Commentary Magazine


America and the World: The Next Four Years: Confronting the Problems

“Critical” is one of those adjectives whose value has been severely depreciated by overuse, yet in speaking of the importance of future developments in American foreign policy no other word will do. For a long time now the United States has been so preoccupied with internal problems that foreign policy has seemed an unwelcome intrusion. The world, however, has not been able to wait patiently for the United States to sort out its domestic difficulties. In the past few years there has been a marked deterioration in the position of both America and its allies—politically, militarily, and economically—and new problems have by now emerged on top of the old familiar ones which still remain unresolved. Thus the Carter administration has come into office at—precisely—a critical moment, and the question arises as to how well it is equipped to cope. Although in certain areas it has made what appear to be bold moves, it remains to be seen how much of this is rhetoric and how much is real, and whether what is real is of value. The truth is that the setbacks suffered in recent years have caused the margin for experiment to shrink considerably, and the apprenticeship of the new administration is therefore likely to be either very short or very costly; one hopes it will not be both.

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To start with the most obvious case, the Middle East: although the idea that a comprehensive peace settlement is possible there in the near future belongs to the realm of fantasy, all the signs indicate that the push for just such a settlement is to be given high priority, simply because everyone says the time for it has come. This, indeed, is one of the few issues on which Moscow and London, liberals and conservatives, oil companies and Arabs and Trotskyites agree. I have already argued at length in these pages that a resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Arab states, itself an unlikely prospect, would in any case not necessarily bring peace to the Middle East, which contains plenty of other volatile elements in addition to the Arab-Israeli confrontation.1 If, moreover, some of the planners have their way, and a new Palestinian state is established on the West Bank, the situation is liable to deteriorate even further. It is said that unless there is some movement toward defusing the Arab-Israeli conflict there may well be a new war two or three years hence. This is quite possible, but the establishment of what is sure to be a non-viable and therefore irredentist state in Palestine would lead to a new war with even greater certainty. There remains the hope that a fresh impetus may coax the two sides out of the present impasse and that this may eventually result in Palestinian autonomy within a wider framework, such as a federation with Jordan. But a Geneva-type conference aiming at a comprehensive settlement is the approach perhaps least conducive to progress toward this end. The most one can reasonably aim for at this juncture is a beginning in a process that will take many years to unfold. Any attempt to force a lasting, comprehensive settlement here and now is bound to end in breakdown.

Moreover, to concentrate on that comprehensive, lasting, but elusive peace settlement—something the Carter administration shows every sign of intending to do—is to ignore another urgent Middle Eastern problem which has far more serious implications: the price of OPEC oil. The large-scale indebtedness that has resulted from the price of OPEC oil is an infinitely more acute danger to world prosperity and stability, and thus to world peace, than the Arab-Israeli conflict. Were it not for oil, indeed, the Arab-Israeli conflict would be just another of the irritants disturbing world peace. What magnifies the danger in Western eyes is the fear that a new Arab-Israeli war may lead to another oil embargo and thus to the economic ruin of the importing nations. Yet quite irrespective of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the economies of many countries are in grave trouble already because they cannot afford oil at the current price levels. And despite the optimistic talk one hears in certain circles, financial collapse on a global scale remains a very real threat. The riots in Egypt earlier this year are just a first indication of the coming storms in the countries most affected.

Saudi Arabia was praised last December for its statesmanlike restraint in deciding to increase the price of oil by only 5 per cent instead of 15 per cent. But since the United States, West Germany, and Japan are already financing the oil imports of the insolvent countries—OPEC’s contribution being insignificant—and since there is little prospect that these debts will be paid back, it is difficult to see what the general jubilation was all about. Although there is no easy way to solve the problem, there are many ways to reduce the pressure (and the price), ranging from conservation measures and the development of alternative sources of energy to eliminating the oil companies as intermediaries and creating conditions in which the cartel might break up. It is precisely in this direction that American initiatives at home and leadership abroad will be needed to avert disaster.

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Relations with the Soviet Union remain one of the central issues facing the new administration. President Carter has been urged by ex-ambassadors (from George Kennan to Charles Yost) and business interests (from Coca Cola to El Paso Oil) to put an end to the “neglect” of relations with Russia. What in their view is needed, as a recent statement by the American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations puts it, is “a resolute abandonment of the stale slogans and reflexes of the cold war, a recognition that this is a new era, with different problems and possibilities, and a determination not to be governed by the compulsions of military competition.” There is little to quarrel with in sentiments of this kind, but how they are to be translated into the terms of arms control, of economic cooperation, and of political management is another matter.

