How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As we approach the 1988 election, we may be at the end of an era in American foreign policy. Since World War II the driving force behind our policy has been anticommunism, accompanied by containment of the Soviet Union with an ever more costly arms outlay. For more than four decades this policy has rested on the assumption of a bipolar world dominated by Washington and Moscow. New realities now demand fundamentally different policies if the United States is to remain an effective power.
This is not to suggest that communism is more acceptable today than it was forty years ago. Indeed, even the major communist states—the Soviet Union and China—are turning away from once accepted practices of communism. Without argument, the United States must maintain a sound national defense. But so clearly is communism neither the wave of the future nor the major challenge to American security that our anticommunist orientation has become irrelevant and obsolete. The two major powers—Washington and Moscow—are alike in this regard: they share an urgent need for new policies and priorities at home and abroad. Both must understand that the criteria of power and influence in the world are changing.
Ronald Reagan may represent the end of the line for the bipartisan cold war policy. The president seems to have taken, at least until recently, the most anachronistic aspects of that policy—an excessive reliance on arms, an obsessive anticommunism and an imperial, unilateral behavior at odds with our constitutional democracy—and carried them to the breaking point. However inadvertently, the Reagan Administration has dramatized the inadequacy of policies no longer relevant to the real world. Mr. Reagan has believed he was presiding over "morning in America"; we are about to experience the "morning after."
Unfortunately, the Reagan presidency has taken its toll also on the intellectual and political acuity of the party in opposition. If the ambivalent foreign policy actions of Congress and early presidential campaign performances are indicative, the Administration’s obsession with the rhetoric, symbols and trappings of military power has, with some notable exceptions, suffused even a Democratic Party which has traditionally brought a broader perspective to the concept of American national security. In what some have labeled the "geo-economic era," this focus is dangerously outmoded.
Jacques Attali, an economic historian and top adviser to French President François Mitterrand, wrote:
A great transfer of power is taking place in the world economy. The center of economic power is shifting away from America. When the core nation loses economic hegemony, it has to adjust the global security responsibilities it assumed at the height of its dominance. This is what finally happened to Great Britain in 1967, but it took 20 years from the end of World War II for them to finally conclude that they couldn’t afford troops east of Aden.
In this crucial election period and beyond, do we have the will and the wisdom to develop a more realistic foreign policy, backed by better management of our economy to avert the further weakening of our position in the world? Will we face the need to shift from an excessive reliance on military power to the political, economic and moral sources of power in an interdependent global economy? Do we understand that even a great and powerful nation can no longer function unilaterally without regard to friend or foe? In this bicentennial of our constitutional democracy, can we profit from the lessons of the Iran-contra scandal and recognize anew the time-tested wisdom of the Founders?
The current economic difficulties of the supposed superpowers serve only to underscore a long-standing truth. Since the late 1940s both powers have overemphasized military and ideological factors and underplayed economic and political opportunities. The painful paradox that now confronts both Washington and Moscow is that the more they spend on armaments, the weaker and more insecure they become. The larger the number of nuclear weapons each side targets on the other, the more certain it is that in the event of war, Americans and Russians would be the first to disappear from the planet. Meanwhile, heavy arms spending deprives the two countries of the resources needed to strengthen their economies, participate competitively in the international economy and enhance their leadership in the developing world.
The economic costs of a permanent war economy and an interventionist foreign policy have for years been a focus of "liberal" concern. But even the most ardent of American conservatives must now recognize that the dangerous decline of U.S. industries owes much to a major portion of our business and scientific talent having been absorbed in war production for a single buyer—the Pentagon—instead of meeting the growing economic competitiveness of the modern world.
Japan and Germany, the defeated military powers of World War II, are challenging the preeminent status of the erstwhile victors, not by competing with them militarily, but by recognizing that the real arena of world power is not war games but hardheaded business leadership. The most serious enemy of America is not Russian tanks and rockets, or the Nicaraguan government or Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Our enemies are the bankrupting arms race, our mounting foreign debt (after years as the world’s greatest creditor), the unpayable debts of the Third World held by U.S. banks, our lack of competitiveness in world trade and our consequent inability to play a more influential and constructive role in Third World development.
