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The Decline of America: A Countering Appraisal

ISSUE:  Summer 1982

For many Americans the world has become singularly dangerous. Through much of the 1970’s the prevailing view of the Soviet Union, despite its burgeoning lead in conventional and nuclear power, had been reassuring. Facing potential enemies in Western Europe and China, Soviet leaders had argued effectively that Russia’s military obligations were unique. But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December 1979 demolished the nation’s complacency. That action persuaded American leaders and journalists alike that the Soviets were now prepared to project their mushrooming power far beyond their borders. President Jimmy Carter addressed the country on Jan. 4, 1980: “A Soviet-occupied Afghanistan threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a stepping stone to possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies.” Any Soviet moves into adjacent countries, the president warned, would endanger “the strategic and peaceful balance of the entire world.” Several days later the president told a White House gathering that the “Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is the greatest threat to world peace since the Second World War.” Ronald Reagan caught the post-Afghanistan alarms at full tide, embellished them, and rode them to victory. He entered office in January 1981, proclaiming the coming decade one of supreme danger to Western civilization. Alexander M. Haig shared his somber view of the world. At his confirmation hearing as secretary of state in January, he reminded members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the years immediately ahead will be unusually dangerous. Evidence of that danger is everywhere.” That mood of anxiety seemed to permeate American society. In an NEC-Associated Press survey of November 1981, 76 percent of Americans polled expected nuclear war within the decade. Armageddon, it seemed, was just around the corner.

What rendered Soviet aggressiveness especially threatening was the apparent weakening of the American commitment to international order. For writers such as Norman Podhoretz, it was the conjunction of the country’s decline and Russia’s ascendance that exposed the world of the eighties to a frightened and dangerous antagonist. Beset with a loss of purpose, the nation seemed unable to define its interests, much less defend them. Its repeated acceptance of humiliation without even an expression of outrage appeared to symbolize its moral and physical deterioration. Aleksandr Solzhenitzen reminded his Harvard audience in June 1978 that the consequences of the nation’s failure to choose victory over defeat in Vietnam would endure in the tragedy of the Vietnamese people and the aggravated appetites of the Communist aggressors. In his book, The Real War (1980), former President Richard M. Nixon pointed to two disturbing realities. “The first of these,” he wrote, “is that if a war were to come we might lose. The second is that we might be defeated without war. The second prospect is more likely than the first, and almost as grim.” Reagan adviser William R. Van Cleave concluded a New York Times interview with the assertion that “the United States is almost irrelevant.” Despite its high levels of defense spending, the country, to such observers, seemed to be headed toward national extinction.

Such widespread assumptions of national failure assumed that the United States once dominated international life and needlessly permitted its vaunted position to crumble through faltering leadership and military inadequacy. This view of history is not without merit. Emerging from war unscathed in 1945, the United States inherited the earth. Its undamaged industrial capacity exceeded that of the rest of the industrialized world. It possessed an atomic monopoly and two-thirds of the world’s capital wealth. Its technological supremacy was so obvious that the world assumed its existence and set out to use or copy American products. During the late forties the United States reached the highest point of world power achieved by any nation in modern times. British writer Harold J. Laski wrote in November 1947:

America bestrides the world like a colossus; neither Rome at the height of its power nor Great Britain in the period of its economic supremacy enjoyed an influence so direct, so profound, or so pervasive. It has half the wealth of the world today in its hands, it has rather more than half of the world’s productive capacity, and it exports more than twice as much as it imports. Today literally hundreds of millions of Europeans and Asiatics know that both the quality and the rhythm of their lives depend upon decisions made in Washington. On the wisdom of those decisions hangs the fate of the next generation.

So excessive was American power that the country did not require allies to protect its clear and vital interests. Europeans scarcely questioned the capacity or the intention of the United States to maintain world peace against any discernible aggression, assuring them security at little cost or obligation.

