Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
The Future of History
Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?
Let us make two assumptions: first, that the Viet Nam war has reached the beginning of the end and that it will be over within the next year or two; second, that the settlement will involve an American defeat and the extension of communist power to South Viet Nam. Events may falsify both these assumptions, but they may not; it is worth thinking about what the situation will be like if they do not.
Among other things, it is worth thinking about the effects which such developments will have on the debate about American policy in Asia. After all, it has been said often enough that this debate is itself crucial in determining the future of Southeast Asia. If this is more than rhetoric, and surely it is, it is important to consider how the arguments will look and where the participants will stand if events move in this way. What answers can be expected to the questions: Will the United States withdraw from the whole region, at least in the military sense? Should it do so? Would the countries of the region be able to maintain their independence if it did so? Would it matter if they did not?
If the situation here envisaged comes about, one of the important consequences will be the enhancing of the influence and authority of those who have been critical of American policy. They will be in a position to claim, or to have claimed for them, that the fact that they predicted the failure of American policy testifies to the soundness of their analysis of the general situation and their prescriptions for future American policy Such a claim would be persuasive but not necessarily justified. People are sometimes right despite their analysis; sometimes a part of their analysis is sound while another part is not. In an exchange between Hans Morgenthau and McGeorge Bundy during the C.B.S. debate in June 1965, Bundy pointed out that in the early sixties Morgenthau had wrongly assumed that the communist domination of Laos was a foregone conclusion, Morgenthau answered, "I may have been dead wrong about Laos, but it doesn't prove that I am dead wrong about Viet Nam." This was true; but it is also true that if it turns out that Morgenthau and the other critics are right about Viet Nam, it does not follow that they must be right in their analyses and prescriptions concerning the rest of Southeast Asia. The danger that this may be overlooked, that defeat in Viet Nam may lead to an uncritical acceptance of the whole of the case put forward by the critics, makes it particularly important to look closely at their recommendations and the arguments used to support them.
Among the more prominent critics of U.S. Viet Nam policy there is substantial agreement that American military power should not be committed again to the Southeast Asian mainland. Some are more explicit than others on this, and some accept that the process of extrication from Viet Nam may require the continuing presence of American troops during a transition period. But there is pretty general agreement that ideally and ultimately the United States should withdraw from the mainland.
This conclusion is supported by a number of arguments. The most far- reaching of these-and, if it is accepted, the most compelling-is that neither in terms of American interests nor the world balance of power is the region important enough to justify such an American commitment. George Kennan was expressing the view of many when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "Viet Nam is not a region of major military and industrial importance. It is difficult to believe that any decisive developments of the world situation would be determined in normal circumstances by what happens on that territory;" and when, on another occasion, he made it clear that this evaluation applied to the whole region by advising Americans "not to worry so much about the remote countries scattered across the Southern crescent." Kenneth Galbraith, Richard Lowenthal and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. have expressed similar views; the last of these, immediately preceding a chapter on "The Inscrutability of History," opined that "the conception of the United States as an Asian power violates the logic of our own history,"1
As far as I can discover, the comparative unimportance of Southeast Asia has been simply asserted rather than demonstrated in any detail. This is surprising, for there is a prima facie case for considering the region to be of great strategic and political importance. Over the last two decades, not only the United States but China, Great Britain and France have certainly behaved as if they had very important interests in the region and have entered into major commitments in relation to it. Russia, too, has behaved as if great issues were at stake there. In so far as the British and French interests in the area have declined, they have done so because of a reluctant recognition by those countries of their inability to sustain commitments there, not because of an acceptance of the view that the region is unimportant. Three important secondary powers-India, Japan and Indonesia- whose fates are certainly a matter of great concern to the major powers are adjacent to the region, and their futures can hardly be unaffected by developments in it. Two of the major international crises of this decade have centered on the region. When all this is borne in mind, statements that the area is unimportant in world politics can hardly be accepted as descriptive statements based on the interests actually pursued by the great powers; they seem more concerned with changing than with assessing the importance of the area.
