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Multipolarity In World Politics: the Challenge

ISSUE:  Summer 1988

After 40 years of Cold War, most of it not very puzzling, two approaches to the question of national security continue to struggle for control of the American mind. One views the world as essentially bipolar, with the United States and the U.S.S.R. as the two poles of world politics, compelling other countries to arrange themselves in the orbit of one or the other like steel filings in a vast magnetic field. Bipolarism rests on the assumption that the Soviet-American conflict is the supreme fact of international life, dwarfing all other national or regional concerns. In Russia it discerns a huge country towering over the Eurasian continent, backed by a massive military machine and driven by a crusading ideology, determined to dominate much of the world. What sustains this presumption of imminent danger is the conviction that the U.S.S.R. has gained military leadership in some important categories and is in large measure responsible for the specific pressures that threaten the stability of Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. Most recently the Soviets have penetrated the southwest Pacific from their base at Cam Rahn Bay, threatening a region that until recently had been an American preserve. In this global confrontation the United States provides the non-Soviet world its essential defense against the expansion of Russian power and influence. For some Americans the Soviet-American antagonism remains a zero sum game in which one power will ultimately succumb to the will of the other.

This bipolar view of the world rests primarily on a long succession of official American responses to unwanted changes in the international environment. Soviet intransigence over the questions of Germany and Eastern Europe during the early postwar years seemed troublesome enough. Then in September 1949 Russia’s success in breaking the American atomic monopoly raised the prospect of a vast expansion in Soviet military power. Even more frightening was the burgeoning notion of a Communist monolith that seemed to convey to the Kremlin the power to extend its influence, through subversion and revolution, far beyond the reach of Russian armies. The National Security Council’s noted policy recommendation of April 1950, NSC 68, embodied the dire suppositions of the times. “The issues that we face,” the document announced, “are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.” NSC 68 reminded its readers 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.” The Soviet assault on free institutions, it warned, was worldwide and, “in the context of the present polarization of power, a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” Five years after the country’s celebrated victories over Germany and Japan the world faced dangers of unprecedented magnitude.

What globalized the Soviet threat was not merely the Communist-led revolutions of China and Indochina, but, even more, the assumption that these Asian revolutionary movements furthered the Kremlin’s assault on the non-Soviet world. Supported by the dynamism of Soviet-based international communism, warned Foreign Service Officer Karl Lott Rankin from Hong Kong in November 1949, “China might well be able to dominate not only Indochina, Siam, and Burma, but eventually the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India itself.” Secretary of State Dean Acheson told the Commonwealth Club of California in the spring of 1950 that Asians “must face the fact that today the major threat to their freedom and to their social and economic progress is the attempted penetration of Asia by Soviet-Communist imperialism. . . .” The presumption of a Communist monolith raised the specter that the possible triumph of Marxist Ho Chi Minh in Indochina would place all Southeast Asia and more under Kremlin control. In April 1950 the Joint Chiefs of Staff defined Indochina’s importance by insisting that the “security of . . . Japan, India, and Australia . . .depends in large measure on the denial of Southeast Asia to the Communists.” Soon came the Korean War in which alleged Soviet-based expansionism, sending both North Korea and China on the offensive, shifted from presumption to massive reality. American fears quickly reached a new level of intensity. State Department adviser John Foster Dulles responded with a public declaration that Communist-inspired violence now threatened “the whole vast area extending from Korea down through China into Indochina, Malaya, the Philippines, and west into Tibet and the borders of Burma, India, and Pakistan.” For President Harry Truman the issues had become the security and survival of the United States itself.

