The Future of a Contradiction

The Future of a Contradiction

Mini Teaser: The great issue of American foreign policy today may be simply stated.

by Author(s): Robert W. Tucker

The great issue of American foreign policy today may be simply stated. It is the contradiction between the persisting desire to remain the premier global power and an ever deepening aversion to bear the costs of this position. Evidence of the contradiction is pervasive. In Bosnia, it has merely found its most recent manifestation.

The contradiction itself is hardly novel. Many observers have traced its appearance to the experience in Vietnam.

In fact, it goes back to a much earlier time in this century, for its origins are to be found in the period of World War I. In this respect, as in so much of our twentieth-century experience with the world, Woodrow Wilson is the dominant figure. It is Wilson who aspired, as no American president before him had done, to a role of world leadership for the United States. If we were ever to become partners in the world, he declared in urging the nation to strike out on a new course, our assured role would be that of "senior partner." To America would presumably fall the position of premier global power, were it only to abandon its past and commit itself to his League of Nations.

Yet it is also Woodrow Wilson who shrank from acknowledging and accepting the costs of playing such a role. America's leadership was to be gained, he was persuaded, at very little sacrifice on the nation's part. It had only to make, as he had made, a commitment of faith. The still prevalent view that Wilson failed in the end because he asked too much of the nation is quite misleading. Wilson failed despite the fact that he asked so little while promising so much.

In its origins, then, the contradiction that still besets us was resolved simply by the nation's rejection of its terms. In the interwar period, the American people neither claimed the role of world leadership nor evidenced any willingness to bear the costs of such role. Historians, it is true, often speak of an "interwar compromise" that involved a break from America's pre-World War I past yet did not embrace what was to be its post-World War II future. But that compromise, whatever else it might have meant, did not extend to a guarantee of European security. Nor, for that matter, did it extend to a reliable guarantee of Pacific security, despite the undertakings entered into regarding sea power at the 1922 Washington Conference. The fierceness of the prolonged struggle over intervention that occurred in the years 1939-41 is persuasive testimony of the nation's deep reluctance to accept a role the costs of which had by then become increasingly apparent.

Nor did this reluctance disappear with America's intervention in World War II. That America would henceforth play a leading role in world politics was now generally accepted. Yet the consequences thereby entailed were far from being generally accepted during the war years and even less so in the immediate postwar years--as the very rapid demobilization and the abrupt ending of the Lend-Lease arrangement testified. It was not until the close of the 1940s, when the Cold War was fully joined, that things changed and these consequences found widespread acceptance.

The Cold War Experience

The period from the Korean War to Vietnam appears as an exception to the contradiction that has since come to resemble virtually a chronic state of affairs. In these years of the classic Cold War, the disjunction between our pretensions to such a large role and our willingness to accept the costs of such pretensions was relatively narrow.

But the favorable circumstances that permitted this state of affairs were unusual and, as such, unlikely to find approximation in any future that may be reasonably foreseen. The obvious advantages conferred by the relative power position that the United States enjoyed in this earlier period cannot be restored. Beyond restoration as well, it would seem, is the pre-Vietnam domestic consensus on foreign policy, which rested on a generally shared understanding that the executive was the ultimate authority in determining when a threat to vital interests, justifying the use of force, had arisen. Deference to the judgment of the president was perhaps the critical feature of the old Cold War consensus; on its basis the post-World War II security structure had largely been built. Until Vietnam, that structure also rested on a notion of sacrifice that was given operational meaning by the same institution--the presidency--that enjoyed the deference of public and Congress in deciding on critical issues of policy. Even when these factors are taken into account, it is well to recall that between 1953 and 1965 the cost in blood of a global position was virtually nil.

It is sufficient merely to recall these circumstances in order to be reminded how far we have since moved from them. While the decline in America's economic position has been emphasized almost to an excess, the erosion of the socio-political base that once sustained America's global role has been equally, if not even more, significant. In the quarter of a century or so since the breakdown of the old consensus began, there has been no real check to a trend that has led to an ever increasing disparity between ends and means in foreign policy. In the last decade of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan did not succeed in substantially altering, let alone reversing, this trend. To have done so would have required reconstituting the socio-political base of foreign policy, a task he made no real effort to accomplish. The foreign policy goals to which Reagan dedicated his administration, though themselves ambitious, did not imply a return to anything like the pre-Vietnam consensus. On the whole, Reagan respected the constraints on presidential power that had emerged in the years following Vietnam and instead sought to reconcile an ambitious foreign policy to those constraints.

