Commentary Magazine

The West in Retreat

Intellectual confusion, Auguste Comte once wrote, is at the bottom of every historical crisis; the crisis of American foreign policy is no exception. Seen in retrospect, the two or three years prior to 1974—the period of the Paris accords on Vietnam, China's admission to the UN, SALT, Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, the Nixon trips to Moscow and Peking—will be a source of bewilderment to future diplomatic historians. This was the climax of an era of illusions whose origins are traceable back to the 1960's. Disgusted with Vietnam, bored with global tensions, eager to return to domestic preoccupations, establishment and radical spokesmen alike announced a virtual moratorium on world conflicts. The global balance of power, military strength, and other such anachronisms were solemnly relegated to the dustbin of history. Mighty common enterprises were ushered in, with Europe, Japan, and China elevated to the rank of superpowers. Politicians congratulated each other on the creation of new structures of peace; political scientists, whose chosen kingdom is not of this world, preoccupied themselves with such recondite details of the putatively emerging world order as the neo-functional analysis of regional integration. It was an exhilarating period, reminiscent of the years after World War I when Woodrow Wilson excluded “autocratic governments from respectable society” and when Senator Borah and Secretary of State Kellogg outlawed war.

Rereading the speeches, the editorials, the policy statements of these years, the future historian will admire the confidence they exude, and give due credit to the inventiveness that went into the construction of guidelines for a new world order. But in the end he is likely to turn with relief to Pravda and the Peking People's Daily, not because Soviet and Chinese commentators in those days were more intelligent or less prejudiced, but because they at least were dealing with the real world, whereas so much that was said and written in the U.S. belonged to the realm of fantasy. Perhaps this was due to naiveté: the longing for peace and understanding among nations is one of the more attractive features of the American character, and stands in stark contrast to the cynical attitude of Europeans who have long claimed that human nature nowhere shows itself in a worse light than in the relations among nations. In the present case American optimism affected even the judgment of many who, when it came to domestic affairs, could not be charged with excessive credulity. Americans harboring the gravest suspicions of the motives of their own leaders were only too eager to accept at face value professions of good will emanating from foreign statesmen, whose friendly intentions toward the U.S. were, to put it cautiously, not above suspicion.

Or perhaps it was not so much naiveté as an optical distortion, leading the viewer to discover false symmetries in the world—a pattern that runs like a red thread through the intellectual history of the whole postwar period. In 1947 Walter Lippmann argued, against George Kennan, that the American public would become frustrated with the policy of containment long before the Russians would; Lippmann was right, but he was wrong in thinking that the Russians for their part would not be able to maintain the Iron Curtain and that an emerging economic interdependence of Western and Eastern Europe would overcome military, political, and ideological boundaries. The false-symmetry syndrome has recently been revived in Stanley Hoffmann's argument that the two superpowers are coming to control less and less of world politics. Which is the other superpower he has in mind?

Sometimes such equations merely amounted to a rationalization of American weakness, as, for instance, in the vision articulated by George Ball and others of a new international system that would be safer and less burdensome to the U.S. Profound changes in international relations were indeed taking place in the early 70's, but there was no good reason, even at the time, to believe that they would lead to a safer world or reduce the American burden. The curious optimism of those years will no doubt remain a riddle for a long time, although surely one underlying factor was the preoccupation of many American foreign-policy experts with domestic affairs, a preoccupation that led to their attributing to the rest of the world motives, purposes, and modes of behavior similar to their own, and to their ignoring whatever did not fit the pattern. This has been an old established American custom. Many years ago Lord Bryce noted that America lived in a world of its own, safe from attack, safe from menace, hearing only from afar the warring cries of European races and faiths. The American vessel was not better built or more cunningly navigated than the ships which carried the fortunes of the great nations of Europe, “but for the present at least—it may not be always so—she sails on a summer sea.”

Of late, as everyone knows, this vessel has moved into stormy waters, with the predictable consequence of seasickness and disorientation. Yesterday's vision of the world is in ruins; various “anachronisms,” like the global balance of political struggle and military power, have emerged from oblivion. Some see in this no more than a temporary relapse; once the unhappy past is disposed of, once the Middle East crisis is resolved, the world will at long last be ready to move forward to the really important issues—the unfinished business of détente, the great transnational challenges, the building of a “just” and “stable” world order. Others, on the other hand, fear that recent setbacks mark the prelude to the demise of the West; they hear the horsemen of the apocalypse and see no promise anywhere for freedom and democracy, for the future of America and mankind. Neither cluster of attitudes will be of much use in coping with the dangers of the years to come.



