The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
AROUND the immense southern rim of Red China, from Afghanistan at the western end of the Himalayas to South Vietnam on the Pacific, and further still to the great island groups of Indonesia and the Philippines, stretches a crescent of nations, all but a few of them newly come to statehood and all in an early stage of economic development. Most of them show a friendly face toward their huge neighbor; only two or three venture to be openly hostile, defiant even. But all share a common feeling for her: fear.
From antique times the Chinese have been pressing southward, at first under the Han and other early dynasties, often in irresistible hordes under a leader like Kublai Khan, in later days family by family, industrious merchants and money-changers, building a state within a state. Now Communist China reveals that she is methodically setting out again along the old roads--Indochina, Tibet, the Himalayan borderlands. With fellow-travellers all over Southeast Asia warning that Chinese domination is inevitable, the influential Chinese minorities in several states are making their peace with the Peking régime, partly from pride that it has restored China to greatness but more as a hedge against the possibility that it may be the winner.
But non-Communist Asia has more than China's geographical ambitions to worry about. Indians are comparing Chinese material progress with their own and asking themselves whether their socialist democracy can stand up against, and win out over, totalitarian compulsion. Other Asian nations ask it too. The achievements of Chinese Communism in public works and production are advertised all through Asia, but the human costs are not comprehended, even since the forcible introduction of the communal system. This gives added ground for apprehension: political leaders realize what an appeal Communism can have for their own populations simply because when the known is disappointing enough any unknown becomes attractive.
Paradoxically, it is this fear which has accounted for the relative weakness of the American position in South and Southeast Asia. Red China is feared--but we are not. The fear may be pushed into the background by acute domestic difficulties or by the flare-up of some neighborhood feud, but it is never absent.
There is concern about the United States, too, of course, but on lesser and more confused counts. The things we do or fail to do, our national characteristics real or fancied, awaken popular resentments, doubts, sometimes even acceptance. People flock to our movies, wear our sports clothes, copy our slang--and criticize them; our zeal in the cold war worries some and is admired by others; the scope of our economic aid can never fulfill expectations but occasionally it awakens something like appreciation. Many national leaders weave an uncertain way among the conflicting ideas as to what America is "really" like, what she "really" wants; but all of them know in their minds and hearts, even if their words reveal it only in private conversation, that the existence and free development of their nations along lines of their own choosing are not menaced by any possible aggressive or subversive design against them by the United States. Their confidence that we will never use force against them frees them to act on their fear that if China is given a pretext she may; specifically, that she will retaliate if they coöperate too closely with us. The one factor has worked on the other to debilitate our influence. Our allies in SEATO are exceptions, and so are South Vietnam and perhaps one or two other small states; but most of the South and Southeast Asian countries, counting on our indulgence, have thought that the safe course was to proclaim neutrality but interpret it so as to give no shadow of excuse for interference by their watchful neighbor.
The disadvantage of being a grand almoner who does not awaken fear is hard to overcome. We cannot trade on the anxiety that we might end our disbursements; we may reduce or modify them, but everyone knows as well as we do ourselves that we cannot abandon our aid programs in the underdeveloped countries without leaving them a prey to the Communists, and that this we will not do. Coercion is out of the question. In the colonial era these peoples were conquered by force and held in dependence; Europeans developed their resources, but mainly for their own benefit. We feel no temptation to exploit them even if we could. Our avowed and actual aim at the present time is to secure that nations graduating from colonial status shall have enough time and a fair chance to develop the inner strength to become and remain truly and wholly independent.
It would be a mistake to conclude that because our policies have not been completely successful they should be scrapped and opposites tried. "Gently does it." In the past year, Communist China has been showing her hand more and more clearly, and among all her non-Communist neighbors the climate of opinion has stiffened against her. The Tibetan massacre last spring came as the rudest sort of shock to peoples who had been assured that the Panchsheel principles of live and let live would be a real curb on Chinese expansion. But even earlier the contrast between Communist profession and practice had begun to cause confusion. Hungary had shocked many of the intelligentsia, especially in India; but Hungary was far away, and the doings of Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest were not recorded photographically in Asia as they were in the West and were forgotten there even sooner. In talking last spring with one of the most conspicuously neutralist leaders in Southeast Asia, I mentioned the fate of Imre Nagy to indicate the uncertainties of political life in a Soviet satellite. He turned the conversation abruptly. "Why," he asked me, "are Nasser and Kassem speaking so harshly about each other? Aren't they both good nationalists?" I said that when nationalism tries to use Communism for its own purposes it gets tangled in contradictions, and in this case both of his "good nationalists" had discovered they were being used instead of using. His face darkened when I spoke of how leaders who rely for power on blaring radios, hysterical newspapers and street mobs may suddenly find the same instruments being turned against them by foreign agents supplied with plenty of money and backed by even more high-powered broadcasting stations.
Closer home had been Mao's exercise in free speech in 1957. Asian fellow-travellers were wondering how it was to be interpreted when suddenly it ended in the decapitation of the thousands of Chinese flowers that had sprung up in unorthodox colors. This was disconcerting, for they had hoped vaguely that as Chinese Marxism evolved it might leave some dignified role to be played by non-Party "progressives."
