There is . . . a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from seventeen countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will be broken only by the pitiless crowbar of events.
Harvard University, June 1978
When President Carter said that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had caused him “drastically” to alter his perception of Soviet intentions, many people wondered how a great power like the United States could have as its leader a man who, by his own admission, did not understand the most important strategic and military issue facing the country. The answer, at once simple and dismaying, is that the President’s pre-Afghanistan “perception” of the Soviet Union was not at all exceptional or a product of his own naiveté but rather reflected the conventional wisdom of most government officials, academic experts, and others specializing in foreign affairs. No less a figure than former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, a man who epitomizes urbane sophistication in foreign affairs, had observed in an interview with Time magazine in 1978 that President Carter and Soviet President Brezhnev had “similar dreams and aspirations” about the future of the world. Views of this kind had not gained widespread acceptance in the country as a whole, since most Americans remained distrustful of the Soviet Union. But by the time Jimmy Carter assumed office, such ideas had become the stock-in-trade of the relatively small group of specialists constituting what is often called the foreign-policy establishment.
The foreign-policy establishment associated with the administration of Jimmy Carter may be viewed as the natural successor to the old internationalist establishment which presided over American policy during the era of the cold war and which collapsed as a result of America’s defeat in Vietnam. The demise of the old establishment occurred about a decade ago and is not talked about much today, except as a subject of historical interest (it is, for example, an important underlying theme of Henry Kissinger’s White House Years, which deals with the period in question). Nonetheless, it was a turning point in recent American history, for with the passing of this establishment, the bipartisan consensus which had sustained U.S. foreign policy and defined its purposes for a generation disappeared, leaving a paralyzing residuum of division and demoralization. Moreover, its passing was the occasion for the emergence of a new establishment dedicated to the transformation of American foreign policy in light of the experience in Vietnam.
It is perhaps misleading to distinguish between an old and a new establishment, since we are really speaking of a single group. The Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent institution of the old establishment, did not fold up, nor was its leadership usurped by a dissident tendency. But it emerged from the trauma of Vietnam a very different institution from what it had been before and with a new political character.
It was not merely that the Council’s reputation had been tarnished by the role its leading members had played in shaping American policy in Vietnam, a role amply documented in David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest, or that it was increasingly opening its membership, as well as the pages of its journal, Foreign Affairs, to younger people who were bitter critics of that policy. Nor was it simply the fact that its influence over American foreign policy had significantly diminished in consequence of the unprecedented antagonism between the Council and the White House whose new occupant, Richard Nixon, had never been accepted by the establishment and refused to acknowledge its authority. The principal way the Council had changed was that its leading members had ceased to believe in the world outlook they had espoused since the end of World War II.
In 1970, writing in Foreign Affairs, Townsend Hoopes, who had been Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and Under Secretary of the Air Force during the Johnson administration, asked how “so many intelligent, experienced, and humane men in government”—the establishment, in other words—could have failed to understand the “immorality” of the Vietnam intervention and the “cancerous division” it had created within America. His answer, which was fast becoming the prevailing view of these “intelligent, experienced, and humane men” themselves, was that they were products of a period dominated by the “cold-war syndrome and its ramified legacy.” No one, Hoopes wrote, certainly no one within the establishment, could deny that these were “men of good conscience.” But this was precisely why they had been so “vulnerable to the developing hubris.” Having embraced too fervently the Wilsonian “legacy of America’s democratizing mission,” they were “impelled by the iron logic of a messianic ideology” to take “actions beyond the rational requirements of our national security.” Concluding that “the highest test of character is to learn from the past, to admit one’s mistakes, and to act on that admission,” Hoopes urged unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam and the rejection of the cold-war mentality that had led us into the war in the first place.
But it was not enough for the establishment to condemn the war in Vietnam. To restore its political authority, it had to undo its own historical link with the conflict. This was accomplished by transferring responsibility for the war to the Nixon administration which remained, as Hoopes wrote, “residually hooked on the cold-war syndrome.” Thus in 1972 the then editor of Foreign Affairs, the late Hamilton Fish Armstrong, wrote an article blaming the Nixon administration as well as the American public—but not the establishment—for the war in Vietnam and the sad decline of America’s prestige in the world. Armstrong reiterated a thesis put forth fifty years earlier in Foreign Affairs by Elihu Root, to the effect that in a democracy the people are responsible for the conduct of foreign policy, and that only a well-informed public can curb the irresponsible acts of political leaders. In this respect, the American intervention in Vietnam, like the Senate’s rejection in Root’s time of U.S. participation in the League of Nations, could be traced ultimately to the “mistaken beliefs” of the public and thus constituted a failure of American democracy. The establishment, it seemed, had nothing whatever to do with this failure, though it would have an important role to play, according to Armstrong, in curing America’s ills and “re-humanizing” the culture.
It was still not enough, however, merely to create the myth that the establishment had played no part in the Vietnam disaster. It was also necessary, as Hoopes had observed, to break with the “cold-war syndrome.” Here the senior members of the establishment faced a difficult dilemma, for they could not repudiate the beliefs of a lifetime without destroying—not just in the eyes of others but, more critically, in their own as well—their legitimacy as a source of political authority. The containment of Communism was not, after all, a tactic which could be lightly abandoned in the course of a prudent retreat from a position of “overcommitment.” It was the strategic core of the establishment’s world view, the “basic organizing principle,” as Zbigniew Brzezinski called it, which had for twenty-five years given coherence, continuity, and purpose to its stewardship of American foreign policy. Containment was as much a part of the identity of the establishment’s senior members as was the memory of Munich and of the Soviet Union’s seizure of Eastern Europe after the war-critical experiences which taught that totalitarianism could not be appeased.
Containment was, in a word, the establishment’s creed. And since, as George Lichtheim once observed, “No ruling class can function without a creed,” the establishment could regain its authority only if it fashioned a new creed, taking account of the failure in Vietnam and offering a new direction for American foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era.
