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America’s National Purpose Beyond the Cold War: New Lessons From the Old Realism

ISSUE:  Summer 1992

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his preface to the 1848 edition of Democracy in America, acknowledged that America’s destiny was inextricably tied to a world of changing nations. Only 15 years had elapsed since his mind became preoccupied by a powerful proposition: “the thought of the approaching, irresistible and universal spread of democracy throughout the world.” The natural progress of equality is “something fated” and “daily passing beyond human control, and every event and every man helps it along.” In America, Tocqueville could find no “greater cause of hope or more valuable lessons.” The object of European nations was not to “turn to America in order slavishly to copy the institutions she has fashioned for herself, but in order that we may better understand what suits us.” America, he thought, could offer “instruction rather than models; let us adopt the principles rather than the details of her laws.”

. . . the principles on which the constitutions of the American states rest, the principles of order, balance of powers, true liberty, and sincere and deep respect for law, are indispensable for all republics; they should be common to them all; and it is safe to forecast that where they are not found the republic will soon have ceased to exist.

The crucial link Tocqueville found between the moral order of democratic society and its role in the world later caused Walter Lippmann to renew the debate about America’s mission at the height of the Cold War. The critical weakness of American society, then as well as now, is that our people do not have great purposes about which they are united in seeking to achieve. The public mood 30 years ago was defensive, to hold on and to conserve, not to push forward and create. The bond of American union has not been piety and reverence for the past but a conviction of purpose and a belief in a destiny that would enrich posterity. To Lippmann, America was both a country and a dream. The ultimate ends of the nation are fixed. But “the innovation . . . will be in the means, in the policies and programs and measures by which the ultimate ends . . .can be realized in the world today.” To affirm the ultimate ends—as every public man does in almost every speech—is not a substitute for, or the equivalent of, declaring our national purpose and thereby leading the nation.

Moreover, Lippmann recognized that the bipolar competition transcended the military power of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Indeed, it involved “the power to produce wealth and the power to use wealth for education, for the advancement of science and for public as well as private ends.” American security depended in part, therefore, on learning how to apply our growing wealth to goals more lofty than mere private satisfaction. Man’s ideas and ideals constitute the only viable weapons to control humanity’s irrational resort to violence in both domestic and international politics. Lippmann’s ethical realism caused him to conclude that a world state predicated on the law of reason —or the Law of Nature’s God—must be the ultimate goal for all clear-thinking men. Insofar as the dictates of reason are universal and coextensive with mankind, nationalism represented a barbaric retrogression arising from the criminal rivalry among nations. “It is a commonplace,” Adlai Stevenson once wrote, “that in a world made one by science and the atom, the old boundaries are dissolving, the old landmarks vanishing. We can’t have privacy and the . . .bomb too.” Stevenson understood that Americans could not shirk a profound and painful truth: that reality means hard choices and sometimes bitter disappointments, that it measures real achievements not by the luck of the draw but by the scale of the difficulties overcome.

This essay examines the interrelation between political philosophy and practical political action in forging the national purpose during and beyond the Cold War. The challenge of evoking values in American foreign policy rests partly with the obligation of theorists and statesmen alike to stipulate why such values are worth defending. Philosophical thinking about the national interest cannot teach us what we must think and do today, but it can teach us something that is more difficult to learn and more worth learning: how to think and how to act and how to bring our best impulses to bear on the issues of the day.


A number of reasons compel a reexamination of American national purpose at a time when commentators proclaim the collapse of communism and a victory for democracy. First, the decades of Cold War competition underscored the concern for national security and the preservation of liberal-democratic values. While American society had no uncertainty about the enemy against whom it was defending itself, no comparable consensus existed on those domestic values to be upheld. George F. Kennan’s theorizing about the diplomacy of containment was amended with an eye toward containment “for what?” To leave the answer simply with the workings of raison d’état was anathema to a society dedicated to the pursuit of inalienable rights and the rule of law. The decade of the 1960’s led America into Vietnam, into cities torn apart by racial strife and student demonstrations, and thus became a powerful reminder of how a nation’s security can come to be purchased at dreadful cost to the civil rights and the pocketbooks of all Americans. Arthur Schlesinger noted that internal divisions are not without import for the projection of American power abroad.

