The present moment in world politics is one of transition (defined once by a distinguished economist as the interval between two other periods of transition), and it is characterized on the level of theory and action alike by a great deal of confusion, by exaggerated hopes and exaggerated fears, by wishful thinking and groundless pessimism. Certainly one of the main contributing factors to the confusion is what has come to be known in America as neo-isolationism (it has also been called “the foreign politics of neo-humanism”)—that retreat from globalism which seems to be the defining mark of the current American mood. The retreat may not in the end go as far as some hope and others fear, but no one can dispute that the impulse behind it is today a major presence in American domestic politics or that its repercussions on the world scene will be widespread and decisive. Although it was no doubt hastened by Vietnam, there is reason to suppose that the new mood would have developed anyway, perhaps inevitably. Any sustained effort to pursue a global policy must be based either on a missionizing ideology of considerable firmness and longevity, or on a carefully calculated plan of action that combines ambition with farsightedness and discrimination. Neither of these preconditions has been much in evidence in American foreign policy.
It is easy to understand neo-isolationism as a mood: Americans have paid a high price for globalism and have received little enough in return. It is beginning to occur to some people that the world at large, which in any case has proved incurably addicted to turmoil and perversity, can get along without American help and guidance. But apart from its inherent attractiveness, neo-isolationism has also received justification as the correct ideological response to a new world political situation. Briefly, that new situation has been described as one of “multipolarity.” Both the United States and the Soviet Union, it is argued, find themselves declining in relative influence, and both have grudgingly accepted this state of affairs. New centers of power are rapidly emerging in various parts of the world which provide a genuine regional balance. Conditions are now ideal for a true and lasting detente. As they turn away from their obsolete global ambitions and their lunatic arms race, the U.S. and Russia will find it possible at last to attend to their multitudinous problems at home—the former moving toward the realization of the American dream, the latter pursuing its vision of the Communist future. The cold war having been liquidated, the era of truly peaceful competition (and cooperation) in a pluralist world will be ushered in.
Thus, in his report to Congress last February, President Nixon himself announced the end of the postwar bipolar world and pointed to the “increasing self-reliance of the states created by the dissolution of empires and the growth of both their ability and determination to see to their own security and well-being.” Recently, Sir Herbert Butterfield, proclaiming it a good thing that we have in the world both a Soviet Union and a United States, said that it would be “better still if we [could] have three such giants or four or five, better again, even, to have seven.”1 The International Institute of Strategic Studies in its last annual report announced the emergence of a new “great-power quadrilateral,” a “genuinely global system with two non-white countries (China and Japan) firmly among the leaders.” And an American author has coined the term “pentagonal world” (he was not referring to the place where Melvin Laird works).
To be sure, not every prophet of multipolarity has regarded it as a panacea for all the world’s ills; Stanley Hoffman, for instance, wrote in 1968 that “it is all too easy to imagine a multi-hierarchical system of dizzying instability.” But quite apart from the issue of its desirability, it is highly questionable whether the vision of a multipolar world corresponds at all to the facts of international life. For no such symmetry in power between the United States and the Soviet Union as the theory of multipolarity posits has actually been achieved: in the economic and military spheres the United States is still ahead and will in all probability remain ahead for the foreseeable future, while in the political and psychological spheres the Soviet Union is ahead and seems ready to increase its lead. Nor, secondly, are any new centers of power such as are envisioned by the theory of multipolarity likely to emerge during the next two decades. In the survey that follows I shall attempt first of all to assess the relative economic and political positions of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, taking special note of the likely impact of the recent SALT agreements, and then go on to consider the role in the new world situation of Japan, Western Europe, and China. Such a tour d’horizon should have the effect of placing in a colder but truer light the notion of an emergent multipolarity in the international system.
For over four decades now Soviet leaders have been promising to overtake America in the economic sphere. They have pointed with satisfaction to the advances made by their system as compared with the stagnant, crisis-ridden capitalist world. The official program of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, as it was reformulated under Khrushchev, stated unambiguously that in the decade of the 60’s “the Soviet Union will surpass the strongest and richest capitalist country, the United States of America, in production per head of population.” This slogan has now been replaced by a more modest one. According to the most recent announcements, the USSR expects by 1975 to surpass the present level of American industrial and agricultural production; this, it is said, will be a “major milestone in the Soviet Union’s economic competition with the capitalist countries.”