What projected that great power across the world was not its mere existence but perceptions of danger that sanctioned nothing less. The country’s ever-widening commitments flowed from the assumption that the threat to Western security lay in international communism as well as Soviet armed might. As early as mid-century the notion that the Kremlin, as the center of world communism, would extend its dominance through the techniques of subversion and revolution posed dangers to world security in events that occurred far outside the reach of Soviet military power. The decision to define the Soviet challenge in ideological rather than historic terms set deceptive standards of policy and created objectives which no country could achieve. The National Security Council’s noted policy recommendation of April 1950 known by its serial number NSC 68, like its predecessors, explained why the burdens of containment had no visible limit. It concluded that the U. S. S. R. , “unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” Through its alleged control of China’s Communist government, the Kremlin now endangered the independence of all south and southeast Asia. The Soviet assault on free institutions, warned NSC 68, was world-wide, and “in the context of the present polarization of power, a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” To meet the danger of Soviet expansionism the United States would establish a defense line around the perimeter of the Communist-controlled Eurasian land mass. NSC 68 assumed that the United States, with increased military power, could win the struggle against communism everywhere.

As late as the mid-1960’s the American anti-Communist consensus held firm. Years earlier the Hungarian revolution had relegated the liberation of peoples inside the Soviet empire to the realm of lost causes. But in Western Europe the NATO shield, backed by the nuclear arsenal of the United States, continued to underwrite that region’s remarkable stability and economic progress. If the nation’s security and self-image as world leader demanded that it hold the line against Communist-led encroachments outside Europe as well, the means for achieving that goal seemed no less promising. Throughout the Third World, but especially in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, pro-Western governments appeared willing, even anxious, to join the United States in bilateral or multilateral defense pacts, to provide military bases, or to accept American economic and military aid. Unfortunately, the defense lines which marked the periphery of the Communist world had moved far beyond the borders of Russia into regions where Communist-directed sabotage, insurgency, and guerrilla warfare rendered interests and the means to defend them ambiguous. President John F. Kennedy recognized the special burden which such threats to pro-Western regimes outside Europe placed on the United States in a speech he prepared just before his assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22,1963. “We in this country, in this generation,” ran his admonition, “are, by destiny rather than by choice, the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility. . . .” Soon the American struggle for Vietnam would carry the full burden of that responsibility.


That the position of the United States in world affairs deteriorated in the 1970’s is not a matter of serious contention. But did the decline from the previous decade reflect some form of national failure or simply predictable changes in world relations over which the United States had little control? Some writers have pointed to America’s failure in Vietnam as the “hidden ulcer” in the country’s decline. Actually, America’s special place among the nations of the world slipped in the seventies for reasons far more fundamental than the loss of a limited Asian war. Every statistical measure revealed the relative decline of the United States, both economically and militarily. At mid-century the United States accounted for 50 percent of the world’s military expenditures, in 1975 only 25 percent. In 1950 the United States produced 60 percent of the world’s manufactured goods; in 1975 it accounted for half that percentage. Six European countries—Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, West Germany, Belgium, and Norway—claimed per capita incomes higher than those of the United States. In many areas of modern economic life the United States no longer led the other industrial democracies. Three basic American industries— steel, automobile, and tire—could scarcely compete with the better-engineered and better-made products of Western Europe and Japan. Half the new cars on California’s crowded highways were Japanese. No longer could the United States protect its vital interests in oil against the power of the Middle Eastern oil barons. Without the capacity to project its power and influence to many parts of the globe, the United States seemed scarcely a superpower. In large measure, however, America’s relative economic decline reflected less a national failure than the remarkable success of the nation’s postwar policies in rebuilding war-torn Europe and Japan. Thus the decline of America as an economic giant was inevitable, given the artificially predominant status which the United States enjoyed amid the ruins of 1945.

At the policy level the nation’s retreat was even more predictable. Washington’s postwar neglect of the historic limitations on American foreign policy would eventually demand retrenchment. In areas or on issues of potential dispute no nation has ever operated successfully outside the realm of its generally-recognized national interests. The Founding Fathers defined those interests almost 200 years ago. For Alexander Hamilton, writing in The Federalist, it seemed essential that the United States maintain its political and military dominance of the Western Hemisphere. In practice this objective emphasized the concept of the two spheres, with the United States playing the leadership role in the Western Hemisphere. Second, the United States, to maximize its security, would support the European balance of power, taking a stand against any country that, through its dominance of Europe, might endanger the Western Hemisphere. Similarly the United States would seek to prevent the rise of a dominant power in the Orient. Finally, Hamilton understood, the United States would maintain a world-wide commercial empire. Because commerce, itself a peaceful pursuit, might lead to conflict, Hamilton urged the United States to maintain the necessary engines of coercion to protect its outlying interests. These varied concerns, historic and easily stated, guided the country through much of its history. When the United States pursued its limited interests with accuracy and diligence, the triumphs in diplomacy and war were often spectacular. When it failed to judge its interests with precision, the costs were invariably excessive.

