Commentary Magazine

Losing the Peace

For most of its history American foreign policy has been isolationist, a tradition broken decisively only in 1948 in response to Soviet imperialism. It was natural, then, that the disappearance of the Soviet empire would spawn a recrudescence of isolationism. The new growth, moreover, has been fertilized by economic hard times and warmed by the hothouse environment of a presidential election campaign.

Despite the hospitable circumstances, however, most of the purer strains of isolationism have failed to take root. Patrick J. Buchanan, in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, promised to “put America first” by cutting trade, immigration, aid, and the U.S. political/ military presence abroad. But Republican primary voters seem to have recognized that America already was “first,” and that Buchanan’s platform would only squander that position. And on the Democratic side, Senator Robert Kerrey’s pledge to guard American shores like a hockey goalkeeper, deflecting any Sonys or Hondas the Japanese might shoot our way, was laughed out of the race.

Nonetheless, milder strains of isolationism have flourished. Harris Wofford, a Democrat, campaigned successfully for Pennsylvania’s vacant seat in the U.S. Senate on the slogan, “It’s time to take care of our own.” True, no sooner had he won his upset victory than he tried to dispel the isolationist label by taking a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee and writing an article for the journal Foreign Affairs. Yet the article only confirmed what it intended to deny. Wofford called for “a new constructive, nonmilitary approach to the rest of the world,” based on cutting defense expenditures by more than half and recognizing that “What the world needs most from the United States is that we succeed in solving our own most critical economic, educational, and environmental problems.” As for the committee assignment, it appears that Wofford, like so many before him, sought a place on Foreign Relations not out of enthusiasm for America’s role overseas but to help constrain our “arrogance of power.”

The latest struggle of the American body politic with the isolationist virus came most clearly into focus in the uproar over two memos that made their way into the headlines in March 1992. One was by former President Richard Nixon, who chastised “the West” for failing “to seize the moment to shape the history of the next half century” by furnishing generous aid to Russia in its passage to freedom. The other memo, attributed to Under Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, was a draft of “guidance” to U.S. military planners. It defined America’s “first objective” as

prevent[ing] the reemergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.

What was remarkable about the Nixon memo was not its content. Indeed, except for some hyperbole, Nixon’s points should have been obvious: that the collapse of Soviet Communism constituted a “watershed moment”; that the West’s “stakes could not be higher” in the effort of the Yeltsin government to lead its nation to democratic capitalism; that failure in Russia would give rise to “a new, more dangerous [here, the hyperbole] despotism”; that therefore the West “must do everything it can to help”; and that measured against this standard, Western action had so far been “pathetically inadequate.”

What was remarkable about this memo was that Nixon, nearly twenty years after having been compelled to leave the White House in disgrace, was offering the leadership that its current occupant was failing to provide. Buchanan’s primary challenge to George Bush, with its fulminations against foreign aid, had struck the administration dumb on the subject of assistance to the states trying to move from Communism to democratic capitalism. But as Nixon rather pointedly observed, though

the American people overwhelmingly oppose all foreign aid . . . the mark of great political leadership is not simply to support what is popular but to make what is unpopular popular if that serves America’s national interest.



As if to illustrate Nixon’s emphasis on the centrality of leadership, within weeks Bush followed his predecessor’s lead by announcing a new aid package for Russia. “The stakes are as high as any we have faced this century,” Bush said. “Democrats in the Kremlin can assure our security in a way nuclear missiles never could.” In a further reprise of Nixon, the President added:

The failure of the democratic experiment could bring a dark future—a return to authoritarianism, or a descent into anarchy. In either case, the outcome would threaten our peace, our prosperity, and our security for years to come.

The package was pegged at $24 billion collectively from the G-7, the club of advanced industrial democracies. The administration soon confessed, however, that it could not say exactly what this figure comprised, or whether it was all to be new allocations or included sums previously announced. Nor could it specify the exact size of each contributor’s share, not even that of the U.S.

