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America’s Search for World Order

ISSUE:  Spring 1976

FOR those who believe that the foreign policy of the United States became unnecessarily expensive and demanding after mid-century, President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy precepts, as embodied in his second inaugural, seemed promising enough. “The time has passed,” he said, “when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own, or make every other nation’s future our responsibility, or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their own affairs.” But even as the President insisted that every nation carried the responsibility for its own future, he added: “Let us build a structure of peace in which the weak are as safe as the strong, in which each respects the right of the other to live by a different system, in which those who would influence others will do so by the strength of their ideas, not by the force of their arms.”

Such rhetoric placed no visible limit on this country’s external ambitions, for at what price can the weak be made as safe as the strong? The President, no less than his predecessors, sought to bridge two attractive, yet antithetical, formulations of the country’s proper role, one anchored to a shared responsibility for reducing dangers of confrontation in a world of conflict, the other, to the self-assigned task of leading all nations toward a peaceful world order that, he said, would endure for generations.

That dichotomy of purpose has been so commonplace in American thought that it has scarcely provoked any reaction at all. The balance of power, the United Nations, international law, and all institutions for the peaceful settlement of international disputes have had the same general purpose: the limitation of aggression against the established order. Thus it is not strange that American officials have often assumed that by supporting a military balance they are indeed supporting international law. Eugene V. Rostow, former Under Secretary of State, could insist that United States postwar policy pursued “a balance of power in world politics and an effective system of international law consonant with it—that is, understood rules limiting the use of force in international politics. . . .” Yet the balance of power, as traditionally practiced, assumes not only the legitimacy of force but also the existence of spheres of influence and the right of major powers to dominate them. None of this is justifiable under the United Nations Charter or international law. Thus the perennial effort to integrate law and power creates a confusion of purpose, for law and the balance of power dictate expectations regarding national policy and international order quite at variance with one another. The quest for international order demands policies at once ideological, non-differentiating, and universal; the defense of a balance among major powers requires policies that are non-ideological, selective, and circumscribed by a hierarchy of national interests. This ambivalence between two national goals, one limited and one global, has its roots in history.


Having entered the present century at or near the peak of the international order, the United States has sought to maintain that position, to reap the advantages that power, wealth, and prestige bestow, and to do so at the least possible cost to its citizens. As Americans viewed the world from a pinnacle, they agreed long before 1914 that the nation’s favored position required above all a high degree of international stability, for instability would either cause some possible retrogression in the American position or at least require a heavy price to maintain the established position. But if Americans could agree on the need of an orderly world, they could not agree on the basic ingredients of the needed stability or the policies that would best assure the United States its favored position. Some looked at the framework of the international order—the traditional balance of power. Whereas that balance had not always prevented wars, it had limited their consequences and thereby preserved the established order of power. For proponents of this view the United States would best preserve its advantages and maximize world stability by maintaining the world balance, and that in conjunction with British policy and British power.

Unfortunately, British power in the Atlantic and elsewhere which had served the interests of the United States so admirably in the 19th century no longer existed. Wielding limited power in a stable Europe and against a fundamentally weak and backward Afro-Asian world, Britain had gained its 19th-century triumphs abroad! in the absence of any direct confrontation with a major power. For that reason it required no more than the rise of Germany to a commanding position in world affairs to expose the overextension of the British Empire and the British overcommitment to European and world stability. By 1900 it was clear that Britain’s responsibilities had outstripped its resources. As Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman wrote in 1903, “The truth is we cannot provide for a fighting empire, and nothing will give us the power,” London had no choice but to compromise its devotion to the 19th-century order of power or rely on the strength of other countries to maintain it,

As they attempted to push much of the burden of the status quo onto the United States, the British uncovered a fundamental mutuality of interest. For any decline in British authority would confront the American people with the necessity of either contributing heavily to the maintenance of the old order or accepting potentially massive changes in that order. Henry Cabot Lodge recognized this inescapable choice when he declared that “the downfall of the British Empire is something which no rational American can regard as anything but a misfortune to the United States.” By 1914 the United States, with British encouragement, had undertaken the task of preserving much of the 19th century order with special commitments to Latin America and the western Pacific, two regions where British interests had simply outrun British capabilities. Ultimately, Britain would desert its 1902 alliance with Japan and cast its lot in the Far East completely with the United States. Thus the two leading Western democracies entered the 20th century as conservative partners in pursuit of the status quo. For many in Washington and London, the 20th century promised to be the Anglo-American century, stable and secure.