. . . we see our cities in travail and revolt; rising mistrust and bitterness on the part of minorities; unraveling ties of social civility; a contagion of violence; a multiplication of fanaticisms on both the far right and far left. . . . Abroad we see our nation increasingly disbelieved and disliked, our motives misunderstood and traduced, our labors unavailing, the failure of half a million soldiers with nearly a million allies . . .to defeat a few thousand guerrillas in black pajamas has shaken our faith in our power, as the destruction we have wrought in the pursuit of what we conceived as noble ends has shaken our faith in our virtue.

Some two decades later, Kennan pled for a more modest statement of American national interest that took cognizance of the domestic ledger. His realism sought to contain American pretensions at home as much as threats to our security abroad. Viewing morality and self-interest in complementary terms, Kennan wrote: “If the actions of the U.S. government are . . .to conform to moral standards, those standards are going to have to be America’s own, founded on traditional. . . principles of justice and propriety.” At least in America’s judgment of itself, “the connection between power and responsibility—between the sowing and reaping . . .is integral.” Ethics in foreign policy begins with a clear recognition of the gap “between what we dream of doing and what we really have to offer, and the resolve . . .to take ourselves under control and establish a better relationship between our undertakings and our real capabilities.”

The impending crisis for American diplomacy is more likely to be in the banks than on the battlefield. An inventory of the national condition does not augur well for the economic variables of national power: huge budget and trade deficits, mounting public and private debt, shrinkage of America’s industrial and productive base, declining shares in world markets, and an unending travail of speculation, mergers, and leveraged buyouts. How can the United States, as the largest debtor nation known to history, avert disaster without exploring new paths of international collaboration? Now, as perhaps never before, national leaders must seek to create a relationship between foreign and domestic policies that will mobilize the power of national opinion behind both.

A second cause for concern extends not so much to the reality of the national purpose as to the contention that it has somehow been lost or mislaid. Thus William Faulkner: “What happened to the American dream? We dozed, and it abandoned us. And in that vacuum there sound no longer the strong loud voices . . .speaking in mutual unification of one hope and will.” Hans J. Morgenthau found that the dilemma arose not only from the absence of political thought commensurate with the crisis facing us, but also from the lack of creative political acumen of any kind. We have become, in Lord Acton’s phrase, “docile and attentive students of the absorbing past.” Leo Tolstoy said modern history has become “a deaf man answering questions which no one has asked him.” In the prophetic warning of Morgenthau:

. . . while nuclear power threatens us with destruction, while the very success of our economic system and racial conflict threaten society with disintegration, while our educational system produces millions of barbarians, and while government can no longer govern nor the people any more control government, we debate the relative merits of conservatism and liberalism, a juxtaposition which once had a political function in Europe but which has always been meaningless in America.

Today the chilling contrast between the uniqueness of the conditions under which we live and the inadequacies of the methods, means, and motivations with which we try to cope with such conditions calls all in doubt. America’s new role in Europe, or in the world, is rendered uncertain at a time when its intellectual and moral fatigue is intensified by the political gridlock resulting from a serious balance of payments deficit.

The debate generated by Allan Bloom’s work, The Closing of the American Mind, stirred up a ruckus in the groves of American academe, but it was strictly a domestic affair, thereby dramatizing the cleavage between contemporary political thought and the democratic conduct of foreign affairs. The defense of human rights, the sources of international law and obligation, no less than the preconditions of national security, are not far removed from the issues of relativism and absolutes in the life of the mind. A Cold War conflict between ideologies has ended—a conflict described by Vaclav Havel as a clash between “two enormous forces— one, a defender of freedom, the other a source of nightmares.” Against the abstractions of ideological warfare, it is worth recalling the reminder in Romans 8 that we inhabit a universe which awaits the future “with eager expectation”— with an anticipation that neither predicts nor demands clarity but does insist that mankind face tomorrow with hope. Great nations worthy of our remembrance pursued their interests for the sake of a transcendent purpose, one that gave meaning to the day-by-day operations of foreign policy. “But Romans,” exclaims Virgil,

never forget that government is your medium! Be this your art:—to practice men in the habit of peace, Generosity to the conquered, and firmness against aggressors.