Apart from the assertion that the Southeast Asian mainland is not worth a major American military commitment, a number of arguments have been advanced to show that such a commitment, if entered into, must fail. Although these support the same conclusion, not all of them sit well together. Walter Lippmann, for example, has been concerned with stressing the military disadvantages facing an American presence on the mainland and to bring this out has emphasized the importance of the military strength of communist forces. The mainland should be abandoned because it is "where the masses of Vietnam and China can march against us. . . . The controlling fact about the Chinese and Vietnamese military forces is that they can march but not swim."2 Others, Hans Morgenthau for example, concerned with establishing not the disadvantages but the inappropriateness of a military response, have played down what Lippmann emphasizes: "The threat here is not primarily military but political. Weak governments and societies are exposed to communist subversion . . . military containment has no bearing upon such a threat."3 This line of argument has been developed further: not only is a military presence inappropriate but it is counterproductive. It attracts the communist aggression and subversion it is meant to counter, and it weakens and compromises the forces of local nationalism it is meant to sustain.
The division between the approach which emphasizes the military aspect of the Chinese Communist threat and that which depreciates it runs deep through the ranks of the critics. It is reflected in the two diametrically opposed conclusions which have been advanced by the more extreme among them in the course of debate: that Southeast Asia must, inevitably, fall under Chinese domination (and that it is therefore futile to try to prevent this from happening); and that the "Chinese threat" is a myth propagated by anti- communists and devoid of substance (and that it is therefore unnecessary to take measures to counter it). In so far as either view is valid, it detracts from the force of the other. If it is a question of "the masses of Vietnam and China" on the march, then a military response is not inappropriate, whatever else it may be; if local social and political conditions are what are decisive, then the spectre of those masses on the march cannot be introduced to establish that a military presence must fight under decisive disadvantages.
Three further observations may be made about the line of argument that a military presence is ineffectual, irrelevant or counterproductive. First, this view seems to be based very largely on the Viet Nam experience and to generalize from that experience. Yet in denouncing the rigidly deterministic version of the domino theory many of those who generalize in this way have been adamant in stressing the uniqueness of each Asian country and the importance of local conditions. They have insisted that what is true of one country need not be true of another. If this is accepted, it is difficult to see why it should not apply in assessing the effects and effectiveness of an American military presence in the various countries as well as in assessing the chances of successful insurrection. Secondly, these views seem to ignore important relevant evidence, in particular that provided by the long-standing British military presence in Malaya and later Malaysia. In retrospect this does not appear to have been ineffectual, irrelevant or counterproductive. Unless it is assumed that an American military presence must be different from the British presence in ways which would produce radically different results, this evidence would seem to undermine substantially the line of argument. If such a difference is assumed it should be made clear and elaborated on. Thirdly, some formulations of these views seem to polarize the issues unnecessarily and misleadingly, presenting the issues as if a clear choice must be made between a military response and a nonmilitary one. One can accept the view that the struggle is primarily a political one without concluding that a military presence therefore has no bearing upon the threat. The nature of the American military commitment in Viet Nam and the course which events have taken there should not obscure the fact that various kinds of military commitments, combined with various kinds of economic and political initiatives, are possible.
The arguments and beliefs so far outlined seem to constitute the case for ending the American commitment to the mainland. How persuasive or unpersuasive one finds them is likely to depend not only on their own force but also on one's assessment of the consequences of withdrawal. What have the critics to say about these? It is possible to discern, at least for purposes of analysis, three distinct viewpoints. There are those, like Lippmann, who accept that withdrawal will mean the domination of the mainland by China, or possibly by China and North Viet Nam. How this conclusion will affect one's attitude to withdrawal is likely to depend on how persuasive one finds the arguments that the fate of the region is of no great importance in terms of international politics, and that in any case Chinese influence must prevail in the long run as a kind of geopolitical necessity. The first of these has already been examined. As to the second, it is open to the same decisive objection as the rigid, deterministic version of the domino theory: it asserts the inevitability of one particular outcome in a situation where there are too many variables to justify doing so.
