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On Letting Go

September 1, 1995 Topic: Society Regions: North AmericaAmericas Tags: BusinessContainmentCold WarGulf War

On Letting Go

Mini Teaser: As virtually all the readers of this magazine will agree, the Cold War was a conflict of monumental importance.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

As virtually all the readers of this magazine will agree, the Cold War was a conflict of monumental importance. It defined an era. We believed that the fate of Western civilization--and thus of civilization as such--depended on its outcome, that it could fairly be represented as a conflict between democracy and totalitarianism, freedom and tyranny, good and evil.

Because of this, the Cold War called for an unprecedented commitment on the part of the United States. It was in terms of the conflict's extraordinary, Manichaean, life-threatening character that the overriding priority given to foreign and security policy needs over forty years--a priority that involved the subordination and neglect of many other needs--was justified, and rightly so.

Bearing all this in mind, consider a simple proposition: If the Cold War was a happening of such monumental, compelling importance, one that profoundly shaped American policies and priorities, then surely the end of the Cold War was a happening of comparable importance, calling for an equally profound reassessment of American policies and priorities.

If you have not been paying close attention to recent arguments about foreign policy, your first reaction to this proposition may well be that its truth is so obvious, so banal, that it is hardly worth stating, and certainly not worth discussing at length. If so, you are wrong. To a marked degree current arguments about the foreign policy of this country--particularly arguments among conservatives, Republicans, and what remain of the old Scoop Jackson Democrats--turn on the question of whether this proposition is or is not valid.

There is a substantial and influential school of thought that maintains that it is not. This school resists any proposal to change significantly the strategic posture and level of diplomatic and political commitment assumed by the United States during the Cold War. It proposes that America's all-encompassing Cold War foreign and security policies--justified at the time of their adoption, it should be remembered, by claims of a clear and present danger in the form of the unrelentingly hostile "Soviet colossus"--be now regarded as the norm for an indefinite future and not tampered with in any significant way. Holders of this position are inclined to characterize any proposal to modify the Cold War posture as "neo-isolationism."

Anyone wanting an articulate and honest version of this position (one that does not indulge in "neo-isolationist" name-calling) should consult the recent writings of Robert Kagan in Commentary. According to Kagan, the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have done nothing to secure a "world order that serves American material and spiritual needs." All that has happened is that, as the fall of the Soviet Union "removed restraints on foreign leaders. . .and unleashed new struggles for power," the threat to that order has changed its form--from a single large adversary to a number of smaller but collectively serious challenges.

Rather inconsistently, Kagan does admit to the fact of "today's relatively benign international order," but it is not a serious inconsistency for he hastens to add that this benign order represents "a fragile, temporary situation" rather than a stable state of affairs. It will rapidly disappear, he insists, unless it is propped up by "high levels of American power, influence, and engagement." Indeed, Kagan evidently believes, along with those he identifies as "conservative internationalists," that, if anything, the United States should "assume greater, not lesser, responsibilities for the peace and stability of the present international order" than it did as the leader of the free world during the Cold War.

So instead of scaling down we should scale up. If all this is true, if things are no better--are possibly worse--in terms of threats to American interests than they were before, the question arises: What was the point of fighting and winning the Cold War? Might it not all have been a ghastly mistake--a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire--or at least wasted effort? Before yielding to such a dismaying conclusion it is worth looking closely at the arguments used to justify Kagan's policy prescriptions.

Much of his two articles is spent attacking the "realist" approach to foreign policy, with its emphasis on limits and caution, and its awareness of the steady decline in the U.S. margin of superiority over others. I am not spared on this score, because, as between what I was writing in 1988 and what I have written more recently, Kagan finds my opinions "much-changed." That, indeed, they are, as far as they bear on American foreign policy; but, of course, the world had changed rather a lot during that period as well, and when thinking about policy it is usually sensible to take circumstances into account. As I wrote in the 1988 article to which Kagan refers (it was a critical review of Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and I was responding to Kennedy's emphasis on the importance of balancing defense requirements and economic capacity):

"Now, it is indisputable that balancing is an essential part of making policy. But deciding where and how to strike a balance is a difficult business, involving more than the weighing of arms against resources. In particular, and crucially, it depends on the seriousness of the threat a country faces. If the threat is dire. . .the balance will have to be different from what would be appropriate in a more benign environment." [Italics in original]

During the Cold War there was such a dire threat, and now there is not. A simple enough point, but not one that Kagan can accept. He cannot accept it for a reason that, given his attack on realism, is ironic: because in order to justify the foreign policy he wants, he must advance a view of the world that--the United States excepted--is itself an ultra-realist, crudely Hobbesian one. The crust of world order is paper thin; the world is full of predatory states; a return to a normality not closely policed by the United States will inevitably result in a return to wholesale aggression and conflict. Possible and potential threats must be treated with the same urgency as real, existing ones. Minor threats must be aggregated so that they collectively provide the equivalent of a deadly threat (a process roughly equivalent to maintaining that a bad head cold plus a slipped disc plus an ingrowing toenail are together as deadly as, say, a brain tumor). Only a virtuous America provides an exception to this Hobbesian state of nature, and the only secure and desirable world will be one dominated--apparently forever--by U.S. power.

