overall design. In the absence of a consensus, pressure for immediate and recurrent successes becomes much more ferocious. And we have been caught in a vicious circle: complex policies have evoked more skepticism than support, and skepticism has made the development of long-range policies more difficult.
This has been the drama of détente. Quite apart from the fact that the Soviet-American détente rested on two opposed gambles which could not both be won (but which each side feels it lost), the success of the American gamble on Soviet self-restraint presupposed a consensus on mixed relationships, and on patience in managing them. It was inevitable that “rewards” for Soviet “good behavior” would be attacked by the right, and the application of punishments denounced as proof of failure.
Today, insofar as there is a new consensus at all, it is extremely narrow. It really deals with only one slice of reality—the contest with the USSR—and with one issue—the decline of American prestige or of respect for America.5 It seems to envisage only one remedy—muscle. But there is no consensus on what kinds of arms should receive priority or on what to do with those arms. There is a furious desire to win somewhere—preferably where it can be easy and cheap, and thus have a “demonstration effect” at low cost. But an attitude, or an itch, is not a policy. A commitment to “victory” in El Salvador certainly does not amount to a policy for El Salvador, or similar cases. And therefore we are left with a double quandary: a “fundamentalist” view of our relation to the outside world may be thoroughly inappropriate, and thus provoke wrong policies; but on many essential issues, it does not even suffice to define policies, and it presents us with an inadequate range of choices—such as the choice between the “moderate containment” advocated by Robert W. Tucker6 and the far more ideological line that can be associated with others who write in Commentary. Clearly, while we are not in 1947, we had better start from scratch, or rather from reality.
Power has become the catchword of the New Orthodoxy proclaimed by Reagan and his publicists. This is what it holds: it is the decline of American power that must be reversed; it is power that the Carter administration was afraid to use; it is power that the new administration must rebuild; it is power politics that is the name of the game of nations. It is therefore power that we must begin with.
The New Orthodoxy often seems to suggest that power comes in two packages. One is military might; the other is the American ideology of anticommunism or antitotalitarianism. This will not get us very far. Military might is a precondition for effective diplomacy, and a most important instrument for deterrence (although it can turn out to be unnecessary—when there is no threat—or insufficient). It is also a tool to be used against attacks on our security. But we must remember that a nation that has to resort to force not only as a last but as a first or early resort is a nation in trouble. As Britain demonstrated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a successful great power is—to use Clausewitz’s vocabulary—one that does not have to pay cash, or to face truth, at every moment.
To be sure, a state that has no or few other instruments for spreading its influence can cause enormous problems to its neighbors and rivals; which is precisely why they need military power of their own. But the rivals are not condemned to a symmetrical poverty of means. Indeed, in the nuclear age nothing would be riskier than a policy that would imitate Soviet reliance on might, which reflects in part historical experiences, in part serious internal weaknesses, in part the traditional need of multinational empires (or heterogeneous communities) to use the army, along with the schools, as a means of integrating a divided society.
It has become fashionable in some circles (for instance, with reference to the grain embargo) to say that we must show the Soviets our willingness to shoot ourselves in the foot, at times, in order to demonstrate the seriousness of our resolve to stop them. (Why the Soviets should mind it, instead of being delighted, as long as they remain intact, I fail to understand.) But to shrink tangible power to its military components would mean shooting ourselves in the head. It testifies to a curious discounting of our economic and technological power, and to an even more curious distrust of diplomatic power—the art of forming coalitions, of striking bargains, of building international arrangements and alliances and understandings that serve the interests of many, help reduce uncertainty, and allow for the sharing of risks.
The demand for such arrangements increases with the number and seriousness of the issues that states have to face. They are the alternative either to the hegemony of a single power that provides both the norms of behavior for other states and the incentives for these states to adhere to such rules, or else to chaos. If we assume that even with a much increased military force the era of American hegemony is over, then such diplomatic power becomes essential. (The example of the protracted Conference on the Law of the Sea—whose conclusion has now been postponed by the new administration—comes to mind.) Successful diplomatic power requires American expertise about other countries and in many past crises we discovered that it did not exist. Developing such expertise requires more, not less, federal aid to higher education, which may turn out to be more useful than the same amount of money spent for arms.