While Asian neutralists were still in a state of shock over the Chinese behavior in Tibet came the outbreak in Laos, aimed at installing a Communist régime there in the guise of the Pathet Lao. The project seems to have been nurtured in North Vietnam, probably with the aim of establishing a border enclave preliminary to taking over the whole country. Since Ho Chi Minh was visiting the Soviet Union and China at the time (he conferred with Premier Khrushchev on July 2 and stopped in Peking on his way home), the most trustful observers were hard put to it to suppose he had acted on his own.
Simultaneously with the forward movement in Laos, the abuse which China had been heaping on India for giving asylum to the Dalai Lama and several thousand Tibetan refugees was switched into something concrete and more menacing. Prime Minister Nehru had paid little attention, publicly at any rate, to maps printed in Peking which showed large parts of Indian territory as belonging to China. Now Chinese troops moved suddenly to make good the cartographic claim. Indian border patrols were attacked and the news leaked out that Indian territory had been occupied in the Ladakh area of Kashmir and in the Northeast Frontier Agency. Indian protests were first ignored, then roughly rejected. In the ensuing dialogue between Nehru and Premier Chou En-lai, in the debates in the Indian Parliament and in Peking radio announcements the word "aggression" was used by both sides. Though the desolate territories involved are unimportant in themselves, they offered Peking an opportunity to inflict a blow on Indian pride and prestige, perhaps also to remind Mr. Khrushchev that China is a power not to be ignored in discussions in Washington, Geneva, Paris or anywhere else.
The moment was propitious. The Congress Party was having an unpleasant time with the Kerala Communists, there were Communist-inspired riots in Calcutta and high Indian officers were suspicious of their civilian chief, Mr. Krishna Menon. It was not in the cards that these events would immediately resolve the contradictions in Indian foreign policy. India was in no position to force a showdown and at the moment had no alternative policy to Prime Minister Nehru's long-held conception that peace and security are divisible. Mr. Nehru's attraction toward neutrality as such was not, he asserted, lessened. Yet his repulsion from the forces that had brought its effectiveness into doubt and his leadership into question must surely have increased. Gradually, as the extent of China's pretensions became known, and as her soldiers began killing Indian border patrols to show she was in earnest, he found himself hard pressed to strengthen India's position and assert India's rights by expedients which no one would have dared so much as mention a year earlier.
Elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia governments that had put their trust in a super-scrupulous observance of neutrality allowed themselves now for the first time to speculate about its efficacy. Even supposing it did keep China from accusing them of taking sides in the cold war, was this in itself going to be enough to ensure their safety? Fear of China became more intense. Some officials reacted by trying to think what more they could do to placate her. Others felt the solution would be to "play neutrality straight." Others, again, began wondering where they could recruit new strength to combat what they saw as a plain threat to their future security.
The net of these various developments should not be interpreted as indicating that South and Southeast Asia are about to "turn to the West." An abyss of time and circumstance, of contrary custom and experience, separates them from our scientific and mechanical age. Intractable factors of climate and expanding population will handicap the best efforts to bridge it. So will the advance of scientific achievement in industrialized countries, one result of which is to reduce the share of the non-industrialized countries in world trade. Actually, despite the immense Western expenditures on economic aid in the backward areas, the disparity between their standard of living and ours is widening instead of narrowing. Most of them must postpone, perhaps for generations, their dream of approximating the envied plenty of the West, not just in consumer luxuries but in the necessities of decent living.
How will they behave when they realize they cannot move forward at better than a snail's pace? Will they show a rare degree of reasonableness and patience? Or will there be social upheavals and rash political experiments? Can they avoid saddling themselves with despotisms, domestic or foreign, from which there then will be no escape? Let us imagine the best. Let us suppose they resist demagogues and foreign agitators, avoid political chaos and harden their morale to the point of accepting bit-by-bit improvement instead of demanding the whole luscious life set before them in American movies. At that, we have to assume that their feelings for us in the West will at the very best be mixed, often tinged with jealousy, criticism and even outright hostility. Under the optimum conditions, the most we probably can hope to accomplish is to stretch out the margin of time in which, released from intolerable economic pressures or foreign threats, they can experiment with the mechanics of self-government and try to find a footing on the treacherous soil of independence.
Here is where the choice of means comes in. In the category of economic aid the alternatives are not sharply defined. Opinions differ as to amounts, allocations and administrative methods as well as between those who favor the national or the international approach; but it seems accepted that substantial economic aid from the West, free from political strings and continued for a long period, is indispensable if the new Asian states are to have a chance of remaining independent. Our effort to increase their security against outside aggression carries more important political connotations. Broadly, the choice here is between offers of help outright and offers of help with what seems a catch to it. In no case, of course, are we excluded from the possibility of using force as required. We must have force at our disposal, and we must have it in forms and at places where we can use it effectively, either when we are appealed to for help and feel we must give it or when we are left with no other choice in protecting vital national interests. This is as true in South and Southeast Asia as in any other part of the globe. But the manner in which we propose to act may have--is having--serious consequences. The error, it seems to me, is in offering to give military help to the weak on a quid pro quo basis. Some accept it on those terms and for the time being become our allies, officially or tacitly. But the majority have so far rejected any formal alliance with the West, whether proposed unilaterally or collectively. As a result the region is divided; new suspicions inflame old national antagonisms; and thus although individual states may be heartened and strengthened, the region as a whole does not develop a sense of identity of over-all interest and a common will to help protect it.
