Commentary Magazine

America and the World: The Next Four Years: Beyond Detente


Do we live in a new world? To a growing number the question will appear little more than rhetorical. The view that we are witnessing what amounts to a transformation of sorts in world politics is no longer the possession of a select group. It is now broadly subscribed to by the foreign-policy elites. It is entertained by a number of persons who occupy key foreign-policy positions within the new administration. At least, it was entertained prior to their assumption of power. Whether it will be held to now that there are more heady and serious things to do than writing articles in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy remains to be seen.

The principal features of the new world we have presumably entered are by this time reasonably familiar. It is a matter of common agreement that the international system today is far more complex than it has ever been, if only because of the startling increase in the number of actors and of issues. At the same time, this proliferation of actors and issues has been attended by an equally startling increase in relationships of mutual dependence that, once entered into, can normally be broken only at exorbitant cost. These relationships are but rarely susceptible to the arbitrament of force. Though interdependencies may and do breed conflicts of interest, the threat or use of force to resolve these conflicts is likely to prove more injurious to the user than non-forcible means (even if the latter should frequently prove quite limited in their effectiveness). Thus the principal sanctions of the past no longer respond to the “logic” of the new world. Instead, novel methods of conflict resolution are called for that will respond to a system in which the actors are not only many but of diverse character and the relationships they form are far more compromising of the state’s independence of action than were the relationships characterizing world politics of only a generation ago.

This emergent international system is not only found to be far more complex than the system it is displacing, it is also seen as far less hierarchical. Indeed, the decline of hierarchy appears as both consequence and cause of increased complexity. It is the consequence in that the emergence of new actors and new issues no longer permits the concentration of power the previous system permitted. Then, too, mutual dependencies that increasingly limit the freedom of action even of great states must also result in the steady diffusion of power. It is the cause in that the insistent and growing demands for greater equality advanced by the new states presumably presage a system in which conflicts will be increasingly resolved through complex bargaining rather than through great-power fiat.

To be sure, the emergent system is still seen as one that remains hierarchical. Even so, hierarchy no longer is found to have the salience and solidity it once had. In consequence, the great powers may no longer be expected to play their traditionally preponderant roles and to enjoy their once customary advantages. In place of a rough and precarious equality of the strong, the only equality international society has ever known, a new equality is arising, largely as a result of the decline in utility of traditional instruments of power—above all, of military power.

Given this view of the new world we are entering, or have already entered, the growing emphasis on North-South rather than East-West relationships becomes at once understandable. It is relationships between developed and developing countries that appear to fit this view. By contrast, relations with the major Communist powers can scarcely be accommodated to it. Whereas North-South relations evoke a present and future need of “world-order” politics, East-West relations remain as an unpleasant reminder of “balance-of-power” politics. For those committed to the new world this must of course pose difficulties. Still, such difficulties can be reduced by considering East-West relationships as little more than the residue of a world that is increasingly at odds with the forces now dominant in global politics.




What are we to say of this new world? A harsh and brief answer is that it appears so far divorced from contemporary realities that one is inclined to conclude that it is very largely the product of desire. Certainly there is very little to point to in today’s world that bears out this vision. On the contrary, the signs insistently point in the opposite direction. They do so even if one accepts the emphasis placed on North-South rather than East-West relationships. For the conflicts that increasingly mark the relationships between developed and developing countries are conflicts over wealth and power—and status—and these are exactly the conflicts in which states have traditionally engaged. Given the stakes involved, there is little reason to expect that they will be moderate. There is even less reason to expect moderation, if one adds to these perennial stakes of state rivalries the ideological differences arising between many of the developing countries and the industrial democracies of the North. If these conflicts nevertheless prove moderate, it will only be because those challenging the present distribution of wealth and power do not have sufficient means to mount an effective challenge.

For once we take away the major oil-producing states of the developing world, what does Southern power amount to? Clearly, it amounts to something. What is by now a very large literature dealing with the growing importance of the developing world in its own right cannot be wholly misplaced. But this is not at issue here. Instead, it is the significance of the new states relative to the significance of the Soviet Union.1

There is no real comparison here and no amount of ingenuity can alter this judgment. Again, the major oil-producing states of the developing world apart, the importance of the new states cannot be divorced for the most part from this nation’s continuing rivalry with the Soviet Union (and, in much lesser degree today, with China). In the new world, as in the old, it is the rivalry of the great powers that affords such significance in global politics as most of the developing countries enjoy. The North-South relationship therefore remains a function of the East-West relationship.