Those early Cold War successes, which measured the genuine triumphs of American postwar diplomacy, conformed to the nation’s historic interests. In Europe the conditions had changed, demanding American efforts to rebuild the continent’s political and military equilibrium. Washington gained its objectives readily and quickly because Europe’s specific challenges gave the economic and military supremacy of the United States a special relevance. The marvelous triumphs of American policy coincided largely with what the nation’s power would buy at a time when that power was excessive: the economic rehabilitation of Western Europe and Japan, the promotion of international trade and investment, and the maintenance of a massive defense structure which underwrote the containment effort and played an essential role in Europe’s postwar political evolution. Even as American military power reinforced the division of Europe, its economic power, working through international agencies for trade and monetary stabilization, contributed to the world’s unprecedented prosperity. The ease whereby the United States gained its postwar position of unchallenged leadership in Europe and elsewhere exaggerated the notion that its new global posture reflected a permanent rearrangement of power in the world—that American power had indeed become global. What contributed to the illusion of permanent supremacy even in Asia was the wartime destruction of all the imperial structures that had established the traditional boundaries of American influence. The war not only destroyed the power of Germany and Japan; it also presaged the final collapse of the British and French empires. Indeed, the United States after mid-century expanded into a world-wide power vacuum. As a result, Walter Lippmann observed, “we flowed forward beyond our natural limits. . . . The miscalculation . . .falsified all our other calculations—what our power was, what we could afford to do, what influence we had to exert in the world.”

What allowed this overextension of American commitments beyond Europe, at least momentarily, was the absence of indigenous pressures against the country’s varied commitments and the assumption that threats of massive retaliation, if necessary, would protect these commitments from external aggression. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles assured the nation in January 1956 that the calm of east and southeast Asia was simply a triumph of his strategy of massive retaliation. White House adviser Walt W. Rostow explained to his readers in The New York Times Magazine, as late as June 1964 why American containment policies had held the line in Asia. “The military initiatives with respect to Laos and Vietnam,” he wrote, “. . .would have had no serious effect on the course of events unless the Communist leaders concerned were convinced that, echeloned behind these limited demonstrations of force, there had been both the capabilities and the will to deal with every form of escalation they might mount in response, up to and including all out nuclear war.” Somehow that threat of retaliation to any level, including nuclear war, did not eliminate the subsequent need to despatch over two million soldiers to Vietnam. Obviously the threat of massive retaliation was not the controlling element in Asia at all. No external force could prevent the increasing politicization of Third World societies and the creation of governments more anti-Western, nationalistic, self-centered, and resistant to external influence than the former proWestern, often aristocratic, regimes which they replaced. The seventies brought anti-Western political upheavals to Iran, Ethiopia, Pakistan, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and Nigeria. The world of Asia and Africa, in large measure, moved outside the realm of great power control.

That simple Cold War environment in which the possession of power was the key to success disappeared sometime in the mid-1960’s. For a decade thereafter the United States government perpetuated the illusion of effective global power, based on the will to use it, by fighting in Vietnam. In that struggle the American commitment to resist communism in all its forms reached the dead end. After Saigon’s fall in 1975, the United States remained the world’s leading power, but by then the troublesome issues that captured the headlines challenged few traditional American interests and thus defied the exertion of will or even the creation of genuine policy. How could the United States curtail the violence, terrorism, infringements on human rights, international traffic in arms, and undeclared conflicts that threatened world stability? How could it relieve the problems of poverty or slow an arms race that was costing the world one billion dollars a day? Meg Greenfield, writing in Newsweek in February 1978, saw the dilemma which faced the country. “So what are we going to do about it,” she asked, “if the rulers of Cambodia embark on a policy of national genocide, if the Cubans take up (Soviet) arms in Africa, if the Saudis lower production or increase the price of oil, if Southern Africa moves toward all-out racial war, if the Indians continue to build nuclear explosives, if the Western Europeans vote Communists into office? Is there anything we can do in an era in which we have even been admonished for expressing the hope that Italy remain a democracy? If that is regarded as an act of aggression, it tells you something about our role as a “superpower” in the post-Vietnam world.” The United States had approached the stage where it could neither admit that what happened abroad was not its concern nor act effectively when it did.