Power in the future will be determined increasingly by economic, political and moral factors. The arms race and an excessively interventionist, unilateral foreign policy have weakened those fundamental sources of American power.
It is possible that American military might prevented a Russian takeover of Western Europe in the wake of World War II. At that time an American-led containment strategy seemed logical. But if a Soviet move across Europe was ever imminent, it was in the years when Europe was still devastated by war. That is when the Marshall Plan’s economic help and the military power of the NATO shield made the most sense.
Today conditions in Europe, the United States, the Soviet Union and the rest of the world have changed drastically. Western Europe is now strong and prosperous. Its population, material resources, productivity and industrial strength all exceed that of the Soviet Union.
Not since the 1961 Berlin crisis has Moscow engaged in any serious provocation against Western Europe, and even that was an act of political and economic weakness. Paradoxically, the Soviets followed the most belligerent line in those years when the United States either had a nuclear monopoly or at least overwhelming superiority. But as Moscow has moved toward nuclear parity with Washington and increased its dealings on arms control, trade and cultural exchange, it has tended to favor a policy of accommodation with the West.
This tendency has reached an apex in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev, who now emphasizes that in the future Soviet foreign policy will be driven by domestic economic needs. He and other realists in the Kremlin seem far more interested in trading with Europe, encouraging joint economic ventures with European firms and mutually reducing nuclear weapons than in fighting Europeans on the battlefield or exchanging bombs and missiles with them from the skies.
Russians may be notoriously averse to admitting mistakes to the outside world, but it takes little reading between the lines of Mr. Gorbachev’s domestic and international speeches to discern his recognition that the Soviet economy has been so warped by its focus on arms production that it is incapable of meeting the needs of its people for modern housing, industrial goods, productive agriculture and scientific-technical breakthroughs for its future development. Gorbachev has left little doubt that he knows his country cannot lift its standard of living so long as it is bogged down in an ever-escalating arms race with the United States and Europe.
The Soviet leader has also signaled his belief that big-power interventionism in the emerging Third World is a hazardous and self-defeating policy. The bitter and frustrating experience of the Russians for the last decade in Afghanistan was doubtless in Gorbachev’s mind at the Communist Party Congress in February 1986, when he forcefully contended that "encouraging revolution from outside, and doubly so by military means, is futile and inadmissible." It does not take an expert Kremlinologist to see that Gorbachev is saying something new.
On the arms control front, Moscow seized the initiative in 1985 by announcing and implementing a unilateral ban on all nuclear weapons testing. At the arms control discussions in Reykjavik with President Reagan, the Soviet leader seemed willing to make or accept even the most sweeping proposals for the reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons. More recently, in signing with President Reagan the treaty that would eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, Gorbachev agreed to unprecedented access to Soviet military production and basing facilities for on-site inspection. Arms control offers can be propaganda, but a breakthrough verification regime to monitor the total dismantlement of Soviet SS-20s means there is extraordinary substance here as well.
As we move to shape the American election issues of 1988, the key question is whether we can begin to define foreign and defense policies that are more relevant to the realities of today’s world. Can we meet the energetic and forceful challenge of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Russia with intelligence, courage and realism? Can we muster the will and wisdom to see that the issues of the future cannot be resolved by a bigger arms race and more military interventions in Central America, Africa or Asia? Can we put forward a new range of policies to end the waste of an obsolete arms race, reduce the shameful deficit that is weakening our economy and our position in the world, safeguard the physical environment that sustains life on our planet and invest our resources more wisely in strengthening our families and educating our children?
We cannot analyze with certainty the motivations and tendencies of the Russian leaders, nor can we anticipate every development in other parts of the globe. But I offer the following propositions for debate in the 1988 election campaign. They are, I believe, consistent with the realities of our time.
First, we should replace our obsolete cold-war policy with a concerted effort to identify mutual interests with the Russians—trade, arms reduction, joint environmental efforts, shared exploration of outer space and cooperative efforts in the fields of health, education and cultural exchange. In such trouble spots as the Iran-Iraq war, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Afghanistan and Nicaragua, we should seek out the possibilities of Soviet and American initiatives for settlement.
