Foreign policy is not a game of chess, though it is often called that. There is no fixed board and there is no book of rules to say that a certain move will be successful or that a contrary one will fail. The treatises on diplomacy are guides to techniques. Books of etiquette that tell how to hold a teacup or fold a handkerchief do not help when the ceiling falls in the parlor or a baby must be delivered in a taxicab. So with diplomacy, the human factors determine whether an emergency is handled well or badly.

The most telling factors are often the unspectacular ones-character, good sense, stamina and adaptability. Craftiness and professional finesse also count, of course; great liars, great bluffers and great gamblers have their day. But when manipulators of history forget that the pieces they plan to move about have minds of their own they can be abysmally wrong. What blunders could be more colossal than Stalin's calculation that it would be profitable to let Hitler loose against the West, or Hitler's deliberate choice to fight on two fronts, or Mussolini's decision to sell Italy cheap to the loser?

It of course is open to sober and experienced statesmen to make "right" moves or "wrong" ones in compromising the ideal and the practicable, program and decision. What turns out well may have been due partly to good luck or the rashness of the antagonist and what ends unsatisfactorily may nevertheless have been the best choice between two uninviting alternatives. In the climactic emergency, war against a remorseless enemy, the closest a nation may come to winning, even given wise and indomitable leadership, is not to lose. This is infinitely more, however, than is admitted by people who argue that wars never "settle" anything. Germany and Italy are independent going concerns again. But did Hitler reserve the same fate for defeated France, Britain and the United States? The Punic Wars settled something for Carthage; there is not even a Carthaginian history of them. Not to lose enables you to go on, probably with increased responsibilities, possibly with increased wisdom, at any rate to go on. This truism is comforting, for it tells us not to be overcome by a sense of incompleteness, of failure, when peace is not as we had pictured it and victory instead of letting us relax increases our burdens.

The 1919 peace was made by statesmen of unusual capacity, many of them of great good will. But among the parts of the settlement which survived, at least for a decisive period, were the punitive ones, while the idealistic experiment counted on to rectify mistakes and conciliate new disputes was left virtually inoperative. No one can certify how different the next 20 years would have been if our public and Senate had realized fully that, like it or not, accept it or resist it, the United States was now destined to playing a world role. This was not the premise, however, on which the debate about membership in the League of Nations proceeded. In its final and crudest terms, the argument was whether or not membership would be an entangling alliance; actually and realistically, the question was whether the United States, already "entangled," could play its role more effectively and safely inside an international organization or outside. We cannot know for certain how an opposite course would have turned out; the ifs of history are inscrutable. But whatever the causes, the peace of 1919 was only a truce.

It was almost at the start of that truce, 40 years ago, that the first issue of Foreign Affairs appeared. Its sponsors were a group of men who realized that the euphoric moment hailed as "normalcy" would not last. Their purpose was to help dispel the American people's illusion that they could ever return, as they were hankering to do, to the nineteenth-century world of irresponsibility. It was not their intention to support specific policies but to gain recognition that a new situation existed and that there must be new policies and actions to deal with it. The public would make up their own minds, on the basis of information from many sources and widely differing opinions, what those policies and actions ought to be.

It was indeed a fact, as the next 20 years would be enough to prove, that the page of history which had been turned had been turned for all. Every part of the world was now to suffer or prosper with every other part, there was to be no escape from man's common fate behind oceans, mountains or man- made barriers, and this would be true whether the common fate proved to be progress or retrogression, tolerable or intolerable, evolved freely through conscientious trial and error or tyranically imposed.