Here the leading figures associated with the old establishment—men like McGeorge Bundy, William Bundy, Cyrus Vance, and Clark Clifford—were at something of a disadvantage, for they were too tied to the past to make a clean break with it, and their confidence had been too visibly shaken for them to chart a new course with the boldness that would be required. Still, they were distinguished and experienced men, and their support for the effort to reconstitute a functioning establishment would be valuable. Their conversion to a revised world view would suggest the emergence of a new consensus, while their steadfast presence would preserve the appearance of continuity, stability, and moderation—essential features of any establishment. Moreover, they still possessed considerable influence, if not with the Nixon White House then at least among its powerful critics in Congress, the media, and the academic community. They could not be the architects of a new establishment, but their role could be something more than merely honorific.
The task of ideological reconstruction fell primarily to a group of specialists associated with Foreign Policy, a journal founded in 1970 “to stimulate rational discussion of the new directions required in American foreign policy” after Vietnam. Its two editors, Samuel P. Huntington and Warren Demian Manshel, felt that a magazine with “no institutional memory” was needed to redefine the “basic purposes” of America in the world “with a keener awareness that an era in American foreign policy, which began in the late 1940’s, had ended.” As it happened, the political outlook that Foreign Policy adopted was quite consistent with the one beginning to be developed in Foreign Affairs, and many of the same people wrote for both publications. But in the new journal one could discern a more systematic attempt to revise American policy and to formulate a new post-Vietnam world view.
The specialists who contributed most to this revision were not a monolithic group. Among them were some members of the old elite such as Town-send Hoopes, Paul C. Warnke, and Thomas L. Hughes. A larger element consisted of younger government officials of the “Vietnam generation” such as Leslie Gelb, Richard Holbrooke, and Anthony Lake, and academics like Richard H. Ullman of Princeton, who could reasonably think of themselves as future leaders of a revived establishment. They were joined by a small group of radical intellectuals, among them Richard J. Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies and Richard A. Falk of Princeton, who saw the need for basic changes in American society if the country’s foreign policy was to be set aright.
In addition to these different tendencies, several individuals who are not so easily categorized made important contributions to the effort to revise U.S. foreign policy. One of them was George F. Kennan, formerly a foreign-service officer and now at Princeton, who was best known as the author of the famous “Mr. X” article of 1947 in Foreign Affairs setting forth the containment doctrine, though he had broken with this policy even before it became fashionable to do so in the late 1960’s. Another was Zbigniew Brzezinski of Columbia, who did not break until the early 1970’s, and then did so very suddenly and with an elaborate theoretical justification. A third important figure was Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard, a consistent critic of U.S. foreign policy whose Gaullist opposition to U.S. leadership in the world merged in the 1970’s with the post-Vietnam denigration of American global power.
Writers like Kennan, Brzezinski, and Hoffmann differed with one another on significant points and in the emphasis they gave to various issues. But such differences (regarding U.S. relations with allies and with the Third World and the relative importance of transnational forces as opposed to the prerogatives of the nation-state) were much less important than their agreement that containment was no longer a valid basis for American foreign policy. In fact, opposition to containment was the principle that united all the writers who participated in the redefinition of an establishment perspective on foreign affairs. It was the starting point for any discussion of the U.S. world role, the basic assumption that all shared and none questioned. Opposition to containment could not by itself serve as a new creed, since it pointed in no positive direction. But the reaction to the Vietnam war was such that it was possible to bring people together merely on the basis of what they were against. And what everyone was against—at least everyone who aspired to a place in a new foreign-policy establishment—was American resistance to the advance of Communism in the world.
Thus during the first half of the 1970’s, an elaborate intellectual structure was built in defense of the idea that the containment of Communism by the United States was neither possible, nor necessary, nor even desirable. This idea, above all others, was the “lesson of Vietnam,” and the overriding purpose of the aspiring establishment was to make it the guiding principle of American foreign policy as a whole.
The argument that the containment of Communism was no longer possible began with an acknowledgment that the old establishment had ceased to function in any meaningful sense. Whether its passing was attributed to the Vietnam war, as by the British journalist Godfrey Hodgson in Foreign Policy, or to fundamental social changes which had displaced the “Wasp elite” from its position of unchallenged power, a view set forth by Brzezinski, the result was that no confident, cohesive leadership group which believed in containment and could command authority now existed in the United States.
The departure from the scene of this old establishment was accompanied by the arrival of what an article in Foreign Affairs called “the new generation of isolationists.” This article, along with similar pieces that appeared in Foreign Policy, defended the attitudes of educated young Americans who were revolted by the war in Vietnam, profoundly disillusioned with American society, irritated by the “simplistic” distinction between the “free world” (a term never used without quotation marks around it) and the Communist world, and opposed to any form of military intervention, even where it was not dictated by the imperatives of containment. In a word, according to the Foreign Affairs piece, “they see no country for whose security they would fight.”
But it was not only young people who felt this way. Americans in general, the journalist Ronald Steel declared in Foreign Policy, “are tired of the violence that has been committed in the name of peace, . . . of the numerous interventions conducted in the tired vocabulary of anti-Communism, of the sacrifice of their own unmet needs to an insatiable war machine, and of the deliberate deceit practiced by their leaders.” Taking his own reading of the public mood, Bayless Manning, the then President of the Council on Foreign Relations, concluded that “the domestic atmosphere at this time of post-Vietnam and post-U.S. imperium is not propitious for a remobilization of the moral energies of the nation for a major overseas initiative.” Watergate was still another factor undermining support in the country for a policy of containment, for as Leslie Gelb and Anthony Lake wrote in Foreign Policy, it had done for the concept of “national security” what Vietnam had done for “commitment,” namely, to make it “an object for derisive satire.” “For those who have been waging the fight to reduce defense expenditures these past five years,” they added, “the demise of the concept of national security will come as a godsend.”
Beyond the political atmosphere in the country and the attitudes of particular groups, American society was systemically incapable of sustaining a policy of containment. In the first place, as Adam Yarmolinsky (formerly of the Pentagon, now an academic) argued, American society simply could not afford to pursue a containment policy that would tie up resources and energies needed to deal with such critical matters as the plight of the cities, the needs of blacks and the poor, the restlessness of students, and the pollution of the environment.