If illustration is needed of this, Southern Africa provides a case in point. What has given a sense of urgency and new importance to American policy in this region? Certainly, it is not the intrinsic significance of Southern Africa. If this were the reason we should have expected an American government to have directed its attention to the task of averting a race war long before the time it did in fact do so. The potential for such conflict has long been apparent. The relative indifference shown until recently by the United States to this prospect has scarcely improved our relations with black Africa. Yet until the Angolan war and the successful intervention by the Soviet Union and Cuba in that conflict, these considerations were insufficient to effect a change in American policy. And if in the wake of Angola the heightened potential for race war has brought about a change in American policy, it is not primarily because of the tragedy in human terms such conflict would entail. Instead, it is the prospect that a widening “war of liberation” from white rule would allow the Soviet Union to extend and consolidate its influence in a region where heretofore this influence has been very modest.




What prevents the above considerations from being seen as altogether commonplace is not an estimate of the role and importance today of the new states that must ultimately provoke skepticism even on the part of the credulous, but a belief in the declining utility of military power. If for whatever reasons this belief is strong enough, the significance of East-West relationships is bound to assume modest proportions in comparison with the significance it once assumed. Moreover, to the degree a belief in the declining utility of military power is attended by the conviction of a corresponding rise in the utility of economic power, the tendency to reduce the importance once given the Soviet-American relationship is further strengthened. For the critical importance that was generally attached to this relationship in an earlier period consisted precisely in seeing it above all as a “balance-of-power” relationship, that is, as one determined by relative military power. With but a brief exception in the late 1950’s, the economic power per se of the Soviet Union was never regarded as critical to this relationship since American (and, even more, Western) economic preponderance was taken, to all intents and purposes, as irreversible. It is still so taken, though now in a period when economic power per se is increasingly assigned the role once given to military power. The emergent balance of power, as it were, is increasingly seen above all as an economic balance, and in the scales of this balance the Soviet Union continues to be far outweighed by the West.2

This is, at least, the most respectable argument for reducing the importance once given to East-West relationships. If valid, it does not really matter how militarily powerful the Soviet Union becomes. At any rate, within a very broad margin for error in calculating the balance of military power, it does not really matter. This being so, it also follows that it does not really matter that the Soviet Union has shown such persistence and determination in the build-up of both its strategic and conventional military forces. If the utility of military power has declined to the extent many now insist that it has, and if this decline holds out no reasonable prospect of being reversed, there is no need to speculate on why Soviet leadership continues its impressive military build-up. Ingenuous—and disingenuous—arguments that seek to account for this otherwise curious behavior are superfluous.

Nevertheless, arguments are made. One such argument is that the Soviet arms build-up is indicative of mindless behavior on the part of Soviet leadership. The Russians, this argument runs, have yet to comprehend the nature of the contemporary world. If they did, they would see that most of their arms are without meaningful purpose and that this is certainly true for the massive increase in strategic forces and conventional naval forces they are presently undertaking. This same view, applied to strategic forces, is implicit in the well-known response of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to criticism that his policy on strategic-arms-limitations agreements ran the risk of conceding strategic superiority to the Soviet Union. “[What], in the name of God, is strategic superiority? What is the significance of it, politically, militarily, operationally, at these levels of numbers? What do you do with it?”

These are questions, however, that are more properly addressed to those who seek strategic superiority today. One purpose might be to persuade America’s major allies that the once vaunted power of their protector can no longer be relied upon to protect them in a future crisis and that, accordingly, they ought to draw the necessary political consequences. If this purpose seems trivial and insubstantial to some, it may nevertheless appear quite important to others. So, too, the rapid development of naval forces with an expanding interventionary capability may seem trivial and unimportant to some. In the region of the Red Sea, however, this same capability may one day be used to impede—or plausibly threaten to impede—the flow of oil to Europe. Indeed, the mere capability to impede the flow of oil may be converted to political leverage.