Is it not possible for us to devise a policy which unites instead of divides and which at the same time does not arouse fears that it will heighten Red China's enmity or increase the risk that she may retaliate? The difficulties evidently are very great. But the present situation is unsatisfactory enough to suggest that we at least consider ways of bettering it.
It is hazardous to generalize about policy in a scene so vast. Here are the highest mountains in the world, rivers fifteen and twenty-five hundred miles long, rice paddies that produce a large part of what for half the world is the staff of life, desert wastelands, humid jungles, savage aborigines, soft and placid folk, orderly modern cities, rubber, oil and tin that the mechanized nations cannot well do without, competing religions, some of them fanatical, and inheritances from half a dozen colonial powers superimposed on a kaleidoscope of native cultural patterns.
If amid all this diversity we look for a common factor which directly concerns us, we find it in the method by which we have offered to help the Asian states defend their independence in the period while they are developing inner strengths of their own and learning more about the strangers who are their neighbors. American military policy not only affects the attitudes of the individual states toward us; in most cases it helps determine their attitudes toward each other.
The United States came to Southeast Asia as a political force as a result of its major role in liberating the islands and many other parts of the region from the Japanese conquest. The confusions and difficulties which followed need not be described here. In many places the Japanese had been welcomed, at first at any rate, as liberators from the old colonial rulers. Our favorable attitude toward the independence movements which were fighting against reversion to colonial status was considered most unfriendly by the Dutch, the French and to some degree the British. The resentment of the French became particularly marked when we took over unwanted burdens in Indochina following the long-drawn French agony and final failure there. It was at this point that we decided that only a collective effort could halt the southward flow of the Chinese glacier. The result was the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty signed at Manila on September 8, 1954.
SEATO, as the operating organization is called, was intended to strengthen, protect and unify the nations of a region of high strategic, economic and psychological importance. It has performed a part of its expected function, but at the expense of another part that was not considered vital at the start but has now become essential if the region is to develop homogeneity and strength as a whole. To SEATO's credit (though not to its credit alone), in the five years after the Manila Conference no overt hostile move was made against any of the states of the region. Communist China bombarded the offshore islands in the Formosa Strait and completed the conquest of Tibet, the fine language of Panchsheel notwithstanding. But in the area proper, the nearest approach to international aggression and war has come from North Vietnam's complicity in the Pathet Lao rebellion in Laos and the Chinese violation of India's Himalayan frontiers. Neither was a clear case of flagrant aggression, the only sort of aggression with which SEATO is equipped to deal. The existence of a regional defense system has doubtless contributed to keeping the peace in at least the formal sense, though probably it was the American commitment which made its role influential. On the other hand, SEATO's character as a mixed organization of Western powers and a minority of the Asian states has produced painful side-effects. Like the side-effects of antibiotics, they may dictate a change in treatment for the long pull.
It was not originally expected, of course, that SEATO would have to operate under the handicap of being a regional organization which only three of the states of the region joined while five did not. Observers have often deplored this basic weakness. It has become more and more plain as time passes. The three Asian members are the Philippines on the east, Thailand in the center, and far to the west, pushing the regional concept to an extreme, Pakistan. Four Asian states--India, Ceylon, Burma and Indonesia--refused from the first to have anything to do with the organization except scold it from afar. When Malaya gained independence in August 1957 it also announced that it would hold aloof, although retaining a close friendship with Britain. Participation by South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was considered to be ruled out by the terms of the Geneva agreements of July 21, 1954, which put an end to the hostilities in Indochina.[i] In any realistic sense, then, SEATO's strength consists almost wholly of what is injected by the five outside powers, the United States, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand.
The four Asian states which rejected membership in 1954 divided their criticism equally between their neighbors that joined and the Western nations that invited them in. Prime Minister Nehru spoke for the "outsiders" in asserting that SEATO smells of colonialism since it gives white nations a hand in Asian affairs; he also charged that by implication it is directed against all nonmember states, neutral as well as Communist. Secretary Dulles several times emphasized that SEATO was aimed against no government or people but exclusively against aggression as such. He pointed to the Pacific Charter signed in conjunction with the Manila treaty as expressly committing the member states to the principles of equal rights and self-determination. And in fact, even if SEATO were what Nehru accused it of being, it still would not be a very effective instrument for achieving sinister purposes. It is not so closely organized as NATO, for instance, and lacks NATO's provisions for instantaneous action. In any serious sense, India and other non-members can hardly claim that SEATO as such is a menace to them but only that it strengthens its Asian members individually as compared to them.
It is an unfortunate fact about regional pacts that they must have edges. The disadvantage is offset if most of the states of the region belong, if they share the same ideas about the dangers confronting them and if they contribute substantially toward the common defense. The few states of Western Europe that decided not to join NATO may experience occasional disadvantages in having stuck to neutrality, since NATO planning can affect the whole Continent. But none of them feels menaced by NATO armaments or fears that a neighbor's membership will free it to commit aggression.
This is not the case in the vast area where SEATO attempts to operate. The non-member nations continue to feel, whatever reassurances we offer, that in some manner and to some extent it is aimed at them, or at least that membership in it may make a neighbor feel free to run risks in its relations with them that otherwise it would not dare assume. Certainly India and Afghanistan would have mistrusted Pakistan less in recent years if it had not belonged to an organization lined up on one side in the cold war and if it had not been receiving heavy armaments in such quantity. And similar reasoning contributed to increasing Cambodia's hostility toward her neighbor Thailand.
