Among the problems experienced by democratic societies in managing their foreign affairs, none have been more beset with dilemmas both moral and practical, nor accompanied by more dispute and self-doubt concerning fundamental aspects of the democratic faith, than those arising as a consequence of relations with authoritarian regimes.

In the aftermath of recent revelations of unlawful practices in high places in the United States and of other traumas both here and abroad, a riptide of conflicting reactions has set in. Some have been moved to view the differences between democracy and authoritarianism as a matter of degree. As an antidote to an earlier self-righteousness and the inclination to regard our actions in the world with excessive self-indulgence, this reaction to the American fall from virtue has definite therapeutic benefits. But in extreme measure, it has reinforced the loss of confidence in democratic societies as the chosen people of human progress, and in the capacity of self-government to cope with the growing complexities of national and international life.

In reaction against this perceived loss of democratic morale, there has emerged a militant support for a more "moral" foreign policy, for different and sometimes incompatible reasons. Some assert the primacy of moral, and particularly of human rights, considerations in foreign policy as a matter of principle-against what is felt to have been the recent excessive preoccupation with strategic power considerations. Others evoke support for human rights issues (along with an increased mobilization of military power) as an element in a renewed ideological offensive against the Soviet Union.

The result of these conflicting reactions has been a period of disorientation on a score of issues confronting the United States and other democratic societies. Some of these issues are transient and tactical; others now temporarily obscured involve more fundamental adjustments as part of a longer term process of learning to live with authoritarian regimes. As a step toward sorting out some of the moral and practical elements involved in these adjustments, there are set forth below four classes of problems requiring discrimination: the first three primarily concern aspects of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union; the fourth concerns relations with some less powerful but significantly placed authoritarian regimes.

For our present purpose, the term authoritarian regimes is used here in its broadest sense to include totalitarian states, dictatorships, and regimes in which opposition is suppressed. There are of course significant differences between those regimes in which the power of the state controls all aspects of the society and those in which primarily political opposition is prevented from operating, with varying degrees of repressiveness. Some problems are common to this entire category of states and some, as we are coming to learn, are inflected according to the degree of repression exercised.

Democratic societies is used here to distinguish those societies that are committed, with varying degrees of imperfection in practice, to the principle of government by the freely expressed consent of the governed, and to the conditions of free civil discourse necessary to the expression of that consent. Of the many attributes that might be selected to characterize the essential qualities of democracy, this principle most clearly distinguishes between form and essence.


The most obvious and perhaps the simplest of the classes of problems that have arisen are those that might be called structural. They involve the meshing of pluralistic institutions on the one side with highly centralized institutions on the other, involving a variety of encounters characteristic of contemporary international relations, including economic and cultural relations, contacts in international organizations and between nongovernmental groups. Even conventional diplomatic relations are affected by the asymmetry in the foreign policy-making processes of the two systems. Although these structural problems have not attracted much attention from the general public, they may have considerable ultimate importance.

Although economic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union have developed under government-to-government agreements, their implementation involves largely autonomous individual firms on one hand and, on the other, the Ministry for Foreign Trade and its subordinate departments, with the participation of the particular Ministries involved, as well as State Banks, the State Planning Commission and in some cases the State Committee for Science and Technology. A process of adjustment has begun on both sides to facilitate the meshing of these dissimilar institutions, and the long-term consequences may be substantial for each.1

From the Western side, efforts have been made to compensate for the bargaining advantage which accrues to the centralized Soviet institutions, and to meet the more fundamental problem of the differences between the national interest and the interests of individual firms. The concern of individual firms is quite naturally with whether or not a particular deal is profitable; from the national point of view, policy questions arise as to the advantages of developing economic relations as a means of stabilizing political relations, as against the possible risks of strengthening militarily or economically a state that remains committed to some incompatible international objectives.

As a consequence, a trend toward centralized political control over trade with the East has been set in motion, although the question remains unresolved whether democratic societies are able and willing to exert the degree of centralized coordination or control of national economic policy necessary to administer a coherently regulated trade policy, let alone to achieve the degree of coordination necessary with their allies.