In a recent column, Joseph Kraft, newly returned from a South Sea isle, confidently asserted that “the fear of great new dangers seems highly exaggerated.” He may be right with regard to major military conflicts—though even this, unfortunately, cannot be taken for granted—but for the rest he is quite wrong. To the extent (to take first things first) that the dependence of industrial societies on the import of foreign oil has somewhat lessened, it has done so only as the result of a decline in industrial production. It would have been unrealistic to expect a drastic change in this respect within a year or two of the OPEC embargo, but there should have been some effort to reduce future dependence; nothing of the sort has happened in America, and not very much in Europe and Japan. The oil-consuming nations have established mutual-aid agreements to meet mounting trade deficits, but such agreements make sense only on the expectation that the oil price will come down—which it won't. They do not touch the root of the problem: insolvent countries are being loaded with a debt burden they cannot possibly repay. In the meantime, comforting statistics are produced to show that the foreign-trade balance of the industrialized countries has improved in recent months; yet the main reason for this is a general decline in imports, not a resurgence of good economic health.

It is true that the world economy has proved more shock-resistant than was feared a year ago, but there are limits to its elasticity: the credit pyramid cannot grow forever. Furthermore, the Euro-currency market remains a major danger zone and trade wars are just about now becoming an acute possibility. All Western countries try with varying success to cut down their oil bills and to boost exports, but since the overall deficit in the trade balance of the oil-consuming states stands at around $60 billion, and since the OPEC countries cannot absorb their new wealth, the only way for any one country to improve its position is to export its problems to another. Unchecked, this process will lead to the imposition of trade restrictions and a serious decline in world trade with disastrous results for all. So far the threat has been averted, but it has far from passed. Most economies now expect an early upturn from the recession, but it may well be a partial recovery only. It will take a long time to reduce unemployment, and there is the danger a year or two hence of accelerated inflation as a result of massive wage demands and the rising price of raw materials.

The coming changes in the Soviet leadership introduce an element of uncertainty into world politics. Brezhnev would like to crown his achievements with a new strategic arms agreement, and a European summit conference. He would also like to hold a new Communist world conference to confirm Soviet leadership and to repudiate China. Such a meeting has to be carefully coordinated with the European summit, for among comrades the stress will be on political struggle and the inevitable downfall of non-Communist regimes, whereas at the summit conference peaceful coexistence will be emphasized.

It has been Soviet policy for some time now not to cause major upheavals in relations with the West, and this line may well be continued by the post-Brezhnev leadership (although certain Soviet initiatives, such as pressure on Finland and Berlin, do not fit into this picture). On arms, the Soviets now outspend the United States by 25 per cent; they do not seem to share the conviction of Western politicians and political scientists that military power no longer counts for anything or that it cannot be translated into political influence. Nor do the Soviet leaders believe that the global balance of power has somehow vanished; they repeat on every occasion that the balance is very much in force and is, moreover, slowly changing in their favor. To help history along, they will no doubt be applying a little pressure in various parts of the world as time goes on; the aim is neither attack nor conquest but simply hegemony, a Pax Sovietica in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Western Europe is watching this process with its usual fatalism, which has puzzled and dismayed visiting Chinese dignitaries. But China too has been showing signs of internal weakness. Chou En-lai recently predicted that in thirty or fifty years China will be among the most developed industrial countries; meanwhile, the Chinese economy is developing more slowly than expected. Professor Bianco, one of Europe's leading Sinologists, wrote on his recent return from Peking that the standard of living was not appreciably higher than it had been in 1937—a statement that caused a scandal in Maoist circles precisely because the author has been known as a friend. (The exchanges that ensued centered on the question of whether progressives should make statements that may give comfort to the “enemy”; the question of whether the statement was correct or not was taken to be irrelevant.) In the development of modern weapon systems, too, China seems to be lagging behind. The tug-of-war for the succession has been going on for years and unrest has been reported in various parts of the countryside. Neither the Communist party nor the army has entirely recovered from the purges of the last decade; one cannot rule out a period of anarchy following Mao's disappearance from the political scene—this, of course, is what the Russians are waiting for.

Owing to the Sino-Soviet conflict, Thailand, Burma, and Malaysia may end up retaining some independence, though their chances cannot be rated high in the long run. Japan in all probability will be driven by the logic of events into rearmament, a process that could be accelerated by what happens in Korea. In India, the turn toward dictatorship will probably be irreversible, and may very well represent the beginning of the disintegration of the country. The political future of Indonesia remains uncertain; of the new wealth, little trickles down, the ruling generals are both unpopular and ineffective, and their hold may be challenged soon. Australia remains a rich country, even though the present government has achieved the almost inconceivable—a serious economic crisis. In its foreign policy Australia is becoming increasingly oriented toward neutralism. Thanks to its fortunate geographic situation and its almost inexhaustible wealth, the margin for error is much wider in Australia than almost anywhere else; it will be hard to ruin the country altogether.