Finally, there is a very simple response to the argument of a mindless Soviet leadership yet unable to comprehend the nature of the new world. Even if the argument were accepted, can it give us much assurance about the price that may have to be paid one day in order that the Russians better understand this new world? If it does not give much assurance, as it obviously does not, is this not a weighty reason for taking mindlessness quite seriously and endeavoring to insure that one traditional message this great power—as any great power—can be counted upon to understand is adequately conveyed?



An older, and more familiar, argument that provides an apparently comforting explanation of the Soviet military build-up emphasizes the defensive orientation of Soviet leadership, inherited from their imperial predecessor. In this view, a profound need for reassurance about the adequacy of their defenses is exacerbated by the need to be on guard both in the West and in the East. The response may well be conceded as excessive, yet the excess is regarded as understandable. This argument might perhaps explain the maintenance of very large ground forces. It does not satisfactorily account for the effort presently being made at the strategic level. Even less, perhaps, does it provide a plausible explanation for the impressive effort in developing Soviet naval power. These are not the instruments—and certainly not in their magnitude—of a leadership whose major preoccupation is defensive. They are the instruments of a leadership with global ambitions, however cautiously and tentatively it may initially move in the pursuit of those ambitions.

Yet it does not matter a great deal if the argument is conceded that in their military build-up the Soviets have acted primarily out of defensive considerations. The history of great powers that have become determinedly expansionist is, after all, in large measure a history of states that initially acted primarily out of defensive considerations. A host of critics of Vietnam, and of the larger policy alleged to have led inevitably to Vietnam, have found the roots of this war in the security and military bureaucracies that largely originated in the course of a conflict (World War II) fought out of defensive considerations and of a postwar period in which the same considerations remained paramount. It was these bureaucracies, and the larger military-industrial complex they spawned, that presumably nourished the need to pursue expansionist goals. Whatever the historical merit of this argument, the reluctance to apply it today to a state that has few, if any, of the constraints on the behavior of governing elites this country possesses is, to say the least, curious.3

In the absence of such constraints, it obviously will not do to view with equanimity the growing military power of the Soviet Union by finding the assurance of moderate behavior in what is presumed to be the deeply conservative character of Soviet leaders. For the same forces that have impelled other regimes to expansion when possessed of enormous military establishments, and particularly those regimes that have otherwise been incompetent domestically, may also impel Soviet leadership to expansion, whatever its previous attachment to the status quo. This is, of course, an understatement that itself borders on the absurd since it assumes that Soviet leadership and polity are altogether normal, whereas the contrary is the case. It assumes that the hostility the Soviet government entertains toward other, radically different, governments is no more and no less than the norm in state relations. And it assumes that the legitimacy of the Soviet regime poses no problems and creates no compulsions for its leadership that other governing elites do not face. Even if we were to grant these plainly unwarranted and absurd assumptions, however, the residual problem posed by the Soviet arms build-up would remain.

We are often reminded that there is after all an impressive record of Soviet behavior with respect to the use of military power, a record that is marked almost throughout by caution and circumspection. The record does indeed show that this and preceding Soviet leaderships have been cautious and circumspect in the use of military power. At the same time, this record cannot be considered apart from the military power that has been arrayed in potential opposition to whatever aspirations Soviet leadership, past or present, may have entertained. Unless we are to fall back on some assumption about the inherently defensive and conservative disposition of those who rule over the Soviet Union, a disposition independent of time and circumstance, we can only conclude that the caution heretofore shown by Soviet leadership in using their military power has been largely a function of American military power and the credibility of that power.

Here again, no more and no less need be assumed of the Soviet Union than is assumed of any rising and ambitious power. Indeed, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that the case for viewing the Soviet arms build-up with the utmost seriousness need not rest in the first instance on the distinctive characteristics of the Soviet regime. Those characteristics surely must add, and considerably so, to the apprehensions with which an arms buildup of the character and magnitude we are witnessing today should in any event be viewed. But if the significance of this development cannot be divorced from the fact that it is presided over by a ruling elite that remains deeply at odds with its own people and profoundly estranged from the outside world, at the very least a more conventional power calculus compels us to consider its eventual consequences.

