Drift & Mastery, Bush-Style

March 1, 1991 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: Superpower

Drift & Mastery, Bush-Style

Mini Teaser: It is said that one cannot argue with success.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

It is said that one cannot argue with success.  On the contrary, one can and one should, for euphoria and complacency are the enemies of sound judgment.  Before August 2, 1990, George Bush received high praise from the American foreign policy establishment for doing very little in relation to the collapse of communism.  Since then he has received equally generous praise for being spectacularly activist in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.  First masterly inactivity, then masterful engagement: How sound are these judgments?

For a recent example of an admiring account of George Bush's passive response to the end of the Cold War, consult Michael Mandelbaum's article in the current "America and the World" issue of Foreign Affairs.  Professor Mandelbaum's conclusion that the president deserves high marks is based almost entirely on how well he believes George Bush played the role of the dog that didn't bark.  The president "kept the United States in the background"; he "steered clear" of the pitfalls and blind alleys of interference; he "refrained from," "avoided," and "declined" to do this and that; he "correctly calculated" the wisdom of letting things "run their course," without either collaborating with or confronting Moscow.

Mandelbaum suggests that the president's performance in this respect has gone "underappreciated," but I don't think so.  True, some conservatives have chided Bush for being insufficiently exultant in victory, and for inadequate zeal in pressing America's advantage over an adversary in crisis; and true, some liberals, gamely ready to embrace yet another hero on the Left even as the pillars of the temple are crumbling, have complained that not enough was being done to "help Gorby."  But in the think tanks, editorial offices, and schools of international relations in which wisdom is made conventional, the bulk of opinion has approved the Bush administration's passivity.  Professor Mandelbaum is expressing an orthodoxy, not a challenging reassessment.

On the whole, and with a qualification I shall come to, I agree with the orthodoxy.  To adapt the old saw, if something you don't like is broke or breaking, don't feel obliged to fix it.  And don't feel compelled to hasten a process that is proceeding nicely of its own accord; at best your efforts will be superfluous, at worst counterproductive.

More specifically, the case against Bush's conservative critics is that blatant attempts to exploit the crisis in the Soviet Union, either in propaganda terms or by attempting to influence events there, would in all likelihood weaken the reformers and strengthen the reactionary forces by allowing the latter to exploit Russian national pride.  Expressions of conservative outrage at the use of Soviet force against the Baltic peoples and other nationalities, especially when accompanied by demands that the Bush administration must respond punitively, are not convincing.  What we are witnessing in the Soviet Union is the collapse of the last great empire of the twentieth century.  The earlier collapse of empires--including those of the democratic powers--was accompanied by much violence and bloodshed.  The British departure from the Indian subcontinent, Kenya, and Malaya; the French from Vietnam and Algeria; the Dutch from Indonesia; the Belgians from the Congo; the Portuguese from Timor--millions of deaths accompanied these vast adjustments in the international system.  So far, the collapse of the communist empire has been surprisingly parsimonious in blood, particularly given the regime's demonstrated taste for violence.  Who would have predicted that fundamental challenges to the integrity of the Soviet Union would result in deaths measured only in dozens and scores?  This may well change of course--indeed it will be surprising if it does not--but until it does, protestations of shock and horror ring rather hollow.  Another observation suggested by earlier examples of imperial collapse is that whether or not the Soviet republics achieve independence will depend overwhelmingly on their own determination and staying power.  Except as a side effect of a major war, there are few examples of outside intervention being decisive.

Liberal criticism of the Bush administration's passivity is also unpersuasive.  That criticism has usually taken the form of complaints that the United States is being insufficiently supportive and generous with aid.  But the gap between what would be required to make a significant difference to the Soviet economy and what the United States, even at its most generous, could conceivably give is very large.  Further, there is no evidence that the Soviet system could make good use of any aid given to it.  A country that wastes its own record harvest because of failure to gather, store, and distribute is hardly likely to use foreign aid effectively.  The only exception to this inefficiency is the Soviet military-industrial complex, which almost certainly could make good use of Western material aid and technology.  But aiding it would obstruct rather than facilitate reform.  Indeed, arguably, any economic aid that was not entirely wasted would have that effect, in that it would lessen the incentive to change.

Essay Types: Essay