Europe remains the great prize in the global struggle, and the good news from Europe is that a breakdown has so far been prevented. Within the continent the outlook varies greatly from country to country. Germans exude confidence. Frenchmen maintain that the worst expectations do not always come to pass. In Britain there is a mood of near despair. The same goes for Italy, despite an economic upswing that was not thought possible a year ago: although living standards have declined and there is still a huge deficit in the national budget, inflation has been brought under control. There has been no improvement in the Italian political situation, however; assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings on the part of both the extreme Left and the far Right have become a daily occurrence. Chaotic strikes go on all the time, and there is a deepening sense of a lack of purpose at the top. The old Christian Democratic leadership—Moro, Fanfani, Colombo, Rumor, and Andreotti—is held responsible for the chaos; its successors are uninspired machine politicians driven by personal ambition rather than firm beliefs or values. The Communists, who have in recent years successfully administered several provinces and many cities, feel confident that the day is not far when the “historical compromise”—a euphemism for a coalition between the Communists and the Christian Democrats—will at last materialize. Their spectacular gains in the recent regional and local elections have brought that day all the nearer.

The Italian Communist party is one of the least orthodox in Europe; in some respects, with its combination of revolutionary doctrine and reformist practice, it resembles the German Social Democrats before World War I. But there is one important difference: there is no certainty at all that today's Italian Communists have accepted democratic procedure. At a conference earlier this year the party opposed all outside interference in its internal affairs. In the next breath, it approved Communist policy in Portugal vis-à-vis the hapless Socialists. It is said that the Italian malaise has gone on for so long it may continue forever, but this is not really convincing. In the absence of a strong Center or democratic-socialist party there remains only one alternative to the disintegrating Christian Democrats. The results of the Italian election in June are an indication of things to come.


Britain has voted to stay in Europe, a gesture of little political significance because the vote was about a customs union and standardization, not about political community. As Ronald Butt put it in the London Times on the eve of the elections:

Western Europe is all that is left of the greatest civilization the world has known. Half of Europe has already gone Communist. The remainder is a small promontory on the end of Asia, each nation being vulnerable to being picked off one by one. . . . I would say myself that to go into Europe is no great thing unless you can envisage it as leading to a genuine European defense and foreign policy which enables us to avoid being subject, in the end, to the domino theory which is already at work in Asia. . . .

Political power in Britain has passed from Parliament to the trade unions, or, to be precise, to a small minority within the trade unions.1 Greater union participation in the politcal process would be an excellent thing if the unions were to show responsibility commensurate with their newly acquired power. But far from championing social justice, they fight like medieval guilds for the privileges of their members, showing little concern for the working class at large, let alone old-age pensioners and other underprivileged members of society. “The miners,” said their president, one of the most moderate and sensible trade unionists, “are going to be at the top of the tree, and if that hurts somebody, I am sorry.” Nor do they have any desire to cooperate in getting the country out of the present crisis. They oppose any attempt to make British industry (including the growing state sector) more productive and competitive in world markets. The Labour government does not feel strong enough to confront the destructive elements inside the unions; if the Conservatives were returned in the elections, with however great a majority, they would face pay demands they could not meet and strikes, official and unofficial, they could not break. In historical perspective one may list the various factors extenuating such industrial nihilism: the arrogance and short-sightedness of the ruling classes, the class-ridden nature of British society, the poor performance of British industrialists. But unless the present situation changes, there cannot be real recovery, and at the moment union leadership constitutes the greatest stumbling block to such a recovery.

With inflation running at more than 30 per cent and wage increases at 40 per cent, Britain faces economic disaster. Some believe that the Shah of Iran and the various Arab kings and sheiks will not permit the crumbling of the British political system. But this is to overrate the farsightedness and the enlightened self-interest of the oil producers. The Shah has already expressed his conviction that the Western liberal system is doomed. The Saudis and Kuwaitis feel no obligation, moral or otherwise, to underwrite the economy of a country that wishes to live beyond its means. The Europeans would help Britain up to a point, but only if they were to receive guarantees of a sensible economic policy, and these, in the present circumstances, no British government could give.