These consequences need not be equated with the overt use of armed force and, in all probability, ought not to be so equated. This does not diminish the gravity of the consequences thereby raised, unless it is simply assumed that military power not used overtly is useless. But that assumption, however broadly it is entertained today in the West, cannot bear serious examination. The prospect of the overt use of Soviet military power is not the principal issue raised by the current build-up. The point of this power is precisely that it not be used overtly, but that it serve as a base for launching a political offensive. Even to put the matter this way may be to state in too stark and dramatic a form the process by which Soviet influence is most likely to expand. The political shadows cast by growing military power may well go largely unheralded, at least for a considerable period. We may expect that elementary considerations of prudence would dictate that the expansion of Soviet influence be carried out as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. In this manner the illusion may persist that the utility of military power has markedly declined and that, indeed, it no longer dominates the relations of the great states.




In sum, unless we assume that the nature of state relations has essentially changed, we have no alternative but to conclude that our relationship with the Soviet Union constitutes today, as it has constituted since the close of World War II, the central problem for American foreign policy. Moreover, unless we assume that the character of world politics has undergone sudden and qualitative transformation both in its stakes and in its means, we have no alternative but to consider the impressive and persistent growth of Soviet military power as critical to any assessment of the overall relationship between the two states. Attempts to explain this growth in a manner that gives it no more than peripheral significance do not carry plausibility. What we will eventually have to respond to, in some manner, is a dramatically rising military power that has all of the conventional reasons for asserting itself and for expanding as circumstances permit. To the conventional reasons for expansion must be added those reasons that stem from the distinctive character of the Soviet regime. In this respect, there is little evidence that Soviet hostility to and fear of the West have substantially diminished, and very few among those regarded as knowledgeable in Soviet affairs have argued that they have.

Given these considerations, the general alternatives open to the United States seem clear enough. It may withdraw before Soviet power, however gradually, whether in the hope that this power will somehow be automatically contained or in the hope that Soviet ambitions will prove to be moderate. Since the latter hope appears on closer examination as little more than a variation of the former, it is in the forces seen as automatically containing the Soviet Union that expectations are focused. These expectations are reflected in current illusions concerning the declining utility of military power. They are also reflected in the continuing faith placed in a world that is found to be ever more pluralistic and, in consequence, ever more resistant to great-power expansion. A decade ago, the pluralist thesis formed the mainstay of the prevailing liberal critique of Vietnam, and of the larger policy that presumably had eventuated in Vietnam. Today, it is applied not only to the Third World but, in the assessments that are commonly made of Eurocommunism, to the First World as well.

But if the expectations placed in the automatic containment of Soviet military power are groundless, the only alternative to a policy of withdrawal is one of countering this power with military power. At least, this is the only real alternative so long as we wish to continue to play a role in world politics that bears any real continuity with the role we have played since World War II. Now as in the past, power will have to be balanced with power and the precondition for “world-order” politics will continue to be “balance-of-power” politics.



In a word, we are back to a policy of containment. Indeed, we have never left containment. Nor could we do so in the absence of new or reemergent centers of power capable of providing for their own security. These centers of potential power have failed to materialize and show no prospect of materializing in the foreseeable future. The policy known as détente, and which emerged full blown in 1972, did not assume the contrary. It is quite true that the rhetoric of the Nixon-Ford administrations encouraged the belief that containment, if not already dead, led no more than a very truncated existence. The 1972 presidential report to Congress stated: “Our alliances are no longer addressed primarily to the containment of the Soviet Union and China behind an American shield. They are, instead, addressed to the creation with those powers of a stable world peace.” But this and similar statements need not be taken at face value and cannot be so taken unless it is assumed that the Nixon-Kissinger version of détente signalled the intention of simply abandoning the competition with the Soviet Union that had dominated world politics since the 1940’s. There is no warrant for making this assumption, though many did and continue to make it. Still, détente was not an alternative to containment per se. Instead, it was conceived as a different and easier version of containment, one that would prove supportable in the light of the national mood that had emerged—or that was thought to have emerged—from Vietnam. Détente, 1972, was still a form of containment, but it was to be containment without tears and without the term that had once been widely accepted but was now carefully avoided.

