The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
We live, no doubt, in a period of accelerating history, though what precisely we can expect from this acceleration nobody dares predict. The end of World War II is still not 20 years away, yet there already is little resemblance between the blueprint for world order drawn in 1944 and the world of 1964. A world order after a war which caused 30,000,000 casualties should last somewhat longer than that. The Pax Romana after the civil wars fought just before the birth of Christ lasted, on and off, a couple of centuries. The Pax Anglica after the Napoleonic Wars lasted a century. The Pax Americana (nobody can deny that the United States has kept the peace since VJ-Day, with some tacit coöperation from Russia) has now lasted nineteen and a half years, but thanks only to several changes in the organization of the world, some of them improvised under the pressure of events.
This article will attempt to peer into the darkness of the future and imagine how peace can be kept in the sixties and the early seventies. Is the present world order (if any) going to last? What forces and what ideas are pressing for a change? Where are the centers of resistance? What sort of new equilibrium (if needed) will be established, and by whom?
The blueprint for peace at the end of World War II was simple and therefore had a certain harmonious elegance. Five main powers were to be responsible for assuring the peace of the globe, and they were given juridical sanction for this in the United Nations Charter, which accorded them permanent seats and veto rights in the Security Council. The United Kingdom was to be responsible for northwest Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near and Middle East, southern Asia and Oceania; the Soviet Union for its own enormous mainland and for Eastern Europe; France for the bulk of Africa, north and south of the Sahara; China (the China of Chiang Kai-shek) for the Far East. The United States, having brought peace back to the earth and the boys back home, could safely withdraw to its front porch overlooking Latin America, except for giving a hand in the establishment of democracy in Germany and Japan and generally supervising the state of affairs in the four other continents.
This idyllic dream of San Francisco and Yalta was shattered within a year or so of F.D.R.'s death. The United Kingdom was unable to bear such a heavy burden in four continents; having wisely let India go, it tried with scant or no success to hold the Near and Middle East, and was forced to put the defense of the eastern Mediterranean and of Australasia in the lap of President Truman. France kept her colonies for a time, thanks to the ability and devotion to her corps d'élite; but then the retreat had to be sounded. China surprised most people by going Communist, and thereby subverting the balance of the world: for Russia had in the meantime converted the whole of Eastern Europe into a fortified encampment and had brought her weight to bear all along the provisional border with the West. The American boys, 400,000 of them, had to be sent back to Europe in a hurry.
The forces which were active in international society in those years and which changed the face of it in an amazingly short time were not always identified correctly. At the beginning, the nature and the strength of the world-wide revolt against the white race was much underrated. The capacity of glorious old countries like Britain and France to play a world role was, on the contrary, much overestimated. Most people saw Communism in terms of aggressiveness, and few in terms of weakness: yet weak it certainly was until 1950 at least, during the period in which there was little the Soviet Union could do against the American nuclear monopoly. For the Kremlin, those were the years of the Great Fear: the fear of Capitalism using its military superiority to blow Communism out of existence; the miserable fear that Marx and Lenin had been wrong after all and the bourgeoisie right. One of the two blocs into which the world split itself in the late forties was created out of that weakness and that fear: for Stalin's iron hand imposed the Soviet yoke on the young countries of Eastern Europe, ruthlessly suffocating their nationalistic pride and their pathetic invocation of independence, in order to establish the widest possible glacis between the American bases in Germany and the main Russian industrial and population centers. While even old guard Communists were sent to their death or placed in solitary confinement, all vestiges of national identity in Eastern Europe, except in Tito's Jugoslavia, were pursued and as far as possible suppressed.
Thus, the Soviet response to the challenge presented by the American nuclear monopoly was the forcible integration into the U.S.S.R. of those parts of Europe which were within reach of the Soviet Army. When shortly afterward the American monopoly was broken, the general impression (probably a very hasty one) was that, conditions of parity having been reëstablished in the nuclear field, the superiority now rested with whoever had the biggest conventional forces, namely, the Soviet bloc. The art of nuclear deterrence being in its infancy, people's minds and even generals' thoughts were conditioned by the old doctrines of conventional warfare. This was a powerful incentive to integration among the Western European states and to the integration of them all with the United States in a single political and military system.