The general feeling among experts is that the race to control strategic arms is being lost.2 Of course the only sure way to “win” this race is to break down national boundaries—something no country is at present willing to do. Another, less far-reaching, and probably not entirely foolproof way is massive and unhampered on-site inspection, but this has been emphatically rejected by the Soviet Union. All other suggestions, however ingenious, become irrelevant with the progress of technology. There is no known procedure, except perhaps on-site inspection, to verify whether a cruise missile, for example, has a range of 600 or 3,000 kilometers. Nor is verification always useful even where it can be carried out.

As to the present state of the arms race: in the SALT-1 negotiations, American policy-makers accepted unequal ceilings for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s)—1,054 for the U.S., 1,618 for the Soviet Union. The assumption in Washington was that the Russians could not be expected to negotiate from a position of inferiority, but once they had drawn even with the U.S., they would no longer be interested in building new missiles and effective arms-limitation talks could at last be held. (It was on this ground that the New York Times recently welcomed the successful Soviet testing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.) Unfortunately the impeccable logic of this analysis has been lost on the Soviet Union, which has continued to forge ahead; the terms “parity,” “sufficiency,” and “destabilization” do not exist in Soviet strategic doctrine. In retrospect, it seems almost certain that the arms race could at least have been slowed down if the United States had made it crystal clear that every ICBM deployed by the Russians over and above 1,000 would be matched. But such a course of action was considered hawkish or unnecessary—“[What], in the name of God, is strategic superiority? . . . What do you do with it?” asked Secretary of State Kissinger. As a result, present-day ceilings are far higher than they need have been.

While extolling the virtues of fruitful cooperation among nations and attacking the reactionary circles in the imperialist countries for spending too much on defense, the Soviet leaders have produced new weapons systems in almost every field, built a big fleet, deployed new generations of ballistic missiles, and, generally speaking, spent between two and three times more per capita on defense than the U.S.3

In spite of various efforts to ignore or belittle this Russian push forward (the Times continues to insist that the Russians have only been “running hard to overtake an American lead”), the contradiction between Soviet words and deeds has begun to register. Attention has been focused on it by groups like the Committee on the Present Danger and the task force of outside experts (“Team B”) called in to review the CIA estimate of Soviet military capability. Reports of the Soviet build-up have even been described as “ominous,” or at the very least “impressive,” in circles which would have brushed such information aside not very long ago. The section on defense in this year’s Brookings Institution study, Setting National Priorities, for instance, warns that the American decline in real defense spending must not be continued.

The constant and rapid growth of Soviet power over and above what could be explained away even by the most charitable observers as needed for the defense of Russia has also caused disenchantment among some arms controllers who used to believe that once a low level of deterrence is assured there is no longer any connection between military strength and political influence. This illusion—and several others as well—also figured in the debate in the 1930′s over German rearmament, as can be seen from the recently published fifth volume of Martin Gilbert’s excellent biography of Churchill. Looking back on the years when he was warning his countrymen—without great effect—against German rearmament, Churchill said in 1938: “Four years ago, when I asked that the air-force should be doubled and redoubled . . . Lord Samuel thought my judgment so defective that he likened me to a Malay running amok. It would have been well for him and his persecuted race if my advice had been taken. They would not be where they are now and we should not be where we are now.” The task of playing Cassandra was a thankless one; there was not a day when Churchill was not accused of being a warmonger, a reckless man, utterly devoid of judgment, wanting to plunge his country into a holocaust, and this at a time (to quote the stock phrases used against him) when there was a real chance that Europe could free itself from the nightmare haunting it, and from an expenditure on arms that was beggaring it.

In retrospect, one can discern four distinct stages in public reaction to Churchill’s constant warnings. In stage one (1933-34), it was claimed that the reports about German rearmament were grossly exaggerated or altogether untrue. In stage two (1935), it was admitted that Germany was investing vast resources in rearmament, but not that Germany was catching up with Britain. Some said that Germany was big but inefficient, others claimed that it was not as big as it looked, and others used both arguments at the same time. In stage three (1936-37), it was conceded that Germany had reached parity or had even overtaken Britain but it was also contended that such superiority was meaningless in military terms, that the specific geopolitical situation of Germany had to be taken into account (the need to “defend” itself against potential enemies in the West as well as in the East), and that there was no reason to assume that Germany wanted war. Eventually, the full extent of German superiority could no longer be denied, but it was precisely because the Germans were so much stronger that the counsels of appeasement prevailed in stage four. Survival, it was then said, had to be the overriding consideration, Britain would never be ready to fight in view of its vulnerable position, a “moribund people such as ours is not equipped to deal with a totalitarian state” (Lord Rothermere). Hence Chamberlain’s policy of trying gradually to remove “hostility between nations until they felt they could disregard their weapons.”

