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

As it turned out, it was precisely "the great issues" that were at stake. Chamberlain's failure to come to the aid of those faraway Czechs meant that Britain would shortly face a much more terrible war and on much more disadvantageous terms.

As a result, this "lesson" was seared into the consciousness of the Western democracies and their leaders. It contributed to the resolve of President Truman to resist communist aggression in such "faraway" places as Korea, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Berlin, and of President Kennedy to resist Soviet pressure in Berlin and Cuba. But let us remember that it was also with Munich in mind that British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet took the unfortunate decision to oppose with force Nasser's takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956, and that a few years later, with even worse consequences, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson decided that Vietnam was a similar case of aggression that had to be opposed.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States and its allies and partners are again confronted with a series of wars in faraway places, and many repeat Chamber-lain's counsel that we have no business intervening in conflicts among people we do not understand, where, in the current idiom, "we have no dog in the fight." Of course, the fact that the arguments have a similar ring to them does not mean that those who echo Chamberlain today are necessarily wrong, any more than those who argue for intervening in messy civil wars or ethnic conflicts for moral purposes are necessarily repeating the mistakes of Vietnam. History does not tell us what to do, but it does offer us some options to ponder.

Imagine, counterfactually, that England and its allies had successfully resisted Hitler in the Rhineland in 1936 or at Munich in 1938. Germany would then have been "contained." In that case we would certainly have been treated--would we not?--to learned discourses about how the resulting "cold war" with Germany was the unnecessary product of unwarranted Western suspicion and hostility toward a country that--chafing under unjustified Western impositions--had only been seeking its rightful "place in the sun." Or, to take a more recent example, we will never know what might have happened if SaddamHussein's occupation of Kuwait had not been reversed: would he have, as seems entirely probable, brought the governments of the Arabian Peninsula under his control and, with the wealth that provided, built up his arsenal of conventional and nuclear weapons in preparation for a much bigger war with Iran or with Israel? If so, then what President Bush achieved was much more than just the liberation of Kuwait; but that achievement will never be as clear as Chamberlain's failure.

Even actions that seem like mistakes at the time may be rescued by the twists and turns of history. The failure to do more to deter Saddam Hussein from attacking Kuwait in 1990 seemed like a mistake at the time and is still treated as such in most discussions of that crisis. But consider: we shall never know what might have happened if Saddam Hussein had been deterred at that point--only to confront the world with a crisis several years later, but now armed with nuclear weapons.

When the consequences of alternative courses of action are so uncertain, even in hindsight, who in their right mind would defy Yogi Berra's famous advice that "it's a mistake to try to make predictions, especially about the future"?

Lessons of the Cold War

The refusal to remember the deep divisions and sharp debates over policy that took place during the Cold War is in some cases part of an effort to deny that there are any lessons to be learned from that long struggle, to put it all behind us. On the other side, some seem to believe that, since the policies that won the Cold War clearly worked, every effort should be made to keep them in place indefinitely. In the face of such advice we would do well to remember Lord Salisbury's advice that "The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead politics." What is true, I believe, is that while policies must change as circumstances change, there are still valid lessons to be learned from the Cold War. Here are some of them:

* Democracy Matters

At the beginning of the Reagan administration, when Congress refused to confirm the administration's first nominee as assistant secretary of state for Human Rights, some saw this as an opportunity to do away entirely with the State Department's Office of Human Rights. Fortunately, and due in large measure to the intervention of Reagan's personal friend and then-Deputy Secretary of State William Clark, the office was preserved and human rights and the promotion of democracy became enshrined as major features of the Reagan administration's foreign policy. There can be little doubt that this contributed in an important way to the triumph of democracy in the Cold War. Perhaps more surprising to Reagan's numerous critics, his administration also witnessed and supported an enormous advance of democracy in countries on "our" side of the Cold War, not only in Latin America but in some surprising places in Asia such as South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Nothing could be less realistic than the version of the "realist" view of foreign policy that dismisses human rights as an important tool of American foreign policy. There are no doubt examples of human rights policies that can damage other U.S. interests, but often these are policies that are bad for human rights and democracy as well--for example, the notion that undermining the Shah's regime would have
been a great advance for the Iranian people, or the belief that weakening South Korea's ability to defend itself from the North was necessary in order to advance human rights. What is more impressive is how often promoting democracy has actually advanced American interests.

Democratic change not only weakened our enemies, but helped strengthen our friends. This became clear to me when I was involved in drafting U.S. policy toward the Philippines in the mid-1980s, during the last years of the Marcos regime. As the United States put pressure on Marcos to reform, we were asked whether doing so would simply pave the way for a regime that would in retrospect make Marcos look good, as the Ayatollahs in Iran had done for the Shah. In fact, it was Marcos who was in the process of paving the way to victory for a particularly vicious communist insurgency, and there was available a true democratic alternative in the Philippines. Political change did indeed jeopardize American bases in the Philippines, but it seemed more important to have a healthy ally without American bases than a sick ally with them.

History has amply vindicated that judgment. Similarly, the transition to democracy in South Korea has not only been good for the Korean people but has significantly strengthened U.S.-Korean relations. As one contemplates the enormous problems of Indonesia today, one can only wish that the transition to a more representative government there had begun ten years earlier.

Promoting democracy requires attention to specific circumstances and to the limitations of U.S. leverage. Both because of what the United States is, and because of what is possible, we cannot engage either in promoting democracy or in nation-building simply by an exercise of will. We must proceed by interaction and indirection, not imposition. In this respect, the post-World War II examples of Germany and Japan offer misleading guides for the present. What proved feasible following total victory and prolonged occupation--in societies that were economically advanced but, at the same time, had profoundly lost faith in their own institutions--does not offer a model that applies in other circumstances.

One of the important lessons of the Cold War is that some regimes are more open to change than others, that there is indeed a difference between authoritarian and totalitarian governments. The Soviet Union itself was not ready for change until it became clear that it was losing the Cold War. Our ally South Korea was a very different matter, even though severe criticisms could be leveled at the Chun Doo Hwan regime of the 1980s. Reagan's willingness to receive Chun as his first foreign visitor at the White House was criticized by human rights groups, but it secured the reprieve of Kim Dae Jung's death sentence and his release from prison. Reagan's own visit to Korea two years later was also criticized, but it secured Chun's pledge to honor the Korean constitution and step down at the end of his term of office.

Harking back to Marcos again, it is important to recall that he only proved willing to heed advice that he step down when his own people had made his position completely untenable. Thus, another lesson that we should remember from our Cold War successes in promoting democracy is that such efforts require indigenous support to be effective. The chances of success without such support--say, in North Korea today--are small. It is the difference between pushing on a locked door and pushing on a balanced scale.

Essay Types: Essay