The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
The West faces dangers and difficulties. In varying degrees we are all conscious of them and of the confusion that tangles so much Western policy. Admittedly we would do better if we could work out our plans and purposes together, but this seems constantly further from our reach. The intention of this article is to diagnose our failings, remembering those which have afflicted other alliances in the past, and to suggest some remedies.
The first phenomenon to be noted, for the whole argument will be clouded unless it be understood, is the overwhelming and still growing preponderant power of the United States in relation to any one of its Western allies. Many pages have been written about the recovery of Europe from the war years, and deservedly so, for it has been remarkable. Much less space has been devoted to another recent figure of growth which I consider more significant. In the last 15 years the gross national product of the United States has more than doubled, until it is now running at an annual rate of $658 billion, compared with $285 billion in 1950. The world has never seen, and 50 years ago could not have dreamed of, so prodigious and speedy a multiplication of producing power, with the result that the United States towers over its allies and may be expected to do so at ever dizzier altitudes. In this respect the thirties were in no sense comparable to the present time. Then the power of the British Commonwealth and Empire and that of our French ally at home and overseas were more nearly equal; they were also complementary.
It is beside the point to argue whether this disparity is healthy or not; it exists and will be intensified. We shall have to face and understand its consequences for us all. These are the more meaningful because the dramatic growth of American power, in terms of real industrial strength, has taken place at a time when the great colonial empires of the last century were in voluntary, if over-rapid, dissolution. This process has created a vacuum, sometimes filled by rival forces, as in the Congo, but always and inexorably presenting new problems for the most powerful nation in the West.
Perhaps the extent and sharpness of this sudden impact was not foreseen in the United States when the appeal of the anticolonial crusade was at its height. The colonial powers themselves could also have been more specific in their warnings, in so far as they foresaw this result themselves. However that may be, the outcome is now evident: to place upon the United States world-wide responsibilities exceeding those ever carried by any one nation in the free world before. As an example, within one week in the late summer of 1965, the United States had to persist with its military action in Viet Nam, muster arms, men and money at home to do so, explain its policies in Southeast Asia to friend and critic, and at the same time warn Cairo, in the face of reports of Egyptian troops massed in northern Yemen, that Saudi Arabia was its ally, to be defended if need be, helping thereby towards a settlement. To which incomplete list must be added the continuing imbroglio in Santo Domingo and the increased tension in Cyprus, prompted by Archbishop Makarios' infringement of agreed and accepted Turkish minority rights. All this apart from leadership at important international discussions upon disarmament and attempts to limit the proliferation of nuclear power. The broadest shoulders attract the heaviest burden. But its weight will be more tolerable to Atlas if friends both sympathize and do what they can to share and lighten it.
In the forefront and dominating all else looms the conflict in Viet Nam. The past needs but brief canvassing. I shall always regret the failure of the United States Government to endorse the Geneva Agreements of 1954, which brought to a halt the war then raging in Indochina and made possible important, and merciful, exchanges of population. It was not simply that the terms at length negotiated at Geneva were the best obtainable in the grim military and political conditions of the time. If the United States had put its full weight behind those accords, they would have been buttressed, and later developments might have been happier. Certainly the Communist powers would have been deprived of their pretext that the United States had stayed outside the agreements in order to follow its "imperialist" aims. Extravagant as this charge was, there were ears that would listen.
Of recent years, however, there can be no question that the North Vietnamese have joined in a campaign of subversive infiltration and terror. No doubt there are nationalists in the Viet Cong ranks, but the main purpose of the ruthless guerrilla war it has waged has been to terrorize and murder all local authority in the villages of South Viet Nam, inflicting upon that unhappy country the horrors of a civil war conducted with much barbarism.
The North Vietnamese share in these brutal activities having been stepped up since 1959, the American response was to give more armament and instruction in its use to the hard-pressed South Vietnamese. Only gradually and reluctantly have United States forces been drawn into the actual fighting.
