Commentary Magazine


Toward Managed Peace, by Eugene V. Rostow

Law and Order

Toward Managed Peace: The National Security Interests of the United States, 1759 to the Present.
by Eugene V. Rostow.
Yale University Press. 401 pp. $35.00.

America is not rich in elder statesmen. Few are the men still among us whose diplomatic careers stretch back to the origins of the cold war. Fewer still combine the wisdom of long experience with deep scholarly learning.

That is why Eugene V. Rostow is a national asset. A sometime Yale Law School dean and former Under Secretary of State, whose distinguished record of public service spans several presidencies, Rostow is one of the nation’s most seasoned and sophisticated foreign-policy minds. He is also an elegant writer. In Toward Managed Peace, he has produced an important book—a civilized, sagacious, and genuinely informative meditation on American foreign policy that should be required reading for anyone hoping to think through the complexities of America’s role in the post-cold-war era.

Rostow’s dominant concern, like that of many responsible foreign-policy conservatives today, is to forestall America’s drift into isolation. He presents both a theoretical and a historical case against the isolationist position, and he attempts to show how the isolationist “heresy,” as he calls it, is based on a misinterpretation of American diplomatic experience.

Though at heart a foreign-policy realist, Rostow differs from most conservatives in attaching great importance to international law. For Rostow, peace is law, whether in the domestic or international realm. Peace, he writes, involves “far more than the absence of hostilities.” Rather, it is “a condition of society characterized by the expectation of general obedience to the law.” By law he means simply a range of prescribed and predictable patterns of behavior—“the pattern of behavior and of social relationships which a society seeks to protect, and to restore when it is disturbed, and the pattern of behavior and social relationships it hopes to achieve in the future.” Just as the nation-state is a society of individuals, so Rostow envisions the international system as a society of nations.

This is not fuzzy-headed Wilsonianism. When Rostow talks about international law, he is always thinking about enforcement—and the exercise of power, including military power, which enforcement requires. His views cut across party and ideological lines. For him the concept of the “balance of power” is as potent as the concept of international law: the two are intertwined. Law-abiding states enforce the law by maintaining a favorable balance of power against aggressive regimes, using force when necessary to restore peace. He quotes Professor Ralph Goodman: “No cops, no law. No law, no peace.”

Still, Rostow parts ways with many conservatives in genuinely valuing the accretion of international statute and precedent, as well as the institutions—most notably the United Nations—created to embody the international legal order. For him, international law is an evolving organism, whose growth mirrors the progress of civilization itself.

The modern phase of that evolution, as Rostow portrays it, began with the Concert of Vienna, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, when diplomats first made the maintenance of peace their highest goal. “The idea that peace is a condition to be achieved by the deliberate efforts of diplomacy is one of the major achievements of modern civilization,” he writes. He sees Woodrow Wilson as restoring and advancing the principles of the Concert through the proposal for a League of Nations, and he views the modern United Nations, especially in the wake of the Gulf war, as further extending this evolution toward a more lawful world order.

Nevertheless, unlike many internationalists, Rostow recognizes the limits of the UN Security Council, which often “offers the state system the unpalatable choice between unanimity and chaos in attempting to deal with threats to peace.” And he acknowledges the occasional need for action outside its auspices:

For the crucial tasks of peacekeeping . . . the state system will continue to rely on arrangements of collective self-defense like those of NATO, blessed where politically possible by the Security Council, but used without that blessing when necessary.

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There is something undeniably appealing in Rostow’s quest for foreign-policy bipartisanship. Still, as in most attempts at intellectual coalition-building, certain important distinctions are sometimes lost to view. “Foreign policies can be prudent or imprudent, wise or foolish, too active or too passive, realistic or unrealistic,” he writes. “But they cannot be ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ ‘nationalist’ or ‘internationalist.’” Well, yes and no. While it is sometimes difficult to distinguish meaningfully between nationalism and internationalism, it is not so hard to tell the difference between conservatives and liberals. Almost invariably they divide on two crucial issues: the use of force and the scope for unilateral action.