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All this will sound eerily familiar to anyone who has followed the debate in America in recent years over Soviet military capabilities and intentions. The historical context changes, but the psychology of appeasement remains fairly constant. Nor is this psychology the monopoly of any one section of the political spectrum. The idea, for example, that determination in foreign policy and defense is part of right-wing ideology is historically mistaken; in the 1930′s the leading appeasers in Britain and France were on the Right (though they were helped along by elements on the Left as well). Today appeasement is stronger on the Left, but again there is considerable support from the other side (i.e., right-wing isolationism). Appeasement, in any case, has a momentum and a logic of its own, and once it has proceeded beyond a certain stage, it no longer matters whether the original inspiration came from the Left or the Right. There is the famous case of Marcel Deat, a leading French socialist, who persuaded himself that it was not worthwhile dying for Danzig and then became a leading collaborationist of the Nazis.

There is, of course, one basic difference between the 1930′s and the situation today—which is that nuclear weapons have made a major war far less likely. The aggressors in the 1930′s could hope for a quick and easy victory, but this is no longer so today (provided, of course, the West does not invite aggression by neglecting its defenses, both strategic and conventional). Hitler wanted war; the Soviet leaders do not. But precisely because the military issues are no longer that straightforward, confusion tends to be even more widespread than in the 1930′s. Not only have the arguments and illusions of the 1930′s returned in full force, but they have been compounded by others suitable to the nuclear age. Thus we hear it said that the Soviets are slow learners who have not as yet mastered the essentials of strategy in the nuclear age and are merely squandering money and resources on arms that cannot possibly give them a military or political advantage. Others in a more familiar spirit point to Russia’s geopolitical situation and its feeling of insecurity because it has to defend itself on two fronts. Still others stress tradition and culture—the Russians have always been great believers in quantity.

It is useful to keep the historical parallels in mind at this moment when the pressure to sign another SALT treaty is becoming so strong. That pressure is coming from Washington as well as from Moscow. On the Soviet side, the policy has all along been to weaken the American position slowly and to avoid sudden shocks. Soviet leaders know from bitter experience that the U.S., once threatened or challenged, is still capable of gigantic efforts, such as happened after the launching of Sputnik-1 and on several other occasions. Hence the urgency with which Brezhnev—mindful of the growing realism in the U.S. over the Soviet build-up—now insists on the completion of the SALT talks. On the American side, some say that even a meaningless treaty is better than no treaty, or that this is the last chance before the moderate Brezhnev is succeeded by younger leaders believing in a winnable war. The logic is curious: after all, if such leaders should materialize, they would obviously not feel bound by agreements entered into by their predecessors. Those who warn that the race to control strategic arms is being lost admit that their own cures are “complex, messy, and unbearably difficult.” But arrangements that are messy and unbearably difficult are usually also ineffective. In the short run there is no alternative to effective arms control but the threat to match every effort undertaken by the other side.

It was just such a threat, arising out of belated American dissatisfaction with SALT-1, that has now opened the prospect for a reduction in the number of nuclear warheads. But it would be wrong to hail this as a great breakthrough. For, again, it cannot be stressed too strongly that the “national technical means of verification,” as they are called in SALT—i.e., satellite surveillance—are not altogether effective even with regard to old-style ICBM’s let alone in determining whether or not qualitative improvements are being made in already existing weapons systems. They cannot detect dormant warheads on the surface of the earth, especially if these are located in an environment in which there is a great deal of electromagnetic radiation. They cannot look into caves or mines or under camouflaged structures in which missiles can be hidden. There is in fact an endless number of possible ways of concealing offensive missiles so long as they are not deployed in a conventional manner—that is, in large concrete silos with un-camouflaged steel lids. Thus a truly meaningful agreement would be feasible only by reverting to the old, seemingly impossible idea of on-site inspection.

Yet even if a marked reduction in strategic arms were achieved, it would still be necessary for the West to match the general Soviet military buildup. Even in a state of equality of nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union would retain overall superiority because of its stronger non-nuclear forces. Indeed, it was the mistaken Western notion of a “cheap” (i.e., strategic nuclear) defense which contributed to the arms race in the first place. What would be most desirable is a general, mutually balanced reduction of forces, but here again a really effective verification system would be needed.