Science and technology have now gone on to wipe out the remaining limits to the area of common concern. Changes in classes within nations and of status among nations have brought new types of leadership to the fore, and the creation of an international forum has given them all voice. Conquests over disease and benevolent efforts to help backward nations to better living conditions have proved old population charts wrong and made the new ones dubious. But although the phenomena of our day are indeed revolutionary, in a larger perspective they are seen as successive steps in a long-maturing process that had suddenly become irreversible and universal in 1914-19. Problems were to increase in number, complexity and immediacy, but henceforth they would have the same scope, a world scope. The first war had demonstrated that the world is round and the second would state it in terms that Americans could no longer avoid. Nuclear fission, by making actions and reactions simultaneous everywhere, simply added stunning emphasis to the fact.

II

After the second war, then, the premise of American foreign policy shifted as a matter of course from the static to the active, from the conservative to the creative. Those in charge might, of course, perform well or badly, make "right" moves or "wrong" ones; but their plans and efforts must reach out along new lines, for the geography of the world was new, not just new on the maps-though there the changes made or in prospect were startling enough-but new in the social forces everywhere at work. Peoples formerly only half awake were clamoring for independence, ready or not, and expecting a better life and all sorts of assistance in achieving it; older, more settled and prosperous societies were conscious as never before of the pressure of these claims and of their duty and interest (not to say compulsion) to help satisfy them. New problems were appearing on every hand on top of the unsettled old ones. American leaders were deluged by demands and counter-demands, cajolings and threats, from allies, allies turned antagonists and peoples struggling to become nations.

As power in the world became polarized, the concern of statesmen, not only in Washington and Moscow but in all capitals, was more and more concentrated on fluctuations in the relative standing of the two great contestants. To every rumor of the intentions of either side, true or false, to every estimate of capabilities, reasoned or rash, new means of communication gave wings. Every threat carried with it intimations of wholesale destruction. It was in this overcharged atmosphere that American policy-makers had to operate. The problems were vaster than their predecessors had faced in the period after 1919, and their antagonists more powerful and provocative. Yet among the new factors in the situation were several which proved helpful.

For one thing, relations with the ex-enemies returned to normal much sooner than had happened after the first war; and although disagreements appeared among the Allies, they were less injurious than those that had split Allied ranks after the first war and had smoothed the way as early as 1922 for Germany to make an alliance with Russia. The Western Allies decided, when their first anger had cooled, to end sanctions against the defeated states and draw them back into the world of free and equal nations. After the Nuremberg trials and the punishment of leading Nazis, American relations with the part of Germany which was not held by the Russians rapidly approached normal; and a similar evolution in relations with Japan followed the end of the occupation there. In the case of Germany, this sprang partly from a realization that if the cycle of German aggression, defeat, punishment and new aggression was ever to be broken it must be done by the victors, which meant that they must avoid creating a Versailles-like passion for revenge. But the strongest incentive to moderation was self- interest: to establish the broadest front possible against the wartime ally looming up as the next menace to peace. In consequence, American leaders did not have to reckon with resurgent imperialism and militarism in the defeated nations, nor did they get embroiled in disputes like those over war debts, reparations, the Ruhr and the Rhineland that distracted Allied statesmen for so long after 1919.

A second change in the field of American diplomatic operations was more basic. This time there existed an international organization with more power than was ever granted the League of Nations; we belonged to it; and we could strongly influence its deliberations and decisions. This is not a reference to our right of veto, but to the fact that we have not had to exercise that right-a measure in itself of the influence which we and our Allies exert and of the degree of support received from other members.

Negotiating simultaneously among 104 nations is a test of nerves and tempers, as also of the saving sense of humor which is, after all, only the obverse of a sense of proportion. American diplomacy has nevertheless found new strength in the experience, for it has acquired the opportunity and right to discuss world problems from the moment they arise and participate in attempts to settle them before they reach a crisis stage. It is safer as well as more constructive to be involved in the attempt to settle disputes than to find ourselves involved in the consequences of their not being settled. In the process everybody learns. We learn in detail the pros and cons of each case; and the parties concerned become thoroughly aware of our position, and can take account of it before committing themselves to actions which we shall have to oppose.

This is an important change from the past.