Reinhold Niebuhr noted that it would be unreasonable to expect even the wisest nations to escape every peril of moral and spiritual complacency; for nations have always been constitutionally self-righteous. Nothing was more dangerous, in his view, than for trial-and-erring humans to forget the inevitable contradiction between divine and human purposes. In worldly affairs, he was a relativist, not because he disbelieved but precisely because he believed in the absoluteness of the absolute—because he recognized that for finite mortals the infinite thinker was inaccessible, unfathomable, unattainable. He recoiled from the fanaticism of those good men who do not know that they are not as virtuous as they esteem themselves to be, and he warned against “the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink . . . when they try to play the role of God to history.”

A third reason for raising the question of U. S. national purpose is the matter of whether a rapidly changing world is in need of a purposeful America? Clearly, egotism is not the proper cure for an abstract and pretentious idealism. The old Stephen Decatur formula, “our country, right or wrong,” was offensive to intellectual patriots like John Quincy Adams and Carl Schurz, who pointed in another direction: “Our country . . . when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.” The realists who wrote The Federalist Papers combined both moral resolve in the American mission and a sense of limits in the exercise of diplomacy. In Federalist #63, they called upon American statesmen to “pay attention to the judgment of other nations. . . . Particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.” A belief in the Law of Nature and Nature’s God did not sanction a course of unilateralism in order to divine the national interests of other nations as easily as the contours of our own destiny.

Yet the recognition of historical limits need not lead to a betrayal of cherished values and historical attainments. “Historical pragmatism,” as Niebuhr advised, “exists on the edge of opportunism, but cannot afford to fall into the abyss.” The difficulty of sustaining democratic values does not countenance capitulation to, or coming to terms with, tyranny on the left or right. Whether, as Jeane Kirkpatrick insists, one ought to distinguish between Communist and more traditional military tyrants is a fruitless stacking of tyrants on the head of a pin. The obstacles to “internationalism” and the task of building supranational political sympathies should not lead to apathetic acceptance of the nation state as the final moral entity of history. The ancient and the modern world alike reserved their highest admiration for those heroes who resisted evil at the risk of their fortunes and lives with scant chance of success. The command of Matthew 10:28, “Fear not them which will kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul,” declares that too desperate a desire for gain or fame ultimately must rob life of its meaning. A perspective that blends idealism and realism is possible only with the recognition that significant moral gains in policy carry a willingness to make sacrifices and to sustain endeavors without complete certainty of success.

Writing for Foreign Affairs in 1927, Franklin D. Roosevelt argued that “most of our history shows us to have been a nation leading others in the slow upward steps to better international understanding and the peaceful settlement of disagreements.” He was confident that America could “regain the world’s trust and friendship. . . . We can point the way once again to the reducing of armaments; we can cooperate . . .whole-heartedly with every agency that studies and works to relieve the common ills of mankind.” The United States could, Roosevelt concluded, “renounce the practice of arbitrary intervention in the home affairs of our neighbors.” Even beyond the Western Hemisphere, what message is America to bring to “freedom fighters” in Angola, Afghanistan, and the killing fields of Cambodia? Should the United States become the moral arbiter of civil, ethnic, and religious schisms where the cause of democracy is little more than the muscular conceit of established power rather than the defense of civic traditions from Locke to Mill? “It is not for want of admirable doctrine,” wrote Shelley in the Defence of Poetry, “that men hate and despise and censor and deceive, and subjugate one another.” There may be good reasons to involve ourselves in other people’s civil quarrels, to take sides in regional balance of power struggles, even to topple governments we do not like and assist those we do. But such actions cannot be taken under the illusion that American citizens have no blame or responsibility for the course on which their government has embarked.

