We have been accustomed, during most of the past 25 years, to think of our security in terms of the containment of Soviet expansionism, relying largely upon a comfortable superiority in military power. A number of developments now call into question the adequacy of this conception and of our understanding of the nature of effective power in the modern world.

Among these developments have been changes in the military balance. Our strategic superiority over the Soviet Union was first constrained by the emergence of a condition of mutual deterrence, and more recently by the growth of Soviet strategic forces to a level of approximate parity. Coincidentally, there has been a substantial increase in Soviet conventional military capabilities with a global reach.

What effects this change in the military balance may be expected to have upon political developments is made more difficult to calculate by the evident paradox of our unprecedentedly large military power and our declining political influence in the world, a paradox which points up the limitations of arms as a source of effective power.

Since the end of World War II, events have pushed us toward a less Soviet- centric view of our security problems. Against a background of rapid and uncharted political changes in the world, the Soviet problem is perceived less in terms of expansion through the territorial control of contiguous areas than as a competition for political influence on a global basis. One effect of qualitative changes in weapons technology has been to make the strategic competition into a closed game, somewhat apart from the competition for political influence. Concurrently, the accelerated pace of technological change has altered the geography of politics, bringing distant areas within reach; it has given greater significance to forms of power based on new industrial technology; and it has resulted in profound upheavals in the domestic social orders of nations.

The persistent strength of nationalism as the most potent single force in international politics has fragmented the two-color maps of the world of a quarter-century ago; new nations and new political forces have with stubborn autonomy resisted the illusions of omnipotence of the two giant powers. Clearly, power in terms of capacity to exert one's will over other people is more variegated and limited than it appeared to be immediately following World War II.

The pace of change in the world has made it difficult to define the nature of the international system in which we find ourselves, and still more difficult to describe the kind of international order toward which we would like to move, in which we could improve our security and protect the values we hold important. Without such an effort, however, our actions lack direction.

The present climate of opinion, veering toward a withdrawal from international involvement and not yet prepared to sort out the lessons of the Vietnam experience, is not an auspicious one in which to reflect upon changes in the nature of power and the meaning of security. But if we are not to surrender to the drift of events, we must resist the vice of wide amplitudes of mood changes around stereotyped images to which democratic societies are prone. We need to rethink fundamental aspects of our foreign policy, bringing to bear more differentiated analyses of present problems and a sense of future direction.


In retrospect, it is now clear that the Soviet Union entered upon a new phase in its foreign policy in the mid-1960s. During the preceding decade, Khrushchev had moved out from the Soviet periphery to a first pass at Africa and southern Asia. Accepting the concepts of nuclear deterrence and "peaceful coexistence," he began the modernization of strategic capabilities while greatly reducing Soviet conventional forces. In the competition with America, he put his reliance upon the anticipated economic superiority of the Soviet Union and the myth of a "shift in the balance of power" based upon the symbolic impact of the first Sputnik.

But the shortcomings of the Soviet economy made hollow his boasts of outstripping the United States, and the net effect of his efforts to gain political advantage from Sputnik was to stimulate higher American defense budgets, with the result that the Soviet strategic inferiority was in fact further deepened. The Congo crisis of 1960, in which the Soviet Union was unable to reach and support its chosen allies; the Cuban missile crisis, and the American naval blockade which capped it; and the powerful arsenal of U.S. conventional weapons brought to bear upon Vietnam after 1964-these were among the painful lessons experienced by the Russians during this period.

The result was a determination by the Soviet leadership which followed Khrushchev to acquire more rapidly the sinews of actual rather than symbolic military power, at whatever cost to the economy. Within a few years, there began to appear the various attributes of a diversified military capability. Rates of deployment of nuclear missiles rose steeply, and for all practical purposes the strategic inferiority under which the Soviet Union had labored was overcome, although qualitative improvements on the American side meanwhile made parity a dynamic condition rather than a plateau. Soviet conventional forces were now restored and modernized to play a wider and more flexible role. During this period, accelerated support for the navy achieved the historical transformation of the Soviet Union from a continental to a maritime power, capable of deploying its fleet in all the world's oceans. Concurrent improvements in mobile forces, including the Soviet "naval infantry," in firepower and in air and sea logistic capabilities, have given the Soviet Union the means of reaching distant local conflicts-whether to check anticipated American interventions or to bring military pressure to bear upon politically unstable trouble spots remains to be seen.