Among the adjustments that have been set in motion in the United States to compensate for the institutional asymmetries are wider interpretations of antitrust legislation to allow firms engaged in foreign trade a degree of coordination normally prohibited in domestic trade; mandatory coordination of information among firms engaged in grain sales abroad; closer congressional supervision of export-import credit practices in East-West trade; stronger Department of Defense involvement in permission for transfer of advanced technology; and a proliferation of government advisory and licensing procedures to recommend or to impose a degree of centralization upon transactions normally not subject to such regulation. The most extreme measure of control was contained in the Trade Reform Act of 1974, and accompanying legislation on the Export-Import Bank, in which the Congress prohibited the extension of Export-Import Bank credits or the granting of most-favored-nation treatment to the Soviet Union unless changes were made in restrictive Soviet emigration practices. As a result of this, the Trade Agreement Act of 1972 remains unconsummated. If and when a new effort is made to draft legislation for the regulation of East-West economic relations, agreement will be required between the executive and congressional branches of government and the business community upon more effective guidelines and measures of coordination than now exist.

The Soviet side has also made adjustments to facilitate East-West trade. For example, the U.S.S.R. has eased bureaucratic obstacles to direct access by Western firms to the various State enterprises, and it has coordinated the various foreign trade organizations to make compensation agreements with Western firms easier to negotiate. In an effort to make transfers of advanced technology more attractive to Western firms, the Soviet Union has been moving warily and with evident reluctance toward forms of joint ventures. While the Soviets do not permit foreign equity holdings, they do accept Western participation in management functions affecting quality control, though not in personnel matters. Whether the acceptance of Western management practices will result in a wider diffusion of initiative and responsibility in the presently highly centralized Soviet economy is a matter of contention within the Soviet leadership.

The asymmetry of institutions involved in cultural relations has also led to greater coordination in the United States among universities, scientific and other academic and cultural institutions, although here a certain ingenuity has permitted effective coordination without undue loss of independence. For example, under the umbrella cultural exchange agreements negotiated between the governments, implementing academic exchanges is handled by the International Research and Exchanges Board; this enables the universities, on the basis of voluntary cooperation, to speak with one voice to the Soviet Ministry of Higher Education and the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

In the natural sciences, scholarly exchanges are administered by the quasi-governmental National Academy of Sciences, and through participation in the Joint Commissions on various aspects of science and technology by the different U.S. departments of government. These are only loosely coordinated, however, and troublesome questions over the possible asymmetry of benefits to the two sides and the repugnant but apparently necessary invocation of the principle of reciprocity in response to Soviet limitations on unfettered scientific exchanges remain unresolved. A self-study by the National Academy now under way may result in a further codification of exchange practices.

Contacts between nongovernmental organizations, such as the Pugwash and Dartmouth groups, the United Nations Associations, and inter-academy arms control study groups, have also involved efforts to compensate for the difference between autonomous institutions on the American side and their quasi-governmental opposite numbers. Thus, there has developed through experience an ethic of responsible independence among the American groups, which seeks to make clear the distinction between the official governmental position on issues under discussion and the sometimes critical and independent positions of the participants. As a consequence, exploratory channels of communication have developed whose utility has been greatest when government-to-government channels have been impaired by political tensions.

While the range of independence among Soviet participants in nongovernmental contacts is obviously more restricted, it has nevertheless been widening with experience and the growth of confidence. An important consequence of this is that American participants are able to go beyond the limited printed sources of information on Soviet positions and to become aware of the richer and more complex oral levels of discussion of policy issues.

As for U.S.-Soviet relations in various international organizations, the structural differences between the two systems appear to be less important than differences in policy, except in certain of the specialized agencies. Perhaps the most striking illustration of structural differences in the two systems is to be found in the case of the International Labour Organisation. There the issue of the differences in the function of trade unions in the two societies, which had been subject to a certain accommodation over the years, has become more acute recently. However, even this tension has had policy roots, specifically the critical attitude of American trade union leadership toward elements of the détente relationship.

