How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
The events of 1989 not only brought to an end the division of Europe, they also brought to an end the postwar role of the Soviet Union in Europe, for that role depended above all on the once clearly recognized division of the continent and, of course, the political-military consequences acknowledged to follow from that division. These consequences no longer obtain, however, and this despite the continued presence of Soviet forces in Europe. The view that they still do obtain, if admittedly in attenuated form, must depend on the possibility that the Soviet government-whether that of Mikhail Gorbachev or of a successor-may yet employ military power to prevent unwanted developments. If that prospect cannot be entirely ruled out, it nevertheless now remains so small that it may be all but discounted, for the military power needed to stay the developments that have now been set firmly in train-including German reunification-would have to be very considerable. To succeed, the effort required would greatly tax the Soviet Union's resources and, by doing so, place in further jeopardy, if not simply put an end to, efforts of domestic economic reform. The suppression once again of popular aspirations to freedom and self-determination in Eastern Europe would be seen as vindicating those opposed from the outset to liberalization in the Soviet Union. At best, such suppression would set the clock back 30 years in Soviet relations with the West. At worst, it would directly threaten a general war in Europe, if only because those circumstances that formerly assured the Soviet Union that military intervention could be undertaken in reasonable safety no longer exist. The division once clearly recognized, if not legitimized, is no longer so. The once acknowledged power, if not the right, to intervene is no longer acknowledged and would now be very dangerous to exercise.
The end of Europe's division signals as well the end of the great conflict that has dominated world politics since World War II. It does so not because, as the conventional view has it, the Cold War arose out of the division of Europe and will therefore end when this division is ended, but because the abandonment by the Soviet Union of its core external interest marks the onset of the long-term decline of Soviet global power and influence. The principal cause of the Cold War was the essential duopoly of power left by World War II, a duopoly that quite naturally resulted in the filling of a vacuum (Europe) that had once been the center of the international system and the control of which would have conferred great, and perhaps decisive, power advantage to its possessor. What gave the resulting conflict its particular intensity, of course, was the profound ideological gulf that separated the Soviet Union and the United States. But the root cause of the conflict was to be found in the structural circumstances that characterized the international system at the close of World War II.
Although not the principal cause, Europe has unquestionably been the principal symptom and stake of the conflict. For this reason, as long as a divided Europe persisted, the Cold War could have been expected to persist. Even if that division had earlier been brought to an end, although in circumstances other than those that in fact have marked its end, the Cold War could have been expected to persist in some form. For it is very difficult to imagine even a reformed, though still vibrant and powerful, Soviet Union's long resisting the temptation to gain ascendant influence over a Europe that, whatever the extent of its economic integration, continued to lack political unity. Barring a radical change in America's outlook and policy, this nation could be expected to counter such Soviet aspirations.
It is not so much, then, the end of Europe's division that signals an end of the Cold War as it is the circumstance that above all led to this end: the decline of Soviet power. Nor does it matter here that this decline did not occur overnight, that its root causes are profound, and that its consequences might well have been put off for a number of years and remained unacknowledged by a different Soviet leadership. What does matter is that these consequences were acknowledged and acted upon in Europe by the present leadership. Once drawn they have become all but irreversible in the continent that gave rise to the Cold War.
It is only in retrospect that we can appreciate the extent to which an entire worldview was conditioned by the great conflict that dominated the postwar period. Such was the pervasive influence of the Cold War on political vision that its effects often extended even to those who decried this influence. Ironically, the criticism regularly made of American foreign policy, that those responsible for its conduct saw virtually every issue through East-West lenses, was not infrequently true as well of those who made the charge. After more than four decades, the truths born of the Cold War have long ceased to have only a relative character.
The sudden end of the conflict has, not surprisingly, given rise to a situation for which it is difficult to find a real precedent. Arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, there does not appear to be an instructive modern historical parallel of a hegemonic conflict simply being terminated by the default in time of peace of one side. Yet this is what has happened in the present instance. By its actions in central and Eastern Europe, and by the increasing signs that it is prepared as well to abandon positions held elsewhere, the Soviet Union has largely withdrawn from the conflict that had come to be seen as almost interminable. In doing so, it has transformed the landscape of world politics almost beyond recognition. It has turned believers in the political truths of the postwar world into skeptics who sense, even when unwilling to acknowledge as such, that they have lost their once secure moorings. Nor does the sense of being put adrift extend simply to surface political phenomena. It reaches as well to the deeper forces at work in world politics.
Any speculation over the character of world politics in the coming decade (and quite likely in the following decade as well) must begin by addressing the question of how far it is reasonable to expect Soviet power and influence to decline. A brief answer is very far indeed. While the Soviet Union will continue to pose a security threat of sorts, simply by virtue of its continued possession of formidable military power, the usefulness of this power has already markedly declined and may be expected to decline still further in the years ahead. Having abandoned its most important geostrategic asset outside the Soviet Union, Moscow has already weakened its military position relative to that of Western Europe to an extent that finds a meaningful parallel only in military defeat.