The growing criticism of détente, 1972, expresses the realization that the economic incentives held out to the Soviet Union have not brought the anticipated results, while the opportunities supposedly afforded by Soviet-Chinese rivalry either were not properly exploited or, more likely, were never there to exploit in the first place. An emphasis on the importance of economic inducements in moderating Russian behavior was, if taken seriously, a variation on the view that internal constraints—the need for greater economic growth and the satisfaction of consumer demands—would turn Soviet leadership away from an expansionist foreign policy and lead it to accept largely American or Western-inspired “rules of the game.” But internal constraints had never had these results in the past, and there was no plausible reason for believing that they would in a period when the stability of the regime—whatever its incompetence in dealing with the domestic economy—appeared as assured as it had ever been.

Nor was it ever quite clear why, according to the principal architects of détente, so much emphasis had to be placed on economic inducements in altering Soviet behavior. For the rough parity in power that had come to prevail between the nuclear superpowers presumably meant that, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “the constant jockeying for marginal advantages over an opponent” was either very unrealistic or very dangerous or both. If the theory of marginal advantage was true, however, it made the economic incentives held out to the Soviet Union largely superfluous. At best, these incentives could only serve to reward the more moderate behavior that was in any case in the Soviet Union’s interest for other, more fundamental, reasons.

Nor does it seem plausible to assume, as some critics of the implementation of détente have assumed, that a more effectively exploited triangular relationship might have done what economic incentives did not do. Even had the opening to Peking been more imaginatively and assiduously pursued, whatever this might have meant in practice, it is doubtful the result would have had an appreciable effect on the development of détente. The Chinese criticism of American policy has not been, in the main, a criticism of what this nation has done or failed to do in Asia. Instead, it has been a criticism of what America has failed to do in confronting the Soviet Union throughout the world. In this confrontation, it is not clear that Peking, even if closer to Washington than it is today, would make any more substantial contribution to the American effort other than the contribution it already makes by virtue of China’s hostile position toward the Soviet Union. There are, it seems hardly necessary to add, substantial difficulties for both Washington and Peking in pursuing a more intimate relationship. But even if these difficulties are set aside, there is reason to doubt that a more intimate relationship would have had—and may still have—a substantially greater effect in constraining the Soviet Union.



These considerations necessarily point to the conclusion that there are no reliable soft-options for effectively containing the spread of Soviet power and influence. It may be argued, though very few have done so, that it is no longer in America’s interests to contain this power and influence, that the risks run and the costs entailed by the attempt to do so have become too great. This is at least a clear position, whatever else one may think about it. At any rate, it is a clear position so long as the risks run and the costs entailed by abandoning a policy of containment are not obscured by the promise of effective, and largely self-operating, substitutes for this policy.

The evident failure of détente to have realized its initial promise has given considerable impetus to the search for such substitutes. The vision of a new world in which international politics are progressively assimilated to domestic politics, in which the issue of power as it has been traditionally manifested in state relations is progressively spirited away, and in which ideological issues either tend to disappear, or, if considered, are divorced from considerations of power, is largely the product of this search for an alternative to containment. A policy is desired, whether it is one of preserving the substance of the nation’s position and interests in the world, though without paying the price preservation is likely to entail, or of abandoning position and interests, though without paying the price abandonment is likely to entail. In either case, it becomes necessary to “find” a world suited to policy. For those who wish to preserve, it is useful—even necessary—to find a moderate world, that is, a world in which the great powers either do not have inordinate ambitions or can no longer realize such ambitions because of the constraints “the system” places on the use of power. For those who wish to withdraw, the same vision of an essentially moderate world must be evoked. For both, it is necessary to explain away the growth of Soviet military power with the general proposition that this power can no longer be effectively employed to serve the purpose of an expansionist foreign policy.

Since this proposition cannot survive critical examination, there is no alternative to a policy—some policy—of containment. Moreover, it is important that the term containment itself be rehabilitated, lest the belief—or rather the illusion—is further encouraged that we have somehow gone beyond the realities it addresses. “Metaphysicians, like savages,” Bertrand Russell once remarked, “are apt to imagine a magical connection between words and things.” It is difficult to credit the charge that the principal metaphysicians of détente imagined a magical connection between words and things. But they did encourage others to imagine such a connection. They still do by their persistent refusal to use the term containment.




Although there is no escape from containment, as long as this nation wishes to sustain anything resembling the role and influence it has sustained since World War II, there is a choice in the scope—and, to some extent, the means—of containment in the circumstances of the late 1970’s.

