Commentary Magazine


Primacy or World Order, by Stanley Hoffmann

Sounding Retreat

Primacy or World Order.
by Stanley Hoffmann.
McGraw-Hill. 331 pp. $12.50.

Stanley Hoffmann is widely admired as an original and often brilliant observer of contemporary Europe. His works on modern France rank with the finest in any language. Yet he has written a book on American foreign policy which, while occasionally insightful, is generally insipid, often painfully confused, and embarrassingly hypocritical. It is also a difficult volume to read, for Primacy or World Order is riddled with typographical errors and misprints, and the syntax often defies translation. One is hard-pressed to explain the high praise this book has received, unless it is a consequence of the “ripple effect” of Hoffmann’s reputation.

The central thesis of Primacy or World Order is that we have entered a new phase in the history of international relations. This newness is explained by Hoffmann at great length in a series of discussions of the ways in which all countries have become increasingly interrelated, both economically and strategically. The net effect of these interrelations, according to Hoffmann, has been to render outmoded such concepts as the “balance of power,” as well as the policies that flow from them. In their place, he recommends that the United States now adopt a general strategy of accommodation: we must content ourselves with seeking tentative and moderate measures which will help create a world “order.” In this order, the United States will play a constructive but relatively minor role. The book ends with a melancholy reflection:

If we know in what direction we want to go, if we have in mind a course that would bring us to port battered perhaps, but together, and if we aim for a port that would be inhospitable only to a handful of irreconcilables, we shall have at least a chance, if we are skillful, to bring us there. . . . If we are uncertain, or if we indulge in familiar hubris . . . the best we can hope for is zigzagging through the storms . . . and being tossed around in permanent seasickness. That may well be our fate, anyhow. But it cannot be our goal.

Behind the unanchored (unlashed?) metaphor and the final burst of existentialism, there is a message of sorts. If world “order” is to be achieved, any hope of American primacy must be abandoned. Hoffmann thus proposes a retreat: an end to any meaningful ideological confrontation with totalitarianism (with the exception of those weak tyrannies of the Right which he particularly dislikes, and over which we can exercise leverage); an end to the use of economic leverage vis-à-vis the Soviet Union; an end to resisting anti-American movements around the world, even in Western Europe and Latin America. We should trust in diversity, encourage the new nationalist forces (particularly in Africa), and prepare for some unpleasantries. Above all, we should not permit our own feelings (or such outmoded concepts as the “national interest”) to cloud our vision because when we do, we just create havoc. America may not have much influence over the future of the world, but “our power, when it is misguided, has for all its limits a vast capacity for harm.” This capacity must be curbed.

To be sure, Hoffmann recognizes that the Soviet Union may not wish to be a party to such games. He concedes that the Russians have contributed very little to the Third World, and that they may be quick to exploit opportunities created by the policies he favors. But he is not worried. Indeed, his strategic recommendations show a great deal of optimism. They are, in fact, strikingly similar to the policies of the Carter administration: abandon long-range land- and sea-based cruise missiles; abandon the MX missile system; abandon the neutron bomb. “Such restraint,” he writes, “would be either in preparation for, or in lieu of, formal agreements.” If the Russians failed to respond in kind, the United States would still be well placed to resume the strategic competition.

This unilateral largesse can perhaps be explained by Hoffmann’s misunderstanding of one basic point: the Soviet threat to our land-based missile system. He writes, for example, that qualitative controls need to be established over strategic systems “before the accuracy of MIRVed and MARVed missiles begins to suggest the possibility of a controlled counterforce or countercity nuclear war.” This is a complete non sequitur, for the current debate over the Minuteman system rests on the fact that such a threat already exists, not on the possibility that it may exist in the distant future. And as for the debate over a countercity nuclear war, that began the hour after Hiroshima.

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But if Hoffmann is sanguine about our prospects in the strategic contest with the Soviet Union, and believes that moderation must be the keynote of our relations with that country, he is quite prepared to advocate harsh, even revolutionary, interference with countries he does not like. Toward the end of the book he lays out his African strategy:

In southern Africa, we must pursue the Rhodesian effort undertaken by Kissinger; we have decided to put firmer pressure on Smith by repudiating the Byrd amendment and applying a strict embargo on sales of chrome. We shall have to keep on the pressure, in cooperation with Britain and with black Africa’s states around Rhodesia. In the case of Pretoria, what is needed now is a combination of disapproval of those South African policies that would deepen the gap between it and black Africa, diplomatic pressure toward reform, an embargo on any arms transfers, and the discouragement of new investment. If these measures fail to move the South African regime toward majority rule, we may have to provide diplomatic and financial support to black nationalist groups, directly or through the OAU.

This, from a man who shrinks in horror at the thought of American assistance to anti-Communist governments in Western Europe!

Ironically, Hoffmann’s picture of the world turns out to be in some ways quite similar to the views of Henry Kissinger, a man whose policies he deplores. Hoffmann, like Kissinger, wants to ensnare the Russians in a network of commercial and political ties to the West. Like Kissinger, he believes that to challenge the Russians on the grounds of their systematic violation of human rights only worsens the plight of Soviet citizens. Like Kissinger, too, he thinks the overriding interest of the United States is in an orderly world, and that we should therefore push for new international institutions. Where he strikes out on his own is in his concern that we behave with moderation and restrain our activist impulses and in his bold-faced application of a double standard: we must not meddle in the affairs of our left-wing opponents, but we can, and we should, sabotage the security of our right-wing allies; we are not to use strategic “bargaining chips” with the Soviet Union, but we should have swapped our continued military presence on the ground in South Korea for an improvement in the human-rights posture of the Seoul regime.

The plain fact is that despite numerous disclaimers, Hoffmann has accepted most of the cant and argumentation of revisionist historiography. The cold war, he writes, established an American consensus resulting from both “the style of Stalin’s postwar diplomacy and from the way in which America interpreted it—as a grand, global, offensive design to which the imperative, ‘no more Munichs,’ had to be applied” (emphasis added). Although he observes from time to time that the Russians are not interested in stability or “order,” that theirs is a strategy of “movement” with occasional pauses, and that they will exploit any American withdrawal from present levels of strength, he urges policies which depend entirely for their success on the assumption that the Russians will respond in good faith—the very assumption which he has himself cast in doubt.

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Where does such intellectual confusion stem from? The answer, perhaps, is that Hoffmann, like many Americans, is tired of the old games, and weary of the strains which global responsibilities have produced in the American social fabric. These are sentiments not to be lightly dismissed, but if one entertains them one should at least have the courage to admit that the alternative course they imply carries a price of its own, one that may well be much higher for everyone concerned. For the “order” Hoffmann’s policies would produce is not that of a more equitable world, but an “order” dictated by our adversaries.

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