Russia’s Repeat Failures
Moscow’s New Strategy in Ukraine Is Just as Bad as the Old One
YEARS ago, when I was a reporter on a New York newspaper, I would sometimes be sent out to Quarantine to board an incoming liner and explore the mind of some visiting notability. There was one thing especially that used to strike me about these excursions. Whatever the new arrival might be--literary lion, musician, scientist, soldier, statesman or vaudeville artist--and wherever he might come from, whether it was India or France or England or Japan or Venezuela, he could always be counted upon to declare that the future of mankind depended, and depended alone, upon the closest possible association of his own country, whichever that might be, and the great Republic of the West.
Pronouncements of this kind are no doubt little more than the expression of a conventional courtesy but they always seemed to me to smack a little too much of a sense of favors to come. At any rate, whenever I have been considering the subject of Anglo-American relations, whether officially or unofficially, whether privately or in public, I have always tried to keep clear of the idea that the relationship between my own country and the United States was, or ought to be, of an exclusive character. Today I am not so sure.
I still hold that this world is too big a place--or too small a one--for any two peoples, however powerful, however experienced or however well-intentioned, to bulldoze mankind into agreement with their views. The world is not to be saved only by the joint exertions of the United States and the United Kingdom. But equally it cannot be saved without them. It is possible to conceive of rifts occurring between the United States--or the United Kingdom--and almost any other country in the world, rifts which would be damaging without, however, the damage being utterly irreparable. It is inconceivable, on the other hand, that there should be a permanent division between the United Kingdom and the United States which would not involve the breakdown of civilization.
That is an assertion which I could buttress with a number of arguments. Here I will adduce only one. A reversion to isolationism by the United States would mean the collapse of Western morale. I suppose that nothing would more surely swing the American people into a new kind of isolationism than the conviction, even the strong impression, that the associate whom they had come to regard as being the most reliable--indeed, and in the final analysis, alone reliable--was not to be relied upon after all. If the divisions which have shown themselves recently between our two countries become any deeper, or take on any degree of permanency, the outlook is dark indeed.
In the few pages that follow I will seek, therefore, not so much to defend British policy as to explain it. In politics as in other human relationships understanding is the best antidote to misunderstanding. And if I am able to show here that the British attitude is grounded in something other than fear, indifference and shortsightedness, I shall have done all that I set out to do--more, perhaps, than I can hope to do.
It may be as well, first of all, to clear away some of the undergrowth which covers up the problem which faces us. For we have to realize that a number of the differences in approach, and even in policy, which have arisen between Britain and America are not really as deep and unbridgeable as they seem to be: this is so because they stem not from any real difference of national temperament or national interest but from the simple operation of the democratic process.
In wartime the struggle for power within a country is in abeyance in greater or less degree, and subordinated to the struggle for national survival. But in peace the democratic politician regains his freedom of action: it is his right--one might almost say that it is his duty--to engage himself once again in the struggle for parliamentary or electoral power. In the final analysis nothing is sacred, and however devoted a patriot a man may be he cannot always draw an absolutely clear line between domestic and foreign policy. Sometimes even the noblest ambition will blur the boundary lines, and that which is less restrained will lose sight of them altogether.
This, or something like it, is what has been happening on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain a bitter fight is taking place for the leadership of the Socialist Party, and it seems to be centered on the international field. The real issue between Mr. Attlee and Mr. Bevan has very little to do, however, either with the rearmament of Germany or with the admission of Red China to the United Nations. That is only the ground which Mr. Bevan has chosen, because it is there that he can make his strongest appeal to the less thoughtful membership of the Socialist Party, a party which has always had a strongly pacifist wing and one to which the revolutionary, simply as a revolutionary and irrespective of the merits in his case, will always appeal. And Mr. Bevan has been able to choose the ground because in a progressive party, especially when it is in opposition and therefore without responsibility, the extremist will always seem to be forcing the pace just as in a conservative party the reactionary will usually have a disproportionately loud voice. But this does not mean, in either case, that the extremist will necessarily have the last word.
