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The Prior Question

The Prior Question

Mini Teaser: Today's security debate revolves largely around what may be termed the prior question, that is, the question of identifying what may constitute serious threats to America's security in the post-Cold War world.

by Author(s): Robert W. Tucker

Anyone who takes the trouble to examine the current debate over the nation's foreign policy cannot but be struck by its diffuse character. To be sure, past debates also had a diffuse side, raising as they did, questions of the nation's role and purpose in the world. But these broad issues were considered in the context of a specific policy issue. The major debates over foreign policy since the 1930s all responded to what was seen as a great power threat to America's security and centered about the question of how to respond to such a threat.

The contemporary debate is evidently different. Although the security issue remains central, the absence of a great power threat gives it a quite different cast. Today's debate revolves largely around what may be termed the prior question, that is, the question of identifying what may constitute serious threats to America's security in the post-Cold War world. Its diffuse character reflects the varied responses that have been given to this question. In turn, the different responses reflect disagreement over the nature of the international system in the post-Cold War world. In the absence of some defining event or trend, the significance of which compels general recognition, we must expect this state of affairs to persist.

Meanwhile, the prevailing theme of the contemporary dialogue is "foreign policy adrift." It is one widely shared by participants who otherwise have quite different views on what the new moorings should be. The theme of foreign policy adrift of course is not to be taken literally. What is usually meant is not that the nation's foreign policy no longer has any moorings, but that what moorings it has respond to the world of yesterday, not of today and tomorrow. The expression--and its several equivalents--is rather intended to convey the need for change, both in our understanding and our policies.

It is in this vein that Leslie Gelb has recently written that "even as the physical traces of the Old World vanish, many still cling to its intellectual trappings," responding to the new world "with the old fears and the old strategies." Ronald Steel has made the same point, though more bluntly. "With communism gone down the memory hole," he writes, "we have lost our yardstick." American foreign policy today "lacks either a geopolitical or an intellectual core. We no longer know what America should do or can do."

The world has changed, but American foreign policy has not changed with it. To those who recall past debates, the charge is a familiar one, having been made on a number of occasions during the long period of the Cold War and particularly during the bitter debate over the war in Vietnam. It also has a persuasiveness today, however, that it seldom had in the past.

It would of course be absurd to press the argument of continuity to the point of insisting that there has been virtually no change in foreign policy. Given the transformation in world politics consequent upon the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet empire, there could not but have been change. Yet when due allowance has been made for this, what is striking is the apparent continuity in policy. The alliance system in Europe and Asia continues to form the core of our foreign policy despite the disappearance of the principal threat that brought the system into existence. In Asia, it does so despite serious and persistent trade differences with Japan. In Europe, it does so despite the growing number of critics who insist that NATO must either expand its borders, as well as its out of area operations, or it will die. To date, it has done neither and although broadening the alliance to include the countries of Central Europe appears likely, an expansion of out of area operations does not. The latter initiative must rest on the expectation that the alliance partners will now be able to do what they were seldom able to do in the period of the Cold War when the incentives for collective action were stronger than they are today. The Gulf War nourished this expectation but the conflict in Bosnia has had very nearly the opposite effect. The failure of NATO--and particularly of its leading state--to deal effectively with the Balkan conflict has evidently had a corrosive effect on the alliance. Even so, the raison d'tre of the alliance must be found today, as yesterday, in Central Europe, not in the Balkans, and in Central Europe the American commitment continues to provide the reassurance that is needed despite the disappearance of Soviet power.

In the Middle East, as well, an essential continuity in American policy is clear. The end of the Cold War has not been followed by a more modest U.S. role in the region, but, if anything, by an expanded one. This is apparent in the history of the peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis since 1992. It is still more apparent in the history of the Persian Gulf since 1990. Having waged a successful war in the Gulf, the Bush administration sought to establish a military presence there that eluded previous administrations. Its only partially successful efforts have been continued by the Clinton administration. Given the ambitious current policy of "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq, the establishment of a credible military presence in and around the Gulf has become a virtual necessity. The alternative is to rely in a crisis on recreating the quite fortuitous coalition brought together to fight Saddam Hussein, a course that would be very imprudent.