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Other aspects of détente offer only a somewhat more encouraging picture. Soviet-American trade, for instance, has considerably increased over the last five years, but the scope of these exchanges is quite limited. Although the volume of trade went up again in 1975, this was mainly owing to grain sales; U.S. purchases of Soviet goods actually decreased in 1976. Brezhnev has complained about American restrictive measures, saying that were it not for these, American businessmen could do $10-billion worth of business in the Soviet Union over the next five years. It has even been said that trade on this scale would provide work for three million Americans. These figures are a little suspect, however, as even the most superficial analysis will show. The Russians will in the future have to finance their trade by exporting a greater volume of machinery and equipment—something that will hardly create new jobs in the United States. In addition, overall Soviet foreign-trade targets for 1975-80 are quite low, and imply a growth rate less than half of that for 1971-75. The enormous deals allegedly made by the restrictionless Germans and Japanese, and missed out on by the Americans, are for the most part mythical. Germany is historically Russia’s most important Western trade partner, but even so, Russia figures only in twelfth or thirteenth place among Germany’s customers—just as it did five, ten, and twenty years ago. In 1976 Germany’s trade with Russia actually fell from 3.2 per cent to 2.7 per cent, and there may be further decline this year. Nor have there been any spectacular deals with Japan.

In 1975 and again in 1976 the USSR sustained a big hard-currency trade deficit with the West (about $6 billion each year). Soviet purchases in the West have been made possible only by large extensions of credit on the part of Western governments and banks, and the total indebtedness of the Soviet bloc now amounts to nearly $40 billion. The international bankers are not worried—they cannot afford to be, for the climate of confidence has to be maintained at almost any price, with unpaid debts rolled over, renegotiated, or stretched out—but they have become far more cautious with regard to further loans. The credit rating of some East European countries has also taken a plunge: Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria can no longer receive cheap loans (Polish debts to the West are now close to $10 billion).

The prospects of American trade with the Soviet Union are summarized in a detailed 800-page study by the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress (October 1976): “Although the USSR remains an excellent credit risk in the eyes of Western bankers, heavy Soviet borrowing in 1975 may have constrained Moscow’s ability to borrow as heavily in the Eurocurrency market this year. At a minimum it appears that the USSR will have to pay higher interest rates and management fees. . . .” The honeymoon, in short, is over, and it was not a wild orgy to begin with. According to Tass, the Soviet news agency, the enemies of détente wish to use foreign trade debts to restrain trade with the Soviet bloc. Such complaints must be a source of confusion to Soviet newspaper readers who are told daily that the Eastern-bloc economies go from strength to strength while Western economies are on the edge of the abyss.

Then there is the question of technology transfer. It is now generally accepted that Western firms have been selling technology too cheaply; even Samuel Pisar, the leading advocate of East-West trade, has written that he feels saddened by the tendency of some American businessmen to go after any profitable deal without regard to the national interest. It may well be that, as some Western economists maintain, the overall impact of American technology on the Soviet economy has not been as extensive as it has been thought to be, partly because it is limited to a few industries, and also because the Soviet system is not elastic enough to derive the maximum benefit from new technologies. But this cannot be laid at the door of Soviet-Western relations.

Which brings us to the politics of détente. The great expectations prevailing in 1971-2 have on the whole given way to a more realistic assessment. But there are still certain misconceptions with regard to what Soviet leaders have in mind when they talk about peaceful coexistence and the “need to continue the ideological struggle.” If this merely referred to speeches and articles about the incurable ills of Western societies and the superiority of the Soviet system, Western leaders would be entitled to ignore such ritual professions of faith as matters of little consequence. What has been insufficiently understood after all these years is the simple fact that “ideological struggle” has nothing to do with philosophy but a great deal to do with a political offensive which may on occasion, as in Angola, be reinforced by military intervention. This struggle will go on in many parts of the globe, the Helsinki conference notwithstanding. Within the immediate sphere of Soviet influence, Rumania has more or less caved in under pressure, and the Yugoslavs are once again uneasy about their future. Over the last year tensions have increased between the two Germanies—traditionally an accurate barometer of the state of détente.