And there is to be found, perhaps, in the attitude of the Prime Minister himself another example of the effect of the party battle upon national policy. During the general election campaign of 1951 Sir Winston Churchill was the target of a countrywide campaign of vilification tending to show that he wanted war with Russia. It is clear not only that Sir Winston himself was deeply wounded by the slander but also that the Conservative Party lost a number of seats in the House of Commons as a result of it. It can hardly be a matter for surprise, therefore, that some of the Prime Minister's animadversions upon the international situation have been directed towards the electoral position at home. But no one in his senses would believe, because of this, that Sir Winston has changed his view of the evils and dangers of Communism or that he is any less clear-sighted in combating them.
It would seem that considerations of this kind enter, too, into American politics, and one has the impression that some official pronouncements are the result less of a genuine appraisal of the facts than of a determination to demonstrate to its supporters that the present Administration differs in every particular from its predecessor. And certainly, to take another example, the leadership of the Republican Party in the United States seems to present itself in much the same light as the leadership of the British Socialist Party, as tolerating the expression of views which, in present circumstances, are like high explosives flung into a gasoline tank. Happily there is little reason to suppose, because of this, either that the junior Senator from Wisconsin will one day be President of the United States or that the right honorable gentleman the member for Ebbw Vale will ever be Her Majesty's First Minister. It is only that these two gentlemen are an expression of that struggle for power which is in itself of the essence of democracy.
For we have to remind ourselves continuously that democracy is not pure gold. If it were it would not have the strength or the resilience to survive. We may be startled and even shocked when we come upon these coarser alloys, but we need not suppose that they represent the whole compound or even the most valuable part of it. It is a fact, nevertheless, of which we have to take account, that the uglier elements of democratic politics will often obtrude themselves onto the international scene. We must be vigilant, therefore, to distinguish between those issues which represent a real difference of approach between the United States and the United Kingdom and those which are only the reflection of some aspect, more or less sordid, of the struggle for power at home.
That there should be real differences of outlook between the two countries is scarcely to be wondered at in the light of their widely different experience even in the present century. During the past 50 years the United States has experienced two world wars, and after each has known a marked accession of political and economic strength. After the second it was faced, openly, unmistakably and for the first time, with the emergence of a Power which clearly threatened its own security. During the same period the United Kingdom passed through the same two world wars, and after each has seen a marked decline in its political and economic strength. After the second it was faced, not for the first time but once again, for the fourth time in 400 years, with a Power which clearly threatened its existence. In both wars both countries exerted a tremendous military effort, but it was only in the United Kingdom, and only during the second war, that the civilian population was given a foretaste of atomic warfare. It is hardly to be expected that experiences so different will produce an identical approach.
Let us consider first of all the effect of air warfare, as the British experienced it between 1940 and 1945, upon their attitude towards the present international situation. During the Second World War I made a number of visits to the United States on government business of one kind and another, and on more than one occasion I experienced the inconvenience of an air-raid alarm. I remember, too, paying a visit to a civil defense headquarters in a Midwestern city. It was all very realistic and the civil defense arrangements struck me as being more elaborate (and no doubt they would have been more efficient) than anything that I had seen at home. But no civilian whose actual experience of air warfare is limited to what happened in the United States can have any conception of what a mass air attack is like. I think that it would be quite impossible for such a one, no matter how vivid and sensitive his imagination, to share the experience emotionally as well as intellectually.
Of course this makes a deep distinction between the war experience of the American and British civilian population, but although there are many Americans who realize it there are few who draw the right conclusion. British hesitations in the light of atomic warfare fill with impatience those who do not grasp the distinction; but those who do are filled too easily, I think, with despair. For they assume that the actual experience of air bombardment has softened morale to such an extent that the British people, faced with the possibility of destruction through the hydrogen bomb, have lost the will to resist. But it is not so. Nothing has happened in the past tragic 30 years to persuade us that appeasement or the payment of Danegeld does anything except increase the danger which it is intended to turn away. And the Englishman, if he were faced with the choice, would still prefer the loss of life to the loss of his liberty.