Yet it is not the growing debility of its external position that creates the principal doubt over the persistence of the threat that once confronted Western Europe, important as the weakening of its external position undoubtedly is, but the steady erosion of the Soviet domestic base. The many developments-political, economic, environmental, ethnic, ideological, and spiritual-that have marked this erosion need not be entered into here. Almost every conceivable pathology a society-and an empire-can suffer from has now made its appearance in the Soviet Union. That a society suffering from the several crises that now plague, and that will continue for years to plague, the Soviet Union may nevertheless somehow find the moral and material resources to pursue an assertive foreign policy seems altogether implausible. Instead, the expectation must be that the Soviet Union will increasingly follow a passive and contractive foreign policy and that it will do so whether the government of Mikhail Gorbachev remains in power or not. In either event, the retrenchment of Soviet power and influence in the world will in all likelihood continue. Indeed, this retrenchment may be expected to continue even should the Soviet domestic scene not worsen. But since that prospect is itself implausible, we may not unreasonably anticipate the time, which cannot be far removed, when the Soviet Union will for all practical purposes no longer actively function as a great power in the world.
If this estimate of the Soviet future is reasonably well founded, what are the consequences that may be expected to follow from it? The principal consequence will be evisceration of the Atlantic alliance. When alliances lose their common adversary, their normal fate is to break up. If this is not to be the fate of the Western alliance, the principal foundation of the postwar order, either the persistence of the old adversary and the threat it held out or a new adversary must be assumed. The former assumption, though, can no longer be realistically made, while the latter assumption presupposes a new world of multipolarity in which the glue holding the alliance together is the threat of protectionism and the eventual collapse of the international economy.
That a multipolar order will succeed the now passing bipolar order is clear. That the emerging multipolarity will differ markedly from the multipolarity of the 1970s and 1980s is equally clear. Whereas the multipolarity of yesterday took on meaning within the broader context of a persisting bipolarity, the multipolarity of tomorrow will not do so. Yesterday, Germany and Japan were great powers when judged by their economic productivity, their trade balances, and their financial surpluses; they were scarcely such when judged by their continued security dependence on the United States. Tomorrow, these states will be great powers not only in the sense that they already have been such for some time; they will be great powers as well in that the political impact of their economic power will no longer be qualified by a security dependence that imposes substantial constraints on their freedom of action in foreign policy.
In the case of Germany, this change is already apparent. In time, it is bound to appear yet more striking. The sudden recession of Soviet power has effected a revolution in the position of the Federal Republic and of the soon-to-be-unified state of Germany. What formerly constrained West Germany as no other major state in the postwar order was constrained is now gone. For almost half a century, the threat of Soviet military might conditioned, as did no other factor or combination of factors, West Germany's behavior. It is the virtual disappearance of this threat that has suddenly given rise once again to the "German Problem." In upsetting, if not simply destroying altogether, the postwar balance of power that had obtained for so long in Europe, the Soviet Union liberated the country that was the principal reason for, and object of, that balance. To be sure, the German Problem has arisen as well because a reunited Germany is seen to constitute a striking increase in size and power over the Federal Republic. But of far greater importance is the realization that a unified Germany will be largely free of the constraints that formerly bound a divided Germany. And while a new Germany may have every reason to behave with moderation and circumspection, the means of constraining it to do so are no longer apparent.
The singularity of Germany's transformed position is that it holds out the prospect not only of a greatly enhanced freedom of action but of a freedom to pursue an expansionist foreign policy in the name of the essential principles of legitimacy on which the postwar order has been based. This is clear enough in the case of a policy of reunification, a policy that would merely fulfill the decades-long Western commitment to German self-determination. It is equally true, however, in the case of a policy that is likely to lead to German economic preponderance over the states of central and Eastern Europe. The instruments for achieving such preponderance would be those that have long been considered entirely legitimate. They would presumably be employed in pursuit of an end-economic growth and development-avidly sought after by these states. To the objection that the successful pursuit of this end by Germany would result in the marked extension of German power and influence, the position may be and is taken that in the present international system, such extension does not carry the implications and entail the consequences it once did. Unless German economic preponderance in Eastern Europe threatens to take a military expression, the prevailing view seems to be, it is to be considered desirable. And since the possibility that it would again take a military expression appears virtually excluded, the conclusion is commonly drawn that there is no problem that needs to be addressed. Indeed, those who insist there is a problem, and that it arises simply from Germany's disproportionate economic power, are themselves often seen to harbor less-than-creditable motives. This is why West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl can declare: "There is a difference between understandable misgivings and fears and what is disguised as fear but is really economic jealousy." But if those holding the latter view must be discredited, those holding the former view must be educated and shown that, the issue of borders apart, there are in fact no "understandable misgivings and fears," and that talk to the contrary comes from those who are, in Kohl's words, "deliberately slandering the Germans."1
A rather more detached view nevertheless leads to much the same conclusion, that these misgivings and fears over German power and influence are largely groundless. It is roughly this: those who worry about the danger of a new disequilibrium in Europe do so because they continue to think of Europe in terms of the old politics with its obsession with the balancing of power. But the old politics presupposed a reliance in the last resort on forcible methods for achieving the ends of statecraft. Once that presupposition is no longer relevant, as it presumably will not be relevant in the emerging international order, the concern about equilibrium and the careful balancing of power also appears irrelevant.