Unfortunately the very natural and proper reserve of the present American Administration and its predecessor has not won the international support it deserved. On the contrary, the lapse in time, now measured in years, between the first North Vietnamese incursion and the direct participation of American armed forces has blurred the connection between the two events. The riposte is no longer clear, so conveniently short can political memory be. As a result, far from gaining approval for the recent and reluctant gradualness of its involvement in Viet Nam, the United States actions are presented with some success by enemy propaganda as a new campaign of aggression against North Viet Nam.
The British and French Governments endured a like experience some ten years ago. Had they been able to employ immediate military action to counter the Egyptian Government's seizure of the Suez Canal by force, there would probably have been little protest, despite the pretext of Mr. Dulles' abrupt termination of negotiations about the Aswan Dam. As it was, the two Governments patiently engaged first in a series of negotiations with other maritime powers and the Egyptian Government, then in an abortive "Users' Club" and finally in an appeal to the Security Council of the United Nations.
All this was no doubt internationally good behavior and in accordance with the spirit of the Charter, but by the time it had spent its course there was excuse for ignoring that the dispute had been caused by the illegal action of the Egyptian Government in violating an international engagement reaffirmed only six weeks before. It is disturbing to realize that if the British and French Governments at that time, and the United States Government more recently, had shown themselves lighter on the trigger, there would have been the less criticism.
The moral would seem to be that there would be more security in the world if the United Nations showed greater interest in upholding existing engagements. However impatient of such reflections the new countries may be, they will have to learn them in the end; let us hope not the hard way, for all our sakes.
The United States Government has now taken its stern decision to intervene in the conflict as much as may be necessary to guard the South Vietnamese forces from defeat and to compel the enemy to the conference table. Hitherto he has stubbornly refused to approach it, counting, no doubt, on victory during the monsoon. As it is proved to him that this is beyond his reach, we shall enter a period-which can be long or short-until reality is accepted. There is no question that the United States has the men and means to resist and overcome any power that can be brought against it, once its forces have been built up. This is so even though the United States has to continue to use forbearance in its choice of targets. American power may be restricted; it cannot be defeated. Meanwhile in negotiation President Johnson still appears to hold the initiative he won in his speech at Baltimore last April. He then pledged himself to a policy of unconditional discussions, whereas Peking and Hanoi still block that road-the more so if they make preliminary American withdrawal a condition.
American responsibility is wide, for much more is at stake than the future of Viet Nam, now that the decision has been taken to intervene in that country by force. It is not necessary to accept the domino theory to understand this. Vacillation would encourage observers in other parts of the world to harbor doubts whether the United States would not withdraw from there also. Domestic critics of American foreign policy do not have to give this consideration much weight, but any government of the United States has to, just as it has to consider what the effect might be on its war-weary allies in the field if the bombing of enemy territory were abandoned in a critical hour. The margin of safety has not been so large, though this and much else might change in weeks to come. For it must be admitted that the extensive bombing, and, perhaps even more, the revolting inhumanity towards captives displayed by the South Vietnamese, have chilled the hearts of many who want to align themselves with the United States.
Nor should we underrate the extent of the wider menace. Delhi has had fresh cause to understand it in the face of the Chinese pressures of recent months. No fundamental change in these habits is to be expected, only the timetable is in doubt and for the present the means. So far the evidence shows no relaxation of Chinese intentions to dominate all Southeast Asia, and particularly Thailand, even though the American obstacle is proving so formidable. The patience of the Chinese is proverbial and practical.
As a consequence, the ordeal in Viet Nam will be fully justified only if the final settlement has more than local significance. This in its turn will depend upon how far South Viet Nam can be built into a free, viable and prosperous state, which will require the costly expenditure of time and resources, perhaps even in excess of the war itself. But the outcome could be infinitely worthwhile and a decisive influence upon the future of Southeast Asia.
I have two suggestions to make about the present situation in Viet Nam, the first based on experience of the Geneva Conference of 1954. I have read of appeals for a cease-fire to be followed by a conference. I doubt if this is practicable. In a guerrilla conflict such as this, the two sides become so inextricably mingled that it would be wiser to work for a conference which would itself negotiate a cease-fire. The first task of the conference would be to draw up agreed instructions for the military commanders who would refer them back, when completed, to the main conference. This may sound elaborate and slow, but unless the fighting entirely changes character, it is the surer method and reduces the dangers of confusion and even massacre.