Rostow sometimes misses these differences. For example, his glowing portrait of Woodrow Wilson overlooks the pernicious consequences of the American President’s liberal illusions about the role of force in international affairs. (Wilson argued, for example, that the League of Nations could punish aggressors effectively through economic sanctions alone.) The disastrous disarmament movement of the interwar years owed a great deal to the influence of Wilson’s liberal vision. And the misguided arms-control movement of the nuclear era—of which Rostow was, and is, a tough and sophisticated critic—likewise had its roots in the longstanding liberal confusion about the proper relation between diplomacy and force.

Even if liberal thinkers and politicians have lately come around somewhat on the question of force—many of them, for example, have advocated military intervention in Bosnia—they tend to remain mesmerized by the appeal of multilateralism. Rostow, ever the realist, is wise enough to know that allies must sometimes be cajoled into action and the Security Council shunted aside when U.S. global interests are at stake. By contrast, there remains in liberal thinking a tendency to take concepts such as international law and collective security a bit too literally, and to defer unduly to the thinking of allies or the UN. The result—already visible in the Clinton foreign policy—is, as often as not, paralysis and erosion of American global leadership.

Thus, although there is great logic and insight in Rostow’s understanding of the connection between international law and peace, it requires a subtlety of mind equal to his to prevent it from degenerating into simple-minded Wilsonianism.

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Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this book lies in the author’s historical explication of the growth of American self-interest. In a richly informed series of chapters tracing American diplomatic history, Rostow points out what should by now be obvious: that the isolationism of the early republic—embodied in such statements as Washington’s famous “Farewell Address”—was a temporary expedient, a policy suited to the circumstances of a new, weak nation threatened by the ambitious jostlings of the European great powers. As American power and global interests grew, Rostow shows, such isolationism became increasingly less appropriate, and less tenable.

Rather persuasively, Rostow argues that in the first century of nationhood, American statesmen were (almost despite themselves) relatively good at playing the great-power game. American Presidents took effective measures to protect the possibilities for expansion across the North American continent and to prevent European intervention in the Civil War. What Americans say about foreign policy, he contends, does not always correspond to what the nation does. Public debate tends to focus on ideology, but more often than not, America has acted soberly on balance-of-power principles.

The great exception, according to Rostow, was the period of the 1920’s and 1930’s, when the United States pursued a perverse form of isolationism, unrelated, in his view, to the sensible, interest-based foreign policies of statesmen like Washington, John Quincy Adams, or Lincoln. America, he believes, can no more afford such a policy today than it could then. With its far-flung global interests and huge “specific gravity” in world affairs, the United States has a vital stake in maintaining the general peace. “The society of nation-states,” he writes, “is much smaller than it used to be, more interdependent, more volatile, and more vulnerable,” while technology has simultaneously transformed “the military and policy significance of weapons and of distance—even of the sea itself.” America’s safety and independence can only be maintained by active engagement, including military engagement, abroad.

There is one important omission in Rostow’s global framework, however, and that concerns the relationship between peace and liberal democracy. Grounded as he is in the logic of 19th-century great-power diplomacy, Rostow fails to emphasize the fundamental global division, apparent since the beginning of the 20th century, between democratic and tyrannical regimes.

Today the core of the Western security system continues to be defined by the common interests and values of the liberal democracies, and the gravitational pull that these states together exert on certain basically friendly, authoritarian regimes. In the short run, peace always depends on the balance of power; but in the long run, peace will also be decisively affected by the continuing global contest between democratic and anti-democratic forces, as it plays out in Russia and elsewhere.

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One may quarrel with aspects of Rostow’s vision, but it is the kind of quarrel one always learns from. This is a marvelously stimulating book, filled with telling quotations and epigrammatic statements, rich in practical wisdom and the lore of statecraft. One wishes (no doubt futilely) that Rostow’s wisdom were the collective wisdom, the starting point for discussion of our post-cold-war role, for Americans would have a clearer vision of their future if they had a fuller understanding of their past. Anyone interested in acquiring such an understanding will find Toward Managed Peace an excellent place to begin.

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