The current shipping problem in the Persian Gulf stemming from the Iran-Iraq war represents an ideal example of a challenge the two superpowers should meet cooperatively rather than confrontationally. Both Moscow and Washington have an interest in ending the war between Iran and Iraq. Neither Washington nor Moscow has any interest in disrupting the shipping of the Persian Gulf or spreading the Iran-Iraq war further into that area.
The Reagan Administration naïvely committed our flag and our fleet to the Kuwaitis as a knee-jerk reaction to information that the Russians had responded in a very limited way to Kuwait’s request for protection of tankers. Clearly, the Administration was also moved by a desire to regain credibility squandered mindlessly through arms sales to Iran. It would have been far wiser, however, to make our policy judgment on this matter only after careful consultation with all of the Gulf states, with our NATO allies and Japan and, most important, after full consultation with Congress. Then, if all signs indicated the need to protect shipping, the United States might have joined in a multinational escort force in concert with our allies, the Russians and some of the Arab states—perhaps under the aegis of the United Nations.
The Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is another prime candidate for energetic and sustained cooperation by the United States and the Soviet Union in seeking a practical and just solution. Such other regional problem areas as Central America, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia could also be appropriate matters for Soviet-American consultation. Serious initiatives to cooperate with Mr. Gorbachev might prove more productive than we have accustomed ourselves to expect.
Second, we should join the Soviets in a complete ban on all nuclear testing, press ahead on the mutual elimination of medium-range nuclear weapons from Europe as provided for by the recently signed treaty, and agree to continued compliance with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—which means confining the Strategic Defense Initiative to research—in return for a mutual reduction of 50 percent in strategic nuclear weapons. Gorbachev has signaled his willingness to negotiate such a formula.
The major sticking point on this promising agenda for arms reduction is Mr. Reagan’s insistence on the right to engage not only in research, but also testing and development of the SDI system—a position Mr. Gorbachev rejects. Most members of Congress and most arms control authorities, including those who negotiated the 1972 ABM treaty—as well as the Russians—believe that the 1972 treaty precludes anything beyond research and laboratory testing of missile defense systems. A major portion of the scientific and arms control community also believes that Mr. Reagan’s concept of a kind of protective astrodome to make America invulnerable to nuclear attack is a destabilizing, frightfully costly fantasy. Former Under Secretary of State George Ball—a man of considerable experience in international affairs and arms issues—has described the so-called Star Wars system as "a fraud," but a very costly fraud that could consume upward of a trillion dollars.
SDI would depend almost entirely on computers and would require, by some estimates, ten million lines of computerized programming to make the system operable. Given the inevitable margin of error and malfunctioning in such an elaborate system, the danger is enormous that it might involve us in a nuclear exchange by mistakes in programming or interpretation. Given these concerns, would it not be better to move ahead on an agreement that will eliminate half of the missiles that Moscow now has targeted on us rather than living with Mr. Reagan’s "dream" that we can some day build a shield that will make us safe in the event of nuclear war? I would urge that we confine work on SDI to research alone for a period of years while we proceed now with arms negotiations. As a practical matter, many technical questions must be resolved by research over the next few years before we can even speculate intelligently on whether it makes sense to go forward with SDI.
It has been argued by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others that we are endangering the United States and Europe by eliminating intermediate-range nuclear weapons and cutting strategic nuclear weapons in half before dealing with conventional forces, where the Soviets are said to be relatively stronger. I would agree that we need to get the issue of conventional forces on the negotiating table, but this need not delay the next proposed step to reduce nuclear weapons as envisioned by Reagan and Gorbachev. Even with the 50-percent cuts called for in the tentative outline, each side would retain some 6,000 strategic nuclear weapons, including 4,900 ballistic missiles, with an average destructive capacity of 300,000 tons of TNT in each warhead. Since the only practical purpose of such weapons is to deter the other side from attacking, 6,000 nuclear monsters will serve the purpose as well as 12,000. Either force level is capable of eliminating most if not all of the life on our planet. Certainly we are no safer today with double the number of weapons targeted on our cities than we would be after the proposed second-stage agreement on strategic arms reductions.