Thereafter such apocolyptic rhetoric ran like a torrent through official reactions to every Cold War crisis, most notably that of falling dominóes throughout the Vietnam War. More recently it appeared in President Jimmy Carter’s response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, especially when White House officials warned the country that Russian forces in Afghanistan endangered the entire region from the eastern Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan. Iran and Pakistan appeared doomed to Soviet occupation. For President Ronald Reagan, a year later, Soviet expansionism aimed at Nicaragua, threatening the independence of Central America, if not North and South America as well. Perhaps Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh best defined the Reagan administration’s official view of Russia’s global challenge when he addressed a Richmond audience in April 1984. “This century has seen the birth of a new colossus, one driven by an alien ideology,” said the secretary. “It draws its strength from the force of arms. It has waged ruthless aggression on its neighbor states. From its Eurasian power base, the Soviet Union now leapfrogs its power to the four corners of the globe, and threatens the peace of an insecure world.”

Through successive decades of Cold War Democratic and Republican leaders, no less than some writers and scholars, either predicted or accepted the actuality of Russian expansion in various regions of the globe, and with it the danger of war—either of which could spell disaster for the United States and the world. Invariably such notions of global aggression, with the United States alone carrying the burden of peace, presumed a Soviet-American predominance in world affairs and ignored the importance of other nations, whether acting independently or in combination, as factors in international stability. The fundamental supposition that the military might of the United States provided the essential limitation on Soviet ambition sustained the multi-trillion-dollar American defense expenditures since mid-century. It inaugurated, then inevitably aggravated, the deep divisions in American society on every aspect of defense and foreign policy, separating those who took the rhetoric seriously from those who did not.

With reason, Americans in increasing numbers rejected Washington’s perennial fears as exaggerations of the external dangers facing the country. However grave and persistent the Soviet challenge, the repeated predictions of doom scarcely reflected the realities of the contemporary world. Throughout the era of the Cold War the United States experienced no military confrontation with the Soviet Union, much less the probability of war. The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was no clear exception. Nowhere did the dominoes fall in accordance with the predictions of Communist expansion across Eurasia and the Pacific should Saigon fall to the North Vietnamese. Seven years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets were not on the Persian Gulf or in possession of Mid-Eastern oil, but predictably were seeking a graceful escape from their torment. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev referred to Afghanistan as his country’s “bleeding wound.” Some half million Russian veterans of that war, many of them drug addicts, fueled Russia’s disillusionment with tales of horror. Somehow the real world of sovereign nations is tougher, more resilient, more resistant to unwanted change than the one portrayed by the image of a world endangered by a bipolar antagonism between two superpowers.


Every fundamental trend in international life wars against the concept of bipolarism. The very assumption that two countries dominate world politics is unacceptable to all peoples and governments. Still it is largely true that the United States and the U.S.S.R. dominated international relations during the immediate postwar years when they faced one another across a ruined world. While it lasted, that bipolarism, not as an expression of global rivalry but as a structure of concentrated power, did not serve humanity badly. It simplified international politics by forcing all fundamental United States policies into a containment mold and compelled the Western states to accept roles that conformed to American purpose. The result was a high degree of international cooperation, especially inside the American alliance system. Soviet dominance of East-Central Europe terminated that region’s bitter irredentist conflicts that led to two world wars in this century. Russian power eliminated the German problem, at least for the foreseeable future. Bipolarism apart from the Cold War created, for both Washington and Moscow, a mutual interest in maintaining their established relationship as preferable to any alternative. Inhabiting vast areas on opposite sides of the globe, the two powers had few genuine, historic interests in conflict. Coexistence, lauded by Soviet and American leaders alike, assumed a variety of forms that seemed capable of sustaining the peace.

That age of bipolar power, whether viewed as military, economic, or moral, began to disintegrate in the 1950’s and by 1960 had ceased to exist. Europe’s once-powerful nations, with a confidence born of economic recovery, became increasingly independent in their behavior. During the 1960’s France’s Charles de Gaulle openly defied most major foreign policies of the United States. Before the end of the decade West Germany’s Kurt Kiesinger and Willy Brandt ignored Washington’s admonitions and adopted more accommodating forms of Ostpolitik with Russia and Poland. Washington fixed the nation’s eyes on Vietnam while the European allies drifted off in directions of their own. Facing profound disagreements on basic definitions of the Soviet problem, Washington less and less sought or received European support for its global decisions. Third World states appeared no less independent. Whatever the accuracy of those who saw the hand of the Kremlin in Third World upheavals, the sources and intentions of revolutionary movements remained indigenous and historic. Confronted by nationalistic barriers to external influence, Washington and Moscow failed to establish any control over Asian or African affairs commensurate with their efforts. Countries inside and outside Europe pursued their own interests and dealt with others largely on their own terms. For them the Soviet-American conflict was generally irrelevant.