In this attempt, the Reagan administration enjoyed a limited success. A public outlook emerged that once again viewed the use of American power with neither suspicion nor guilt. While this was no small achievement, the change was still not to be confused with the earlier Cold War consensus. The divisions that had arisen since Vietnam over what justified the use of the nation's military power were not overcome. Nor did there emerge during the Reagan years a disposition to accord the president the deference formerly shown him in foreign policy.

The vaunted consensus of the classic Cold War remained a thing of the past, as did the notion of sacrifice that undergirded it. Far from attempting to recapture this spirit, Mr. Reagan's foreign policy message--like his economic message--was that sacrifice was unnecessary and that the nation might aspire to great ends without having to endure arduous means. This, as already noted, had been Woodrow Wilson's message as well. But whereas Wilson had urged it on behalf of a foreign policy that ended in failure, Reagan employed it in support of a foreign policy that met with considerable--some would say, spectacular--success.

Thus the victorious ending of the Cold War did not signal a lessening of the central contradiction. If the security measures a post-Cold War world requires of the premier global power have become more modest, so too has the willingness to support those measures. At the outset of the new era, the Gulf War was seen by many to indicate otherwise. The successful war, it was generally believed, would rid us once and for all of the legacy of Vietnam and, by doing so, remove the constraints on the use of military power Vietnam had given rise to. On the morrow of victory in the Gulf, an exultant President Bush declared that the "specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula" and that the nation had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."

More Than Ineptitude

This judgment has not been borne out. Instead, the events of the past five years point to the conclusion that the specter initially presumed buried in the Arabian peninsula remains very much with us. In the mid-1990s, the credibility of American power appears no greater than it did a decade earlier. If anything, it appears rather less credible. The now familiar constraints on the use of force seem as firmly in place as ever. While both Somalia and, to a degree, Haiti testify to this, Bosnia provides the most striking evidence. In the intense debate the Balkan war evoked, the participants, with few exceptions, shared one conviction: an unwillingness to bear any but the most modest costs to influence the outcome of the conflict. This characterized the interventionist position almost as much as it did the non-interventionist one, and it did so despite the former's insistence on the great interests at stake in Bosnia. From its outset, the debate over Bosnia was marked on the interventionist side by a disjunction between interests avowed and costs rejected.

The debate apart, it is generally acknowledged that at the outset of its tenure the Clinton administration demonstrated a remarkable ineptitude in its handling of the Balkan crisis. Until the summer of 1994, it insisted on supporting objectives in Bosnia that bore little if any relationship to the measures it was prepared to take on behalf of those objectives. The barren result of this disparity between ends and means was altogether predictable. At the same time, and while faulting the administration for its Bosnian policy, it is necessary to recognize that the roots of that policy cannot simply be traced to Mr. Clinton's inability to appreciate the interests at stake in the Balkan war, let alone to his reluctance to cast aside campaign promises. In his support of objectives in Bosnia, the all too likely costs of which he was clearly unwilling to bear, the president simply embraced, though with a vengeance, the contradiction that has increasingly come to define the nation's foreign policy. While committing the nation to ambitious ends, he refused to commit it to any but the most modest means. The result was bound to issue in failure.

Yet, there is little reason to believe that Clinton's two immediate Republican predecessors, had they been in his position, would have pursued an essentially different course. True, they might not have carried the contradiction to the lengths Mr. Clinton did before bowing to the inevitable, as the president has now apparently done. Still, the difference, it seems safe to surmise, would have been no more than a difference in degree rather than in substantive result. Neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush could have been expected to ignore the possible consequences the Balkan conflict poses for the nation that still considers itself the ultimate guarantor of international order and stability. But neither could have been expected to support the means that the rejection of some form of territorial compromise and the defeat of the Serbs would have entailed. Certainly, there is nothing in Ronald Reagan's diplomatic record that argues for a different expectation. The Gulf War notwithstanding, the same must be said of George Bush. Indeed, the Balkan policy of the Bush administration in 1992 would appear almost to dictate this conclusion.