But he does not wish, if he can avoid it, to make the choice necessary. And what he does instinctively feel is that it may not be very wise to get the habit of reading ultimata from the cuff, or to play with grenades as though they were tennis balls. The Englishman would be a good deal more than human if he did not feel some irritation whenever he read an especially fiery objurgation, from someone who had never experienced a mass air attack, bidding him to stand firm at all costs. "At all cost to whom?" he is inclined to ask himself, for he is no more able to imagine that New York City is likely to be in the same case as London in the next war than the New Yorker is able to imagine what it will be like if it is.
Here, then, is one case where a different experience leads to a different approach and even to friction and misunderstanding. There are others. The American is living today under a real threat to his security. Nothing like it has ever happened to him before. Throughout its history the republic has either kept itself clear of the outside world or (with the single exception of Pearl Harbor) chosen for itself the moment and the method of intervention. Now it is being pushed around. The natural reaction of a nation subjected for the first time to such an experience is the reaction of a man who is stung by a wasp. He can settle to nothing until he has destroyed the creature and smoked out the nest. But the Englishman is accustomed to being pushed around. He always has been pushed around, and he expects that he always will be. To the Englishman, therefore, an international crisis is not something which must be solved as the condition precedent of a civilized life. It is something to be lived with, and although with patience and determination he will one day work out some kind of a solution, by then, no doubt, he will be faced with some other problem which will prove equally intractable.
In a time like the present it is neither strange nor reprehensible that British policy should be more tentative, more cautious, more persistent in seeking an accommodation, than that of the United States. It arises from the very different experience of the two peoples. It does not mean, for instance, that England any more than the United States is indifferent to the threat of militant Communism. Nor is it strange that the hesitations and seeming uncertainties of British policy should provoke impatience and sometimes even anger in America. That, too, is the result of a different experience. The American temperament is better adapted--it might be fairer to say longer adapted--to taming a continent than to wrestling with the complexities of international politics. These, it is true, the American regards with a trained eye, but it is the eye of an engineer, not a politician. The American who moves easily and naturally in a world of plans and blueprints, plumb lines and set squares, asks sternly, "Where do you propose to draw the line?" The Britisher, more used to weighing the imponderable, replies, "Yes, I see. We must face the danger when it comes. But in the meantime perhaps it would be as well to leave the line as it is, a little blurred." The Britisher sees as clearly as the American that the snake must be watched and, if necessary, killed, but he is not yet wholly convinced that it is wise to dig it out. Given time, it may die or change its skin.
There is one field of policy--British policy towards India--which merits separate examination, for nowhere do the confusions and contradictions of Anglo-American relations show themselves more clearly and with greater paradox than here. From the beginning of time opinion in the United States has ranged itself against what is called "colonialism," and especially that brand of it which the British used to practise in India. Britain, on the other hand, saw her Indian Empire not as something predatory and immoral but as a powerful element of order in a continent which, without it, would never have emerged from chaos. At any rate the Indian Army--I mean, of course, the army that was recruited locally--as it existed until 1948, numerous, well armed, well disciplined and wholly loyal, did more than maintain order in India (and maintain it almost always without firing a shot); its very existence helped to buttress law and order over a wide part of the globe from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
Be that as it may, time, the pressure of events, the pressure, too, of public opinion in Britain and America alike, changed all that. The Indian Empire was dissolved and the Indian Army is no longer held as a reserve at the disposal of British diplomacy. In these circumstances, and in the light of American pressure upon Britain to pull out of India, there is surely an element of irony in the idea of Americans reproaching the British for not being tough enough with Mr. Nehru--just as there is an element of paradox in the British, on their side, being at such pains to conciliate a country which, if it did not actually do so, ejected them just as efficiently as if it had defeated them in war.