With each passing year the United States and the U. S. S. R. faced a growing diffusion of world power, marked by the determination of states to define and defend their own interests and to stand against the pretensions of others. Whatever its comparative power, no country can long exert its will against a world of sovereign states without coming up against the preferences of nations that, even under the threat of violence, will concede very little. Russian dominance really never extended beyond the reach of Russian armies; similarly the United States controlled its own territory and little else. Even where this nation stationed large armies over long periods of time, as in West Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines, it gained little influence. Economic and military aid brought few concessions from Israel, Egypt, and Chile. Some American officials acknowledged readily enough the impact of nationalism and multipolarity in world affairs; others did not. Editors of the World Press Review, in October 1985, admonished those for whom nothing had changed: “So a new global society is here. Abroad, the question about Americans is, will they acknowledge it, adapt to it, and help guide it in constructive directions, or will they, like the Flat-Earth Society and other historical prisoners of delusion, try to live in the past?”

In only one respect did the United States and the Soviet Union remain the world’s leading rivals, and that was in the area of nuclear and conventional military power. It was their capacity to ruin the world, not manage it, that sustained the illusion of their predominance in world affairs. In every other respect the competition was not between them at all. In international trade and investment the leading players were the United States, Japan, and the countries of western Europe, with the U.S.S.R. lagging far behind. In the United Nations, Third World blocs almost eliminated both the United States and Russia as dominant forces in that organization. Long before the 1980’s Washington and Moscow faced a solid nonaligned bloc of more than one hundred countries which neither could control. On many important issues the United States, deserted even by its European allies, was reduced to a minority of one. If the votes in the General Assembly did not reflect the actual distribution of military and economic power in the world, they did reveal the almost total absence of Soviet and American ideological influence among Third World countries.

What really symbolized the limits of the Soviet-American conflict in world politics was the fact that the Cold War never dominated the behavior or the outlook of international society sufficiently to discourage the unprecedented economic, social, and political progress that characterized the postwar era. Common interests in trade and various forms of cultural and economic activity have always influenced international life far more than have aggression and war. Soviet-American expenditures for military preparedness scarcely touched the world’s economic achievements. By most standards of human progress the 40 years of cold war comprised one of the golden ages of history. The prodigious investment of human and physical resources assumed a fundamental international security, one that, despite the recurrence of limited aggression and war, permitted the evolution of the civilization that now exists in the world. Peoples and governments generally assume that the forces of stability are dominant enough, whatever the state of United States-Soviet relations, to sustain the material gains of the past. Every modern nation builds with the confidence that its civilization is secure.


During the late 1950’s, the time of Nikita Khrushchev, Russia appeared to be emerging from its shell and challenging at last the power, prestige, and productivity of the West. The Soviet system seemed to offer the continents a model of economic and social organization worthy of emulation. When Khrushchev declared to the world that the U.S.S.R. would bury its capitalists, he spoke with the knowledge that the Soviet Union had achieved some remarkable industrial and technological triumphs. In the 20 years that followed Khrushchev’s open challenge to the non-Soviet world the Russian economy failed to fulfill its promise. The Soviets managed to build and sustain a military machine of superpower status, but they were unable to build a modern and efficient productive system. Russia neither buried the West economically nor became the model for the world. Long before the 1980’s Soviet leaders recognized their country’s economic disabilities; some admitted openly that the U.S.S.R. would never achieve efficiency under its present system. Faced with deep social and economic ills, a decline in life expectancy, rising infant mortality, increasing alcoholism, crime, and corruption, many Russians no longer possessed any clear sense of the future. Much of Russia’s nonmilitary industry remained decades behind that of the other industrialized countries. By 1980 the standing of the U.S.S.R. as a superpower rested on its military dominance alone. Economically the Soviet Union had become the world’s strongest underdeveloped country.