It is often forgotten today that the history of American foreign policy since World War II has been in large measure a history of the meaning to be given to containment. The critical debates over foreign policy in the postwar period have nearly all been debates over containment. During his last year in office Henry Kissinger was fond of declaring that: “The problem of our age is how to manage the emergence of the Soviet Union as a superpower.” In fact, this has been our problem for almost three decades. That it should elicit controversy today can scarcely prove surprising, given the controversy that has attended managing—that is, containing—Soviet power since the late 1940’s.

It is necessary to remind ourselves of the varied and often complex history of containment, if only as an antidote to the view today that containment did, after all, have a rather set meaning from its inception, a meaning that was given its clearest illustration by the intervention in Vietnam. If Vietnam cannot simply be seen as the perversion of containment, it also cannot be seen as the essential meaning of containment. It is, of course, the widespread penchant for equating containment with Vietnam—and, beyond Vietnam, with all of the excesses bred by the cold war—that accounts for the care with which even those who know better meticulously avoid use of the term. In its origin, however, containment expressed for the most part a balance-of-power policy. It was a conventional conception of security that provided the principal motive for early containment policy, not only in Europe but in Asia as well. To this extent, containment rested on the assumption that a Europe—and, even more, a Eurasia—controlled by a hostile power would not only threaten the nation’s physical security, but would hold out the prospect of a world in which America’s political and economic frontiers would have to become largely coterminous with its territorial frontiers. In such a world, it was argued, America would find it difficult, if not impossible, to remain itself, since a hostile world from which this nation was shut out would inevitably affect the integrity of domestic institutions and the quality of domestic life. The issues of physical security and economic well-being apart, it was to prevent this prospect from materializing that the nation abandoned its interwar isolationism and intervened in World War II. It was in order to prevent a similar prospect that, in the years following the war, it adopted a policy of containment.

At the same time, it is the case that containment also expressed from the outset an interest that went beyond a conventional notion of security. Indeed, this was in some measure implicit in the very insistence upon defining the nation’s security in terms of an external environment whose characteristics extended far beyond the conventional requirements of a balance of power. Thus from the very start, containment carried with it an underlying ambiguity, since from the very start a narrower concept of security coexisted with a much broader concept and one that might readily be put to expansionist ends. The Truman Doctrine formed the most striking expression of this underlying ambiguity. By interpreting security as a function not only of a balance of power between states but of the internal order maintained by states, and not only by some states but by practically all states, the Truman Doctrine equated America’s security with interests that evidently went well beyond conventional security requirements. More than this, in its definition of American security the Truman Doctrine went well beyond even the conception that equated security with preserving an international environment compatible with the integrity of the nation’s institutions and the quality of its domestic life. For it proclaimed, in effect, an interest in maintaining a stable world order—presided over by American power—that would insure the triumph of liberal-capitalist values and institutions.

It was this larger interest proclaimed by the Truman Doctrine that, in substantial measure, accounts for Vietnam. In part, of course, Vietnam must be explained as a legacy of the classic cold war (and particularly the Asian legacy). An intense hegemonial conflict generated a momentum of its own. It encouraged, even impelled, excess in thought and in action. It often distorted the issue of security to a point where an emphasis on security seemed almost inversely disproportionate to the security interests at stake. Moreover, by a dialectic as old as history, it led to expansion. To contain the expansion of others, or what was perceived as such, it became necessary to expand ourselves. Still, the expansion to which containment led must also be found in the larger interest this policy expressed from its inception. It was this larger interest that ultimately prompted forcible opposition to the expansion of Communism wherever this expansion occurred and quite apart from the plausibility of equating it with the expansion of Soviet (or Chinese) power.



In the aftermath of Vietnam, it is not only the larger interest expressed by containment that has been renounced by many, but containment itself. One reason for this is the conviction that it was the larger interest that constituted the “true” expression of containment, in the sense of reflecting the deeper motivation and interest of American policy. But there is surely no more reason to find the true meaning of containment in this larger purpose than there is to find it in the more limited purposes that marked its origins. Indeed, there is a certain perversity in the argument that discredits containment by equating it with this larger interest, an equation that Vietnam is then found to establish beyond question. Even if it is granted that a Vietnam was always implicit in the policy of containment, much else was also explicit in this policy. Why should the quintessential character of containment be found in Vietnam rather than in Western Europe or Japan? If there is no plausible reason for doing so, and it is difficult to imagine what that reason might be, there is no plausible reason for arguing that containment has been discredited. What may be argued is that containment was discredited at the margin, not at the center, where it has enjoyed a success that finds few historical parallels.