In 1914 the United States had no part in the frantic interchanges of advice and warning that took place before the European powers, in panic and confusion, plunged into war. Given the limited requirements of American security up to that time, and the traditions of American diplomacy, it seems fantastic to suppose that we could suddenly have become a primary factor in the efforts to slow down Russian mobilization or deter the Kaiser from invading Belgium. The United States was still considered callow and by habit stood somewhat aloof (President Theodore Roosevelt's mediation between Russia and Japan and his part in calling the Second Hague Peace Conference were exceptions). Friendly suggestions or pressure from Washington would almost certainly have failed to induce the powers to accept mediation or even enter into the sober sort of discussions in which their jealousies and apprehensions might have been allayed.

Or is this taking what happened as inevitable because it happened? I cannot forget a remark made to me after the war by Raymond Poincaré. The first objective of a peace-maker, he said, is to secure delay, for with time everything becomes possible; there is always a chance of avoiding war until the first enemy soldier crosses a frontier and the first enemy shot is fired. He was not implying that peace is always possible on acceptable terms; he would have considered Munich an exorbitant price to pay for delay and would have had no illusions that it would bring "peace in our time." He meant that negotiation for a compromise which might satisfy Austria-Hungary and save Serbian independence was possible until the Germans invaded Belgium. Sir Edward Grey was in fact making desperate efforts in July and the first days of August to slow down the pace of events and he was criticized afterward for having given an impression that Britain might stand aside, thus encouraging the Central Powers. It is just conceivable, I suppose, that if Grey had been supported energetically by the United States the joint effort might have had the opposite effect and tipped the balance in favor of negotiation.

More relevant is the fact that the United States, even after its experience in the first war, did not participate effectively in the efforts made to avoid the second. Its inability to influence events between the culmination of the appeasement policy at Munich in September 1938 and Hitler's invasion of Poland a year later raises interesting speculations. The proposed Geneva Protocol of 1924 had offered the League of Nations the last chance to become an effective organization. First it was unanimously adopted, then rejected, mainly due to the opposition of Canada on the score that the commitments involved were unnecessary, unequal and risky ("We live in a fireproof house, far from inflammable materials," said Mr. Raoul Dandurand, a remark that has given him a place in history). If the United States had been a member of the League and willing to accept those commitments, would Canada have refused? What would have been the political evolution of the Weimar Republic after Stresemann brought it into a League where the United States was playing a full role? Would Hitler have been permitted to seize Austria unopposed, and afterward Czechoslovakia? Without those successes, would he have proceeded with such confidence to his final gamble? It was partly in response to a suggestion from President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Munich conference was called; but after that fiasco, the influence of his letters and telegrams was not significant. His hands, of course, were tied by the Neutrality Act of 1937. Congress had been interested only in legislation to keep America out of war and ignored warnings that the embargo on the sale of arms gave an advantage to heavily-armed aggressors over peaceful and less prepared victims. Hitler's contempt for

Britain and France was matched by what he felt for the United States-soft and escapist, an absentee from the march of history. In the circumstances, it is most unlikely that at the last moment, particularly once Hitler had received a green light from Stalin, he would have been deterred by rational argument or a belated threat from across the Atlantic. All we know is that America was in fact "absent" and that this absence did not prevent Pearl Harbor.

For a second time we entered into a great war when it was already half lost.

Here, then, we come to the chief advantage that membership in a world organization gives any nation that cannot avoid being drawn into a world conflict. It was an advantage which appealed to Senator Vandenberg at San Francisco as an offset to the Soviet intention, already evident, to make the United Nations as weak as possible. The final Soviet effort at San Francisco aimed at denying the right of any nation to bring to the Security Council or the General Assembly a complaint of wrong done or threatened. Our delegation announced that unless this right was established the United States would not sign the Charter. "If we are able to talk," I remember Senator Vandenberg saying late one evening when the issue was hanging fire, "and if we talk as we should, we shall be heard. And if we are not heard, we will know what to do next." The Soviet Union backed down and agreed that there would be unlimited discussion in the United Nations of any complaint brought to it by any member, free from veto. There must have been questioning in Moscow ever since as to whether it would not have been better to let the prospective world organization go on without Soviet membership than subject Soviet delegates to the public discomforts they have suffered in New York. But for us the open debate that throws dictators into a frenzy is a strength and safeguard.