The French have shown greater initiative than the British in coping with economic problems. The present government has been the first since 1958 to dare stop credits in order to stabilize the economy—a move that has resulted in reducing the rate of inflation to less than 10 per cent. But there are now almost a million unemployed, industrial production has declined by 8 per cent, and consumption has decreased even more drastically. The problem of unemployment is particularly grave among the young. With rare unanimity the trade unions and CPNF (the head organization of French industry) now demand a return to a policy of rapid growth, and it is not clear whether Giscard will be able to resist for long. So far his government has benefited from the split on the Left; the Communists, worried by increasing Socialist self-confidence and independence, have spent as much time attacking their allies as the government.

To a certain extent, Portugal has acted as a deterrent to a French popular front. But there is a fairly strong minority inside the French Socialist party which wants a united front at almost any price, and Mitterand himself, the party leader, is very much in favor of it. He has strongly criticized those European Socialists, especially the German and the Scandinavian, who have expressed misgivings about collaborating with the Communists. Mitterand knows that without Communist support he will never achieve power.

So far, Germany has weathered the political and economic storms better than any other European country. Inflation is down to an idyllic 5 per cent, there is a staggering trade surplus, and recent regional election results have shown growing support for the government. But the economy is stagnating and unemployment has reached the one million mark. Above all, Germany, with its traumatic memories of 1923, 1929, and 1933, is still the most vulnerable country psychologically. And Germans are, of course, perfectly aware that in the long run their prosperity depends on the well-being of others; if the rest of Europe should go down, Germany will not survive either.

In the smaller European countries the most worrisome aspect of the situation is not the economic crisis—though some of them, such as Denmark, Finland, and Greece, are in real trouble—but aimlessness, the extent to which they have been affected by the general European lack of will. The justification offered for this absence of will is that Europe does not need to join forces or make a greater defense effort since no one threatens it, or, alternatively, because such a move would provoke anger in Moscow (Giscard). Anyway, it is claimed, there is the American umbrella. Many Europeans, including those who admit that Europe would probably collapse if American protection were withdrawn, have managed to persuade themselves that withdrawal would be a greater disaster for America than for Europe. If the defeatists have their way, Europe will remain disunited, even less able to resist political pressure than at present.

Europe has not yet been Finlandized; the danger it faces is self-Finlandization. Fortunately, there are some factors that may delay and counteract this process. The usurpation of power in Portugal by a small minority of military men and Communists, together with the suppression of democratic rights, has been closely followed all over the continent. It is, above all, a tragedy for the Portuguese people. For the rest of Europe it has been a salutary lesson. Events in Portugal are nowhere more closely watched than in neighboring Spain. The Spanish Communist party, Europe's most enlightened, has been rightly worried by the brazen dictatorial policies of its comrades in Lisbon, and has openly condemned them—not quite fairly, perhaps, since the Portuguese Communist course of action has been dictated up to a point by a fear of being outflanked by the wild men of the terrorist Left. Spanish Communism, too, will one day be exposed to these pressures. Events in Portugal have, moreover, acted as a spur to the non-Communist opposition groups inside Spain. They know now that unless they are well organized, political power will be seized after Franco's demise by a small minority of anti-democratic militants. Within a year or two we should know whether the lesson of Portugal has been learned.

On the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Greece and Turkey (with an inflation rate of 25 and 30 per cent respectively) face, quite apart from the unsolved Cyprus conflict, serious domestic problems. The same goes for Egypt, which so far has not benefited from the oil bonanza; pan-Arab solidarity does not extend to revenue sharing. As for the oil-producing countries, it has been argued that with so much money around, a revolution seems almost unthinkable. The cheapest way to put an end to the guerrilla war in Dhofar, which has lasted for almost a decade, would be to pay a million dollars to every guerrilla operating in that remote part of the Arabian peninsula. But the war's continuation and the existence of terrorist organizations in Iran show only too clearly that while money can smooth troubled political waters, it also attracts trouble. With so many billions as a prize, political power has become irresistibly attractive. Thus it seems only a question of time until some Saudi army officers not belonging to the royal establishment conspire to overthrow the regime. There are, in addition, a great many ambitious and dissatisfied men among the foreign technicians and workers in the Persian Gulf mini-states—Palestinians, agents of the Iraqi Ba'ath and of Communist South Yemen. It is often forgotten that Saudi Arabia has only been in existence for a short time and may fall apart; prognostications of the future of Iran usually ignore the fact that the survival of the present regime rests on the life of one man who has many enemies.