Already the central challenge to American policy was clear: how would it adjust to the reality of Third -World assertiveness and the country’s limited interest and influence in opposing it. President Jimmy Carter met the challenge by acknowledging America’s declining world role and, with that recognition, a diminution of the strategic importance of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. His assumption that the Third World countries had interests of their own and the will to pursue them reinforced his determination to avoid simple anti-Soviet postures to perpetuate the status quo. In his Notre Dame University speech of May 1977, he rejected the traditional Cold War assumption that American interests were global. “Being confident of our own future,” he said, “we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” For Carter, the political, economic, and ideological potential of the Third World was sufficient to eliminate any serious Soviet threat. In a world of triumphant nationalism American power had no legitimate or necessary use. In deserting the old commitment to global containment the Carter administration accepted the growing Soviet presence in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia with general unconcern—if often to the dismay of those who accused him of assigning world primacy to the Soviet Union. If Soviet policy in Africa and the Arabian peninsula was regrettable, it did not, for Carter, endanger American security. Zbigniew Brezezinski, Carter’s assistant for national security affairs, attributed the public’s widespread acceptance of the Carter policies to the fact that “the country, as a whole, fatigued by the Vietnam War,” was not prepared to confront the Soviet Union.

Third World assertiveness could not eliminate the worldwide Soviet-American competition for power and influence; it could only compel the two powers to alter their methods. Ultimately, the Carter administration faced the choice of declaring Asia and Africa irrelevant to the world’s balance of power—a necessity which the Nixon-Kissinger leadership hoped to avoid by securing Soviet compliance with the rules of detente—or framing a confrontationist response. Amid domestic ruminations about the administration’s failure of nerve, the expanding Soviet-Cuban presence in Africa could only embarrass the president. During the spring of 1978, State Department officials charged the Kremlin with maintaining 37,000 Cuban military personnel in 20 African countries. Unwilling to counter this Soviet-Cuban presence in Africa with a direct economic or military involvement, the administration searched in vain for some means to multiply the costs to the Kremlin. Finally the president, in his Annapolis address of June 1978, accused Soviet leaders of waging an “aggressive struggle for political advantage” in Africa. His challenge was blunt. “The Soviet Union,” he declared, “can choose either confrontation or cooperation. The United States is adequately prepared to met either choice.” Many in Washington scarcely concealed their satisfaction with Carter’s new toughness.

Critics challenged the fears that underwrote the administration’s changing mood. They reminded the country that Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Italy, and Spain had abandoned their respective possessions in Africa because they found them economically unprofitable and impossible to govern. How others could succeed where the Europeans had failed was not clear. It seemed incredible that African countries which had sought independence for so long would willingly become puppets of Cuba or the Soviet Union. Most Africans could detect nothing objectionable in Soviet behavior, for the Russians and Cubans had gone only where they were invited. Nowhere had they broken international law. When New York Senator Daniel Moynihan and Former Secretary Kissinger charged that the United States should not have permitted the Cubans to enter Ethiopia, The New York Times editorialized: “One man says threaten anything, no matter what the chances of making good on the threat. The other says never mind the particular stakes or possibilities, in geopolitics everything is tied to everything else. . . . There, we submit, walks the ghost of Vietnam. . . . Whatever the stakes on the ground, or the possibilities, for geopolitical reasons Hanoi had to be stopped. . . . To resurrect that logic against a President who seeks new techniques for applying American influence around the world is a dangerous game indeed.” Far better, said the Times, to portray the risks and costs to Moscow. Experience suggested that the Kremlin would be no more successful than Washington had been in converting Ethiopia into a bulwark against anything. Despite the accusations of weakness, Carter held to his policies of inaction. Following the Democratic defeat in 1980, Brezezinski asserted that the fatigue of Vietnam had prevented United States counteraction to ward off Soviet and Cuban assistance to Ethiopia; he never specified the nature of that counteraction. Perhaps Carter’s mistake lay less in his rejection of force than in his neglect of a confrontationist posture which might have maintained the illusion of power and will while cloaking the reality of limited intent. If any of his critics really wanted an American war in Africa, they never revealed it.