The British attitude, however, is more rational than it sounds, and certainly it is in the British tradition. After the War of Independence (and in spite of 1812) it was British policy to conciliate the United States and to use the young republic as a bastion in the Western Hemisphere, if not of British interests at any rate of law and order. And it may not be altogether farfetched to draw an analogy between Canning's approach which resulted in the enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine and Mr. Eden's wooing of the Colombo Powers: here, too, a British statesman may be regarded in some sense as calling a new world into being to redress the balance of the old. And after the Boer War the British conceded to the Union of South Africa a freedom which they had fought a long, costly and unpopular war to prevent the Boer republics from enjoying. British policy towards India may be right or wrong but there can be no doubt that it is in the British tradition.
It is by no means certain, however, that it is wrong, although there are misgivings about it in England as well as in the United States. For it is possible that colonial Powers know more about nationalism than those whose only experience of it has been through watching it from the sidelines. At any rate Great Britain, like other colonial Powers, has learned about nationalism the hard way. And if the British feel that you cannot compel, you can only persuade a new nation to come in on your side, it may be that they are right.
Most Americans would say, I fancy, that the British are insufficiently aware of the dangers of Communism, on the one hand, and of the strength of nationalism on the other. I am by no means sure that we do not better understand both than our friends sometimes suppose. For it seems to us that one of the most dangerous elements in the present situation is that events have made an alliance between international Communism and Asiatic nationalism. It seems to us that this alliance must be broken if it is at all possible to break it. And it seems to us that it should be possible to break it, for there is very little to hold it together except for the fact that in the past each of the contracting Powers has been opposed by the West. In all other respects--the necessities of trade, the desirability of raising standards of life all over the world, the overwhelming need for peace--there ought to be more in common between the new nations of Asia and the West than there is between them and Soviet Russia. I am not arguing here that the diplomatic recognition of Red China was right: for my own part I am inclined to think that it was wrong. All I am suggesting is that it was not perhaps so utterly wrongheaded as is generally supposed. And when Mr. Nehru says that there is nothing to choose between Soviet Communism and Western imperialism he seems to us to be very silly as well as very irritating--but we can understand why he says it because we, too, can remember the past. It is a strange irony that the British, only a few short years ago the rulers of India, can understand it when many Americans cannot, those Americans who were themselves in those days the foremost critics of the British Raj.
Two world wars within a generation have weakened Britain economically as well as politically so profoundly as to affect her approach to international problems. Everyone knows by now that the whole standard of life of the British people depends upon their ability to sell exports to pay for the necessary imports. Successive American administrations have taken the lead in international measures leading towards the reduction of trade barriers (a leadership, however, which has been much handicapped by the operation of the U.S. tariff itself) but still it cannot be easy for the American to understand just how vital is a high level of international trade to Britain's very existence as an effective force in world affairs. The prosperity of the United States, too, depends upon international trade, but there is a very marked difference in degree. To the American a fall in the level of international trade may mean the difference between a holiday in Europe and a holiday at home. To the Englishman it probably means the difference between freedom and the loss of it, for the British economy is so precariously balanced that any pronounced slide over the knife edge must lead to widespread hardship and to a measure, at least, of social disintegration. There are many conservative Americans who have told me that a return to the bread lines of the early thirties would mean revolution in the United States. That is a measure of the importance to Britain of her export trade.
It is not, therefore, greed or cynicism which makes Britain seek to maintain and develop trade even with those parts of the world where there are political régimes unsympathetic or even hostile to Britain. Nor is it certain that a refusal to trade with one's enemy will weaken him as much as it weakens oneself. There is a difference between dictatorship and democracy which is relevant here. If tens of millions of Chinese or Russians are forced below the level of subsistence, Chinese or Russian policy will not necessarily be affected at all: the salt mine or the firing squad can look after everything. But if a relatively small number of British people, say a million or two, were forced to subsistence level or somewhere near it, because of our inability to maintain a high level of international trade, British policy must be profoundly affected and in ways, one would suppose, not at all beneficial to the cause of the West.
