Wise After All

In the weeks preceding the U.S. attack on Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power, George W. Bush asserted that "a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the world." What Bush preached was a kind of muscular dominance permitting the United States to impose its values, which Bush sees as universal, over other nations. In the post-Cold War era, characterized by new threats of terrorism and guerrilla warfare, America would once again be on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.

This is a stunning reversal of the policies practiced by the "wise men" who came to the fore during the Second World War and stayed on during the early years of the Cold War. They believed that the United States, working with its friends and allies, should take the lead in creating a multipolar world that would serve America's national interests precisely because the institutions that emerged would not be imposed on other countries. This cohort included George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Will Clayton, Averell Harriman, John McCloy, Robert Lovett, and Charles Bohlen, all working in government in postwar America, in addition to columnists, theologians, and political theorists such as Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Hans Morgenthau. They had one thing in common: They were realists who understood that unlilateral power had its limits.

As Acheson wrote to Harry S. Truman just after they had both left office, "Power is the root of most relationships -- by no means the only factor, but one of vast importance. A balance of power has proved the best international sheriff we have ever had." Not that he believed "that moral principles can, or should be, excluded from relations of states to one another"; but he counseled wariness of "universal plumb plans" by which one society would seek to impose its values on others. Most of all, he deplored "sanctimonious self-righteousness," which "beclouds the dangers and opportunities" that the United States faced then -- and faces today.

George Kennan, head of the policy-planning staff under Secretary of State George Marshall, understood that the postwar United States, because of its vast wealth, could not fail to be "the object of envy and resentment." Both formerly rich and newly poor nations would be unlikely to accept American admonitions and lectures with any enthusiasm. In managing relationships with other nations that would not prove detrimental to our national security, he urged his colleagues "to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming" and to avoid the luxury of "world benefaction."

Their advice was wise then; it is equally so today. Too often the wise men have been viewed, especially by liberals who came of age during Vietnam, through the lens of that war, when -- with the notable exception of Kennan -- they initially supported U.S. military action. They were wrong. With their memories of serving under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, they were disposed to trust the data on the progress of the war that the White House, eager for their support, provided them. But their suspicions grew. By 1968, Acheson, fed up with the canned briefings he was getting from Lyndon Johnson, demanded the "full run of the shop" and complete access to all top-secret information, private meetings, and cross-examination of officials. His task complete, Acheson met with LBJ and the other wise men and told Johnson that the troops must be withdrawn from Vietnam. He declared that military victory was impossible. By questioning the U.S. presence in Vietnam, Acheson was questioning the nation's expansive definition of its national interest.

The wise men are also criticized today for supporting an expansionist view of the need for a global crusade against communism wherever it sprang up. But this, too, is a historically inaccurate charge. Acheson and company sought to limit the struggle against the expansion of the Soviet Union to Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. It wasn't until the Eisenhower administration, with the State Department headed by John Foster Dulles, that Washington believed the United States should rid the world of the communist menace. This led to the use of covert action in 1953 to restore the shah to his throne in Iran after he had been toppled by Iranian nationalists, and to the sponsorship of a coup against the elected president of Guatemala in 1954. Truman had vetoed both plans.

At this perilous moment, when the Bush administration is planning to turn over "limited sovereignty" to a provisional Iraqi government on June 30, what the early Cold War realists were trying to do in postwar Europe is never more relevant. Their belief in the value of pragmatism and power, their avoidance of ideological crusades, and their respect for their friends and allies produced one of the most generous and successful foreign policies in American history. If John Kerry intends to challenge the democratic imperialism of George W. Bush, he would do well to reflect on their history and resurrect their wisdom.

Like every generation, the architects of postwar America were educated by the events they had witnessed in their own lifetimes. They had experienced a world economic crisis brought about in no small measure by the beggar-thy-neighbors policies of the major industrial powers: high tariff barriers and competitive devaluations of the currencies that inhibited the growth of free trade. Politically, they observed the tragic result of the appeasement policies of Britain and France toward the aggressive moves of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Most of all, they faulted the United States for dissociating its security from Europe's. Had Woodrow Wilson -- the president to whom George W. Bush has most often been compared -- compromised with his opponents over the relatively unimportant reservations that the Republican seNATOrs insisted upon in order to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations would have enjoyed American membership, with a U.S. military guarantee given to France.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served in the Wilson administration as assistant secretary of the Navy and later ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 1920, was a convinced internationalist. But he attained the presidency in 1932 at the full tide of isolationism. In combating the Great Depression, he rejected European efforts to restore monetary stability through the strict adherence to the gold standard, rightly believing that this would lead to continued deflation. As a result, he searched for economic policies that would be national in character, requiring a high degree of public spending and the risk of inflation.