Strategically the Middle East loomed more important than Africa, made so by its gigantic stores of oil, its central location astride the major routes to the Orient, and its proximity to the Soviet Union. After the Suez crisis of 1956, the United States displaced the British and French to become the protector of Middle Eastern stability. To limit Soviet influence in the region, it offered aid to pro-Western regimes under the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957, supported Israel against the Arab world in an otherwise evenhanded policy, and sought to transform Iran into a bastion of Middle Eastern security with heavy sales of sophisticated military equipment to the Shah. Washington’s Middle Eastern policy faced its initial test in early 1979 when a Moslem revolution overthrew the Shah, an event which dramatized the vulnerability of American power in the Middle East. The Carter administration responded with a reassertion of America’s global interests. “The United States,” declared Defense Secretary Harold Brown in late February, “is prepared to defend its vital interests with whatever means are appropriate, including military force where necessary, whether that’s in the Middle East or elsewhere.” Energy Secretary James Schlesinger added, “The United States has vital interests in the Persian Gulf. The United States must move in such a way that it protects those interests, even if that increases the use of military strength. . . .” The president advocated additional arms sales to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel; otherwise he continued his policy of inaction. With the seizure of the American embassy in November 1979, Iran challenged American sensibilities but not American security. For Carter, this again eliminated any resort to force. Some charged the president with softness, suggesting that other undisclosed actions would have secured the immediate release of the embassy personnel. Overwhelmingly, the American people recognized the limits of national policy in Iran and lauded the President’s moderation.

Already facing open challenges to its will and prestige in the Middle East, the United States reacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December 1979 with bewilderment and rage. Afghanistan was not a Western interest; nor did Soviet occupation alter the world’s strategic balance. But for the first time since 1945 the Russians had used force outside Eastern Europe. The president admitted bitterly that the Soviets had taken him in. Unable to ignore the Soviet action, Carter faced an unfortunate decision. He could either inform the American people that the Soviet invasion, while irresponsible, did not touch any vital American interest or declare Soviet behavior dangerous to all southwest Asia, thus demanding some form of retaliation. The administration could assume greater public approval for the latter choice. Brezezinski argued that the Soviet Union threatened American interests from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, especially Pakistan and the states bordering the Persian Gulf. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on January 20, the President repeated the warning: “This in my opinion is the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War. . . . It’s a threat to an area of the world where the interests of our country and those interests of our allies are deeply embedded.” The president then set forth his Carter Doctrine. “An attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” he declared in his State of the Union message, “will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.” He continued with the assurance that such an assault “will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Yet Carter scarcely took his warning seriously. If he suspected that the Soviets had embarked on a program to control the oil and sea lanes of the Persian Gulf, he would have called, not for embargoes on grain, technology, and the Olympics, but for national mobilization.

Afghanistan vindicated those who had long charged American policy with weakness. For them, Russia’s imperialistic behavior revealed a decline in the essential cautiousness of Soviet leaders and a diminishing respect for American power. The widespread assumption that the Soviet invasion exposed all southwest Asia to further Soviet encroachment pushed American hawkishness to a new high. What mattered was not the reasons why the Soviets had entered Afghanistan, but the fact that they had gained a strategic position from which they could more easily threaten Pakistan, Iran, and the Persian Gulf states. When asked in a New York Times interview of February 10 what evidence he had that the Soviets would go further, Richard E. Pipes of Harvard University replied: “No evidence except that it would make no sense to occupy Afghanistan for any other purpose. Afghanistan has no natural resources of importance, and the risk of antagonizing the West is very high for a bit of mountainous territory with a primitive economy, with a population that has never been subdued by any colonial power. To run all these risks for the sake of occupying this territory seems to make little sense—unless you have some ultimate, higher strategic objectives.” Many American and European observers rejected such assumptions of danger to south and southwest Asia. The Kremlin had long understood the limited possibilities of its strategic position in Hungary or East Germany; similarly the occupation of Afghanistan, some argued, was no measure of Soviet intentions toward the regions beyond.