Yuri V. Andropov, who took over the Communist Party in 1982, knew how bad the situation in Russia had become, but declining health deprived him of the time and energy to effect any change. His successor, Konstantin U. Chernenko, died after heading the Politburo for only a brief period. Mikhail Gorbachev, who assumed leadership in 1985, shared Andropov’s perceptions of Russia’s ills but, unlike Andropov, Gorbachev possessed the youth, vitality, and appeal to confront Russia’s pervading internal weaknesses. For Gorbachev time was fast running out on Soviet society. Russia’s economy, he saw, required a better application of research to civilian production, greater decentralization of control to encourage innovation and productivity, more effective incentives and efficient use of labor, and greater involvement in the world economy. To meet such needs Gorbachev instituted his program of glasnost, or openness, designed to free the Russian mind and unleash the creativity that would build Russia into a modern industrial state. To encourage a more critical examination of Soviet life, glasnost advocated a loosening of censorship and a more candid look at Russian history. Concerned especially with Russia’s zero economic growth, Gorbachev sought a restructuring of society to stimulate individualism through the establishment of rewards for diligence and innovation. For Gorbachev such restructuring comprised Russia’s last opportunity for modernization. “If we take fright and stop the process we have begun,” he admonished his country, “it would have the most serious consequences, because we simply could not raise our people to such a massive task a second time.”

Gorbachev’s major source of strength in effecting change lay in the pervading shame of Russia’s backwardness. Yet so persistent was the weight of tradition that Gorbachev’s reforms faced widespread public apathy. Russians unattuned to the spirit of individualism and distrusting the future of the reform movement were not inclined to risk their positions by challenging the system. Notions of openness and restructuring faced passive resistance, if not open hostility, among Soviet officials who saw in reform the destruction of their privileges. So profound was the bureaucratic opposition to change that Gorbachev, in his widely heralded three-hour speech of November 1987, marking the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, offered no further initiatives. He even rebuked his supporters for displaying too much enthusiasm. Nothing in glasnost challenged the established structure of Russian society; it anticipated neither democracy nor capitalism. At no time did Gorbachev question the mythology of the party and its role in Soviet society, or the perception of a hostile world that sustained the legitimacy of the Soviet regime. It was not clear how a thoroughly Soviet program could penetrate Russian society sufficiently to effect the needed changes in attitude toward life and work. There was, in 1987, enough public criticism of public policy to give some credence to glasnost, but the gains for human rights remained limited. Russia’s low productivity and unanswered internal disabilities could only reinforce that country’s declining authority in world affairs. As journalist Robert G. Kaiser explained, “Mikhail Gorbachev has given us a new opportunity to redraw our image of the East-West confrontation. As he implicitly acknowledges, we are not really dealing with two equivalent giants. Not that we needed his new candor to realize how grave are Soviet weaknesses, or how unfavorable are the trends in that country.”


If changing internal and external conditions dealt harshly with the Soviet Union, they diminished the world position of the United States as well. The American economy remained the strongest in the world, but its relative decline after the 1960’s undermined the nation’s role as a world power and compelled it to contemplate the fate of the great European states of modern history. President Reagan’s initial decision to strengthen the nation economically and militarily with reduced taxes and unprecedented peacetime military budgets won widespread congressional and public approval. Supply-side economists who had the President’s ear predicted that the increased investment eminating from tax reduction would enlarge the country’s tax base sufficiently to erase the predictable deficits. Rather than expanding and modernizing the nation’s industrial plant, however, the new money underwrote the greatest speculative boom in American history, unprecedented federal deficits, and, ultimately, the stagnation of the economy.