It would be wrong, however, to accuse the Soviet Union of not having lived up to its promises; the Russian leaders have never promised to “freeze” the global balance of power, nor have they ever said that they would not make the most of Western weaknesses and indecision. The problem is not whether the Soviet leaders have been lying (as President Carter wanted to know in his early briefings); the problem is that Western leaders have not made a sufficient effort to understand the psychology and political thinking of the leaders in the Kremlin, let alone to act accordingly.

This applies to the use that has been made of the issue of human rights as well as to every other aspect of détente. Thus, the Carter administration came into office making strong statements of support for dissidents in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union (including Andrei Sakharov), but it has stopped well short of threatening to impose any serious consequences on the Russians for violations of the human-rights provisions of the Helsinki agreement. The fact is, however, that in the Soviet Union and East Germany, in Poland and in Czechoslovakia, those advocating human rights are treated more harshly now than at any time in the past decade. Statements of concern on the part of Western governments may alleviate hardship in individual cases, but unless they are made an inextricable part of a larger policy they are most unlikely to affect the general drift of events.

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The Soviet deployment of new weapons systems and the appearance of a strong new Soviet fleet are ominous signs, but they are not the cause of the recent Western retreat. For the latter one must look to such factors as the economic depression of the early 1970′s, the divisive trends in the Western alliance, and the radicalization of some Third World countries. But it is the internal American crisis—the loss of self-confidence and the political paralysis entailed by this loss—which has been the most important factor. If there are now some signs of a recovery of spirit, a great deal of ground has still to be covered as a precondition for coping with international problems that have been neglected for too long.

More than anything else, this applies to the economic situation. The social and political consequences of the recession of 1974-75 are still felt, and there is the danger of a new downturn in 1978-79. The recovery of the world economy has been hesitant and uneven; the British and Italian economies are still in the doldrums and for France, according to all forecasts, 1977 will be a bad year. Inflation has gone down, but not sufficiently, and unemployment in the West is only 20 per-cent lower than at the height of the recession. Protectionist pressures are still strong (since most nations depend on export earnings more than ever before) and these pressures threaten world trade. Above all, there is the great monetary disorder, caused largely by the growth of the market in petrodollars and the general indebtedness. There is far too much liquidity, with international bankers offering loans to all who want them and to many who do not. The accumulated debt of the poorer nations now amounts to some $170-200 billion. Perhaps half of this sum has been lent by private banks, with Brazil, Mexico, and South Korea among the main debtors. To this must be added the growing deficits of Britain, Italy, and some of the minor European countries. The pressure for “rescheduling” is growing in many parts of the globe. If, as is likely, growth in 1977 is slower than in 1976, some major nations may ask for a debt moratorium and this could lead to the collapse of leading banks and to a new recession.

Coming summit meetings will be devoted to economic problems, with various rescue operations high on the agenda. The possible political consequencies are, of course, the most worrisome aspect. While conditions vary from country to country, a policy of austerity will be unavoidable and this, according to past experience, will involve decisions that are not at all easy to make in democratic societies. There is the danger of growing political polarization; whether the swing will be to the Right or to the Left depends on local conditions, and where democratic institutions are not deeply rooted or no longer function effectively, they may be replaced by authoritarian structures.

Still, the stabilization of the international currency system, however difficult, may not be beyond human ingenuity, and there is at least a chance that the ailing economies of Western Europe will eventually recover. Infinitely more difficult will be the task of improving relations between the industrialized countries of the Third World. For it is precisely in the underdeveloped countries that the position of the West has deteriorated most over the last decade.

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It has been said that a change in these relations can be expected only if the West accepts the new economic world order proposed by the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, or at the very least if new and more beneficial agreements on the terms of trade can be concluded. Such agreements should indeed be explored, but there is no room for illusions with regard to the political consequences. The experience of the Soviet Union should be pondered in this context. If the position of the Soviet bloc has grown stronger in the Third World, it is not because the Communists have provided more aid than the West—they have provided much less—or because they have offered better trading terms or modern technology. On the contrary, they have flatly refused to accept responsibility for the economic plight of the poor countries. What is perhaps even more important, they have all along limited their trade with the producers of raw materials. The Soviet Union is perhaps not greatly admired in the Third World, but it is respected and sometimes feared, much in contrast to the West, and the reason is that the growth of its military strength has not passed unnoticed. Third World leaders will not engage in campaigns of vilification against the Communist bloc because they fear that they cannot do so with impunity. There is no such fear with regard to the West.

