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The Conduct Versus the Teaching of International Relations

ISSUE:  Spring 1977

The subject of this essay, based on personal experience, is the contrast between two views of international relations. I would say two perspectives if it were not that one of the views is distinguished by its lack of perspective. This is the view of the officials at the summit of government, for they find themselves perpetually preoccupied by urgent problems requiring immediate decision. In a great center of international decision like Washington, such officials, because they live in circumstances of constant crisis, have no choice but to follow the Biblical injunction to “take . . .no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” They can never achieve the detachment to look beyond the emergency of each successive day.

Anyone who is brought into a position of high executive responsibility is likely to have in mind, at the moment of assuming it, some long-range goal that he means to achieve during his term of office. Like a sea captain who assumes command of a ship, he has the vision of a distant landfall and plots in imagination the course by which he means to make it. Once in office, however, once he has the ship under his nominal command (to pursue the simile), he finds that, in some perverse fashion, it continues to go its own way, obedient to forces over which he has no control. Or he finds that a succession of emergencies, each demanding his full attention, requires him constantly to postpone the realization of his original intention. A fire in the hold must be put out before anything else can be attended to. No sooner has it been put out than a leak is discovered; and when the leak has been stopped it transpires that the rudder is jammed. By the time the ship has at last been got under way, the approach of a hurricane requires that it be put on a course different from the one that had been projected. And so it goes. Long before the captain’s term of office has expired he may have forgotten altogether the course he had originally had in mind and the landfall he had hoped to make. By that time he may be content merely to keep the ship afloat from one day to the next.

President de Gaulle had far-reaching aims for the France over which he undertook to preside, but he found himself dealing with military mutiny, student rebellion, factional strife, and a host of difficulties in the engine-room, so to speak, with the consequence that his aims remained unrealized when his term of office came to its end. In his reminiscent conversations with André Malraux, which the latter reported in Les Chênes qu’on abat, he gave sardonic expression to his disenchantment.

Another example of such experience and such disenchantment is that of Lenin, who said to the Eleventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1922: “The machine tears itself out of our hands: as though there is a man who drives it, but the machine does not go in the direction it is driven. . . .”

The problem of the political leader may also be likened to that of a general who is incessantly in battle. Traditionally, generalship has been identified primarily with strategy, which is the organization and deployment of military forces before battle, and only secondarily with tactics, which is the direction of such forces in battle. But if the general is always embattled, his necessary preoccupation with tactics will leave him no time for strategy. In such circumstances, he need be only a tactician, for any strategic ability would be irrelevant.

At the great centers of international decision, the state of being embattled has become constant in our time, with the result that our world is increasingly governed by day-to-day men, to use a term first applied to President McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hay. A notable example is that of Sir Harold Wilson during the years when he was prime minister of Britain. He survived, holding his government and his party together, by what were sometimes startling extremes of improvisation from one emergency to the next, apparently never lifting his eyes to look forward over the lengths of time associated with strategic rather than tactical thinking. Indeed, one may question whether circumstances ever allowed him the opportunity to do so.

A conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that political leaders have less command over the course of events than the public assumes them to have. A year before his death, an embattled Abraham Lincoln wrote: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”


Those members of the public who take an interest in the conduct of foreign relations appear, for the most part, to have little uncertainty about what the men in office could and ought to be doing. Often this is because, in concentrating on strategic goals, they ignore the tactical obstacles that must be definitive for those who have the responsibility. In the public debate of a few years ago, the advocates of American disengagement from Vietnam appeared to assume that it required nothing more than an order from the president for all American troops to come home forthwith. They did not have to take account of the cataclysmic disaster—in military, political, and especially human terms—that would surely have ensued upon such an order.

The general public commonly attributes to the men in office a range of choice that is, in fact, denied them. How few Americans, at the end of the 1940’s, had any doubts that the men in Washington could determine which of two contending régimes was to govern China! In this extreme example, the men in Washington were consequently held to blame for the triumph of the Communist regime.

Because the men who bear the responsibility are aware of impediments that the public ignores, they tend to assume, not without basis, that the public is unable to appreciate the realities that only their own close-up view reveals. Dean Acheson used to cite Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, when asked to give his opinion on a question in public debate, replied that he would have to spend a week studying the relevant documents before he could have an opinion, The men in office have reason to be poignantly aware of the fact that the members of the public lack either the opportunity or the inclination to study the documents. For those who are not of Justice Holmes’s stature, it is, in any case, easier to hold opinions if they do not study them. The most self-assured expressions of opinion are always the ones offered by those who are the most ignorant.