The New Orthodoxy ignores the fact that security policy is only one aspect of foreign policy; security issues—the core issues of the bipolar contest—are not separable from the others. This does not mean that all world affairs can be reduced to the contest between Washington and Moscow: Richard Nixon’s “real war” is a gloomy fantasy. On the contrary, it means that our ability to manage problems of security depends on our skill in coping with other problems. A mismanagement of the world economy, indifference to nuclear proliferation, neglect of the demands presented by developing countries, laxity in dealing with regional conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli dispute or that of Namibia, a right-wing disdain for human rights, all could create opportunities for the Soviets which would intensify our security fears.
Moreover, the definition of our security interests is not self-evident. It is a political definition, not a scientific one. We are, as Tucker points out, condemned to some sort of containment in the coming years (as we have been ever since 1947). But to declare containment the purpose of American power is no substitute for defining the criterion of what is essential containment. Not every position in the world is either defensible or worth defending against every kind of potential threat. For instance, the New Orthodoxy does not make it clear whether only the extension of Soviet (or Cuban or Vietnamese) military power is to be resisted. Or are we to resist the establishment of regimes that “enter into a relationship with the Soviet Union that resembles the relationship with Cuba”?7 Or should we also resist the establishment of any regime supported by Moscow and Cuba? Tucker adopts the middle position, but it is a difficult one: can one know in advance? The new administration prefers to assume that any forces that receive “enemy” aid are likely to create a new Cuba. But this would, in effect, blur the distinction which Tucker wisely wants to maintain between a concern for the internal regimes of states and a concern for their strategic behavior.
Containment, even when it is limited to protection against the expansion of the military power of Moscow and its allies, can never be successful with military means only. The US and its allies will continue to find it difficult to match Soviet conventional forces, and arms transfers, by the US to third parties can create more problems than they solve when these arms go to shaky rulers, or are used by them for purposes other than containing Moscow (the Soviets are having a parallel experience with their aid to Iraq). Nor is even successful military containment a substitute for an integrated policy, either toward the Soviet Union or toward the countries of the third world.
It would also be self-mutilating to restrict American ideological power to anticommunism. First, there are, strange as it may seem, other sources of misery and repression than communism in the world. A great power that concentrates on only one is likely to find the response abroad more cynical than enthusiastic, unless it shows a willingness to deal also with the causes of human blight that lie in its own sphere of influence.
Secondly, the attempt to connect all revolts against injustice and oppression with Soviet plots and Soviet-sponsored terrorism—even when there is evidence of Soviet weapons, or of weapons coming from Soviet allies—is unlikely to be convincing abroad. No one should have illusions about the machinations of Soviet or Libyan secret intelligence; but for the guns to be sent, there have to be people there to want and to get them, and it is a great error to assume these people are all essentially the same. If the reasons for their revolt are genuine, rooted in institutionalized patterns of political and economic inequity, no amount of documentation showing communist external support is likely to stop others from asking whether the mere suppression of dissidence will be enough to prevent new revolts as long as conditions are not radically changed, or whether the only alternative to such a change is not permanent repression and state terrorism (as in Guatemala). American counter-intervention is often likely to push the domestic politics of the country in trouble further to the right, a result that is politically dangerous and can be morally repugnant.
Thirdly, the attempt to distinguish between “moderately repressive” friends and totalitarian enemies flies, as Tom Farer has shown,8 in the face of realities, since it rests on a dubious comparison between the milder of our repressive clients and the more ferocious of our foes. To contrast the Shah and Pol Pot may be good polemics. But Somoza and Kadar? Some radical regimes may turn out to be worse for human rights than a corrupt, conservative, anticommunist dictatorship (as in the case of Castro vs. Batista). But a radical regime may well be the only legacy that a supposedly “reversible” authoritarian dictatorship may allow, as it kills off the democratic opposition. And at what cost in blood is it worthwhile, for American values and reputation, to prevent the coming to power of radical regimes? Don’t some repressive regimes, in our spheres of influence, survive not because they correspond to local political cultures but because of the support we lend them?