In the days that followed, the American contribution was estimated at from $3 to $5 billion, and a good part of that, administration spokesmen hastened to explain, would be repaid or even never spent at all but used as a guarantee. Although the sums were not trifling (“a billion here, a billion there,” the late Senator Everett Dirksen once quipped, “and pretty soon you’re talking real money”), the investment, judged by the standards of the federal budget, hardly seemed equal to the stakes the President described. “The aim,” reported Andrew Rosenthal in the New York Times,

was to allow Mr. Bush and leaders of the other countries to . . . show that the industrial giants were seizing the moment to spur democracy in Russia—without asking their taxpayers to spend any more cash.

Modest though it was, the President’s proposal did not go unchallenged. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt tried to link the Russian aid to a bill to enlarge unemployment benefits in the U.S., while Majority Whip David Bonior tried to tack on a domestic job-creation bill. Yet another Democrat, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, debunking Bush’s assertion that Russia’s predicament constituted a “defining moment” for world history, declared: “For an awful lot of people in this country, defining moments are happening every day.”

Despite the opposition, the aid seemed assured of passage. And despite its modest scope, it began to pay dividends even before enactment when leaders of the Yeltsin government used it to help beat back a stiff challenge in the Congress of People’s Deputies by unrepentant Communists aiming to reverse free-market reforms.

The Pentagon memo aroused even fiercer opposition among Democrats. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia denounced it as “myopic, shallow, and disappointing.” Senator Alan Cranston of California waxed indignant that the memo aimed to make the United States “the one, the only main honcho on the world block, the global Big Enchilada.” Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware allowed that “American hegemony might be a pleasant idea,” but doubted that it would be “economically, politically, or even militarily wise.” A spokesman for Bush’s Democratic rival, Governor Bill Clinton, said that the memo amounted to “one more attempt . . . to find an excuse for big [defense] budgets.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, Patrick J. Buchanan joined in the outcry, branding the memo “a formula for endless American intervention in quarrels and war when no vital interest of the United States is remotely engaged.” And even from within the Bush administration, the memo’s authors were, as they say, hung out to dry. Thus, the New York Times reported that

one administration official, familiar with the reaction of senior officials at the White House and State Department, characterized the document as a “dumb report” that “in no way or shape represents U.S. policy.”

Not surprisingly, then, two months later a new leak revealed that the final version of the guidance had cut the very heart out of Wolfowitz’s strategy. “Pentagon Abandons Goal of Thwarting U.S. Rivals,” declared the Washington Post headline with unintended humor.



What emerges from the story of the two memos is evidence that, with the Soviet threat gone, Americans have not yet decided whether to turn their attention inward until some new menace demands a response or to try actively to shape the international environment so as to prevent such a menace from arising.

Unlike the situation at the end of World War II, when those with eyes to see could recognize the Soviet Union as a looming enemy, the end of the cold war leaves no comparable threat in view. In this respect, the situation resembles not the aftermath of World War II, but rather the period following World War I, when Germany was whipped and all of Europe’s old empires, whose machinations had caused the war, had collapsed just as the Soviet empire has now done.

Then, too, America was divided. Some, including President Woodrow Wilson, wanted an internationalist America to forge instruments designed to safeguard the peace. They lost out, however, to those who wanted to turn inward and take care of our own. The doughboys sang:

We drove the Boche across the Rhine,
The Kaiser from his throne.
Oh, Lafayette, we’ve paid our debt,
For Christ’s sake, send us home.

In 1919, like today, the economy stumbled, and race riots broke out in American cities. “It is not that which is happening in Russia . . . that is bringing doubt and worry to our own people,” said the famous Progressive, Senator William Borah. “It is the conditions here in our own land. . . . Capitalism must turn its eyes inwardly . . . and solve its own internal problems.” The poorer nations, warned the self-proclaimed “nationalist” and ex-Senator Albert Beveridge, were out to make Uncle Sam the “paying teller” of the world. “The United States can best serve the world,” declared Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, “first, by preserving its own strength and the fabric of its civilization.” American participation in the Great War soon came to be widely regretted, and, as the historian Selig Adler recalls, “Endlessly, people calculated how many hospitals could have been built, libraries opened, and colleges endowed with the money spent.”

