Commentary Magazine


Real Security, by Richard J. Barnet

Giving Up

Real Security: Restoring American Power in a Dangerous Decade.
by Richard J. Barnet.
Simon & Schuster. 160 pp. $10.95.

As a work of substance, this small book could easily go unnoticed, but as a case study in changing political styles it is a gem. Although the title would suggest a discussion of how Americans can best defend their values and way of life, in fact the book is an attempt at persuading us that we had better make ready to give it all up.

Richard J. Barnet, founder and senior fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, picks over the rubble of American foreign policy from the age of retreat just past and concludes that salvation lies in prolonging its sway. His themes are pretty much a recycling of arguments that a certain sector of the Left has been making since the 1960’s: we should be more accommodating to Soviet power and Third World radicals and resist our ever-present temptation to blow up the world. But if the themes are familiar, the presentation has been changed to suit the times.

A decade ago, Barnet and his co-thinkers were outspoken in their opposition to America’s international role, and forthright in their support for America’s adversaries. “The first imperative is that the world must be made safe for revolution,” Barnet wrote in his book of that period, Intervention and Revolution. His radio broadcast from Hanoi in 1969 proved that he was no mere think-tank intellectual: opposition to American power was backed by moral fervor and activist élan.

New Leftists of the 1960’s were often described as “terrible simplifiers,” who sifted through the failings of this society to compose their portrait of Amerika: a murderous, plundering, imperialist boor. In their new incarnation these critics and opponents could be called “terrible complicators.” They now appear to understand why we might want to do something about our situation, but they reject every proposed course of action as misconceived, unworkable, and likely to make things worse.

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Thus, Barnet no longer comes before us as a righteous antagonist. Now he is a worried friend, bringing counsel about the “dangerous decade” we have entered upon. Where once he challenged our sense of injustice, today he appeals to fear and hopelessness. The American Century—he even manages to evoke a sense of nostalgia for it—is irretrievably behind us. We must adjust to “new realities,” however unpleasant they may seem. “The decline of American power is real,” Barnet explains. “To a considerable extent it is the consequence of inevitable world political and economic developments, some of which we encouraged ourselves.” Real security, it turns out, is the acceptance of weakness.

In his first chapter, Barnet introduces the three fates who have spun the intractable web we are caught in. One is the host of Third World nations that has risen from the old colonial empires, making the world polity “diffuse” and “unmanageable.” A second is the Axis powers of yesterday: “. . . the consequence of German and Japanese revival is a loss of American power.” The third is modern military technology; because of it, all our efforts to restore a military balance with the Soviet Union can produce nothing but an illusion of security that masks an increase in actual danger,.

The first two of Barnet’s fates are plainly impostors. The disintegration of the great colonial empires did, of course, produce a variety of new nations. But was it really inevitable that so many of them would join the anti-American clamor, or prove so susceptible to Soviet influence? The surge in Third World hostility did not come immediately after the great retreat by European colonialism just after World War II. It came instead during the decade of American retreat: the post-Vietnam era.

That decade was also a time when Soviet influence grew: in Indochina, in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Caribbean, and in the international organizations. Barnet is eager to point out that the Soviets are not everywhere admired in the Third World. This might be taken to mean, however, that their influence should be challenged—not fatalistically accepted. The same conclusion might be drawn from Soviet conduct in those places where the Russians have gained dominance. For all their ideological proclamations, they rely in practice on forces other than those of “history”: tanks in Afghanistan, Cubans in Africa, Vietnamese in Laos and Cambodia, and KGB people at the UN.

And why should the economic revival of Germany and Japan be considered an inevitable liability for American security interests? The strength of these countries may have brought us some economic irritations, but it surely has enhanced our long-term security. Strong allies may be more complicated allies, but in a showdown they can also be much more valuable.

There are, of course, those who want to stir up political enmity among the leading economic rivals of the democratic world. In Germany, with a little help from Willy Brandt and the Left Socialists, they have had some success. But these forces are neither the natural nor the inevitable result of German prosperity. Here, as in the Third World, a peek under the robes of Barnet’s fates reveals left-wing activism disguised for changing times.

Barnet writes at length about the futility of building up U.S. military power, especially those programs that would give us what experts call a strategic counterforce capability: enough secure U.S. missiles to prevent the Soviets from wiping out our arsenal in a first strike. This subject can get a bit arcane. Perhaps it is sufficient in a brief review to note that most U.S. defense planners who question the counterforce strategy also acknowledge that the Soviet Union is an aggressive power against which we have a responsibility somehow to defend ourselves, be it with anti-ballistic missiles, a stronger civil defense, larger conventional forces—or something. For a moment, Bar-net seems to hint that he too has an alternative plan:

Our failure to project power is due to excessive spending on behalf of military strategies that cannot work and insufficient spending on behalf of political and economic strategies that can work.

Anyone with a fondness for political and economic strategies which can help resist Soviet influence will be disappointed, however. Neither in this book nor at any time in his career has Barnet proposed aiding the Polish workers, encouraging land reform in El Salvador, helping set up a Radio Free Cuba, or anything of the kind.

This is because, as his conclusion makes evident, Barnet does not really believe that the U.S. should trouble itself much over the growth of Soviet power or the spread of Marxist-Leninist dictatorships in the Third World:

Why should a dictatorship of the Left which sets as its priority health care, literacy, land reform, and equality of opportunity be an automatic “enemy,” and a dictatorship of the Right that exercises power in behalf of a few landowners and industrialists be an automatic friend?

Where such a dictatorship of the Left, striving for equality of opportunity, is to be found is not specified. Tanzania? Vietnam? Cuba? Perhaps, in Barnet’s view, giving all people the choice of shutting up or going to jail constitutes equality of opportunity?

This book is filled with such curiosities. It should be read by anyone who may imagine that because the New Left has lost its bravado, it may have also changed its mind.

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