The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
THE lines that follow are all based on the assumption that a lasting and effective working alliance between the United States and the nations of Western Europe, primarily Great Britain, is not only a desirable thing in itself but also, in the present state of the world, by far the strongest and perhaps the only guarantor of freedom from all-out war. That assumption is perhaps arguable; but it will not be argued here. Nor shall I make any attempt here to analyze, explain or excuse the events of this past autumn, still less to enter upon any recrimination. My concern is solely with how the alliance, now so grievously weakened, can be rebuilt. But one preliminary remark, it seems to me, is necessary. If there is to be any reconstruction at all, it can only be on a basis of mutual trust. Yet there are in office on either side of the Atlantic, at the moment when I write, men who are not trusted on the other side. So long as this remains true, the progress of reconstruction must, at the best, be halting and partial.
In the theory of these matters, the United States and its European allies, from the United Kingdom to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, are all equal sovereign states--equal in status, in strength and in independence of action. Everyone knows that this is not so. But the false hypothesis nevertheless plagues the working of the alliance and leads to untenable positions being taken up on both sides of the North Atlantic. The first requirement for any reconstruction of the alliance is that it should be based on a recognition of the hard facts.
The hardest of the facts is that the United States is not only by far the strongest and richest member of the alliance--everybody always knew that--but the only member that has any substantial freedom to choose its course of action for itself. In the strict sense of the word, it is the only independent member of the alliance. That, surely, has been demonstrated beyond doubt by the sad events of October and November. Britain and France thought they could successfully act by themselves, and discovered that they could not. Some will say that the Anglo-French military intervention in Egypt would have been successful if it had received the support from America that should have been given, or that was expected. But that is only part of the truth; there was also the opposition of the United Nations, of world opinion, of many of the Commonwealth countries and of a sizeable portion of the British public itself. Moreover, even if it were wholly true that the Anglo-French intervention would have succeeded but for Washington's attitude, that surely proves my point, that Britain and France cannot by themselves carry any independent action to fruition. Such a state of affairs is, of course, highly distasteful to many people in London and Paris. But it is a fact and should be recognized as such.
It should not, however, be carried too far. For one thing, although America's allies may have lost their freedom of independent accomplishment, they have not lost their freedom of initiative. They can still get themselves, and the world, into trouble, even if they cannot get out of it by themselves. That also has been most painfully demonstrated. And for another thing, they still have an almost complete freedom not to act when they should act, which could on occasion be almost as troublesome.
What is needed, then, is recognition of a relationship too subtle to fit into any of the usual categories of diplomacy, a partnership in which only one member is wholly master of its own fate (and even that only within the limits of weak humanity) and the other members are neither wholly independent nor wholly dependent, neither amenable to instructions from the stronger member nor able to sustain any major policy without its help or concurrence.
Such a relationship is not, however, wholly without precedent. Given the inescapable prior assumption of mutual trust, I suggest that a valid precedent can be found in the relations that existed for many years--and to a large extent still exist--between the United Kingdom and what used to be called the English-speaking Dominions. British-Canadian relations long ago escaped from the particular pattern that I have in mind, and relations with the new Asiatic members of the Commonwealth never acquired it. But the British-Australian relationship illustrates almost exactly what seems to me to be needed in the wider sphere of the North Atlantic Alliance. That relationship has never been formally defined, but it can be described with some precision. The weaker member has the right to state its essential minimum national rights and to expect the stronger partner to respect and preserve them. That having been done, leadership should normally come from the stronger member and be loyally followed by the weaker. And the whole relationship should be seasoned by complete freedom and blasphemous candor in comment--the flow of criticism being, as is natural in such a relationship, mainly from the weaker to the stronger.
To many people in London, the acceptance of such a relationship would seem intolerably humiliating. But why should it be so regarded? Have the Australians been humiliated all these years? One remembers occasions when they have been very irritated, and when their national sense of reticence has been unable to restrain some vigor of expression. But I do not offhand recall ever having met a humiliated Australian. Yet the ratio of Australia to Britain, in the realities of population, wealth and potential military strength, is pretty much the same as the ratio of Britain to America. The British are justly proud of the strength and subtlety of the Commonwealth relationship. Is it sauce only for the goose?
If this could be taken as an accurate expression of the new relationship and as a model of how it would work in practice, quite far-reaching psychological adjustments will be needed on both sides of the Atlantic. I shall turn to the American side of the case very shortly, but first I must deal with some aspects of the British collective attitude. In writing mainly of Britain, I do not wish to imply that there should, or can, be anything exclusive about the British-American relationship. Much the same could be written, mutatis mutandis, of the French attitude, but my personal knowledge is mainly of Britain.