The Western bloc, of course, was never really similar to the Stalinist bloc, except in the sense that there was one leading power which, however, did not need to threaten or use force to be recognized as leader. This is shown, among other ways, by the Western bloc's parallel development in the direction of Atlantic integration and in the direction of European integration. (Stalin had violently forbidden any attempt at union among his satellites.) There were psychological reasons for evoking the rise of a united Europe from the ashes of the defeated and impoverished old continent, once suzerain of the world. There was idealistic aspiration toward a general reconciliation of the European peoples, putting an end to three thousand years of strife. But this might not have been transferred to the realm of practical politics had it not been for the necessity of solving a seemingly unsolvable problem: how to call upon the potential might of Germany (a few years after her defeat and destruction) to help in the defense of the West, without making her again the dominant country in Europe.
There were two schools of thought. The first, mostly English, held that Germany could safely be contained only in a political and military system guaranteed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The other school, prevailingly French, thought that no real security could be obtained unless Germany were merged along with some other European countries in a new supranational system. In the latter system there would be equality among the participating countries, but France would be a little more equal than her partners (she would not renounce atomic weapons, would not be subject to legal limits in conventional forces, would receive financial aid for her colonial policy or for her nuclear research, and so on)-though not enough more equal to please Charles de Gaulle's vision of French equality. This second school got the encouragement and support of the United States, but could not totally prevail over the first.
These two patterns of organization therefore coexist in the Western world, not hampering, but strengthening each other. One is intended to maintain the balance of military power in the world, and therefore inside Europe itself, through the absolute superiority of the United States in nuclear weapons; the other is to maintain the balance of political and economic power inside Europe. But this double scheme may continue only so long as no participant questions how the military equilibrium in the world is to be kept. Since one of the conditions of the equilibrium is the nuclear monopoly of the United States, the questioning of that monopoly will not permit the double scheme to survive for long.
John Foster Dulles was, if not the author (because he must share that honor with Jean Monnet), at least the most powerful sponsor of the Western political system just described and of the system of world order founded upon it. It has become fashionable nowadays to pass negative judgments upon Dulles' achievements and designs; his credo is branded as reactionary, his effort to establish a world-wide net of military pacts is described as a form of mania, his diplomacy of brinkmanship is labeled as warmongering. His stern and disciplinary vision of reality, his habit of telling blunt truths, his massive and rather dominating personality did not endear him to statesmen or to the masses. Still, the objective historian will acclaim him as a man who possessed a supreme capacity for weighing exactly the forces present in the world arena. He was the first man in America and probably in the world to understand the political implications of nuclear weapons and the advantages that diplomacy could get from even a temporary superiority in that field. The doctrine of massive retaliation, which the West is now correctly abandoning, was in Dulles' days the right application to the diplomatic struggle of the military superiority then enjoyed by the United States, since it could devastate the heart of the Soviet Union while the Russians could not do the same to the United States. The doctrine gave better results in a defensive posture (as in the Quemoy-Matsu case) than in an offensive one (although the fact that it was not invoked to help the insurgent workers and students of Budapest may be charitably explained by the state of utter confusion into which the West had worked itself over the Suez affair). But normally, since brinkmanship was based on an exact evaluation of the opposing forces, it was able to keep the status quo and peace. When the first Sputnik showed that the balance of power was about to be redressed in favor of the U.S.S.R., Dulles was quick to perceive it and to start the slow retreat toward a different military and political posture.
Through the menace of massive nuclear retaliation, and while it was credible, Dulles had consolidated a world order which looked and was rational It was jointly administered by the two blocs, one of which was deterred from making war if not from exporting subversion, while the other had renounced war except in self-defense (as the autumn of 1956 crudely showed). Communist propaganda attacked the "imperialistic policy of blocs" as a menace to world peace. The reverse was true: it was the existence of two solid and balanced blocs that kept the peace. Probably this was silently recognized even in the Kremlin.
Was Khrushchev sincere when at the end of 1958 he suggested fixing a legal frontier between East and West by a legal partition of Germany, implying that this would establish peace firmly on the Continent? Probably he had in mind the advantages of a truce with the West while the Soviet Union consolidated its economic and political situation. It is not likely, however, that the whole content of the Berlin ultimatum of 1958 can be explained in a conservative way, even though other acts and gestures of Khrushchev's reveal that a thread of conservatism runs through his policies corresponding to the present situation of the U.S.S.R. in the world. The insistence that war is not inevitable, the recent emphasis on the sanctity of frontiers-be they Tsarist frontiers in Asia or Potsdam frontiers in Europe-and above all the support given to the plan for limiting the possession of nuclear weapons to the "haves" reveal the Soviet interest in perpetuating the present state of the world-one in which, on more or less Dulles' lines, each of the two Great Powers would continue maintaining order in its third of the world, while the other third remain the object of their mutual competition, short of war.