The contradiction between desire and unwillingness to accept desire's costs transcends the diplomacy of particular administrations. It can be expected to mark the diplomacy of any administration we are likely to have. The belief in America's exceptionality notwithstanding, this nation cannot be expected to do what no nation before it in a similar position has done and voluntarily relinquish a position of pre-eminent power. It cannot be expected to do so if only for the same reasons that other nations before it have not done so. The satisfactions of being an order-giving power have not disappeared even if the compensations of playing such a role have diminished. As a nation, we have become much more accustomed to the role of order-giver than our traditional ideology permits acknowledging. Having played this role for almost a half century, and with what must be judged a considerable measure of success, it is not surprising that there is little real demand or inclination to abandon the role now just because the circumstances which gave rise to it are a matter of the past. Given the expansive idea of order entertained by the nation, the justification for holding to the position of presiding global power cannot prove difficult in a world that remains ridden by conflict and violence.

At the same time, there are no apparent grounds for assuming a much greater willingness to pay the price in blood and treasure for a role that will not be abandoned. In the long generation since the end of the Vietnam War, the American nation's military forces suffered casualties that can be counted in no more than the hundreds. This is a remarkably modest price when measured by the past experience of leading world powers, America included. The apparent result of so fortunate a recent record, however, has been to accentuate the public's aversion to bearing the costs that normally attend the use of military power. The Gulf War, it is true, gave rise to a momentary expectation that a way had been found to avoid these costs. But this expectation has subsequently been qualified by the more considered appreciation that the circumstances attending that conflict were quite unusual. In retrospect, the experience of the Gulf War does not appear to have had a lasting effect either in altering the public's willingness to employ force or in sustaining its confidence that force may be effectively employed at minimal cost in circumstances other than those which marked the Gulf crisis.

To sum up: As far as one can see, the foreign policy of the United States will continue to be characterized by the disjunction between our pretensions to an order-giving role and our unwillingness to accept the costs of such a role. A world devoid of conflict and violence might lead us to abandon that role, just as a world in which we are once again seriously and directly threatened--as we were twice before in this century--might lead us to accept costs we now shrink from accepting. But since neither of these prospects appears at all likely, we may reckon on the persistence of a contradiction that at best may be moderated but that is not going to be resolved.

A Failure to Adapt

Even moderating the contradiction must prove difficult enough, given the changes this will require. For any moderation must imply that the ends of foreign policy become more modest while the means of policy become less so. And since the constraints on the means are probably not subject to much change, it is in the ends and aspirations of policy that greater adjustment will have to be made. That adjustment, in turn, must prove inseparable from what can only be termed a dispositional change. If the ends of policy are to be scaled down significantly, we will have to entertain a more modest vision of international order and of our role in that order than we have entertained in the past and continue to entertain today.

In the course of the Cold War, an expansive conception of international order had considerable justification. Though it led on more than one occasion to excess, that conception corresponded to the nature of the prolonged contest with the Soviet Union. The pervasiveness alone of the great conflict, and the stakes for which it was presumably waged, made the encompassing vision of order virtually unavoidable. In victory, however, it did not seem unreasonable to expect a change in outlook. The half century of great power challenge had presumably come to an end. This being so, an adjustment to a more modest concept of order, and of America's role in that order, seemed appropriate.

This did not in fact happen. Instead, a concept of order in many respects even more expansive than the earlier one appeared to take hold. It did so at the outset of the new era. The "new world order" proclaimed by George Bush responded to the threat posed not by a great power but by middle or small developing powers. In the wake of the Gulf War, the principal threat to global order was seen in the prospect of future Iraqs--lawless, renegade states in possession of modern weapons, including those capable of mass destruction, and dedicated to the pursuit of aggressive, even terrorist, ends. If allowed to go unchecked, it was urged, these states might well come to represent for the post-Cold War world the functional equivalent of the great power threat of an earlier world. The new world order over which America would henceforth preside was to be directed not only to repelling conventional "acts of aggression" but to preventing weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of aggressive and expansionist states. These ambitious goals were to be achieved through a novel emphasis on the United Nations. The Gulf War had presumably shown that the permanent members of the Security Council, under America's leadership, could now effectively cooperate to make collective security a reality.