What contributed to the indifferent performance of the industrial sector and the decline in productivity in the 1980’s was the heavy federal expenditure for military hardware. Defense appropriations favored aerospace, communications, and high-tech industries over steel, automobiles, machinery, chemicals, and other basic manufacturing. Greater profits seemed to lie in military research and weapons development than in plant modernization and investment in new industries. Whereas many of the best American scientists worked on nuclear weapons and delivery systems, Japan’s research effort expanded the frontiers of electronics while new, innovative industries, supported by heavy investment, created the high-quality consumer products that captured the world. Similarly West Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore devoted their energies and skills to the successful production of attractive goods for the international market. As Japanese and West German productivity soared, the impressive American productivity gains of the early postwar years disappeared. Britain’s decline as an industrial power between 1870 and 1945 required 75 years of productivity growth slightly below that of other industrial countries; the corresponding gap between the United States and its industrial competitors was three times as large. The 1980’s might be remembered, mused Peter Peterson, “when we took the British route to second-class status.”

Low productivity and the concentration of investment and innovation in nonconsumer goods undermined the competitiveness of the American economy. That lack of competitiveness, added to the decline in agricultural exports, produced a trade imbalance of $160 billion by 1986. The bottom was not yet in sight. Meanwhile federal deficits rose from approximately $60 billion in 1980 to over $200 billion in 1985. Defense spending was not the major reason for the annual deficits, but rather the growth of entitlement payments. Whatever the reason, the federal debt doubled in those five years from $914 billion to $1,823 billion. Such increases in national indebtedness in time of peace and prosperity had no precedent in history. Only the influx of foreign capital during the 1980’s permitted the country to escape the normal consequences of such overspending. By 1987 the United States owed foreign creditors some $400 billion, a reversal from a positive balance of $141 billion in 1981. The United States had become the world’s largest debtor, and the debt continued to grow.

Foreign investments in the United States, unlike those in Japan, financed consumption rather than production and thus had no anticipated end. The huge indebtedness gave foreign creditors unwarranted leverage over the American economy. To sustain the needed financing, the country had no choice but to accommodate its creditors, knowing that it could not, by borrowing abroad, cover its deficits and trade imbalances forever. No country has ever been a great power and a great debtor simultaneously. Great powers in the past gave up their international primacy to high debts and low economic growth—Spain in the 16th century, France in the 18th century, and Britain in the 20th. Every great power of modern times, historian Paul Kennedy wrote in The Atlantic Monthly of August 1987, “shows a significant correlation over the long term between production and revenue-raising capacity on the one hand and military strength on the other.”

Never in history has the strength of the leading powers remained constant over the decades, but the decline is generally relative. Britain, far richer and stronger than it was during its prime as a world power, has seen its world position almost disintegrate in this century. Citizens of the United States are far richer in 1988 than they were in 1950, but the country’s relative decline eroded its capacity to sustain the status of world leader it enjoyed as late as 1960. By escaping the destruction of its economy in World War II, the United States, in 1945, possessed almost half of the world’s production; 40 years later that share had slipped to less than 20 percent. The Soviet share never approached that level. Western Europe’s GNP exceeded that of the United States; Japan’s more than matched that of Russia. Yet Washington and Moscow, feeding each other’s fears and insecurities, prolonged an arms race that kept them in the military forefront, but it was a race that no other nations joined. Such behavior was not without precedent. In the past, countries with broad foreign commitments assigned more and more of their financial and industrial resources to defense even as their economies lost their competitive edge or their share of world production. Spain and Britain spent far higher percentages of their national incomes for defense after their international position had deteriorated than they did at the time of their imperial greatness. Having lost their economic, political, and ideological primacy, they had nothing left to perpetuate their world standing except military power. It was scarcely conceivable that the United States would fall to a secondary position as did many great powers of history. Its share of world production, even at a reduced 18 percent, remained high. The country’s geographical location, its size and resources, its large and energetic population should sustain its role as a great power, but hardly at the level of the Truman-Eisenhower era.