Nor could we continue to tolerate the kind of political abuses that seemed to be the unavoidable consequences of containment. In competing with totalitarian states, Columbia’s Marshall Shulman wrote in Foreign Affairs, democratic systems may be tempted to adopt the undemocratic methods of their adversaries, the example cited being the behavior of the CIA. Anthony Lake identified a parallel problem: “the psychology of the cold war” had encouraged government officials to lie to the public in the interest of national security, thus undermining the credibility of the government and causing educated people to regard official statements “with the same suspicion as a cigarette commercial.” Ironically, in Richard Ullman’s view, there was much more reason to believe that containment threatened American democracy than that it was necessary for our democracy’s survival.
George Kennan shared these concerns about the effects of containment on the health of American democracy, but he went further in concluding that the United States was not “well constituted . . . to play a very active role in world affairs.” The immense size and diversity of the country and the competing pressures of numerous political and ethnic groups and organized lobbies had made it impossible to conduct a coherent foreign policy, let alone one with ambitious objectives. The wisest course, according to Kennan, would be for the United States to recognize its limitations and “follow a policy of minding its own business to the extent that it can.”
These various domestic contraints on the exercise of American power abroad, involving both political attitudes and structural features of the American system, were thought to present a formidable and probably insuperable obstacle to the continued pursuit of the containment policy. But even if none of them existed, the opponents of containment still felt that the United States had no choice but to abandon the use or even the threat of military force to oppose Communist advances in the world. “Perhaps the principal lesson of the past decade,” Warnke and Gelb wrote, “is that military force is a singularly inept instrument of foreign policy.” In a world dominated by nationalism and rising demands for economic equality, one could not emphasize enough, in Stanley Hoffmann’s opinion, “the increasingly obvious irrelevance of military power to most of the goals pursued by states.” In such a world, the United States, as “the biggest fly on the flypaper,” would have to accommodate to the new forces and seek influence through the use of economic inducements rather than through the futile reliance on military power.
Since it followed from this line of reasoning that the Soviet Union was stuck on the same “flypaper” as the United States, containment, even if it were not also unfeasible, was in any case unnecessary.
“No nation,” Hoffmann declared, “however mighty, can now pretend to shape or manage world order along the lines of its own preferences; any nation that tries will stagger from arbitrariness—the choice of the wrong track—to confusion—the attempt to run on all tracks at once.” According to Richard J. Barnet, not only had it become much more difficult for both major powers to extend control over other countries, but recent history had shown that even “the entry of new countries into the Communist bloc involves heavy costs as well as benefits for the Soviet Union.” The obvious conclusion, as stated by Charles Gati of Columbia (who imputed the view to the Nixon administration as well), was that “the possible future extension of Soviet influence (outside of Europe) might represent such acute problems for the Soviet Union as the extension of American influence has for the United States, and for this reason the United States should be attentive to but not overly anxious about such possibilities.”
In fact, the whole notion that the outcome of conflicts like the one in Vietnam mattered any longer in world politics was based on a concept of security that had been rendered obsolete by advances in military technology. With both powers having acquired the capability to strike quickly anywhere in the world with missiles or conventional military forces dispatched from their own territory, the need to rely on local defense arrangements or to deny each other “strategic real estate” had greatly diminished. Paradoxically, therefore, wrote Barnet, “the arms race has reduced the tactical incentive of both major powers to resort to territorial aggression.”
Advances in military technology had altered international relations in even more fundamental ways, virtually ruling out future confrontations between the great powers and opening the way for new forms of nonmilitary competition. According to Brzezinski, the “balance of terror” had rendered the power of the United States and the Soviet Union “largely non-usable.” With both countries constrained by a “paralysis of power,” containment was no longer relevant, and secondary powers such as China, Europe, and Japan would play an enhanced role in international diplomacy. Because the risks of confrontation were prohibitive, Robert E. Hunter of Johns Hopkins concluded that “the only real competitions that the United States and the Soviet Union will be able to permit themselves later in this decade will be in the economic realm.” Indeed, he saw the world moving to “an era in which war between major states may virtually disappear,”
Still another factor making containment irrelevant was the revolution in technology and communications which was thought to have created a more interrelated world order. Brzezinski, the leading exponent of this point of view, said that “an emerging global consciousness is forcing the abandonment of preoccupations with national supremacy and accentuating global interdependence.” The ideological rivalry of the past had grown out of a need “for remaking a world that was both distant and largely unknown, but proximity and global congestion now dictate revolutionary diversity.” He saw America becoming involved with “the less political and more basic problems” facing mankind, “emphasizing ecology rather than ideology” and encouraging the spread of “a more personalized rational humanist world outlook that would gradually replace the institutionalized religious, ideological, and intensely national perspectives that have dominated modern history.”1
The transformation of international politics by new global forces was not the only reason given to explain why containment was no longer necessary. Even more significant was the idea that the Soviet Union had become a status-quo power and was now genuinely committed to détente with the United States. Marshall Shulman acknowledged that détente offered “tactical advantages” to the Soviet Union, but he felt that “more fundamental” factors—among them the Soviet Union’s need for economic cooperation with the West, its desire to stabilize the arms race, and its fear of China—required Moscow to favor “a long-term commitment to a policy of low tension abroad.”
George Kennan, whose views on this subject carried special weight because he had first enunciated the containment doctrine a quarter of a century earlier, now came to the conclusion that the military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union no longer had any “foundation in real interests.” It was kept alive, he thought, by “irrational fear” and “institutionalized force of habit” which the military-industrial complex of each big power exploited to its own advantage. If the Soviets continued to espouse revolutionary doctrines and to support revolutionary movements in the Third World, this did not mean that they had any claims against the United States or posed any threat to American interests. The Soviet Union was motivated entirely by its rivalry with China and the fear that the loss of its image as the leader of the revolutionary forces in the world “would throw into question the legitimacy of its regime at home.”