The new world order thus joined a distinctive conception of the nature of international order with the assumption of America's leadership. An expansive vision of order soon became the object of criticism, however, not only because in practice it was applied selectively but because it was still considered by many critics to be too restrictive in its claims. For the Bush administration did not respond to aggression regardless of interest; it would not in fact guarantee the territorial integrity and political independence of all states. Nor did its new order address the prospect of threats to order that had their origins in the disintegration of multi-ethnic states, as a result of conflicting claims to self-determination. It was only the order of the political-territorial status quo to which attention was directed.

The succeeding Clinton administration did not reject the pretensions of the new world order; it simply added to those pretensions a list of its own. The Bush administration, it was alleged, had neglected human rights and the cause of democratic government. It had been indifferent to humanitarian claims. The proponents of the new world order had not even made good on the principle of opposing aggression. The new administration promised to correct these shortcomings. Its vision of order left little to be desired.

Until quite recently, then, a steady expansion of the principles of order to which we were presumably committed has marked post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. And since this expansion was not attended by a willingness to provide the means necessary to vindicate principle, what soon became apparent was something that arose very early in the nation's history. We may term it the Jefferson Complex, and it consists in the refusal either to compromise one's principles or to fight for them. As such, it describes a policy that cannot be maintained for long without risking the steady loss of prestige and courting disaster. The Clinton administration, after a season of growing impotence, has belatedly recognized this. Unwilling to bear the burden of unilateral measures where allies have been reluctant, or have simply refused, to support its policies, this administration has been forced to choose between a course of relative inaction, with its confession of impotence, and one requiring a compromise of principle. Almost invariably, it has chosen to compromise, Bosnia providing the most instructive case. But it has done so reluctantly, for it still holds to its expansive vision of order.

Dragons and Snakes

It is this vision that we must break from if we are to achieve a sustainable foreign policy in the period ahead. The change cannot but prove very difficult, for it will require the recognition that we cannot effectively address the many sources and forms of conflict and disorder that are bound to characterize the world of the future. Almost fifty years ago, at the outset of the Cold War, Walter Lippmann wrote of our "refusal to recognize, to admit, to take as the premise of our thinking, the fact that rivalry and strife and conflict among states, communities, and factions are the normal conditions of mankind. . . . In the American ideology the struggle for existence, and the rivalry for advantages, are held to be wrong, abnormal and transitory. . . ."

Despite a half century of "rivalry and strife and conflict", the outlook Lippmann described apparently continues to hold us in thrall. How else to account for the widespread disillusionment that the aftermath of the Cold War has been attended by resurgent nationalism, ethnic strife, civil war, conventional aggression, and humanitarian crises? In the terms of a current metaphor, expressive of this disillusionment, the dragon has been slain but we now live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. It is the great dragons, however, that are nearly always seriously dangerous, while the snakes, though poisonous, are only occasionally so. Although there may be more poisonous snakes today than before, the issue they must raise for American foreign policy is not their very existence but the nature and kinds of threats their existence holds out for us. At least this is the issue unless we are ready to undertake a campaign against virtually any and all manner of poisonous snakes, and this we are plainly not prepared to do. Fortunately, there is no compelling reason for doing so even if the will to undertake such campaign were there.

A more modest concept of the requirements of international order appears indispensable if the contradiction that increasingly characterizes the nation's foreign policy is to be moderated. If it is said that this is a prescription for a declining power, the response must be that this is indeed the case. The deepening of the contradiction is itself persuasive evidence of this. The relevant issue today is not whether our position is declining but how the decline may be best arrested. A more modest set of aspirations respecting international order must form one part of the answer.

The other part must address the means of policy. It was earlier remarked that the means of policy are probably not subject to much change. If this is so, there appears to be no alternative to invoking the greater cooperation of others, even for the purpose of maintaining a more modest system of international order. But the greater cooperation of others, chiefly our principal allies of the past half century in Europe and Asia, will in turn require a greater degree of compromise than even the necessities of the Cold War imposed. The multilateralism of the future, though still a function of American leadership, promises to be quite different from that of the recent past.