America, as Yale historian Paul Kennedy has argued, needs its own perestroika. Comparing the United States to Edwardian Britain in 1903, Kennedy identified a central challenge to the rise of traditional great powers: if they did not establish a network of international security, their wealth and well-being were threatened by foreign rivals. Conversely, if they poured too many resources into armies, fortifications, and overseas alliances, then few assets would remain for them to expand their productive base. Clever nations must discover how to be both wealthy and strong, to be productive and adequately armed. Those nations which could not adjust to new developments in technology and trade, especially because they had to defend constantly what they acquired in earlier generations, were, like imperial Spain, destined for decline. Kennedy stressed that the United States could not maintain the place of power occupied in the post World War II era “not only because of the enormous diffusion of technology and manufacturing across the globe, but also because it is not given to any one society to remain permanently ahead of others.” By placing diplomacy before military force, a great power’s “relative” economic decline may be slowed by a mix of policies: a high savings ratio, a high rate of investment in commercial and nonmilitary research and development, a central government fiscal policy which keeps the national debt low in peacetime, and an educational policy which enhances the nation’s productive base. Yet Kennedy warned: “But skillful diplomacy, certain reductions of overseas defense burdens and a strategy of restructuring abroad, will avail us little if there is no restructuring at home.”

The current historical and philosophical debate over America’s national purpose abroad also offers an opportunity to reexamine domestic values and their salience for the ideals and principles of the national interest. A greater self-understanding of America’s moral presuppositions helps to explain the novel features and recurrent traits that often puzzle foreign observers and lead them either to praise the special virtues of American policy or condemn what they consider its hypocritical pretense. Cecil V. Crabb, for example, argues that the philosophy of pragmatism “has nearly always been among the forces determining the diplomatic conduct of the United States; and, in some cases, the pragmatic impulse has been decisive in determining American behavior abroad.” Pragmatism insists “that the application of American power . . .be purposive, that it be directed by human intelligence to achieve some worthwhile human end, and that full account be taken of the actual consequences produced when American power is brought to bear in foreign settings.”

Few involved in the mainstream of international relations research—especially the behavioral group whose agenda is incomplete without another obituary on realism—have noted the importance of alternative traditions in political philosophy for American values in world affairs. William James testified to the consequences of pretending to theory without a communicable philosophic center.

Place yourself . . . at the center of a man’s philosophical vision and you understand at once all the different things it makes him write or say. But keep outside, use your post-mortem method, try to build the philosophy up out of the single phrases, taking first one and then another and seeking to make them fit, and of course you fail. You crawl over the thing like a myopic ant over a building, tumbling into every microscopic crack or fissure, finding nothing but inconsistencies, and never suspecting that a center exists.

A number of recent major works suggest a renewal of faith in the philosophical traditions of foreign policy and diplomacy. Among them are: Daniel Lang’s study of the foreign policy debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Nathan Tarcov’s work on prudence and power in diplomacy, Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson’s examination of the Jeffersonian tradition in American statecraft, Michael Smith’s evaluation of American and European realism, David Mayers’ study of George F. Kennan, and Kenneth Thompson’s analysis of Arnold Toynbee’s thought in relation to world order studies.

A related explanation for the lack of theorizing about the national purpose can be found in the estrangement of political thought from new trends in normative research and moral reasoning. This is but one symptom of a modern age that is no longer satisfied with ordering political life by objective standards of a public philosophy, thereby establishing an uneasy and ever precarious balance between the good and the possible. Moreover, the reaction against philosophic relativism, methodological dogmatism, and positivist scientism has been stronger in history rather than in political science. The positivist starts, as Whitehead has demonstrated, from “an instinctive faith that there is an Order of Nature which can be traced in every detailed occurrence,” and tends to believe that the reason for his faith is “the apprehension of truth.” Yet “the formulation of a general idea—such as the idea of the Order of Nature—and the grasp of its importance and the observation of its exemplification in a variety of occasions are by no means the necessary consequences of the truth of the idea in question.” The issue reaches far beyond methodology and fundamentally transforms the discussion of rights and liberties in the modern liberal political tradition.

The conception of the inalienable rights of man has no more survived the scrutiny of positivism than has the concept of justice. For the natural law of reason embodied in classical liberalism, the positivist sought to substitute social laws exactly analogous to the physical laws of the universe. Freedom as conceived by classical liberalism was freedom to act in accordance with the dictates of right reason; freedom as conceived by the positivist liberal was freedom to act with the conception of an immanent order of nature. The rights of man, then, were conceived no longer as natural rights but as legal rights. What liberals have traditionally called rights are actually only concessions granted by the state or society. As concessions, it follows, of course, that they can be withdrawn to the extent that the state deems such withdrawal of its recognition compatible with the interests of the “general welfare.” John Hallowell linked the decline of liberalism in the modern world to the rise of positivism and its infiltration into every sphere of thought.