In short, Middle East stability, Israel quite apart, is deceptive; economic strength does not necessarily translate into political and military power. What power the Middle East oil producers have acquired is basically destructive: they are certainly in a position to cause a great deal of harm to the industrialized nations and the undeveloped countries that lack oil (i.e., the majority of mankind). They cannot and will not make the contribution toward a more stable world order which has been the fond dream of Western foreign ministers and political commentators.



Where does America stand in all this, and which way will it turn? Isolationism in the United States is deeply rooted, but against it, one hopes, stands the recognition that America cannot escape its history, a history which does not point toward “fortress America.” It is, no doubt, an encouraging sign that present-day isolationists are wary of the very label, and often go out of their way to avoid using it in speeches and writing. To be an isolationist is almost as bad as being a cold warrior. Thus Professor Richard A. Falk in last month's COMMENTARY symposium: “There is room for a new internationalism spearheaded by American leadership, but its character needs to be shaped by the new exigencies of shared economic, ecological, and cultural destiny throughout the entire globe”—in other words UNESCO, the fight against DDT and oil spills, the greening of America.

The case for anti-intervention in its extreme form is a familiar one: why quit our own to stand on foreign ground? America, it is said, has to choose between its traditional values on the one hand and an interventionist foreign policy on the other: the two cannot possibly be combined. And since all foreign policy is interventionist by definition, it should be confined to a minimum. Yet even the maintenance of an embassy is in some ways an act of intervention, and so is the distribution abroad of food among starving children. Few anti-interventionists will pursue their case to the logical end. On the other hand, arguments have been used of late which come very close to such a conclusion. As Earl Ravenal has put it, “We don't need a foreign-policy consensus. What we need is a foreign policy that does not require consensus” (Foreign Policy, Spring 1975). This is another way of asking for the abolition of foreign policy.

The most frequently heard argument against isolationism is not the most valid one, for on the economic level a policy of near-total withdrawal may in fact be feasible. U.S. foreign trade has quadrupled during the last ten years, from about $25 to $100 billion, but more than a third of this takes place within the American hemisphere, and what remains is no more than 5-6 per cent of the American GNP. Similarly, U.S. foreign assets abroad have almost doubled since 1965 and amount now to $220 billion, but of this almost 40 per cent are in Canada and Latin America, and the remainder is less than 10 per cent of the GNP. The few strategic minerals such as manganese, cobalt, and chromium that have to be imported could somehow be acquired, or in the course of time be replaced. The American economy could exist without investments abroad.

The real problem facing isolationists arises on a level different from the economic. It is not that America cannot go home again, but that the kind of home she would find there would be insupportable. Can freedom and traditional American values survive once the lights go out in the rest of the world? America's situation is no longer “detached and distant,” “nature and a wide ocean” are no longer safe barriers in the age of ICBM's. In a famous editorial before World War II, the New Republic suggested that the parable of the Good Samaritan had no relation to modern international power politics. This argument has been used by conservatives for a long time; its adoption by liberals and radicals is of comparatively recent date. Indeed, it is not readily obvious why men and women of the Left should regard the isolated nation-state as a supreme value. With equal justice they might repudiate a citizenry's commitments to national and local politics, and social obligations in general. James Reston has recently characterized Secretary Kissinger's “globalism” as right in theory, but wrong in practice, yet surely what is theoretically valid must apply in practice too. A nation does not have the duty to commit suicide in pursuit of an abstract ideal, but it does have a duty to strike a balance between its commitments and its power.

In its extreme form, isolationism is very rare; moderately phrased under the lable of non-inter-ventionism, it has gained wider currency. As such, it advances one argument which is difficult to refute. It was first made by ex-President Herbert Hoover, who has not yet been adopted as a patron saint by New Left historians. In a radio address concerning NATO in December 1950 he argued that the prime obligation to defend Western Europe rested upon the nations of Europe: “The test is whether they have the spiritual forces, the will and acceptance of unity among them by their own volition. America cannot create their spiritual forces. . . .” Hoover's remarks are even more to the point in 1975 than in 1950, when much of Europe was still in ruins. Portugal is mainly a European problem and so are Spain and Italy, Greece and Turkey. Europe is not too weak to deal with these problems; it lacks only the will. To a certain degree the American defense guarantee reiterated recently by President Ford inhibits the reassertion of this will. Sooner or later the vicious circle will have to be broken; as the problems facing Europe during the years to come will be largely political in nature, European leaders will have to get accustomed to coping with them without taking American leadership for granted. Portugal is one such case, the future of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty another. Teaching Europe to walk without crutches will be a protracted and painful business, but one as essential as the provision of a defense umbrella. A practice should be established by means of which the American contribution to NATO should match the European defense effort. If the European defense effort decreases, the American contribution should be reduced. This is not an ideal solution, but it is the only one possible. At present Greece, Turkey, Spain, and other countries seem to believe that they are doing the United States a favor by putting bases at its disposal and that these bases have nothing to do with their own defense. The sooner they are disabused of this error the better.