Indeed, when we deal with ideological power, let us remember that its effectiveness depends on a modicum of consistency in behavior—i.e., we must be willing to protect and promote whereever we can the values whose destruction are alleged to cause our hatred of our opponents. Moreover, if we stand as the champions, not of anticommunism, but (as Mr. Moynihan preferred to put it) of democracy, then again our chances of being heard depend on our success in actually enhancing democracy, i.e., in pushing “friendly” oligarchs and tyrants beyond mere repression, and on recognizing that political democracy is unlikely to flourish unless certain economic and social rights are acknowledged as well.
At a time when handwringing about the decline of American power continues, and before credit is claimed by members of the new administration for having restored this power, the distinction between available, usable, and effective power must be clearly understood. Our available power remains immense, and can be increased, but we face two kinds of problems. One is the growth of the power of others—Soviet military might, German or Japanese exports, OPEC’s monetary reserves. We can neither, in the first case, prevent our rival from trying to match our own exertions, nor, in the others, weaken their power without seriously wounding ourselves. Secondly, we have current vulnerabilities (the decline of American productivity, our low rate of savings and capital investment, our lagging domestic oil production, the situation of the automobile industry, the so-called “throw-weight gap,” the prospect of Minuteman vulnerability, the condition of the volunteer army). Most of them can be remedied, but only at considerable cost (and therefore with difficult trade-offs), and over time.
Even available, even greatly increased power is often unusable. Military power is of little use either when the objectives we try to achieve are economic or when the threat to our economic security could be worsened by sending the Marines or the rapid deployment force. Nor can we use it when the result would be thoroughly disproportionate to the goal (say, to help the Poles with arms should the Soviets invade). Nor, above all, can we deploy power as we would like when the very states we want to protect resist our presence. Thus there is a major difference between the case of our alliances with Western Europe and Japan and the alliances we are trying to work out in the Persian Gulf. Nor can we use power, for example to help Afghan rebels, if the country that would have to be the base, Pakistan, demands so exorbitant an economic and political price as to make it counterproductive. In other words, we depend on frequently unfavorable external opportunities which are either beyond our control or can be shaped favorably only by the wise resort to other forms of power.
The use of economic power abroad, however, is increasingly inhibited not by bad conditions overseas but by political prejudices at home. We suffer from the combination of a shrinkage of available resources owing to stagflation and of a philosophy, or rather an ideology, that denounces foreign aid as useless at best, nefarious at worst, and tells developing countries to count almost exclusively on their own efforts and to rely on private foreign investment (least likely to go to the most needy places). This is why the US often appears as having little to offer and little to threaten with.
Even usable power may turn out to be ineffectual. In Vietnam, we learned that the employment of immense power assured no victory if we respected domestic and external restraints on even bigger efforts that would be capable of annihilating the enemy. Such efforts were risky abroad, too divisive at home; yet anything less (even if it was huge) turned to dross, given the weak and rotting political base from which, in South Vietnam, our power was being exerted. And in wartime the dynamics and requirements of the military enterprise make it difficult, if not impossible, to concentrate on achieving what is the precondition for ultimate success: political and social reform.
More recently, all of America’s might in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf probably could not have brought America’s hostages back from Iran alive. Here too, we had to rely on events—the Iraq-Iran war—and diplomatic skills. We had used huge amounts of power to build up and shore up the Shah of Iran. Had we used more to save his throne, we might well have failed.
That success is at the mercy of local circumstances is thus one unquestionable lesson of Vietnam and Iran. Should we use military and economic assistance to “stop communist advances” in El Salvador, ultimate success would depend on internal reform. But what incentive would the ruling junta, or the military elements that partly threaten and partly control it, have to share power and overhaul the social structure if they think they have already won and have our support? And what enthusiasm and competence for such reform could be expected of current American officialdom, which believes that it is always either too little or too late for reform, or shows toward events beyond our own national experience the kind of understanding that Louis XVI evinced toward the events of 1789? Success without internal reform would depend on setting up a repressive protectorate, a move that could cost us far more than it would be worth.