For it was the liberal, positivistic jurists long before Hitler who taught (explicitly or implicitly) that might makes right and that rights are not attributes which individuals have by virtue of their humanity but simply claims which the state may or may not choose to recognize. Unwittingly, it may be, such liberals prepared the way for Lidice and Dachau. When the liberals were finally confronted with totalitarian dictatorship most of them could not find words of condemnation. For how can you condemn a tyrant as unjust when you have purged the word justice from your vocabulary?

To insist, as do some neo-positivists, that facts simply have no meaning leads one directly to the conclusion reached by Oswald Spengler, that “in the historical world there are no ideals but only facts—no truths, but only facts. There is no reason, no equity, no final aim, but only facts.” And there it follows that “Life has no aim. Mankind has no aim. . . . Life is the beginning and the end . . .life has no system, no program, no reason; it exists for itself and by itself. . . . It cannot be dissected according to good or bad, right or wrong, useful and desirable.” Such anarchy manifests itself politically as tyranny. For students in politics and international studies, confronted with a jamboree of methodological sideshows, there are therapeutic dividends to be derived from reapproaching the chasm that separates “scientific man” from “power politics.”

That philosophers and men of power may have little to say to each other was the message of Socrates; that philosophers and politicians should, at the very least, be able to understand one another was no less the example of a philosopher who knew that his death preserved the moral integrity of an individual’s struggle against the pressures of a corrupt society. In the Phaedo, Socrates gave a persuasive account of why the relation between philosophy and political obligation is far from being a harmless intellectual debate.

But they never think of searching for a power which causes things to be arranged for the best, nor do they think that such a power has any divine force. They assume that they will find some Atlas stronger than this, more immortal and more able to hold the universe together, and they never recognize that it is this force of moral obligation which must really bind the universe together and secure its coherence.


It is obvious that communism is in a serious crisis both domestically and internationally. But it is less clear of what the crisis consists and, more particularly, what its results are likely to be for the rest of the world. Some have joined Francis Fukuyama in saluting “the passing of Marxism-Leninism” and “its death as a living ideology of world political significance.” Ernest Lefever notes that the “gentler breezes from the East have not fundamentally changed the age-old struggle between two ways of organizing society— between government based on consent and government by coercion, between freedom and tyranny, between the East and West.” We have witnessed, writes John Lewis Gaddis, “one of the most abrupt losses of ideological self-confidence in modern history.” Eastern Europe has come to resemble the stage set of Les Miserables, but with the revolutionaries this time winning. Kennan thinks that the “Russia we confront today is in many respects like nothing we have known before.” The last vestiges of the unique and nightmarish system of rule known as Stalinism are now disappearing. Charles Krauthammer sees fewer “lunatic states” and suggests that “it would be a historic tragedy to settle for anything less than victory now that it is in sight for the first time since World War II.”

Even if the end of the Cold War signals a triumph of Western values, disagreement persists on what this ideological victory means for the future of American diplomacy. In an interview for public television’s “American Interests” program in January 1990, Henry Kissinger cautioned the Bush administration against looking at Soviet policy through the prism of a nation’s domestic politics. American policy appeared to be bending over backward to aid Gorbachev or Yeltsin personally, he felt, while playing down the enduring threat posed by the Soviet Union (or Russia) as a traditional great power. Kissinger depicted Secretary of State James Baker as having a world view where “the only conflict in the world has been communism and democracy and, therefore, if the Soviet Union abandons communism, they and we are practically comparable and have identical interests in preserving the peace, which is not borne out by history.” Secretary Baker, he added, “is influenced by judgments of domestic politics, of being on the side of peace and good relations with the Soviet Union.” Kissinger was “deeply troubled by the Secretary of State saying that if the Soviets went into Rumania to defend democracy that we could support his.” A sense of history may not always provide the most reliable compass for a totally unpredictable era; yet the nonideological, pragmatic mindset in American foreign policy must envision the broader historical patterns by which to judge the imprint of Communist ideology on the Russian imperial tradition.