The more optimistic, who maintain that the independent states of Southeast Asia could survive an American withdrawal, may be divided into those who lay stress on maintaining an international balance of power and those who stress other factors. There are two versions of the balance-of-power thesis. In the first it is maintained that the offshore presence of the United States either in the form of the Seventh Fleet or of an island base or of some combination of the two could maintain a balance. In the second it is maintained that a purely Asian balance of power is possible.
As for the first of these, the American experience in Viet Nam surely speaks decisively against it. If the use of American air-power on a massive scale, with the advantage of land as well as sea bases and in conjunction with land forces, was not decisive there, it is difficult to see how it could be so elsewhere when it would not enjoy similar advantages. One cannot simultaneously insist on the ineffectiveness of the bombing of North Viet Nam over the last few years and argue that offshore air power could maintain a balance in the future. Unless, that is, the use of nuclear weapons is envisaged. If one believes that the United States is unlikely to use such weapons in a Southeast Asian conflict, this argument is not convincing; it is similarly unpersuasive if one believes it should not use them.
The case in favor of a purely Asian balance of power has been stated most fully by Alastair Buchan.4 Buchan explains that what he has in mind is not an integrated military alliance of non-communist states but a diplomatic coalition built around India, Australia and Japan. Its object would not be to deter a full-scale "Hitlerian onslaught" by China against her neighbors (which he thinks unlikely) but to prevent the isolating of individual states and the exploitation of internal strife and of quarrels between states. He points to the advantage of "de-coupling" centers of tension so that a crisis in one of them does not lead immediately to a great-power confrontation. He believes also that China would be more inclined to come to terms with the rest of Asia if such a coalition came into existence and the United States was no longer involved.
Buchan recognizes some of the difficulties facing the implementation of such a concept: the suspicion of Japan among other Asian states, the unpopularity of India, the shortage of investment capital in India and of manpower in Australia. He recognizes the problem posed by the existence of Chinese nuclear weapons and concludes that either Asian countries will have to acquire nuclear weapons or they will want to involve the United States more closely. He prefers the dangers of proliferation to those of an American umbrella.
Two questions pose themselves in relation to the concept of a purely Asian balance of power: Could the necessary coalition be constituted and, if it could, would it do what is claimed for it (i.e. stabilize the situation in Southeast Asia)? On the first, an honest appraisal of conditions in Southeast Asia can surely lead only to considerable skepticism. The concept of a balance of power presupposes the existence of stable and effective units which can be organized into alliances and coalitions. The states of this region are characterized neither by stability nor effectiveness. Furthermore, as one commentator has pointed out, in assessing the chances of such a coalition coming into existence, "non-material factors like political will" are of overriding importance.5 The will for decisive action, action requiring steadfastness of purpose over a long period and the willingness to forego short-term advantages, seems conspicuously absent in the proposed members of the coalition. Neither India nor Japan has shown the slightest inclination to play the role allotted to it, and the current Australian attitude seems to be that it will act in conjunction with the United States or Britain, but not on its own. A serious attempt to create a united will would be likely to involve the United States even more intimately in the affairs of the region than it is at present, and for a considerable period.
If a coalition were created, one's judgment as to whether it would be a stabilizing factor is likely to depend very much on one's assessment of the consequences, both outside and inside the region, of its members' acquiring the nuclear weapons which Buchan realistically concedes would be necessary in order to create an effective balance to China. To the extent that the prospects of nuclear proliferation appall, the coalition will be unattractive.
We have been examining views which stress the importance of maintaining or constructing a balance of power as a necessary condition for the continuing independence of the non-communist states of Southeast Asia. Some put the emphasis on the other factors; for example, internal stability and order. Those who do so see the threat almost exclusively in terms of subversion and guerrilla uprisings. Dismissing the domino theory as an "artificial nightmare," Lowenthal, for instance, stresses that successful indirect aggression depends on the political weakness of the attacked régime, not merely or principally on the will of the aggressor.6 Many others have made the same point. Accepting it as true, it is difficult to see what comfort can be drawn from it.