Undaunted by the limitations imposed by the country’s relative economic decline and the independent behavior of the world’s major and minor states, Ronald Reagan entered the White House in January 1981 determined to reestablish the country’s global posture of the immediate postwar years. The Reagan team agreed from the outset that the failure of the Carter administration to prevent the Soviet-Cuban involvement in Africa, the fall of the Shah of Iran, the continued presence of a Soviet brigade in Cuba, the Sandinista-led revolution in Nicaragua, the assault on the American embassy in Teheran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reflected the country’s military weakness and loss of will. As president, Reagan inaugurated a program to halt this dangerous retreat of the Carter years and recapture the country’s former preeminence by adopting the tough, anti-Soviet posture of the early Cold War and by calling for a higher degree of national preparedness.

Within weeks of his inauguration the new president unveiled the most costly defense program in the nation’s peacetime history. In Carter’s last budget for fiscal 1981 defense received about $174 billion. During Reagan’s first term defense spending increased almost 50 percent in constant dollars. For fiscal 1985 the administration requested over $300 billion. The Reagan program, projected to cost $1.6 trillion in five years, included new missile systems, especially the MX, the most ambitious naval expansion in the country’s history, additional air power, and a stronger, more mobile, conventional force prepared to strike effectively anywhere in the world. The new high-technology weapons would reassure the allies and strengthen American negotiations with the Kremlin, even negotiations on nuclear weapons reduction. As the president expressed it, “We must give the Soviets incentive to negotiate. We must go to the bargaining table in a position of strength, not weakness.”

As the Reagan defense expenditure moved toward $2 trillion by 1988, the president and his advisers declared that the United States again could “stand tall” in its world relationships. Reagan boasted that no territory had fallen to the Communists under his watch. Still the extensive defense effort of the Reagan years provided the United States no new initiatives for managing international affairs. In no way did it alter the policies of either friends or antagonists around the world. Nuclear arsenals reflected the assumption that a giant war was a constant possibility, requiring the construction and maintenance of huge quantities of such weapons. Yet no one could describe the probable scenario in which they would be used. Some Washington officials believed additionally that the reestablishment of the nuclear edge that the United States once possessed would intimidate, disrupt, and eventually transform the U.S.S.R. by accelerating the levels of competition beyond what the Soviets could sustain. In the absence of perceived dangers that would render the use of such destructive power feasible, nuclear weapons proved to be quite irrelevant to the task of encouraging conformity with American preferences in world affairs.

So massive were the constraints on the use of military force that conventional power, as well, lost much of its efficacy for preventing unwanted international behavior. Few cared to contemplate the destructiveness of even a conventional war. The continuing decline of public support for adventurous policies abroad reinforced Washington’s reluctance to employ the nation’s military power. It was essentially the willingness of the American people to pay the costs and accept the risks that enabled the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to fill much of the global power vacuum created by the defeat of Germany and Japan as well as the demise of the British, French, and Dutch empires in Asia and the Pacific. Whatever the economic and technological preponderance of the United States in the immediate postwar era, it was the public’s desertion of its earlier isolationism that permitted the country’s Cold War elite to extend American commitments into distant regions where the United States had no historic interests at all. The Vietnam War effectively broke the American consensus on global containment. Thereafter polls traced the sharp decline in public concern for foreign ventures; the absence of agreement reflected deep philosophical divisions regarding both the needs and the capabilities of the United States to act militarily on the international stage.

Nevertheless, President Reagan, committed to the reestablishment of American military credibility in a dangerous world, sought to exorcise the Vietnam syndrome both by reasserting the nation’s readiness to use force and by assuming the obligation to make any necessary cases for its employment. Unfortunately there is no historical formula that defines the behavior of a world power aside from the defense of clearly-understood interests. The repeated catastrophies that befell the American armed forces, even when the power of the United States seemed unchallengeable, demonstrated the difficulty that any country, whatever its military prowess, invites when it chooses to fight where interests are unclear or of questionable validity. Stalemate became the acceptable solution in Korea because no one could present an alternative of acceptable cost. The long, unsatisfactory Vietnam venture, President Carter’s failed Iranian desert operation of April 1980, and the loss of the marines in Beirut three years later illustrated dramatically the problem of committing United States military forces in situations unknown to or unsupported by Congress and the American people. What troubled the nation’s citizens was not alone the military disasters but, even more, the inability of the responsible administrations to explain the need or nature of the failed missions.