For the country’s dominant foreign policy elite, however, it was not an Anglo-American alliance, built on power and joined by other status quo nations, that would sustain the peace. Rather the century’s new leadership attached its hopes for a stable and improving future to the general acceptance of a more rational behavior among the major governments of the world. Nineteenth-century rationalism had denied the essentially evil nature of society and had anticipated a rational world free of conflict, oppression, tyranny, and other irrational uses of power. Of all human activity none appeared more irrational and appalling than war. The elimination of war, moreover, would solidify the existing international order. This fundamental relationship between peace and the status quo encouraged American leaders to place the nation’s interests in world stability, not on the altar of power, but on the altar of human reason.

Desiring nothing after 1900 except the perpetuation of their favored position, the American people began to think less of precise, tangible interests to be sustained through force and to seek the defense of the nation’s special status with appeals to abstract, reasoned objectives such as peace and peaceful change, order, justice, and self-determination. A world environment in which such purposes emerged triumphant would indeed serve the American interest admirably; for against such bulwarks of stability and the status quo, nations could alter the established order of power, or even the world’s territorial arrangements, little if at all. Peace became the country’s primary concern, not because Americans shared any special abhorrence of war, but because peace would demonstrate that the world in reality had accepted the territorial and political conditions which then prevailed.

Thus it was logical that the United States, as the world’s major satisfied nation, would assume the lead in the 20th-century search for nonpower devices, such as arbitration and conciliation, as the only legitimate means for settling international disputes. President William Howard Taft emphasized the American commitment to peaceful procedures in his inaugural of March, 1909: “Our international policy is always to promote peace. . . . We favor every instrumentality, like that of the Hague Tribunal and arbitration treaties made with a view to its use in all international controversies, in order to maintain peace and to avoid war.” The Taft administration sought to entrust the nation’s interests in future controversies to arbitration through a series of special arbitration treaties. For such noted jurists as Taft and Elihu Root, the final guarantee of world peace lay in a world court of such dignity and astuteness that the entire world would have absolute confidence in its judgments. Such an institution, if universally accepted, would guarantee the nation, as it would other status quo countries, its international advantages without the necessity of war or extensive military preparations.

For those, then, who identified American interests with world stability, two basic policy concepts were available. One would seek to preserve the framework of the international order, employing force if necessary to prevent major changes in the established hierarchy of power, while permitting a myriad of minor changes to occur under the assumption that not all change challenged the security of the welfare of the United States. The second approach to peace would attempt to prevent all change except that which resulted from mutual agreement. It was the latter choice which ruled that peace was indivisible, that the resort to force anywhere endangered peace and international stability everywhere. But were these two approaches to an American role compatible? Could the country pursue simultaneously the balance of power and a world order based on an effective system of international law, to be enforced by predictable sanctions? Many scholars even then assumed that they were part of one whole.

Still it is not clear that they were compatible at all. The concept of balance is political, not judicial. Nowhere did the tradition of the balance of power outlaw war. Its concern was the maintenance of stability at the core of world politics, not the elimination of force. A balanced order did not eliminate war; it only limited the consequences of war. But a structure of peace based on law is judicial in nature. Its central intent is the general elimination of war, for every resort to force is an infraction of the law. Power might serve the cause of peace legally if it took the form of an imperium that would suppress every assault on the status quo. Certainly for Woodrow Wilson the two objectives of balance and law were not compatible. He pointedly attacked and discarded the notion of a balancing system because it would not eliminate war. For him the nation’s goal dared be no less than universal peace based on a combination of democratic and legal procedures that would underwrite his precepts of peaceful change.