III

Of course the fundamental change for American diplomacy was that this time the American people as a whole, looking at the world with eyes opened by a second terrible experience, saw that their interests and responsibilities reached to every part of it. This meant that their leaders could enter without hesitation into a policy of active international coöperation; and with the public behind them, they did so.

Where the Senate had rejected the League of Nations, it accepted membership in the United Nations almost unanimously, and public opinion would not have let it do otherwise. As soon as the war ended in the Pacific, following the atomic attack on Hiroshima, the Truman Administration offered to share control of the atom bomb and proposed measures for doing so safely; only Soviet opposition prevented a coöperative experiment that might have headed off the atomic arms race. UNRRA operations to rehabilitate territories freed from the Axis and repatriate refugees were looked on by Americans as humanitarian work that had to be done as a matter of course. The Marshall Plan followed. There was a feeling at the grass roots all over the country that since the United States had been spared the devastation and frightful losses of its allies, it in conscience owed them help in getting back onto their feet; without this feeling and support, the commercial advantages promised by the Marshall Plan would not have been enough to secure favorable action by the Senate. Aid to the underdeveloped countries was an American concept, and it appealed to the American people on both practical and humanitarian grounds. They had never so much as heard the names of many of the beneficiaries, but they did not demur at very large yearly appropriations to assist them in laying a firmer basis for independence. The total of American foreign aid to date is something over $95 billion. The expenses of United Nations functions in the Middle East and the Congo, not provided for in the regular U.N. budget, were covered mainly by contributions from the United States. The Peace Corps has appealed to Americans of all ages, especially the young and idealistic. The Alliance for Progress is a new initiative in a troubled area that had felt slighted after the Good Neighbor Policy petered out. The activities of the International Bank are carried on mainly with American capital. Other such enterprises could be cited, besides the world-wide activities of the Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie and other private foundations, not duplicated in any other country.

This time, then, the American Government and people showed by decisive actions that they knew at last that they were and must be in every sense a world power. Other nations took a little time to adjust their ways of thinking to the new situation. Europe found a sense of both new security and new insecurity in the fact that now there were two instead of many "great powers." Asia and Africa at first felt left out of our attentions. There was joy when at last we entered earnestly into our duties as grand almoner, even though it was flawed by uncertainty as to what this might mean in interference in their ways of life and their ambitions, good and bad.

In Europe, American wealth, resources and good will had been respected, but our use-rather, lack of use-of our potentialities less so. The notion that the American character was messianic, impractical and boringly moralistic had taken hold in the time of Woodrow Wilson. The Senate's rejection of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations and the failure to ratify the treaty of defense which we had signed with Britain and France were taken as proof of a built-in weakness in our form of government, leading inevitably to inconsistency in our foreign policy and unreliability in our foreign commitments. Europe's picture of this millionaire with a split personality, alternating between idealism and self-interest, vast generosity and noncommittal prudence, did not inspire trust. Secretary Kellogg's suggestion of a pact renouncing war, but without provision for sanctions against a transgressor, seemed typical; the idea was accepted at once, but as events unfolded it did not add to the reputation of American statesmen for being realistic.