Indeed, said Kennan, the Soviet posture was everywhere defensive in character, born of a profound and unappreciated insecurity. The Soviet Union was fearful of NATO which had “ringed” it with missile bases. It was fearful, too, of West Germany which resented the division of Germany and the Berlin Wall—positions Moscow was “obliged to cling to” if it was to preserve the status quo in Eastern Europe. It could not loosen its grip on Eastern Europe for fear that this would “set up liberationist ripples that would carry into the Soviet Union itself.” Nor could it return the Kuriles to Japan for fear that it would “make itself vulnerable to similar demands for readjustment of borders in Europe.” The Soviet Union’s “sense of weakness” was such that it could not even tolerate the expression of dissent at home by “a relatively small and helpless band of intellec-tuals.”2
Surely the worst thing one could do in dealing with such a country would be to increase its sense of insecurity by acts which it might construe as unfriendly and provocative. As Shulman pointed out, too much pressure for internal liberalization would only “reinforce” the regime’s siege mentality, and make it take a harder line against the dissidents. And too much pressure on its external positions, in the name of containment, would only create the very danger which containment was supposed to defend against.
Kennan did not doubt, for example, that “we have taught the Soviet leadership something of our own obsession with military strength—have taught them, that is, to think in American-Pentagon terms—have caused them, too, to be hypnotized by the nuclear weapons race.” This view was shared by Paul Warnke, who felt that America’s “words and actions” were “admirably calculated to inspire the Soviet Union to spend its substance on military manpower and weaponry.” Reviewing the history of containment, Richard J. Barnet noted how “ironical” it was that “the strategy chosen by the U.S. to deal with the limited Soviet challenge to American supremacy may well have helped to create a Soviet Union with global interests and commitments.”
Containment, then, was counterproductive—and therefore undesirable—in addition to being unfeasible and unnecessary. This was true not only because it would provoke unfriendly Soviet behavior but also because it would draw the United States into situations harmful to its own best interests. As Shulman noted, the containment policy had led the United States to align itself in the Third World with conservative authoritarian regimes and to oppose “social protest movements” which were viewed as instruments of Communism. According to Bayless Manning, we had “wound up on the wrong side” of history and were held “in deep disfavor” by Third World countries which saw the United States “as the main external adversary opposing their national development, internal modernization, and economic advancement.” The commitments undertaken in the name of containment on behalf of such hapless regimes led inevitably to protracted conflicts like Vietnam in which the United States sought vainly and at great cost to hold back the march of history.
The cruelest irony was that these commitments presumably had been made to help “free peoples” resist attempted subjugation, as the Truman Doctrine had pledged. In reality, of course, the peoples in question were not free, but rather subjugated by the very dictators propped up by us. And the help we offered, as one writer in Foreign Policy observed, ran the risk of destroying the very societies we hoped to save. We had embarked on these “bloody crusades” in the name of freedom, but as Brzezinski argued, the idea of equality—not liberty—was “increasingly the underlying mood and the felt aspiration in an increasingly congested world.”
In this context, Manning pointed to the ultimate irony, which was that the “totalitarian regimes” we opposed were the unconscious agents of liberty in the developing world. They would “substitute a better, more efficient, more productive and widely sharing society” for what now existed, thereby making it possible at some future point for “new progressive elements . . . to build upon the social and economic gains made during the era of conscript modernization.” At that point the United States might reclaim its “moral leadership” in the world, not through arms “but by virtue of its ideological example as a society of free men.”
While the critique of containment was intended to dissociate the new establishment from the policies of the past, it suggested as well general guidelines for the policies of the future. The first such guideline was the adoption of an attitude of “equanimity,” as one writer termed it, toward changes in the world which previously would have been considered injurious to American security. Since the United States was no longer engaged in a global struggle with Communism, it was possible to dispense with linkage, a “pernicious and destructive” concept, as Warren Demian Manshel called it, which had caused us to endow local events with a purely imaginary strategic significance. U.S. policy could henceforth be based on the understanding that “American physical security,” in Richard Ullman’s words, “would not in any immediate sense be affected by drastic changes in the internal political structure of any other state or states.”
The doctrine of equanimity had many advantages for the United States, the most obvious one being that it would eliminate the prospect of a future Vietnam. And in a larger sense, it meant that the U.S. could now adopt an attitude of “benign neglect,” as Warnke and Gelb put it, “toward international military involvements.” It did not follow from this, however, that the United States should be indifferent to the fate and well-being of the peoples of the Third World. On the contrary—and this was another general guideline for American policy—it was necessary for the United States to identify with and actively assist “the forces of change” which we had opposed during the period of containment.
Toward this end, Ullman urged that “a central goal of American policy over the coming years” should be to terminate the support which had previously been extended to “repressive” regimes on “expediential grounds.” It was also important, wrote Tom J. Farer of Rutgers, to “soften our image as an intractable opponent of change” by making “gestures” of accommodation on three issues of paramount concern to the Third World-Southern Africa, the Palestinians, and North-South economic relations.
Beyond this, Ullman added, we would have to demonstrate our concern with “the quality of political life in other countries” by opposing repression. Here, though, we would have to recognize that “human rights are relatively culture-bound in their application.” Societies like Tanzania and Yugoslavia, he cautioned, might lack democratic rights as we know them in the United States, but we were required to acknowledge that they had “achieved a certain degree of openness and tolerance, combined with genuine mass participation, within an all-embracing single-party structure.”
Above all, Brzezinski wrote, American policy would have to be “sympathetically sensitive to the significant shift in global emphasis” toward equality. This would not necessarily be very costly for the United States, said Farer, since only the authoritarian elites in the Third World were demanding equality—for states, not individuals—and therefore “the overall number of people who have to be given a stake in the essential structures of the existing international economic system is relatively small.” But even if one allowed that it might be costly, and many writers were of this opinion, it was still necessary for political reasons to respond sympathetically to demands for a “new international economic order.”