In practice the United States after 1914 accepted both programs in its quest for security. It employed more power in the present century than any country in the history of the world. But its major concern in every conflict was the establishment of a peaceful international order in which power would have no role. In large measure the United States fought every war of the century to convince the world that the resort to force, especially force used in defiance of American will, was indeed foolhardy.


At Versailles in 1919 the great democracies reforged what appeared to be the 19th-century hierarchy of power. But neither the treaty itself nor the leaders of the conference could create a system which would guarantee the perpetuation of that order against the new forces of the 20th century, whether defined in terms of ideology or power. To defend their favored position the makers of the Versailles system could either sustain the alliance which had defeated Germany and had subsequently dictated the peace, or they could create an international organization which would institutionalize the peace and thereby eliminate any further reliance on force. Following Wilson’s lead, the democracies embarked on the second course, one which rested on the high hopes for a new rationality in world affairs. It was a course which assumed also that all major powers had accepted the hierarchy of power embodied in the Versailles system.

Having created a structure of peace based on the League of Nations and the World Court, the victorious democracies had two choices before them. Either they could accept minor adjustments in the Versailles system which in no way damaged their interests in a stable world or they could adopt a judicial view of the treaty and oppose all change in the treaty structure that was not the result of mutual agreement, Versailles had not eliminated the fundamental realities of power and conflicting interest from world politics; it had, however, introduced new and largely unprecedented concepts as to how the status quo powers would counter, neutralize, or eliminate the historic pressures on international politics which would utimately recur. For the coming conflict between power and law neither the experience of war nor the great League of Nations debate of 1919 prepared the American people.

On the surface even the old balance of power seemed intact. There were still eight powers in the world, enough, it appeared, to maintain the needed flexibility in international life. These countries were not equal, but all appeared to have enough influence to matter, Any reasonable combination of powers seemed strong enough to stop any single aggression against the Versailles order. But it was already clear to careful observers that the war had not corrected the seemingly dangerous distortions in the international hierarchy which existed in 1914, The three great democracies had defeated Germany; they had not broken German power. That nation still possessed all the elements of strength that had permitted it to undermine the traditional European balance, including an efficient industrial plant and a large, vigorous, and disciplined population. Russia was chaotic economically and politically, Yet Stalin would shortly move that country toward political order and industrial expansion and make it a major force in world politics. These two countries, standing together, could terminate any semblance of balance in the Eurasian world. And neither of these two states had any obligation to the Versailles order. Still the likelihood of a German-Russian coalition was largely nonexistent, for in Eastern Europe alone the competing ambitions of the two countries would assure their future antagonism.

Of the major powers, Britain, France, and the United States alone were tied permanently to the status quo as defined at Versailles. Yet it was not clear that they would stand together in the face of some future threat. They could not even agree on their postwar purposes toward the defeated Germany. But whatever their varying degrees of acceptance of a reconstructed Germany, they could scarcely regard Germany a potential ally. Their rejection of Germany as a major partner in a balancing system would become greater with the passage of time. All three Western democracies shared a profound distrust of Russia. What muted that hostility was Russia’s backwardness and the absence of any historic Russian threat to Western Europe and the Atlantic world. Still that nation’s ideology eliminated that country from any functioning balance of power system. Any Western alliance with Russia would result from circumstance, not from purposeful policy. Thus Germany’s defeat and Russia’s revolution in no way reconstituted the old international system. The former European balance of power, with its assumption of immediate reaction and infinite choice in the wielding of force to sustain it, no longer existed. Whether the United States could bring some measure of stability to a profoundly unstable post-Versailles Europe was problematical. Already this nation had rejected traditional diplomacy as the means of protecting what its interests demanded. With that rejection it denied the need of that precise definition of ends and means which the balance of power system required.