Indian, Afghan and Cambodian relations with the United States have suffered as well. India says (and may believe) that our arms policy forced her to divert resources from desperately needed economic development into military expenditures, thereby compelling her to turn to us or the Soviet Union for more financial and economic aid. She also claims that membership in SEATO has encouraged Pakistan to be intransigent in the Kashmir dispute; and she has matched Pakistan's intransigence with her own. India's orientation will influence the whole course of events in Asia; advantages which we buy in one place come high if they are paid for at the cost of some part of Indian friendship and trust.
Afghanistan's reaction to our preferential treatment of Pakistan has gone further than India's. As in other neutral states, the Afghan leaders want to profit from their middle position to play us and the Communists off against each other and get maximum economic assistance from both. This is natural enough and we accept it. But it is disturbing when neutralist leaders assume that aid from one source is the same as aid from another--that equivalent debts in rubles or dollars, for instance, entail the same kind of obligations and the same political (and other) consequences. In that case they may accept loans and credits from a neighbor on terms that by simple arithmetic must in time give him a monopoly of their trade, a stranglehold on their economy. If that happens, their prized neutrality becomes meaningless and their personal bravery of no avail. Hitler showed in the Danubian states before the war how a trade monopoly can be used to blackmail and control a weak neighbor, and Khrushchev a year ago took similar means to change the government in Finland.
Our arguments against policies that seem to us decidedly risky would be more effective if our claim to be disinterested was more convincing. It is not convincing in many parts of Asia today. Twice on recent visits to Kabul I have been asked to explain what advantages the United States saw in "upsetting the military balance" in the area by giving Pakistan top-heavy military aid. Did we imagine she could stand up against a Soviet attack no matter how heavily we armed her, and if not, wasn't this proof that the arms were wanted in order to coerce the Afghan Government? This was always the roundabout answer to suggestions that Afghanistan might be taking a dangerous course in opening her doors so widely to her northern neighbor. Nearly half of her foreign trade is now tied to the Soviet bloc by her need to service her debt to the Soviets; and in addition she has accepted Soviet equipment for her army, has invited Soviet officers to reorganize it and is being provided with a jet air force of both fighters and bombers. This is her way of offsetting the military advantages which she thinks Pakistan has acquired by membership in SEATO. One wonders whether other means might not have been found to strengthen Pakistan's security without creating such a sense of insecurity in a neighboring state which has always been jealous of its independence and proud of its ability to defend it.
Far to the east, again, toward the other end of the southern rim of China, SEATO also seems to have aggravated old nationalist rivalries. The territorial and other disputes which create bad blood between Cambodia and both Thailand and South Vietnam reach back into a deep past when this region was the seat of successive empires which while they lasted imposed their rule on neighboring peoples and built temples and palaces that still rise from the jungle in splendid and astounding ruin. The present Cambodian leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, looks on Bangkok, the capital of Thailand (as on Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam), as a center of permanent conspiracy against his dynasty and his life. Thailand is a member of SEATO and Bangkok is SEATO's headquarters. Hence, without repudiating whatever protection the SEATO protocol is supposed to give his country, the Prince mistrusts SEATO thoroughly and certainly does not rely on it to save him from an attack by either of his stronger neighbors. He asks why, since we are a leading member of the pact, we cannot persuade Thailand from (as he believes) encouraging plots against his régime. And indeed, there have been at least two recent plots in which the participants fled or tried to flee to Bangkok. Because we are allied with Thailand, Prince Sihanouk is not convinced that our policy in Southeast Asia is impartial and he suspects the sincerity of our political advice. His mistrust is increased by the fact that we have especially close relations with his neighbor to the east, South Vietnam, also a traditional enemy and also, he is convinced, bent on destroying him.
The dangers which Prince Sihanouk sees in this nutcracker situation have made him consider accepting Red China's offer to reorganize and equip the Cambodian army, replacing the rather ineffective measures taken in that regard by a French military mission with considerable material help from the United States. The present Cambodian army is about 30,000, not well trained; the South Vietnam army is about 150,000, well trained by an American military mission. If Prince Sihanouk invited in the Chinese, he would, of course, be choosing the greater of two evils. But for him it is the less immediate one. He is anti-Communist, since he realizes that royal dynasties and the Buddhist faith cannot survive long with Communism. When he assured me of this, but added that "first dangers come first," I felt the conversation might have been taking place in Kabul, where the immediate threat seems to come from the south and the problem of Russia is something to be managed later. If he ever actually did agree to let the Communist Chinese organize his army (as Afghanistan is allowing the Soviets), he would, besides putting his own country in jeopardy, open back doors to Communist infiltration in South Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Our effort to stimulate recovery and political consolidation throughout the area would collapse.
We must not forget that President Diem is governing South Vietnam under constant threats to its independence from the Communist forces on the country's northern frontier and from domestic Communist elements acting with them. His need for aid and our right to supply it are not in doubt. The only question is whether our aid has enabled less reputable elements in the régime to threaten Cambodia as a consequence of the strength we have given the South Vietnam army to deal with aggression from the north; and, as a corollary, whether we show sufficient energy in pressing President Diem to prevent this.