Political weakness is endemic throughout the region. Unstable central governments with only very limited capacities to mobilize support, neglected outer provinces, sharp discontinuities between city and countryside, dissatisfied minorities, institutions with shallow roots, military establishments with a keen interest in politics-these are standard features of most of the countries concerned. Indeed, awareness of these political conditions is a major reason for pessimism. To take a current example, if one believed that the Chinese were "importing revolution" into Northwest India and Burma rather than exploiting the preëxisting grievances of the Nagas, Mizos and Shans, one would probably view the situation less seriously.
Moreover, it is true and relevant, as the case of Viet Nam shows, that political and social conditions are not simply given factors. To a degree, subversive movements can in time create the conditions that favor them-by the assassination of key figures in the rural administration, by disrupting communications between the center and the provinces, by levying taxes and forced recruiting, and by sustained propaganda,
Many of the critics put their faith in the emergence of "Titoist" régimes which would resist any encroachments by China, In view of the importance of the policy decisions being advocated, one would expect such a faith to be sustained by a much more searching discussion of the conditions required for the emergence of Titoist régimes than has been evident. As the history of Eastern Europe makes clear, the mere existence of strong nationalist sentiment is not enough. Such a spirit was never absent through the forties and fifties, even within the various communist parties. In fact it was probably stronger there than in the parties of Southeast Asia, several of which-particularly those of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand-have a very strong Chinese component which one would expect to draw them toward Peking rather than away from it.
One condition which one might assume was conducive, if not essential, to the emergence of a Titoist régime is the presence of two major and competing powers between which the potential Titoist can man?uvre with some freedom. If this is so, then the chances of Titoism may be much better if the United States maintains an effective presence, which means a military presence. It would be ironical if the possibility of Titoism were used to justify a course of action which would itself seriously diminish that possibility.
One further point about Titoism is worth making. In the context of international politics the term implies two characteristics: independence and nonaggression. While these two have gone together in the case of Jugoslavia, there is no reason to assume that they must always go together, that an independent communist state in Southeast Asia will, by definition, be nonaggressive and non-threatening. If the behavior of the North Vietnamese régime is any indication-in Laos as well as South Viet Nam-there is little cause for regarding the emergence of Titoist régimes as an occasion for relaxation and good cheer; and if the PKI had succeeded in Indonesia in 1965, there is little reason to suppose that it would have been a docile, peaceful régime, whatever its relations with China.
It is clear that certain assumptions about the nature of China's foreign policy play a key role in one's view of the post-Viet Nam situation in Southeast Asia. There seems to be substantial agreement among critics of U.S. policy that China's ideological stance does not have much operational significance; that, in the words of one of them, "the basic direction of her policies is determined primarily by her traditional national interests, and that communism only adds a new dynamic dimension to the means by which the policies are to be achieved."7 That is, ideology is conceived more as an instrument than a determinant of policy. This view is also likely to lead to the conclusion that China is a regional power with limited ambitions, rather than the world power she claims to be. There is agreement, too, that the régime is rather cautious ("innately cautious" in Buchan's view) and is prepared to settle for half a cake or less rather than to insist on outright domination of Southeast Asia. Its motivation is taken to stem largely from fear and hatred of America rather than from a positive drive toward expansion or imperialistic ambitions.8 And there is considerable confidence that she will restrict herself to indirect methods, to subversion and support for national liberation movements, apparently regardless of how the situation changes.
I think it is fair to say that under the pressure of debate there has been a tendency for views of China's foreign policy to polarize-for ideology to be seen as all important or to be regarded as mere window dressing; for her to be seen either as implacably adventurist or innately cautious.