Few questioned the importance of the Persian Gulf region to the Western world. Still, the widespread addiction to Arab oil failed to eliminate doubts regarding the appropriateness of the American response to the Afghan crisis. The administration made no effort to explain what had happened in Afghanistan and why the Soviet invasion endangered all of southwest Asia, much less how the United States intended to defend the region. State and Defense Department officials agreed that the United States could not confront the Soviets successfully along Russia’s southern flank. Some analysts wondered, moreover, how the United States could fashion an effective containment strategy for the Middle East when the dangers to regional stability lay less in Soviet expansionism than in the local and national animosities that existed within the region itself. For the first time in its history, the country had created a vital interest beyond its control. Any regional war that involved the big powers would begin with the oil’s destruction, either by the United States or by the Soviet Union. For some, the only answer to American vulnerability in the Middle East was the reduction of energy use. “If the Persian Gulf is really vital to our security,” observed George F. Kennan, “it is surely we who, by our unrestrained greed for oil, have made it so. Would it not be better to set about to eliminate, by a really serious and determined effort, a dependence that ought never have been allowed to arise, than to try to shore up by military means, in a highly unfavorable region, the unsound position into which the dependence has led us?”

Determined to halt the retreat of the Carter years, the Reagan administration entered office in January 1981 committed to the reassertion of the country’s global leadership. Apprising the Soviets that their days of military dominance were numbered, the new president pressed Congress for larger military expenditures, with apparently little concern for where the money would go. The needed message to the world would emerge from the expenditures themselves. Even earlier the Reagan team had sought to exorcise the memories of Vietnam and the limitations they imposed on American will. The new globalism, freed of its recent restraints, required that the United States again confront Soviet expansionism wherever it occurred—in Africa, the Middle East, or Central America. Reagan resurrected the domino theory to explain his decision to take a stand in El Salvador. “What we’re doing,” he said, “. . .is try to halt the infiltration into the Americas, by terrorists and by outside interference, and those who aren’t just aiming at El Salvador but, I think, are aiming at the whole of Central and possibly later South America and, I’m sure, eventually North America.”

Reagan’s critics predicted that his administration would never close the gap between its fears and its actions. Indeed, the new leadership, despite its confrontational mood, framed no policies which conformed to its self-proclaimed global obligations. The foreign policy phrases honed in the early days of the administration were not the determinants of policy at all. Reagan’s continuing anti-Soviet crusade in El Salvador brought neither security to the cities nor peace to the countryside. He, no less than Carter, coexisted with the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Arabian peninsula. In late April 1981, Reagan undermined his policy of toughness completely by ending President Carter’s embargo on grain shipments to Russia. So casual, inconsistent, and cautious were the Reagan policies toward the Soviet Union that analysts accused the administration of having no strategy at all. Columnist George Will condemned Secretary Haig’s pronounced tendency to preach toughness and to act otherwise. “In Carter’s State Department,” he wrote in mid-January, 1982, “rhetoric and policy were both bad, but at least they meshed. Haig’s rhetoric does not fit the policies that give an appearance of action without real action. The mismatch is confusing the country.” In his disenchantment with the Reagan administration’s apparent failures, the columnist seldom advised Washington how it might square its words and actions. Ultimately, the world would impose its will on the Reagan administration precisely as it had on Carter’s.


If the United States cannot deter Soviet advances everywhere, it has no choice but to determine with some precision what it must defend. At issue is the protection of those minimum conditions which will enable the country to survive and prosper. Never before in written history has the potential price of miscalculation in projecting interests been so high. “The more clearly the superpowers define their vital interests—the kind they’d fight to protect,” editorialized The New York Times on Sept. 28, 1980, “the greater the chances that they will respect them and avoid a fight.” The great powers defined those interests in Europe long ago; that definition, in large measure, has accounted for Europe’s persisting peace. The task of defining ends with such precision elsewhere is exceedingly difficult; no wartime conquests have delineated the spheres of influence. What has prevented any direct Soviet-American confrontation outside Europe has been less the existence of well-defined and heavily-armed frontiers than Third World resistance to external pressure and the absence of major interests in conflict. Still, if Russia is to be deterred in the future, it must know from what. The need to prevent miscalculation requires a serious effort at communication. The breakdown of communication invariably increases suspicion and tension. Former Ambassador to Russia Malcolm Toon warned the American people in the wake of Afghanistan:

I am a hard-liner in the sense that I think we should deal with the Soviets as they are, not as we’d like them to be, that is, without any illusions as to what they are up to, what their long-range goals are and what their real attitude is toward the United States. But despite Afghanistan, despite the banishment of Sakharov to Gorky, despite, in a word, bestial Soviet behavior both at home and abroad, despite all of this, we must deal with the Soviets. We cannot ignore them. We cannot refuse to talk with them. The nuclear world, in my view, is just too dangerous a place for such an approach.

Perhaps the most troublesome challenge to American policy is that of defining and defending interests in areas where the Soviet Union enjoys a clear strategic advantage. In its commitment to the important Persian Gulf region, where the United States could not win a conventional war, the problem confronting the United States is not unlike that which faced British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in Eastern Europe after 1938. Britain did not have the power, scarcely the interest, to save Austria or the Sudetenland from Nazi aggression. When Adolf Hitler seized Czechoslovakia and threatened Poland in March 1939, Chamberlain warned Berlin that a move into Poland would inaugurate, not a British defense of the region, but a general war. Beyond the threat of a wider war, Britain’s lone possibility for a short-term deterrent against Hitler was a coalition of powers which would include the Soviet Union. It was London’s failure to come to terms with the Kremlin in 1939 that enabled Hitler to attack Poland without facing an effective and restraining coalition at all. If the Soviet threat to regions around Russia’s periphery is indeed serious, the experience of the late 1930’s suggests the only promising formula for future policy—the assurance of a wider war. Whether the simple threat of nuclear retaliation would defend the Middle East from Soviet attack is uncertain. What undermines the credibility of massive retaliatory power in that distant region is the knowledge that any nuclear war fought to protect the oil would endanger the United States and Europe as well. To court such disaster in defense of the Persian Gulf appears dangerous, even irresponsible. It denies above all the power and interests of other nations.

In any genuine defense of the international equilibrium, the potential sources of deterrent power far transcend the American nuclear arsenal; nearly every nation on the globe opposes Soviet aggression. Amid the world’s general concern for stability the possibilities of coalition diplomacy should be promising enough. Alliances enable their members not only to maximize the means of policy at their disposal but also to create essential opportunities for mutual instruction. Coalition diplomacy rests primarily on agreements concerning interests and objectives; no country will entrust its defense to another unless the policies they pursue and the ends they seek reflect common perceptions of the dangers they face. It is at the level of ends, not of means, that coalitions break down. Obviously, the United States and its European allies have failed to sustain the vital relationships and the common assumptions of danger that once gave NATO its relevance. Britain, the least critical among European countries of Washington’s leadership, never regained its prewar status as a major military-political European power. France, recovered but fiercely independent, has scarcely followed the American lead at all. West Germany’s dissatisfaction with America’s European role has been even more confounding inasmuch as that steadfast country was central to Europe’s defense structure. Chancellor Helmuth Schmidt has made no effort to conceal his disenchantment with Washington. United States policies outside Europe have produced little or no support within NATO at all. In some measure the problem of declining good faith in United States leadership lies within Europe itself. Europeans have not always been constructive in presenting their views or in coming to terms with America’s special contribution to Europe’s defense and its special role as world leader.

Reagan’s confrontationist approach to the Soviet Union did nothing to reverse the steady vitiation of the alliance. Europeans understood, if some members of the administration did not, that tough language, massive increases in defense spending, and symbolic sanctions would not compel the world to conform to Washington’s designs. Neither, for them, did Europe’s security demand such conformity. They had long rejected the perceptions of danger that generated the global policies of the United States. To Europeans, detente was no failure; moreover, they could discover no genuine alternative. On Third World issues they rejected the Reagan administration’s hard-line phraseology, not because they opposed the stated objectives, but because they feared that the administration had not considered the consequences of its pronouncements. Europe’s peace had been the core of international stability, and Western Europe had no interest in becoming the battleground of a war begun elsewhere over issues that concerned it remotely if at all. In a world declared dangerous because of Soviet policies in Africa or the Middle East, NATO members were admittedly reluctant to play host to cruise and Pershing II missiles or to neutron bombs; the massive antinuclear demonstrations of 1981 merely reinforced that reluctance. Reagan’s first major foreign policy initiative—his proposal of November 18 for eliminating United States and Soviet medium-range missiles from Europe— demonstrated his administration’s tardy recognition of the rising anti-American, neutralist sentiment in Western Europe. If the allies occasionally shared the administration’s sense of outrage at Soviet behavior, they questioned the administration’s power to improve the situation with verbal threats and limited sanctions, which would only irritate Kremlin leaders without intimidating them or altering their policies.