There is no easy response to this view, once the essential premise that underlies it is accepted. And that premise does appear increasingly persuasive. The forcible methods that traditionally defined and dominated European politics do indeed seem relegated to the past, now that the last great representative of these methods has apparently abandoned them. It is, after all, the Soviet government that has repeatedly declared that it is time to begin "the gradual dismantling of the outdated model of the European balance of forces"2 and that has moved dramatically to make good on its words. This development cannot but have a crucial bearing on the judgment made of Germany's expanding economic, and political, role. For if that role holds out the prospect, as many contend, of altering the balance of power in Europe, the balance it alters is presumably a new one-a balance that is ultimately judged in economic terms rather than, as it once was, in economic and military terms.
Nor is this all. A unified Germany, no longer menaced by Soviet military might and confident in its role as Europe's most powerful economy, would have no reason to jeopardize a position from which growing power and influence over central and Eastern Europe seem all but inevitable by attempting to give this position a military dimension as well. It may be argued that this power and influence no longer hold out quite the same attractions that great powers and their statesmen once found so difficult to resist, but then neither do they hold out the old risks. A German push for the revision of frontiers or for the acquisition of nuclear weapons would surely revive the specter of these risks and by so doing provoke once again a hostile coalition against it. Why should Germany be tempted to take these paths, given all of the advantages of its present situation?
Thus the new reality in Europe is not the emergence only of a powerful German state, but of one that, so long as it eschews the old and disastrous ways, is likely to have few constraints placed on its freedom of action. Moreover, the commitment to the values of liberal democracy apart, a united Germany has every reason to eschew the old ways, for the new ways hold out the promise of achieving in substantial measure the perennial ends of statecraft. From this perspective, Germany has nothing to gain, though much to lose, by balking at the acceptance either of restrictions on arms, both conventional and nuclear, or of guarantees of now firmly sanctioned postwar borders.
Although Germany is free of the constraints of a bipolar world, the consequences of this freedom continue to be obscured. The principal consequence is that a unified Germany may now choose whether to pursue its destiny within or outside the framework of the Atlantic alliance. Neither the Soviet Union nor, for that matter, the major Western states are in a position to determine the nature of that choice. Does the nature of that choice matter a great deal? The prevailing view is that it does. A new German state, the now familiar argument runs, must be firmly anchored to the West through membership in the alliance; any other arrangement incurs the risk of a resurgence of aggressive German behavior. Above all, it is considered desirable that Germany retain its close ties to the United States, something that is best ensured by the retention of some American forces in the territory of what was once West Germany.
The difficulty with this view is that it not only addresses a past that is very unlikely to recur, it also addresses a future with the means of the past. The prospect is not a Germany bent on military aggression but a Germany bent on economic expansion. This prospect cannot be avoided, or contained, by Germany's continued membership in the Atlantic alliance. Nor can it be contained by a continued American military presence in Germany. These arrangements may provide a measure of psychological reassurance to Germany's neighbors; even so, such reassurance must be a classic instance of faute de mieux and in time will surely be so seen. The simple though apparently unpalatable truth is that the alliance ties, with or without American forces, can no longer be expected to serve the functions they once did. Nor can they be expected to elicit the support from German governments they once did. Instead, the prospect must be faced that in time, what plainly resembles a special dispensation for Germany will generate an increasing measure of resentment on the part of those who have long ceased to accept the burdens inherited from a receding past.
In comparison with the change effected in Germany by the end of the Cold War, that in the position of Japan appears much less dramatic. In Europe, the balance of power that dominated the continent since the late 1940s has been destroyed; in Asia, the balance that has existed since the 1960s-a balance that has comprised the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, and China-has only been altered, and with effects that are not yet apparent. In Asia, there has not been to date an abandonment of interest and a recession of military power by the Soviet Union that finds a real parallel with the process now occurring in Europe. It may nevertheless be argued that sooner or later Moscow will initiate a comparable process in Asia and that it will do so with much the same motivation that has moved it in Europe-the need to obtain access to capital and technology. The role that Germany may play for the Soviet Union in the West, Japan may play for it in the East. This being the case, Moscow has every reason to reassure Japan about its basic security and to be forthcoming about particular issues in dispute, above all, the issue of the Northern Territories. This it seems reasonable to expect the Soviet government to do.