It is not an unrealistic prediction. In 1971 more steel was produced in the Soviet Union than in the United States. In the production of coal the Soviet Union overtook the U.S. as long ago as 1958, and in the production of cement in 1967. The USSR also produces more raw iron and iron ore than the United States, and by 1975 it will probably produce more agricultural machinery as well as more of certain industrial and agricultural consumer goods. The Soviet GNP, no greater than one-third of the American in 1950, today stands at about half that of the U.S.2 Present Soviet plans envisage an annual industrial growth rate of 8-9 per cent; agricultural production in 1975 is expected to be at least 20 per cent above the current level.
These figures are impressive, but there are other aspects to the picture as well, less encouraging from the Soviet point of view. First, although the Soviet Union has gained ground vis-à-vis the U.S. in relative terms, the absolute distance is greater than ever before, and it is likely to increase even if the Soviet rate of growth should double that of the United States. (In 1950 the American GNP was 275 billion dollars greater than the Soviet GNP [in 1966 dollars]; at present it is 500 billion dollars greater or more.)
Secondly, up until recently Soviet planners have concentrated on “traditional,” i.e., partly outdated, industries, and are consequently far behind the United States (and Japan as well) in science-oriented industries (electronics, computers, chemicals).
Thirdly, Soviet hopes for overtaking the United States rest on the assumption that America will perform poorly in the 70’s while the Soviet Union (with the help of its economic allies) will meet, or exceed, the fairly high rates of growth it has fixed upon. But neither half of the assumption can be taken for granted. American real growth now runs at 6 per cent after two years of stagnation. The recent Soviet record, on the other hand, has been checkered: 1969 was fairly disastrous by Soviet standards (a growth rate of 2.3 per cent), 1970 was excellent (8.5 per cent), 1971 was far from outstanding (6 per cent—partly as a result of a bad harvest). Soviet economists expect that the new protectionist mood in the U.S. will result in a falling rate of growth, with stagnation and perhaps actual decline to follow; it is not certain they will be proved correct. But meanwhile there are several factors working to inhibit the growth of the Soviet economy. Soviet resources in manpower are limited; as a result, progress will depend on a very high, virtually an unprecedented, increase in productivity (36-40 per cent for the Ninth Five Year Plan). This in turn will depend to a large extent on the modernization of Soviet industry, and on the ability of the civilian sector to make dramatic progress in research-and-development in the years to come.
In the last-named area the Soviet Union has far to go. According to a report by Pyotr Kapitsa to the Academy of Sciences several years ago, the Soviet Union, with approximately the same number of scientists, has produced only half the scientific work of the U.S. Andrei Sakharov and his colleagues stated in a memorandum to the Soviet leadership that “we are ahead of the U.S. in the production of coal, but behind in the production of oil, gas, and electric power, ten times behind in chemistry and immeasurably behind in computer technology. We are simply living in a different era.” To help redress the balance the Soviet government is eager to derive what material benefit it can from Western technology—probably one of the main stimuli behind the current Soviet interest in détente.
This, then, is the economic picture at present. If current trends continue there is every reason to suppose that in basic industrial production the Soviet Union will make somewhat faster progress than the United States for the next few years. But beyond this, what? According to the scientists, a technological revolution, brought about by such impending developments as supersonic transport, weather control, the harnessing of thermonuclear energy in giant generating stations, third-generation computers, etc. While America has been falling behind in traditional industries like textiles and steel production, its lead in the field of computers and electronics has been steadily growing. And since the application of the new technology is very costly indeed, no one is predicting that the Soviet Union will be able to keep up.