Reagan and Gorbachev have both indicated their awareness of the need to move more purposefully on conventional force negotiations. Over the next decade, in close consultation with our allies, we should seek to negotiate with the Soviets mutual reductions in conventional forces that would enable us to draw down our 300,000 troops in Europe as well as the 40,000 now in South Korea. Obviously, the timetable for these withdrawals should depend on the scale and timing of Soviet reductions in troops, tanks and conventional units. Careful mutual arms control reductions, both nuclear and conventional, with proper verification can lessen tensions and fears. In turn, these steps also reduce the risk of war—which, of course, is the best defense of all in the nuclear age.
Third, if we can improve relations with the Soviets, reduce nuclear arms and draw down our forces abroad, we will have set the stage for a major reduction in U.S. military spending. We are now devoting 60 percent of our military budget to the projection of our power abroad and the defense of other countries, most notably our NATO allies and Japan, against a supposed Soviet or Chinese threat. But the countries we are defending are prosperous and moving steadily into a stronger economic and political relationship with the Russians and the Chinese. Does it make sense for the United States to pay over half the cost of NATO when the European states are as prosperous as we are and engage in more trade and joint ventures with the Soviets than we do?
It is now costing the United States approximately $150 billion annually to provide for the defense of Western Europe and Japan. This is roughly the dimension of our current annual fiscal deficit. For many years we have devoted a much higher percentage of our budget and our GNP to defense than have Japan and the nations of Western Europe. These countries are now pressing us hard to reduce our deficit in the interest of a more stable world economy. One way to do that is for us to cease carrying such a disproportionate share of the collective defense burden. We would be a stronger and a more prosperous nation with greater influence in the world if we shifted over the next ten years at least 30 percent of our military spending into deficit reduction, education, family support, environmental protection, rebuilding our public infrastructure and our railways, assisting our family farmers, upgrading the training and productivity of our industrial workers and strengthening the development of the Third World.
Fourth, while standing clear of Third World military struggles, unless conditions virtually demand our military involvement, we should support in every other reasonable manner democratic centrist forces in developing countries that are caught in power struggles between the hard right and the hard left. American political party professionals, labor union organizers, social activists, religious and public interest groups—all of these and more are needed to train, advise and organize those in the developing countries who seek democracy and justice. We should not hesitate to affirm abroad our active commitment to human rights and democratic ideals. Our 200-year-old experiment with constitutional democracy is the kind of good news we need to proclaim in the developing world.
The time is long overdue for us to recognize that even those countries in the Third World which happen to displease us ideologically are not beyond constructive American influence if we exercise that influence intelligently. We seriously negate that possibility, however, by following too rigidly a policy of economic and diplomatic boycott. It has long seemed to me that our policy of trying to isolate Cuba (to say nothing of earlier covert hit-and-run attacks and assassination attempts against Castro) has been ineffective and self-defeating. The quick decision in the opening stage of the Castro revolution to apply an economic and diplomatic embargo has inadvertently paralyzed American influence in Cuba and maximized Soviet power and influence there.
The same arguments can be made with reference to Vietnam and Angola. More than a decade has passed since the end of our bitter involvement in Vietnam. If that long and costly intervention was a mistake, is it not also a mistake to delay further the process of reconciliation and reconstruction of the country where we not only suffered such grievous losses, but where our arms took such a frightful toll of Vietnamese life and property? In a lengthy conversation with Premier Pham Van Dong in 1976, I was told that Hanoi desperately wanted American diplomatic recognition plus economic, medical and food assistance. The Vietnamese leader also made clear an eagerness to trade with the United States and even to open offshore oil resources to American development.
I found much the same kind of eagerness for U.S. recognition and cooperation in Angola during a visit there in 1978.
Why is it considered prudent and wise for us to carry on diplomatic and trade relations with the communist giants, China and the Soviet Union, while we boycott the little communist states—Cuba, Vietnam and Angola? Has the time not come to end this curious double standard?