Economic and military aid programs, highly focused on a limited number of countries (about 70 percent of the economic assistance goes to Afghanistan, India and the U.A.R., and the latter two are the main recipients of military assistance), continue to be of significant scale. In Eastern Europe there has been a reorganization of the Warsaw Pact forces to improve mobility and firepower, together with a continued effort to integrate the economies of the East European states, manifesting a primary Soviet concern with consolidating its control over that area.

That the central concept of this acquisition of power is to increase Soviet political influence on a global basis relative to that of the United States is underlined by the directions of an intensified and more sharply focused diplomatic effort since the mid-1960s. The most striking diplomatic moves have been the enlargement and greater flexibility of bilateral dealings with Western Europe, and with the Federal Republic of Germany in particular. The purpose is multiple-to encourage neutralist trends in Europe (which is to say, to reduce American influence in Europe); to gain juridical recognition for the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet position in Eastern Europe ("the acceptance of the realities of World War II settlements"); to inhibit West European integration and the dominance of the Federal Republic in that grouping; and to increase trade and technological borrowing from the Western industrialized states. The proposal for a European Security Conference has been a feature of this diplomatic campaign, directed alternately at containing the Federal Republic and at isolating the United States from Western Europe as circumstances have required.

The most specific objective of near-term Soviet diplomacy has been to achieve a decisive influence in the Arab Middle East, both for its oil and other resources and as a gateway to the Indian Ocean and Africa. As an adjunct to this, the Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean serves to neutralize the U.S. presence there and to symbolize Soviet power and interest.

The level of diplomatic effort in Africa and Latin America suggests longer- term aspirations, depending upon local opportunities. In Asia the Soviets have a dual objective: to contain the expansion of Chinese influence and to replace the British and American presence which they anticipate will be withdrawn from the area. Pragmatically, the Soviet Union has eschewed revolutionary movements (except in Vietnam) and cultivated its relations with established governments in order to influence their orientation in world politics. While courting Japanese businessmen, for both economic and political reasons, the U.S.S.R. has hammered away at Japanese security agreements with America and the growth of Japanese defense capabilities. On the subcontinent, Russia has become the principal external influence. It is a major arms supplier to India, and has begun to develop military sales to Pakistan and Ceylon. It has been negotiating shipping and air access to Singapore and has become the largest buyer of Malaysian rubber. It is becoming a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, growing by unobtrusive steps.

Paralleling the European Security Conference proposal, the Soviet Union has put forward a plan for a new collective security system in Asia, with itself as guarantor. So far, the proposal has not been enthusiastically received, although a few countries, notably Malaysia, have indicated interest in the plan as a hedge against the day when U.K. and U.S. withdrawal from the area might leave the way open to greater Chinese pressures.

It may be noted that these efforts are not inconsistent with long-term evolutionary trends toward traditional power politics and a diminished emphasis upon revolutionary transformations, at least in the near term. What have been added are a stronger military base and a global presence, orchestrated into a total effort to gain access and influence around the world. While the United States tends to think of its military, economic and diplomatic instrumentalities separately and to permit them a certain life of their own, the more fundamentally political outlook of the Soviet Union serves to harness them to specific political objectives. These different approaches may also to some extent reflect differences in governmental structure, with the more fully coordinated and centrally controlled Soviet apparatus better adapted to focus military, economic and diplomatic means toward political ends.

In the past, there has been a tendency to attribute a high degree of planning to Soviet policy, but more sophisticated and realistic recent studies suggest that Russian behavior in the world may be better understood as the resultant of three factors: a rather general long-term design, an interplay of bureaucratic pressures and interests, and a response to external opportunities. Although the design continues to be expressed in categorical ideological language, it reflects a general aspiration rather than a detailed prescription-perhaps with about the force of Avis' expressed determination to become "No. 1." The role of competing interests and bureaucracies in determining Soviet foreign policy is difficult to document, but there can be little doubt that it is an important factor, varying according to the particular issues involved, and that it has to be taken into account in understanding the mechanism by which Soviet behavior interacts with roughly similar mechanisms on the American side.