One of the consequences of the Vietnam debacle has been a questioning of the conduct of American foreign policy in general since 1945. A whole literature has emerged according to which the cold war was mainly (if not entirely) America's fault and according to which U.S. policy has always been motivated by aggressive and imperialistic designs, a crusade aimed at global supremacy. Truman and Kennedy are the villains of the piece, the principal “counter-revolutionaries.” This literature has recently reached a culmination of sorts in the rehabilitation of the most eloquent advocate of fascism in America in the 1930's, Lawrence Dennis. In Prophets on the Right, Ronald Radosh argues, not without a certain justice, that today's isolationist radicals have more in common with men like Dennis and John T. Flynn than with the “cold-war liberals”: “They [Dennis and Flynn] have opened the way for the leftists of a future epoch.”

Were this particular reaction to the trauma of Vietnam limited to revisionist historians and “concerned” political scientists, it would be a phenomenon of psychological interest but hardly of great political significance. But it has also been recorded in parts of the foreign-policy establishment. Scarcely ten years ago Roger Hilsman compared General Giap's People's War, People's Army to Hitler's Mein Kampf. In his most recent book, The Crouching Future, Hilsman states that the Soviet Union has turned away from power and “prestige” values, that the global balance of power is an irrelevancy, that Western Europe has in some respects become a superpower, and that U.S. forces should be almost entirely withdrawn from Europe. Ten years ago certain Vietnam super-hawks—it would be invidious to name names—had nothing but contempt for anyone who doubted that Vietnam could be helped, or who doubted the basic assumptions on which the decision to intervene in Vietnam was taken, or who doubted that, once involved, America would be able to sustain a war of this kind. Such doubts were, the hawks said, “Far Eastern Chamberlain-ism.” Ten years later, some of them show every sign of being shell-shocked; quite a number have switched from one extreme position to another.

The disorientation has been reflected in the press, radio, and television. At a moment when the American media are more powerful than ever before, the level of news coverage and, even more palpably, of comment on international affairs, are worse than in past decades. Whatever their weaknesses and their bias, the columnists and some of the foreign correspondents of the 30's seem intellectual giants in retrospect. Personalized diplomacy has reinforced the tendency toward a concentration on personalities and trivia, which has always been a weakness of American journalism. As suddenly as a “major story” breaks, it disappears. The bewildered reader or viewer must be at a loss to understand why an important event occurred and what happened once the shooting was over. The American media, even the best among them, are insufficient as a source of information on world affairs. And since the analysis and interpretation of events cannot rely on intuition but have to be grounded in a solid factual basis, debates over foreign policy and defense are frequently exercises in ignorance.

The origins of the present crisis in Britain, to cite but one example, could have been clearly descried ten years ago, the time when “swinging London” was featured so prominently on the covers of the news magazines and in the pages of the dailies. The dangers facing the Portuguese revolution in 1974 should have been obvious almost from the morning after, but in the general rejoicing there was no inclination to notice. The causes as well as the manifestations of the current European malaise have been no secret to anyone willing to look beneath the veneer of prosperity and apparent stability. But the subject was not considered newsworthy by the American media. More recently, Vietnam has disappeared from the headlines, the once-great promise of détente is infrequently heard from, and swinging London has been replaced by booming Riyadh and buoyant Abu Dhabi. On the moods and idiosyncraises of the Secretary of State there have been literally thousands of articles; on matters of substance, very little. Opinions have been voiced with the greatest confidence, but standards of elementary logic, of experience and competence, have all but disappeared. On world affairs, almost anything goes; in the eyes of the media one viewpoint seems as good as another. When, twenty-five years ago, I. F. Stone announced that it was South Korea that had attacked an unsuspicious and unprepared North, not the other way around, this was the voice of a professional dissenter trying to make himself heard. It may have been absurd but it certainly had entertainment value. During the past decade such “nonconformism” has become the new orthodoxy, a triumphant confirmation of Herbert Marcuse's thesis of the manipulating powers of the mass media. The same trend can be seen in the universities, where the theater and cinema of the absurd have their counterparts in surrealist historiography and dadaist political science.