Of course, any discussion of economic growth must take into account the increasingly vociferous opposition in the West to the very concept of unrestricted (“exponential”) growth. Pollution, adverse climatic effects, the increasing scarcity of mineral and other resources—these, along with the specter of a world population explosion, have been cited as reasons for slowing if not halting the rate of growth in the industrial countries. But only in the West, and specifically in the United States. The Communist aim remains as it has always been: maximum growth. As John Noble Wilford reported from Moscow a few months ago:
While the U.S. debates the possible ecological hazards of the Alaskan pipeline, the Soviet Union publishes boasts of the “world’s longest gas pipeline.” While American nuclear power stations are being stalled by protests, the Soviet Union is building reactors with a capacity of a million kilowatts or more, and is planning many more. While a wave of anti-technology sentiment in the U.S. killed the supersonic transport project and reduced spending for basic research and space exploitations, the Soviet Union is apparently expanding its support in such fields on the ground that science and technology are indispensable foundations of growth and progress. . . .3
The Soviet (and Chinese) attitude is not hard to understand. An economic slowdown at this point would simply perpetuate the Communist world’s position of economic inferiority. On some distant day, perhaps, having drawn level with or overtaken the non-Communist world, the Soviets may opt for deceleration—but not until then. Current policies calling for unrestricted industrial growth are deeply anchored in Communist theory and practice, and are not likely to be changed quickly or easily.
In short, as far as the 70’s are concerned, it can be predicted with reasonable certainty that the economic balance of power as between the Soviet Union and the United States will remain pretty much as it is. But what of the military balance of power? The essential facts are not in dispute;4 the interpretation of them, however, diverges widely.
Broadly speaking, there exist in the United States three schools of thought on the question of strategic arms, and the SALT agreements have scarcely affected the basic arguments of each. The first maintains that as a result of a massive Soviet military build-up since the mid-60’s an imbalance has come into being which will grow during the years to come and reduce the U.S. to second-class status unless a major effort is made now to reverse the trend. While the U.S. has settled for parity (or “sufficiency”) the Soviet Union has built up its forces beyond the level needed for deterrence and seems to be aiming at superiority. In quantity of arms the U.S. is now inferior to the Soviet Union; if, as a result of further defense cuts, America should also lose its technological lead, an American President may one day end up, to use Secretary of Defense Laird’s phrase, crawling to the negotiating table of its victorious enemies.5 True, the SALT agreements have put a ceiling on the production of certain arms, but the race to improve the quality of arms will continue, as will the effort to increase the power and the accuracy of existing weapons. In this area too the U.S. will be at a great disadvantage, since in circumstances of a pseudo-détente American defense planners will be much harder put than their Russian counterparts to get the allocations they need.
The second school of thought regards this appraisal as alarmist. To be sure, the Soviet Union has caught up with the United States and in some respects has overtaken it, with over 1,600 ICBM’s to America’s 1,054, and with a stepped-up submarine program that will probably result in numerical superiority of Polaris-type vessels within the year. Nevertheless, the implications of this situation have been overdramatized. In the first place, the Soviet Union reached “rough parity” ten years ago. Secondly, the Soviets themselves face considerable domestic constraints (economic rather than political) on defense spending, and as the SALT treaty shows, they have in fact acknowledged the ruinously expensive cost of achieving a first-strike capacity. Seen from this vantage point, the present Soviet buildup has been a futile exercise in “overkill.”
The third school of thought maintains that American defense spokesmen, who constitute a kind of lobby for the military, have always exaggerated Soviet military power in order to get more money out of Congress. Thus U.S. military spokesmen predicted for years that the Soviets were about to develop MIRV’s (multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles), whereas in fact they were lagging seriously behind; as a result the gap in missile warheads widened rapidly in favor of the United States—so much so, according to I. F. Stone, that the Russians now fear “we are trying for some kind of counterforce, preemptive, or first-strike capacity.” In any case, in the opinion of the third school of thought, the cold war is over, and in today’s world military power is no longer a measure of political power. Now that an agreement has been reached on the limitation of strategic arms, the U.S. should follow through with a drastic reduction of its arms budget, unilaterally if necessary.