Finally, it is abundantly clear that a major factor in the emergence of a new phase of Soviet policy in the mid-1960s was a response to the perceived decline in U.S. prestige and influence around the world as a result of Vietnam. The first effects of the involvement of the United States in Vietnam in early 1965 were to raise apprehensions about U.S. bellicosity and its buildup of conventional capabilities. The second wave of effects stemmed from the indirect consequences of our involvement : the domestic disturbances, the tide of anti-militarism and anti-involvement in world affairs, the decline of confidence among our allies in the judgment of the American leadership. From Moscow, it became plausible to anticipate a reduction in the political influence of its major rival on every continent, and this anticipation encouraged a more active effort to increase Soviet political influence wherever opportunity presented itself.

For the most part, the effort to build the sinews of power was carried forward at moderate levels of tension, applying a lesson learned from the postwar period, i.e. that higher tensions simply mobilized and united the Western alliance. The détente policy has been on a country-by-country basis. It has proved most difficult to apply in the case of the United States, where the appeal for "normalization" of relations is undermined by the "anti-imperialist" campaign directed against the American presence around the world, and also by the insistence of the Soviet leaders on continuing the "ideological struggle" in harsh and uncompromising terms. Also, having smarted for so long under what they felt as the "arrogance" of American strategic superiority, the Soviet leadership is in a chesty mood, prepared to enjoy the advantages of a rising power position.

What are the prospects for the success of the Soviets in increasing their political influence in the world? One problem in answering is that the mixture of strengths and weaknesses in the Soviet position makes it difficult to characterize the fundamental power relationship between East and West. On the strategic military dimension, the condition called "parity" in fact reflects an asymmetrical balance, with some advantages on each side. The political effect of such a balance may depend largely upon subjective factors: the will and confidence of the respective leaderships, the mythology of power among the people. On conventional military capabilities outside Europe, the balance requires a region-by-region breakdown : compared to American, Soviet power is weaker but growing in the Mediterranean, stronger in the Indian Ocean and on the subcontinent, but relatively weaker in the Pacific and in Southeast Asia. The most serious Soviet deficiencies appear in the economic realm: institutional limitations, particularly in advanced technology. There are also serious economic limitations on the Western side: inflation, unemployment and growing competitive conflicts, but the strength of Western technological growth is increasingly recognized as a factor of effective power.

In political power, the comparison is between relative weaknesses-what someone has characterized as "competitive decadence." The internal strains in Western societies are painfully evident. Over the long run, creative processes may be at work, but at present the West European nations, struggling with domestic upheavals, do not find in the American experience any inspiration or source of confidence. For its part, the Soviet Union faces the prospect of continuing turbulence in Eastern Europe, a running conflict with China and its fragmenting consequences in the international communist movement, systemic rigidities at home, and not much luster in the Soviet model to attract emulation from abroad. This brief balance sheet illustrates the difficulty of weighing the effectiveness of various forms of power, in terms of political influence.

A further difficulty arises in assessing the prospects of the Soviet drive from the demonstrated resistance of smaller states to the subjugation of their will to the great powers. The transformation of military or even economic power into political advantage and influence has proved more difficult than the Soviet leadership had hoped when it first began to reach toward the underdeveloped nations in 1955.

"All trees do not grow to the sky." It would be an error to assume that the Soviet Union will automatically translate power into ever-spreading access and influence; recent Soviet gains have owed more to Western ineptitude than to Soviet effectiveness.


To the extent that the Soviet Union does succeed in expanding its role in the world, how much should this be a source of concern to us? In the past, we have been prone to assume that every gain for the Soviet Union, or for "world communism," was a loss for us, if not a threat. But have we not reached a point where we need to redefine our conception of the nature of the international system, and of our vital interests within that system?