There may be instances where it makes sense to employ economic and diplomatic boycotts, but on the record those methods no longer serve our best interests in dealing with the small revolutionary communist states. We have followed a much wiser and more productive course with communist Yugoslavia, notwithstanding the fact that it is in closer proximity to Soviet power than Angola, Vietnam or Cuba. Obviously there are other factors and differences involved, but our long-term approach to Yugoslavia may suggest a more productive approach to other communist states than the one we are now pursuing.
We are also not without influence in some of the Third World countries that are ruled by rightist governments. However belatedly, the Reagan Administration demonstrated that such right-wing leaders as Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti were subject to local political action combined with American support and encouragement. The Pinochet regime in Chile is a classic example of a rightist government with a bad record on human rights that ought to feel constant diplomatic, moral and economic pressure from the United States.
In the Middle East, the United States understandably feels a special obligation to back the state of Israel, which we helped to create in the wake of the terrifying holocaust of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. But here as elsewhere we would be well advised to heed George Washington’s warning against "inveterate antipathies" and "passionate attachments." The Arabs after all did not create the holocaust. They are not our enemies. Indeed, they actively seek our friendship and cooperation. Nor does it follow that Israeli objectives are synonymous with ours, including their 1982 invasion of Lebanon, their preference for Iran over Iraq, their support for the South African government and their hostility to the concept of a Palestinian homeland. We should continue to support Israel, but the time is long overdue for America to stand for self-determination for Palestinians as well as Israelis. Instead of closing the Palestinian Information Office in Washington, we should be talking to the Palestinians. Instead of foot-dragging on the proposal for an international conference on Middle East issues, we should be leading the way for such a conference.
It is possible that we may be faced with circumstances that leave us no honorable course except military intervention. I believe that during the genocidal campaign of the crazed Pol Pot against his own Cambodian people in the late 1970s the United States should have taken the lead at the United Nations in promoting a strong multilateral intervention. Perhaps as many as two million innocent Cambodians were slaughtered in this totally irrational and barbarous orgy. Ironically, it was the unilateral intervention of the hated Vietnamese that finally halted the mass killing of Cambodians by their own government.
The bankruptcy of a policy that continues to view the Third World through the prism of an East-West cold war competition is dramatized by the current U.S. stance on Cambodia. The United States now recognizes and supports at the United Nations Pol Pot and his allies, instead of the Vietnamese-backed regime in Phnom Penh—certainly not on the merits, but on the basis of our opposition to Hanoi and Moscow.
There may be other instances in the Third World where we have no acceptable alternative except armed intervention. But for the most part, our power can best be demonstrated with nonmilitary means. We should think of armed intervention as a costly and high-risk measure of last resort and one that we should make every effort to carry out in concert with other nations—not unilaterally.
Improved relations with the Soviet Union and other communist states and substantial mutual arms reductions would not only help in getting our budget and trade deficits under control; they would also enable us to cooperate better with our standing partners in stabilizing the world trade system. We would be in a much stronger position to work with nations such as Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt and Israel in getting their debts under control and their economies in better shape. Instead of being the major supplier of arms to the Third World, we should seek to strengthen its economic health, not only because this is morally right but because a healthy Third World will be our major market in the future.
Fifth, there are two additional global concerns that lend themselves especially to American political, scientific and technical leadership: halting the degradation of the physical environment and ending human hunger. In concert with other nations and the U.N. system, we should lead the way in halting the pollution of the oceans and waterways, the erosion of the soil, the loss of forests, the contamination of the air and the disruption of the life-preserving ozone. The alarming destruction of our planet by environmental deterioration may constitute a more serious threat to humanity than nuclear weapons. An international effort led by the United States to protect the world’s environment could well be our first line of defense and national security.
Closely related to environmental concerns is the urgent need to win the struggle against hunger. Here again the United States is the best-endowed nation on earth to lead the effort to end starvation and malnutrition. We have the technical capability, the agricultural abundance and the shipping to lead the way to a world free from hunger. A more imaginative use of our surplus food in the short term and a greater effort to improve the agriculture of the developing world in the long term is the kind of internationalism that will give new force and respect to America’s role in the world.