Finally in the class of structural problems must be noted the institutional differences affecting foreign policy-making. The familiar problem of the role of public opinion in American foreign policy-and of the Congress as the most direct expression of this-has become more acute as a result of a combination of factors, including the Vietnam War, the prices of bread and grain, ethnic sympathies, the lines at gas stations during the oil embargo, and the technological advances that have created a greater popular awareness and sense of immediacy about international developments. The effect of these developments upon U.S.-Soviet relations has been to make for greater volatility and unpredictability, imposing severe limitations on the ability of the executive branch to guarantee the implementation of policies and agreements. To what extent this represents a cyclical phenomenon remains to be seen.

Soviet specialists in international relations have been learning to take into account the pluralism of the American foreign-policy process. They have become more fully conscious of the power of public opinion and its reactions to such developments as Angola, the Middle East, Cyprus, and issues involving the military balance and human rights. While they still suspect that the government has some degree of manipulative power over public opinion and the press, they have turned greater attention to the role of Congress, and deploy a substantial effort to study and influence congressional opinion.

The Soviet foreign policy-making process, on the other hand, is in the hands of professionals and speaks with one voice, free from the complications of a separation of powers or an unruly public opinion or press. The policy-makers do have some problems of coordination-both between the Party, the diplomatic branch and the KGB, and between the national interests of the Soviet Union and the interests of foreign communist parties. Moreover, the absence of checks and balances can make for monumental errors on occasion. And the effect of ideological preconceptions makes for problems in the perception and accurate reporting of developments abroad. This is most acute precisely when it involves pluralistic institutions, for it is difficult to grasp the workings of pluralistic power hierarchies if one has only experienced, and if the history of one's country has only known, autocracy.


Another class of problems experienced by democracies in their relations with authoritarian regimes might be called the induction effect these relations generate within democratic societies. More specifically, this concerns the degradation of democratic norms of behavior domestically and internationally resulting from the perceived necessity of competing with the methods of totalitarian states.

It is worth recalling that the American people found themselves plunged into the Second World War without having resolved many feelings derived from their experience in the First World War concerning the role of force in international relations or their own role in world affairs. The precipitate release from these uncertainties by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the inevitable brutalization entailed in what came to be called "total war," and the fact that in Hitler's Nazism was found an adversary as close to absolute evil as could be imagined-all contributed to the acceptance and justification of any and all means believed useful to defeat, indeed to destroy, the enemy.

In contrast to Churchill's acceptance of an alliance with the Soviet Union as a necessity which in no way contradicted his earlier judgment of the regime, the Americans, with characteristic indiscriminate enthusiasm for their "gallant Soviet ally," chose to ignore the darker side of Stalin's Russia and the portents of future problems. Consequently, as the inevitable conflicts arose concerning postwar arrangements, the Americans-in their self-induced disillusionment and sudden rediscovery of Soviet totalitarianism-carried over into the cold war many of the same attitudes of mind earlier applied with abandon to the war against Nazism.

Under the best of circumstances, it would have been difficult to expect a measured response to the novel problems presented by modern totalitarianism: its capacity for large-scale espionage, subversion, misinformation, propaganda, front organizations, and covert operations on a hitherto unimagined scale, all of which created a new shadow-world of violence and deceit in international relations. Given the emotional circumstances of our entry into this competition, it was perhaps inevitable that the logic of "fighting fire with fire" should have overcome any moral squeamishness about where, and to what degree, the means employed, however incompatible with previous democratic precepts, were justified by the perceived necessities. Like sheltered innocents discovering the pleasures of sin, Americans found a certain zest in their release from earlier inhibitions.

Two other factors contributed to the disorientation of democratic values in this period. One was the emergence of the age of nuclear weapons and missiles. This brought with it a sense of vulnerability to attack, if not to annihilation; an enormous increase in the militarization of the economy and military influences in the society; and finally the anomaly of mutual deterrence-which involves holding populations hostage to mass destruction-as the best hope of maintaining the peace under the circumstances. The other factor was the profound social upheaval in all industrial countries resulting from the continuing revolution in advanced technology-calling into question traditional values and sources of moral authority.