It is evident that Russia is entering upon a phase of national growth like that which many other great nations experienced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is now pressing outward for a role commensurate with its status as one of the two superpowers in the world. But there are two levels of Soviet conduct: one represents an effort to bring about a change in power relations within the present international system in fairly traditional power-politics style ; the other-if one takes seriously the residual ideological commitment of the Soviet Union-is to work toward a change in the nature of the international system itself, the rules and practices that govern international relations and the internal structure of societies. The former is an anachronism in a day when imperialism-in the sense of a dominion over other people-is increasingly difficult to maintain. The latter is of diminishing relevance in a world in which revolutionary change is everywhere in process, but for which the storehouse of Soviet Marxism has little to offer as a guide to the future.

In the international system as it is, and as it is becoming, change itself must be the fundamental starting point for any effort to codify relations among nations. No longer is it possible for nations to define their interests or seek their security in terms of hegemonial control over territory. The alternative to international anarchy requires the acceptance of two principles which grow out of the new physical and political conditions of international life : one is the right of free access, and the other is non-interference by force in processes of internal change.

The principle of free access reflects the fact that political control over territory is not necessary for economic access ; it is not in fact a condition of successful and productive economic relations. This has been amply demonstrated by the decay of imperialism of the kind described by Lenin, and is being demonstrated today by the experience of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The principle of free access permits nations to compete, not for the control of territory but for the establishment of mutually beneficial and non-exploitative relations, and thereby for political influence.

The notion of free access need not be in conflict with the vital security interests of the Soviet Union and the United States in territories where the establishment of hostile forces would be regarded as threatening, but it requires the acceptance of a distinction between security and hegemony. For the United States to define its vital interest in the Western Hemisphere, in Western Europe and in Japan means that it would feel a direct threat to its national security if these territories should come under the control of military forces hostile to the United States. It would hope for more-that relations with these countries would be amicable and productive, but it would seek that result by its diplomacy against competing influences, not by the exclusion of Soviet economic and political access to these areas.

Similarly, the Soviet Union would regard its vital interests as jeopardized by the establishment of hostile forces in Eastern Europe, but this legitimate security concern does not justify, and does not require, hegemonial control over the area. The establishment of productive relations between East and West Europe, far from being in conflict with Soviet interests, can make for a more stable and secure relationship, if Russia construes its interests in broader and less rigid terms than it now does.

Of course, it is understood that at the present time the Soviet leadership is far from prepared to accept such a distinction; any increase in external influences in Eastern Europe would now be regarded as an historical and ideological retrogression. The present Soviet outlook is in the other direction : toward obtaining from the West recognition of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Perhaps time will be required to make it clear that spheres of influence, even if granted, cannot under modern conditions provide the basis for stable and productive relations.

Within these two vital zones, certain tacit rules of engagement have developed. The United States has made it clear, through a series of crisis situations, that it would not intervene by force in territory regarded by the Soviet Union as vital to its security interests. For its part, the Soviet Union has, since the days of the Berlin blockade, recognized certain less well-defined rules of engagement in Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere, with the partial and ambiguous exception of Cuba. Contrary to some popular misunderstanding, this mutual acceptance of tacit rules of conduct in security matters does not constitute a spheres-of-influence agreement, since it does not exclude the effort to extend political influence in each other's security sphere.

Outside these two vital zones, however, there is a need to work toward rules of engagement that shall apply in contested areas, if the competition for political influence is to be kept within reasonable and safe bounds. It is not a matter for conferences and treaties. Rather, these rules will evolve through the tacit codification of experience, a practical recognition of the restraints that each side comes to expect of the other; and their sanction will derive from the self-interest both nations have in avoiding direct involvement with the other in local conflict situations.

The Soviet Union is not, and the United States should not be, committed to the defense of the status quo. It would in any case be a vain quest. Our interests are best served if the processes of change can take place in an orderly way, with a minimum of violence, responsive to the wishes of the people involved, free of external compulsion. Perhaps the most that one can realistically hope for now is some increase in sober restraint where, as in the Middle East and in Vietnam, the forces of the two giant powers are partially engaged. Over a period of time, as a result of living through a number of such conflict situations, a codification of the common law of experience will define recognized limits of engagement for the conduct of our competition for political influence. As a concomitant development, the United States and the Soviet Union may resolve their dispute over the use of U.N. peacekeeping mechanisms, and develop a range of ad hoc techniques for containing and pacifying local conflict situations.