The point remains that the end of bipolarity cannot have an effect on Japan that is comparable to its effect on Germany. Just as the threat of Soviet military power never weighed as heavily on Japan as it did on West Germany, the operation of the balance in Asia never constrained Japan's freedom of action as the balance in Europe constrained the Federal Republic. For the same reason, the end of the Cold War does not appear to present the opportunities for the expansion of influence and power in Asia to Japan that it does in Europe to Germany. The decline of Soviet power cannot be expected to alter dramatically Japan's prospects for achieving greater power and influence in Asia. While that power and influence have grown markedly in the past decade and will doubtless continue to grow, they do not hold out the same opportunity that central and Eastern Europe hold out for Germany. The Japanese remain suspect in Asia to a degree the Germans do not in Europe. In contrast with the Germans, the Japanese have made little effort to come to terms with their past. A persisting cultural isolation from the rest of Asia also provides a striking contrast with the cultural affinity of Germany and Eastern Europe. Were it not for Japan's close postwar relationship with the United States, which has often shielded it from criticism in Asia, the consequences of these factors would be yet more apparent. Even so, their net effect is to limit the opportunities for Japan to use its economic power in Asia to establish a leadership and to exercise an influence that now appears open to Germany in Europe.
Whereas the German Problem has arisen because of the persuasion that a unified Germany will be not only a more powerful state than the Federal Republic but one that is free of the constraints that formerly bound a divided Germany, the "Japanese Problem" has arisen in the first place because of the conviction that Japan's international economic power has already become disproportionately great and promises-or threatens-to become still greater. This is why discussions of the Japanese problem are almost always prefaced by a now familiar recitation of statistics on trade and financial surpluses, on the growth of Japanese foreign investment, on the prospects of continued growth of the Japanese economy and, in turn, of what that projected growth portends for yet greater economic power in the world. To be sure, critics of Japan's ever increasing power in the international economy do not center their criticism on the fact of growth per se. It is the methods by which Japan has presumably achieved its present position, above all its trade practices, that form the core of their criticism. Yet it is by no means apparent that if Japan were to abandon many of these practices, the Japanese problem would disappear. Provided that Japan nevertheless retained a substantial measure of its competitive edge and therefore its favorable trading position, the likelihood is that the Japanese problem would persist and that critics would give even greater attention than they do today to the need for pervasive change in Japan's domestic economy and polity-change that would have as its general objective the conversion of a nation of producers (and savers) into a nation of consumers. For the real issue that forms the root of the matter, the disproportionate growth in Japan's economic power, would remain.
It has become a commonplace to observe that the transfer of wealth and economic power attendant on Japan's growth is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, that has occurred in time of peace. In marked contrast with earlier and less spectacular transfers, the political consequences of the present shift remain in large measure conjectural. That Japan will enjoy a greater measure of influence in international economic and financial institutions is apparent. What is not apparent are the more profound dimensions of Tokyo's economic and financial ascendancy. To date, Japan has yet to make a serious and determined effort to convert its economic and financial power into substantial political influence. Its reticence in this, however, cannot be expected to go on indefinitely.
The end of the Cold War and of a bipolar world will almost surely prompt Japan to take a more active political role in the international system. Japan will do so if only for the reason that the risks and liabilities attending a greater assertiveness will have diminished and will be seen to have diminished. The constraints on policy that, in the final reckoning, once had to be accepted because of a security dependence will now be increasingly called into question. With the expected change in the Soviet-Japanese relationship, the threat to Japan's physical security must decline almost to a vanishing point. Even if the recession of Soviet power in Asia were to occasion a greater Chinese assertiveness along its borders, which seems unlikely, this would not heighten Japan's physical insecurity. What might appear to do so would be the prospect of an alliance in all but name between the United States and China that had the containment of Japan as its principal objective. But such an alliance, even if it surmounted the obvious ideological barriers in its way, would still not respond to the interests of either party. While it could scarcely serve to contain Japan's economic power, its predictably traumatic effect on Tokyo could possibly move Japan to seriously consider the need for large-scale rearmament, even perhaps including the acquisition of nuclear arms.