It is perfectly clear that even if SEATO did not exist there would be more than enough historic claims and counter-claims to keep the region from all at once presenting a picture of harmonious coöperation and solidarity. The point at issue, however, is whether the existing system of alliances may not have retarded the settlement of some local conflicts and stimulated new ones. Going further, we may speculate whether in the long run a more stable premise on which to base our policy would not be to try to make all of the states our friends without asking any of them to be our allies. In realistic terms, it is doubtful whether we need as military allies any of the states that joined us in SEATO. Any great war in which we became involved would be fought principally in other theatres than South and Southeast Asia and for purposes to which the nations there would probably make only peripheral contributions, given the lightning speed of nuclear operations. And in a local war what we would need, and what if they were attacked they would hasten to supply, would be freedom of movement and perhaps the coöperation of some guerrillas.
Since the Asian nations that joined us in SEATO did so mainly because they thought it added to their security, our problem is to find an occasion to replace that form of security with one which does not antagonize the others. What we should look for, it seems to me, is a relationship in which our help in time of need will not depend on our previous commitment to certain allies which promise in turn to give us aid, but will be given in response to a collective appeal by independent states which have not been asked to abandon their reliance on non-alignment, non-involvement, basic neutrality or however it is they choose to describe their position outside the immediate stresses of the cold war. The development of some such relationship would have been a completely vain hope yesterday, and it may still seem like one today; but it may not be out of the question tomorrow. China may force her neighbors against their will to consider defensive expedients which formerly they would have rejected out of hand. Our planning should take the new possibilities into account and our policies should aim to facilitate their realization. It would be a great step forward if our readiness to bring military assistance to the Asian states to deal with aggression could be freed from charges that it is self-serving, "colonialistic" and aimed at involving them in advance in the cold war.
The straightforward procedure, of course, would be for the states of South and Southeast Asia to band together eventually in a defensive pact wholly their own. Members of the United Nations could--and the United States certainly should--pledge to support this sort of an organization in the event it required and requested outside help in a crisis. A legal basis for the arrangement exists in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and the Uniting for Peace Resolution of November 3, 1950. It would not be legal considerations, however, which would trouble neutralist leaders. From the start they have gone on the theory that all pacts are by nature aggressive, the invention and tool of imperialistic powers, and it will be a wrench to adjust to any other concept. But Peking may spur them to take a fresh look. If so, they may see that since they do not either individually or collectively have the capacity to act "imperialistically" there could be nothing remotely aggressive or unfriendly toward any outside power in joining to resist foreign subversion and discourage foreign aggression. At present each neutralist state in Asia stands alone; and, in accordance with its own interpretation of duties under the U.N. Charter, each can count on receiving in an emergency exactly what it has promised to give other neutrals in like circumstances--polite condolences.
The principal factor in any coöperative project would, of course, be India, the largest of the neutral states, the one with the greatest prestige and most articulate leadership. Prime Minister Nehru has never given any sign that he feels at all responsible for the security or eventual fate of India's neighbors. India inherited from Britain special relationships with Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim; and recently Mr. Nehru reasserted them vigorously. But for South and Southeast Asia as a whole he has shown concern only in terms of the now defunct Panchsheel declaration. His choices seem now to be narrowing down to two. One is to stand by passively while the Communists set the stage for extending their power over one member after another of the Asian community; he might adopt this role in the belief that although India herself avoids any participation in positive actions, even in the United Nations, the Western nations will somehow or other be willing and able in the end to save the day at their own risk and cost. The other course is to move in positive terms to unite the whole region and put it in a position to receive help should ever it need and ask it. A necessary preliminary would be for India and Pakistan, the two strongest nations of the sub-continent, to compose their differences in the face of the common danger. General Ayub has shown a statesmanlike disposition to encourage this development.
A third alternative, for the Asian neutrals to join Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines in SEATO, seems to be ruled out in realistic terms as things stand at present. True, the Soviet review, International Affairs, noted sorrowfully in its October issue that certain "Burmese papers have made an about-face in their political orientation;" and one of Mr. Nehru's latest statements, that he is "rather allergic to military alliances," is milder than anything else on record. But although the neutralist leaders made their charges that SEATO was "colonialist" and potentially aggressive in days when freewheeling held more attractions than it does now, they have been conjuring up the bogey of new white domination for so long, and have so consistently depicted SEATO as a step in that direction, that to seek membership in it now would be most difficult. Unless Red China pushes things to a crisis, any broad movement in Asia for joint consultation on problems of defense will have to be initiated there and will be composed of Asian nations only.
The Asian nations neighboring Red China would find many advantages in an organization that was entirely in their own hands. They might expect that American military aid would be distributed in an equitable manner among the member states in accordance with their varying defensive needs; regional defense would be strengthened without equipping one nation to settle scores on its own account with another. The decision as to whether an appeal for outside help was necessary would be in the first instance their own. Individual members would not incur the charge that they were "tools of the Western imperialists." The pact could not be labelled "aggressive" because although it would be strong numerically and politically, in the United Nations and elsewhere, it would rely on force only indirectly. Certain states that have looked to the United States for support against an immediate danger could continue to do so, but not because they had signed military treaties which pledged them to coöperate in wider measures than those for their own self-defense. (The Philippines and the United States, for example, have long had a special relationship; both presumably would wish to continue it indefinitely.) Above all, Communist China would lose her greatest present advantage, the ability to nibble first here, then there--Indochina, Tibet, Laos, Ladakh--without arousing any effective reaction in the rest of Asia and perhaps without providing the incentive for Western intervention that would come from a clear Asian declaration of need and a united Asian appeal for help.