In planning for the postwar world he expected to see, Roosevelt had two big ideas: that monetary stability leading to free trade was the precondition of worldwide prosperity and that there should be an international organization that provided a means of enforcement for international disputes (rather than depending on world public opinion to do the job, as Wilson had believed). The policies that came out of the Bretton Woods conference to establish monetary stability and the creation of the United Nations were the result of Roosevelt's thinking. They became the two pillars of the postwar economic and political order.

In July 1944, the final details of the new trading and monetary regime were worked out at the Mount Washington Hotel, a once-luxurious summer retreat in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Acheson, the assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, headed the U.S. delegation that planned the World Bank, which was supposed to lend money to reconstruct war-torn countries and aid in the development of poorer nations. The Treasury Department people were there to help design the International Monetary Fund, intended to provide nations that were running a balance of payments deficit to borrow short-term funds until their payments were in balance. The Americans would supply most of the gold and dollars to make the IMF work; dollars therefore became world money and its principal reserve currency.

The glowing intellectual light at the conference, however, was not an American but the renowned British economist John Maynard Keynes. He had long emphasized the need for deficit spending to correct unemployment and government planning to deal with domestic inflation. There were certainly moments of hard bargaining between the Americans and Keynes, and when push came to shove, the wealthy Americans usually prevailed. Nonetheless, the crucial point is that the overall Bretton Woods agreements were not an American-designed system imposed on others. Keynes' ideas were central to the creation of the postwar economic system, and Harry Dexter White, who led the Treasury Department delegation, was an avowed disciple of the British economist.

Roosevelt had also thought long and hard about how a new world organization meant to preserve the peace could be organized to avoid the pitfalls of the League of Nations. But it was Winston Churchill who had first suggested the creation of an "effective international organization" (in mid-August 1941, when he and FDR met on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland). At that time, FDR did not want to do more than endorse a "wider and permanent system of general security." Once the United States entered the war, however, Roosevelt pressed ahead with his own planning. On January 1, 1942, 26 nations, with Churchill present, assembled in Washington to sign the Declaration of the United Nations.

FDR, who once described himself as a "practical idealist," felt strongly that he needed the effective means of enforcement that the League of Nations had sadly lacked. His solution was for the four victorious powers -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and China -- to act as "the four policemen" that would provide global security.

In working out the details of how the global cops would keep law and order, the representatives of America, Britain, Russia, and China gathered in the elegant Georgetown mansion of Dumbarton Oaks from August to October 1944. Out of their deliberations came the decision that the four powers (later, at Churchill's insistence, France was included) should become the permanent members of the UN Security Council, each holding veto power over any final decision to authorize the use of force. In this way, a balance of power, rather than the domination of the greatest power over the others, could be preserved.

The planners, however, did not foresee the Cold War, which vitiated the means of enforcement that FDR had envisaged. With the coming of the bitter struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Truman, Marshall, and Acheson deepened and extended the new internationalism with the Truman Doctrine to contain the expansion of the Soviet Union into Greece, Turkey, and the eastern Mediterranean. This was followed by the economic rebuilding of Western Europe spurred on by the Marshall Plan, and, finally, the creation of NATO, America's first peacetime alliance since the French alliance of 1778 that lasted longer than two decades. Neither of these policies was imposed on the Europeans.

Furthermore, Europe's multibillion-dollar deficit loomed as a danger to the U.S. economy. Europeans simply could not buy American goods unless they received dollars from the United States -- Keynesian pump priming on an international scale. In his speech at the Harvard commencement that June, Marshall called upon the Europeans to initiate a collective plan to obtain aid from the United States. This was a serious effort to demonstrate that American internationalism did not imply American economic imperialism.

Similarly with NATO, it was British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin who originally pushed for a military alliance that would link the United States to Western Europe. To assure Europeans that the United States would not abandon them as it had after the First World War, the Truman administration had to act. On April 4, 1949, 10 European countries plus Canada signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington. In 1952, Greece and Turkey joined, and West Germany in 1954. There are now 27 countries, many from the former Soviet bloc, expanding the alliance into a potentially global military system. Article 5 of the treaty provides that "an armed attack against one ... shall be considered an attack against them all." This article was invoked for the first time after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11.

George W. Bush has wholly abandoned the precepts that guided the postwar generation. Far from using the United States to spark further international initiatives, the White House has embraced unilateralism as befits an informal imperial power. His national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, declared in June 2003 that Europe must now repudiate multipolarity, which she described as "a theory of rivalry, competing interests, and, at its worst, competing values. We have tried this before." The implication was that there is now a unipolar world in which nations should band together under American direction to "make common cause against freedom's enemies."