Short of the limiting situation that a Washington-Beijing alliance might well be seen to represent, Japan has no vital interest that would be served by a large-scale rearmament. Its principal foreign policy interests are, and seem likely to remain, those of retaining access to the raw materials it needs and access to foreign markets. Even for the former interest, let alone for the latter, a large military force appears increasingly irrelevant. Although Japan may indeed face a threat of access to raw materials, particularly oil, it is difficult to see how any expansion of Japanese military power might respond to this. The expansion of Japanese power and influence in Asia and in the world does not depend upon Japan's becoming a great military power. If anything, the acquisition of such power would almost certainly prove to be far more a liability than an asset, for it would at once raise fears that have never been stilled. These fears would arise in Asia even if Japan were to have a plausible reason for again becoming an independent military power by virtue of the (altogether unlikely) withdrawal of the American security guarantee.
The same question raised with respect to Germany, then, seems equally appropriate to raise with respect to Japan. Why should Japan be tempted to follow the old ways, or even to appear to do so, given the advantages of its present situation? If those advantages do not appear quite as striking in Japan's case as they do in Germany's, they are still considerable. To lead in the growing economic integration of East Asia is no small matter, and this even if Japanese leadership is looked upon by those led with marked reserve. The criticism persists that Japan has yet to play the political role in the world that is both its right and its duty, and that this continued unwillingness or inability betrays a narrow self-centeredness. In an age when the critical political issues are increasingly economic in nature, this criticism is easily overdone. Japan already plays a political role, even if that role is not the conventional one. And with the end of the Cold War, a more conventional role as well is bound to emerge.
In the new order of multipolarity, neither Japan nor Germany can be expected to have the same relationship with the United States that it had during the Cold War. What will prevent the present relationships from falling apart? Certainly they will not lack reason for doing so. In the emerging order, threats to security will be increasingly defined in economic terms. This being so, threats to security will be implicit simply in the disparate and conflicting economic interests and policies of the major powers. If the persistence of the old adversary and the threat it once held out can no longer be counted on to provide the glue holding the Western alliance together, may a new threat be substituted? Can the threat of protectionism and the eventual collapse of the present international economy do for the multipolar world that is emerging what the threat of Soviet arms once did for the bipolar world that is vanishing?
There is no disagreement over the nature of the consequences likely to follow from a breakdown of the global economy. Were the growth that this economy fueled suddenly to cease, let alone to contract, the very foundations of the present international order would be endangered. For that order has increasingly come to rest, as never before, on the functioning of a global market that provides the indispensable means for the growth of national economies. The breakdown of that order would at once jeopardize in a fundamental way the political relationships of the major developed powers while opening as well the prospect of a degree of domestic instability these states have not experienced in the postwar era. Can the threat thus held out substitute for the old threat in ensuring the cooperative policies and measures needed to sustain the future international order?
A confident response requires a faith in the beneficent working of interdependence in a world that will continue to be dominated by the right of self-help that states have always laid claim to by virtue of their sovereignty and independence. That the right of self-help may be effectively asserted in the future by ever greater entities-that is, by the three great blocs many expect to form in the years ahead-does not hold out the promise that its effects will somehow prove benign. The possible hazards attending interdependence in a system of sovereign political entities were momentarily raised during the oil crisis of the 1970s and the far-reaching debate it provoked over the necessity and desirability of effecting a more equitable distribution of the world's wealth. In the context of what was then widely seen as a dangerous conflict emerging between the developed and rich states of the North and the developing and poor states of the South, it became clearer than ever that interdependence itself is not constitutive of order and, although creating the need for greater order, provides no assurance this need will be met. Interdependence creates the need for greater order because it is as much a source of conflict as of consensus. While promoting insecurity and competition, it does not itself provide the means for assuaging insecurity and setting bounds to competition. Even if interdependence is beneficial to all parties, its benefits may vary considerably. The perception of marked disparities in benefits may well provide a potent source of conflict.
There are, of course, large differences between the interdependence of North-South relationships and the interdependence of the developed great powers. In the economic realm, the inequality that still marks North-South relationships, and that still can give rise to deep resentment, finds no real counterpart in the relations between this country and Japan and Germany. In the case of Washington, Tokyo and Bonn, a tradition of working together, as well as a common outlook on many issues of trade and finance, also must enhance the prospects for dealing with the dilemmas of interdependence in the post-Cold War world. Even so, the interdependence of the future is bound to prove quite different from the interdependence of the past, which, after all, gave rise to its share of conflicts and, in the case of trade relationships between Japan and the United States, to a serious and persisting conflict. Given the recession of the Soviet threat, it is not unlikely that the interdependence of the future will be marked less by consensus and more by conflict, for the essential compact that held for roughly four decades between the protector and the protected will no longer hold. Whereas in the past significant economic differences arising between the United States and its major allies were unavoidably conditioned in the last resort by the security protection this country extended, this will no longer be true.