In 1919, Lenin was already in power in Russia, but most qualified observers doubted his regime could last. And though it inspired fear, the fear was, as the quote from Borah suggests, that Bolshevik ideology would be contagious, not that the Bolsheviks would succeed in transforming Russia into a military leviathan capable of holding the entire world, America included, at risk. Nor in 1919 did anyone foresee that an insignificant dreamer named Adolf Hitler would soon dispose of power sufficient to visit upon mankind horrors of unprecedented dimension and that we would have to spend the rest of the century fighting for our lives first against him and then against Lenin’s posterity.

The question, then, is whether threats may emerge that will be as novel and unexpected to us as Nazism and Communism were to our grandparents. Since the unforeseeable is by definition impossible to foresee, we cannot answer this question. Yet neither is the answer written in the stars. For the likelihood that some serious danger will present itself—a new malign political force, or a burgeoning regional war that draws us in, or something else altogether—will, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has observed, “depend . . . very much on what the United States does—or does not do.”

The past is no certain guide to the future, but the evidence of our experience is dramatic. After victory in World War I we turned inward and reaped unprecedented catastrophe. After World War II we assumed the burdens of international engagement and were rewarded by a triumph beyond our fondest dreams. We faced the most puissant enemy we or anyone had ever known, and we brought it down without having to fight a big war.

Now, in the wake of that triumph, which course recommends itself? Those who would have us choose the one followed after 1919 try to deflect the comparison by asserting that they are not “isolationists.” But so did their progenitors. Senator Lodge, leader of the opposition to the Versailles peace treaty of 1919, declaimed:

Those who . . . wish the United States to become an integral part of the European political system, use the word “isolationist” in order to discredit those who differ with them. There is no such thing as an “isolationist,” of course, in the United States, and there never has been. . . .

Perhaps so, but the choice is still between an orientation that turns overwhelmingly inward and one that continues to devote a considerable measure of attention and treasure to the world outside.



Of what does the latter course consist today? It begins, we could say, with the policies adumbrated in the Nixon and Wolfowitz memos (the original Wolfowitz memo, not the “revised” edition). If Russia were to succeed in establishing a viable democracy and a market economy, the only military machine rivaling our own would then be allied with ours rather than actually or potentially opposed. The source of arms for many vicious governments and groups would remain capped. The psychological impact of entry into the democratic camp by the great font of anti-democratic ideology would give added momentum to the global tide of democratization. And, in time, commerce with this resource-rich country would enhance our own prosperity.

On the other hand, if Russia should fail, the consequences would be grave indeed. If a new dictatorship were to replace today’s democrats, it would be unlikely to follow Yeltsin’s benign policies of renunciation of imperial claims, friendliness to the West, and transition to capitalism. Contrary to Nixon, a new dictatorship would in all probability not be worse than Communism, but it could still be quite malign—surely nationalistic, perhaps xenophobic, conceivably fascistic. This would bode ill for those Russians most receptive to Western values and probably for Jews and other vulnerable ethnic minorities as well.

It might also bode ill for peace, for such a regime would surely not be pacific, nor would it resist the temptation to blame others for Russia’s woes. Conflicts among the former Soviet republics would become almost inevitable. And war between, say, Russia and Ukraine would be no localized battle, like those the Serbs have been waging on their neighbors in what was formerly Yugoslavia, but a large-scale European war. Perhaps the U.S. could remain aloof; perhaps the rest of Europe could. But we have seen more than once in this century how hard it is to stay out of such wars.

If democracy should fail in Russia, the alternative to a new tyranny would be anarchy, perhaps with regional warlords ruling various corners of that vast land, and with criminal or police gangs holding sway in urban areas. This would be a sad scenario but also a dangerous one. The former Soviet Union is home to 27,000 nuclear warheads and the components, blueprints, facilities, and personnel to produce more, not to mention other kinds of destructive devices. Even with a completely cooperative Russian government still firmly in the saddle, we are struggling to prevent this vast reservoir of annihilative agents from seeping into the watertable of world politics. In circumstances of anarchy the task would become hopeless.