Although each of these conflicting views has its own element of distortion and bias, each also contains an element of truth (albeit of unequal weight). The first school of thought correctly stresses the dangers that will confront the United States a few years hence unless it continues to be on guard. American technological superiority in the military field is not all that substantial, and if defense spending on research-and-development falls much below the Soviet level, the consequences could be serious indeed. Yet it is also true, as proponents of the second and third schools have argued, that for the foreseeable future America’s position cannot be much affected by quantitative Soviet superiority in any one specific area. Military spokesmen do tend to exaggerate potential peril in order to obtain budgetary allocations, although in a sense it is their obligation to do so, just as it is the duty of a physician to take account of the worst possibility in making a diagnosis of illness. That such an approach has its own dangers goes without saying, and they are not only the dangers of overspending. By stressing Soviet strength and American weakness, military spokesmen in the United States run the risk of creating an adverse political effect abroad, inviting America’s European and Far Eastern allies to conclude that the U.S. commitment to their defense is unreliable.
We touch here on a central issue. When military might has been neutralized, as it effectively has, other factors come to assume decisive importance: the appearance and credibility of power, and the readiness to exercise power in the pursuit of national interests. Political power, like justice, must be made manifest to be appreciated. In this respect the image of America as far as the outside world is concerned is more and more that of a nation unwilling to exercise power, a nation beset by a mood of pervasive defeatism, and ridden with internal dissent. On the other hand, the Soviet Union presents itself as purposeful and dynamic, out to win the global struggle rather than to preserve the status quo. No guilty feelings are expressed in the Soviet Union on the subject of power; on the contrary, there is a great and growing self-confidence, which feeds on the American retreat from globalism.
This description of the situation may seem grossly to overstate American weakness and Soviet strength. But the image counts as much as the reality—in Europe, in the Third World, and, of course, in the Soviet Union—and although as of today the belief that the American ship is sinking has not yet become widespread in Europe and Japan, and the Russians still have a healthy respect for American power, America’s image is changing, and for the worse. This is not to say that the Soviet Union will risk a head-on confrontation with the U.S. in order to hasten the process. There is in fact no need for it to do so, even for strategic gain. Other things being equal, future conflicts around the world will be fought by conventional forces and their outcome will be decided by the local balance of power. In most of the potential danger zones the Soviet Union already possesses the advantage, both of geographical proximity and of military and political initiative. In Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, Moscow can turn on the heat at will. Whether or not it does so, the mere fact that it can makes all the difference in the world.
Thus, irrespective of the statistics on defense spending, missiles, and nuclear submarines, a basic political imbalance has developed between the United States and the Soviet Union.
But if there is no symmetry between the United States and the Soviet Union such as the theory of multipolarity asserts, neither is there any real ground for supposing that new superpowers have emerged.
Of the members of the alleged new league of superpowers none has been the subject of more extravagant claims than Japan. “Japan’s emergence to its new postwar status,” writes Andrew J. Pierre, “is the result of its gradual though impressive evolution to the rank of the third most powerful economic country in the world in the 1970’s.”6 According to Herman Kahn, Japan is bound to become an economic and technological superstate within the next two decades; and Hisao Kanamori, of the Japanese Economic Planning Agency, has estimated that per-capita income in Japan in the early 1980’s will be level with that of the United States and almost three times higher than Britain’s. To put it even more dramatically, by 1990 Japan’s economy will supposedly have overtaken America’s, a country with twice Japan’s population; the Soviet Union will have been outdistanced long before.
At the time these predictions were being made—only a year ago—it was assumed that Japan would have the technological momentum, the work force (as well as the work ethos), and the export markets necessary to make such growth possible, if not inevitable. Labor shortage, inflation, environmental problems, possible changes in world-trade patterns—all were thought to be of limited significance. Yet within the space of a year this euphoria has given way to more sober assessments. It has been realized, for instance, that an economy so heavily oriented toward exports is unbalanced and vulnerable; Japanese exports now face tariff difficulties in the United States and Europe, and there are limits to what the Far Eastern market can absorb. (Thailand’s trade deficit with Japan already exceeds that country’s total foreign-exchange reserves.) Some of the present difficulties are probably transient in character, but others are structural and may well inhibit economic growth in the years to come. For Japan, 1971 was a year of multiple shock. Even while some foreign commentators were predicting that the 21st would be the Japanese century, the mood inside Japan was becoming more and more subdued. Suddenly people were asking whether Japan should not seek a détente with Russia or China, or perhaps both; whether it should not opt for unarmed neutrality; whether it might not be possible to insure Japan’s viability as a nation without maintaining a close link with the United States. There is a great deal of soul-searching in Japan, but none of the confidence befitting a superpower.