The major mistake of British policy ever since the end of World War II, as is now becoming clearer every day, has been to attempt a bigger rôle than could in fact be sustained. There is plenty of excuse for this, and it should not be written off simply as impotent nostalgia for the golden age. For the rôle that Britain has essayed to play has not been beyond what the nation's resources could have been made to support. The decisive fact has been that there are limits on the effort that the British people will make to deploy their resources. For this also there is plenty of excuse. It has often occurred to me that much in modern Brittain can be explained by the fact that the British are the only nation that fought hard from the first day to the last of both the great wars without being defeated. They have all the exhaustion and all the complacency of victory too. They have never had the therapeutic stimuli of defeat or even of occupation. Whatever the cause, it seems to be a fact that the British people in the 1950s put peace, quiet and leisure above the strenuous virtues of effort and striving.
This can be seen most clearly in the economic sphere, where, for all that has been achieved, there has been a steady reluctance to provide, either by added production or by refraining from consumption, quite enough resources to succeed in the double program of overtaking the arrears of capital equipment and also of selling enough abroad to pay for the necessary imports. The country has never quite earned the income it has insisted on enjoying.
Much the same thing has been true in the political sphere. It has taken the form of straining after a position and prestige in the world that the actual strength of postwar Britain has been insufficient to sustain. Whether the people of Great Britain are quite sure they want to bear all the burdens of being a Great Power is a question that they have never been clearly asked. But certainly in the official circles of Whitehall there has been a determination to admit no abatement of the status that was once Britain's and an unwillingness to admit that the limitations on her strength can be anything but temporary. Particularly among some of the senior officials of the Foreign Office, the preoccupation with status and prestige has been almost a mania. It has lain behind many of the facets of British policy in the postwar years that would otherwise be difficult to explain--for example, the long reluctance to join in any project of European integration, which would seem like an admission that Britain is simply another European nation.
This, surely, is the psychology of the fading actress who will not admit to herself that she can no longer play Saint Joan, and who publicly resents anyone else attempting the rôle. Miracles do, of course, sometimes occur. Sarah Bernhardt played Napoleon's young son in L'Aiglon, and did it in a wheel chair. Conceivably Sir Winston Churchill could do the same--but no one else in present-day British politics. Prestige is not something that exists by itself, or that can be secured by demanding it. It is an honor conferred by others, and cannot be created or sustained by any means other than by deserving it. Indeed, it is best attained by not being sought. Like a piece of string, the more you push it, it won't. At many times in these recent years, one has had the feeling that the Foreign Office, and those Conservative politicians who are attached to it by ties of family or training, have been more concerned with the emotional overtones of world affairs than with their real content. But professional diplomats are paid to know the facts, and to face them realistically; it is supposed to be the public that sometimes gets silly and emotional. It is a dangerous state of affairs when the rôles are reversed, leading to such total misjudgments of the probabilities as occurred in London this autumn.
Another manifestation of this strange divorce from the real world in which British policy has been conducted is the firm belief, which you can hear expressed in every London club, that the world has a great thirst for British leadership. Weak we may be for the moment, the argument goes, but the world still rates our wisdom, experience and disinterested objectives above those of any other government. This belief is sometimes fostered by a particularly limited type of foreign visitor to London, who passes through the clubs on his way to his tailor in Savile Row. But anyone who moves about the world can, I believe, readily observe that it simply does not correspond to the facts. To be quite specific, my own observations in third countries have not disclosed any belief that British policy since the war has, on balance, been better than American. On the contrary, I am more often called upon to explain its puzzling inconsistencies than to listen to eulogies of it.
What must be asked of Britain, if the alliance is to be based on a firmer foundation, is therefore, it seems to me, chiefly a willingness to face facts. Britain is no longer a super-Power. She is perhaps in a class by herself, but it is not the highest class, nor is it one that permits her the luxury of fully independent action. She is no stronger than the resources she has available and is able and willing to bring to bear. She is no more respected than her actions warrant--and it is other nations' judgments on her policies and actions that count for prestige, not her own.
It sounds easy to face the facts. But it is in fact a most difficult psychological operation, and I should like to couple to my severities a plea to Britain's friends to exercise patience. There are men still alive and active in Britain today whose ideas on the world were formed and fixed at the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The men now in control grew up just before, during and immediately after the Kaiser's war. One of the great difficulties of this fast-moving world is that men are always prescribing for the yesterday they understand rather than for the today they do not. Moreover, it takes much longer to adjust to unpleasant realities than to rising prosperity. It can perhaps proceed only through a series of shocks, and it may be that the events of this tragic autumn will turn out to have had a galvanic effect on the process of mental adjustment in London.