After Versailles the American people divided quickly into isolationists and internationalists, neither of whom had much interest in any historic or even recognizable approach to international affairs. Isolationism, in rejecting the importance of events outside the Western Hemisphere, could scarcely form the basis for policies that would sustain the essentials of the Versailles settlement. But internationalism, as embodied in the Wilsonian notion of peaceful change, was as oblivious to political reality as was isolationism. Both were strangers to the conservative tradition of American diplomacy. Both denied that the United States need concern itself with any specific political or military configuration in Europe or Asia. Whereas isolationism limited the nation’s interests to the Western Hemisphere, internationalism assumed that American interests were universal—wherever mankind was oppressed or threatened by aggression.

Isolationists preached that events outside the hemisphere were inconsequential; internationalists insisted not only that they mattered but also that the United States, in its role as a world leader, could not renounce its obligation to engage in policies of cooperation. In practice, however, the internationalists would control the world environment, not with the traditional devices of diplomacy or force, not by sustaining the essential balance of power, but by confronting aggressors with a combination of international law, signed agreements, and world opinion. Every program fostered by American internationalists through the twenties—membership in the League of Nations or the World Court, the resort to arbitration and conciliation, collective security, naval disarmament, or the outlawry of war—denied the need of any precise definition of either the ends or the means of national policy. What mattered in world politics was the limitation of change to peaceful means. Thus in the hands of the internationalists the concepts of peace and peaceful change became the bulwark of the status quo, for change limited to general agreement could alter the international order only on questions of little or no consequence.

In the roseate years of the late twenties the great democracies—the creators of Versailles—shared an illusion that the decade of peace reflected the triumph of their moral and intellectual leadership. So often had officials and editors of the English-speaking countries insisted that power had been eliminated from international relations that they began to believe it. Because war would bring disaster, they could scarcely believe that any nation would resort to war in the face of reason and an outraged world opinion. Unfortunately, the peace of the twenties was no demonstration of either a general acceptance of the Versailles settlement or even the universal rejection of force. What sustained the assumption that all wars had been fought and all issues resolved was the predominance of Western power which permitted the spokesmen of the democracies to manage the game of international politics so effortlessly that they were quite unconscious of the role which power had played in their success. Thus peace rested primarily on the weakness of those nations whose governments had already made clear their dissatisfaction with the Versailles Treaty. Three such countries were Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Any collapse of the Western monopoly of power would witness the almost immediate return of force to international life.


So precarious was the world’s peace structure that an armed clash outside Mukden, Manchuria, in September 1931, could threaten it with disaster. For it quickly became apparent that Japanese officials in Manchuria were determined to exploit the crisis occasioned by the alleged destruction of track along the South Manchurian Railway by altering the region’s political status. What troubled official Washington in the ensuing Japanese conquest of Manchuria was not this nation’s vital economic or security interests. Nelson T. Johnson, the American minister in China, observed as early as March 1931 that a possible Japanese possession of Manchuria need not embroil the United States in war, With this judgment President Herbert Hoover and his advisers agreed. They never regarded Japanese conquest of Manchuria as a threat to the Asian balance of power. But if the United States had little interest in the disposition of Manchuria’s resources, it had a profound interest in the Far Eastern peace structure embodied in the two great internationalist achievements of the twenties, the Nine Power Pact of 1922 and the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928, In signing these so-called paper treaties Japan had joined other nations in agreeing to limit its ambitions to what it might’ achieve through peaceful means alone—to accept the Western concept of world order.

