Commentary Magazine


Public Affairs: The Impotence of American Power

The United States has at its disposal the greatest concentration of material power existing in the world today; in view of its productive capacity and military strength, it is the most powerful nation on earth. Yet the government of that most powerful nation is incapable of making the actions of even the weakest of foreign governments conform to its desires. It is incapable of doing so even with regard to those governments which owe their very existence to American support and which could not survive for twenty-four hours were that support withdrawn.

South Vietnam, South Korea, and Taiwan are cases in point. None of these governments could exist without the economic and military support of the United States and without the American commitment to go to war in their defense. Yet we have told the government of South Vietnam that it ought to change its policies and composition, and it has changed neither. We have told the government of South Korea that it ought to respect at least a minimum of democratic rights, and we have been rebuffed for our “intervention.” We have told the government of Taiwan that it ought not to station some of its best troops on the offshore islands, and these troops are still stationed there.

Within the traditional sphere of influence of the United States, Cuba has been transformed into a military base at the service of a hostile power and into the headquarters for the subversion of the Western hemisphere, and we have been unable to put a stop to it. The democratic governments of the Dominican Republic and of Honduras were overthrown in spite of American support, and we are unable to forestall the threat to our interests implicit in the polarization of the politics of these nations between the military and the revolutionaries.

The history of our foreign-aid policy is a testimony to our inability to achieve our political purposes even with an abundance of material means. So is our economic policy vis-à-vis the Communist bloc; our attempts to wage the cold war by economic means have been frustrated by the eagerness of our most prosperous allies to make economic gains at the risk of strengthening the common enemy. The Atlantic Alliance, the cornerstone of our foreign and military policies, is crumbling, and we stand watching the process of decay without being able to arrest it. Pakistan is our ally and has received billions in American aid, but we have been unable to dissuade her from making common cause with Communist China against India, a country we support. We tried to transform the army of a neutralist Laos into an instrument of American policy, and Laotian Communism is today stronger and more threatening than it was then.

We are here in the presence not of isolated failures, which any foreign policy must take in its stride, but of a pattern of impotence which points to organic disabilities in our foreign policy. That so powerful a nation as the United States is so consistently unable to achieve what it sets out to achieve cannot be due to accidents or personal insufficiencies alone. The cause must be sought in certain impediments to the effective exercise of American power which seem to paralyze even the best makers of policy. Three types of such impediments can be distinguished: the objective conditions under which contemporary foreign policy must be carried on; the moral and intellectual assumptions underlying the American approach to foreign policy; and a major tenet of American foreign policy. No one of these factors can explain the impotence of our power, but together they may well do so.

Two objective conditions of contemporary world politics limit our power, as they do the power of all major nations: the availability of nuclear weapons, and the moral stigma that attaches to colonialism and to the policies traditionally associated with it.

The availability of nuclear weapons limits the freedom of action of the nuclear powers even more than it does that of the non-nuclear ones. The latter may reason that they can afford to threaten another nation with conventional force or actually use force against it; for the risk that one of the nuclear powers will intervene with nuclear weapons on one or the other side is likely to be remote. Nuclear powers are in this respect in a much more precarious situation. If they face each other with the threat or the actuality of conventional force, escalation into nuclear violence is an ever-present possibility, whose realization depends upon accidents, miscalculations, and, above all, the importance of the stakes. The situation is only somewhat, and not necessarily much, less precarious if a nuclear power threatens force against a non-nuclear one to whose defense another nuclear power is committed.

Since nuclear war, in contrast to conventional force, is recognized by all concerned not as a rational instrument of national policy, but as a suicidal absurdity, nuclear powers are extremely reluctant to use any kind of force in support of their respective national interests. Yet in a world of sovereign nations it is impossible to support national interests effectively without the ultimate resort to military force. Thus the impotence of American policy toward Cuba is matched by the impotence of Soviet policy with regard to Berlin.

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The example of our policy toward Cuba also points to the other objective condition limiting the use of our power. Twenty years ago, it would still have been a simple matter to remove through the use of force the threat Castro’s Cuba constitutes to our interests. The marines did it before, and they could have done it again. Leaving the problem of nuclear war aside, it would not be impossible to do the same thing even today, but it would not be a simple matter, and for two connected reasons. This is the age of the emancipation of the weak nations from the control of the strong ones. It is not only former colonies that have been emancipated; legally sovereign but actually dependent nations have been emancipated as well. In dealing with these latter, the strong nations can no longer use their power at will without incurring moral reprobation and risking in consequence a loss of prestige and influence. A great power may take these risks if the interests at stake appear to be important enough. This is what the Soviet Union did when it sent its army against the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and while the moral reprobation the Russians earned for this move is but an ineffectual memory, the political and military gains have proven to be lasting.

However, the change in the moral climate has also affected the military issue itself. Twenty years ago, the government of Cuba presided over a by-and-large inert mass of people; it was an old-style dictatorship, and the military problem consisted in the main in removing it and replacing it by one favorable to the interests of the United States. Today, just as the weak nations have been emancipated from control by the strong ones, so have the populations of the weak nations been emancipated in differing degrees from passive submission to their respective governments. Some of these peoples have become active participants in the process of emancipation, and they now have governments that govern in their name and with their support. Thus, a strong nation intervening with military force may not accomplish its task by removing the government or even conquering the country. It may also have to subdue the population at large, which may take up arms against it. While these possibilities do not rule out the use of force, they make a powerful nation think twice before resorting to it.