What this implies is that the day-to-day conduct of foreign relations has, for the most part, to be left to those in government, although they must be held accountable for the consequences of their decisions. President Kennedy made this point at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), when, in an informal talk, he quoted the following verse by the Spanish bullfighter, Domingo Ortega:

Bullfight critics ranked in rows
Crowd the enormous plaza full;
But only one is there who knows
And he s the man who fights the bull.

I would not propose that we members of the public refrain from critical discussion of the day-to-day decisions, merely that we conduct it in such modest and speculative terms as are appropriate to our remoteness from the sources of fuller knowledge and to our freedom from the discipline of responsibility.

Accepting, as I think we must, the disparity between the view from the inside and the view from the outside, we have reason to be concerned with the difference between the close-up view, manifesting itself in a preoccupation with what is immediate, and the distant view that comprehends spans of time to be measured in decades or centuries. I have equated the latter with strategic thinking, and it is with the problem of how to overcome the deficiency of strategic thinking that the rest of this essay deals.


For the reasons already given, it is no use expecting the men in office to originate strategic thinking. This is not to say that they never think in strategic terms, but the strategic terms in which they think are, in such exceptional cases, part of a heritage that they brought with them from the outside when they assumed office. Both de Gaulle and Churchill represented a traditional kind of strategic thinking that had entered into the upbringing of each and that, at least on some points, was obsolete.(Neither found it possible fully to revise the traditional thinking to take account of the fact that his country could no longer play the role of a domineering world power.) When Professor Henry Kissinger, at once an historian and a strategic thinker, first came into high office, he distinguished himself by devising and applying the strategy whereby the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Peking enabled the United States to disengage from Vietnam. After that, however, he found himself so harassed by opposition on a number of domestic fronts, and by successive emergencies abroad—fires, leaks, jammed ruders, and hurricanes—that he appears to have had his hands more than full with the tactics of survival from day-to-day.

If, then, one can hardly look to the men in government for long-range thinking and strategic sophistication, where can one look?

My first answer is that strategic sophistication must, in some sense, be the property of a national society as a whole, a part of its culture. The strategic thinking set forth in George Washington’s Farewell Address—e.g., the admonition to abstain from permanent alliances, together with the reasons given for it—did become the property of the American society, passed on from generation to generation, and so integrated into the national consciousness that when it had at last become obsolete, a century later, it continued still to dominate American thinking for almost half a century. (Another example of such dominance, although I would not call it obsolete, is the traditional Swiss policy of neutrality.) In like fashion, the British strategic policy of maintaining a balance of power among the Continental states was axiomatic for the whole nation over centuries of history. In this case, it was not the failure of the policy but the failure to implement it effectively that twice in this century led to disaster.

As a schoolchild in the United States, during the 1920’s, I learned to regard with a certain reverence Washington’s admonition against involvement in the power politics of the Old World—as, I daresay, did every other American schoolchild of the time. This was still part of the nation’s intellectual heritage a quarter of a century after it had become dangerously irrelevant to the changed position of the United States in the world. Consequently, the United States was without a relevant strategic policy from 1898 until the adoption of the so-called policy of containment in 1946 implied, at least, the adoption of a new policy to prevent the world balance of power from being upset. Even today, however, traditional American thinking has prevented the acceptance by the American public of this policy in explicit and reasoned terms; for the containment policy, as such, applied only to the threat of continued Russian expansion in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the term “balance of power,” referring as it does to “power politics,” has traditionally been associated in the American mind with international wickedness.

If strategic sophistication must, at least in a liberal democracy, be the property of the national society as a whole, what are the elements in that society to which one might look for the development of such sophistication?


Now that something called international relations is taught in universities everywhere and is the subject of scholarly research, one ought surely to be able to look to the academic community for the development of such sophistication. But the record of the academic community—with one brilliant exception that we shall come to—has so far been disappointing in this respect. It has been disappointing because the teaching of international relations, at least in the West, has generally been so irrelevant to their basic reality.