It is the normal fate of realists to have to fight on two fronts simultaneously, combating both those who deny their views and those who enthusiastically caricature them. It is one of Robert Kagan's distinctions that he does both simultaneously.

While he insists on the superior virtue of the United States, and while he severely reprimands realists for allegedly doubting the good sense and enthusiasm for world leadership of the American people, Kagan himself seems to have little faith in the powers of discrimination and judgment of his fellow countrymen. Thus the United States must involve itself in all matters large and small, must interfere everywhere, because "[t]here is no certainty that we can correctly distinguish between high-stake issues and small-stake issues in time to sound the alarm." So habit must be substituted for judgment. Americans must, so to speak, keep in training by developing the habit of meddling everywhere, since otherwise they will get out of practice and fail the crucial "tests of American strength, character and endurance" when those appear. As he has no confidence in their power to select and choose, to calculate probabilities and degrees of seriousness, American foreign policy must be a matter of all or nothing at all; and as nothing at all is unthinkable, it must be all.
So we arrive, finally, at the ideal of an absolutely undiscriminating foreign policy for which everything matters--and the condemnation of discrimination and moderation as nefarious and subversive tendencies that would only undermine American manhood.

Robert Kagan's views are interesting because he articulates clearly and honestly what many are thinking. It is partly, I believe, a matter of overlearning the lessons of the past, overcompensating for past errors--a process that usually results in a different set of mistakes. Having stood apart from the world in the past and having been late on the scene in some earlier crises, there is now a determination that from here on the United States must regulate the world closely and anticipate every possible crisis before it occurs. Among sections of the foreign policy-security elite, it is also partly a matter of having come to enjoy the role of superpower and leader of the free world--even while complaining of its burdens--and of being reluctant to have it modified. In any case, the conclusion is that the level of activism and commitment reached during the Cold War must be seen not as a temporary burden, tolerated in response to a uniquely dangerous set of circumstances, but as an appropriate level to be maintained in perpetuity.

Hence, the struggling democracy in Russia must be viewed with the same suspicion as its communist predecessor, and so we must take advantage of its weakness to extend NATO as near as we can to its borders. Despite its aging population and the destruction of its military culture, Germany must be contained by an indefinite American military presence in Europe. To prevent the Japanese from rearming, we must keep scores of troops in that country and act as balancer of first, rather than last, resort in its region. Our reaction to China's economic growth, effective abandonment of communism, and advance toward global power status must be to treat it more harshly than we treated it in the later years of the terrible "Cultural Revolution," to contain it, and to deny it any of the extension of influence that normally goes with the attaining of such a status.

During the Cold War, we conservatives denounced the doctrine of "moral equivalence." That we were justified in doing so depended at least as much on the quite exceptional vileness of our Communist adversary as it did on American virtue. The United States does indeed behave better than the great majority of states most of the time, but it is a matter of degree, not a difference in kind. When the chips are down, all states do what they have to (and can do) in order to protect their vital interests.

If, now, in the absence of an evil empire and in its dealings with the more or less ordinary states in the post-Cold War era, the United States continues to insist on applying different standards to itself and others--if, say, it claims that it is perfectly proper for it to intervene with force in the internal affairs of small neighboring states, but absolutely impermissible for other large powers to do the same--it will be storing up trouble for itself in the form of cumulating resentment and lack of credibility.

Realism, properly understood, is simply a serious commitment to trying to see things as they are, without distortion or illusion. Everything else that goes by the name--all the precepts and formulae of the schools--is conditional and in the last resort expendable. The most celebrated enemy of realism is utopianism--seeing things as we would like them to be--and it is still alive and well: witness the claims that the spread of democracy means the demise of power politics, and the revival of the old claim that "interdependence" spells the end of the nation-state.

But an enemy of realism that is hardly less formidable is habit--the inclination to see things not as they are, but as they were--and thus to cling to old policies after the rationale for them has disappeared. In this issue, Ian Gambles argues brilliantly that we are already forgetting, are letting go of, the Cold War. But perhaps the Cold War is more reluctant to let go of us.

Essay Types: Essay