The interdependence of the emerging order is likely to be characterized not only by more economic conflict among its major actors but by conflict that will not be readily resolved. Conflict will not be readily resolved if only for the reason that the system will no longer have an apparent hegemon. It may be argued that in the economic sphere it has not had a dominant power for some time. Yet the continued security dependence of Germany and Japan undoubtedly served to compensate for the more modest economic position of the United States in recent years. In a radically altered security environment, this will no longer be the case and the consequences of the change in the nature of the American position may soon be laid bare. From an order that, despite all qualifications, had an acknowledged leader, the outlook is for an order that has no real leader but only partners. Experience indicates that this shift is nearly always critical. While a hegemonic power, if determined to do so, can impose a solution on the conflicts arising from interdependence, partners can only disagree.
The fate of interdependence in a world that is no longer dominated by the Cold War and that no longer has a hegemonic power necessarily remains speculative. What appears less uncertain is the nature of power in this world. The decline of military power, by now reasonably apparent, need not be compensated by the corresponding rise in the utility of economic power. Power is not a constant in human history. It may well be that in the international system of tomorrow, power itself will be progressively at a discount and that what military power can no longer do, economic power also will be unable to accomplish. Even so, the power that will remain is likely to be increasingly economic in character and take the form largely of financial and trade surpluses. In measuring power, the wealth of nations will no longer have the significance it once had, in that a nation's power will no longer be roughly proportionate to its collective wealth. Instead, it is the capital and goods at a nation's disposal to employ abroad that must increasingly form the yardstick of power. By this measurement, the power of Japan and Germany will be considerable. By the same measurement, the power of the United States will be relatively modest.
Thus, the ironic outcome of the past half-century is that at the moment of victory, our power and influence are diminished. If the end of the Cold War marked the virtual disappearance of the Soviet Union as a great power, certainly as a great power in Europe, it also marked a visible decline in America's role. That decline, the consequence of the adversary's sudden disappearance and America's peculiar economic position, was only too apparent during 1989 in the unfolding European drama.
It is all but inevitable that the end of the Cold War will give rise to yet another debate over American foreign policy. The signs of such debate are already apparent in the emergent dialogue between those who believe that we should once again play a much more modest role in the world and those who believe that America's post-World War II role must be held up as the model for the future. To date, it is the supporters of continuity who clearly appear to enjoy a position of advantage. But this is to be accounted for in part by the persisting view that their position responds, after all, to the natural order of things. Once it becomes clear that this order, the postwar dispensation, is no more and that we now live in a very different world, the advantage that is conferred by the force of the habitual will erode. The advocates of change will then have their day.
The case for having the United States play a far more modest role in the post-Cold War world is rooted in the history of the past fifty years and the vast changes that have occurred during this period. America abandoned a policy of isolation and intervened in World War II because a fascist victory would have threatened the nation's physical security and material well-being. This threat apart, a fascist victory also held out the prospect of a world in which America's political and economic frontiers would have to become coterminous with its territorial frontiers, a world in which societies that shared our institutions and values might very possibly disappear-in sum, a world in which the American example and American influence would become irrelevant. In such a world, it was believed, America would find it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to realize its promise, since a hostile world from which America was shut out would inevitably affect the integrity of the nation's institutions and the quality of its domestic life. The issues of physical security and economic well-being apart, it was to prevent this prospect from materializing that the United States abandoned its interwar isolationism and intervened in World War II.
It was for roughly the same reasons that, in the years following the war, this country adopted a policy of containing Soviet power. The initial measures of containment, the Marshall Plan and the Atlantic alliance, formally expressed and thereby made unmistakable the vital American interest in preserving the security and independence of the nations of Western Europe. In the context of Soviet-American rivalry, they formed a clear acknowledgment that the domination of Western Europe by the Soviet Union might well shift the balance of power decisively against the United States and that, at the very least, such domination would result in a security problem that would severely strain the nation's resources and jeopardize its institutions.
Although the circumstances of the late 1940s made the application of containment roughly identical with a conventional balance of power policy, from the outset containment also expressed an interest that went beyond security, narrowly conceived. From the outset, a conventional security interest was joined with a broader interest in preserving and extending the institutions of freedom. The Truman Doctrine expressed these two aspects of containment, that of organizing power and that of vindicating purpose. In its refusal to distinguish clearly between the two aspects, the Truman Doctrine foreshadowed the subsequent history of containment and the refusal to distinguish clearly between the interest in securing a balance of power and the interest in extending freedom. That refusal, in turn, has reflected the conviction, deeply rooted in the American consciousness, that the successful pursuit of the American purpose is, in the long term, the only truly reliable method of achieving both peace and security.