But if the media bear a great deal of responsibility for the public confusion, they cannot be blamed for the disorientation affecting those who should and could have known better within the foreign-policy establishment. Until fairly recently, readers of the prestigious journals specializing in world affairs were told that, while the state of the world was far from perfect, there was no particular reason to worry, except perhaps with regard to economic matters. The articles appearing in such journals were measured, urbane, and seemingly well-informed; they also had a tendency to be disproved within a very short time. The editor of one such journal returned from the Middle East in 1973 convinced there would be no war2; a year later the editor of another came back from Southeast Asia reporting that the “greatest chance of collapse in Vietnam” lay “on the economic side.” Robert Hunter, a foreign-policy adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy, writing in Foreign Policy, announced that we were “moving to an era dominated by economic power” and that the “only real competition that the United States and the Soviet Union will be able to permit themselves later on this decade is in the economic realm.” Paul Warnke, a leading defense expert, also writing in Foreign Policy, assured his readers that “we are militarily the most powerful nation the world has known,” a statement that will cause some wry amusement to General Giap.

The flow of such articles has slowed down of late, but the end is not yet in sight. It is important to remember, though, that they represent not minor misjudgments, of the kind anyone commenting on world affairs is likely to commit, but misconceptions of the state of the world that are truly fundamental. The Leninist (or Maoist or Trotskyite) line on world affairs may be repugnant to one's taste, values, and priorities, but it is rooted in reality, it displays inner logic and consistency, and it ought to be taken seriously. Those who demand that U.S. policy be oriented toward the United Nations, or toward an illusory détente, or who maintain that military power is no longer of consequence, or that global political conflict is bound to lessen, have moved beyond politics to a world in which anything is possible, and anything can be said.



The illusions of yesterday are now giving way to an inevitable hangover—to be followed, one hopes, by the emergence of a new realistic consensus. But this will create only the preconditions for recovery, it is no guarantee of success. The conduct of foreign policy in a democracy is a difficult enterprise in the best of times; Tocqueville in a famous passage noted the obstacles in a democracy to regulating the details of an important undertaking and persevering in a fixed design: a democracy “cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience.” The dilemma has become even more acute since Tocqueville's day, for in the past foreign-policy making was conducted by a small elite whereas in recent decades it has been thoroughly democratized.

It is true that the secrets of American foreign policy have always been leaked, from the Jay Treaty with Great Britain onward, but this did not matter much when the wide ocean kindly separated America from the rest of the world; and other countries were not leakproof either. With the emergence of totalitarian dictatorships, the situation has changed. For the last three decades America has been at a constant disadvantage in its dealings with regimes which do not suffer from the conflicting pressures of public opinion, and as the global balance has shifted to the detriment of the free societies, the margin of error has very much narrowed. Ironically, it is precisely at this stage that largely as a result of Vietnam and Watergate, the demand is heard for even less secrecy, less authority, less concentration of power. In the recognition that it may be impossible to combine such “openness” with the successful management of foreign policy, some have candidly suggested that America turn inward and give up its foreign commitments. The idea is not new: in 1939 Bertrand Russell called on his countrymen not to fight Hitler, for, he maintained, they would do so only at the price of becoming fascists themselves. The British fought Hitler, and they did not become fascist. But the one new feature in the present constellation is that democratic regimes no longer face dictatorships from a position of greater strength, and whether in these circumstances they can hold their own is unfortunately an open question.

To survive in the contest democracies need, in addition to a realistic policy, broad popular support for their political objectives, and strong leadership. In America, for some considerable time now, the hands of the Executive have been tied, as Congress has undertaken to interfere in the foreign political process on the tactical level. It is not that members of Congress are less well-informed on world affairs than parliamentarians elsewhere; on the contrary. But foreign political decisions, except those of a general nature, cannot be made and executed by parliaments. Domestic problems, however grave, do not always demand immediate action; there is usually ample time for consultation and debate, and sometimes they go away without any action whatsoever. In the area of foreign affairs and national security, crises tend to break suddenly, and any failure to deal with them promptly may have the gravest consequences.

The present stalemate between Congress and the Executive cannot possibly continue—it is an invitation to disaster. One can think of various ways of bringing about more effective coordination and consultation: Senator Humphrey has for years proposed the establishment of an overall National Security Committee in Congress on which the chairmen of the most important committees might serve. Or there could be a return to the original, pre-1947 concept of the National Security Council, in which leading members of the two parties were to have been included. In due time a closer working relationship is bound to emerge between Congress and the Executive; one hopes it will not take additional major setbacks to expedite the process.