As recent hearings before the U.S. Congress have confirmed, the response to the need to match Soviet espionage, counterespionage and covert activities led to such excesses as attempts at assassination of foreign leaders, extensive covert interference in the internal politics of other countries, and extensive operations within the United States, involving domestic surveillance and wiretapping, burglaries, forgeries, and penetration of political dissidents in the name of national security. The earlier ravages of the McCarthy period also must be counted among the excessive reactions to these security apprehensions. Thus, in the United States, the security apparatus administering intelligence and covert operations developed into a semiautonomous bureaucratic force commanding an estimated $7 billion annually.2 To some degree at least, the United States had indeed "taken on the face of its adversary," as the French proverb expresses it, with, however, the saving grace that the force of public opinion and the separation of powers have made it possible to take corrective action against these excesses.3

Still, the difficulty remains of finding a measured reaction to a true dilemma of how democratic societies can learn to respond effectively to the large-scale covert techniques employed by totalitarian states, without sacrificing the distinctive attributes of democracy. But it has certainly become evident that the blanket justification of "fighting fire with fire" can lead to pernicious consequences, and that the indiscriminate acceptance of totalitarian methods in the belief that the ends justify the means undermines the essence of the democratic spirit, which is inherent in the process rather than in the particular ends sought.


Among the most difficult problems in these relationships are those that stem from the question: To what extent is it legitimate, desirable, necessary-or even possible-for democratic societies to seek to modify the practices or the character of authoritarian regimes in a humane and pluralist direction? Illustrations of these problems include the recent debates about the "Basket 3" provisions concerning human rights at the Helsinki Conference on European Security and Cooperation; the Jackson Amendment linking trade relations with Soviet emigration practices; and Solzhenitsyn's strictures concerning the immorality of dealing with the Soviet leadership on any basis other than a liberalization of Soviet totalitarianism.

The issue is heightened by the workings of an inverse mechanism in the Soviet Union, by which the movement toward a policy of reduced tension abroad is accompanied by a tightening of internal controls.4 This results from the efforts of the Soviet ideological and police bureaucracies to protect their system of control from being undermined by the widening of contacts with the outside world under the conditions of détente. The effect has been to sharpen the apparent conflict between the détente process and support for human rights, and to appear to identify détente with a callous and cynical indifference to egregious acts of the Soviet security apparatus.

Both moral and pragmatic considerations are involved. On moral grounds, it is argued that democratic societies accept a complicity in the repressive practices of the Soviet Union if they maintain conventional diplomatic relations with its leadership without requiring Soviet observance of human rights as a prior condition, particularly in a time of détente.

But the objective of the United States and other democratic governments to seek to reduce the danger of nuclear war by negotiations with the Soviet leaders is also a moral obligation. Indeed, given the scale of destructiveness of nuclear war, this should be a priority for all governments. With the advent of new and destabilizing forms of military technology, the prospect of widespread nuclear proliferation, and the absence of rational political control over the military policies of both democratic and authoritarian states, to believe that the risks of nuclear war are self-regulating and are automatically reduced by the balance of terror is a profound error.

For governments, therefore, the first order of business must be to regulate the military competition, for there will be no opportunity to work for the strengthening of democratic values if this effort is not successful. This should not, however, prevent individuals and groups from expressing their repugnance for violations of human rights wherever they occur-whether in authoritarian regimes of the Right or of the Left or within democratic societies themselves.

On pragmatic grounds, it is argued that since totalitarian regimes can act aggressively in secret and without the checks and balances provided by autonomous institutions within the society, this in itself is a barrier to peaceful relations. As a practical necessity then, democratic societies should seek to encourage the growth of pluralistic trends within the Soviet Union if a substantial relaxation of tension is to be possible. Some go further to argue the need to seek an erosion of the Soviet ideological commitment to ultimate aims incompatible with peaceful and cooperative relations.

The objective is clearly desirable, but the question is how most effectively to move toward its realization. It should be clear that the effort to compel changes in Soviet institutions and practices by frontal demands on the part of other governments is likely to be counterproductive. Yet external pressures may well be marginally effective, provided they take into account a scale of reasonable feasibility; for example, demands for humane measures in reuniting families may be feasible, whereas demands for measures which threaten to undermine the system's monopoly of political authority are not.

We cannot predict which way the Soviet system will evolve in the future. But it seems reasonable to believe that easing of repression is more likely to result from evolutionary forces within the society under prolonged conditions of reduced international tension than from external demands for change and the siege mentality they would reinforce.