Since 1919, the old European democracies had longed for us to be committed to partnership with them. Now that we were committed beyond all expectations, they began to wonder whether we might not try to impose our will in Europe incautiously and beyond their means to resist. Above all, how to be sure we would not make reckless use of our overwhelming atomic power? The massive-retaliation thesis caused alarmists to predict that one day Washington would suddenly turn "trigger happy" and bring on the very cataclysm that we claimed our atomic supremacy would prevent. At that time the Soviets had not yet acquired the capability of launching an atomic "first strike," so that the possibility in theory existed. Today, if any of us on this side of the Atlantic ever nourished the illusion that we would be "safer" than Europeans in an atomic war, we can do so no longer. For we are not in fact safer, or even as safe. A Soviet "first strike" must necessarily be directed against the United States, the seat of decisive retaliatory power. American strategists understand this perfectly; and the knowledge seems to be spreading in Europe also.

Neutralist leaders, too, might take this reality into account before implying that our decision to maintain at least nuclear parity with the Soviets is in some way frivolous-"playing with the safety of the world." The forces threatening our existence as a free people are (to put it mildly) at least as real and imminent as those which they believe menace theirs. The threat we see, whether they see it or not, is to be taken as a given fact in our relations with all the rest of the world.

It being in the nature of governments to blunder occasionally, our allies naturally enough worry that sometime something we do may involve them in troubles they cannot control. To an extent this is unavoidable, not because we arrogantly desire to manage their destinies but because of the nature of the nuclear weapon which is in our hands and which is the principal shield of the whole community. But incidents outside what might be called the range of inevitable risks cause worry too-the audacious U-2 flights, for instance, and perhaps more than the incident itself the clumsy and even mendacious way we handled the discovery of it; or our bungled part in the effort of Cuban refugees to overthrow Castro. The revolution in the American attitude toward the use of power abroad-the change from thinking of it as exceptional and temporary to accepting it as inevitable and continuous-has taken place in a brief period of time. It would be astonishing if we did not slip occasionally in our exercise of that power; and we must admit we have done so. The wonder is that the two ill-fated enterprises cited have not been held against us longer and more deeply. Perhaps people felt enough sympathy with their purpose if not the execution to remember them differently than, for instance, they remember the Soviet tanks rolling down the Budapest streets, gun turrets swinging.

In our search for a modus vivendi with the Soviets we sometimes have been ahead of our European associates in firmness, sometimes in conciliation. Thus criticism on one score has tended to offset criticism on the other. Some say that our position on Berlin is too adamant; others disapprove of our willingness even to negotiate on the subject. Two opinions exist about our role in the arms and nuclear test discussions-we are "dragging our feet," we are "being led down the garden path," we are dangerously hard, we are dangerously soft. There is disagreement as to how well we have been exercising our lonely responsibility in Asia. The British have differed with us over our attitude toward the two Chinese régimes and the French over our endeavor to save independence for the remnants of the former French domain in Indochina.

The extent to which we should share our knowledge of nuclear development and how to control nuclear weapons jointly are still unsolved problems of the alliance; scientific discovery and technological advance have dizzyingly outpaced the evolution of political institutions, and here as elsewhere we are only at the beginning of the effort to suit national and group relationships to the requirements of an age in which man-made devices disregard boundaries and can alter the force of alliances and of enmities. In these circumstances one or another of our allies easily comes to believe that at certain points we are exceeding our prerogatives. And we feel in turn, for reasons that need not be spelled out here, that an ally may become so preoccupied with special interests that he injures the larger interest of us all. In our position, however, we cannot expect to be more than relatively comfortable. Problems arising with one member are sure to affect the rest, and when all the interests in play cannot be reconciled we shall be lucky to get a not-too-sulky acceptance of a compromise.

The members of the Atlantic Alliance are free with their criticisms, but there have not been recriminations. If the Anglo-French-American partnership which is the core of the alliance could stand the test of Suez, there must be an overriding sense of common destiny between the three nations, survivors together of the two greatest wars of history. Will it continue to prevail? Out of enlightened self-interest, it must. The dangers we have been living through these past 15 years or more have not decreased, are not decreasing and at any moment may increase. We shall surmount them in the future only as we have done in the past, together.

