American foreign policy has in the past suffered from one major defect: the belief that a great power could somehow escape the risks and liabilities of foreign policy. It could escape them—so the belief ran—by isolating itself from the affairs of the world; if it abstained from pursuing active foreign policies vis-à-vis other nations, other nations would reciprocate. It could escape them by promoting a grand design, such as the League of Nations or the United Nations, which, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, would make an end to “the system of unilateral action and exclusive alliances and spheres of influence and balances of power and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries—and have failed.” In other words the United Nations was expected to put an end to foreign policy itself.

We have learned the lesson that a great nation cannot escape the risks and liabilities of foreign policy by an act of will, by choosing either to retreat from foreign policy or to soar above it. Yet we are now in the process of going to the other extreme of surrendering piecemeal to the facts of foreign policy, of allowing ourselves to be sucked in by them, of thinking and acting as though there were nothing else to foreign policy but this particular set of empirical facts concerning, say, Laos or Cuba. The President has admonished us to “look at things as they are,” and we are following his advice. We are doing so in the name of pragmatism or empiricism. Nowadays, these terms are used in Washington with pride. They are used as though to be pragmatic and empirical when faced with a political problem were to be rational almost by definition. The idea which the pragmatists and empiricists want to convey is that they are neither escapists nor Utopians, that they have no illusions about the facts as they are nor any grand design for changing them; they have the courage to look the facts in the face and the willingness and ability to deal with each issue on its own terms. There is more truth in this claim than merit.

This new attitude toward foreign policy stems from an intellectual disposition which is deeply embedded in the American folklore of social action. That disposition shuns elaborate philosophies and consistent theories. It bows to the facts which are supposed to “tell their own story” and “not to lie.” It accepts only one test of the truth of a proposition: that it works. It expects the problems of the social world to yield to a series of piecemeal empirical attacks, unencumbered by preconceived notions and comprehensive planning. If a social problem proves obstinate, it must be made to yield to a new empirical attack, armed with more facts more thoroughly understood.

That theory of social action, however persuasive it may sound to our ears by virtue of being apparently supported by our domestic experience, is in truth without foundation. Facts have no social meaning in themselves. It is the significance we attribute to certain facts of our sensory experience—in terms of our hopes and fears, our memories, intentions, and expectations—that creates them as social facts. The social world itself, then, is but an artifact of man’s mind, the reflection of his thoughts and the creation of his actions.

Every social act (and even our awareness of empirical data as social facts) presupposes a theory of society, however unacknowledged, inchoate, and fragmentary. It is not given to us to choose between a social philosophy and an unconditional surrender to the facts as they are. Rather we must choose between a philosophy consistent within itself and founded on experience, which can serve as a guide to understanding and an instrument for successful action, and an implicit and untested philosophy which is likely to blur understanding and mislead action. The Wilsonian grand design and the isolationist abstentionism missed the mark in their refusal, each in its own way, to take account of the concrete facts of the political situation. The empiricism of our day, on the other hand, has been led astray by its total absorption in the empirical facts of particular situations.

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Thus we deal with Laos on its own terms, we deal with Vietnam on its own terms, we deal with Taiwan on its own terms. And we deal with Communist China on its own terms. We want to neutralize Laos, even at the risk of partial or complete Communist domination. We want to win the civil war in Vietnam, even at the risk of a full military commitment on the part of the United States. We want to maintain the status quo in the straits of Taiwan, even at the risk of war with China. And we want to contain Chinese power within its present territorial limits by committing ourselves to the defense of military positions scattered around the periphery of the Chinese empire, regardless of the over-all distribution of military power between China and the rest of the world.