What follows from this line of reasoning is that although the first priority in government-to-government relations with the Soviet Union must be given to efforts to regulate the military and political competition to reduce the danger of nuclear war, this neither requires nor should imply any condoning or accepting of Soviet violations of human rights and human dignity. The ultimate interest of democratic societies does require that they work for an international environment in which democratic values can survive and flourish by a constant projection and encouragement of democratic norms of behavior. What can and should be projected, however, are not particular institutions, such as the capitalist system or the two-party system, which, in any case, individual nations will adopt according to their own preferences; rather, what is essential to promote are those common ethical values such as the commitment to justice, liberty, equality, human dignity and to civil and tolerant discourse, reflecting the emphasis in democratic values on the process rather than on the realization of particular ends. What this implies is that the effort to enlarge the international sense of community be bound not to a particular form of world order but to a process of peaceful change toward the fuller realization of these values.

The faithful observance and projection of democratic precepts in this sense can transcend the American experience and can give expression to the essence of the democratic faith to which democrats in all societies-including authoritarian societies-can feel, even if they cannot now express, their allegiance.


The problem of reconciling democratic principles with the necessities of power has also been sharply posed for the United States by its relations with authoritarian regimes less powerful than the Soviet Union. This is illustrated, for example, by the negotiations with Generalissimo Franco for bases in Spain, the alliance with the Republic of Korea and with Salazar's Portugal and with Portuguese imperialism in Africa, relations with Iran and Chile, and support for a host of dictatorships among the developing countries on all continents.

In retrospect, the dilemmas appear to have sharpened as the American outlook evolved toward a two-dimensional view of international politics. In the early postwar years, Marshall Plan support for the European democracies represented a constructive response to the challenge of Soviet expansionism; the nurturing of democratic forces in Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany as part of an enlightened occupation policy represents an achievement of the first magnitude. But after the mid-1950s, as Soviet operations in the Third World expanded and the People's Republic of China entered a militant phase, American efforts to contain the expansion of the two totalitarian states became more heavily military in their preoccupation and global in their application.

As a result, the United States tended to look upon local conflicts as abstract units in a global contest for military power, with little knowledge of or concern for local political factors; it became aligned with domestic forces defending and stabilizing existing systems, and against social protest movements which it saw only as instruments of world communism. In some cases, in its preoccupation with the military dimension of international politics and with the stability of strategically placed countries, the United States contributed to the spread of dictatorships.

The culmination of this 20-year period of misperception and faulty understanding of the problem was the tragic episode in Vietnam, and the plausibility given to the widespread reputation of the United States as an imperialist power, opposed to the forces of change and modernization in the Third World. The United States has had a series of expensive geography lessons as it has been emerging from parochialism and a hypnotic fascination with a two-color map of the world. Although many genuine dilemmas remain to be resolved in the inherent tension between considerations of power and the support for democratic principles, some painful lessons have been learned.

One of these lessons has been the need to give greater weight to local political factors rather than to strategic or local military considerations as possibly decisive determinants. This involves a recognition of the rise of political consciousness throughout the developing world as one of the major elements in contemporary international politics. Although the machinery of U.S. foreign policy-making worked uncertainly in the case of Angola, it did in time turn to the more fundamental political elements of the African problems and has been seeking to address them constructively.

The issue is also illustrated by the conflicting considerations faced by the United States in its relations with the Republic of Korea. There can be no serious doubt that the protection of South Korea from attack by North Korea is a matter of genuine and legitimate concern to Japan and the United States. But there is also little doubt that the repressiveness of the regime of President Park aligns the United States with inhumane and anti-democratic practices and contributes to the potential instability of South Korea. While no simple resolution of this dilemma is possible, the United States has been seeking to manage these conflicting considerations with quiet gradations in its degree of diplomatic and military support, and at least to make known its preferences for the moderation of repressive practices.