Nor is this all. The success containment enjoyed at the center—in Western Europe and Japan—need not, and should not, be seen simply in terms of a power calculus. Containment in Europe was not undertaken simply for reasons of security, narrowly construed, and no one contended so at the time. Considerations of political and cultural affinity were evidently very important. In the case of Japan, these considerations were just as evidently lacking, although the intent to establish such affinities in the future with a democratic Japan was clear. Here, as in Western Europe, the purpose of containment was not only to prevent centers of industrial power from falling under Russian control, but to insure that these centers—however independent of the Soviet Union—would constitute democratic societies. In an earlier period, circumstances partially obscured this broader dimension of containment and the dilemmas it might one day impose. Yet from the very outset containment at the center was directed not only to maintaining a favorable power balance, but to preventing the emergence of Communist governments, whatever the effects such emergence might or might not have on the balance of power.



We thus come back to the larger interest of containment and the issues this interest must raise. Is this interest—or purpose—to be condemned, and if not quite condemned, then at least abandoned? Few will say so. At any rate, few will say so unambiguously. Still, the unmistakable impression is conveyed that what was once acknowledged on nearly all sides as the larger purpose and justification of containment is today largely abandoned.

Its abandonment may be seen in the admonition that world politics are becoming increasingly egalitarian rather than libertarian, and that American insistence upon the primacy of libertarian values only serves to confirm the suspicion that as a nation we are opposed to demands for greater equality. Its abandonment may also be seen in the familiar charge that American policy in the developing world has long made a mockery of what was once proclaimed as the larger interest of containment (though, curiously enough, this charge is nearly always juxtaposed with the demand that we “begin” to give moral content to American policy, a demand almost invariably translated to mean that we cease our support for, or tolerance of, dictatorships of the Right and bring pressure to bear against them). More subtly, though perhaps more significantly, its abandonment may be seen in the tolerant, even benevolent, attitude shown toward Eurocommunism, an attitude ostensibly justified by the assumption that Western Communist parties in power will behave as Communist parties in power have never before behaved (that is, by observing democratic processes in roughly the same manner as did their bourgeois predecessors).

Given this assumption, of course, no problem arises, since Communist parties will then be Communist in name only. Skeptics of Eurocommunism are not so obtuse as to fail to recognize this or, for that matter, to see the need these “Communist” parties in power would have of NATO, given the likely Soviet reaction to them. To urge tolerance here and the maintenance of NATO is to push at a door that is already open. It is another matter, however, if Western Communist parties in power were to behave as Communist parties in power have always behaved—certainly, a more likely prospect. In that event, as Henry Kissinger has rightly pointed out, the alliance would be deprived of the essential inner meaning that has always informed it (as would the policy of containment that gave rise to NATO). A Western Europe increasingly controlled by Communist parties might leave the balance of power unchanged. But it might also isolate America in an altogether unprecedented way.

There is no reason today to abandon the larger purpose of containment. If that purpose was valid three decades ago, it remains no less valid today. To abandon it, under whatever guise, at the center where it has clearly been successful would be deplorable. It is at the periphery, in the developing countries, that this larger purpose, though ultimately valid, has been in practice betrayed, whether by dint of the “necessities” imposed by containing Communism or, more profoundly, because of the circumstances in which this purpose has been pursued. These circumstances—above all, the simple juxtaposition of the strong and the weak—have regularly led to the temptation to impose our will. For this reason alone, they have almost invariably led to the corruption of purpose. It is quite true that a poor record in dealing with developing countries is not distinctive to this nation. Even so, it is sufficient to observe that we have not dealt well with these countries and that—as the history of our relations with the Caribbean countries amply attests—they have evoked something near the worst in us. Where containment has failed is here, at the periphery. Certainly, this is where the larger purpose of containment has failed. It is also where the narrower purpose, with few notable exceptions, can be and should be limited.