The ideas and reasoning that might lead in this direction are, for Asia, revolutionary. They will take time to mature--if, indeed, they ever do. Our political and strategic concepts should nevertheless begin to make room for such a development. And in a positive sense we should create opportunities to promote economic and cultural coöperation within the region as a stimulus to political coöperation.
In large measure the neutralist states of Asia have been enabled thus far to steer what seemed to them a safe course between the protagonists of the cold war because of the presumed readiness of the United States and other Western countries to support them in some moment of mortal danger. This fact many Asian statesmen deny, at least in public; but unpalatable though it may be, a fact it remains. How efficacious the support would actually be were it ever asked and given would not depend on any prior commitment of the endangered nations but on our own state of readiness--in mobile forces and the proper types of weapons and means of delivery, and also, it should not be forgotten, in political understanding and morale based on the knowledge that we were giving help to people who had been willing to organize to receive it. Our readiness to enter SEATO demonstrated that we would make great efforts and take great risks in order to see that peoples in Asia had time and opportunity to develop their new states to the full extent of their capacities on the basis of true independence. If now they showed themselves ready as independent entities to emphasize coöperative action among themselves, and if as a result our policy were free to take forms that would directly encourage them to come together instead of tending to keep them apart, a new check would be given to Red China's evident plan to pick off her victims in isolation, one by one.
Most visitors to Southeast Asia, competent to report on such things or not, return with strong ideas about American aid programs there--often critical and sometimes correct. Even "The Ugly American," strictly one-sided and therefore essentially unfair as much of it is, brings home in awful detail the fact that political appointees can sometimes make disastrous ambassadors (there happen to be none in our service in Southeast Asia at present) and that even a touring Senator can be hoodwinked. Actually, not much that is new can be added to the list of general criticisms of our aid programs and suggested cures. Everyone admits that they should be more "flexible," "prompt," "imaginative," "sensitive" and other attractive adjectives. It is the specifics that are lacking. In the nature of things, these must come mainly from inside the International Coöperation Administration itself, released by Congress from its bureaucratic strait jacket and enlightened by reports of the recent Draper Commission and parallel undertakings of the World Bank and other agencies.
The traveller hears some unorthodox suggestions for improving our programs and methods. Thus a leader in a certain small country where he has since become Prime Minister told me he could not understand the American obsession with speed--speed, as he called it, "regardless." "Our country needs roads," he said, "but in a primitive society it is also important to give the people a sense of participation in the work of national development and to spread wages and other benefits. You want to strengthen us socially and politically against Communism. Well, think less about labor saving and more about labor making." His country's case was not typical; in other countries I.C.A. employs local labor in quantity. And in any event the suggestion would not apply to industrial developments utilizing imported machinery and requiring technicians and trained workmen. But it may be healthy for us to hear that the American example of speed and efficiency is not necessarily our most precious gift to backward peoples.
Much has been said and written about the merits of long-range versus short-term aid projects. The former are called "fundamental" and are assumed to be the more proper American way of doing things; the latter are called "eye-catchers" or "impact projects" and are often considered superficial, undignified and unworthy of our lofty aims. When the Russians present a complete hospital or a steel mill or pave a street it is criticized as an "eye-catcher," a sort of bribe, and it is compared unfavorably to our presumably more beneficial undertakings. Many long-range projects are highly important and useful, or will be if the local economy develops as expected and if there is political stability; and they are justified as contributing toward those results. Nevertheless, the magnitude of a project may raise the question whether the country concerned can develop the capacity to run, use and support it, and the time span involved makes one wonder what the conditions in the area will be when it is completed and who will be the ultimate beneficiary.
A case in point is the scheme for irrigating the Helmand Valley, a vast desert area in southern Afghanistan, undertaken by an American engineering company at the Afghan Government's own urgent request and with U. S. Export-Import Bank assistance. The non-engineering problems were not sufficiently taken into account; in recent years the carrying costs have been eating up about a third of the Afghan Government's total annual income; and the project is still not completed. The expenditure of such staggeringly large sums on a single enterprise has multiplied Afghanistan's need for other foreign assistance, specifically for the loans that, as already noted, may result in mortgaging the country to Moscow. Now one such case history does not prove that we should not undertake projects to improve the economy of underdeveloped countries at the base. It does emphasize that although all projects contain unforeseen pitfalls, those that will take many years to complete and require very large and continuing contributions from the local government are particularly risky.
Hostile propagandists industriously spread rumors that all American assistance serves some ulterior purpose. Any new road to anywhere is imagined to have potential strategic importance and American infantrymen are at once visualized as marching along it to attack China; or it is planned with the intention of turning the country into an economic vassal of America by diverting its trade in a certain direction. At the least, our aid must aim to commit the country to a "reactionary" capitalistic system. We have no way of preventing propagation of these myths; but the more we meet local wishes, fulfill local hopes and give local populations a direct share in our undertakings, the less effective hostile propaganda will be. Here again, illogical as it may seem, we have the burden of proving our disinterestedness. There is not necessarily a conflict between what is good for somebody and what he wants. When what he wants is too large for him to digest, as has turned out to be the case with the Helmand project, we should be farsighted enough to refuse to give it. But it would seem possible for I.C.A. to discover a larger proportion of aid projects that qualify on both scores.
In a different class from projects great or small in individual countries are the mammoth enterprises undertaken internationally to develop a region of interest and potential profit to more than one state.