To counter the mounting impression of national ineptitude and satisfy those who advocated some effective demonstration of American power and will, President Reagan launched strikes against Grenada and Libya. Americans lauded the surprise invasion of Grenada in October 1983 by a huge majority; privately the landing was a near disaster. American forces required three days to overwhelm fifty Cuban soldiers and several hundred construction workers. In the absence of a unified command, Army and Navy officers failed to attend the planning sessions of the other; attacking units carried incompatible radios and, at least on one occasion, assaulted each other’s positions. The commander of the U.S.S. Guam refused to refuel Army helicopters unloading wounded soldiers. As a military venture the Grenada invasion was hardly encouraging.

The President ordered the secret air attack on Libya in April 1986 to curtail effectively Libya’s terrorist activities and perhaps eliminate its troublesome leader, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. Denied transit rights by the French government, the attacking planes, based in Britain, required a long flight to reach their targets. Still the attack was swift and destructive, the losses few. The American public, in general, was pleased. Meanwhile the President, despite his perennial assertions that Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime endangered the security of Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, assured the country that under no circumstances would he commit American forces to that region.

During 1987 the administration’s determination to employ American power in defense of strategic interests focused on the Persian Gulf, where United States warships, again without congressional approval, provided escort to American-flagged Kuwaiti tankers. Having failed to control events in Iran and Afghanistan, the United States, it seemed, dared not suffer another strategic retreat in southwest Asia. Persian Gulf oil reserves alone constituted a sufficiently high stake to render the defense of the region’s oil interests essential. Washington officials predicted that Iranian control of the Gulf would lead eventually to Russian dominance and the transfer of the oil states to Kremlin control. Within weeks United States naval forces found themselves trapped in the crossfire of a Gulf war that they could neither terminate nor escape without a serious loss of credibility. Tankers without American protection reached the high seas in large numbers while Iranian gunboats dropped mines and attacked freighters and tankers bound for Kuwait, Dubai, and Bahrain in response to Iraqi bombing of Iranian targets. Such damaging operations under the guns of the United States Navy raised the specter of a clash with Iran that no one wanted. Understandably the Persian Gulf commitment became more controversial with each passing week; by late 1987 members of Congress were determined to end it. Even Pentagon officials wondered about the long-range implications of the Gulf decision. After months of questioning the administration had trouble in defining the American mission. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger argued simply that the United States was protecting the principle of freedom of navigation. This country, he declared, would not “be driven out of international waters by anyone.”

This doubtful record in Third World confrontations was no measure of national weakness or loss of will. Rather it suggested that the country could not engage in costly military action effectively in pursuit of goals that were not demonstrably essential for its security and well-being. For too many Americans, official arguments in behalf of Third World ventures failed to carry conviction. That failure permitted the repeated defiance of American will in Asia and elsewhere to elevate the costs of involvement beyond what Congress and the American people would sustain. Any continuing military operation must convey its own necessity. Decisions that require the interminable explanations of government are generally doomed to failure; the reasons for fighting and dying must be more obvious than that.

Deterrence against the massive employment of either nuclear or conventional power can be effective only in defense of vital interests where the world generally would assume a full resort to arms. Such interests no one threatened. No Soviet decision was sufficiently dangerous to merit war or the threat of war. The principle of proportionality ruled against any resort to force. Soviet behavior, even that declared dangerous and unacceptable, always seemed to fall below the threshold of an effective counter strategy. All exertions, all confrontations, ended in stalemate because the power in the hands of both the United States and the U.S.S.R. far outstripped the importance of the actual objectives that the two countries pursued. The huge American defense effort in no way eliminated the perceived Soviet threat to Central America or the Middle East; nor did it remove the unwanted Russian presence from Afghanistan, Cuba, Angola, or Vietnam. There are few places or occasions where either the country’s citizens or its allies would support an extended American military involvement. Secretary Weinberger recognized that reality when he told the National Press Club in December 1984 that the United States should use military force only in defense of vital interests, and then only to win.

