Commentary Magazine

Taking Stock after Geneva: Reducing International Tension

The two articles here published may do something to brace minds disappointed in the results of the Genevan conference of foreign ministers. The point they make, one concretely and the other more theoretically, is not that we should have known better all along, but that the East-West division of the world is deep and real and needs a more complex, energetic, and persistent statecraft than we are perhaps ever willing to admit, to keep it within bounds.


It is interesting to notice how the language of politics changes. When people nowadays talk about “international tension” and the need for “reducing” it, they use these words in a sense different from that current before the First World War. At that time, the word “tension” usually referred to a state of acute and dangerous irritation over some specific issue. When a state of tension was noted, it meant, more often than not, that the question of war or peace was raised in acute form. For example, one power made moves to establish itself in an area where another had vested interests. As the former was pushing its plans, the latter threatened to hinder them by force if necessary. The question was then whether the controversy could be settled by compromise before either power did something that made war inevitable.

Tension of this sort, when it became acute, called for immediate action and regularly touched off intense diplomatic activity. There were feverish consultations behind closed doors, and at the same time threatening gestures, naval demonstrations, and clamor in the streets. It was a race against time, for war could not be avoided once the prestige of any power was irrevocably committed. Such acute tension could not last long. Either it was speedily resolved, or it erupted into war.

It is clear that the “tension” being discussed in our own day is not of this acute sort. It is chronic tension, but of great intensity, so great, in fact, that it is called “cold war.” How does such chronic tension compare with the violent, dangerous, and transitory periods of acute tensions before 1914?

For one thing, chronic tension of the cold war type expresses a deeper, more total antagonism than the older type of acute tension ever did. In acute tension, one power objected to what another was doing or was about to do in some disputed area—as when France pushed into the Sudan in 1898, or prepared to set up a protectorate in Morocco in 1905, or when the Austro-Hungarian monarchy insisted upon punitive measures against Serbia in 1914. Acute controversies of this sort may usually have been symptoms of some deep-seated chronic antagonism, but never of total mutual rejection. This, however, is what characterizes our present chronic tension. The opposing powers not only have conflicting interests; they stand for antithetical basic principles. One power objects not only to what the other does but also to what it is. The existence of the one is viewed as offering a total challenge to the other.

One might assume, therefore, that chronic tension of the cold war type points to total war as its logical consummation, unlike acute tension which leaves room for compromise and threatens limited conflict at most. Paradoxically, however, the acute tension of 1914 did result in total war, while our present chronic tension has involved a kind of enduing equilibrium between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus, while such tension is deeper and more fundamental than international tension used to be, it is less dynamic in its direct manifestations and can persist without explosive consequences.



In trying to explain this paradox, we have to remember that a power is readier to start a war when expecting it to remain limited than when sure beforehand that it will be total. Before 1914 the rules of international relations prescribed war under certain circumstances: once “irreparable” things had happened (e.g. once a power decreed general mobilization), all mediation was considered useless. Presumably, the rules of international conduct would have been different if people had then known how destructive modern war could be. But the point is that they did not know. Pre-1914 Europe, it seems, was betrayed into a kind of fatalistic light-heartedness about war because all European wars since Napoleon (the Crimean, Franco-Austrian, Austro-Prussian, and Franco-Prussian) had been short and far from ruinous for the participants, including the losers. In 1914, both government and public in all the European countries involved expected a short war: a long conflict was considered “unthinkable” because it unavoidably meant total ruin. As it turned out, however, war had a mechanism of its own. Once it got under way it could not be stopped short of the total exhaustion of one side or the other.

By 1918 most people had been thoroughly disabused of the idea that war under modern conditions could be a normal regulator of international affairs, an ultima ratio that could be resorted to without courting disaster. But the tragedy was that the democratic West drew wishful conclusions from this sobering thought: since war had turned out to be irrational, one could act as if it had become an impossibility. This set the stage for World War II. With the West disarmed, Hitler thought that a return to the old pre-1914 pattern of the short, relatively painless, and victorious war was possible. He started war over a local issue; it became a general conflict and, again, ran its course until one side—again the German—was totally prostrate.