Together, too, our peoples will be able not only to keep on living but to live lives of expanding opportunity. Today Western society has within reach the means to accomplish all that it should desire or deserve, material and immaterial, more richly than ever before. The European Common Market points the way. We have refused to view it as a potentially dangerous competitor, as might easily have happened before the war, and from the start have strongly encouraged it instead of trying to obstruct or disrupt it. President Kennedy, casting a hopeful look beyond, intimates that if federation succeeds in Europe it might open the way for writing a new chapter of history on an even wider theme. The West stands only at the threshold of such achievements. Whether we shall bring them to pass will depend on our ability to keep the peace.

The knowns and unknowns of the space age are intruding more and more into the old relationships. The tides of time, not predictable like the rise and fall of the oceans, have suddenly carried us well along toward shores which 40 years ago were not thought to be within measurable reach. But while astronauts circle the earth today, plan to reach the moon tomorrow and have designs on the virginity of Venus a few days later, we are so engrossed in the competitive aspects of these exploits that we have not taken the time to form clear opinions-let alone rational policies based on them-about what they mean for the majority of human beings who seem likely to continue dwelling on earth and having political relations with their neighbors. Daring research and personal courage have combined pure science and pure power into a team that pushes moral and philosophical considerations into the corner and makes traditional diplomatic methods and even objectives archaic. More and more, obviously, the universal is going to determine the terrestrial. It is time we caught our breath and began intensive inquiries into the problems that will arise along the astral ways, so that the knowledge of nature now being unfolded may be made useful to humanity in the highest sense, and not disastrous. (Is it too much to hope that whoever lands first on the moon's sterile crust will not unfold a national flag but set a stone dedicating the lunar territories to the human race?)

No one can say at a given moment, even approximately, what degree of confidence and respect American foreign policy commands around the world. Sometimes, as we have seen, we are thought to use our power unwisely. But there no longer is any doubt, as there was four decades ago, that we shall use it. Nor does there seem to be any questioning that it will be used with a purpose and energy which in the environment of those days was inconceivable. If this is indeed the case, the change can be put down not only to the integrity of American leadership in the years since the war but most of all to the matter-of-fact way in which the American people moved into their new position and accepted the widening responsibilities that came with it. This has meant everything to the proper conduct of our foreign relations. Without steady backing, a Truman, Eisenhower or Kennedy could riot have pursued a strong foreign policy, and if he had tried would have ended like Wilson in frustration. Knowledge that they had the support of a politically conscious and informed public opinion has brought our Presidents and Secretaries of State inner strength and assurance; and it has convinced the foreign leaders with whom they have had to deal that the United States would "stay the course." It is a performance-and a verdict- that our enemies have noted with astonishment and bitter disappointment.

IV

In an article in the first issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS Elihu Root wrote these sentences, since then often quoted:

When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchies the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war is in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer for the change, for, while there is no way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent a people from having an erroneous opinion. That way is to furnish the whole people, as a part of their ordinary education, with correct information about their relations to other peoples, about the limitations upon their own rights, about their duties to respect the rights of others, about what has happened and is happening in international affairs, and about the effects upon the national life of the things that are done or refused as between nations; so that the people themselves will have the means to test misinformation and appeals to prejudice and passion based on error.

Autocracies and oligarchies have not vanished; they still encumber the road. Nor will anyone claim that there is the free exchange of information and opinion which can prevent the spread of mistaken beliefs, or that the danger of wars has receded as a result of the attainment on any general scale of these or the other objectives described by Mr. Root as desirable and necessary. But if as a people we have become more mature in our view of world affairs, have increased our ability to test misinformation and appeals to prejudice based on error, and are more determined and better prepared to throw our weight with that of like-minded nations against those of sinister purpose, then the world is indeed a gainer by the change. For as history unfolds it is in company with those who knowingly commit themselves to the side of freedom, security and peace that mankind will prefer to risk its destiny. If over the past 40 years Foreign Affairs has contributed in any degree to this result its first sponsors would be satisfied.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now