One such project in Asia has been thoroughly studied, heatedly discussed --and still hangs fire. Both Pakistan and India have a vital interest in the Indus River system but have been unable to agree on how to divide the waters. The World Bank, through Mr. Eugene Black, accepted as an impartial friend of both parties, has been working since 1954 for a plan by which India would reimburse Pakistan for the waters drawn from the main river's eastern tributaries, thereby enabling Pakistan to develop alternative sources of supply by building storage dams and link canals from the western rivers. Tedious haggling over the financial provisions has been complicated by claims and counter-claims growing out of the partition of what was once united British India and especially by the dispute over Kashmir (aggravated by Indian resentment at the American build-up of Pakistan's military strength). Construction, when it begins, will take some 15 years to complete and cost at least $700,000,000. About half this sum might be financed by the World Bank and the rest by its "second mortgage" subsidiary, the International Development Association, which is to make long-term loans, part in hard currencies, part in soft, at low interest rates. If agreement is reached at last, it will be striking confirmation of the essential role that disinterested international efforts can play in solving an otherwise baffling complex of political, financial and engineering problems. It would also augur the possibility that, prodded by Chinese hostility, India and Pakistan might settle their other disputes peacefully and close ranks. An Indian-Pakistani pact would, in turn, offer Afghanistan new security on her southern frontier and assuage the fears that have caused her to accept so much aid from the Soviet Union.
In Southeast Asia an enterprise of even greater magnitude aims to make the lower Mekong River a navigable international highway and provide power and water for industrial development and irrigation to the four riparian countries. The sources of the Mekong--one of the world's great rivers, longer than the Mississippi--are in the snowy recesses of Tibet. Leaving Yunnan, it flows through Laos, forms a frontier for 500 miles between Laos and Thailand, crosses Cambodia and finally debouches into the tropic South China Sea through a vast delta containing the principal rice districts of South Vietnam. Only south of the Chinese border can the immense potentials of the Mekong be exploited; but this stretch of the river is 1,600 miles in length and the four states through which it flows have a population of 40,000,000.
The economic transformation in view for these four states is prodigious, but it cannot begin to take shape for at least a decade or mature for much longer. At present the Special U.N. Fund under Mr. Paul Hoffman's direction is making surveys and drafting plans; when they are ready, the World Bank and I.D.A. are expected to supply funds to begin work. Though still in the planning stage the project is already having a salutary political effect, showing that even where national jealousies are endemic and very great obstacles to coöperation exist the technical approach may even so be effective. The preliminary surveys undertaken by the United Nations opened up such vistas of possible prosperity that in 1957 the four governments established a Committee for Coordination to coöperate with the U.N. teams of experts; and this Committee has been able to serve as a continuing liaison among the four capitals even when direct diplomatic relations have been strained to the utmost by border fighting and other troubles. Despite this really remarkable achievement, each government remains under intense political and social pressure to hasten economic improvement, and from time to time one or another is tempted to stage a diversion by protesting a neighbor's alleged outrageous activities (meanwhile, perhaps, itself indulging in similar goings-on). These alarms and discursions are the chief menace (next to Communist hostility, of course) to the program which holds the only hope of producing in the course of time the over-all betterment for which everyone clamors and of thus enabling the governments themselves to survive in their present form.
The United States can contribute directly to the Mekong enterprise through the various I.C.A. missions and the U.N. Special Fund, as it is doing at present, and later on through the World Bank and I.D.A. It also can help indirectly. Our diplomatic representatives can be instructed to give notice in a quiet and matter-of-fact way that we are deadly serious when we say that the military and other assistance which we grant to friendly states must not be used by them--and must not release other funds and forces to be used by them--to provoke or menace their neighbors; and if border or other incidents occur, an abrupt even if temporary and entirely unpublicized cessation of the flow of American supplies can work wonders in liquidating them promptly and peacefully.
It may seem rather out of proportion to lay much stress at this point on the importance of stimulating cultural contacts among the peoples of South and Southeast Asia. Yet it is a fact that though they inhabit the same quarter of the globe they have much to learn about their common inheritance and that to make them conscious of it is one important way of bringing them closer together. With this in mind, we should not limit our cultural activities to arranging exhibitions of American art, tours of American musicians and dancers and demonstrations of American medical and educational techniques. Like the exchanges of educators and other leaders, these are all to the good. But we should go further and invent occasions for conferences, contests and exhibitions of various sorts which bring people together from both the countries that belong to SEATO and those that do not. Asians often say that the West stifled or at least perverted their native artistic and cultural development. We should demonstrate that we want specifically to encourage it; and it will be directly to our advantage if in so doing we increase understanding and a sense of kinship among the Asian peoples themselves by giving them new opportunities to learn how much in every sense they have in common.
Democracy is a relative term everywhere, but as Mr. Dooley might have said, it is more relative in Asia. Let us not be too disturbed by this. In countries where perhaps nine-tenths of the people cannot read; where any experience they have had with self-government has usually been within the family, the village or the tribe; where villages live in isolation, separated by jungles, deserts, mountains or seas; where the average income of a family is something like $100 a year and that mostly in kind, not money; where the population grows by over two percent a year; where most countries have no trained civil service (one head of government mentioned this to me as the number one domestic problem in Southeast Asia, ranking with the external Chinese menace); where the social services of the state, itself new and inefficient, are rudimentary or nonexistent--in these conditions what we call democracy can develop only by slow stages. Even when the governing clique in the capital and the little knot of articulate intellectuals there are sincere in their admiration for representative government (and often they are) they must begin by creating rudimentary organs and build upwards cautiously, layer by layer.