For these same reasons, it was imperative that the United States eschew the kind of “democratic crusade” that had marred American policy during the period of containment and which Ambassador Daniel P. Moynihan had launched once again at the United Nations. Brzezinski warned that “for Americans to inject into American external relations the ideological claim that the contemporary world struggle is between liberal democracy and various forms of despotic statism” would “create a doctrinal coalition against the United States” and accelerate the country’s “global isolation.” Moynihan’s criticism of Communist and Third World despotisms appealed to many Americans because it offered “a welcome escape from complexity, even if in the guise of isolated self-righteousness.” But it encouraged a “siege mentality” which could destroy the “optimism and universalism” which were “the underlying basis of legitimacy of the American system as a whole.” At any rate, America would be “compelled gradually to accommodate itself” to the international realities. The only real question was “how long it will take . . . to absorb and internalize a reasonably coherent yet necessarily flexible conceptual understanding of the emerging new world.”
For Stanley Hoffmann, “a vindictive defense of our system of freedom,” which was how he characterized Moynihan’s “democratic crusade,” was dangerous not just because of what it would do to America but because “it would wreck any chances for world order.” Therefore America had to “curb” its own “aggressive nationalism,” even as it sought to accommodate itself to hostile foreign nationalisms. To promote world order, it was necessary to “stress what is minimally objectionable,” to smooth down “the cutting edge of one’s own ideology,” and not to put forward “proposals that will certainly arouse the hostility of all those who do not share America’s preference for liberal democratic regimes.” Moreover, “in the realm of conflict par excellence we must seek the cooperation of our rivals, and be ready to oppose our allies and clients when they pursue policies that run counter to the interests of world order.”
Hoffmann recommended that the United States follow a general “rule of non-collision.” As a guideline for American policy in the post-Vietnam period, such a rule had great appeal even to those who did not fully appreciate the subtleties of Hoffmann’s “world-order” approach. This was especially true with respect to relations with the Soviet Union, where the risk of nuclear confrontation was a factor that had to be considered. Here the doctrine of equanimity was particularly useful, for it allowed one to support a “strategy of conflict-avoidance,” as one writer called it, without any apparent strategic cost. Thus, articles in both Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy argued that the placement of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba in 1962 and the construction there of a submarine base in 1970 had only “symbolic” significance, and that the United States could have avoided dangerous crises over these Soviet initiatives by “showing rational or even naive unconcern” and simply dismissing “the issue of resolve.” Both articles, in fact, maintained that the United States should have welcomed the construction of the Soviet submarine base, since this would have stabilized the strategic balance by allowing Moscow to complete its sea-launched deterrent.
On the whole, though, major difficulties with the Soviet Union were not anticipated. Ullman, for example, did not even mention U.S.-Soviet relations in the eight guidelines for American policy he published in 1976. Zygmunt Nagorski, Jr., then on the staff of the Council on Foreign Relations, looked forward to “a gradual converging of commercial and developmental interests between East and West” taking place beneath “the umbrella of parity of strength.” If America did nothing to arouse Soviet fear and animosity, cooperation between the two superpowers seemed assured. “How to deal with the Communist world,” Brzezinski wrote, “remains a key problem for U.S. foreign policy but it may no longer represent the central problem.”
Beyond improving relations with the Third World, the new priority for American policy was “trilateralism,” by which was meant the deepening of cooperation among the United States, Europe, and Japan in order to create what Brzezinski termed “a stable core for global politics.” Marina v. N. Whitman, then at the University of Pittsburgh, called for “the replacement of leadership based on hegemony with leadership based on persuasion and compromise,” a statement that was widely quoted because it summed up so succinctly the new approach that was needed. This approach also had to generate support at home, which was why it could not be, as Brzezinski described Kissinger’s policy, “covert, manipulative, and deceptive in style . . . committed to a largely static view of the world, based on a traditional balance of power.” American policy had to become more open, compassionate, and committed to reform, for only in this way would it be capable of “tapping the moral resources of the American people.”
Writing in Foreign Policy in 1973, Godfrey Hodgson had concluded his reflections on the demise of the old establishment by raising the possibility that “in time a new establishment will form from among those who are able to take as their starting point that the Vietnam war was a disaster.” Were such a new establishment to emerge, its “essential moral” would be “that it is much more difficult and dangerous to use force in support of foreign-policy objectives than you might suppose.”
In fact, by 1975 this very establishment had come into existence, constituting what Hoffmann called “a kind of expectant establishment in exile.” It had conceived and enunciated an elaborate perspective on American foreign policy. And it was in possession of an organizing principle every bit as compelling after Vietnam as containment had been after Munich and the lowering of the Iron Curtain in Europe. This principle was anti-containment, or the non-use of force in world affairs.
A distinctive feature of this new establishment was its optimism, which stood out in such vivid contrast to the pessimism of those, like Henry Kissinger and Daniel P. Moynihan, who were troubled over what they perceived as the retreat of American power and the loss of political will throughout the West. For Richard Holbrooke, then managing editor of Foreign Policy, this pessimism was based on nothing more than the willful defeatism of those who regretted the loss of American “hegemony” and failed to appreciate the growing opportunities for American leadership in a changing world. America had no “need to dominate the world in order to live safely in it,” he wrote, and anyway the United States was “still the most powerful nation on earth.” It was true that the world’s perception of American retreat was a problem, but this was the work of those who promoted a defeatist view and then confirmed their own conclusions by trying to get us involved in a futile and strategically irrelevant war in Angola. The country was strong and its world position secure. It could “survive everything but its own defeatism.”
The pessimism decried by Holbrooke could be traced to America’s defeat in Vietnam. But for Manshel, the end of the war was a source of hope. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Communist takeover of Saigon, he saw America “entering a new era, free at last of the drain of overinvolvement and overcommitment to a cause never winnable (and never worth winning) in an area marginal to the strategic interests of the United States.” America could now look to the future with renewed confidence, for “with the quixotic lance [of Vietnam] broken, the shield of the republic is stronger today than it was when the Vietnam debacle began a decade and a half ago.”