Again, Bosnia appears to be a signpost to what we may expect. In the absence of American leadership, our European allies proved unable to act together to impose a settlement of the Balkan conflict. This much is generally recognized. What is less widely appreciated--or, at any rate, acknowledged--is that an essential condition of American leadership has been a substantial modification of the terms of peace Washington had earlier insisted upon. The formal terms of the Dayton accord notwithstanding, the United States government may well have presided over the territorial division of Bosnia. In moderating its previous insistence on preserving the internal political unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia, the Clinton administration moved much closer to the British and French position. It did so in other respects as well. No doubt, America's belated assumption of leadership was made possible by yet other developments, developments that suddenly and dramatically weakened the Bosnian Serb position, and in the absence of which the administration might well have once again backed away from playing an effective role in promoting a settlement of the conflict. But the willingness to compromise principle and position has clearly been an indispensable condition for the exercise of American leadership at a price the administration was eventually willing to pay.

While these considerations have been developed primarily with Europe in mind, they may prove to have still greater relevance for Asia. The dilemmas of policy that have required the compromise of principle and position are no less apparent there. Indeed, it may be argued that in Asia these dilemmas are likely to be more acute, since it is in Asia that the ultimate exposure of the contradiction between ends averred and means available will come in the form of a great power confrontation. A classic great power challenge is now in the making there, a result of the rise of China. It is that crude fact which is the nerve root of the growing confrontation between China and the United States, rather than the various familiar issues around which the relationship ostensibly turns. And it is that same crude fact that must ever more insistently raise the question: Are we prepared to move out of the way of a China that shows every sign of being bent on expansion? If not, then in the absence of a willingness to bear the burden of blocking Chinese expansion with our resources, we must look for reliable support from others. But the prospects of multilateralism in Asia are not the same as in Europe. In Asia much more than in Europe we have had clients rather than allies. This being so, the choices that sooner or later must be made there are likely to be all the more painful.

As a critical element of American foreign policy in the post-Cold War world, multilateralism, though seemingly inevitable, promises to be a difficult experience. The multilateralism of the Cold War years was more nearly a qualified unilateralism. The point has often been made that the American diplomatic experience has differed from the experience of other states in that the nation has never had to entertain genuinely cooperative action with other nations. In moving from a relative isolation to global engagement, we did not go from unilateralism to multilateralism but from the unilateralism of a position of isolation to the unilateralism of a position of undisputed leadership over a global alliance. This is not to say that the more recent unilateralism was without any of the constraints real multilateralism must imply, only that the constraints imposed by our allies still left us with a very considerable freedom of action. Ironically, the nation that has more insistently than any other called for observance of the principle of equality has seldom, if ever, experienced the practical meaning of this principle.

It may at long last be forced to do so, at least to a greater extent than has so far been the case. It may be forced to do so--again, ironically enough--in order to preserve an unequal position of premier global power. That this prospect should meet with resistance is altogether understandable. Quite apart from a past that has not prepared us for the compromises and constraints of multilateralism, victory in the Cold War appeared for a time to promise a quite different prospect. The Gulf War, with its remarkable fusion of unilateralism in substance and multilateralism in form, seemed to confirm this expectation. But the events of recent years have not borne out earlier hopes. The Gulf War is no longer seen as the first act of a new era but the last act of an old era.

For the time being, advocates of a policy of greater unilateralism will continue to find a receptive audience. The continued appeal of what was once termed "the policy of the free hand" should occasion little surprise. To be able to retain independence of action is always desirable. While it is central to the isolationist disposition, the desire to keep complete control over one's destiny transcends isolationism. Acting with others--multilateralism--is seldom without difficulty and pain. Ends may be compromised beyond the point of justifying the costs expended on their behalf.

Acting alone, however, also has its drawbacks and they can be very considerable. The point is regularly made that unilateral action can seldom, if ever, possess the legitimacy that multilateral action may enjoy. Though at times carried to an excess--the just after all may act alone and the unjust may join forces--the point has evident merit, being no more than a recognition that the force of self-interest is likely to prove greater when a nation acts alone than when it must take the views and interests of others into account.

The issue of legitimacy apart, it is of course the greater costs in blood and treasure that constitute the principal drawbacks of a unilateralist policy. It is one of the anomalies of the current dialogue over foreign policy that many who insist upon retaining our premier position in the world through an increasing reliance on unilateral measures are equally insistent on ever greater economy in foreign policy. This is presumably the meaning of Newt Gingrich's declaration: "I am a hawk, but a cheap hawk." Mr. Gingrich has expressed an aspiration, not a solution. The aspiration, itself close to a contradiction, perfectly mirrors the contradiction that continues to beset the nation's foreign policy.

Essay Types: Essay