Domestic Urges, Foreign Obsessions

In a typical week a reader of U.S. newspapers learns over bran flakes and coffee that the health crisis or the S&L bailout is bankrupting the country; that there is no money to repair bridges or to deal with nuclear waste; that schools and libraries are cutting programs or closing down; that tens of millions of young Americans will be unable to compete successfully for jobs in the new information-based economy because schools do not teach; that America's competitiveness problem is worsening; and that the government is presumably paralyzed because the federal deficit is out of control.

Nations prosper only by adapting to new circumstances. That means being willing to hear bad news and do something about it. Japan's great achievement at the end of World War II was to turn adversity to its advantage, as if by jujitsu. But since the curtain came down on the Cold War the adaptive mechanisms in the United States have not been working. The President is not offering a practical vision of a strong and democratic American economy, and the result is that confidence in American power and leadership is declining.

George Bush has made no secret of the fact that he prefers making foreign policy to grappling with any of these problems. The reflex reaction in the White House and the Pentagon to the collapse of the communist enemy has been to identify new enemies and to find ways to make such weapons as the B-2 bomber "relevant" to a world that has passed it by. In early 1990 President Bush announced that instability was now the military threat, and later that year the word acquired a human face when Saddam Hussein struck at Kuwait. Whether the Gulf War served the national interest is now a matter for the historians, but it surely served the interests of the President. As commander in chief the President is defender, father figure, and in a crisis, the embodiment of the nation. There is no solution to the health crisis or the banking crisis that will yield 89-percent popular support, as the Gulf War did. It is far easier to interpret the new political situation in the world to fit old strategies and old weapons systems, shifting targets where necessary, than to develop a new security strategy that fits the extraordinary changes that have taken place within the United States and the emerging world system.


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The fact that foreign policy expenditures constrict domestic choices is a familiar, though inadequately debated, idea in American politics. Less familiar is the role of domestic economic weakness in circumscribing foreign policy choices. The United States is becoming increasingly locked into a world economy over which we exercise less and less control. The result is that the U.S. economy, debt-ridden and still unable to compete in the marketplace in critical areas of high technology and consumer goods, is transformed in ways that diminish the economic security and quality of life of millions of Americans. And the same loss of economic strength and the social instability caused by the neglect of mounting domestic problems undermines the ability of the United States to bring its power to bear on critical security problems beyond our shores.

It is incongruous that while pundits celebrate the emergence of the United States as the world's only superpower and every formerly communist nation wants a piece of the American Dream, the Bush administration is strangely passive in confronting the extraordinary new world in the making. The goal of United States foreign policy for almost fifty years has been achieved, but the White House does not know what to make of the collapse of Soviet power and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Does the United States favor more fragmentation in the name of self-determination or more union in the name of economic efficiency? The answers are not easy, but, tragically, the United States has neither a clear vision of what it desires, nor money to put behind its wishes, and what may well prove to be the most momentous events of the century are taking place beyond the reach of any significant American influence.

Even in the Middle East, where the U.S. rolled back Saddam's invasion and succeeded in dragging the Arab nations and Israel to the negotiating table after eight months of trying, the prospects of a comprehensive, lasting settlement are not encouraging. They might well be better were the United States in a position to make the sort of extravagant offers to promote regional economic development that Secretary of State George Marshall made at the end of World War II with respect to Europe. But that is now out of the question.

The nations of Western Europe have just voted to create the European Economic Area, the world's largest trading bloc embracing 380 million producers and customers from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean, and this new creation threatens to pose even staffer competition for the United States. Yet Europe is by no means united, and the continent faces historic decisions about who will be in and who will be out, and on what terms. On the one hand, the myth of a Europe stretching from Gibraltar to the Urals has a powerful appeal, one on which the former communist nations of the East are banking. But to admit Poland, not to mention an independent Croatia, would dramatically widen the gaps among the members and would make steps toward greater monetary and political union more difficult. The wider these gaps, the harder it becomes to establish continental institutions.

The United States has an urgent interest in a Europe that is at peace and that does not wall off the huge continental market it is creating. While the United States hangs on to NATO to symbolize the fact that it is, in the words of senior administration officials, a "European power," the administration is mobilizing astonishingly little energy to address the critical economic issues that will play the dominant role in U.S.-European relations in the next century.

Bush's principal response to a united Europe has been to seek a North American free trade agreement as a step toward a Western Hemisphere free trade area. But this collection of the most debt-ridden countries in the world is not much of a bargaining chip in negotiations over global trade with Europe and Japan, nor in a world divided into blocs is it likely to be a bastion of economic strength. Over many years somewhere between a third and 60 percent of the U.S. military budget -- depending on definitions and what you count -- has been attributable to the defense of Europe. New policies can and should be developed that take proper account of the good news from the Cold War battlefields of Europe and the bad news on the domestic front.