If the Cold War geopolitical priorities of foreign policy persist in the post-Cold War period, so too does the great dilemma of policy during that conflict. The Cold War years were marked throughout by debate over the relationship between the core and the periphery of policy. In the contest with the Soviet Union, it was regularly contended that policy could not readily draw a meaningful distinction between core and periphery, vital and non-vital interests, if only because the inner dynamic of that hegemonial contest threatened to make of almost any discrete issue a symbol of the overall conflict. What is perceived as the periphery, the familiar argument ran, will, if treated as such, soon become the core. In the case of Vietnam, the argument was given its most notorious application. Vietnam, two administrations contended, posed the problem of how the peace of the world was to be organized and maintained, whether by consent or coercion. That issue, it was insisted, transcended Vietnam; on its favorable resolution American security was seen to depend.

The policy dilemma of relating core and peripheral interests remains. The debate over Bosnia affords a textbook example. From the outset, critics of America's Bosnia policy have contended that it has failed to reflect the greater interests at stake in the Balkan conflict. It is these interests, the argument goes, that require giving military support to the Bosnian Muslims. The danger of passivity before this type of conflict has been generalized in a manner that is now thoroughly familiar, given four decades of cold war. The same critic who warns against clinging to the "intellectual trappings" of the Cold War also warns that a failure to stop "the scourge of civil and ethnic violence," of which Bosnia is regarded as the leading instance, "will undo much of what we value and undermine efforts to mold a just and stable international order." The Clinton administration does not reject this view, at any rate as it applies to the Balkan conflict. Although it has not been willing to break from its European allies and give military support to the Muslims, it too believes that the issue of a just and stable international order is at stake in the outcome of the war in Bosnia.

How may one explain the continuity in American foreign policy? One way of doing so is in terms of the hold that the past so often exercises over the present. But that hold, it is urged, cannot persist for long; the changes that have occurred in the world since the late 1980s must eventually work their expected effects. Our Cold War allies will come to realize, if they have not done so already, that the security framework we have provided since World War II is no longer needed, and that they therefore need no longer subordinate their foreign policies to American desires. On our side, the constraints and costs of maintaining the Cold War alliance structure will prove increasingly unpopular with a public that senses growing divergences with allies over both security and economic issues, that finds a new attraction in unilateralism, and that is ever more disinclined to use military power. In sum, the Cold War compact is breaking down. What is today seen as continuity in American foreign policy is already far more apparent than real.

This view has been advanced many times in recent and even not so recent years. It was, after all, fifteen years ago that Henry Kissinger pronounced NATO an "empty shell." Yet the shell played a significant role in the last decade of the Cold War. In 1995 Kissinger's earlier dictum seems much more persuasive and Irving Kristol (never a true believer) has termed the alliance "a vast irrelevance." Still, the future of this irrelevance remains a matter of high concern to Germany, Russia, and the states that lie between these traditional adversaries. The day may come when these characterizations are borne out. It makes a difference, however, whether that day is already upon us or will arrive only after another two or three decades have passed.

This much, at least, seems clear: more than five years after the end of the Cold War, the grand structure of America's Cold War foreign policy remains on the whole intact. The above view has yet to find vindication. There has been no defining event bearing it out. The attempt has been made, it is true, to find such event in the American and European failure in Bosnia. But the effective imposition of a satisfactory settlement in the Balkans would very likely require a military commitment in size and duration that, with the possible exception of the Gulf War, the NATO states have never been willing to make outside the area of alliance guarantee. And the Gulf War was seen to imperil geostrategic and economic interests in a way in which, rightly or wrongly, the war in Bosnia is not considered to put at risk.

Neither a clever nor a tendentious explanation is called for to explain the broad continuity to date of American foreign policy despite the great changes in the circumstances attending policy. At the outset of the post-Cold War period, Samuel Huntington pointed to the principal explanation by raising these questions: "What is preferable in terms of global security and stability? A world with the United States as the presiding superpower, chairman of the board, leading and working with various combinations of major powers and lesser countries to deal with the world's problems? Or a truly multipolar world, of seven or more roughly equal major powers including the United States, each pursuing its own interests and competing with and cooperating with each other in a variety of permutations and combinations? Or a world in which some other country replaces the United States as the presiding superpower?"

To Huntington, these questions were little more than rhetorical. He took for granted that it was preferable that the United States remain the premier global power and that, in this role, our overall strategic interest must be to promote a stable equilibrium of power in Europe and Asia. In Europe, this interest was seen to require the constraint of both Russian and German power, as well as discouraging a tighter European political entity. In Asia, the same interest dictated the placing of constraints on the expansion of Japanese power on the Asian mainland as well as efforts to limit possible Chinese expansion. More recently, Henry Kissinger has articulated a similar position:

The domination by a single power of either of Eurasia's two principle spheres. . . remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, Cold War or no Cold War. For such a grouping would have the capacity to outstrip America economically, and, in the end, militarily.