With the advent of atomic weapons, the last excuse for such a wishful illusion as Hitler labored under when he attacked Poland has evaporated. It has become all too plain that a war between great powers must now be a totally destructive one. But at the same time political antagonisms have arisen between the great powers of the postwar world that are unprecedentedly radical in their nature. This has done away with the other illusion, namely, that the very irrationality of war would render it an impossibility.

But what are we left with after shedding both these illusions? Since unilateral disarmament is just as suicidal as resorting to arms, survival has become possible only in a state of tense, armed equilibrium. We face an opponent intent upon changing the face of the world; if he has his way, we are doomed. Nevertheless, it does not follow that we must fight him. It is enough to make sure that he cannot have his way. If we have enough ready military potential, he will be deterred from aggression. Our military potential is not meant for use, but for insurance.

This is the formula of chronic tension. Unlike acute tension, which represents a dangerous disturbance of the existing state of equilibrium, chronic tension serves to maintain equilibrium. It is a kind of adjustment to a totally threatening situation.



But the question is, how well can this kind of adjustment work in the long run? Can peace and security be preserved indefinitely on such a basis?

Theoretically, the mechanism of chronic tension works in the following way: one power seeks to upset the status quo and another is determined to prevent this. While they pursue diametrically opposed aims, each knows that overt conflict would be ruinous. Hence, as long as one power can convince the other that any attempt to change the status quo by force would be met by force, the status quo will be respected.

How well the status quo can be preserved on such terms depends on two crucial conditions: first, that the more aggressive power prefer the status quo to overt conflict; second, that no change be brought about without overt conflict. When the first condition no longer holds good, the equilibrium breaks down, tension becomes acute, and the less aggressive power must either yield or go to war. When the second condition goes unsatisfied, the more “dynamic” power will attack the status quo by means short of war or by purely local military action with which the defender of the status quo will not interfere.

Now the second rather than the first condition represents the weak point of the cold war arrangement, since it is much more difficult to satisfy than the first. With modern arms being what they are, it is not too difficult to deter an aggressive power from doing things which could only result in all-out war. But this category of offenses is limited. There are plenty of changes that a resolutely aggressive power can bring about by means short of war or by local, peripheral operations. In chronic tension, when all-out conflict is ruled out, the policies of the aggressive side will be increasingly concentrated upon gains that it can achieve without employing the bulk of its armed forces.

This puts the defending side in an increasingly uncomfortable and precarious position. Its prime political weapon is the threat of massive armed retaliation, but this threat cannot be effective where the conflict seems too circumscribed to justify its being carried out. In this way the status quo can be gradually undermined. It is essential for the defending side to halt the undermining, but this requires instruments other than the threat of massive retaliation.

Another difficulty the defender faces in a situation of chronic tension like the cold war is psychological. The attacker need not talk about war explicitly until he is good and ready for it; until then he can profess absolute and unconditional pacifism. The defender, however, must constantly maintain that he cannot, and will not, keep the peace if certain things happen. While many people understand that these conditional threats of war imply no actual intention of fighting—just as the aggressor’s protestations of his hatred of war do not exclude such an intention on his part—it is all too easy to confuse explicit references to war as a possibility with a really warlike attitude. The formula intended for deterrent effect, which tries to exclude the actuality of war by asserting its possibility, is far too subtle for most people to grasp. As soon as they hear a reference to war as a possibility under certain circumstances, they jump to the conclusion that the speaker has actual war in mind, and they imagine atomic bombs being dropped everywhere.

Such reactions are fairly widespread, particularly among European intellectuals and opinion-makers. Instead of criticizing the real weaknesses inherent in the deterrent policy, they meet it with lofty moral condemnation. Including the possibility of war in one’s political calculations, if only as something to avoid, is, according to them, the arch-crime, the first step towards perdition. Salvation can lie only in envisaging no alternative whatsoever to peace.