The aim of American foreign policy in the difficult years to come ought to be what it should have been all along: striking a balance between the nation's objectives and its power. That America is not omnipotent and cannot possibly extirpate evil everywhere was known even to the late John Foster Dulles, who said so more than once. Well-known too are the facts that the dangers facing America and its allies are not only military in character, that the Communist bloc is not a monolith, that challenges facing the free societies do not all have to do with Communism, that cooperation with the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Worlds is preferable to confrontation. These truisms are only of limited help, however; the struggle for political power in Europe and elsewhere will not be played according to democratic ground rules.

Sooner or later America will be asked to come to the help of democratic regimes in trouble: this, after all, is what alliances are about. Many do not like the idea of any sort of active response: why not allow the forces of self-determination to work out their own destiny? The case for extreme laissez-faire liberalism in international politics opens intriguing perspectives if applied to Portugal today and other European countries tomorrow. It will be interesting to watch—from a distance—the forces of self-determination at work once Colonel Qaddafi or President Idi Amin has his nuclear arsenal. Others argue that the U.S. should assist only those countries that can help themselves. This is a sensible rule, but countries capable of helping themselves will for the most part not need American assistance in the first place. Furthermore, such countries will frequently find themselves facing internal and external threats at the same time.

There still persists in politics that curiously naive belief that only corrupt and ineffective governments have reason to fear the future. The truth is that “corrupt” and “ineffective” are not synonyms; a great many corrupt regimes are quite effective, and quite a few “ineffective” regimes have perished not because they were evil, but on the contrary, because they were less ruthless than their opponents. It is argued that Europe is not Vietnam, which could not be helped in any case because it lacked internal cohesion. True enough, but as Pierre Hassner has rightly noted, Southern Europe today, torn by divergent social and nationalist forces, in fact looks more like the Third World than like the conventional image of Europe. And if Southern Europe today, Western Europe tomorrow. Senator Kennedy, in a recent Newsweek interview, commenting on the situation in Portugal, asserted that basically each people has to make its own decisions. Unfortunately, as the case of Portugal has shown, the “people” may not be in a position to make those decisions. What happens then?

According to the Brezhnev doctrine, the Soviet Union is entitled to intervene in the internal affairs of a country within its sphere of influence, even if this should be against the wish of the great majority of the population. What should America do if an anti-democratic minority seizes power at a time of crisis? Should it let the forces of self-determination assert themselves or should there be a demonstration of solidarity? Hassner maintains that nothing can be done—domestic evolution has to be left to domestic forces. Yet at the same time he stresses the need for an American military counterweight. Counter to what? In Western Europe the new “domestic forces” may no longer be interested in an alliance with America, in fact they may actively oppose it. Alliance would then mean a unilateral offer of protection, and Senator Mansfield would not be alone in doubting the wisdom of such an enterprise.


Adversity, Francis Bacon observed, is not without its own comfort and hope. The present crisis has already had a sobering effect—in newspapers and periodicals, in Congressional votes and other public forums. A real crisis disposes of pseudo-problems just as a serious disease often does away with hypochondria or a strong wind blows away the cobwebs. Soon it may no longer be necessary to explain that the problem of the West is not the loss of imperial status or of imperial prerogatives, nor even the nationalization of the sardine industry by Portuguese army officers. With the West in retreat, the issue at stake is not the arrogance of power, but the defeatism generated by impotence.

The survival of free societies, including America, is no longer a sure thing. The world is moving from an equilibrium of sorts to a state of anarchy, and in an age of nuclear proliferation it is likely that such a process will lead sooner or later to disaster. These are not apocalyptic visions; unless present trends in world politics are checked and reversed, they are probabilities. The party, in short, is over, though some of the guests may be a little slow in accepting the lateness of the hour. While America lived in a world of her own and was safe from menace it could indulge in a great many luxuries, ranging all the way from complacency to hysteria. Those happy days are gone forever.



1 Union leaders in Britain are usually elected by 10 per cent of the membership; frequently the vote is less than 5 per cent. The extreme groups are fighting an attempt to introduce a more democratic system.

2 Today, of course, foreign ministers, government officials, and political commentators are all agreed that a new round in the Arab-Israeli conflict may be expected within the next few weeks, and they have described this as the greatest danger facing mankind. While almost anything may happen in the Middle East, it should be perfectly clear that a new round is by no means in the cards for at least a while; that the conflict is, unfortunately, insoluble in the foreseeable future; and that if by a miracle it should be solved, it will be replaced almost immediately by a fierce inter-Arab struggle. The alarmist position now being taken over the Arab-Israeli conflict is a typical example of the preoccupation with the (seemingly) most immediate problems and of the inability to look ahead more than a week or a month at a time.


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.