This optimism, and the perspective underlying it, was in danger of being engulfed by the alarm which swept the country following the collapse of Indochina in 1975. According to Gelb and Lake, congressional liberals who should have known better had succumbed to administration arguments that the Mayaguez affair was “a test case of American resolve around the world” and that “the size of the defense budget is a vital signal of American will.” These liberals were too “uncertain of themselves on foreign policy” and felt too vulnerable to “the charge of isolationism” to offer any meaningful alternative to the administration’s policies. Thus the only hope was to “wait till next year for broad movement toward a sensible foreign policy.”
Here the prospects were indeed bright. Recent poll data, Brzezinski reported, showed “a public opinion that is ambivalent but constructively malleable.” This “heightened the need for national leadership that was capable of defining politically and morally compelling directions to which the public might then respond.”
Thomas L. Hughes, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which published Foreign Policy, was “positively euphoric.” The moment had arrived, he announced, for the emergence of a new “liberal-populist” governing coalition which looked “inward to the traditional pursuit of redistributing the affluence of an inequitable America” and “outward to . . . a constructive new American accommodation with mankind.” Like “the Truman-Acheson arrangement” of a generation earlier, it would unite the foreign-policy elite with “the plain people,” the chief difference being that the new coalition would be disposed “toward global as well as domestic accommodations.” In foreign policy, such a new coalition would confirm and enlarge the “new East-West strategic bargains” and strike “new North-South bargains.” It would rescue the country from the morally corrosive domestic effects of Kissinger’s Realpolitik and the dangerously defeatist international consequences of Moynihan’s “opposition to the world.” It would succeed in “restoring our own self-confidence and the confidence of others in us” and in “re-establishing the steadiness of policy by moderating the crisis of authority within the American government.” Such a coalition, in short, would “rise to the global occasion on the ashes of an unhappy decade of American history.”
Hughes’s article, which appeared in Foreign Policy in the fall of 1975, correctly anticipated the results of the forthcoming election. The victory of Jimmy Carter produced exactly the kind of “liberal-populist” governing coalition which Hughes had foreseen. It was exemplified, as it were, in the “Carter-Vance arrangement,” wherein a Southern President who campaigned as a populist staffed his foreign-policy bureaucracy with members of the Eastern foreign-policy establishment, or, more precisely, the new foreign-policy establishment.
In addition to Vance, who shared the new outlook on foreign policy even if he had not publicly expounded it, those receiving high appointments in the Carter administration included Brzezinski, who became the President’s national security adviser; Warnke, who was made both the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the chief negotiator for SALT; Shulman, who was appointed the State Department’s chief adviser on Soviet policy; and Gelb, Lake, and Holbrooke, who became, respectively, the director of the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs at the State Department, the director of policy planning, and the Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs. There were many other key appointments of this kind, among them Andrew Young as United Nations Ambassador, Richard Moose as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, and David Aaron and Robert Hunter as members of the National Security Council. These were only a representative handful of the appointments which brought members of the new foreign-policy establishment into the Carter administration.
Not only did the President turn to the new establishment to manage his foreign policy as earlier Presidents had turned to the old establishment, but he adopted in every important respect its political perspective and even its rhetoric. The President’s famous Notre Dame speech of May 1977, in which he first described his administration’s foreign policy, was a perfect synthesis of the ideas propounded by the new establishment during the preceding years. The speech began with the core idea of the new establishment, the rejection of containment. It was this policy, flowing from an “inordinate fear of Communism,” that had led us “to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear” and “to adopt the flawed principles and tactics of our adversaries.” The result was a “sapping of worldwide faith in our policy” and “a crisis of confidence, made even more grave by the covert pessimism of some of our leaders.”
Such pessimism, Carter explained, was based on an outdated view of the world—the “belief that Soviet expansion must be contained.” But now “The unifying threat of conflict with the Soviet Union ha[d] become less intensive,” and “new global questions of justice, equity, and human rights” had come to the fore. “It is a new world,” the President said, “but America should not fear it.” We now had “a new foreign policy” capable of responding “to the new reality of a politically awakening world.” Rather than “expect that the other 150 nations will follow the dictates of the powerful,” we would now try “to inspire and to persuade and to lead.” Our policy would be one of “constructive global involvement,” committed to human rights, détente, cooperation among the industrial democracies, and a new relationship with the nations of the Third World, with whom we would work closely “in a common effort as the structure of world power changes.” We would “encourage all countries to rise above narrow national interests and work together to solve such formidable global problems” as hunger, racial hatred, and the arms race, patiently attempting “to create a wider framework of international cooperation suited to the new historical circumstances.”
If there had been any doubt that the new foreign-policy establishment was now in power, the Notre Dame speech made it official. Thus while Carter as President must of course be held accountable for his own administration, this new establishment must take at least an equal share of responsibility for the course of American foreign policy under its conceptual guidance and practical management. Indeed, the new establishment’s responsibility is all the heavier for its having broken so unequivocally with thirty years of historical experience. Had the new establishment claimed at least some continuity with the past, it might now be in a position to argue that its ideas and policies were not the only ones being tested but also the ideas and policies of its predecessors. But it claimed no such continuity. It rejected everything that had gone before, even including the conduct, if not the concept, of détente. By holding others so harshly to account, the new establishment invited strict accountability for itself.
What such an accounting reveals after a test of more than three years is an appalling deterioration in every area in which the new establishment so brashly predicted dramatic progress—in our relations with the Third World, in our relations with our allies, and most serious of all in our relations with the Soviet Union.
That our relations with the countries of the Third World are significantly worse today than they were when the new establishment took power is clear from the vehement anti-Americanism of the “nonaligned” conference in Havana last year and the mobs in the streets of Teheran. An equally vivid indication of the declining American position in the Third World is the growing anxiety of many countries that once considered the U.S. a trustworthy friend. The comment in the New York Times by a high Pakistani official that “you Americans don’t seem to understand the world any more” reflects the thinking of many pro-Western leaders in the Third World who are losing faith in the capacity or even willingness of the United States to resist Soviet expansion. Such thinking explains the increasing tendency among these countries to keep a safe distance between themselves and Washington and to move toward an accommodation with Moscow.