In the period between the two world wars, the study of international relations applied to the world as the professors thought it ought to be, rather than to the world as it was. In this dream world, power politics was a thing of the past, power no longer counted, international organization sufficed for the maintenance of international security, and lions could be persuaded to lie down with lambs by the moral suasion of something called world opinion. Those who taught this kind of thing when I was an undergraduate in the 1930’s were thereby enabled to enjoy the aura of virtue associated with idealism, but the consequences of their teaching were tragic. Its unrealism was a prime element in the intellectual and material unpreparedress of the Atlantic democracies to prevent the rise of Hitler and the Japanese war lords until, at last, the blood of millions had to be poured out for their suppression. It made a major contribution, as well, to the fact that the United States, at the end of the Second World War, found itself trying to carry out a policy so irrelevant to the reality as to be quite unrealizable, that of depending for national and international security on an unanimity, for which there was no basis of consensus, among the governments of China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.(It was this policy that was replaced, when its unworkability had been proved, by the policy of containment, which was the brain-child of a foreign service officer, George Kennan, rather than of an academic thinker.)

The academic failure referred to above can be attributed to an understandable disposition among those of us who do not bear direct responsibility for dealing with the irreducible problems of this world, the disposition to disregard their reality because not to do so would make prescription so difficult. Let me now cite, by exemplification, another kind of failure that, given the general educational level of even the most advanced societies, must surely be regarded as excusable.

At the conclusion of World War II, the United States undertook responsibility for the security of Japan and for that of southern Korea without being in the least aware of strategic realities that had been made manifest by centuries of Far Eastern history. The men in government and the members of the public alike were not aware of those realities because they did not know that history. Consequently, decisions were made by harrassed officials under circumstances of successive emergencies, on a day-to day basis, without any conception of the long-term strategic liabilities that the United States was thereby incurring.

The fact is that, for many centuries, the Korean peninsula had been a bone of contention between China and Japan. The strategic implications of the geography made this inevitable. Because the peninsula was a bridge over which either power could invade the other, neither could feel secure if the other controlled it. Consequently, each had been moved to pre-empt the other by establishing its own dominance over that bridge. This bilateral situation had become trilateral with the effective occupation of Siberia by Russia and its consequent emergence on the Pacific, where it came up against Korea, as well as China, along a common boundary. One could say that there had been continual warfare between China and Japan over Korea, with extended intervals of possession by one or the other, or of truce, and that this struggle had become a

three-way struggle by the beginning of the 20th century, as manifested by the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904—1905. In transferring the responsibility for the defence of Japan from the Japanese shoulders to its own, and in occupying the southern half of Korea, the United States was assuming a far heavier responsibility than it knew. It was assuming for itself the inevitable challenge to China and Russia that had historically been represented by Japan. Both the China of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin’s Russia had reason to look upon the American presence in Korea as the United States might have looked upon a Russian presence in Mexico. But the United States, out of ignorance, was as far as could be from appreciating this or any of the consequences to be expected from the responsibilities it had so casually assumed on both sides of the Korean Strait. The result was its utter unpreparedness, political and military, for what ensued. What ensued was the resumption of what we may call the centuries-old Korean War, involving Russia indirectly and China directly, with the United States playing Japan’s role. This unnecessary disaster was second only to the unnecessary disaster of World War II, which was second only to the unnecessary disaster of World War I.

Again, if the American society had been familiar with the centuries-old history of relations between Russia and China, with the geographical factors that made conflict between the two inevitable, and with the particular history of bad relations between Mao Tse-tung and Moscow, it could not have assumed, as it did in 1949, that Mao had conquered China as Stalin’s Quisling in order simply to add it to his expanding empire. This utter misunderstanding of the situation led the United States to press China and Russia together in the common embrace of a containment that supposedly applied to Russian expansion only. A like failure of understanding, based on ignorance, then caused the United States to extend the containment policy to North Vietnam.

May we not suppose that, if the history of the Far East had had a major place in the curriculum of American education, the United States would not have blundered so blindly into these disasters? Surely the answer is yes, if we assume the history to have been taught with a due regard for the strategic-geographical factors that so largely determined what happened in it. Here, however, the fault is one of omission rather than commission, and it would surely be expecting too much to expect those who developed the curriculum of American education over generations past to anticipate the policy decisions that would confront American society in the 1940’s.

* This is plausible surmise only, pending access to the relevant documents. The fact that the United States put itself in a position to play China and Russia off against each other must, however, have had the effect of persuading each to discontinue such aid and encouragement to the regime in Hanoi as would drive the United States into the arms of the other. So Hanoi was persuaded to allow the United States to carry out an orderly withdrawal that limited the dimensions of humiliation and disaster.