It stands to reason that all these issues are interconnected and that their connection is of a hierarchical nature. The paramount issue, in the long run at the very least, is the peripheral containment of China. Will it be possible, once China has become a first-rate military power and, more particularly, has acquired an arsenal of nuclear weapons, to contain her within the present territorial limits of her power by continuing to commit American military strength to the support of her neighbors? Or will it then be necessary to strike at the heart of Chinese power itself? If this should prove to be necessary, as I indeed think it will—if, in other words our present policy of peripheral containment will either fail or involve us sooner or later in an all-out war with China, it is necessary to ask now, not five or ten years from now when circumstances may have given the answer and left us no choice, two fundamental questions. First, what is the place of the containment of China within the hierarchy of the objectives of our foreign policy, especially in view of our relations with the Soviet Union? And second, if we assign to the containment of China a very high priority, worth the risk of all-out war, must we delay fighting this inevitable war until China feels strong enough to wage it on terms favorable to herself, or ought we not to fight it under conditions most favorable to ourselves?

These are indeed unpleasant and hence unpopular questions, and since they became acute twelve years ago in consequence of the Korean war, no administration has seen fit to raise them in public. Nor has any administration come to terms with them in its secret councils—if the actions of successive administrations give any clue to the over-all conception which has guided our Asian policies. The conduct of the Korean war and the origin of the Laotian crisis are cases in point. The Chinese intervention in the Korean war, being the inevitable response to our advance to the Yalu, could take us by surprise only because it did not occur to us to consider our Korean policy as an integral part of our relations with China. Similarly, our decision to replace the neutralist government of Laos with a pro-Western one, initiated in 1960 against the advice of our ambassador and the CIA agents in Laos, was predicated upon the unrealistic assumption that such an attempt to change the status quo in favor of the West might not call forth from the Communist neighbors of Laos a counter-attempt—and one more likely to succeed in view of the distribution of local power—to change the status quo in their favor.

Just as our policies in Southeast Asia and the straits of Taiwan must be seen in the context of our over-all relations with China, so our policies in the different nations of Southeast Asia are themselves organically interconnected. Since we are committed to the military defense of South Vietnam—a commitment whose soundness I recently questioned in these pages1—how can we reconcile ourselves at the same time to the Communization of, at the very least, those parts of Laos adjacent to South Vietnam? For our Vietnamese policy, questionable on other grounds, is doomed to failure by our Laotian policy, which provides the Vietnamese guerrillas with a supply and staging area beyond the borders of Vietnam. The Greek and Algerian civil wars have shown in different ways that guerrillas who have the support of the indigenous population cannot be defeated so long as they can be supplied from, and retreat to, areas beyond the borders of their native country.

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What ails our Asian policy is its fragmentation, its compartmentalization into localized policies, independent of each other and of an over-all conception which would assign them their proper place in the total scheme of things. That ailment, however, is not limited to our Asian policy. It impedes our policies elsewhere and cramps the very style of our foreign policy. Berlin and our relations with our allies are cases in point.

It is of course obvious that the issue of the Western presence in West Berlin can no more be dealt with as a local problem, isolated from the over-all relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, than the issue of Taiwan can be considered in isolation from the over-all relations between the United States and China. Khrushchev raised the Berlin question in order to compel the United States to settle on Soviet terms the issue which has been the main concern of Soviet foreign policy since the end of the Second World War and to which the very origin of the cold war can be traced: American recognition of the Western boundaries of the Soviet empire.

With regard to this issue the United States can pursue one of two alternative policies. It can continue its present policy of non-recognition of the territorial status quo in Central Europe as a matter of law while implicitly recognizing it as a matter of political and military fact, unchangeable short of a victorious war. This policy becomes increasingly precarious in the measure that the independent military power of West Germany provides support for a revisionist policy. The other alternative is for the United States to embark upon a new policy of at least edging toward the reconciliation of its explicit policy of non-recognition with its implicit recognition of the territorial status quo in Central Europe.

Our Berlin policy, soundly conceived, is a symbolic manifestation of our over-all German policy and of our over-all relations with the Soviet Union. Yet, unwilling to face the realities of the German problem, we have either endeavored to manipulate the modalities of our presence in West Berlin in isolation from the underlying issue, or we have refused to engage in serious negotiations altogether, committing ourselves to the defense of the status quo in Berlin without really intending thereby to put into question the territorial status quo in Central Europe. In consequence, the Berlin issue is at the moment of this writing as unresolved as it was when it was first raised by Khrushchev in November 1958, and our position with regard to the territorial status quo in Central Europe remains as ambiguous as it was fifteen years ago.