The other consideration has already been referred to. It is that the United States should use its influence to the utmost extent with its ally to put an end to any torture of prisoners. This is not only because the practice of torture debases those who use it almost as much as it is cruel to those who suffer it; it is also not the way to get intelligence, except on the shortest view, and it may prolong the war. We must expect that the hour will come when the Viet Cong and their allies will realize that they cannot win. From that moment the temptation to surrender will grow; it could be much encouraged by the knowledge that prisoners will be fairly treated in accordance with the rules of war. In Malaya, intelligence was in the hands of the police with the military aiding them, and Its high standard played a decisive part in the campaign. Admittedly our problem was less involved than that of the American authorities in Viet Nam today, but the knowledge that the rules of war will protect those who give themselves up will favor that tendency. It will also help in the work of reconstruction.
To add to the complexities of the Vietnamese situation, Hanoi has to contend with its own crosscurrents. The local Communist leaders are divided. The majority would probably prefer to look to Russia for aid and guidance, but Moscow is unpredictable, while to rely exclusively upon Peking is to accept colonial status. So the havering and indecision continue.
Russia has one certain interest-that the war should not spread. Even more than at the Geneva Conference of 1954, when Molotov was actively helpful, Moscow understands this danger and will use its authority to arrest it. On the other hand the Communist governments will do everything they can to blacken the character of the West. For this the conflict in Viet Nam can be abused by the Kremlin, which will man?uvre to pose as the guardian of peace and a general model of good behavior. We must also expect that the Soviets will be in no particular hurry to help extricate the United States from what they regard as an embarrassing military commitment. Their attitude will be influenced by the battle situation, once it is proven beyond a doubt that no Communist victory is possible. Until then, plagued by bad farming and bad weather, the Soviets will reluctantly expend their gold to get their grain. Those countries, like my own, with a balance of trade favorable to Russia, are unlikely to see it righted presently by any comparable orders for manufactured goods.
Aside from the hostilities in Viet Nam, there can seldom have been a time of nominal peace when so much warring was afoot. Even between India and Pakistan, the United States has been able to contrive little more than an uneasy truce. Welcome though this was as an example of joint American and Russian influence, we have to admit that the underlying cause of this conflict, the treatment of Kashmir, is still untouched.
A span south from Indochina, Malaysia and Singapore, now disparate, are still confronted by Indonesia. Jungle warfare on the southern borders of Sarawak and Sabah has been continuous, even since the recent upheaval in Indonesia, which could in time prove the prelude to wiser counsels. Moreover, the Indonesians have had no significant military success so far.
Even so, it seems correct that protests should be raised in the British Parliament against any licensing by the United States Government of the supply of an advanced electronic communications system to Indonesia. Every Indonesian demand for voting tests in Sarawak and Sabah has been met, one of them under the auspices of the United Nations, and attacks upon these countries are blatant aggression. They should not be facilitated by technical aid from any friendly quarter, until "confrontation" has been called off and a period of peace has prevailed. If there are counter- complaints, they should, of course, be heard.
However these questions of detail may be dealt with, the central problem remains. The United States is now carrying the defensive military responsibilities of the free world to an unprecedented extent. Graver still, there is, for a number of political and financial reasons, no sign of this trend being reversed; more probably it will be accentuated. Admittedly it can be argued that some Americans have preferred it this way and that the bogey of colonialism or some other cause has resulted in lukewarm support of Allied interests where neither colonialism nor chauvinism had anything to do with the business in hand. The excessive pressure on the Netherlands to surrender Western New Guinea to an aggressive Indonesia was an example of good intentions so wrongly applied as to reek of appeasement.
Reflections such as these, which are probably most strongly held in France, should not blind any of us, the United States included, to the risks which we are running. It is not just, neither is it wise, to expect any one nation, however powerful, to carry all the burden. To shuffle off distant obligations in order to lead an easier life is a practice to be condemned, as is the tendency of any organization to become too exclusively concerned with its own prosperity and inward looking. Nor is the isolation of one superpower, which must result from any such indulgence by its smaller allies, healthy for that power either. Once decisions taken in isolation become a habit, then an alliance must soon lose all life and meaning. This would surely be a disaster, for among nations as among individuals two heads are better than one.