The prevalence of such an attitude explains the success of the cry for “reducing tension.” Instead of threatening each other with retribution in case of attack, it is said, let the opponents assure each other of their heartfelt desire to avoid conflict. This will clear the air and lead in time to the abatement of chronic tension itself. In fact, the détente is already with us today; the cold war is a thing of the past, consigned to limbo by the Spirit of Geneva. Admittedly, none of the political differences between East and West has been resolved, but is this really important? Now there is a school of thought, popular in the United States and indeed in the whole Western world, which holds that political issues are, after all, only secondary. Human feelings of friendliness and hostility are the things that really count, and such feelings can be shaped and manipulated by public-relations techniques. If we cultivate the Spirit of Geneva and multiply cordial get-togethers between representatives of East and West, politics will follow suit.

Now we may readily admit that the introduction of a more urbane tone and demeanor into international intercourse is a desirable thing. But it is courting catastrophe to believe that the underlying political tension itself is bound to be relaxed once it is made clear that neither side really wants to fight. After all, it was plain even at the height of the cold war that both we and the Russians were anxious not to go to war; the desire for peace is an essential feature of chronic tension as such. But to make this explicit does not change the situation. The issues that have been controversial remain controversial; the determination to handle these issues by methods short of war, however, is no dramatic new departure—it has existed all along. What is new is mainly that the side which refuses to yield gracefully can now be accused of sinning against the Spirit of Geneva. The détente has not put an end to the political tug-of-war between East and West. It has merely introduced a new technique of political warfare. “Reducing tension” has become a new counter in the game, and one that the Russians are using with considerable astuteness.

The spirit of Geneva lends itself well to the promotion of the Russians’ immediate objective, which is the dismantling of the Western defensive alliance. Why keep such an alliance in being if everybody agrees that no attack is to be feared? As long as the world remains divided into “hostile blocs” we shall have tension, strife, the danger of war. If we want to do away with tension, we must get rid of the blocs; the Spirit of Geneva cannot tolerate alliances explicitly directed against any one power, or group of powers, that is designated as a prospective aggressor.

It would be wonderful if tension could be eliminated by such simple means, but would the dismantling of the Western alliance really eliminate tension, or even significantly reduce it? Let us look at the probable consequences of such a move. It would, first and foremost, weaken those forces which tend to defend the status quo and strengthen those which favor the expansion of the Soviet bloc. In a world without “hostile blocs,” acceptance of changes brought about by force rather than the cowing of would-be aggressors would become dominant.

The advent of such an era of uninhibited dynamism would certainly be welcome from the Communist point of view, but it would be disastrous for the West. And whether or not such unbridled “dynamism” would provoke a major war, one thing is certain: it would not reduce tension. Tension as such declines only if the situation becomes more acceptable to everybody concerned. If it becomes more satisfactory to one side and less satisfactory to the other, then it is their relative power position that changes, rather than the fact that tension prevails between them. In fact, such one-sided changes are likely to result either in increased tension and eventual conflict, or in the complete collapse of the power against whose interests they tend to harm.

If we dispense with conditional threats and absolutely exclude any alternative other than complete non-interference, we do not reduce tension; we merely enable our adversary to undermine our position to such an extent that in the end our only choice will be between a suicidal conflict and an equally suicidal surrender. This does not mean that our present policy of conditional threats is adequate. We must recognize that our position can be quite effectively undermined by action against which the conditional threats of nuclear devastation are of no avail. The problem this poses for us is far from being solved; it is not even sufficiently understood.

How to deal with this difficulty is, however, outside the scope of the present article. We are concerned here only with the problem of reducing international tension. So far we have pointed out only how chronic tension could not be reduced. We have seen that neither the protestation of peaceful intentions nor the abandonment of conditional threats and defensive preparations is a suitable means for eliminating or even substantially lessening tension. But what other means could one recommend then? Or is it best not to try to reduce chronic tension at all, and trust that it will continue to preserve stability without a conflict?

The answer is that chronic international tension can neither be maintained nor reduced by design. The extent and degree of such tension is not an independent datum that one can control by direct methods. It is what results when interests and wills are at odds. Tension may abate when interests and aims change, but this is not a matter of free choice. We have some choice as to the way in which we pursue our goals and interests, but not as to what these goals and interests are. And the existence and the degree of chronic tension are determined by ends rather than by means. If conflict of goals and interests leads to tension, it makes little difference whether we like the fact or not; we cannot make it vanish by incantation. It is not the desire to get rid of tension that causes it to be reduced.



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.