There is another consideration which is often lost sight of. While there is general agreement that there should be no export of materials which are of direct strategic advantage to the Communist bloc there are marginal cases which would seem to be debatable. Twenty years ago 90 percent of British exports of machine tools went to Russia. If anything like the same thing were happening today there would be universal alarm on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet it is by no means certain that it would be justified. At any rate there is something to be said for a course of action which would increase Communist dependence upon the West. It would detract from the military strength of Communism, not add to it.
It would be misleading, however, to push these arguments too far. Economic self-sufficiency is one of the aims of the Communist bloc, and British trade with countries now behind the Iron Curtain (including China) was never, even between the wars, more than 7 or 8 percent of British exports: today it is doubtful if it would amount to 2 percent and it is unlikely that the figure could be greatly increased.
But quite apart from the general economic argument, strong if not overwhelmingly decisive, there seem to us to be strong political arguments for not imposing a total embargo on trade between East and West and even for developing it as far as may be done without adding to the over-all strength of the Communist bloc. The overriding purpose of the Western peoples is to defeat the Communist conspiracy. This purpose can be realized without war only if the Communist empire disintegrates from within itself, and the process of disintegration is likely to be facilitated rather than hindered by the extent to which there is a line of communication between the Communist peoples themselves and the outside world. It is surely as much in the interest of the peoples of the West to maintain this line of communication as it is in the interest of the dictatorships of the East to close it.
That is why the British attach so much importance to Hong Kong. It is not only that Hong Kong has been in the past a valuable center of entrepot trade. It is a channel, in some sort, between the Chinese mainland and the outside world, a listening post, the shop window of democracy in a totalitarian wilderness. It is the West Berlin of Communist Asia.[i]
I have tried here, however superficially, to touch upon some of the differences between the British and the American outlook upon the international scene, and to explain as faithfully as I can the British point of view. I have not been able, in doing so, to conceal from myself that the differences are real and deep and such that they cannot be wiped away simply by good will. But differences in outlook, even though they may be sharp, do not necessarily predicate divergencies in policy. Indeed, they must not be allowed to do so. And they need not do so.
For policy can always be compromised, as principles cannot be compromised. There are those in Britain who pine for what they like to believe is "an independent foreign policy." There are those in the United States who hold that in the last resort America "can go it alone." There can be no such thing, today, as an independent foreign policy for Britain, any more than there can be an independent defense policy or an independent economic policy. America can no more go it alone today than she could in 1941. It is no longer possible to have a good American foreign policy or a good British foreign policy. One can say that the judgment of the State Department is better than the judgment of the Foreign Office--or vice versa--but one cannot say that the Foreign Office or the State Department can therefore write its own ticket. There is only one policy that can be effective now, and that is an Anglo-American policy.
If this is true there must be compromise, and on the part of both countries. I have very little doubt that over recent months there has been a great deal of compromise, and that in the months to come there will be more. Each time that United States policy is compromised it must seem to Mr. Dulles, I imagine, that the result is very much worse. Each time that British policy is compromised it must seem to Mr. Eden a very much worse policy. But things are not so bad as they would be if each insisted on his own policy.
And what are we to do who have no responsibility for policy? Surely our duty is clear. It is something more than that each should back his fancy, as though the whole thing were a kind of heroic boxing match. It is that each in his own country must understand, and insist, that a worse joint policy is better than the best separate policy. For the best is often the enemy of the good. In this field it most certainly is.
[i] It is thought in many quarters, I know, that Hong Kong has been a center for the smuggling of strategic materials into Red China. This is not substantiated by the figures. In 1952, after the embargo on the export of strategic war matériel, exports through Hong Kong dropped from £100,000,000 to £32,000,000 in 1952, and to £33,000,000 in 1953.