Often, usable power, when used, boomerangs. We have experienced it in our economic policy aimed at pushing West Germany and Japan toward economic expansion in 1977-1978, only to find ourselves outpaced by them both. Military deployments in some regions—the Middle East, Central America—could provoke the opposition of friends, and if not a deeper armed involvement of the Soviets and their allies, at least a commitment on their part to making our life more difficult and our engagement yet more costly.
In sum, power is needed—if only because any great nation needs a reputation for power; but power is about politics. This means, first, as Robert W. Tucker recognizes, that it is not really an independent factor: it is, or ought to be, tailored to the purposes we pursue. He rightly claims that one of our important purposes is “extended deterrence,” i.e., the ability to protect allies and clients from enemy attack in areas where we have vital interests. This, he says, is incompatible with our acceptance of nuclear parity with the Soviets. But if the return to nuclear superiority is impossible or highly unlikely, as clearly seems the case, the conclusion—which he fails to draw—is that we should try to provide extended deterrence by means other than American military and nuclear might alone.
Secondly, we must, in shaping our power for our goals, make every effort to analyze political reality correctly. Here Professor Tucker and I also differ, for instance, when we consider the Persian Gulf. His narrow equation of power with military might and his partly normative, partly traditional view of the hierarchy of states lead him to describe the region as a power vacuum into which, inevitably, the superpowers are being sucked and which one or the other will fill. But not every power vacuum in history operates as a magnet. On the contrary, some operate as repellents, as long as all the major outside actors stay out, or at the fringes; it is the intrusion of one that may attract the rivals. In today’s world, furthermore, the independent actors of a given area are most likely to make it difficult for outsiders to “fill the vacuum” quite so mechanically and completely.
Once again, we must study the political terrain before preparing the military ground. And this, in turn, means beginning with a clear view of the possible threats (among which, in the Persian Gulf, a Soviet invasion is but one and not the most likely). We must go on to ask which of these threats could be deterred, deferred, or met by American military forces in the region, which ones could actually be made worse by such forces. We should end by asking what the political obstacles and preconditions are to an American military presence, insofar as it would be useful at all.
Those who lack enthusiasm for that presence may do so, not because, as Tucker says, they can’t face the prospect of difficult relations with Moscow, but because they are acutely aware of these preconditions—such as dealing with the Palestinian issue—and unconvinced that the Soviet threat of aggression, against which American ground forces might have a credible tripwire effect, is so urgent that the benefits of deploying them would outweigh the costs. Those of the New Orthodoxy who analyze the world almost solely as a contest between Washington and Moscow, and who concentrate on the giants without perceiving the costs and inhibitions the giants face, and the stilts on which the pygmies stand, risk stumbling into another disaster. In a second essay, I will try to suggest a different kind of response to the crisis Americans feel so acutely today.
(This is the first part of a two-part article. The second will appear in the next issue.)
April 16, 1981
“The Perils of Incoherence,” Foreign Affairs, America and the World, 1978; “Requiem,” Foreign Policy, no. 42, Spring, 1981. ↩
Paris, Fayard, 1980. ↩
See Raymond Vernon, “Gone Are the Cash Cows of Yesteryear,” Harvard Business Review, November/December 1980, pp. 150-155. ↩
David A. Deese and Joseph S. Nye, Energy and Security (Ballinger, 1980), p. 392. ↩
See Daniel Yankelovich and Larry Kaagan, “Assertive America,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 59, No. 3, 1981, pp. 696-713. ↩
“The Purposes of American Power,” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1980-1981, vol. 59, no. 2, pp. 241-274. ↩
Tucker, “The Purposes of American Power,” p. 272. ↩
Tom Farer, “Reagan and the Dictators,” The New York Review of Books, March 19, 1981, pp. 10-16. ↩