Early in the last century, H.N. Brailsford was among the most influential English writers on international relations. One of his books, The War of Steel and Gold, ended with the ringing assertion that “there will be no more wars among the six Great Powers.” That was published in the late spring of 1914. A similar fate might have awaited someone publishing a book about the Soviet Union just before the Berlin Wall came down, but William Pfaff’s Barbarian Sentiments (1989) reads very well today, needing no amendment or apology. While he had no illusions about the Soviet system, that book displayed his rare gift for seeing through façade and rhetoric, not least when that rhetoric became an imaginary threat.
His knack for seeing behind received ideas, attitudes, and platitudes of the age means that, over the fifty years Pfaff has been writing about international politics in innumerable columns and essays and in a series of books that now culminates with The Irony of Manifest Destiny, he has been among the most prescient of observers. His latest book, whose germ was an essay in these pages,1 examines in historical perspective the “tragedy of America’s foreign policy” that events have, in effect, obliged him to take as his last great subject.
To take one example of his originality and insight, Pfaff wrote years ago an essay on “Finlandization.” This was a favorite fighting word of cold warriors, who thought that the Finns had needlessly and cravenly truckled to their Russian neighbor, surrendering their freedom in a kind of voluntary salami-slicing that relieved the Soviets of the usual need to impose puppet dictatorship by brute force, and that served as a terrible warning to the free world. As Pfaff pointed out, this was the reverse of what had actually happened. Finland was attacked by Stalin in 1939 but defended itself heroically during the Winter War until forced to concede territory, which the Finns understandably but unwisely fought to recover when Hitler invaded Russia. When the war ended they found themselves about as awkwardly placed as they could be as a former ally of Germany, and a prime candidate for absorption as a Russian satellite. Instead, in those highly unpropitious circumstances, Finland maintained careful neutrality and made sometimes disagreeable compromises but, far more important, it guarded its independence and its democracy to become what it is today: one of the most admirable countries in Europe, where an open society and high-tech capitalist prosperity are combined with advanced public health services and an excellent educational system.
In the end Finland not only survived but outlived the Soviet Union, thanks to restraint, forbearance, and patience—the very qualities Pfaff finds so conspicuously lacking in American foreign policy. In two early books that he cowrote with…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.