It is, therefore, in the interest, even selfish interest, of each of the leading Western powers to take its share of the burden. The area of the free world is contracting and divisions in the Communist camp should not blind us to our overall losses in territory or authority. Attempts to buy uncommitted countries to our side by economic and political concessions which are the rewards of hostile action or propaganda are likely to fail as they deserve to do. A loyal and coherent alliance will draw both uncommitted minds and countries to its side. In this connection it is important not to succumb to threats, lest worse befall in the country of their origin. This temptation is a counsel of fear. The possibilities of change for the better should be canvassed and worked for and they will sometimes yield results, as in Iran after Mosaddeq and perhaps in Indonesia before too long.
The European powers have the less reason to regard themselves as immune and disinterested in the present unresolved condition of Russian foreign policy. Admittedly the Soviets have their internal problems, but there is no likelihood that these count for more in the Kremlin than world politics and its share in them. Nuclear terror has set limits to any overt military action, but it is not difficult to imagine conditions in which the focus of Soviet political interest could be shifted to Western Europe again. That could be quite uncomfortable for free nations without cohesion and off their guard-surely a crazy risk to run. Even if we assume the other extreme- that Russia, hard pressed by China, begins to feel the need for more contact with the West-evidently we are less likely to be played off one against the other if counsel has been taken between allies in advance of this event. Meanwhile, Soviet propaganda is active and by no means ineffective in multiplying mistrust within a divided. Western world.
A number of conclusions seem now to emerge. First, the main burden of responsibility among the free nations must be borne by the United States. We are now in the American age of leadership. This truth does not, however, absolve other free nations from playing the fullest part they can; an attitude of cynical detachment touched with patronage is unworthy of any great country's past. Equally American opinion has to understand that continental Europe, even the most friendly parts of it, looks for a relationship with the United States which is a partnership in a truer sense than was possible when Europe was at her weakest after the war.
There remains to discuss how this closer unity can be contrived. Many of the free nations would, I believe, like to see Atlantic union become something more than a pious aspiration. A federal political structure could be our declared objective and maybe union will first find expression in the monetary sphere. In this age, when the Atlantic is narrower than the Channel was only a few decades ago, we should not be too timid in raising our sights. But, however fast we travel after such objectives, there is also an immediate need for machinery through which the leading free nations can work and seek agreement. This should surely be founded on NATO, where five or six of the principal members should first organize themselves to discuss and take decisions on the most significant world problems.
A wider geographical membership need not be excluded later, but a beginning should be sought on the basis of NATO. My conception is that this body would be aided by a planning group, much as the Joint Chiefs of Staff were assisted by the joint planners during the war. It is now five years since I first advocated this comparatively simple practical course and it is more than ever necessary if our countries are not to drift further apart.
It is not tolerable that the whole burden of decision and execution in world problems should be left to the United States on behalf of the free nations. Yet this is where we shall drift to, with the accompaniment of mutual carping, if we do not make the effort. The United States, France, Germany, Italy and Britain might be the original members of such a body, with perhaps one other added. Their scope, being world-wide, would surpass NATO's, but from this there is no escape if the real work is to be done.
The joint planners might also help us to find a way through the thickets of M.L.F. The chief objection here is not to the principle of a multi-national force-there is nothing wrong with that-but to the formidable size and cost of the proposed new armament which is probably superfluous to our technical defense needs. This charge is useful material for the Soviets, some of whose suspicions of German intentions can be genuine enough. Perhaps we should be prudent to make a start at a more modest level where the armament already exists. The tactical nuclear force, or a part of it, could undergo some adaptation into a multi-national force, without so much upheaval or alarm. At least this would be half a loaf.
It is a merit of the proposal I have outlined that it could be set on foot without protracted delay. The hope must be that all the powers invited will join. For any country which refuses, I would leave an empty chair, always at its disposal, but I would not wait upon it. What is unacceptable is that the free nations should continue in their present disarray, punctuated by occasional meetings two by two. In the main, it is for the United States to decide. But if its answer is Yes, then an equal duty rests upon the other leading Western nations to respond.