What limited Western cohesion from the beginning was the persistent unilateralism in American foreign policy. With the attitude of the rich and powerful, the United States remained careless in its relations with its allies, seldom troubling itself with the assets and liabilities which they represented. As long as the power of the United States assuaged Europe’s fears and underwrote its prosperity, the allies accepted a master-servant relationship with Washington. With the recovery of its productivity and confidence, Europe became less tolerant of American Cold War attitudes and corresponding distractions in other regions of the world. Facing profound disagreements on basic approaches to the Soviet problem, the United States less and less sought or received European support for its global reactions. In confronting the Afghan crisis, the Carter administration, even as it proclaimed the unprecedented danger of Soviet aggression, neither acknowledged any defense arrangements with Europe nor made any reference to European interests or commitments. To announce policies for the Middle East, where European interests in oil exceeded those of the United States, in the absence of coalition diplomacy suggested again that the administration did not regard the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a very serious matter. Much to Europe’s annoyance, President Carter neglected to notify NATO about his decision to postpone the development of the neutron bomb; in 1981 European leaders complained that the Reagan administration refused to coordinate on its plans to produce and stockpile the neutron bomb. During his visit to Washington early in 1982, Chancellor Schmidt complained that Washington, following the imposition of martial law in Poland, embarked on its program of limited economic sanctions without consulting its European allies. Such unilaterialism assumed either that American power was too dominant, the Soviet danger too remote, or the interests too negligible to require the attendance of an effective Western coalition.

Fortunately, the decline of the United States, both as a military superpower and as spokesman of the Western world, was no demonstration of national failure. American power was not the only source of stability in the non-Soviet world; neither did the elements of stability exist only as the United States gave them unity and purpose. They lay essentially in the sovereignty of nations. Amid such advantages the United States succeeded where it mattered. It protected its essential interests in the world’s balance of power by promoting the independence of those areas whose independence comprised the international equilibrium. It discouraged attacks on its own soil and on the territories of the world’s non-Soviet industrial centers. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in no measure threatened the integrity of Britain, Western Europe, Japan, China, or even the oil regions of the Middle East. George Kennan, acknowledging the world’s fundamental stability, urged Americans not to exaggerate Moscow’s military capabilities or the expansiveness of its intentions. “If we insist,” he warned, “. . .on viewing [Soviet leaders] as total and incorrigible enemies, consumed only with their fears and hatred of us and dedicated to nothing other than our destruction—that, in the end, is the way we shall assuredly have them, if for no other reason than that our view of them allows for nothing else, either for us or for them.”

The emphasis on being strong does not communicate very much about what the country can or should do with that strength in confronting Soviet influence in the Third World. The Soviets gained nothing militarily and little politically from the continuing revolutions that swept the Asian and African continents. The events of the 1970’s shattered the myth of the Communist monolith as the vehicle of Soviet expansionism. For the Kremlin, no Third World gain could conceivably counterbalance China’s bitter defection from the Russian camp. Indeed, two-thirds of the Communist-led peoples of the world look to the United States, not to the U. S. S. R. , for support. If the limited Russian military presence outside the Soviet bloc remained troublesome, countering policy could have efficacy only in regions where interests were clear and strategic advantages unmistakable. Officials achieve nothing by declaring interests that no other country will take seriously or that the American people will not sustain with a full national response. The record has demonstrated repeatedly that the interests which will elicit the support of the American people over time are exceedingly limited. But the restraints, great as they are, have never eliminated the opportunities for sound leadership to define and to protect those interests which historically have under-written the security and the welfare of the American people.


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