Both Huntington and Kissinger place high value on retaining the Cold War alliance system. They do so, however, as much to limit German and Japanese power as they do to reassure these powers.

These are the views of notorious realists. Does the nation by and large share them? Clearly, there is every reason to acknowledge a national consensus on the desirability, even the necessity, of the United States remaining the premier global power. That consensus reflects, in the first instance, simple considerations of collective pride, to which America is no less susceptible than other great nations have been. Yet it also reflects a persisting conviction that the United States remains, despite all that has happened in recent decades, a great power unlike other great powers, and this because of who we are and what we have always stood for as a nation. Our role or purpose is still found to distinguish us from others and to require that our interests be seen in a light different from others. The belief that our strength and well-being are synonymous with the prospects of an ordered freedom in the world has waxed and waned in this century, but it has never been abandoned. The favorable outcome of the Cold War is seen as the latest, and possibly greatest, vindication of this belief.

Given this conviction, and the American record of the past half-century, the conclusion that the nation has, quite apart from its salient power position, a special right to the role of world leader is readily understandable. We are not dealing here merely with the age old claim that power creates responsibility, or, yet more insidious, that special power creates a special responsibility. The American claim rests on a more meritorious base. The testament to this judgment may be seen in the fact that--with few exceptions--a complaining world nevertheless desires to retain the American presence.

Ultimately, a consensus on the desirability of the United States remaining the premier global power must rest on the claims of security. In the absence today of any great power threat, the nature of the security dilemma has been suddenly and radically changed. Yet this change has not resulted in a corresponding change in the claims of security, claims which remain as expansive today as they were yesterday. The insistence on equating American security not only with world order but with a certain kind of order, one going well beyond the requirements of a stable equilibrium of power in Europe and Asia, formed a central feature of American diplomacy throughout the years of struggle against the Soviet Union. It continues to do so today despite the disappearance of the principle threat to the order of an earlier period. Thus America's security in the post-Cold War years has been equated with an order in which weapons of mass destruction are denied to a substantial number of middle powers that do not abide by the norms of conventional statecraft. So too, it has been equated with an order that checks the scourge of civil and ethnic violence. And, of course, it has been equated with an order that promotes the expansion and consolidation of democratic political forms and free markets.

There is little reason to assume that an expansive vision of order will not continue to be found inseparable from America's security as a nation. Yet even if a narrower and more traditional concept of security were to be embraced, it might not have the political consequences expected of it. It is all well and good to urge a strategy centered upon the maintenance of a stable equilibrium in Europe and Asia, but how is one to implement this strategy if the principal means of maintaining a balance of power in the past--war--is no longer an acceptable means in an age when armed conflict between great powers promises to be nuclear? Given the absence of any real threat from a great power, the proper implementation of this strategy remains elusive. In the mutual relations of the great powers, there is a pervasive uncertainty that marks the search for security today. This very uncertainty, however, lends support to the view that an advantageous power position must be sustained. If the bases of security are no longer clear, if all bets must be hedged, this is all the more reason to hold to the position of presiding world power. It is also a strong argument for holding as long as possible to the principal elements of a foreign policy that created and maintained the post-World War II order in which we still live.

How long are we destined to do so is of course the great question. Owen Harries is no doubt right in observing that to expect or demand the same level of activism in the future that characterized the Cold War past "is to doom oneself to disappointment and the kind of embarrassment resulting from the wide discrepancy between posture and performance--between old habits and new inhibitions--that has come to be associated with Clintonism." What seems increasingly apparent today is less the persistence of old habits than the strengthening of not so new inhibitions. The contradiction between a desire to remain the premier global power and an aversion to bearing the costs of this position has marked the nation's outlook and policy since Vietnam. Newt Gingrich's recent expression of that contradiction--"I am a hawk, but a cheap hawk"--is novel only in its candor. If the optimism this sentiment reflects is quite likely to be disappointed, it still remains to be seen whether the aspiration that was, after all, the essential precondition of America's full participation in the international system will indeed be abandoned. Despite growing signs to this effect, one must doubt it.

Essay Types: Essay