The outcome of the Cold War has at last put an end to the circumstances that required America's intervention, first in a global conflict and then in a protracted contest that came to encompass most of the world. In the fifty years that have elapsed since the abandonment of isolation, the structure of American security, both in its narrower and in its broader dimensions, has changed radically. It has changed radically by virtue of the military defeat (or, in the case of the Soviet Union, the functional equivalent of military defeat) of those powers that threatened the nation's physical security. And it has changed radically by virtue of the progressive triumph of those institutions and values the extension of which has long formed the American purpose-a purpose that has in turn been equated with the nation's greater-than-physical security. The prospect of a world in which the American example and the influence of American institutions and values might decline, let alone become irrelevant, has never seemed more remote.
It is quite true that as a result of nuclear-missile weapons, the United States is physically vulnerable today in a way it was not vulnerable in the interwar period. But this ultimate vulnerability cannot be significantly reduced-let alone removed-by the attempt to retain our postwar role. Against the possibility of attack by nuclear-missile weapons, a possibility that will exist as long as nuclear weapons exist, our present alliances afford little, if any, protection. In any event, that possibility must be considered virtually negligible today not only because our once great adversary no longer lays claim to interests and harbors ambitions that could lead to situations in which nuclear weapons might be threatened, but also because experience has shown how limited the utility of these weapons is, save for defensive purposes.
These are the general considerations in support of having the United States play a far more modest world role in the post-Cold War period. The conclusions they suggest are apparent. The reasons that prompted this country to play the great role it did for half a century are no longer valid. A new world has come into being, one in which America's security in both its narrower and its broader dimensions is no longer at serious risk. This being the case, it must be asked, why should this country persist in efforts that respond to circumstances now past? Why should it continue to maintain substantial forces in Europe and in the western Pacific? Whose interests are served by its doing so?
There are, of course, the constraints imposed by a period of transition. But these constraints apart, the case for maintaining a continuity of role rests essentially on the propositions that the world will have a continuing need for a power able to maintain peace and stability and that only this country can fill that need. The United States must preserve a peace that remains fragile. It must do so because it is not only the world's greatest power but the most trusted one. The argument for preserving a continuity of role thus increasingly resembles today the rationale for collective security rather than for alliances. The peacekeeping role we are now urged to pursue is one that is directed no longer against a particular state or states, but against disturbers of the peace regardless of their identity. Accordingly, the interests that are served by accepting this peacekeeping role are those of the international community as a whole.
Although the principal sources of instability are usually described in general terms, it is apparent that they are now considered to be our major postwar allies, Germany and Japan. The need of retaining a substantial American military presence in Europe and in Asia is primarily to reassure the neighbors of these states. To reassure them against what, however? If the answer is to reassure them against the threat of military expansion, the political reality will be that of tacit alliances between the United States and the neighbors of Germany and Japan that have as their object the containment of these two states. In time, such arrangements are bound to generate resentment on the part of those who have been made the objects of these alliances-and this despite their initial approval and even support of them-for the continued presence of American forces will be a constant reminder to both states that they remain less than trusted by others.
On the other hand, if the purpose of maintaining a substantial American presence in Europe and Asia is to safeguard against an economic preponderance that in time may be transformed into political influence as well, the means for doing so seem quite inadequate to the end. There is no apparent way by which an American military presence, whatever its size, can contain the expansion of German and Japanese economic power. In time, this is bound to become clear to those who may have initially experienced a measure of reassurance from the continuation of this presence. When it does, the American presence may retrospectively be viewed not as having impeded but as having facilitated an expansion the consequences of which are viewed with increasing apprehension and even resentment by those who have come to believe they were lulled into a false sense of security.
At the heart of the position favoring a continuity of role is, more often than not, the unspoken assumption that even though the Cold War may have come to an end, all else will go on largely as before. We will remain the leader even though we can no longer lead quite in the manner of yesterday. Our major allies will continue to need us even though we are no longer needed quite as much as before. The satisfactions of our position will persist even though they may no longer be quite as apparent as they once were. Unfortunately, we are due for a rude awakening. The leadership role that persisted as long as the Cold War persisted is very unlikely to survive the end of that conflict. It is unlikely to do so simply because we will not be needed as before. And although the change in role will almost at once be apparent in the case of Germany, it will in a less dramatic manner eventually become apparent in the case of Japan as well.
In principle, it is of course possible that this country might retain a leadership role though the functions and frustrations of that role change. This is evidently what many supporters of continuity have in mind. With the ending of the Cold War, the United States will presumably change from leader of an alliance formed to counter the threat of Soviet power to leader of a community of nations that needs the American presence in order to maintain a still fragile peace and stability. In practice, this change in function from that of defending freedom to that of ensuring order is apt to prove critical. Not only is the latter function a considerably more complicated one, it is also a much less appealing one. Certainly it must prove far less appealing to this nation. The American purpose was never seen to imply that we should play the role of policeman to the world. It did imply that we might one day have to free the world, though not to police it. One polices the world because men and nations are recalcitrant, because they often have deeply conflicting aspirations, and because they are usually influenced more by precept than by example-even the best of examples. These are the convictions of a traditional outlook on statecraft; they are not the convictions that have moved this nation.