In a cabinet meeting on Oct. 9, 1931, Secretary of State Henry L, Stimson warned the President against getting into a humiliating position in case Japan refused to honor its own signatures on the paper treaties. But Stimson recorded in his diary what had become the essential character of United States policy in the postwar era:

The question of the “scraps of paper” is a pretty crucial one. We have nothing but “scraps of paper.” The fight has come on in the worst part of the world for peace treaties. The peace treaties of modern Europe made out by the Western nations of the world no more fit the three great races of Russia, Japan, and China, who are meeting in Manchuria, than, as I put it to the Cabinet, a stovepipe hat would fit an African savage. Nevertheless they are parties to these treaties and the whole world looks on to see whether the treaties are good for anything or not, and if we lie down and treat them like scraps of paper nothing will happen, and in the future the peace movement will receive a blow that it will not recover from for a long time.

Thus Hoover and Stimson, although the threat of Japanese aggression might not endanger United States interests or the Asian balance of power, refused from the outset to recognize any new arrangement in the Far East which resulted from the Japanese resort to force. At stake in Manchuria was the credibility of the whole system of collective security based on the force of both world opinion and the influence and prestige of the League of Nations. Johnson warned the administration in a letter of November 1931, “The fate of Manchuria is of secondary importance compared with the fate of the League.” Throughout the crisis the United States attached its policy to the Nine Power treaty and the Kellogg Pact, reminding the Japanese of their obligation to uphold the provisions of the two treaties. But what if such moral pressures failed to control Japan? The democracies would then face the ultimate choice of witnessing the collapse of the Versailles settlement or sustaining the order they favored with a resort to superior force.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to Hitler’s aggressions against the Versailles settlement in the mid-thirties followed the identical pattern of caution, inaction, nonrecognition, and appeals to the principle of peaceful change. Following Hitler’s assault on the military provisions of the Versailles Treaty in March 1935, his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, informed the press: “Everybody knows that the United States has always believed that treaties must constitute the foundation on which any stable peace structure must rest, . . . I believe that the moral influence of the United States and its people must always encourage living up to treaties.” Hull reminded the German ambassador late in March that Germany had an almost unprecedented opportunity to create conditions of peace and security in Europe by honoring its international agreements. Washington repeated this response when the Japanese, following the Marco Polo Bridge incident of July 7, 1937, began their major assault on China. Nine days later Hull released a statement to the press. “We advocate,” he said, “adjustment of problems in international relations by processes of peaceful negotiation and agreement. We advocate faithful observance of international agreements. Upholding the principle of the sanctity of treaties, we believe in modification of provisions of treaties . . .by orderly processes carried out in a spirit of mutual helpfulness and accommodation.” Unfortunately, these admonitions reduced the area of legitimate change in Europe and the Far East almost to the vanishing point. They assumed a world order that did not exist.

Neither Hoover nor Roosevelt wanted a war in the Pacific. But Roosevelt and his advisers as late as 1941 preferred war to the recognition of any successful assault on the treaty structure of the Far East. They would resist any negotiation aimed at an infringement of Chinese rights. They would fight, not essentially for China, but for the principle of peaceful change. In his press conference of Nov. 28, 1941, Roosevelt declared that the situation in the Far East was serious “because our one desire has been peace in the Pacific, and the taking of no steps to alter the prospects of peace, which of course has meant nonaggression. It really boils down to that.” United States policy was set; there would be no compromise. Nor did Roosevelt’s eleventh hour message to the Japanese Emperor on December 6 contain any suggestion of compromise. It was a moving appeal to reason, but ultimately it demanded a settlement based on the American principle of peaceful change.

It was the perennial assumption of the thirties that if the United States permitted the peace structure to falter officially at any one point the entire Versailles system would collapse. This addiction to the status quo transformed Japan into a special problem. State Department officials admitted freely that Japan did not challenge any significant American economic or security interests in China, certainly none worth a war. But Japan did threaten the whole Far Eastern peace structure with force. This the United States would not condone and thus, by underwriting the status quo through the encouragement of Chinese intransigence, ultimately became itself another victim of attack.