The Chinese maintain publicly that the present crisis is bound to propel Japan toward militarization. They point to the fact that despite the provision in the 1947 constitution banning the maintenance of military forces, Japanese self-defense units have been established and equipped not only with rifles but with tanks, missiles, submarines, destroyers, and a thousand planes. Between 1972 and 1976, about 16 billion dollars will be spent on expanding and improving the Japanese army. As a result Japan will move from twelfth to seventh place among the world’s nations in defense spending. According to some experts Japan will be able to produce Minuteman-type missiles within three years.
Such assessments, however, ignore both the general context of Far Eastern politics and the strong internal forces opposing Japanese remilitarization. Japan spent in 1970 less than 0.8 per cent of its GNP on defense, the lowest figure by far of any country of comparable size and population. (Under the “Fourth Defense” build-up program the figure will rise to 1 per cent.) Paragraph 9 of Japan’s constitution prohibits offensive weapons, a conscription system, and sending troops overseas. The constitution can be reinterpreted (or sidestepped) to a certain extent, but popular anti-militarist feeling is strong and cannot easily be overcome.
In foreign policy, Japan for twenty-five years took the American nuclear umbrella for granted. Now there is serious doubt whether America will be able or willing to honor its commitments even if the Seventh Fleet remains and air-force units are stationed as before in the Philippines, Guam, and Okinawa. Statements from Washington proclaiming the end of bipolarism have been echoed by declarations in Tokyo heralding the age of multipolarization and the need for a foreign policy “divorced from ideology.” Influential circles on both the Left and the Right favor a revision of the security pact with the United States or its abolition. But the fact is that despite its economic strength, Japan is far from being a major power center and the number of options open to it is very limited indeed. A neutralist policy would probably best correspond to the mood prevailing in Tokyo. The Japanese could sign a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union at any time, but the gesture would be meaningless. As for China, in view of its distrust of Japan, an exceedingly great effort will be needed before relations between the two countries can be normalized, and the Soviet Union can be expected to view any such effort with disfavor.
Japan has attempted to boost its trade with China. In 1971 such trade reached an all-time high but it still amounted to less than a billion dollars, and there are no real prospects for dramatic improvement. China’s total foreign trade is hardly any bigger today than it was in the 1920’s, and it will probably not increase by much; the myth of the unlimited possibilities of the Chinese market dies hard. The Soviet Union is only too eager to increase its trade with Japan but it insists on low-interest loans and offers payment in oil over a period of twenty years starting in 1978. Such conditions, needless to say, are not very attractive from the Japanese point of view. This leaves the United States and Europe as Japan’s leading customers.
The American economic complaint against Japan is, very briefly, that Japan has refused to liberalize its trade, that it buys mainly raw materials from America and exports highly sophisticated machinery. In Western Europe, where its trade is more limited, Japan faces a similar problem. It has been selling ships, cars, and electronic equipment, while it has bought from Europe whisky, expensive woollens, and confectionery goods. This has resulted predictably in European measures limiting Japanese imports. The Japanese now realize the necessity of having a larger measure of reciprocity and of “voluntary self-control,” but given the limited size of the domestic market and the structure of Japanese industry this will be easier said than done.
The Japanese dilemma appears likely to resist rapid solution. In all probability economic growth will not continue on the phenomenal level of the past, and in the meantime social conflicts are intensifying and a growing polarization is visible on the domestic front. All in all, Japan offers a striking example of the truth that GNP is not a synonym for power. Japanese political leaders, who believe that their nation has the greatest power potential in the Far East, complain regularly of American coldness and indifference to Japan. But the Soviet attitude has been exactly the same as the American. The Russians are concerned about China, whose GNP is less than half of Japan’s; they do not lose a minute’s sleep over Tokyo. Such are the realities of power in 1972.