Undoubtedly the power of the United States, nuclear and conventional, remains an essential element in international stability, especially as a guarantee against large-scale aggression. For 40 years American power has underwritten Europe’s postwar equilibrium. For that reason the European allies have never wished to see that power and the commitment to its use significantly diminished. Many countries continue to look to the United States as their ultimate defense against unwanted aggression. What has troubled European leaders is Washington’s propensity to overspend for defense and thereby aggravate the nation’s indebtedness and the many economic disabilities that flow from it.

With that judgment most Americans agree. The nation’s citizens demand an adequate national defense, but after the mid-1980’s neither Congress nor the public believed that the country could afford all the weapon systems that military planners believed essential. During 1987 the Pentagon entered the bleakest period of the Reagan presidency as many of the best-educated and most specialized officers left the service. The 1989 Pentagon budget would be $30 billion below requests. Financial projections suggested that by the turn of the century military spending would fall $2 trillion short of Pentagon planning. Officials had little choice but to inaugurate the process of cutting back on personnel and weapon systems. One Pentagon watcher in Congress declared, “I don’t know how you rationally plan under these circumstances. I think the answer is, you don’t.” Even as resources became scarce, the Pentagon faced the issues of fraud, waste, and abuses in the procurement system that further diminished public and congressional estimates of the financial needs of the military. Senate reports suggested that the Reagan program of doubling the military budget added little to the nation’s preparedness.


Established trends in world politics predict the continued erosion of the American and Soviet positions, not necessarily at the same rate. It remains for Washington to reduce the country’s external commitments to what the public and the economy will support over time. Every great power in history has faced that necessity; none have responded with distinction. For a nation that once designated all areas of the world vital to its security and accumulated obligations in accordance with that assumption, it is not comfortable to establish priorities. Yet the country cannot fulfill all its promises to friends and allies around the globe simultaneously. Honesty and integrity demand that it weigh its choices carefully and negotiate the needed reductions in its commitments so that other states not find themselves deserted without warning in some future crisis. The challenge of adjusting to reduced capabilities is not insuperable or necessarily dangerous. The changing distribution of wealth and power has imposed far greater limitations on the U. S. S. R. than it has on the United States. Even more reassuring is the world of sovereign nations, all erecting formidable barriers against any that would challenge their borders. The sources of stability in international life far transcend the military power of the United States. All countries have a vital interest in their own integrity and independence. Overwhelmingly they favor the existing international order and share it with considerable success, protecting interests that matter.

Through recent years Europe has enjoyed its longest peace of modern times. Future experience will determine whether the governments of the major states will be equally successful in managing the new order of multipolarity. Recognizing only one threat to international stability in the 1980’s, the United States maintained its complex and costly military structure to deter Soviet expansionism, not to govern the behavior of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, and India. These countries—among them the very states responsible for the great wars of modern times—entrusted their mutual security to each other’s self-interest. All understood that in the contemporary world some external objectives, desirable in themselves, may be too expensive to pursue. As these traditional powers of Europe and Asia regain ever-larger roles in world affairs, there is no guarantee that they will forever remain content with the present distribution of power and prestige. The present era, characterized by the evolving consequences of World War II, has not ended. Tension, conflict, and change remain the normal conditions of international life; no one can predict when and where states will seek to impose their will on others. Given the potential destructiveness of modem war, the world can extract considerable pleasure from 40 years of generally uninterrupted human progress. Other generations alone can know whether those who managed international affairs during these two generations of European peace did well, or whether they dealt unimaginatively with issues and trends that ultimately led to catastrophe.


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