Those who have defended the détente of recent years have often argued that there is no alternative to this détente save a return to the old containment policy of the classic cold war. Yet the latter policy is an illusory alternative, it is contended, if for no other reason than that the United States no longer enjoys the military superiority over the Soviet Union it once did. There is no gainsaying the point that this nation no longer possesses the margin of advantage it once possessed. The post-World War II order rested essentially on the conditions that the United States (together with its major allies) would retain a clear military preponderance over the major Communist powers, that Western access to the raw mtaerials—above all, energy—of the developing world could be assured on terms compatible with substantial economic growth of the industrial democracies, that once decolonization had run its course the new states could and would be integrated into this order, and, of course, that America would remain able and willing to preside over this order. None of these conditions obtains today. Of the four, the first and the last were the most important. Yet the first has passed and, in all probability, irrevocably so, while the last evokes continuing and serious doubt throughout much of the world.

It is in these changed conditions that a policy of containment will have to be pursued. Given these conditions, it is apparent that containment in the future will have to be characterized by more modest objectives than in the past. For the growth of Soviet military power will not permit entertaining all of the objectives of the past, and this quite apart from the desirability of doing so. We cannot reasonably expect the Soviet leadership to refrain from making use of its newly acquired power. Sooner or later, the attempt will surely be made to put this power to more effective political purpose, to expand Soviet influence—and, in some instances, Soviet control—through intimidation of the weak and deterrence of the strong. If we sought to deny them everywhere, we would very likely be in for a very bad time. At that, the outcome of our efforts would remain uncertain.

At the present juncture, however, the prospects of our undertaking such efforts are so small that they may be safely neglected. The external constraints apart, domestic support would prove difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Although there are many indications that the nation is emerging from the more extreme effects on foreign policy of Vietnam and Watergate, there are no indications that these experiences have been, or will soon be, erased from the national memory. A domestic consensus on foreign policy of a kind even roughly comparable to the consensus of the pre-Vietnam period does not appear to be a meaningful possibility. Nor does the new administration appear in the least inclined in such a direction. This being so, the prospect of a return to the old containment policy of the classic cold war may be dismissed. At least, it may be dismissed short of an overt threat to the physical security of this nation or of its major allies.

The substantial issue today and in the immediate period ahead is not whether to return to the containment policy of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, but whether to sustain a political-military position sufficient for even a markedly more modest version of containment. The determination of this issue will not resolve many of the questions that attended the implementation of containment in the past. Even for a more modest version of containment, these questions will once again be raised and they will once again provide the occasion for serious differences. But these differences ought not to be confused with the position that, in the new world, containment may be undertaken quite painlessly or, for that matter, need not be undertaken at all.


1 In the scale of American interests, it may be argued that of paramount importance are our relationships with the other industrial democracies of the North. The argument is unexceptionable not only because of the intrinsic significance of these countries for American interests, but because our relationship with them remains, as in the past, central to our relationship with the Soviet Union.

2 Does not this emphasis on a “new” balance of power contradict the view, as applied to North-South relationships, that a new equality is arising as a result of a steady diffusion of power and a decline in utility of the traditional instruments of power? In some measure, it does do so. At the same time, the decline in the utility of military power as it bears on North-South relationships is found by many to result in the increased significance of economic power. The importance nevertheless attached to the developing states is due to exaggerated estimates of their economic power—estimates which of course focus very largely on the determination of these states to use their power as well as on the vulnerabilities of the industrialized states to this use.

3 It is, of course, applied, but for the most part in a manner that borders on the captious. Thus the Soviet Union is held to have its own military-industrial complex that constrains a political leadership in a manner not too dissimilar from our own experience. The Soviet arms build-up is frequently attributed to the military (and its allies) and to the need to appease the military, particularly when the political leadership moves toward any reconciliation with the West. Thus it has been argued that the present build-up in arms is the price that Brezhnev had to pay for détente. At the same time, there is little concern manifested over the prospect that this same military bureaucracy might succeed in employing its arms on behalf of an expansionist foreign policy. To the contrary, the explanation that the Soviet arms build-up is a consequence of a military-industrial complex is taken more often as a source of comfort than as a source of alarm.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.