Let us turn next to contemporary Europe, an area of the world characterized at present by two encouraging features: (relative) peace and prosperity. There has been no war in Europe in over twenty-five years and there is no likelihood of there being one. Considering the state of the continent at the end of World War II, the economic and cultural revival Europe has undergone is little short of miraculous. I see in fact no reason to revise a judgment I made two years ago: “Far from ‘dying in convulsions,’ as Sartre predicted, Europe has shown a new vigor which has astonished friend and foe alike.”7
Nevertheless Europe today can hardly be regarded as one of the five pillars of a new “pentagonal world system”; indeed, the very notion of Europe as a center of political power has about it a touch of the ludicrous. The internal sitution in many European countries is, to put it mildly, far from stable. In Britain, the political climate has deteriorated during the last year both as a result of the situation in Ulster and because of internal social tensions. No longer is there a consensus on basic issues; an irresponsibility, indeed a silliness, has crept into British politics, reflected for instance in Labour’s official attitude to European unity. The Irish, curiously enough, have been more farsighted in this respect. In France, the danger has by no means passed of a reversion to the bad old days of the Fourth Republic; Pompidou’s government has demonstrated little real leadership, and has suffered from several embarrassing affaires. The less said about the Italian and the Turkish domestic scenes, the better. Even in Germany, until recently a model of stability, the political climate has turned ugly, the polarization become sharper. Chancellor Willy Brandt’s party has come under the influence of a new generation of activists, imbued with a sense of purpose and displaying much tactical ability, but in ideological inspiration closer to the Communist party than to Social Democracy; whether the new forces take over the party, or alternatively cause its defeat in the next election, the result may well be disastrous for Germany. Franco’s reign nears its inglorious end and the Greek colonels will not last forever; it is difficult to imagine that either in Spain or in Greece the transition to democracy will be accomplished peacefully—if it is accomplished at all. Ironically, these two dictatorships have made great economic progress, although this is of course no guarantee of stability. Sweden, and to a lesser extent Norway and Denmark, are affected by deep internal discontent and even in the Benelux countries domestic crisis has become a frequent occurrence. Finally, signs of disintegration have emerged in Yugoslavia, and the question of who and what will follow Tito on the political scene agitates both the Yugoslavs and their neighbors.
An optimist would argue that domestic crises of the kind prevalent in Europe today are part of the normal democratic process. The Labour party, such a person would contend, will ultimately say yes to Europe; Italy will somehow muddle through; Brandt, Heath, and Pompidou realize the need for closer European collaboration; and, given both time and the Soviet Union’s preoccupation with China, there is no serious danger that Europe will fall apart.
All this may be so, but the truth is that Europe lives on borrowed time. For reasons I have indicated previously in these pages,8 closer European economic cooperation is an immediate, not a long-range, imperative. The continent’s present economic strength is deceptive, and can easily degenerate. In the area of foreign and defense policy, Europe has shown an inertia and in some cases a shortsightedness and a paralysis of will which are truly alarming. Senator Mansfield’s complaint is after all justified: why should 250 million people, possessing great industrial resources and a long military experience, be unable to organize an effective military coalition to defend themselves?