Western relations with the underdeveloved countries are exceedingly complex because political, economic, and humanitarian considerations not only do not coincide but frequently clash. Politically, relations with the Third World could improve if the causes of tension were faced up to: this, however, might well mean a reduction in imports from these countries, which would remove the ground for complaints about exploitation and “neo-imperialism.” Although costly in economic terms, such a move would be politically far more effective than any changes likely to be made in the terms of trade. There is in any case no objective standard of a “fair price” for raw materials; an increase of 100 per cent in the price of oil can be as easily justified as an increase of 10 per cent.

This is not to say that the terms of trade should not be renegotiated; they will have to be. But the process promises to be a long drawn-out one that may well create new tensions in place of the old. Some of the exporting nations believe not in interdependence but in a strategy of minimum cooperation and maximum confrontation; since almost all of them are dictatorships whose very legitimacy is based on an aggressive stance, the more radical members in a cartel are likely to prevail more often than not over the more moderate ones. On humanitarian grounds a good case can be made for a massive, ongoing Red Cross-type effort for the very poorest countries. But this again would do little to satisfy the demands of the raw-material-producing nations, and the motives behind such a strategy would almost certainly be misrepresented, with America being seen to accept the historical responsibility for the plight of the very poor.

In the struggle for influence in the Third World the West faces handicaps that cannot presently be overcome. There is envy because Western societies with all their difficulties are infinitely richer than those of the Third World, and there is also a greater instinctive affinity between Third World autocrats and Eastern bloc dictators. The picture, nevertheless, is not all bleak. The anti-Western group in the UN, UNCTAD, and elsewhere consists of an alliance between the relatively rich producers of oil and some other strategic materials and the poor countries of Asia and Africa. This ad hoc alliance is largely based on the expectation that OPEC will obtain for the least developed nations massive financial support from the West and Japan, and also to a certain extent on racial or ideological solidarity. But as time passes and the oil producers grow richer, and as it emerges that their contribution to the welfare of the least developed nations is negligible, this alliance will falter and break—provided, of course, the West does not allow OPEC to claim credit for Western aid to the poor nations.

In a paradoxical way, the present weakness of the West in the Third World may even be a potential source of strength. As Soviet military muscles are flexed through intervention-by-proxy, Angola-style, some Third World countries may begin to feel threatened. There are Russian “parties” in almost all Third World countries but there is no “American party.” Consequently (as even the Indian example has recently shown), the incumbents, especially if their country is located near the Soviet border, are bound to fear the Communists more than the multinational corporations—the latter can easily be nationalized or expelled, but the former are dangerous rivals for power. The Third World has never been a monolithic bloc, and as Soviet influence grows and the differences between the haves and have-nots increase, there may be startling political realignments favoring the West but quite irrespective of Western initiatives.

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There has been no mention of the specific problems of Central and South America, which are the problems neither of the Third World nor of the industrialized countries. It is certain, however, that they will preoccupy the United States in the years to come more than ever before. And finally there is Europe with its multiple economic and political crises, and its stalled movement toward greater unity. Of the governments of the European community only the one in Luxemburg can confidently assume that it will last the year. The French government is in grave trouble and the German coalition may fall apart; the fact that the opposition in each country is also in disarray cannot be of much comfort. Sweden, Norway, and Austria are relatively stable, to be sure, and in Portugal the worst has so far not happened; there is even a chance that Spain—despite the recent turmoil—will transform itself into a democracy of sorts without too much violence. But given the overall precariousness of the European situation, these rays of hope are not sufficient by themselves to inspire confidence.

Most European countries may indeed overcome their present political and economic difficulties; the problem is that one or two of them may not, and this would have incalculable consequences for the future of democratic institutions and of the Atlantic alliance. Ever since World War II, Western Europe has been dealing with the Soviet bloc from a position of weakness; if this had not been the case, there would have been no need for an American nuclear umbrella and the stationing of U.S. troops in Europe. The eclipse of even one major European country would at the very least deepen the imbalance on the continent, and the consequences could well be more far-reaching still.

In this connection one should view with skepticism Cyrus Vance’s pronouncement that the participation of Communists in West European governments would upset Soviet relations with Eastern Europe more than it would upset the Western alliance. This idea seems to be based on the indisputable historical fact that the wider Communism spreads, the less unity there is in the Communist camp. To take the reasoning one step further, if Communism were to prevail in the United States, the result might well be unfortunate for the Soviet Union, for a Communist America would almost inevitably clash with Russia in the same way that China and other Communist countries have done, and would in many ways be a stronger and more dangerous rival than the present United States, hampered as it is by bourgeois inhibitions concerning the use of political and military power. But such a perspective is hardly reassuring if the aim is world peace, nor does it hold much comfort for the future of freedom and other such values, Euro-communism does indeed pose problems for the Soviet Union, but the problems it poses for the West are likely to be much the more intractable.