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Richard Ullman, professor of international affairs at Princeton, has written a fine book full of believable good news and practical ideas for taking advantage of it. Since so much of the United States military budget continues to be attributable to the security problems of Europe, which have also provided the primary drive behind the nuclear arms race, this is a book anyone interested in either national security or the fiscal crisis of the United States should read. Agreeing with George Kennan that the Soviet Union presented primarily a political challenge rather than a military threat, he points out that the political conditions under which NATO was established have totally changed. Historians can argue about whether the expenditures to arm against "worst-case scenarios" were worth the price the United States is still paying, but there is no justification now for spending well over $100 billion a year to defend Europe.

Ullman's analysis points to a clear conclusion. It makes no sense to keep alive either NATO's Cold War strategy or organization except for a brief transitional period during which a new European security system is put into place. For the foreseeable future the Soviet Union will have neither the incentive to attack the West -- if it ever had one -- nor the capability. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and extraordinary changes inside the Soviet Union, as senior U.S. military and intelligence officials have testified, make a surprise attack virtually impossible. To reclaim its Cold War posture would take a long time even if new leadership in the Kremlin had the will to do it. The enemy against which NATO was called into being no longer exists. Neither do the weak, divided, and demoralized nations of West Europe that called upon the United States to be their protector.

All the major political underpinnings of NATO have been rendered obsolete by the Cold War victory. At the beginning U.S. troops had as their primary task the restoration of confidence in a war-torn West Europe facing Stalin's armed camp. The confidence levels and signs of stability in much of West Europe, judging by a number of social and economic indicators, now exceed our own. The strongest political argument for NATO was that it would anchor West Germany in the West and undermine the greatest power the Soviets had over the United States and its allies, the power to dangle reunification in front of the Germans and cause them in effect to change sides. But reunification is an accomplished fact, and the price was modest indeed. Germany has no interest in being a "loose cannon" in Europe -- quite the reverse. And if it did, 50,000 to 75,000 American troops left on German soil -- the figures talked about just a few months ago -- could do little about it. Any idea that an American division or two can play such a role can only irritate U.S.-German relations.

The favorable developments in Europe should point the way to new policies. Thanks to economic integration, and as Ullman points out, the growing perception that the physical control of territory is of declining importance and the use of force is of declining utility for great powers in securing political objectives in Europe, there is less incentive and less likelihood of war among nations on the continent than at any time in modem history. He argues that the United States should, therefore, encourage an independent European security system, building on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and the Western European Union (WEU). The goal should be the development of integrated European forces at significantly lower levels and machinery for peaceful dispute resolution such as the CSCE's new Vienna-based Center for the Prevention of Conflict.


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The primary security threat in Europe in the coming years is likely to be civil war in the East and the stream of refugees left in its wake; the task of military forces will be to wall off and damp down such conflict before it spreads. The European response to the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia in June has been halting, confused, and as of late November, ineffective. But the United States is nowhere to be seen. It is, of course, in a much worse position than a European force to intervene militarily on the periphery of the Soviet Union, and to involve American troops in a bloody civil war in the Balkans is not an attractive option for the President. But the security dilemma in Europe makes it clearer than ever that a national security priority for the United States is far-reaching world disarmament and control of weapons traffic. As the world's greatest military power the United States is in a position to take advantage of the changes in the political climate around the world, including the settlement of the major Cold War-related civil conflicts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, to initiate a process of demobilization and demilitarization which offers the only hope of controlling weapons development and arms traffic.

Although Bush's unilateral initiatives on curbing nuclear weapons are the most sweeping since the development of the atomic bomb, both the cost savings and the disruption of the U.S. arms industry are modest. Bush emphasized that there would be no "peace dividend." Indeed, the immediate impact would be a budget increase to pay for the "mothballing" and deactivation measures. Bush's program is designed to make living with nuclear weapons safer. Although he justified the move on the dramatic disappearance of the old Soviet threat, there has been no discernible rethinking of the relevance of nuclear weapons to the security problems of the post-Cold War world. Nuclear deterrence was built on the notion of a two-man chess game. But nuclear stockpiles do not deter drug traffickers or enraged mobs or terrorists or separatist armies any more than elephant guns deter flies. The idealized super-rational enemy, big enough, evil enough, and aggressive enough to be the target of a global war machine, has disappeared into thin air, leaving a disorderly world to which the established nuclear strategy is utterly irrelevant.