Throughout the troublesome thirties the concept of world order, not that of balancing power with diplomacy, guided the American response to aggression. If Washington’s policies, in practice, satisfied the immediate American preference for peace and noninvolvement, they confronted the dissatisfied nations with the extreme choice of accepting the status quo or defying it without the benefit of negotiation or compromise. Traditionally world politics had rested on the rights of the stronger; by the new morality it rested on the rights of those who possessed. This would-be Utopia, like all those which become institutionalized, became the ultimate defense of the status quo. Edward H. Carr, writing in the late thirties, passed judgment on those who had sought to institutionalize change:

It is a moot point whether the politicians and publicists of the satisfied Powers, who attempted to identify international morality with security, law and order, and other time-honored slogans of privileged groups, do not bear their share of responsibility for the disaster as well as the politicians and publicists of the dissatisfied Powers, who brutally denied the validity of an international morality so constituted. Both those attempts to moralize international relations necessarily failed.


If appeals to peace and peaceful change failed to maintain the Versailles system, American officials hoped to re-establish that system through the wartime destruction of German and Japanese power. Any return to Versailles demanded above all the reconstruction of an independent Slavic Europe, but Washington soon discovered that such purpose had little relationship to Western power. The more complete the Russian victory over Germany, the more unchallengeable the Soviet power to control the future of Eastern Europe and the more complete the destruction of Europe’s Versailles order. Admitting after Russia’s crucial triumph at Stalingrad early in 1943 that Slavic Europe had passed beyond Western control, United States officials battled predictable Soviet encroachments with appeals to self-determination, reaffirmed in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, as well as with the decision to postpone all territorial and political arrangements until the end of the war. In opposing a Soviet sphere of influence, American leaders hoped to avoid balance of power diplomacy and lay the foundation for the long-sought peaceful world order. In June 1944, the State Department reminded the British Embassy: “Any arrangement suggestive of spheres of influence cannot but militate against the establishment and effective functioning of such a broader system.”

World War II carried the United States into the world arena as the world’s dominant economic and military power. The failure of the Soviet Union to accept America’s vision of the postwar world perpetuated the country’s global involvements and its continued reliance on power. At least three factors in Soviet conduct provoked the initial fears which ultimately drove the United States and Western Europe into a dynamic alliance. First there was the emergence of Russia as the dominant power of Europe. What exaggerated that danger, secondly, was Stalin’s decision to expand the Soviet empire into East-Central Europe. Then, thirdly, the Soviets in time reconverted Marxist-Leninist doctrine into an ideological assault on Western institutions. Unwilling or unable to distinguish among these aspects of the Soviet threat, Americans came to view the U. S. S. R. as a pervading danger to Western security and Western values everywhere. By 1947 it became clear that the war had shattered what remained of the former internally-balanced Europe. In large measure the Cold War policies of the United States from the Truman Doctrine to the formation of NATO two years later attempted to stabilize Europe by countering Russia’s dominant position on the continent. This limited policy, lying well within the nation’s capabilities, was in large measure a momentary return to a balance of power policy. It comprised no essential effort to combine power and law. Its immediate purpose was to stabilize an already divided Europe.

This limited assertion of national purpose did not long command the country’s postwar outlook. Despite the realism and early success of containment, American ambition again became that of transforming the world through a system of power and law. What renewed the American mission was the dual assumption that the U. S. S. R. was autocratic and that it was bent on world conquest. W. Averell Harriman predicted at the war’s end that the United States might be forced to confront another ideological threat as “vigorous and dangerous as Fascism or Nazism.” In announcing the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, the President reminded Americans that the task of helping others “is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct and indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.” Peace, democracy, and American security had again become conterminous. Later in May President Truman observed, “There isn’t any difference in totalitarian states. I don’t care what you call them, Nazi, Communist, or Fascist. . . .” America’s emerging world view demanded opposition to communism and Communist power as dangers to international stability and democratic values. Containment became the agency, not merely for limiting the area of Soviet influence, but for creating a stable world order. By stopping Communist expansion in both Europe and Asia, the United States might ultimately eliminate the destabilizing threat of Communist power and create the peaceful world environment in which its values might triumph. “We look forward to a time,” declared Secretary of State Dean Rusk in March 1961, “when contest will be unnecessary because the freedom of man will be firmly established,”