Alas, it is not within our power to assure the success of Russia’s transition, but we can certainly help. It was argued a year or two ago that aid to the USSR would only obviate the deep economic changes that Mikhail Gorbachev seemed ever hesitant to undertake. But Yeltsin has bitten the bullet, gambling all his political capital as Russia’s first elected leader on a fast-track transition to capitalism, beginning with the perilous step of raising prices. Opinions differ about the best order in which to take the various steps of this journey—freeing prices, selling off state firms, making currency convertible—but there is no doubt that Russia, like Poland and several other formerly Communist countries, has now embarked. Aid can and should be contingent on its continuing on course.

Foreign aid, to be sure, has a mixed record, though few doubt that the Marshall Plan paid off handsomely, as did the assistance given simultaneously to Japan and to a lesser extent to Taiwan and South Korea. Still, the failure of aid to make a dent in the misery of many third-world states—indeed, the use of aid to underwrite self-destructive statist economic policies—has given rise in some quarters to a skepticism so deep that it goes beyond the claim that aid has often been wasted. This view holds aid to be ineluctably detrimental, a source of dependency and market distortions. But which of these deep skeptics has the courage of his convictions? Who among the supporters of the government of El Salvador during the 1980’s opposed giving it aid; who among the boosters of the guerrilla war against that government wanted the aid to go on? And who among the opponents of Castroism has pleaded with Russia to continue its subsidy to Havana so that the detrimental effects of aid would bring Fidel down faster?

Some worry that aid only strengthens governments, when the real need is to strengthen private sectors. But the main kinds of aid under discussion for the former Communist states—debt relief, currency stabilization, technical assistance, education and training, investment insurance, and infrastructure restoration—are more likely to spur than to retard the private sector. Such aid is not likely to usurp the place of private businesses; neither will private business be usurped by humanitarian assistance in the form of food, medicine, and other immediate necessities that will strengthen the thin social safety net and thus might serve to buy precious time politically to ride out the shocks of economic shock therapy.

Even if aid works poorly it may yield rewards. After all, hope and optimism are not just spiritual goods, they are important factors in economic activity. By extending our hand to the bewildered survivors of Communism we can enable them to function better, and we may influence their feelings toward the United States for years to come—not an insignificant consideration for a country with an unpredictable future that remains the sole possessor of machines capable of destroying us.



But can we afford to give billions to Russia and other formerly Communist states in the face of our own recession and large budget deficits? Of course we can. The budget deficit is nothing but the product of our own self-indulgent decisions about taxing and spending, and the recession, for all the hardship it has worked, has not made us a poor nation. On the contrary, despite the recession we enjoy a standard of living about two-and-a-half times as high (in real terms) as we did in 1948. For all the complaints about our schools and health care, the average American completes thirteen years of education today, as compared to nine then, and lives about 10 percent longer.

Nonetheless, in 1948 we launched the Marshall Plan to which, together with other foreign aid, mostly for Japan, we devoted 2 percent of our GNP for six consecutive years. The equivalent amount today would be $100 billion, about twenty times what Bush has proposed to spend helping Russia, ten times more than the most importunate Russians have asked for, five times more than our entire foreign-aid budget with the Russian package added on. Election-year demagogy notwithstanding, foreign aid (about half of which goes for security assistance) accounts for about one-quarter of 1 percent of our GNP, and aid for the countries recovering from Communism would raise that percentage only fractionally.

While doubts about the efficacy of foreign aid have been voiced mostly by conservatives, another line of objection to the new aid that Nixon suggested came mostly from liberals. We should not give aid to other countries, they argued, but to our own; or we should match the two. As Majority Whip Bonior put it: “Is a bridge or an outdated factory more in need of refurbishing in St. Petersburg, Russia than in St. Petersburg, Florida?” Or in the version proposed by Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston: give a dollar to our cities for every dollar sent abroad.

