To the Editor:
The close observer of U.S.-European relations will not be surprised by Owen Harries’s “European ‘Sophistication’ vs. American ‘Naiveté’” [December 1983]. Certainly, in the realm of culture, the Old World elites always have had a condescending view of the New World. One supposes, too, that the self-proclaimed sophistication of the Europeans reflects, in part, their view that Americans are largely ignorant of the forces of world history and essentially unfamiliar with the world outside North America. (Here, one must reluctantly concede, Europeans may be on somewhat firmer ground.) Nevertheless, it was not until the late 1970′s that this European attitude began seriously to affect political—as distinct from cultural—relations between America and Europe. (One supposes that a major reason for this was Europe’s justified perception of Jimmy Carter as a leader who embodied the worst aspects of American ahistoricity and insularity). . . . In the wake of Afghanistan and the aborted mission to rescue the American hostages in Teheran, West European leaders believed the world was perilously close to war. Helmut Schmidt stated that the world situation was reminiscent of July 1914. At that time, in the spring of 1980, West European leaders quite openly expressed their view that America was not up to the responsibility of dealing with events in a world gripped by Sarajevo-like tension. . . .
In 1980, the European view found clear expression in the Schmidt-Giscard axis (and the resultant call for a strong and independent Europe) and in various European initiatives to mediate between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although America has changed its President and policies since 1980, Europe’s view remains essentially unchanged from that of four years ago. . . .
Whatever Europe’s past wisdom in great-power politics, one can question whether that wisdom is in evidence today. Nevertheless, Americans needn’t be terribly troubled by the European attitudes described by Mr. Harries. As the late Hajo Holborn noted, the long-term historical significance of 1945 was that it marked the end of the Eurocentric world system. Much of Europe’s present denunciation of U.S. “naiveté” reflects a lingering sour-grapes bitterness that the mantle of world leadership has passed from “sophisticated” European hands to the grasp of parvenu America.
Yet events of the past decade suggest that now it is America, not its European allies, which displays sophistication in analyzing the nature of the Soviet threat to U.S. security. Perhaps our only naiveté is that we continue to allow the dictates of alliance politics to limit our response to the Soviet threat. There are many reasons to think NATO has outlived its usefulness (see my article in the Summer 1983 Journal of Contemporary Studies), but in any case it is clear that our attempts to maintain a veneer of alliance unity undermine our policy toward Moscow. In the attempt to secure allied cooperation, invariably it is American policy that is watered down, often to the point of vacuity. In the world of the mid-1980′s and beyond, real sophistication calls for America to be more assertively independent in the present pursuit of its strategic objectives.
The chief obstacle to such a policy comes not from Europe’s “sophisticated Europeans” but from America’s own “sophisticated Europeans,” for, as Mr. Harries observes in the final paragraph of his article, we do indeed have our home-grown Europeans . . . whose views are reflected in the ideas of what one might call the Vance-Kennan approach to Soviet-American relations. This is the viewpoint of the Democratic party’s moderate Left and of its allies in the intellectual world and in the media. American Europeans broadly believe in the following approach to American foreign policy:
- We should downplay the centrality of the Soviet-American rivalry in international politics and instead pay more attention to the changes wrought by the emergence of a supposedly complex interdependent international system.
- We must devise “rules of the game” to moderate Soviet-American competition.
Basically, American Europeans believe that the Soviet leadership shares the same goals and aspirations as do American Europeans. They believe that, fundamentally, superpower tensions are the result of mutual misperceptions. Thus, such tensions are largely illusory and can be ended by a “dialogue” aimed at bridging the misunderstanding. American Europeans believe the superpower rivalry could be obviated if only Washington displayed more empathy for Soviet objectives and ambitions and if only Washington were more willing to compromise with Moscow.
Ironically, in the context of U.S. foreign policy, it is the American Europeans who are naive. A sophisticated approach to history reminds us that great-power conflicts are not illusory; they result from the clash of fundamental political and security interests of rival states. The Soviet-American rivalry is inherent in the nature of the international political system; it is not caused by misunderstandings or by clumsy diplomacy. Such factors may aggravate the rivalry but the rivalry would continue even if communications were perfect and diplomacy skillful.
It is a delusion of the most dangerous sort to believe that dialogue with Moscow, or bargaining with Moscow for influence in Third World areas, or empathy for Moscow’s problems will sweep away the fundamental causes of Soviet-American rivalry. . . .
From the end of the Vietnam war to the inauguration of President Reagan, the views of American Europeans dominated U.S. foreign policy. It is no coincidence that those years witnessed a series of serious strategic reversals for the U.S. . . . The views of the American Europeans almost certainly will form the core of the Democrats’ attack on the President’s foreign policy during this year’s campaign. We must hope that the rhetorical flexibility necessitated by the election does not insidiously affect the substance of the administration’s policies toward the Soviet Union.
To the Editor:
Owen Harries’s view that fatalism and complacency are characteristic of contemporary Europe . . . is equally true of America, where we find the same superficial and simplistic outlook. . . . What is common to both Europe and America is a lack of any real foreign policy and a consequent inability to overcome the mortal dangers the world at large is exposed to. To be more precise, those involved in foreign affairs are still operating within the concept of classical foreign policy that evolved particularly over the past century and that has persisted despite the fact that the very nature of foreign affairs has changed fundamentally. . . .
Typical of the foreign policy of the past was that a number of nations—European in the first instance—faced conflicting interests within a given system. The aims . . . of foreign policy were to create alliances that would strengthen the sphere of interest of the particular nation. But even when the balance of power shifted, the system as such was not affected, only the role and power within the system of individual states. . . .
With the emergence of the Soviet Union after World War I and Hitler’s Germany in the 30′s, however, all this changed. . . . The Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany determined to destroy the existing international system within which they acted to achieve their long-term goals: world revolution for the Soviets, rule over Europe and the world for the Nazis. While the West continued to think in terms of classical diplomacy, . . . the Soviets and Nazis thought in terms of strategic goals and used diplomacy and tactical tools to gain their ends.
Now we face the Soviet Union, whose foreign policy makes full use of diplomatic and tactical maneuvers to work within the democratic countries and within international organizations like the United Nations. The aim is to destroy the Western alliance and thus create a shift in the balance of power that would enable the Soviets to create a kind of world-Finlandization. . . .
A foreign policy that is based on strategic goals is by its nature active and offensive. A foreign policy without strategic goals is reduced to diplomacy, which is by its nature defensive and reactive. Moreover, the lack of any Western foreign policy based on long-term strategy leaves all Soviet options open, whereas an active strategy would force the Soviets to accommodate and might even bring about change.
The success of the Soviet Union, despite its being economically a second-rate power facing tremendous political difficulties, is not the result of higher sophistication. In my view, Western diplomats are as a rule more sophisticated than their Soviet counterparts. It is the lack of strategic thinking . . . that strengthens the position of the Soviets. In other words, it is not the level of sophistication, naiveté, fatalism, or complacency but the fact that thinking in the realm of foreign policy for the West has not transcended theories of the past century and as a result has become divorced from the real problems of international relations.
New York City