Both Rice and another powerful Bush adviser, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, abandoned the realist views of the Roosevelt-Truman generation and took a highly ideological approach to foreign affairs. Their Middle East policy calls for a coercive democratization of the region as the key to winning the war on terrorism. Democratic imperialism -- by which one country forces the imposition of democracy on another, producing a domino-like effect by toppling one autocratic regime after another -- has become the cornerstone of the new American foreign policy.

The continuing U.S. failure to pacify Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein's regime, however, has forced Bush to appeal to the United Nations to provide assistance in remaking that battered country into a functioning state with liberal constitutional practices. In his effort to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops before the November 2004 presidential elections, Bush has asked other countries to share the burden of ensuring security throughout Iraq. At the same time, he has clung even more firmly to the democracy project that will justify his crusade to change the political coloration of the Middle East. Meanwhile, the brutal resistance to foreign occupation continues apace.

The likelihood that the United States will be successful at building a democracy in Iraq is very low. A functioning democracy depends not only on providing internal security through an honest police force, an independent judiciary, and an impartial bureaucracy but also a decent standard of living for its people, some reasonable degree of social cohesion, and more than merely adequate political institutions. These conditions do not exist in Iraq, and it would be quixotic to think that they will emerge in the near future, if ever. Today in Iraq, there are calls from the Shia for something resembling a theocratic state, and from the autonomous Kurds in the north for an all but separate nation. As for the Sunnis, many of them appear nostalgic for an autocratic state similar to what they experienced under Saddam Hussein, which would restore their minority domination of the country. Creating a democracy along the lines of what was accomplished after the Second World War in Germany and Japan, as the Bush administration believes can be done, is delusional.

Rather than embracing the idea that a democratic Iraq can become a model for other Middle Eastern countries, the United States should put more effort into distancing itself from autocratic regimes. (On a recent scale of democracies in the Arab world, published by The Economist, Saudi Arabia placed last and Egypt not too far above it.) Washington can press for reforms in these countries by cutting back on military sales and economic aid. Egypt, for example, ranks second to Israel as a recipient of U.S. aid.

Conversely, the United States can reward countries for liberalizing their economies and their political institutions, which might lead to an enlargement of the middle class. Would such liberalization risk the possibility of an Islamist government coming into power? Yes -- but it is a risk worth taking. In Turkey, for example, an Islamist party that is relatively liberal now governs. The United States simply cannot go on binding itself to reactionary regimes out of fear of instability in the region. Instead, Washington needs to encourage every small movement toward a more open society. But if the United States chooses to pursue the path of democratic imperialism, the consequence will be endless war.

Messianic efforts to imprint an American model of democracy on a global scale should not be the centerpiece of American policy. It is nonetheless true that the United States cannot pursue a successful foreign policy without a moral component, as Roosevelt and Truman well understood. For it was FDR who had the idea that American liberty depends on our solicitous interest in liberty abroad. But liberty does not imply the imposition of American democracy. Instead, it is the condition that can help create the climate in which democracy can grow and then perhaps bring about the liberal institutions and habits of democracy.

That moral component should be inherent to a policy of strategic realism. A strategic rather than an ideological approach not only advances the nation's interest but also seeks allies among other governments and peoples who share those interests, linking them to a range of international institutions.

Strategic realism would also heed Kennan's warning that wars fought in the name of high moral principle can easily lead to some form of total domination. Our ends, moral as well as physical, must be compatible with our means. No one was more eloquent in this respect than Kennan when he urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to consider the advisability of a U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. "There is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives," he said.

Above all, the postwar realists were aware of the limitations of American power and purpose. In 1949, Acheson explained that the Cold War was not a struggle between good and evil. "Today," he said, "you hear much talk of absolutes ... that two systems such as ours and that of the Russians cannot exist in the same world ... that one is good and one is evil, and good and evil cannot exist in the world." But "good and evil have existed in this world since Adam and Eve went out of the Garden of Eden." Pleading for balance and solvency, he urged his listeners to remember that the proper search is for limited ends. That is what "all of us must learn to do in the United States: to limit objectives, to get ourselves away from the search for the absolute."

Can such rhetoric succeed in today's America? Isn't Bush's incantation -- that those who are not with us are against us -- more seductive? As the American people witness the tragic failure of the occupation of Iraq, compounded by the wickedness of the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners, the time has surely come for truth telling. And if the Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, does not do so, most likely George W. Bush, who brought us into this war, will be re-elected and the Republican Party will retain its dominance as the majority party in the United States.

Without a return to a realistic understanding that military power does not bless us with moral superiority over others, we are likely to find ourselves viewed by much of the world as a pariah nation -- to be feared, to be isolated, and, finally, to be contained.

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