If the Bolshevist Revolution and the creature of its creation that was once the Soviet Union teach anything, they teach the irrelevance of the teachings of Marx and, to a lesser degree, of Lenin for what happened in and to Russia over the last 70 years. Bolshevism is an historical reminder of Marx’s own regretted lament: “Moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.” In fact, the issue over which the revolution broke out and which led to the downfall of the social-democratic Kerensky government was not economic and was not primarily domestic. It was the question of war and peace, the Kerensky government being committed to the continuation of Russian participation in World War I, the Bolshevists to its termination. The revolution was no more Marxist in its consequences than it was in its origins. Hegel postulated history as the “slaughterbank on which the happiness of the individual is sacrificed for the progress of reason.” Stalin and his successors made the Soviet Union the slaughterbank on which the very existence of the individual was sacrificed for the material progress of Russia. The world has seen bloody tyrannies before, but never before had it witnessed a tyrant who was also the pope of a secular religion and who possessed the technical means to degrade and destroy millions of people on behalf of a material end postulated by that religion.

The tendency to justify otherwise immoral actions by the ends they serve is universal. It is merely most conspicuous in politics. It has been said, for example, there are just wars but no just armies. Lady Astor once asked Stalin: “When are you going to stop killing people?” Stalin replied: “When it is no longer necessary.” To an English newspaperman who inquired about the millions of peasants who had died during the collectivization drive, Stalin responded with the question: “How many died during the Great War?” And he continued, “Over 7,500,000 deaths for no purpose at all. Then you must acknowledge that our losses are small because your war ended in chaos, while we are engaged in a work which will benefit the whole of humanity.” In Stalin’s analysis, the doctrine that the ethical end justifies unethical means leads to the negation of ethical judgments altogether. For if the ethical end justifies unethical means, the absolute good which all human activity serves as means to an end justifies all human actions. There may be differences in degree but there can be none in kind. Whatever is done ad majorem dei gloriam partakes of the sanctity of its ultimate goal. As expressed in the words of Morgenthau:

. . . the solution of the problem is again apparent, rather than real. For the dilemma that disturbs the consciences of men . . .concerns primarily not the relation between human action and the absolute good but the relation between human actions and limited objectives, the former presumably evil, the latter presumably good. The question which man is anxious to answer is . . .not, at least within the context of an ends-means discussion, how we can explain the apparent evilness of all human action in light of the absolute good but how we can explain the apparently inevitable evilness of some, especially political, actions in light of the relative good they are intended to serve.

Just as the monopolistic pretense of Marxism-Leninism is of necessity tantamount to a pseudo-religious dogmatism in theory, so this dogmatism calls forth in practice the monolithic structure of Communist society. Admittedly, Stalin’s bloody excesses resulted from the tyrant’s paranoiac personality. Yet the temptation to oppression for maintaining the ironclad rule of the political elite survived his rule. The root of Communist dictatorship, the root of Stalinist tyranny, and the root of the cult of personality lies in the very nature of Marxism itself. What is now unfolding may be the last act of a drama in which a great political philosophy, promising the liberation of man by lifting him out of his self-alienation, first transforms itself into a political religion, then degenerates into an ideology justifying a bloody tyranny, and finally ends up as a litany of magical incantations in whose truths few believe. Thus the Bolshevist Revolution has shown what man can do for man, and what he can do to man if he allows his ends to overwhelm his means. It has also shown what he cannot do to man: he can degrade and kill him, but he cannot still his desire to be free.

Gorbachev seemed to realize that truth and virtue enforced are truth and virtue destroyed. Perestroika and glasnost were truly revolutionary, not just as an ambitious agenda of institutional reforms that fostered a greater pluralism in Soviet politics, but because their implementation undermined the moral justification of the Marxist state. The monopolistic possession of the Marxist truth and virtue reveals itself, in the last analysis, as a function of the monopoly of political power. Kennan may be correct in pointing out that we are witnessing “the final overcoming of the Russian Revolution of 1917.” A new generation of leaders, if unable to turn back, will have to relate themselves not just to the post-1917 revolutionary period but to the entire span of Russian history. Zbigniew Brzezinski, speaking in 1989, may have underestimated (like most everyone else) the democratic demolition of Lenin’s legacy when he suggested that the “Soviet state will certainly go on, and it remains a very major military power.” Yet he may not have been far from the truth in arguing that American policy-makers—at least for the near future—are likely to confront an “authoritarian state . . .having a philosophical and even emotional content that is not derived from ideology, but much more from Great Russian nationalism.”