This is not to say that the Soviet Union, or the Communist bloc as a whole, will not have real troubles of its own in the coming years. Inside the Soviet Union, succession may not proceed as smoothly as expected, and in a longer-term perspective the question of the nationalities, with the higher birth rate of the non-Russians, has potentially explosive aspects. A lasting reconciliation between the Soviet Union and China seems only a remote possibility. The Soviet position in Eastern Europe is far from “crumbling,” as some oversanguine observers have announced, but the Russians certainly will have to pay close attention to sources of friction in that part of their empire. This is partly due to the desire of these countries to attain a greater measure of independence, and partly to economic pressures. For Eastern Europe too has gone through a revolution of material expectations, and at the same time has been severely hit by the recession. Still, modern-style dictatorships find it relatively easy to cope with crisis in the short run. The Soviet bloc may be handicapped or even partly paralyzed by internal convulsions in the years to come, but it would be unwise to bank on this.

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New administrations always promise both to be different and to improve on the performance of their predecessors. If President Carter’s own experience has not been in the field of foreign policy, the new Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, has a reputation as an excellent international negotiator; the new Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, has specialized in arms systems on the one hand and in arms control on the other; and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the adviser on national security, has been hailed by the press as a brilliant conceptualizer.

The new administration will also have the benefit of advice from that segment of the foreign-policy establishment which was in opposition under the Republicans. Recent years have seen an outpouring of books, articles, and summaries of conferences held by this segment of the establishment, all offering alternative choices and strategies for American foreign policy. As some of the main authors of these alternative choices will now be in the seats of power, and as others may exercise indirect influence, it will be instructive to see which of their blueprints will be followed by the new administration.

Fewer, no doubt, than some hope and others fear, for it is one of the laws of foreign policy-making that the number of available options and the room for freedom of choice are usually even more limited than in domestic affairs. The conduct of foreign policy largely depends on the attitudes and behavior of the other players, not to mention the contingencies that may arise at any moment. In the seclusion of a university or the offices of a foundation, abstract new world orders and systems can be produced almost at will; the view from the seventh floor of the State Department (or the first floor of the Pentagon) is more restricted. Thus President Carter’s new foreign-policy-makers may avoid some of the errors that were committed in the past, but they cannot pick and choose the problems with which they are going to deal.

Since Brzezinski has for many years been a leading student of world affairs, his writings over the last decade or two will be scrutinized as closely as those of Henry Kissinger once were (even though it is still not certain that his ideas will prevail in White House councils). An investigation of this kind will reveal a searching, imaginative mind but also a certain pattern of overconfidence. This refers, for instance, to his belief, voiced in the 1960′s, that in view of recent technological developments the position of the United States was bound to become stronger in the world, that socioeconomic reforms in the Soviet Union would lead to political reform there, and that the 1970′s would witness the spread to the Soviet Union of the sorts of convulsions that Spain, Yugoslavia, Mexico, and Poland began to undergo in the late 1960′s. The same pattern of imaginative overconfidence can be seen in Brzezinski’s predictions concerning the far-reaching political and social effects of the new “technetronic” age, a term coined by him.

To recall such misjudments is partly unfair, if only because Brzezinski was dealing with the shape of things to come, and it is infinitely more difficult to be right about the future than about the past. Furthermore, it is to Brzezinski’s credit that at a time when transnational systems of interdependence were being offered at a dime a dozen, he drew attention to the danger of international anarchy. Brzezinski saw correctly that as far as the Soviet Union was concerned, a greater capacity for involvement in the world’s trouble spots would stimulate a greater temptation to become involved. He also saw that the fact that the conflict between the two superpowers has become more complex in recent years does not necessarily make it any the less dangerous. Above all, if somewhat belatedly, he saw that (technetronics aside) America now finds itself facing a hostile world, at a time when its power remains central as never before to global stability and progress.4 Even in his more adventurous moments, Brzezinski has never forgotten that power is still a factor of some importance in world affairs; the clash between this perception of his and dreams of an “emerging global consciousness” worked out by some of his colleagues is no doubt what has led to his reputation in some circles as a hawk.

