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

In the former cases, as in Afghanistan, our strongest weapon may be the oppressed people themselves. But we have an obligation to deliver the support we promise them. Kennedy's failure to make good on his pledges to the Cubans at the Bay of Pigs, like Clinton's abandonment of the Iraqi opposition in 1996, was a moral failure that was also costly to American power and credibility. Even when the promises are vague, or only implicit--as with Eisenhower encouraging the Hungarians in 1956 or Bush the Iraqis in 1991--we must remember that our reputation will be determined by what people believe we promised rather than what we intended. This is a reason to promise carefully and deliver on the promises we make--but it should not become an excuse for refusing our help to those who need it, like the Iraqi opposition today.

* Deterrence Works

It is surprising, after not only the Cold War experience but the earlier history of the twentieth century, that we still hear echoes of "Why die for Berlin?" or "Why die for Danzig?"

The purpose of extending security guarantees, such as the ones recently extended to NATO's newest members, is not to have to fight wars on behalf of others, but precisely to avoid having to do so. It is impressive how often American clarity during the Cold War worked, and how often ambiguity led to trouble. This is not to say that showing resolve will always suffice to ensure peace. But we should not entertain the illusion that a refusal to extend guarantees will enable us to avoid war. Chamberlain not only sacrificed Czechoslovakia at Munich, but brought on the wider war that he was trying to avoid. When Acheson implied that Korea was outside our defense perimeter he not only invited a North Korean attack but could not then keep the United States out of war when it came.

Here there seems to be a persistent difference between democracies, which look constantly for pragmatic solutions to resolve concrete problems in isolation, and those more ruthless and avaricious leaders who see every such effort as a sign of weakness and whose real goal is to change power relationships in a fundamental way. Henry Kissinger has observed that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's "exploration" of pragmatic concessions to resolve the Berlin crisis in 1959 was seen by Khrushchev "as another confirmation of a favorable tilt in the balance of forces and the augury of even better things to come", as were subsequent American efforts. It was only with the frustration of Khrushchev's final attempt to raise the ante--by placing missiles in Cuba--that he was finally forced to stop testing the West on Berlin.

* America's Alliance Vocation

Perhaps no Cold War lesson is more important than what can be learned from the remarkable record of the United States in building successful coalitions. This includes lessons about the importance of leadership and what it consists of: not lecturing and posturing and demanding, but demonstrating that your friends will be protected and taken care of, that your enemies will be punished, and that those who refuse to support you will live to regret having done so. It includes lessons about the difference between coalitions that are united by a common purpose, and collections of countries that are searching for the least common denominator and for easy ways out of a problem. And it includes important lessons that the "enemy of our friend" does not always have to be our enemy as well--whether dealing with Egypt and Israel, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Greece and Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, or China and Taiwan, the United States has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to work both sides of the street.

* The Importance of Principle

There is much else to be learned from the experience of the Cold War: conflicts breed arms races, and not the other way around; it is far better to equip others to fight for their country than to send Americans to fight for them; conversely, refusing to arm our friends, whether in Bosnia, or Cambodia or elsewhere, is a strategic as well as a moral mistake; and force, when used, should be used decisively--bluffing or "signaling" with military power should not be done without a careful calculation of what comes next.

As important as any other lesson, however, is that in international relations, as in other human activities, principles count. This is a practical as well as a moral point, because principle is a powerful force in politics, particularly in democratic politics. It cannot be an absolute because it must be applied to specific cases, requiring judgments about the facts and the stakes of each one. Even in the case of Munich, Churchill acknowledged that,

"No case of this kind can be judged apart from its circumstances. The facts may be unknown at the time, and estimates of them must be largely guesswork, coloured by the general feeling and aims of whoever is trying to pronounce. Those who are . . . ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign Power, have not always been right. On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint."

There is, however, Churchill continued,

"one helpful guide, namely, for a nation to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations to allies. . . . An exaggerated code of honour leading to the performance of utterly vain and unreasonable deeds could not be defended, however fine it might look. [At Munich], however, the moment came when honour pointed the path of duty, and when also the right judgment of the facts at that time would have reinforced its dictates."

China, Past and Future

There is no issue facing us today in which the past weighs more heavily on the present and on future prospects than that of our relationship with the People's Republic of China (PRC). China is an emerging major power, but it has not yet become one. Persuading an emerging power that the status quo should be changed only peacefully has always been a challenge historically, and the failure to do so with Germany and Japan in the last century had catastrophic consequences. That failure serves as a reminder of the stakes involved, but does not constitute a reason to be pessimistic about the outcome in the case of China.

Almost surely, China will not become an ideological threat like the old Soviet Union or try to conduct ideological crusades and campaigns of subversion as it did in the 1950s and 1960s. Not only is the ideological fervor gone in China, but also the ideology has no appeal internationally. However, China does have deep historical grievances, much more legitimate than those voiced a century ago by Germany or Japan. It remains to be seen whether China will come to accept that a peaceful status quo in the Western Pacific--albeit one in which the principal countries around the Pacific Rim are America's allies or friends--best serves its own interests.

Clearly China's growing strength will pose challenges to the United States, its allies and its friends, but on balance it is probably better to face the challenges of a strong China than a weak one. Certainly it would be a mistake to treat China like the Soviet Union, restricting its trade in order deliberately to weaken it or to use human rights as leverage. A weaker China might take longer to become a military competitor, but what we would gain in time we would lose in enmity. Moreover, a collapsed China would not be in our interest, quite apart from the fact that it would involve enormous human suffering.

The most important reason, however, for treating China differently from the old Soviet Union is because an evolution is taking place in the People's Republic, one that bears some resemblance to the earlier development of the Asian "tigers." Today's China is no longer a completely closed society in which the party and government dominate everything. There is a substantial private sector whose scope and sphere are growing. It is in the U.S. interest--and in that of Taiwan and Hong Kong and the region as a whole--to encourage such growth, which is heavily dependent on trade with the West. That is the most fundamental and important reason for continuing normal trade relations with China and encouraging Chinese membership of the WTO.

The U.S. interest in supporting democratic trends in China is more than "international social work." Although our capacity to influence the process is limited, the United States has a fundamental strategic interest in encouraging greater openness. Even though democracies are not as irenic as the extreme proponents of "democratic peace" like to argue, a China that governs its own peoples by force is more likely to try to impose its will on its neighbors. And in turn, China's neighbors and the United States will be more likely to trust it and accept its growing influence if it becomes a democracy. A government whose legitimacy rests on valid claims to be representative has less need to make dangerous appeals to nationalism. Finally, and not insignificantly, a democratic China would have a far better chance of coming to terms with Taiwan peacefully. I have even been told by a Chinese Communist Party member that what "terrifies those old men in Beijing" is the demonstration by Taiwan that Chinese can manage
democracy successfully.

Essay Types: Essay