President Lyndon B. Johnson no less than his advisers defended the policies of escalation in Vietnam as an effort to guarantee the peace everywhere. “Our generation has a dream,” he told the nation in February 1965. “It is a very old dream. But we have the power and now we have the opportunity to make it come true. For centuries, nations have struggled with each other. But we dream of a world where disputes are settled by law and reason. And we will try to make it so.” Secretary Rusk declared repeatedly that United States policy in Vietnam sought the vindication of self-determination as a triumph for both world order and American security. Despite his new emphasis on negotiation, President Richard M. Nixon assured the American people in January 1970, that any Cold War settlement would be based on the Wilsonian precept of peaceful change. “We will not,” he said, “trade principles for promises, or vital interests for atmosphere,” For the President, American interests—those whose achievements alone could bring peace—were not specific. Rather they comprised the worldwide acceptance of the axiom that a nation’s interests cannot be furthered by conflict. “Only a straightforward recognition of that reality,” he added, “. . .will bring us to the genuine cooperation which we seek and which the peace of the world requires.” Official American goals still carried the promise of a reestablished Versailles order, for the elimination of all territorial and political change based on force would lead precisely to that.


More than a half century has passed since the victors of World War I gathered at Versailles to create peace-keeping institutions which would be more dependable than the vagaries of the balance of power. Nothing occurred thereafter to diminish the importance of that objective for most American political and intellectual leaders. Every administration from Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon attached this country’s purpose to the creation of that promised world order. Every President attempted to integrate law and power. All tended to view the world as a whole and to regard a forceful threat to the treaty system anywhere as a threat to the entire peace structure. This compelled Washington repeatedly to identify the country’s interests with peace and to render both universal and indivisible. The assumption that communism, whether monolithic or polycentric, comprised a global force which would exploit any advantage merely reinforced the determination of America to have a stable and durable world order. Such an order, moreover, would assure the country a maximum of security at a minimum of risk.

Unfortunately, the vision, so long pursued, has no relationship to reality. Nations remain reluctant, despite the recurrence of war, to defer to the will of the world community expressed through international institutions. If the world wants peace, it seems constitutionally incapable of guaranteeing it. For those who regard the concept of world order beyond what the United States can or must achieve, the only real source of world stability still lies in some balance of power system. A balanced world does not imply a moral order or one that is necessarily peaceful, but it assumes a workable international system based on the reality of power, ambition, and interest—even conflicting interests. Such a system assumes also that all leading states feel relatively secure, for extreme insecurity implies the existence of threats that must be eliminated or at least neutralized. Even a system of balance cannot be stable short of war unless all major powers are fundamentally satisfied and have no intention of pursuing goals which might require drastic changes in the existing international order.

Three major factors in recent years have challenged America’s 20th-century search for world order. First, the pursuit has been expensive. It was the quest for far more than a balance of power that sent the price of United States foreign policy to some $1.5 trillion during the past quarter century. Despite all that expenditure, secondly, the American people have come to the realization that none of the country’s basic Cold War objectives has been achieved. Twenty years of Cold War tensions did not eliminate Russian power, or the Soviet hegemony from Eastern Europe; nor did it terminate the Soviet adherence to Communist dogma. It did not destroy the Peking regime of China or reduce all change in the Afro-Asian world to peaceful procedures. The Russian posture which favored stability in the Communist bloc and instability elsewhere came far closer to conforming to the realities of the postwar world than did the countering posture of the United States. And, thirdly, the decades of Cold War without victory over Soviet power or ideology demonstrated that American security and well-being, as well as that of most countries, did not require the restoration of the Versailles order after all. In Europe containment had won. As an end it had stabilized the division of Europe with a vengeance. As a means to an end— the negotiation of a new order in Europe—it had failed simply because no Western military structure could undo the Soviet political and territorial gains which flowed from Hitler’s collapse.