In a period of shifting relations and the emergence of some form of balance among the five major powers-China, Japan and West Germany (or Europe), in addition to the Soviet Union and the United States-what is required is an acceptance of a process of accommodation to relative degrees of political influence, in a post-imperial order committed to the fundamental independence of its constituent parts.


Progress in these directions is not likely, however, if we neglect the present relationship between force and politics. Much current discussion on this point appears to be polarized between preserving the faith in military superiority as the guarantor of our security, and a strong tide of indiscriminate antimilitarism. What is needed-although admittedly difficult in the present acerbic climate-is a more measured judgment of our military needs, both nuclear and conventional, in the light of a broader conception of our true security interests.

For more than a year and a half, the Soviet Union and the United States have been engaged in Strategic Arms Limitation Talks-but meanwhile, the nuclear arms competition has continued to spiral upward, into new and more unstable weapons systems. The fault lies in the absence of an effective political leadership in either Russia or America capable of presiding with common sense over the pressures of military services and new war technologies. In the absence of a political judgment to cry enough, military procurement in both countries tends to be determined by interservice competition, compounded by misplaced prudence and bargaining zeal on the part of civilian planners. A continuation of the nuclear competition means less security for both nations, since many of the weapons now coming into sight are less stable, more costly and more tension- producing.

One barrier to a leveling off and reduction in the strategic competition is the argument-perhaps rationalization would be more accurate-that further strengthening of our military position improves our bargaining position, increasing the incentive for the adversary to negotiate an agreement. The effect, on the contrary, has been to provide dynamism for the military competition.

It has been psychologically difficult for the United States to accept the loss of its accustomed nuclear superiority, and its West European allies wonder aloud whether the American guarantee will be effective under conditions of parity. The mythology of nuclear weapons has not yet absorbed the realization that superiority has no practical meaning in any real context. The argument that parity would increase the Soviet propensity to take additional risks, or diminish the American resolution in responding, ignores the fundamental inhibitions of mutual deterrence, which are not substantially changed by disparities in the respective arsenals. The technical advantages of one system against another can be argued, but to allow these technical arguments to dominate policy-making in this field is to lose a sense of proportion about the limited usefulness of nuclear arsenals, however sophisticated.

In any rational perspective, security in the realm of strategic weapons would be best served by a stable equilibrium at as moderate a level as can be managed through explicit or tacit agreement with our adversaries. On this point, the interests of the two countries are not opposed, but on neither side is this fact yet fully appreciated.

Because conventional weapons are more closely related to political effects, the competition in this field is even more difficult to regulate. The hard question posed by the growth and global deployment of Soviet conventional forces, particularly at a time when the British military presence in Asia and in the Indian Ocean is being contracted, is whether an imbalance may develop in the next few years which will tempt the Soviet Union to use its forces in unstable and conflicted parts of the world to influence the outcome of political processes, whether by indirect pressure, military assistance or direct involvement.

If there is to be any possibility of moving toward moderating rules of engagement in the intermediate zones, rather than toward international anarchy and unbridled competition, as suggested earlier, it is evident that sanctions must be present in the form of military equilibrium in the regions involved. Only if the forces in the area are reasonably in balance, preferably at the lowest levels possible, are they likely to perform the function of negating each other-an extension to the conventional field of the balance of mutual deterrence.

What this implies is a more differentiated approach to the problem of conventional military capabilities than is now represented in the domestic debates. Military means cannot be our main reliance in seeking to maintain the non-hostile world environment necessary to our own security; other forms of power-diplomatic, cultural, political, economic, the successful resolution of our domestic problems-are more effective means of creating a favorable world environment. But in the present international system, military equilibrium, both general and local, is a necessary condition for the free and non-violent unfolding of processes of change. If we wish to move toward a world in which force does not dominate politics, a world of free access and nonintervention, we cannot escape the painful conclusion that a balance of conventional forces is needed.

The question that the United States faces is not whether to be a presence in the world but what kind of a presence. The values we wish to realize in our society will not maintain their vitality if we allow ourselves to become isolated in a hostile world. This can result as much from the neglect as from the abuse of power. What is required is restraint and wisdom in the use of power, toward ends consistent with the international order toward which we would like to see the world evolve.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

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