Not that there is anything basically wrong with Chancellor Brandt’s Ostpolitik; the agreements with Russia and Poland should have been signed long ago, and in some ways the Ostpolitik does not even go far enough. But if the policy itself is sound, the illusions engendered by it should give pause; Brandt himself and some of his colleagues have encouraged such illusions by speaking in terms of a historical turning point in European affairs and by predicting a radical improvement in East-West relations. Yet there is no reason to assume that the Ostpolitik will bring about a “real détente,” or will help resolve the existing conflicts of interest in Europe. As far as France is concerned, Prime Minister Pompidou and his ministers profess to favor closer European cooperation, and they certainly fear the withdrawal of American troops from Europe, but at the same time they want others to pay the price of unity; the protection of French agriculture is still a more important consideration to them. As it was under de Gaulle, France continues to be the main stumbling block on the road to European unity. The defense policy of the Scandinavian countries has more in common with Alice in Wonderland than with reality. Sweden still earnestly insists on neutrality, though it has virtually given up the attempt to make its neutrality credible. Iceland’s only contribution to NATO has been the U.S. base at Keflavik which it now is asking to have removed. Denmark spends little more than 2 per cent of its GNP on defense and the ruling Social Democrats want a drastic reduction in that amount. These neutralist leanings would make sense if there were no political pressure and no military threat. But the Scandinavian countries are in fact under constant pressure from the Soviet Union, which has established in the Murmansk-Kola region what the Norwegian minister of defense has called “the world’s mightiest complex of bases.” Warsaw Pact superiority in the Baltic Sea is five to one and still growing. The Soviet Union has a most impressive naval task force standing by year-round between the coast of Norway and the north of Scotland—neither for fishing nor, in view of the inclement weather, for reasons of health.
The “Scandinavian syndrome” is reflected in Western Europe’s attitude to the Soviet proposal for a European Security Conference, the principle of which has now also been accepted by the United States. If the Soviet intention were détente—a reduction of armaments, an agreement on the inviolability of existing borders, collective security, a repudiation of the threat or use of force, promotion of trade, and so on—no sane person could object. The Russians already have treaties with France and Germany providing for these aims, and they could have similar agreements in a matter of days with every other European country.
But Soviet intentions are a little more ambitious; the Russians do not merely want, as they maintain, to transform relations among European states in order “to help overcome the division of the continent into military-political groupings.” On the contrary, they want to strengthen the cohesion of the Warsaw Pact countries while keeping Western Europe disunited. They argue that the Communist countries constitute a “natural” bloc, tied together by ideological, economic, and other ties, while the non-Communist countries of Europe have no such common interests and their unity is therefore “artificial.” The overriding long-term aim of a European conference as far as the Russians are concerned is not just collective security but a lasting peace on their terms—a Pax Sovietica. Not for a moment do the Soviets contemplate dissolving the Warsaw Pact.
Indeed, the very notion of a European conference has been befogged to such an extent by empty and misleading slogans that one may doubt whether it will prove a proper forum for discussing concrete problems like a balanced reduction of armed forces. At best, as the Economist has observed, the European conference promises to be a bore, a sort of mini-UN assembly in which weary politicians exchange weary platitudes. At worst, it could offer the Soviet Union an opening for an aggressively expansionist policy with regard to Western Europe. The whole affair may in the long run be of no consequence. But it demonstrates very clearly the weakness of Western Europe, its inability to take the initiative, to assert its interests, to shape a common policy. The problem facing Western Europe is one of survival, of maintaining its security and independence in the face of the gradual American retreat from globalism. The notion that Western Europe has a major part to play in the new concert of powers is simply unrealistic.
China, in contrast to Japan and Western Europe, is a factor of major importance in the new “international system,” not as a global power but certainly within the Asian framework. It offers, as I have remarked, a striking illustration of the fact that economic performance does not count for much as a criterion of political power. For a fairly long time the world has been treated to accounts of the marvelous achievements of Chinese workers and peasants, the wise and farsighted policy of Chinese leaders, the incredible accomplishments of barefoot Chinese scientists. These claims are by now wearing a little thin. Mao and his colleagues have been in power for almost a quarter-of-a-century, yet economically China is still a very backward country. It prides itself on steel production—21 million tons in 1971 (incidentally this is one of the few figures published)—but the capacity to produce 22 million tons existed ten years ago. China’s grain harvest in 1971 was 245 million tons, which is less than in 1958, despite the fact that the population has grown by many millions since then. Oil production (about 25 million tons) is small by any standards and will limit the scope of economic expansion in coming years. With a per-capita annual income of about $145 China is still among the poorest countries in the world.