Another lesson derives from the uncertainty regarding the viability of democratic solutions to the problems of developing countries. Clearly, the earlier expectations that the American experience could provide a model for developing countries to follow have proved naïve. Thus the question has emerged as to whether some degree of concentration of political authority may not be a necessary concomitant of the development process. This is the problem posed most sharply by the movement of India in an authoritarian direction. Indeed, this question may be regarded as but one aspect of what has been called the crisis of liberal democracy in the present period, which has raised the more general problem of the governability of democratic societies in the face of the increasing complexity of the problems they face. A compelling example of this issue is presented by Iran, where a Western-educated elite has been consciously addressing and articulating the trade-offs between social control and freedom, between centralization and the stimulation of initiative through decentralization, between the preservation of traditional Persian values as against the introduction of new values associated with urbanization and industrialization. The choices in each case are not between absolutes but along a spectrum, involving a constant process of experimentation and adjustment. From the U.S. point of view, there remains the dilemma of weighing the strategic importance of Iran's position on the Persian Gulf and of Iran's supply of energy resources against the authoritarian character of the regime. But the experiment must be viewed with insight, in full consciousness of the degrees of repression involved and of the limited applicability of our own experience to the problems Iran is facing in charting its path toward modernization.

It is evident from these few illustrative examples that international life rarely affords us the luxury of clear either/or choices between considerations of power and support for democratic principles, and that we are obliged to express our preferences in the light of particular circumstances, rather than as moral absolutes. This implies the need to respond with discrimination to varying degrees of repression in specific cases, and to acknowledge frankly when necessity compels us to compromise, rather than to obscure or glorify conditions that offend our sense of justice.5


The four classes of illustrative problems discussed do not of course exhaust the large array of questions raised by the relations between democratic and authoritarian systems, but they suggest a few general reflections.

First, our brief review of this aspect of the American experience presents a record that has more than its share of fallibility and imperfections, but also one that draws strength from its ability to learn, to expose and to correct its shortcomings. Learning to deal with the novel challenges presented by modern totalitarianism has strained democratic institutions and will continue to do so. But the lesson that emerges most strongly from this experience is that for all their disadvantages and imperfections the attributes of democratic society are also its greatest source of strength. We have learned that the moral strivings of a democratic foreign policy cannot be regarded simply as additives to a policy based upon naked power, but are the heart of the matter, inextricably involved in the way power manifests itself and is applied. The effectiveness of our power is not just a matter of numbers; it depends no less upon the perception that we exercise that power in a measured and responsible manner, consistent with the aspirations of democratic societies.

Second, if security means that what we seek to protect is not only territory but a system of values, then we need a broader and more enlightened understanding of our real security interests than now prevails. While a military equilibrium is clearly necessary, security also involves forms of power which respond to human aspirations for improved conditions of life, for equality of opportunity, and for justice and freedom. It is not a question whether or not to act upon the national interest, but whether we perceive and define that national interest in terms broad enough to respond to the actual determinants of political behavior.

Third, changes in military and industrial technology as well as in transportation and communication have radically altered both the substance and the process of international relations. The greatest source of danger to our security arises from our failure to comprehend the implications of these changes, and that as a consequence the present international order, to the extent one now exists, will dissolve into widespread anarchy and violence. It is therefore a central requirement that our actions serve to strengthen the international system, and that we seek as a long-term objective to draw the Soviet Union, China and other authoritarian regimes into constructive participation in that system, as they come to appreciate their self-interest in doing so.

This brings us to a final point: both compassion and realism should incline us to recognize that behind the monolithic stereotypes we have created of the Soviet Union and other authoritarian regimes exist a variety of political currents, reflecting human aspirations in all their diverse forms. We should not regard it as inconsistent with our most strenuous efforts to compete against expansionist tendencies on the part of these states that we should also open a dialogue with a variety of voices within these societies. At its best, such a discourse, eschewing polemics, can engage those philosophies which start from individual man at their center with those that proceed from a concern for the needs of society as a whole.

Convergence is not likely, for each society must evolve in terms of its own history; yet each society is evolving not only in response to the complexities of our age but also in response to our interactions with each other. For our part, we seek to meet the problems of mass society and the rational organization of our material resources while preserving humanistic respect for the individual and the spiritual realm which is his domain. We must remain firm in our faith that in time those who live in authoritarian societies will find their own way to express the aspiration for freedom that is in everyone.


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  • Marshall D. Shulman is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Relations and Director of the Russian Institute at Columbia University. He is the author of Stalin's Foreign Policy Reappraised and Beyond the Cold War. This article was adapted from a lecture delivered on June 23, 1976, at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva.
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