The thesis of this essay is that we ought to be able to look to the academic world, in the first place, for the sophistication in strategic thinking on which wise policy depends. Although I have, so far, cited only the failures of the academic world to meet this requirement, I did mention that the record contained one brilliant exception.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the advent of radically new armaments, associated with nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, provided occasion for a worldwide revolution in strategic thinking that was produced almost exclusively by academics, by such professors as Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, Thomas Schelling, and Henry Kissinger. What stability the international world enjoys today is largely based on certain concepts, those of deterrence and the limitation of conflict, that were developed in their minds and formulated in their writings,

Today, in the great capitals of the world, the decisions that bear on the balance of power are based on strategic thinking that had its origin in the minds of these academics, thinking that has in so short a time become the property of national societies as a whole.

To what extent, however, have these new strategic studies been added to the curricula of the academic institutions that teach international relations? How many professors of strategic studies are there today in the universities of various nations?

I rely largely on personal impression when I say that strategic studies, as part of the teaching curriculum, have become sparsely established in American and British universities, and perhaps not at all elsewhere, with the notable exception of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, where they have been taught for a decade and a half now. On the European continent and elsewhere, they appear to have become better established in research institutes, often associated with universities, and it is a puzzle to know why there is not more teaching associated with such research. The research itself now tends to bear increasingly on the problems of the day, sacrificing the long view to the extent that it does so.


This essay has undertaken to set forth two contrasting views of international relations in the circumstances of our times. The one has been that of the men in government, who are too preoccupied with the tactical problems of every day to take the long view on which strategic thinking depends. The other is one that remains largely unrealized by those who, in a position to cultivate it, are failing to do so. It is the view that members of the academic world could take, if they were so disposed, by virtue of being free from responsibility for day-to-day decision, the view that shows the problems of the world in historical perspective. If the cultivation of this view is their proper mission, as I believe it to be, then it is a mission on which they are defaulting. The consequence of their default is that the academic world contributes less than it might to the understanding on which wise policy depends.

One factor that contributes to default is the fascination that current affairs have for virtually all students of international politics. Many of them are like Huckleberry Finn, who lost interest in the story of Moses when told that he was no longer alive. They would rather analyze current situations in order to prescribe action than cultivate the fruits of a detached contemplation.

Academic studies, however, are not properly a form of journalism, for they should be based on a perspective denied to journalists as to the men in government. What even the best professors teach about current events is almost sure to be obsolete by the time most of their students have completed their studies.(In the absence of perspective, not to mention documentation, any teaching of the Korean War that had been undertaken in the first half of the 1950’s would be seen, today, to have been pitifully far from the truth.)

I daresay, however, that the failure of the academic world to cultivate the large view has deeper causes, causes that are represented by an increasingly narrow specialization in the academic pursuits of our day. Scientific scholarship has come to be identified with the kind of analysis that dismantles its subject, separating it into its minute components, But this is to cultivate the close-up view that excludes any comprehensive understanding, among academics as among government officials.

What is needed is not so much analysis as synthesis, the putting together of the components of experience to constitute the meaningful wholes on which understanding depends. The scattered parts of a watch that has been dismantled have no meaning in themselves. In themselves they represent a chaos that is resolved only when they are assembled so as to take their places in the context of the watch as a whole.

It may be that the majority of us, within the academic world as without, are incapable of the large vision. But the capacity for such vision that the few have tends to be crushed out of them by the pressure of academic standards and of an academic training that favors the microscopic view.

I hold that, in the field of international relations, the purpose of the academic world should be to develop the understanding of reality on which wise policy and responsible action depend. As we have seen, the members of that world are not in a position to tell the members of government how to deal with the immediate problems of every day. The great advantage they have over the members of government lies in the possibility of a detachment from everyday affairs that, if cultivated, would allow them to view those affairs in historical perspective, and thereby to derive from them the basic principles by which the strategy of the nations should be guided if the hopes of our kind are to be realized.

What I would oppose to the necessarily myopic view of the men in government is the large historical vision, as represented by Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, by Tocqueville’s Introduction to his De la Democratic en Amerique, by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History. If only the academic world of international relations would cultivate the large perspective and the strategic view of history, it could thereby raise the level of sophistication of our national societies. The consequence of doing so might, in the long run, have a practical significance far transcending that of the practical makeshifts by which practical men achieve nothing more than survival from day to day.


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