The perpetuation of the two-bloc system as a basis for world order might not be a bad thing, though hardly one that the Chinese would call revolutionary. The question is whether the changing face of society has not already made it obsolete.
In the last five years it has become apparent that a gradual process of erosion is at work in each of the two opposing blocs. Owing to various reasons which will be examined later, the leader of each bloc does not seem to have the same authority as before. There have been cases of overt rebellion, France in one camp and China plus Albania in the other, as well as a number of minor acts of insubordination in both. The two apparently monolithic constructions of the fifties now have more resemblance to boiling underground magmas, from which come rumbles indicating the formation of deep and wide crevices. This fluidity is reflected in the internal situation in several states of the Western Alliance. Ideological and party divisions which until a few years ago used to be very sharp, and which mostly coincided with the dividing line between friends of the United States and friends of the U.S.S.R., have become less precise and even tend to disappear. The corresponding phenomenon in the East, though less visible, is the emergence of revisionist or of pro-Chinese factions in the Communist parties. There is a continuous interaction, further, between these new trends and others which are at work in a different sphere: Roman Catholicism under the leadership of the Popes themselves is breaking out of its medieval fortress, seeking union for the Christian churches and admitting tolerance toward other religions (including, it would seem at times, the Communist religion). In such a syncretistic and conciliatory atmosphere it becomes more difficult, in turn, to enforce the dogmatic creeds as of old; and Yevtushenko can fight in the East the battle for intellectual liberty which has become a bit stale in the West.
Let me now try to indicate the motives, more or less common to the Western and Eastern societies, which may have prompted these visible transformations. Starting with the less important, the first motive can be found in the fact that the difference in economic and technical capacity between the leading nation and the other nations of a bloc is decreasing; for short periods, indeed, the leading nation may even be the one to experience an economic crisis. Thus what was once a powerful force for the unity of each bloc is now less effective. Financially and economically, Western Europe is on its own. The same cannot be said of the smaller Comecon countries; yet present-day Russia, in the grip of a severe agricultural crisis and begging for long-term credits, is certainly not in a position to supply capital in the amounts necessary for their further industrial development (not to speak of China).
The second main cause of the erosion of both blocs is that the effectiveness of the nuclear protection afforded by each of the two leading nations is diminishing and the fear of nuclear reprisal against political misbehavior is vanishing. De Gaulle's thesis on the first point is well known. Without going so far as he has in his reasoning, all eyes now can see that the threshold for nuclear intervention is being set higher and higher, so that only the most vital interests would trigger the deterrent. The growing appreciation of this has certainly had a considerable influence on China's rift with the Soviet Union. What assurance can Peking have that, in case China were threatened with nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union would willingly run the risk of being itself wiped out? The Peking leaders must be convinced that China needs her own nuclear arsenal in order to survive; and if they cannot get it from the U.S.S.R., they will do everything possible to procure it by their own efforts. (If this analysis is correct, there is no chance of China subscribing to a treaty against the dissemination of atomic weapons. And if this treaty were applied only to the mainland of Europe-France excepted-and to underdeveloped continents, what useful purpose could it serve? Nations that have accepted the lower status do not need to take such engagements; others, whenever able, will pay no heed to them.)
On the other hand, there has been ample proof by now that even a weak country can sever itself from a bloc, and either change sides or remain isolated, without suffering more than economic hardship. Jugoslavia, Cuba and Albania are cases in point. Why this should be possible, and in what limits (the U.S.S.R. rapidly intervened against Hungary's attempt to leave the Warsaw Pact), may be explained by the fact that in the nuclear era Great Powers need allies much less than before. Allies may have a psychological, economic or propaganda value; they have very little military value now, and even the importance which their geographic position might have had for the establishment of nuclear bases has been reduced to practically nil by the development of intercontinental and sea-based missiles. On purely strategic grounds, allies and therefore blocs have more and more a marginal value.