U.S. relations with our “trilateral” partners, Europe and Japan, have deteriorated just as badly. The specter of neutralism now hangs over Europe as West Germany moves steadily closer to a separate accommodation with Moscow. As for Japan, before leaving on a visit to the United States in early May, Prime Minister Ohira said that “the U.S. has become one of the powers and not a superpower any more. The days are gone when we were able to rely on America’s [nuclear] deterrent.” Such anxieties have not been expressed publicly until now, though they are known to represent the thinking of many leaders in Europe as well as Japan. They indicate an increased distrust of the U.S. which threatens the very survival of the postwar Western alliance.
Finally, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union are as bad as they were at any point during the cold war and far more dangerous, considering the disarray in the Western camp, the collapsing American position in the world, our new strategic vulnerability, the shift in the military balance toward the Soviet Union, and its consequently growing readiness to achieve its objectives through the decisive use of force. The application of the doctrine of equanimity to the 1978 Communist coup in Afghanistan did not prevent the Soviet invasion a year-and-a-half later. The unilateral cancellation of U.S. weapons programs did not have any noticeable effect on the Soviet military build-up. “Getting on the side of change” in Africa did not stop the Soviet Union and its proxies from intervening in Ethiopia. And following the rule of non-collision in the case of the Soviet brigade in Cuba, or the earlier installation there of Soviet MIG-23 attack planes, did not encourage Cuba to restrain its subversive and terrorist activities in Central America and the Caribbean.
An administration that began by assuming it could improve relations with the Soviet Union if only it downplayed East-West issues is now obsessed with such concerns. Having repudiated an illusory American hegemony, it now faces the real danger of Soviet hegemony—a prospect it is trying desperately to elude by restoring a balance of power, something it once considered outdated and “Machiavellian” and whose workings it still does not seem to understand. And though it founded its entire foreign policy—its very conception of America’s world role, in fact—on the rejection of containment, it has discovered to its dismay that the Soviet Union has not abandoned that ambition for conquest which made containment necessary in the first place. If anything, Moscow’s policies are much more clearly threatening now than during the cold war, for the Soviets have been emboldened by the change in the balance of power to proclaim that henceforth the Brezhnev Doctrine will be extended to countries (like Chile under Allende and perhaps Nicaragua under the Sandinistas) where Communists are trying to consolidate power, not merely to retain power already established.
Though the foreign-policy perspective of the new establishment has been thoroughly discredited by events, it has not yet been honestly reevaluated or clearly repudiated by any of its proponents, including the President.
In his State of the Union Address in 1979, Carter assured the nation that “our military defenses are strong” and that no superpower—by which he meant the Soviet Union—could or would “dominate the world.” He added: “We have no desire to be the world’s policeman, but America does want to be the world’s peacemaker.” It was a classic evocation of the post-Vietnam mentality, stunningly out of touch with the times. Yet, later that same year, in a speech calling for an increase in military spending, the President said that the postwar consensus built “around the concept of an active role for America in preserving peace and security for ourselves and for others” had endured, “despite all the changes that have swept across the world in the past thirty years.”
The vast intellectual gulf separating these two statements—one rejecting the role of “policeman,” the other endorsing the policy of containment—can be bridged only by an admission of error. But except for Brzezinski’s apparent rediscovery of the containment doctrine and the President’s offhand comment that his view of Soviet intentions changed “drastically” after the invasion of Afghanistan, such an admission has not been forthcoming. The appointment as the new Secretary of State of Edmund Muskie, a man identified with the first statement and not the second, indicates that, despite its claim to the contrary, the administration has still not overcome its “Vietnam complex.”
It is perhaps understandable that a President running for reelection should not admit that the foreign policy of his administration has been profoundly mistaken and that the country’s security is now in grave jeopardy. Yet not even among members of the new establishment who are not part of the Carter administration, or who have retired from it, has there been any discernible readiness to reevaluate their perspective. Their independence, in fact, has had quite the opposite effect. That is, it has freed them to shift the blame for the nation’s predicament from their own ideas and policies to Carter’s alleged incompetence—as if what is at issue were not a flawed conception of the world but rather the gifts of the technician charged with carrying it out.
This tactic began to be applied early on. For example, Hoffmann (who has held no office under Carter) attributed the administration’s difficulties during 1977 to its lack of a “comprehensive plan” for the conduct of its policies. Its approach was too “nonpolitical” and “technocratic,” meaning that it suffered from having no perspective rather than a mistaken one. Thomas L. Hughes (who has also remained outside) conceded that the administration had a perspective—a correct one, too—but lacked the skill to implement it. “The administration’s foreign-policy failures to date,” he wrote in mid-1978, “are not the result of an excess of liberalism. They are failures of the central organizing forces of the administration.”
In addition to blaming Carter for inconsistency and ineptitude, the new establishment responded to Soviet advances by excusing Soviet behavior and blaming the United States for the impasse in relations. Thus, writing in Foreign Affairs, Robert Legvold, the director of the Soviet Project at the Council on Foreign Relations, saw little evidence to support the “impression of an emboldened Soviet leadership” which was “embarked on a vast alliance system in the Third World.” From Moscow’s point of view, it was the West which was “overwhelmingly ascendant” and on the attack throughout Africa and the Persian Gulf. The Soviet Union, in fact, had shown great restraint in staying out of internal conflicts in Iran, the Western Sahara, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, and by initially seeking to mediate the disputes in Angola and between Ethiopia and Somalia. Moreover, “where restraint has given way to active intervention,” as in Angola and Ethiopia, “the Soviet Union has acted with caution,” for it “checked to see that the coast was clear before proceeding.” There was danger, to be sure, in the Soviet Union’s “extemporaneous, unplotted entanglement” in the Third World, but no evidence that the Soviet leaders were “thinking systematically about these issues.”