But the Boniors and Flynns are only appealing here to the perennial unpopularity of foreign aid in order to camouflage an argument about larger issues. These issues are whether we are devoting enough of our income to investment, and if not, whether we should seek to increase investment through the private sector by means of tax preferences or through the public sector by means of “industrial policy,” urban aid, and the like. Another big issue is whether we should go on borrowing at the rate we have been doing, and if not, how much we should reduce the deficit by raising taxes and how much by cutting spending. Still another is the degree to which government policy should seek to redistribute wealth or income within our nation. How we resolve these issues will have a substantial effect on our collective well-being, but the sums we donate to other nations—including the proposed aid to Russia—are too small to matter much one way or the other.



By contrast, the sums we spend for defense do matter a great deal. They are about twenty times larger than our foreign-aid budget, and they entail substantial economic choices. The dollars in the pay envelopes of soldiers and defense workers can serve to prime the economic pump, but obviously they contribute less to our material well-being than the same dollars in the envelopes of nurses or construction workers producing goods and services. Yet though in this sense less “productive,” defense dollars purchase something more precious than affluence: peace and security.

Our bloodless victory in the cold war has just given eloquent answer to those who asked so insistently why we were “wasting” so many billions on weapons “that will never be used.” Rather than digest the lesson, many of these same people now argue that, with the cold war over, we can afford to drive down defense spending virtually without limit. Had we heeded them in the first place, however, the cold war might not have been won, for if the United States had not chosen in the 1980’s to hold up its end of the arms race, Soviet rulers might have sought to remedy their economic crisis by means of extortion rather than through the radical reforms that doomed their system.

Still, everyone agrees that the disappearance of the Soviet empire allows a sharp reduction in the size and cost of our own military. Defense spending plummeted by more than 11 percent (in constant dollars) in FY 1991, and the Pentagon’s budget calls for further decreases of 3 percent a year until 1995 when it will reach a level of 3.6 percent of our GNP, the lowest share since before World War II, or a little more than half the 6.3 percent spent at the peak of the Reagan rearmament. Ironically, Congress itself, for reasons of patronage and “pork,” has prevented the Pentagon from trimming some items it views as expendable.

But for now, in the absence of a Soviet adversary to plan against, what forces do we need? This past February, another Pentagon-planning document was leaked to the newspapers. It outlined seven “scenarios” for wars that might involve the United States. Foreshadowing the scandal that would soon be raised over the Wolfowitz memo, these scenarios evoked indignation. “In a transparent effort to keep the military-industrial complex happy, the Pentagon has conjured up a series of improbable ‘resurgent/emergent global threats,’ that can justify high spending levels,” thundered Hobart Rowen of the Washington Post—as if it were wrong for U.S. military leaders to imagine wars that might have to be fought and to think through how to fight them. Nonetheless, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has rejected basing our military forces on such “scenarios.” Not only are we unable to foresee all possible contingencies, he says, but also:

Oftentimes when we talk about military strategy and military forces we’ve got a tendency to do it within the context of what kind of war we’re going to fight tomorrow. How many divisions are we going to need to take on Saddam Hussein in the Gulf? In reality . . . one of the purposes for having those forces is to be able to actually shape the future itself . . . [to] prevent situations from arising which will otherwise threaten our interest.

Cheney’s point against relying only on scenarios is irrefutable, but the question remains: how much military might do we need? The best answer to that can be found in the original Wolfowitz memo: enough to preserve our position as the sole superpower. That is, to assure that no other nation or plausible combination of nations can match our strength.

Such preeminence is not a goal that we consciously sought. We armed in order to defend ourselves against a dangerous foe, accepting a doctrine of “equivalence.” But having lucked into supremacy—about as secure a position as a nation can enjoy—why give it up? One reason might be if the costs were unbearable. But it seems clear that we can preserve this position at a level of military expenditure below what we have sustained for many decades—a level equivalent to that of West Germany, whose economic robustness has been pointed to so often in recent years as an example of what low defense spending can achieve.