These environmental and hunger concerns present opportunities for closer cooperation with our allies, the Soviet Union and the developing world.
Sixth, it seems increasingly clear that our national and international concerns are deeply intertwined. There is, for example, little hope of ending our huge annual deficits unless we can bring the arms race under control. Nor can we correct the alarming U.S. trade deficit and the decline of some of our industries, including agriculture, that are dependent on exports unless the Third World, as the largest potential market for American goods, is able to improve its economic health. A further illustration of our inextricable involvement with Third World problems is the scourge of destructive drugs flowing into the United States. The peasants in such poor countries as Bolivia, Peru, Mexico and Colombia survive in considerable part by selling cocaine and marijuana to the American market. Equally poor farmers in Southeast Asia and Turkey supply us with heroin. In short, the poverty, underdevelopment and desperation measures of the Third World spill over into America to feed the most destructive social evil in our society.
The economic, political, environmental and military challenges around the globe demand international cooperation rather than unilateral action by single nations. For all practical purposes, isolationism and unilateralism are inadequate foreign policies in the world of today and tomorrow.
This means, I believe, that we must make increasing use of the United Nations system as a vital foreign policy vehicle. No American administration since World War II has given the United Nations the preeminent position it should have in the policies of a major world power. The Reagan Administration has been especially weak if not outright hostile in its attitude toward the United Nations. It is embarrassing that the current delinquency of the United States in paying its assessed contribution to the United Nations has made it necessary for smaller countries including Canada to pay their future assessments in advance so that the United Nations can meet its payroll obligations.
In our efforts to build better relationships with the Soviet Union and China, to address the massive problems of debt, development and hunger in the Third World, to meet the dangers of terrorism and the conflicts of the Middle East, to respond to the new scourge of AIDS—all of these and numerous other concerns challenge us to make greater use of the forum and the machinery of the United Nations. The U.N. Development Program and the U.N. World Health Organization have mounted a global effort against AIDS that is deserving of full U.S. support and participation. It should be noted that it was under the direction of the World Health Organization that smallpox was virtually ended worldwide.
If bringing our relationship with the global community including Moscow up to date in the light of today’s realities is the most urgent foreign policy challenge of 1988, the second and equally important challenge is squaring the conduct and substance of American policy with our historical national values. In the bicentennial of our Constitution, it is important that we renew our commitment to the vision of the Framers who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
We have painfully learned again from the Iran-contra fiasco that secretive, illegal or antidemocratic operations abroad are not compatible with the values and needs of our democracy. If I were permitted just one line of advice to the president elected in 1988 it would be: "Heed the Constitution." The only oath we require of our president is that he "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" and "take care that the laws be faithfully executed."
Unfortunately, several of our presidents since the end of World War II have violated their inaugural oath. These violations were invariably defended in the name of national security. Most were schemes hatched in secret by a handful of people around the president. Most were not only illegal, but also mistaken ideas that embarrassed the nation.
Congress should act to do what former President Harry Truman recommended in his later years—limit the CIA and other intelligence or security agencies of the United States strictly to the gathering of intelligence. Setting up mercenary armies, mining international harbors, assassinating local officials, overturning governments, using arms dealers to circumvent the laws and our announced foreign policy—all such activities should be terminated by law. This will not, of course, stop a president determined to break the law, but it will, at least, make such actions plainly illegal. That is a step toward constitutional government and a revival of credibility and respect for our standing in the world.
Behind our covert activities of the past four decades has been the worship of "national security" and "the power of the presidency"—notions used to justify an interventionist foreign policy and a permanent war economy. But these concepts have an authoritarian quality that is alien to the founding ideals of our constitutional democracy.