The great need, Legvold continued, was “to spell out the standards of behavior both sides expect of each other,” and here the United States was at fault. We could not expect “the Soviet Union to give up the right to involve itself in troubled areas, if we are not prepared to give up this right ourselves.” Furthermore, it was one thing to want the Soviet Union to stay out of local conflicts, but quite another to say that it could “not go to the aid of governments established by insurgent movements once they are installed.” A realistic policy would recognize that “neither side will readily yield the right to intervene in troubled areas.” At the same time, however, the Soviet leaders want “to give the overall competition stability and predictability,” and they “are ready to begin a serious discussion, provided our purpose is not simply to upbraid them.”
If Legvold identified the one-sidedness of the United States as the source of the problem, Hoffmann narrowed it still further. In his opinion, the crucial factor in the deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations was those elements in the United States which adhered to “a new orthodoxy that identified the present American plight as the result of a retreat before an ascending Soviet steamroller.” The goal of Soviet policy was not “world domination” but only “achieving equality with the United States.” While the Soviet Union might relentlessly seek to expand its power, it had not been nearly so successful as was imagined. In any event, both powers, despite the competitive aspects of their relationship, had “a joint interest in moderation” deriving from their “common concern for survival and for development and economic well-being.” The paramount task facing both of them, therefore, was to “organize the coexistence of competitive strategies” by defining the “common rules” by which they would abide. Those committed to the “new orthodoxy,” in their nostalgia for “lost supremacy,” were undermining this effort to stabilize relations at every turn—by linking arms-control talks to extraneous political issues, by opposing expanded trade relations between the two countries, by interjecting the human-rights issue into U.S.-Soviet relations, and by creating opportunities for Soviet expansion through their support of weak anti-Communist regimes (whose inevitable collapse then reinforced the erroneous and dangerous view that America was in retreat). The effect of their obstructive behavior and anti-Soviet “grandstanding” was to feed “Soviet paranoia” and to make U.S.-Soviet confrontation more likely.
Hoffmann’s argument, which was composed shortly before the invasion of Afghanistan, rested entirely upon the unexamined assumption that the Soviet leaders shared his understanding of their interests and intentions. The invasion may have forced the President to change his mind about Soviet intentions, but not Hoffmann—though it did shake his confidence a bit. An article he published shortly after the invasion was filled with “murky questions” (Was the invasion an offensive or a defensive move? Did the Soviets act out of a sense of their weakness or a perception of our weakness?), and desperate affirmations (“There is no substitute for peaceful coexistence; and it can only be obtained if the Soviet Union is not pushed into a corner or locked into a position of implacable hostility”), and concluded with the confession that his function was not to define policy but simply “to question, to wonder, and to warn.”
But not even that degree of wavering has been apparent among other ideologues of the new establishment. Instead of reexamining their assumptions, they have insisted upon them more strongly than ever. Claiming that the crisis created by the invasion had increased “the urgency of arms control,” Warnke criticized the administration’s “emotional pursuit of security through military means” and called for the implementation of the SALT treaty without Senate ratification. Decrying the “self-generated hysteria” in the country, Gelb called upon the United States to initiate a “dialogue” with Moscow and to indicate our desire for “normal” relations by ratifying SALT. And Kennan, still faithful to his belief that insecurity is the key to Soviet behavior, promoted the idea that the invasion was a “defensive” move that was not nearly as worrisome as the “militarization of thought and discourse” in Washington.
If such statements gave the impression that the United States and not the Soviet Union had caused the crisis, this was not unintended, for it was an article of faith within the new establishment that the Soviet invasion was a natural consequence of the growing opposition to détente within America.
Arguments of this kind were dangerously deluding before the invasion of Afghanistan, but they were inexcusable—both morally and politically—in its aftermath. They were also completely unpersuasive to the vast majority of the American people, a point implicitly acknowledged by the new establishment’s final argument—that the President’s poor handling of Afghanistan (and Iran) could be explained by his capitulation to political pressures in an election year when he should have been taking the sober diplomatic advice of Cyrus Vance. Gelb perceived “a classic clash of philosophies” between a politicized White House looking for immediate results and a professional State Department patiently trying to work out “the knotty problems of international politics.”
But it will not be so easy for the new establishment to disclaim responsibility for the fearful disarray of American foreign policy. If the President appears to be inept, it is because events have shattered his original interpretation of the world—which was not his alone but that of the new establishment as well—and he is now left without a fixed compass, guided by nothing save his reading of the public mood. And if he has attempted to manipulate this mood to his domestic political advantage, even at the expense of the national security—a pattern one sees in his handling of the hostage crisis, to which he has subordinated all strategic concerns, including Afghanistan—this too may be traced back to the new establishment. For it was the new establishment that devalued the importance of national-security concerns in the first place, saturating American foreign policy with defeatism masquerading as optimism and “maturity” and “restraint,” cravenly following international political fashion even if this meant denigrating the interests and values of one’s own country, and worrying less about American security than about Soviet insecurity, in the name of which virtually any Soviet action could be condoned or blamed upon the United States.
As all the polls reveal, the American people have now overwhelmingly rejected the ideas of the new establishment. Apart from having been exposed as mistaken in all its major judgments, the new establishment never spoke for the country as a whole but only for a narrow if influential sector of the elite which had ceased to believe in America after Vietnam, and which despite its proclaimed optimism seems to have resigned itself to the forward momentum of political forces in the world committed to America’s ultimate defeat. We have already been given a foretaste of what this defeat will mean in the Communist holocaust in Indochina, the growing numbers of refugees fleeing from totalitarianism, the spreading violence in a world increasingly exposed to Soviet power, and the deepening isolation of the United States. This is not the kind of world in which Americans—or other peoples, for that matter—want to live. And it is because the new establishment has resigned itself to this fate that it no longer deserves to be listened to by anyone who still believes a better world is possible.
1 For a fuller discussion of these themes, see Brzezinski's book, Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era (1970).
2 These positions are spelled out in Kennan's The Cloud of Danger: Current Realities and American Foreign Policy (1977).
Scroll Down For the Next Article