Remembering the Future

Remembering the Future

Mini Teaser: Taking seriously the admonition that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

by Author(s): Paul Wolfowitz

Even though it has been ten years since the Berlin Wall came down, we still have no better name for the period in which we live than "the post-Cold War era." True, many have aspired to play the role of the next George Kennan--defining American strategy for this new era that does not yet have a name--but so far none has succeeded. Moreover, given the rate at which many politicians and commentators have been revising their recollections of their own stances during the period 1946-91, it may not be too long before someone disputes Kennan's authorship of the original containment strategy. For it seems that now, safely after the event, we have all become cold warriors.

In his maiden speech on foreign policy, presidential candidate Bill Bradley declared that, "For 50 years after the end of World War II and until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we were sure about one thing: We knew where we stood on foreign policy." The former senator from New Jersey went on to rue the fact that today we face a more difficult challenge:

"when it comes to foreign affairs, things are not so clear. The world's a more complicated place and it's no longer divided like it once was into good and evil, clear enemies, obvious friends. The choices are no longer so stark, and stark choices are always the easy ones."

This nostalgia for the supposedly easier choices of the Cold War is not confined to Bradley. President Clinton, too, routinely echoes the lament about the lost clarity and clear choices of the recent past.

It is astonishing to hear the Cold War era so described. For in reality it was a time when the country was deeply divided over issues of foreign policy--most bitterly over the war in Vietnam, but also over the commitment of U.S. troops to Europe and Korea, the Strategic Defense Initiative and arms control, Central America and nuclear weapons, and over almost every year's budget request from the Defense Department.

Descriptions of the long conflict as being clear-cut and simple are particularly astounding coming from leaders of the party of George McGovern. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Democratic Party ceased to be the party of Harry Truman or "Scoop" Jackson and became instead the party that supported the Mansfield Amendment to remove U.S. troops from Europe; that reflexively opposed many of the weapons systems that were critical in the American competition with the Soviet Union; and that advocated a "nuclear freeze" at a time when the Reagan administration was trying to convince NATO to proceed with the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces. Far from believing that the Cold War was a clear struggle between good and evil, the leaders of the Democratic Party attacked President Reagan as a war-mongering ideologue when he declared that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire."

Then, too, rarely were the country's leaders so sharply divided as they were in 1991 over the decision to evict Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. Voting on largely partisan lines, it was only by slender majorities that both houses of Congress granted President Bush the authority to use force. Although Senator Bradley has lately discovered that "Iraq, 1991" exemplifies one of those times and places when "the national interest is clear", at the time he joined the majority of congressional Democrats in voting against the President. And for Governor Clinton the issue was not so clear either. In a characteristically hedged statement he said: "I guess I would have voted for the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made.''

All of this forgetfulness might merely be a matter for amusement were it not for the fact that much of what is being forgotten is crucially relevant to our immediate future.

Reflections on Consensus

In 1992 a draft memo prepared by my office at the Pentagon, which proposed a post-Cold War defense strategy, leaked to the press and sparked a major controversy. The draft suggested that a "dominant consideration" in U.S. defense strategy should be "to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power." Those regions were specified as Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union and Southwest Asia.

The New York Times, having published the leak, editorialized violently against the document, as did some prominent members of Congress. Senator Edward Kennedy said that the Pentagon plans "appear to be aimed primarily at finding new ways to justify Cold War levels of military spending." Senator Robert Byrd commented that, "We love being the sole remaining superpower in the world and we want so much to remain that way that we are willing to put at risk the basic health of our economy and well-being of our people to do so." Senator Joseph Biden ridiculed the proposed strategy as "literally a Pax Americana. . . . It won't work."

Just seven years later, many of these same critics seem quite comfortable with the idea of a Pax Americana. They have supported or urged American military intervention in places like Haiti and Rwanda and East Timor, places never envisaged in my 1992 memorandum. Moreover, they seem very comfortable that all of this can be accomplished, and our commitments to our European and Asian allies maintained, with a greatly reduced defense burden and without risking the "basic health of our economy." Today the criticism of Pax Americana comes mainly from the isolationist right, from Patrick Buchanan, who complains that "containment, a defensive strategy, had given way to a breathtakingly ambitious offensive strategy--to 'establish and protect a new order.'"

One would like to think that this new consensus--Buchanan apart--reflects a recognition that the United States cannot afford to allow a hostile power to dominate Europe or Asia or the Persian Gulf; that the safest, and in the long run the cheapest, way to prevent this is to preserve the U.S.-led alliances that have been so successful--to paraphrase Lord Ismay in more diplomatic language--at keeping Americans engaged, allies reassured, and aggressors deterred. But in reality today's consensus is facile and complacent, reflecting a lack of concern about the possibility of another major war, let alone agreement about how to prevent one.

Still, one should not look a gift horse in the mouth. There is today a remarkable degree of agreement on a number of central points of foreign policy. No one is lobbying to withdraw troops from Korea, as was the case as recently as the late 1980s. No one is arguing that we should withdraw from Europe. American forces under President Clinton's command have been bombing Iraq with some regularity for months now, without a whimper of opposition in the Congress and barely a mention in the press. Even on ballistic missile defense there is today an emerging consensus that something needs to be done--although no agreement on precisely what.

Partly, this consensus is the result of a seemingly benign international environment. Thus, we have been told that the really important problem is "the economy, stupid", or the environment, or, as the vice president most recently announced, aids in Africa. What is wrong with these claims is not that aids in Africa and the environment are not serious problems; rather, it is the implication that conventional security is no longer something we need to worry much about.

Perhaps, indeed, we have seen the last of the Napoleons and the Kaisers and Hitlers and Stalins and Tojos. In a world where American primacy seems so overwhelming, it is hard to imagine how threats of that magnitude could come about. But if we contemplate the last century we find abundant evidence that even a decade can bring about enormous transformations in world affairs. (Consider the changes from 1905 to 1915, or from 1929 to 1939, or from 1981 to 1991.) And if that was true in earlier decades, how much truer is it today when the tempo of change has increased so dramatically? Further, even if the chances of another assault on world peace are remote, what is at stake is too great to permit complacency or neglect of America's responsibility as the world's dominant power.

Wars in Faraway Places

Ultimately, we are placing bets on the shape of an uncertain future--a task which will prove that much more difficult if we cannot get the past right. The experience of Munich has provided a cautionary lesson for the second half of the last century--even if a somewhat overused one--and it should not be forgotten in this one. Addressing the British people by radio two days before his departure for Munich in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made the case for appeasement in stark terms:

"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. . . . I am myself a man of peace to the very depths of my soul. . . . But if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted; . . . but war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defense, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible."

Essay Types: Essay