Perhaps also the British people would find the process became easier if they cultivated the art of frankness in criticism. It would, of course, be absurd to suggest that there has not been a great deal of anti-Americanism in Britain. But it has been disconnected, unsystematic and irresponsible. It is my belief that much of it would disappear if there were a greater willingness in the Government and the Foreign Office to state the British case in the open, with all relevant facts, whenever there is a disagreement with Washington. The Suez dispute provides a clear demonstration of what I mean. After the explosion, it became apparent that the British and French Governments had, as they conceived, been driven to desperation by the weakness and instability of American policy. Had the rôles been reversed, long and authoritative articles would have appeared in the American press, setting out the case at length with names and dates. In Britain, all that happened was that a generalized sense of irritation spread through informed circles, leaking out into cartoons and sly references, without anyone having a chance to know what the rights and wrongs were. Even up to the time I write, three weeks after the disaster, the only reasonable and argued statements of the British case against Mr. Dulles that I have seen have been by American reporters in the American press. This strange and harmful reticence is due partly to the long Foreign Office tradition of "covering up," and partly to a belief that "publicity won't get you anywhere"--which may be true in other capitals of the world, but is certainly not true of Washington. The technique of frank diplomacy, in this modern age, requires frankness between public opinions as well as candor of the diplomats among themselves.
I turn to the psychological adjustments that seem to me to be required in the United States if the alliance is to be effectively reconstructed. And if, in doing so, I write more severely than a foreigner should, I hope that my long record as an explainer, and often as a defender, of American policies to the British public will be allowed to me as an excuse.
I should like to take as my text two extracts from a dispatch in The New York Times of November 12, 1956, by that paper's chief Washington correspondent, Mr. James Reston. Let me make it clear that I am in no way taking issue with Mr. Reston, who was reporting the attitude of official Washington with the accuracy and perception that have won him his high reputation. "As seen from here," Mr. Reston wrote, "there has always been a certain degree of condescension in the official attitude of London and Paris towards Washington. Nobody said so outright, of course, but it was felt here that London and Paris regarded the United States as the big, powerful and idealistic, but somewhat naïve partner, who did not quite understand the facts of international life. . . ." It follows from what I have written above that there is, in my opinion, some truth in this charge. Certainly I would not try to dispute it--though I would add that every Englishman who comes to America gets used to being accused of condescension when nothing of the sort was intended. But even if it is completely true, I still find it very alarming to have this seriously put forward among the four or five factors that will govern the United States Government's attitude to the alliance of the free peoples. If the State Department is also governed by emotions, I find the fact more alarming, and even less excusable, than it is in the Foreign Office. Surely the United States is strong enough, and sure enough of its strength, to bear with the British and French while they make their painful adjustments. If we are to be plagued not only by a new British inferiority complex, but also by the remnants of the nineteenth-century American inferiority complex, then the task will be difficult indeed. If the prescription for the Foreign Office is to make an unemotional assessment of the realities, surely it is the same for the State Department.
A little later in the same dispatch, Mr. Reston wrote: "While it is willing and even eager to rebuild the alliance, [the United States] Government feels that the alliance will have to be rebuilt on the assumption that there are some questions in some areas of the world where Washington's vital interests are not always precisely the same as those of London and Paris. In short, the feeling here is that the alliance can be rebuilt on a more realistic basis if the events of the last few days have demonstrated (1) that the Soviet menace is as great as ever in Europe and even greater in the Middle East, (2) that the United States, Britain and France have a common interest in banding together to meet that threat, but (3) that this common interest does not include the assumption that the United States will back Britain and France in any or all action in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia."
Again, there can be no quarrel with the accuracy of this statement. But if that is all there is to be said, does it not amount to saying that the alliance will be expected to work in matters that the United States deems important, but not in matters that Britain and France deem important, and even perhaps vital to their existence? If that is the American attitude, there is plenty of justification for it. He who pays the piper is entitled to say what shall not be played, as well as what shall. But if this is the attitude, then it is hard to see how there can be an effective alliance.
Here we come up against the other limit that defines the possibility of alliance. If the urgent need for Britain and France is to realize the extent to which they have become dependent on the United States, and to accommodate themselves to this fact, the urgent need for the United States is to realize that its allies are not totally dependent. No one can dictate to another what he shall regard as vitally important. Washington may not like some of the things that Britain and France regard as important, but it cannot stop them doing so. Nor can it escape from the fact that, if they do not get American help, or at least American sympathy, in matters that they regard as vital, they are not going to be good allies in the matters that Washington regards as important. Litvinoff used to say that "Peace is Indivisible." In the same sense (and to about the same extent) alliance is indivisible.