Another reason to forgo our sole superpower status might be that it would provoke other nations to band against us. But this is unlikely precisely because American preeminence is not tantamount to “hegemony.” America’s hegemonic tendencies, whatever they may have been when the country was young, disappeared as it became a mature power. Within North America, the U.S. has long been preeminent, but Washington dictates neither to Canada nor to Mexico. Indeed, during the cold war, Mexico, a country as vulnerable to U.S. power as any, often took Havana’s side against Washington—with impunity. Japan and Germany, whom we had helped back onto their feet after the war, have outdone us on some commercial fronts, thereby feeding our nettlesome trade deficit, all the while remaining dependent on our military protection.

In truth, it might be said of the America of these past 75 years that never has so much military might whetted so little an imperial appetite. Today, as it was for a period in the late 1940’s before the flowering of Soviet nuclear weapons, America is the mightiest nation on earth. But this supremacy has not been exploited, and no one save perhaps miscreants like Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein is frightened by it. Could the same be said if the position of paramountcy were occupied by the USSR? China? Germany? Japan? France? India?

Indeed, many countries, as Wolfowitz pointed out in his memo, feel safer knowing that American might is out there as a potential makeweight against their neighbors or other regional powers. The maintenance of that might will, if anything, have a soothing effect on the rest of the world—provided that we behave with grace and respect for the pride of others, that we consult and do not bully, that we act cooperatively when possible. Just as American generosity benefits us as well as others, so American strength benefits others as well as ourselves.

But might not American preeminence defeat the cause of international cooperation? The New York Times characterized the Wolfowitz memo as “the clearest rejection to date of collective internationalism”; the Times columnist Leslie Gelb complained that it contained “practically nothing about trying to nurture collective security through the United Nations”; UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali went so far as to say it would spell “the end of the UN.” But in truth, the day of collective security, if it is ever to arrive, will be hastened rather than retarded by U.S. preeminence. In the history of the UN, collective-security actions have been undertaken twice—in Korea and Kuwait. What the episodes have in common is that both times America was the organizer and Americans did most of the fighting. Nothing would have happened otherwise, just as nothing happened in response to the rape of Bosnia as long as the United States waited for others to lead, even though the others in question were the rich, powerful European states most often looked to as a source of leadership alternative to America’s.

Despite this experience, in its revised form, the defense guidance places great emphasis on collective action, with the small caveat that “we [cannot] allow our critical interests to depend solely on international mechanisms.” Instead of trying to forestall the emergence of a new rival, the revised guidance settles for the goal of “deter[ring] or defeat[ing] attack.” And in place of the original memo’s willingness to respond “selectively” to threats “not only [to] our interests, but also those of our allies or friends” and to events which could “seriously unsettle international relations,” the new version speaks only of “addressing selectively those security problems that threaten our own interests.” The practical consequence of these changes is hard to gauge, but they point toward a narrow goal of defending our shores rather than a broader one of preserving the peace.



If that turns out to be our path, we will have wasted a unique opportunity to make the 21st century a far happier one than the 20th century has been. What it will take to exploit this opportunity is the determination to try to shape the peace and an investment on the order of 5 percent of our material product, which under current conditions will suffice to pay for defense, foreign aid, diplomacy, and everything else. This would enable us to further the spread of liberty around the world by offering a boost to the countries in transit from Communism, by continuing the good work of such agencies as the National Endowment for Democracy, by creating a Radio Free Asia to hasten the end of the last vestiges of Communism, and by other peaceful means. The same small expenditure would also enable us to retain military preeminence, not for aggrandizement but to defend ourselves, our allies, our interests, and to help preserve peace.

Five percent is a modest price for the potential benefits. It is modest, too, compared to what the cost might be in dollars, and things dearer, if America were to turn inward, creating a power vacuum that would represent an invitation not to “collective internationalism” but to evil deeds and turmoil. An America with a strong arm and an open hand is the force most likely to keep such new menaces from appearing.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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