The third reason for the erosion of the bloc system is found in a series of psychological factors. After 15 years of tension, the ruling groups on both sides of the Iron Curtain no longer find it possible to keep their peoples in a state of active ideological mobilization. The measures taken for diminishing tension have a multiplier effect. "Imperialistic encirclement" ceased to be an excuse for crop failures or for the paucity of consumer goods in the Soviet Union once the United States began to be impersonated by Kennedy's smile. In the same fashion, the "threat of Soviet aggression" is ceasing to be an effective electoral device for rightist parties since Stalin's deadly sarcasm began to be replaced by Khrushchev's parables and jokes. It is now permissible for a member of the bourgeoisie to be "American" or "Gaullist" and for a member of a Communist party to be "Russian" or "Chinese" (though not in the East), even though Gaullism and China are not yet really credible alternatives. In the sphere of individual conscience, a new urge is growing not just to move toward an ill-defined "peace" (which might also be the peace of the dead), but to ensure wider possibilities to express one's personality, to meet and understand one's neighbor, to communicate with him in some new endeavor, to establish a measure of fraternity somewhere else than in war cemeteries, to make the whole world one's home.
Above all, fear-that great cement of alliances-is beginning to vanish, both in the internal relations between members of each bloc and in the relations between the two blocs. Big Brother has ceased to be feared because of his bigness, or to be loved because of his brotherhood. Die-hard capitalism and intransigent Communism are both becoming obsolete and out of fashion. All this presages something new-for something has to fill the void which will be created.
Just as in internal politics people are fleeing extremes, so in international society new positions are becoming fashionable. These positions could be called neo-nationalism and neo-neutralism (similar to but not identical with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century nationalism and neutralism). Some neo-nationalistic countries, like de Gaulle's France, have chosen to remain for the time being members of a bloc; and nearly all neo-neutralist countries feel sooner or later the barrenness of their position and try to coalesce in a "non-bloc" in order to increase their influence on world affairs. But fundamentally the position of both is sustained by the faith that in our changing world a nation can find its salvation best by relying upon its own efforts and resources. This trend points therefore, if we are not grossly mistaken, to a gradual "atomization" of international society.
Before considering its implications, we should ask whether this trend is not something fleeting, whether the old system will not in the end be reëstablished without too great difficulty. If I sincerely doubt this, notwithstanding what I had to say on the advantages of the two-bloc system, it is because in order to have once again a bipolar world we would have to find a way of convincing ourselves that China does not exist: an exploit which may still be possible for a while on the East River but is certainly impossible everywhere else. The leading powers of the two blocs enjoyed a remarkable and very rare combination of three faculties. They had exclusive control of the "final" weapons. They had economic resources which permitted them to extend aid to the nations of their group. They enjoyed positions of ideological superiority deserved as a result of victory in war and/or revolution, so that the ideology each sponsored had no difficulty in becoming the ideology of the group. These three conditions are obsolescent, and in combination are obsolete. A treaty may try to keep control of nuclear weapons in the hands of beati possidentes: it will mean nothing for China, nor probably for France, nor even for those nations or groups of nations which will invoke the Chinese and French precedents. Economic aid from the leading nation of a bloc will be required in decreasing quantities. Finally, the ideological leadership will be challenged more and more often (as it already is beginning to be) : people who cease to be afraid or in need do not remain convinced of the ideological superiority of others.
All signs seem therefore to point to an alteration of the world order. The movement is led, as always, by real revolutionaries. In our day the role is played by de Gaulle and Mao, who have revolted openly against the established order. But what really signals that the wind is set to blow in another direction is the recognition by the World Establishment itself of the change in the psychological, if not yet in the political, climate. In different fields, obeying different pressures, aiming at different goals, John F. Kennedy and John XXIII and Nikita Khrushchev have given a powerful impulse toward transforming the order which had prevailed in the world since 1947.
In a way it is comforting that in such a short time and over such a vast surface of mankind's geographical and spiritual domain the trend toward a new state of affairs has been given favorable recognition. The risks accompanying a prolonged period of changes are evident. As Walpole, Metternich and Salisbury, among others, saw in their times, hardly any modification of a given international equilibrium can take place without involving the possibility of war. In our day such a possibility might produce so much more terrible destruction and misery that the period of change should, if possible, be reduced to a minimum.