This must not be pushed too far. I am not trying to say that the State Department must always dance to a Franco-British tune. It is obvious that the strongest member of the alliance must have the biggest say in determining its policies, and the State Department has much more freedom in disregarding or overriding the day-to-day wishes of the Foreign Office or the Quai d'Orsay than any that they will in future feel they have in going against Washington. All that is implicit in the alliance of unequals. But it is also in the logic of alliance that the permanent and vital national interests of the weaker partners become permanent and vital interests of the United States. It may be possible to have defined and agreed exceptions to this--matters on which a member of the alliance is put upon notice from the start that it is on its own--though I am doubtful about the possibility of this, so interdependent are the problems of the Western world. But when any vital national interest of a member of the alliance has not been excluded from its purview, then it can be disregarded only at the peril of the alliance. The troubles of this autumn have been caused by the fact that the British and French Governments came to believe that one of their most vital interests was neither understood nor supported by the United States Government, whose policy seemed rather to be calculated to persuade them into surrender. Whether they were right or wrong in so thinking, I do not know. But I do venture the criticism of American diplomacy in the Suez affair that, to an extent that proved to be dangerous, it gave the impression of being concerned with the interests of the United States alone. There are some Americans who would say that, if so, this was just as it should have been. That may be; but it is not a possible attitude for the leader of an alliance.
The psychological adjustment that is required of the United States is often described as being a willingness to assume the responsibility of leadership. That seems to me to be an oversimplification. I find among Americans plenty of willingness to lead, sometimes too much impatience to do so. I would say rather that what is needed is a realization that a leader cannot always define or limit the commitments that he enters into by the fact of his leadership. He cannot simply give a lead when he feels like it. He must give a lead when he would far rather dodge the issue altogether. And he must give a lead that can be, and will be, followed. The professional politicians of the United States recognize these ground rules in their domestic activities. They know that a political leader cannot keep his party together unless he is on the job all the time, and unless he can keep his followers reasonably content with his leadership. The facts of human nature are exactly the same on the international plane.
Psychological attitudes are, I believe, fundamental, and I make no excuse for having devoted so much space to them. But they are important, of course, only because they condition and determine actions and policies. Lest I give the impression of remaining wholly in the air, let me conclude with a very brief indication of the areas in which, once the attitudes are adjusted, a reconstructed alliance could reconstruct its policies.
There are three main trouble areas in the world--Europe, the Far East and the Middle East. It would be my judgment that in Europe the United States has, over the postwar decade, given its allies a strong and intelligible lead which on the whole they have gladly followed, and on the whole with success. In the Far East the United States has given a lead, but one which, from time to time, its allies could neither understand nor follow. In the Middle East, no perceptible lead at all has been given.
In Europe, therefore, no major task of reconstruction is called for. I am not denying that the policy, and its application, should be under daily review. But I do not believe that there is any crisis in the alliance.
In the Far East, perhaps the time is approaching when at last an agreed and comprehensive policy could be worked out. I would not wish to acquit American policy in that area of many inconsistencies and errors. But there is also one cardinal error of British policy there which has never, to my mind, had the attention it deserves. This is the British Government's assumption that its liabilities in the Far East can be limited and that it need not take sides. This is absurd not only for the general reasons that have been developed above, but also for the quite specific reason that Britain has a commitment in that area, in the shape of Hong Kong. There is a conspiracy of silence round Hong Kong. But the facts are, first, that the Chinese Communists are sure to lay a claim to it some day and, secondly, that when they do, it can neither be lamely surrendered nor could it be defended without American assistance. At present, America shows an ostentatious lack of interest in keeping Hong Kong out of the hands of the Communists, and Britain exhibits the same attitude toward Formosa. Yet both countries must know that they would, in fact, both be involved in the fate of either. Is it really beyond the powers of diplomatic good sense to fashion a policy out of these materials?
The biggest need for policy, however, is clearly in the Middle East. One obvious result of the November disaster is to leave the United States as the only effective defender of the interests of the whole Western alliance in that area. I have written more than once in recent years that, if only the United States would enunciate a comprehensive and intelligible policy for the Middle East, Britain and France ought to follow it, whatever it may be. Now they have no option--and neither has America.
The questions are very awkward, but they have to be answered. Is it, or is it not, absolutely vital to the free nations of the West that their influence in the Middle East should be at least equal to Russia's? Could they hope to stand up to the Soviet Union in some future crisis, if the Russians could at any moment cut off the oil of the Middle East and close the Suez Canal? If the answers to those questions are what they obviously are, at what point does the West consider its vital interests to be unacceptably damaged? Would a Soviet alliance with Syria be too dangerous to be borne? Once the minimum requirements of the West have been defined, how can they be secured? Can it be done by kindness alone? Are there any contingencies that would justify the use of force? Is it possible for policy in all circumstances to be conducted within the framework of the United Nations alone? These questions should have been answered long ago. They will not wait any longer.