Given what has happened to the Soviet Union, the risks of unauthorized use of nuclear weapons in the event of civil strife there, the drive by Iran, Iraq, and other nations to acquire nuclear weapons and the disturbing indications that the spread of nuclear weapons technology in the international black market is accelerating, it is now urgent for the United States to rethink its nuclear policy. In the interest of slowing proliferation, saving huge financial costs and avoiding health risks, the President should announce that production of weapons-grade fissionable materials will not be resumed. He should also promptly negotiate a comprehensive test ban. Further, the U.S. should declare that once again -- as in the Acheson-Lilienthal proposals following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings -- this nation takes seriously the goal of abolition of nuclear weapons, as a crucial component to reduce the role of force in international relations. Far from being a Utopian view, this approach's advocates include prominent former national security officials, such as Robert McNamara.

No nation has more to lose in a world of nuclear anarchy than the United States. Because this nation is the world's leading nuclear power, it retains considerable potential as a prime architect of a new security system. But that influence is waning fast, as weapons spread. Only a "minimum deterrent" force, ranging from dozens to about a hundred weapons, and a clear commitment never to use nuclear weapons except in retaliation for a nuclear attack, will send the message that the United States and the other nuclear powers are committed to a post-nuclear order. Sending such a message is essential to a non-proliferation strategy, but it is obviously not sufficient. The strategy will also require unprecedented cooperation among the present nuclear powers and tight international controls on fissionable materials and nuclear technology. To accomplish any of this will require the great powers to limit their use of arms sales as a prime lever of geo-political influence.

While the threat of great power nuclear holocaust has receded, the insertion of nuclear weapons into the disorders of the post-Cold-War world increases the risk of their actual detonation. Unlike the Cold War antagonists, some of the aspiring nuclear powers, faced with perceived life-and-death struggles, might actually use nuclear weapons. Technological advances, verification, and, more important, the more open world now emerging, make a post-nuclear order possible, and necessary. Therefore, the disorders of the post-Cold-War world make the elimination of the nuclear threat the highest possible foreign policy priority for the U.S. There can be no security as long as these weapons are considered legitimate instruments of warfare or politics.


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In the emerging world order, peace and stability in Eastern Europe and outside of Europe will depend less on deterrence and more on crisis prevention -- the defusing of political situations before they erupt in violence. Crisis prevention machinery should be under a United Nations umbrella because the U.N., for all its problems, is the only international organization with both a political mission and a global charter. The task of keeping the peace and creating the conditions of stability in the post-Cold War world will take much more active and coordinated diplomacy among the Cold War-era allies, large amounts of money for the repair of environmental damage and for the re-tooling of industry to prevent further damage, for development aid and investment, and for a new set of minimum environmental and labor standards for the conduct of world trade.

As the economic, social, and ecological agenda becomes more central, more expensive, and more difficult, it is in the U.S. interest to downgrade the military dimension of its relationships with its allies and partners. The idea that the U.S. military role, either in Europe or in "out of area" conflicts can still be used to exact economic and political concessions from America's allies is dubious, given European behavior since the Gulf War. Moreover, it is in the U.S. interest to institutionalize responsibility for police operations, in an international force in the service of agreed international principles regarding the use of force. Taking over the policy role unilaterally has led to American weakness, not strength. And ad hoc military coalitions put together in crises are precarious and unstable. It is not a brilliant strategy to continue hectoring Germany and Japan to play a more expansive global military role at a time when economic conflicts between the U.S. and its principal allies are intensifying. All three economic powers share a common interest not only in diverting investment from the military to their industrial bases and supporting infrastructure, but also a common strategy to raise wages and improve living standards in developing countries in order to expand the world market. But no such common strategy yet exists.

The dismantling of obsolete military structures increases the possibilities of constructive American engagement with Europe. The U.S. commitment to Europe requires an evolving set of political and economic relationships that fit the world of the 1990s rather than the world of the 1950s. We are living in a world of increasingly visible violence, but neither the nuclear weapons stockpiles, the rapid deployment forces, the NATO forces, nor the 'low-intensity warfare" capabilities which make up so much of the military budget address the disorders of a world that is no longer engaged in a global conflict. A president willing to give up the illusion of organizing the world by projecting military power would have a decent chance to mobilize the money, energy, and will to rebuild and govern this society.