In Southeast Asia what passes for democracy wears a different face in each country and the names given it by the leaders (who sometimes are dictators) differ too--"dynamic democracy," "guided democracy" and the rest. Each disguises very thinly the reality that an individual exercises the ultimate authority, whether through an appointive legislature or some other device. Yet on balance it still may represent progress for that particular community and leave the door open for progress in the future.
When a constitution is annulled or elected bodies are dismissed it usually is because they represented too advanced concepts for the social, economic and political structure of a society still in a formative stage. In our eyes the limitations imposed invalidate the régime's claim to be anything but autocratic; nevertheless it offers a pretense of being democratic and its structure may in fact be democratic in embryo. Even the pretense is hopeful, since it indicates in what direction popular aspirations, so far as they exist, are supposed to lie. The situation, and its promise, are not very different from that in a country which has never known anything about democracy and suddenly is asked to take a few first steps in that direction. In Nepal, a case in point, the first elections in history were held a year ago. The parliament elected is free to discuss and legislate; but any legislation it passes is subject to the unlimited veto of the King. We do not deride this as a mockery of democracy but praise King Mahendra's decision to create a framework within which his people can learn what elections are and the representatives they choose can learn the working of the legislative process.
If the man who takes over power from an elected government is an army officer this is not necessarily worse than if he were a civilian. Often the army is the only disciplined, educated and patriotic cadre. In at least one case, that of General Ne Win in Burma, the accession of a military man may perhaps have been the only way to save the structure of democratic government; no routine political leader had the capacity to exercise control and the General consented to be deus ex machina only if power were transferred to him by orderly and legal means.
The Western nations have learnt slowly and painfully how to make the democratic process work. It requires a higher degree of education and more tolerance, patience, sense of humor and experience than any other political system. Some Western nations have worked it so badly that after a succession of ineffectual governments it collapses in anarchy or is destroyed by a demagogue or zealot. Sometimes Western democracy has to be "reformed" under a strong leader, as in France. We need not expect tyros to do better. The fact that some Asian civilizations reach back into the deep past, before many European countries were organized and long before the discovery of the Americas, does not wipe out the handicap of having in most cases lived through the centuries as colonies. And even before the arrival of the Europeans the outstanding South Asian empires, magnificent in the arts and adept in despotic rule, had long since declined into lassitude, their capital cities in ruins on dry plains or engulfed in jungle. The reawakening peoples of these lands were impatient for independence, and now that they have it they are impatient for the material benefits they expected to accompany it as a matter of course. Their disappointment often turns them against the system of government which their leaders carried over too optimistically from the previous European régimes. When this happens, let us make lenient comparisons between what seems to us their sham democracy and the democratic ideal which we wish we ourselves could always live up to. The alien and sedition laws which our young government adopted in 1798 should remind us to what desperate expedients new countries resort in the effort to maintain order.
If we accept that there must be different definitions of democracy for nations in different stages of development we probably must also make allowance for their differing from us in their degrees of willingness to undertake international responsibilities. The West has been trying to apply to the problem of preventing war the experience it has gained from living for generations in self-governing societies with constitutional guarantees, courts of law, police forces and other essentials of a legally organized state. South and Southeast Asia have in general lacked that experience. Although national leaders there desired independence passionately and now aim above everything else to safeguard it, they do not share our views as to how that must be done. As emphasized here more than once, they have believed that the best way to maintain their national identity and independence is to avoid international responsibilities. The United States did that also, not only when it was new and weak but long after it had become mature and comparatively strong. Indeed, we were neutral from 1793, when our young republic first encountered the complex international problems created by the French Revolution and decided to avoid them by all means possible, until 124 years later when Woodrow Wilson's effort to keep us out of the First World War failed; and even then there was a brief return to faith in neutrality from 1919 when we rejected membership in the League of Nations until towards the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term.
Like us, the new Asian states consider that civilization has made a real advance in climbing from a system in which strong nations dominate the weak to one avowedly based on the ideal of coöperation among nations wholly independent. On that basis they hastened to join the United Nations, founded on the equality of nations in essential rights. But although they signed the Charter they do not interpret it as obligating them to join in collective action to defeat aggression or indeed for many less drastic purposes. This attitude has contributed to the gradual transformation, some would say emasculation, of one set of U.N. functions.
Yet the nations which hold to neutrality as against accepting international responsibility comprise an immense segment of the world's population and control a weighty number of votes in the United Nations. This is a situation of fact and we must make the best we can of it. The world as a whole is not yet ready to deal with international crises by enforcing law, in the way that nations with traditions of law and with long experience in law enforcement considered and consider necessary. I have argued here that we shall do well as a practical matter to cultivate the underdeveloped nations as friendly neutrals rather than seek to enlist them as allies. There seems to be no practical objection to this on wider international grounds, given the attitude which most of these states have taken toward sharing the risks involved in creating an effective world organization.
[i] However, a special protocol adopted at Manila assured the three states protection like that which SEATO provided for member states, but without involving reciprocal obligations on their part. They also retained some claim on French assistance, though whether they would invoke it is questionable.