The United States has gone further in abstaining from the use of its power than is justified by a correct assessment of these two objective factors. It has been paralyzed in the use of its power, military and other, by two moral principles which it has persuaded itself have governed its foreign policy in the past and must govern it in the future: equality and non-intervention. In its relations with its allies, the United States has been caught in a dilemma between its responsibilities as the most powerful member of an alliance and the principle of the equality of men and nations, which has guided its judgment, if not its actions, since the beginning of its history. The consistent application of superior American power would have reduced the allies to satellites and would thereby have defeated the very purpose for which these nations had become the allies of America. On the other hand, the successful conduct of an alliance on the basis of the equality of its members presupposes that the identity of interests among the allies and their awareness of this identity are so complete that they will pursue common interests with common measures through spontaneous cooperation. In the degree that reality falls short of this assumption, the alliance cannot operate.

Of these two alternatives, the United States has chosen consistently the latter. The United States has refused to bring its superior power to bear upon its alliances on behalf of common interests that were naturally inchoate and were competing with divergent ones. The result has been disintegration and anarchy—as with NATO—or else the exploitation of American resources by a weak but determined ally. Governments that govern only because the United States maintains them, such as those of Taiwan and South Vietnam, and governments that have no alternative to the American association, such as those of Pakistan and Spain, have been able to play a winning game in which the United States holds all the trumps.

The most potent of these trumps is intervention, either through the withholding of benefits or the inflicting of disadvantages. It is this trump which we have consistently refused to play on moral grounds. Yet regardless of one’s moral evaluation of intervention, it is obvious that we are intervening massively and effectively all over the world and that what we have foresworn is not intervention per se but only certain kinds of intervention. This position is morally untenable and, as will be shown, politically self-defeating.

To cite the example of South Vietnam, which is but more flagrant and presently more acute than many others, we intervened by putting President Diem into power and supplying him with the implements of power. He owes his authority and power to our continuous political, military, and economic intervention. We intervened by establishing and keeping him in power because we thought that such intervention was in our and his country’s interests. If this kind of intervention is morally justified, where is it written that it is morally indefensible to intervene in order to compel President Diem to pursue the policies for the sake of which we installed and kept him in power, or to remove him from power when he has proved himself incapable of pursuing those policies? The Western tradition of political philosophy justifies revolution against a tyrannical government, and even tyrannicide. Intervention in support of such morally justified undertakings is by the same token morally justified.

The issue here is not really moral but intellectual, and the moral issue is raised only as justification and rationalization of an attitude which shrinks from certain kinds of intervention, not only in the domestic affairs of other nations but in the political status quo as such.

We are at home with political actions which are but a repetition of past action and the results of which are likely to stabilize things as they are. Yet we dread unprecedented political action because we dread the uncertainties, the risks, and the unknown results that such action is likely to conjure up. Thus we prefer safe routines in support of the status quo to innovations which will disturb it. It is only when we are face to face with a clear and present military threat that we act with bold and innovating zeal. But when we are faced with a political crisis, actual or impending, we are incapable of that foresight, sureness of touch as regards means and ends, and manipulative skill, which are the prerequisites of successful political action. We tend to make the political problem manageable again by redefining it in military terms; thus we can act once more with unambiguous simplicity and without regard for those complexities, uncertainties, and risks inherent in the political act. And as concerns the political problem, we wait for something to happen, for de Gaulle to disappear from the political scene, for the Diem regime to straighten itself out, for something to turn up in China. However, short of death and natural catastrophes, nothing can happen but the actions of others filling the void which our paralysis has left.

Hence the crisis of the Atlantic Alliance, proclaimed but by no means created by de Gaulle in January 1963, took Washington by surprise. Our government reacted with indignation but not with reflection and political action. Yet the Suez crisis of the fall of 1956 ought to have opened its eyes to the inevitable decline of our alliances due to radically altered objective conditions. Pointing to the forms which this decline was likely to take, I wrote in 1957: “While these considerations are admittedly speculative from the vantage point of 1957, they may well reflect the actuality of 1960.” However, faced with the actuality of 1963, our government has been able to think of only one remedy: the multilateral nuclear force, a military device of most dubious value.

A similar pattern of passivity is revealed by our reaction to the crisis in South Vietnam. Knowing that we cannot win the war with Diem but unwilling to replace him, we argue with a patent lack of consistency that since there is no alternative to Diem let us go on with the war. Yet the argument is in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy: there is no alternative to Diem because our support of Diem prevents prospective alternative leaders from emerging. Such leaders cannot present themselves to public inspection since they have been exiled, imprisoned, or are under constant close surveillance by the secret police. They can emerge only after Diem is gone.

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Finally, our impotence is aggravated and rendered irreparable by our commitment to anti-Communism as the overriding objective of our foreign policy. For most of our allies, anti-Communism is at best incidental to concrete national objectives and at worst irrelevant to them, being a mere device to secure and keep American support. Thus the governments of Taiwan and South Vietnam are not so much anti-Communist on principle as competitors for power with governments which happen to be Communist. Pakistan has allied herself with us in order to be able to fight, not Communism, but India, and she turned to China as soon as we gave military support to India against the latter.

While the anti-Communism of these and other of our allies is a matter of expediency rather than principle, it is our commitment to an indiscriminate anti-Communism, neglectful of concrete national interests, which enables our allies to deprive us of our freedom of choice. They can counter every move of ours that displeases them with an argument supplied by us: “If you do that, we shall go Communist.” And so we stand helplessly by while they have their way.

Our impotence in the fullness of our power is, then, in some measure the result of objective conditions over which we have no control and which restrict the power of other powerful nations as well. In good measure, however, the source of that impotence is in ourselves. We are paralyzed because our moral, intellectual, and political judgment has gone astray. Our judgment must be reformed before we can expect to recover the use of our power, and upon that recovery the improvement of our foreign policies must wait.

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