After 1971 these three factors began to tell on the Nixon administration. What encouraged the new Nixon approach to Russia and China was the conviction that both countries had become, or could be made to become, status quo powers. In some new international equilibrium Russia and China could share the burden of maintaining world stability. As the President confided to Time magazine in January 1972: “The only time i . . we have had any extended periods of peace is when there has been a balance of power. So . . . I think it would be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, and Japan, each balancing the other. . . .” Nixon’s recognition of a pentagonal world, with five power centers operating in a balancing system and guaranteeing world stability, suggested his rejection of the older American concept of world order based on liberal, democratic principles of self-determination and peaceful change. Yet the changes in official American purpose were more apparent than real.

The Nixon Doctrine of July 1969, promised a lower American profile abroad, but it did not reduce American commitments in Asia. It did not repudiate any agreements. Its intent, rather, was to uphold past commitments without submerging the United States in another massive Asian involvement. Nor did the new relationships with Russia and China greatly modify American demands on those two powers. There were significant changes—the de-emphasizing of ideology and the unwritten acknowledgment of the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. But where the spheres of activity overlapped, as in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Cuba, the Nixon administration resorted quickly to force or the threat of force to keep the balance unchanged. Detente suggested two-power cooperation between the United States and the U. S. S. R. in areas of tension, but the imperatives of detente were Russia’s refusal to exacerbate international instability or to alter any situation to its advantage. Viewing the United States and the Soviet Union as global competitors, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in November 1973, warned that the United States could not permit any Soviet victories against American arms. Thus neither the recognition of a new equilibrium nor the reliance on a new balance of power reduced the global commitments of the United States, The new approach attempted rather to multilateralize the burden of maintaining global stability.

Whether change in Asia threatened America’s security depended upon the individual’s acceptance or rejection of the principle of falling dominoes. The Nixon Doctrine reaffirmed this country’s commitment to the peace of Asia. But the American interest in stability lay less in direct Asian threats to American security than in the traditional assumptions about indivisible peace and world order. If the United States had a vital interest in an Asian balance of power, that interest would hardly be challenged by Communist control of South Vietnam. The entire Vietnam experience demonstrated Hanoi’s independence of Peking and Moscow. Détente, moreover, assumed that world communism had become polycentric and that the U. S. S. R. and mainland China had no aggressive designs on South and Southeast Asia. Still as late as April 1975, Secretary Kissinger rationalized the American obligation to Saigon as a defense of United States prestige and military credibility everywhere on the globe. “Our failure to act in accordance with that obligation,” he told the Senate, “would inevitably influence other nations’ perceptions of our constancy and our determination. American credibility would not collapse, and American honor would not be destroyed. But both would be weakened, to the detriment of this nation and of the peaceful world order we have sought to build.”

Thus the tension between power and law has not abated. Many continue to hope that the world’s equilibrium, based on an adequate distribution of power and a seemingly universal preference for peace, may yet be embodied in law, institutions, and world opinion. The pressures toward globalism remain strong. Dean Rusk has insisted that “in the broadest sense, we have an interest in events all over the world.” Such imperatives leave little room for judging the country’s interests in any assault on the status quo. Nor do they admit that the United States has experienced much unwanted change without suffering any loss of security. The world may lack a legal order, but it does not lack stability—a stability which rests overwhelmingly in the sovereignty of nations. Even without the long-sought institutions which might guarantee peaceful change, the world has approached the ideal of independence for all people. No country, whatever its strength or ideology, would willingly permit another to invade its borders or challenge its integrity. Rather than anchor its purposes to the elusive and costly goal of world order, the United States might well recognize the stability that exists, not because that stability is morally perfect, but because it satisfies basic American interests and comprises, at any rate, the best that the nation can achieve.


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