At the heart of our Constitution is the separation of powers—the system of checks and balances. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the conductor of foreign policy. But he carries out these activities under definite constitutional checks that give the Congress a strong role in the authorization and shaping of both military and foreign policy. It is the Congress which controls the granting of funds that determine the scope and substance of foreign policy and the size and mission of the armed forces. It is the Congress which declares war and determines whether and how American forces become involved abroad, and how long and under what conditions such interventions are continued. The Senate has a special responsibility to "advise and consent" on American treaty obligations and the confirmation of diplomatic officials, which means that its role in shaping our international obligations and our diplomacy was meant not to be ancillary but integral. The Framers of the Constitution sought to avoid an imperial presidency that would be free to direct the foreign policy and the armed forces unchecked by the people’s elected representatives in the Congress.
It was not simply that the Framers distrusted unchecked power, which they clearly did; they also feared an interventionist foreign policy and large, permanent military forces. Washington, Jefferson and Madison were all willing to use military power when they saw no other reasonable alternative. But they all opposed the creation of standing military forces that went beyond emergency requirements, and they all despised an interventionist foreign policy that needlessly embroiled the United States abroad. Jefferson called for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." Washington, I repeat, warned against either "inveterate antipathies" or "passionate attachments" to other nations.
The Constitution that was hammered out in Philadelphia in 1787 sought to prevent reckless interventionism and rampant militarism by deliberately tying the hands of the president so that he could not raise huge military forces or involve the nation in foreign expeditions without congressional approval and close executive-legislative cooperation. Today, the postwar results of failing to heed the noninterventionist precepts of the Founders are painfully on view in the new fields of white crosses in Arlington Cemetery and on the black marble wall of the Vietnam Memorial. As a former World War II bomber pilot, I lament that many of my countrymen were dispatched in causes far less worthy.
If we are to "intervene" abroad, let us do so primarily with our political, economic and moral strength. A prominent example is the case of South Africa, where the American position should be clear and unequivocal. There is no place for apartheid in the modern world. We should follow a policy of steadily tightening diplomatic and economic pressure on South Africa in concert with other nations which share our rejection of national racism.
For most of our 200-year course as a nation we have been well served by the wisdom of the constitutional Framers. We have seen that document as both a body of principles and a living experiment that has enabled us to meet new and changing circumstances. But especially since World War II we have drifted far from the essential wisdom of the Founders and the constitutional process they bequeathed. This has led us into a series of ill-advised, bloody interventions abroad, a self-defeating arms race, disruptive economic costs at home, and a steady decline of real security and international influence. We are at a watershed, requiring a change in direction. In 1988, as at the beginning of the American nation, we need to build a foreign policy that is consistent with both the procedures and the substance of a genuine constitutional democracy.
If I may add a note of personal advice to the presidential contenders, I would warn them against making hasty pledges under campaign pressures that might hamper their capacity to make unfettered decisions in the White House. I blush when I think of a few of the commitments I made as the Democratic nominee in 1972, including a promise that if elected I would move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This might have pleased a few Israelis and a handful of American voters, but it would have been disastrous to our standing in the Arab world, seriously eroding our ability to serve as an "honest broker" of the Middle East conflict.
In 1960 Democratic nominee John Kennedy chided the incumbent Eisenhower Administration for not moving forcefully against Castro. Perhaps in this militant campaign rhetoric Kennedy, the candidate, was helping to set the trap for the Bay of Pigs fiasco that a few months later embarrassed Kennedy, the president. In 1968 candidate Richard Nixon implied that he had a plan to end the war in Vietnam. When the war dragged on for four more years, it produced a sense of betrayal that disillusioned millions of Americans. President Lyndon Johnson’s pledge four years earlier that he was "not going to send American boys to do the job that Asian boys should be doing" was an earlier source of presidential credibility problems.
It is not necessary for presidential candidates to take a rigid stand on every one of the world’s problems—especially those which carry domestic political lobbies demanding candidate commitments that are tempting to grasp but difficult to live with after the election. Indeed, a president’s freedom of action is limited by the Constitution, by acts of Congress, by American public opinion and by the changing complexity of the global scene. Rather than glibly promising a neat solution to each of the foreign policy issues facing the country, a prudent presidential contender should pledge to seek basic policy objectives in consultation with the Congress and our allies, sometimes after negotiations with our rivals, but always within the spirit and the laws of our constitutional democracy. It is also still wise, I think, for an American president to form his final judgments and course of action "with a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."