As far as the importance of ideology is concerned, it is notoriously difficult to establish criteria which would indicate conclusively what role it does play. One interesting piece of evidence supporting the view that its role is an important one may have been provided inadvertently by Professor C. P. Fitzgerald in an article which, ironically, was concerned with establishing the continuity between traditional Chinese policy and the policy of the present régime.9 According to Fitzgerald, one of the central principles of traditional policy was contained in "the axiom that it is unwise and very dangerous to quarrel at the same time with the Power which dominates the northern borderlands and the Power which rules the Pacific Ocean." It was an important part of his thesis that this was accepted by the present régime: "It has been evident from the early years of the Communist régime that the first great reality, the geographical facts of China's long land frontier and long exposed coastline, has been clearly understood by the new government. Russia controls the north of Asia; the United States, succeeding Japan, controls the western Pacific. China should not quarrel with both at once." Unfortunately for this thesis, at about the time the article was published, the Communist Government of China, already bitterly in conflict with the United States, was deliberately pushing its differences with the Soviet Union to the point of an open and probably irrevocable breach. That is, if Fitzgerald was right about traditional Chinese foreign policy, it was acting in a way which was inexplicable and Indefensible in terms of traditional policy and interests, but which was understandable if China was regarded as a communist state for whose decision-makers ideological factors were extremely important.
Important does not mean all-important or consistently crucial. The relationship between ideology and policy is not fixed, and surely the degree of caution or boldness, which may seem "innate," will change with circumstance. How boldly or cautiously a régime behaves is likely to depend on how it calculates the rewards and dangers of boldness.
If this is true, it seems unwise to base one's expectations of how China will behave in a Southeast Asia from which the United States is absent on how she has behaved when the American presence was very real. If the Chinese régime has avoided frontal attacks, contenting itself with stimulating and aiding local guerrilla movements, may this not be due to a healthy awareness of the danger of acting otherwise rather than to innate propensities or the persistence of traditional styles of behavior? The argument that the indirectness of China's strategy is dictated by ideology has some force, but it is not an argument available to those who deny the importance of ideology.
While some are sanguine because they are convinced that China has little desire to expand southward, others base their optimism on the alleged military incapacity of the Chinese. It is ironic that as Chinese military power has increased the respect paid to it by Western commentators has tended to diminish. Ten years ago it was usual to exaggerate its significance; now it might well be that it is taken too lightly. Much of the argument seems to depend on the logistic difficulties which would face a Chinese move south. If, however, one remembers the success of the Japanese in moving through the region in World War II, of the North Vietnamese in the present war, and of the Chinese themselves in the incredibly difficult terrain of Tibet and on the Sino-Indian border, these difficulties may appear less decisive-especially in circumstances in which the military opposition would be for the most part negligible.
This article has concentrated on a critical examination of the views of those who advocate ending the American commitment on the Southeast Asian mainland. It has not attempted to put forward the positive case for continuing the commitment. Even without bringing this into the reckoning, however, the case for complete withdrawal does not appear strong. Many of the arguments are little more than unsupported assertions; others do not necessarily support the conclusion that withdrawal is wise. As in other areas of the Viet Nam debate, the momentum of the argument itself has tended to polarize the issues and therefore to diminish the options considered. Between another "Viet Nam commitment" and total withdrawal there are many possibilities. The time has come to focus attention on these. 1 A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., "The Bitter Heritage," Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967, p. 77. 2 W. Lippmann, "Should U.S. Withdraw to Australia?" The Washington Post, Oct. 22, 1967. 3 H. J. Morgenthau, "Vietnam and the United States." Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1965, p. 57. 4 Alastair Buchan, "An Asian Balance of Power?" The Australian journal of Politico and History, August 1966. See also Encounter, December 1966. 5 Coral Bell, "The Asian Balance of Power: A Comparison with European Precedents," Adelphi Papers No. 34 (Institute for Strategic Studies). The whole of this paragraph is indebted to this excellent paper. 6 R. Lowenthal, "America's Asian Commitment," Encounter, October 1963. 7 Morgenthau, op. cit., p. 55. 8 See, for example, Schlesinger's eloquent paragraph on "the view from Peking," op. cit., p. 36-37. 9 C. P. Fitzgerald, "The Chinese View of Foreign Relations," The World Today, January 1963, p. 9, 12.