This refusal to face the problem of Germany and this tendency to approach the Berlin issue as though it could be dealt with in isolation from the German problem, are in good measure due to the virtual veto with which the government of West Germany has been able to paralyze our German policy and stalemate our relations with the Soviet Union. Our relations with West Germany are duplicated by our relations with many of our other allies, such as Taiwan, South Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan, France. These allies either prevent us from pursuing the policies we would want to pursue, or else they pursue policies of their own which run counter to our own interests and expressed preferences.

Chiang Kai-shek has put some of his best troops on the off-shore islands, and we have been unable to persuade him to desist from that folly. President Diem of South Vietnam bears the major share of responsibility for the disintegration of his regime and the advances of Communism, but we have been unable to make him change his policies. The policies which Pakistan has been pursuing toward its neighbors Afghanistan and India have been a continuous irritant in our relations with those nations, but we have been unable to do anything about them. The policies of France have only by coincidence any relation to our interests and preferences. The policies Great Britain and Canada are pursuing vis-à-vis China run counter to our own and reduce their effectiveness; and so do the policies which Canada and some of our European allies pursue toward Cuba. While in theory we intend to give economic aid only to nations which through political and economic reform have at least cleared the path toward economic development, in practice the threat of a recipient government to collapse or go Communist is generally sufficient to make us give without conditions.

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We have tried to manipulate the acute manifestations of this endemic crisis in our alliances in two different ways: through ineffective persuasion or through enthusiastic surrender. We have made the subversion of our interests and the frustration of our policies by our allies tolerable by investing the interests and policies of our allies with a peculiar virtue. We have done so through the intermediary of our emotional commitment to certain rulers, such as Chiang Kai-shek, Diem, Ayub, and Franco. Some of our ambassadors have been emotionally committed to one or another of these rulers to such a scandalous extent that, instead of representing the interests and policies of the United States abroad, they have become the advocates in Washington of the policies and interests of the governments to which they are accredited.

These are not isolated acts of misguided individuals, to be remedied by changes in personnel. We are here in the presence of a persistent pattern which points to a flaw in our conception of what an alliance is about, of the interconnectedness of different alliances (such as our alliances with France and Germany) and, more particularly, of the relationship which ought to exist between members of an alliance who differ drastically in power. Again the remedy must be sought not in the manipulation of individual situations but in a revision of the modes of thought and action which we have brought to bear upon our alliances throughout the world. We could do worse than remember the warning of Washington’s Farewell Address:

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. . . . And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray, or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity. . . .

Our foreign policy, then, has disintegrated into a series of disconnected operations whose extent is determined by the facts of a particular crisis situation, be it Vietnam, Laos, or Berlin. It must be said in passing that this disintegration of substantive foreign policy is parallelled and accentuated by the modus operandi of the administration, which tends—through what I have called elsewhere2 “the equalitarian diffusion of the advisory function”—to dissolve the powers of decision-making into a series of disconnected acts. Trying to escape the Scylla of utopianism and isolationism, we have come dangerously close to being swallowed by the Charybdis of empiricism. There is no middle ground: in order to escape the dilemma, we must—like Odysseus—sail ahead and leave it behind.

Historic experience indicates what our course must be. The statesmen who became masters of events and thus conscious creators of history—the Washingtons and the Lincolns, the Richelieus and the Bismarcks—had one quality in common: they combined a conscious general conception of foreign policy, of its direction and aim, with the ability to manipulate concrete circumstances in the light of that conception. In other words, Wilson had a point which Kennedy has missed, and vice versa. Without the grand design, informed by historic experience and seeking what is politically possible, foreign policy is blind; it moves without knowing where it is going. Without respect for facts and the ability to change them, foreign policy is lame; it cannot move in the direction the grand design has charted.

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1 “Vietnam—Another Korea?” May 1962.

2 See the New Leader, July 3 and 10, 1961.

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