____________

 

But what are the policies likely to be proposed by the new national-security adviser? In his most recent essay, Brzezinski has suggested that the U.S. should not support white supremacy in South Africa, should not be indifferent to the desire for greater social justice and national dignity in Central America, and should not take a cynical view of those countries of Eastern Europe that seek to enlarge their national independence. These are unexceptionable ideas, though honesty (rather than cynicism) should oblige one to admit that America will be able to offer nothing more substantial than sympathy to countries like Poland and Rumania.

In the same essay Brzezinski urges that the U.S. become cooperatively engaged with the “rising global egalitarian passions.” Since most countries are ruled by dictators, a confrontation between freedom and despotism is to be avoided in favor of an attempt to accommodate the pressures for reform of existing international arrangements, in the hope that this will lessen radical passions. This view of the world scene, however, is only partly valid. “Egalitarianism” is just one of the motive forces underlying anti-Americanism, and frequently not the most important one. The inequities of the world, especially the unequal distribution of resources, cannot be seriously affected so long as nation-states, anxiously preserving their sovereignty, continue to exist. Expressions of sympathy by American leaders and trebling (or quadrupling) the amount of help to poor nations will perhaps do no harm (though even that is by no means certain), but their political effect cannot be expected to be great, either in the short run or in the long run.

____________

 

Speculation about the shape American foreign policy is likely to take under the new administration is admittedly risky. An inevitable learning process must occur as statesmen and advisers adjust to the world as it is (rather than as they would wish it to be), and qualities hitherto latent may surface in unexpected ways. So far, however, from the President down, a certain alarming confusion has seemed to prevail, along with the rote continuation of old policies in new rhetoric. Early pronouncements show no sign that the administration has registered the extent to which the American position in the world has deteriorated, or the problems that this entails. Instead, there has been much sermonizing about the need for openness in the policy-making process and about the role of morality in the conduct of foreign relations. But how to combine the wish for détente, for example, with an insistence on human rights—unless one is ready to make some clear connection between progress on the one front and progress on the other, something President Carter has eschewed? Already a double standard is appearing: one for the Soviet Union and its allies, another, harsher one for the Chiles and Rhodesias of this world. In the field of nuclear disarmament, to take another example, everyone in the new administration has gone enthusiastically on record in favor of “progress,” but what is the value of agreements hastily concluded mainly for the sake of “movement” if such agreements will weaken the United States and its allies without making the world a safer place than at present?

Rhetorical emphases aside, it would seem that the sum total of the new departures in foreign policy by the Carter administration can be expected to be modest. Which brings us back to where we began—to the great question of the qualities needed to face a surfeit of critical problems in a largely hostile world. Moderation, friendly gestures, negotiations in a reasonable and constructive spirit are always useful; in some instances a case can even be made for gimmicks. Still, however useful these qualities are when the going is good, at a time of danger they do not suffice. Nor can the answer be found in revolutionary new ideas or hitherto undiscovered conceptual breakthroughs. Every self-respecting political scientist has a concept for a new world order; some, for variety’s sake, have offered several. What is required at a time of danger is not one new concept or several new concepts but leadership—strong leadership.

Leadership does not mean hegemony or “indiscriminate interventionism”; there is something farcical in the current invocation of these perils in view of the weakness of the American position. Leadership means clarity of vision and the vigor needed in a struggle for survival. America still is the senior partner in the Western alliance. If it does not supply the proper kind of leadership, the chances of the other partners cannot be rated high, nor, in the long run, can the prospects for world peace and for the continued existence of democratic institutions even in the United States itself.


Footnotes

1 See my article, “Is Peace Possible in the Middle East?,” March 1976.

2 The phrase occurs in Paul Doty, Albert Carnesale, and Michael Nacht, “The Race to Control Nuclear Arms,” Foreign Affairs, October 1976.

3 Soviet spokesmen have vehemently denied all reports of a military build-up. Thus, most recently, Mikhail Lvov in Novoye Vremya 3, 1977: “The share of military spending in the Soviet budget is decreasing year by year. So is the amount in absolute terms.” The problem with statements of this kind is that Mikhail Lvov has not the faintest idea what the Soviet military budget is, because even trustworthy party workers are not burdened with sensitive information of this kind. To reinforce his claim, Lvov quotes Brezhnev's speech at the last plenary meeting of the Communist party Central Committee. Unfortunately, Brezhnev was more cautious in his remarks than is his commentator. He simply said: “The amount spent by the Soviet Union on defense is exactly as much as is needed to insure the security of the Soviet Union and the joint defense by the fraternal countries of the gains of socialism. . . .”

4 “America in a Hostile World,” Foreign Policy, Summer 1976.

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