The United States can best influence the shape of the new Europe by rebuilding American society and defining and pursuing a global economic agenda. The faster the nation deals with its domestic crisis, the stronger will be its position with respect to the trade and investment issues that are the major source of conflict among the economic great powers. These include the irrationality of the present ground rules for world trade, the confusion about whether to welcome or fear European and Japanese investment in the United States, and the challenge of increasing the accountability of transnational corporate actors, irrespective of the flag they fly. We need new rules not only to redefine this nation's commercial relations with its trading partners, but to establish a common approach between nations and global private finance and industry. A concerted effort by the industrial democracies to deal with the global environmental crisis, which threatens the very processes by which wealth is created and life sustained, is an obvious security priority, too.

Thus, the primary political task for the United States is to develop a new foreign policy that will permit the renewal of our political institutions, industrial and commercial enterprises, and population centers. The primary intellectual task is to redefine the relationship of the United States to the radically changing political, economic, and ecological environment. Alan Tonelson, research director of a Washington think tank, has taken on this task in a recent issue of The Atlantic, and his efforts demonstrate how difficult it is to rethink the national interest. He attacks "internationalism" with familiar arguments, most of which I find congenial. In its Wilsonian quest for a new world order, the United States believed its own overblown rhetoric about the "indivisibility" of peace. The U.S. defined its "vital interests" in wildly extravagant and implausible terms, "bearing any burden, paying any price" to bring peace and prosperity to the farthest reaches of the globe. Military interventions, para-military operations, peace-keeping missions, foreign aid programs -- all of which the author lumps together as instruments of misguided idealism -- exhausted the country. "American foreign policy has been conducted with utter disregard for the home front largely because it has been made by people whose lives and needs have almost nothing in common with those of the mass of their countrymen." I nodded and read on.

I stopped nodding when it became clear that what Tonelson calls "interest-based thinking," a term I found intriguing, is astonishingly close to the "America First" mindset of the prewar isolationists. The isolationist impulse is in the American grain, reinforced daily by so many different forces in our culture. The "internationalism" of the Cold War era against which the author rails is in reality a virulent strain of isolationism; a nation that can realize its dreams of running the planet doesn't have to learn to live in it. Tonelson dresses up his prescriptions for withdrawing from the messy world beyond our shores with the language of hard-headed realism. Anarchy within and among nations is inevitable. All sorts of genies are out of the bottle. Nothing much can be done about the international system. Americans should look after themselves. Hunker down. It is by no means obvious that Tonelson's version of isolationism is a less honorable policy than the current version under which our leaders feel compelled to teach lessons, enforce international law as we define it, and set other societies straight in arbitrarily selected countries around the world. The problem is that it is every bit as much a dream as Pax Americana.

The "interest-based" foreign policy Tonelson recommends would not be a vehicle for spreading American values but would reflect tough-minded assessments of domestic interests which "can and must be distinguished from the interests of the international system itself." An exception would be made for policies that are against the national interest but are popular. There is "nothing intrinsically wrong," he says, with a policy that does not serve the national interest, provided it is based on "the preference or whim of the majority." We have entered a swamp.


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This curiously old-fashioned analysis with its talk of "avoiding problems, reducing vulnerabilities and costs, maximizing options, and muddling through" is silent about the increasing dependence of the United States on the world economy, the AIDS pandemic in Africa that is spreading to Asia, the global ecological crisis, the huge mass migration that is transforming the demography of the United States and other places, and the transformation of the institution of the nation-state itself. His call for less bombast and mindless activism in foreign policy is a welcome corrective, but his policy is defeatism. He calls for "disengagement" from the Third World, correctly noting that hysteria, confusion, and complicity in corruption and human rights abuse characterized much of our policy in the past. His advice is to wall ourselves off from the tragedies that threaten the species to pursue policies that enhance "the domestic quality of life." True, Cold Warriors, muddled geopoliticians, and naive romantics have written a good deal of nonsense about the Third World, that peculiarly ethnocentric and now anachronistic designation we still use for the majority of people on the planet. But Tonelson's call is a contradiction in terms. Refugees, viruses, drugs, terrorists, and foul air are no respecters of borders. There is no way we can improve the quality of life for the next generation of Americans, much less posterity, by ignoring the conditions of two-thirds of the human species and the natural order in which we all live.

It is inconceivable that the world's major military and economic power will now shrink from trying to exert influence on the international system. Our own security and prosperity depends increasingly upon what happens to that system. This is a time when more issues are open and the system is less frozen than it has been in a long time. It is an exciting and dangerous time which cries out for real leadership in helping to shape a new understanding of what a nation is, of what the international system is becoming, and of how its anarchic character might be moderated. The United States could not impose its vision of world order even if it had one. To exercise leadership requires a healthy respect for this nation's limitations, but also a willingness to face the real world of which we are inevitably a part. Flinching is not an option.***

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