The first and most risky effect of the weakening of the two-bloc system is or will be, as I said, the "atomization" of international society. The compound effect of nationalism and neutralism, the two forces which are wearing down the blocs, will be felt not only in South America and Africa, in the Middle East and Asia, but in Europe itself, both Eastern and Western. The example of Hungary will not be reproduced easily or soon; but the example of Jugoslavia or Albania might well find imitators, in forms and circumstances which cannot be foreseen. The political posture of Sweden and Finland, as well as that of Switzerland and Austria, may have a larger appeal in the context of world-wide ideological and political détente. Neutral-nationalism (the theory of salvation through one's own efforts or, one might say, the modern political Protestantism) will cross the barriers of color, race and geography; unity might be sought in this faith, as suggested by Tito and others, instead of in geographical-racial factors, as suggested by Sukarno. And properly so, because ideas, as missiles, do not stop at state borders. We shall indeed witness more and more frequent attempts (not always crowned with success) by certain powers to act beyond what would be considered their normal range of influence-China in South America, Cuba in Africa, France in the region of Asia from which she was forcibly expelled ten years ago.
The battle between good and evil continues to be fought, though with softer trumpets and more sedate alarums. But official neutrality in that battle is no longer considered a bad thing. Dulles was often accused, in office and after, of wanting to brand neutrals as immoral. In effect, he might have adopted the words Hors de l'Egtise pas de salut-outside the Church there is no salvation-a very justified precept for the Roman Church in pitched battle against the Reform, but less correct, leaders of the Ecumenical Movement feel, in a situation of religious stalemate. Still, it may well be that Dulles, consistent with his conception of world order, was against neutrality not so much because he considered it immoral as because he found it infectious.
In the same way, it is not to be concluded from the likely atomization of international society that the freedom of movement which it will offer to small and big powers is a bad thing in itself; it may even be, under certain aspects, a valuable thing. But this freedom of movement, if left to its natural operation, carries with it the danger of frequent collisions. In the world political system of the fifties the risk of war was limited. It was unlikely that a global conflict could happen by accident and there were no possible agents provocateurs. In Berlin, Korea, Viet Nam and Egypt escalation was prevented by a tacit agreement between the two world powers. It seems doubtful that this could remain true in a world where five or more nuclear powers existed and where, moreover, nearly every state's lack of responsibility could create innumerable occasions for conflict.
I shall not presume to show on what lines the new international order should be erected if the worst is to be avoided, but merely point out that the main responsibility for a peaceful and rapid transition rests with the present great powers. It is for them to realize that the first-priority requirement is to reduce the number of unknown factors in the international equation. They should encourage, whenever and wherever possible, the formation of units larger than the traditional nation-state (or than the artificial countries created in Africa and Latin America). The benefit which a really united Europe could be for the stabilization of peace and the prevention of adventures in one of the most sensitive regions of the world is now evident to many. Let us hope that one day it may become as evident in Moscow as it is now in Washington. Similar solutions should be attentively considered as the eventual aim of a gradual evolution in the Middle East, or in certain regions of Africa, or in the area stretching from Malay to New Guinea to the Philippines.
Pending the formation of such wider and more responsible political units, encouragement should be given to regional organizations, of the type recognized by the U.N. Charter. They should be strengthened so as to make them able to keep the peace in their respective areas: NATO in the North Atlantic and the Council of Europe in the European regions, O.A.S. in the Americas, O.A.U. in Africa, SEATO in Southeast Asia. Nobody, looking back to the events in Cyprus, can fail to see, for instance, how useful a strong European regional organization might have been for solving both the short- and the long-term crisis.
Realistically, however, one must recognize that the effort to concentrate power and therefore responsibility in several groupings of nations, thereby reducing the margin of anarchy in the world, has evident limits. Could the United Nations help to put some order into the residual anarchy? The answer must be, as Secretary of State Rusk pointed out in his address at Columbia University last January, that the present United Nations, being founded on the juridical fiction of equal rights and responsibilities for every single member state, without possessing ways and means to enforce some sort of order, in practice reinforces the anarchy natural to a society based on a multiplicity of irresponsible states.
The effort to improve the peace-keeping machinery of the United Nations, as suggested by Secretary Rusk, is therefore going to be vital. It is indeed difficult to see how the world order is to be kept in the late sixties and early seventies unless the United Nations undergoes a thorough overhaul. Not inconceivably the two present superpowers may one day agree that the strengthening of the United Nations might be in the interest of both, so that it might help them carry the responsibility of peace which they will not be able to shoulder any longer. It might well be to their advantage (as shown by Mr. Rusk's proposal to enhance the prestige and power of the Security Council, and particularly of the countries having permanent seats) to delegate some functions to other countries or groups, and have them share the burden of the superpowers in the world arena-though probably not their real strength as measured by the yardstick of the missile age. If that happens, the future organization of the world might not be very dissimilar in principle from the one which was drafted in Dumbarton Oaks 20 years ago by the victors of World War II.