Even if the neutral role of policeman were more congenial to this nation, the question that it holds out for us would insistently arise. It must not be assumed that the rewards for being policeman to the world will be the same as were the rewards for being defender of the free world. They will not be the same. The deference, such as it was, shown in the past to American interests and wishes is unlikely to be shown in the future, since the principal incentive for according such deference will no longer be apparent. In the past, the security America provided its allies was security against a quite specific threat-a threat, moreover, that the protected could not begin to counter effectively with their own unaided resources. In the future, this will no longer be the case. The function of preserving order may, of course, be considered a security-conferring function as well, but it is not one that is directed against a particular party. Instead, it is directed against a general threat, a threat to peace and stability, regardless of the identity of the party responsible for the threat. This being so, the utility of America to its major Cold War allies will of necessity become ambiguous in the new dispensation. Circumstances may even arise in which the policeman's role will require that we place ourselves in opposition to our former allies.
At best, then, the expectation must be that the American role will be viewed in the future with more diffidence by others than it was in the past. It will be exercised on behalf of those who will find much less need for it than they once did. Even when its exercise appears clearly to respond to need-for example, in the event of a renewed threat of access to the oil of the Persian Gulf-it may elicit little cooperation from those we regard as among the principal beneficiaries. These states will constitute our principal trading partners, states with which we may then, as now, run a deficit. With the Cold War a receding memory, but with financial stringency a persisting reality, how long can we be expected to maintain a role that, while no longer required for our security, is viewed by others with the mixture of ingratitude and resentment that has always been the lot of the policeman?
This, in brief, is the case for why the United States should play a much more modest role in the post-Cold War world. Persuasive though this case is in many respects, doubt must nevertheless persist that it foreshadows the future. Great powers are not in the habit of voluntarily relinquishing the role to which they have become accustomed, and this despite the fact that the circumstances initially prompting the assumption of the role have changed. It may be argued that when the attainment of great power was relatively easy, as it was for this country, the relinquishing of power should prove correspondingly easy, and particularly so given America's historic traditions. But against this view of easy come, easy go, must be set the consideration that the American experience in world leadership has been, on the whole, a remarkably successful one. In statecraft, as elsewhere, success normally leads not to withdrawal but to reengagement.
Still more important than these considerations, it would seem, is the process whereby over time, a role becomes invested with a force and sentiment that render it increasingly invulnerable to criticism and change. Then, too, there is seldom a lack of plausible justification for maintaining a role that has come to be seen as part of the accepted order of things and that has been attended by success. America's postwar role has been so important and pervasive, it is difficult to imagine a world in which that role is substantially diminished. At the same time, it is not difficult for many to imagine the dangers a marked diminution of the American presence would bring in its wake. Although the threat of Soviet arms has receded, the threat of global instability has taken its place. In Europe and, even more, in Asia, this threat of renewed competitions in arms and of heightened tensions can supposedly be kept down only by maintaining the American commitment and presence.
This justification for preserving a continuity of role cannot be effectively turned aside by pointing out that it is quite likely mistaken in its assumptions about the role of force in the international system now emerging, just as it is quite likely mistaken in its assumptions about the principal threat to global stability in the period ahead. Even if it can be shown that these assumptions are probably misplaced, and that the emerging system will be both peaceful and stable, and almost surely in the mutual relations of the great powers, events might always turn out otherwise. There is no way of knowing, for example, what the effect would be of withdrawing American forces from Japan. That such withdrawal would lead Japan's neighbors to arm themselves as they have not done in the postwar period and that this response would in turn prompt Japan to new arms efforts seems unlikely. Yet this result cannot simply be precluded. It is even possible that a withdrawal of American forces might in time cause Japan to seriously consider acquiring nuclear arms, and this despite America's continued willingness to guarantee Japan's security.
These considerations reflect the innate caution and conservatism that normally mark the conduct of foreign policy. What may well give them a special persuasiveness is the prospect that the substance of role may be maintained, though at markedly diminished costs. Whether calculated in blood or in treasure, this prospect does appear increasingly likely. To the extent that force is actively employed as a means of policy, the expectation must be that it will be limited to demonstrative uses (Grenada, Libya, Panama, etc.). In time, limitations on the use of military power will be reflected in the size of the nation's military forces. Even if the ancient game itself has not at last changed, it holds out the promise today of having moderated to a degree altogether unexpected only yesterday. This moderation may prove to be the essential condition for maintaining a role that was taken on for reasons and in circumstances that are now a matter of the past.
1 As quoted in Alan Riding, "Bonn Balks at Soviet Plea for Vote on German Unity," The New York Times, Feb. 4, 1990, p. 22.