No country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment of time. A more pluralistic world—especially in relationship with friends—is profoundly in our long term interests. During periods of crisis in the Cold War, there was pressure exerted by allies for American reassurance but not for a clearly defined common philosophy. Political multipolarity, while perhaps difficult at first to accept, has become the sine qua non for a new period of creativity in American statecraft. Painful as it may be to admit, we will benefit from a counterweight to discipline our occasional impetuosity and, by supplying historical perspective, modify our penchant for abstract and final solutions. Ultimately, the quest for European or Russian unity is a problem primarily for the Europeans and Russians. In the coming decade, the architectonic approach to Atlantic policy will no longer be possible. Kissinger has summarized the challenge for American diplomacy in these terms:

The American contribution must be more philosophical: it will have to consist more of understanding and quiet, behind-the-scenes encouragement than of the propagation of formal institutional structures. Involved here is the American conception of how nations cooperate. . . . But a philosophical deepening will not come easily to those brought up in the American tradition of foreign policy. Our political society was one of the few which was consciously created at a point in time. At least until the emergence of the race problem, we were blessed by the absence of conflicts between classes and over ultimate ends.

Several conspicuous factors formed the main outlines of the American foreign policy tradition: a certain manipulativeness and pragmatism, a conviction that the normal pattern of international relations was harmonious, a reluctance to think in structural terms, a belief in universal principles—all qualities which impart a sense of self-sufficiency not far removed from a spirit of omnipotence. The contemporary dilemma, however, is that there are no total solutions. We live in a world gripped by revolutions in technology, values, and institutions. We are immersed in an unending process, not in a quest for a final destination. The deepest problems are not physical but psychological and moral. A world beyond the Cold War will depend ultimately on convictions which far transcend the physical balance of power. Our goal, as Kissinger has advised, is “to build a moral consensus which can make a pluralistic world creative rather than destructive.”

Throughout the Cold War, realists like Lippmann and Morgenthau described profound disorder in American society which came not from the machinations of our enemies— or from the adversities of the human condition—but from within ourselves. America lives in two different worlds, the world of public policy, which it endures, and the private world, which absorbs its intellectual and moral energies. The lack of interest in public issues leads of necessity to the contraction of the public sphere; it results in the cessation of genuine political activity by the citizen, the encroachment of private interests upon the public sphere, and the shrinkage of natural resources—human and material—committed to public purposes. The objective standards that constitute the moral backbone of a civilized society dissolve into the ever-changing amorphousness of public opinion. Where mass opinion dominates the government, there is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power. This derangement brings about the enfeeblement, verging on paralysis, of the capacity to govern. American realists (far from exhibiting agnosticism and practical neutrality in ultimate issues) have argued loudly that a large plural society cannot be governed without recognizing that, transcending its plural interests, there is a rational order with a superior common law. Attempting to bridge the gulf between the private and public realms raises a fundamental question about the role of the United States in a changing world: how can we rediscover in the tasks that face the nation, and in the policies intended to accomplish them, the purpose which the nation can understand, with which it can identify itself, and upon which it can therefore act with conscious determination.

Being an American is, as Santayana once declared, “of itself almost a moral condition.” Without a moral vision, national power has neither true purpose nor the ability to realize its full potential. A renewed sense of their nation’s basic decency can enable Americans to revive their self-confidence and their will to work for man. Yet the key to a successful foreign policy is often maintaining a sense of balance. Some of the most serious errors in American diplomacy, both of over-commitment and withdrawal, arose when we lost the balance between our interests and ideals. Nowhere was this more clear than in Vietnam: there, under the banners of moralistic slogans 30 years ago, the United States began a military campaign that ultimately divided the country and devalued the nation’s international prestige. Barely a decade later our government was assailed for sacrificing ethical values on the altar of detente and being insufficiently concerned with the domestic behavior of other nations. Renewing the debate about the nation’s moral obligations, to itself as well as to others, must strengthen the steady resolve and responsible involvement of the American public. Yet it can do so only by building on a public philosophy—a spirit of humane interpretation—evolved through a realistic assessment of world affairs and not presented as the magic cure for all the ills that afflict mankind.


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