Yet unlike Japan and Western Europe, China has given absolute priority to defense. It staged its first atomic test in October 1964 and its first full-scale thermonuclear test in June 1967, thus doing in less than three years what took the French eight to accomplish. In April 1970 the Chinese launched their first satellite, with twice the payload of Sputnik 1. They began building ICBM’s in 1965; although progress has not been as fast as expected, they were able by 1972 to deploy a handful of new missiles with a range of up to 2,500 miles (Moscow is less than that distance from Chinese soil).
It is not known whether a preemptive nuclear strike against China has ever been seriously considered in Moscow. But there is no doubt that the Chinese threat figures very prominently in Soviet thought; forty-four Soviet divisions are believed to be presently deployed along the Chinese borders. The propaganda image of the Chinese enemy (in contrast to the American) is that of a tough and ruthless fighter, inflexible, one who will not hesitate to use any devious stratagem, any weapon to achieve his aim. However, Soviet leaders seem to be counting on a lack of stability inside China. That Mao and his colleagues might be replaced by a pro-Soviet clique is probably beyond their wildest dreams. But it is not at all impossible that in a struggle for power among rival contenders, and in view of the tensions already existing between the army and the party (and within the party and army), not to mention other centrifugal trends (China’s twenty-eight regions in many respects pursue divergent policies), China might again be paralyzed as it was during the Cultural Revolution. Such a development would not, of course, remove the “Chinese danger” altogether, but it would certainly reduce its urgency and would enable the Soviet Union to pursue a more energetic foreign policy elsewhere. Peking’s influence on the world Communist movement is likely to shrink as the strictly national components in Chinese Communism become more prominent; the appeal of Maoism outside China (and outside the Chinese diaspora) was always based to a certain degree on a misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, whatever happens on the domestic scene, China will still be the most populous country on earth and its military strength cannot be ignored. It will figure prominently in the political calculations of Russia, Japan, and India. But it will not be a global power for a long time to come.
The American retreat from globalism unquestionably creates a new situation. The balance of power is indeed changing—but not toward multipolarity. While America is in retreat, the Soviet Union still has a globalist policy. As the U.S. opts for disengagement, the Soviet Union increases its commitments. To this extent, regardless of America’s economic performance and strategic might, the Soviet Union is now in a superior position. Nor is the hypothesis warranted that new centers of power are about to emerge. A world power (let alone a “superpower”) must be capable of asserting its interests and purposes beyond its borders, yet with all their economic resources and military potential, Western Europe and Japan are not only lacking in that capacity, but in the area of defense they are even more dependent on outside help than Australia or Brazil. It is uncertain that they will succeed in weathering the coming storms once the American umbrella is removed from over their heads.
There is, in short, no multipolar system emerging, unless one takes the term as a euphemism for the spread of confusion, or possibly chaos. The American retreat is causing new power vacuums in the world. How they will be filled, and who will fill them, is the great question of the decades to come.
1 The Discontinuities between the Generations in History (The Rede Lecture), Cambridge, 1972.
2 Most of this advance was achieved in the 1950's; in 1960-69 the Soviet economy made virtually no progress toward improving its relative position vis-à-vis the U.S.
3 New York Times, March 30, 1972.
4 Admittedly there is some doubt as to the precise extent of defense spending in the Soviet budget. Official Soviet statements put it at 8 per cent of the total GNP, while some Western observers go as high as 15.2 per cent (M. Boretsky in “Economic Performance and the Military Burden in the Soviet Union,” Washington, 1970). Since the Soviet Union does not publish detailed figures, and since no one in the West can know for certain how much a “defense ruble” is worth, the debate is likely to continue for a long time. (See Alec Nove's “Soviet Defense Spending” in Survey, October 1971.)
5 See, for instance, the reports of the Blue Ribbon Defense Panel published in July 1970 and in March 1971; also, “The Military Unbalance” published by the National Strategy Information Center (New York, 1971); and W. Kintner and R. Pfaltzgraff, “Soviet Military Trends: Implications for U.S. Security” (Washington, 1971).
6 “Europe and America in a Pentagonal World,” Survey, Winter 1972.
7 Europe since Hitler, 1970.
8 “The Fall of Europe?,” January 1972.