Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be; why then should we desire to be deceived?

-Bishop Joseph Butler

Fifteen Sermons (1726)

No. 7, para. 16

The last year of the 1970s confirmed and carried measurably forward the major trends of a decade. Viewed from an American perspective, the principal developments of 1979 registered the continued decline in the nation's international position. The decline was most apparent in the Middle East, the area that apart from Western Europe and Japan represents the center of America's strategic interests.

The revolution in Iran destroyed what had been throughout the decade the principal pillar of American policy in the region. The local power on which the United States had relied for maintaining security of access to the oil of the Persian Gulf was transformed overnight into a determined adversary. Whatever radicalizing influence the Iranian revolution might have on the other states of the region, one thing was virtually certain: the revolution had dramatically increased the instability of the Persian Gulf while markedly reducing Washington's ability to cope with this rising instability by normal diplomatic methods. Whereas the new Iranian regime had no apparent interest in the stability and security of the Gulf-at any rate, none that could be defined in terms compatible with American and Western interest-there was no satisfactory local substitute with the power and will to provide the functions Iran once provided.

Nor is this the only problem created by the Iranian revolution. For a brief period during the winter of this past year Iranian oil production fell to nearly zero. For the entire year it was substantially below normal output. One consequence of this drastic cutback was to set the stage for the sharp increase in oil prices by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in June, and further major increases in December. These evoked anew the question insistently asked at the outset of the oil crisis in 1974: How can the world pay for OPEC oil?

The Iranian cutback in production relieved the OPEC states, at least for the time being, of dealing with the difficult problems of allocation. More important, the events in Iran pointed up a lesson to the principal members of the cartel that they may well be expected to heed in the future. Short of pushing the West and Japan into sheer economic chaos, and thus bringing the entire international system down, their best course of action is to produce only so much petroleum as they need for sound development, to stretch out the life of their reserves, and to operate on the assumption that oil kept in the ground is a better, and safer, investment than dollar deposits. It is quite likely that this lesson was measurably reinforced by the November action of the Carter Administration in freezing Iranian assets. Whatever the rationale-and, indeed, justification-of this move, it necessarily prompts other holders of large petrodollar surpluses to consider that what was done to Iran might one day be done to them.

The response of the major Western consumers to the sudden turn for the worse in the ongoing oil crisis revealed that the potential divisiveness of divergent interests and policies was nearly as great in 1979 as it had been six years earlier. The Tokyo summit in June, which resulted in agreement among leaders of the seven major Western consumers to set specific country-by-country ceilings on their imports of oil through 1985, barely papered over the persisting divisions on energy policy. Preceded by open criticism of America's profligacy in energy consumption, the agreement represented a bare minimum of consensus; at the heart of the matter now, as on earlier occasions, was the apparent inability of the United States to curb what all others continued to regard as its excessive imports of petroleum. The pledge by the Carter Administration to restrict imports to the limits of the preceding year (1978) was, despite its apparent modesty, received by others with skepticism. Even if adhered to, however, it did not hold out much hope of materially easing the pressures and problems of an oil market that promised to remain tight for the indefinite future. This prospect cannot but subject America's relations with its major allies to constant strain.

Thus the revolution in Iran revealed once again, and with sudden brutality, the erosion of American power which the challenge of the oil cartel has effected. Nor did the successful conclusion of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March offset the adverse train of developments consequent upon the Iranian revolution. On the contrary, the political earthquake in Iran operated to qualify, and in some respects seriously so, effects the peace treaty might otherwise have soon enjoyed. Whereas the Shah had generally managed to stand apart from the Arab-Israeli conflict, and even to support Israel in certain respects, the new regime at once took a strong anti-Israeli position and enlisted its efforts on behalf of the Palestinian cause as represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization. It was the Iranian revolution as much as, if not more than, the peace treaty that gave new life to the declining fortunes of the PLO, just as it was the Iranian revolution and the perceived response of America to the fall of the Shah that moved Saudi Arabia-and probably Jordan as well-into clear opposition to the results of Camp David.

There is no need to enter here into the lists of controversy over what, if anything, the United States might have done to forestall the outcome in Iran. It is sufficient merely to observe that the states of the region, whether well disposed or hostile to America, did not perceive this country as a tower of strength. The vacillation of American policy in the months preceding the Shah's downfall was matched by the desire of Washington to conciliate the new regime in the months following its seizure of power. The general effect of the Administration's performance on friend and foe alike was to convey the impression of passivity and weakness. This impression had in turn the effect of hardening the positions both of the Arab rejectionist states and of Israel, while taking the ground away from those-principally the Saudis-who had previously managed to criticize much of the work of Camp David while refraining from open opposition to the peace process in its entirety.

In November, the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the holding of U.S. Embassy personnel as hostages served to confirm an impression of American weakness now pervasive in the region. Washington's response to the action only strengthened it. Despite the near-universal call for American restraint, it was the very restraint amply shown by the Carter Administration that appeared to contribute still further to the decline of American prestige, even granting the argument that there was no viable alternative to such a policy. But the most dramatic and possibly portentous indication of the consequences of weakness came in the final days of 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In apparent disregard for the American reaction, Moscow began an action it has never undertaken outside of Eastern Europe in the postwar era. Whatever the motivation for the invasion, one point seemed clear: Soviet military power in relation to that of the United States, along with the American passivity in recent years, had apparently given the Russians a measure of assurance that their move would not be seriously challenged by the United States.

Although Middle Eastern developments provided the clearest and most important indication in 1979 of the decline in American power and influence, in varying degree the same trend was apparent in other regions as well. In southern Africa, American policy reflected the constraints exercised by a sense of growing vulnerability to the power of a major OPEC supplier (Nigeria) as well as by the prospect of a conflict that, if continued for long, might ultimately draw in Cuban forces backed by their Soviet patron. These were not the only considerations that prompted the Administration's refusal to lift the sanctions against Rhodesia consequent upon the April elections in that country, but their significance was apparent and there is every reason to expect they will continue to be so, whatever the eventual outcome of the agreements now reached at London on a Zimbabwe-Rhodesian political settlement.

The success to date of the London negotiations reflected the growing pressures both sides in the Rhodesian conflict were now experiencing. An increasingly besieged government in Salisbury was balanced by a Patriotic Front increasingly doubtful about the support it could continue to expect from the front-line states, particularly Zambia. In these circumstances, the prospects for a settlement that might confer power on moderate forces have improved. Should they prevail, the outcome will have been largely a matter of fortune, improved upon by British negotiating skill. Should they fail to materialize, the Administration will again be confronted, though now in sharper form, with the options of siding in effect with the Patriotic Front, thereby avoiding the risks noted above and particularly that of a Russian-Cuban intervention; of running these risks by somehow attempting to promote a moderate solution; or of simply distancing itself as much as possible from the conflict (which might prove no easy matter in view of previous policy and which might in any event be construed by most southern African states as siding with Salisbury).

In Southeast Asia, events in 1979 indicated that if Vietnamese expansion is to be contained, it will be contained by China and not by the United States. The American role in Southeast Asia has been transformed in the course of a decade from that of imperial guarantor of the area to one of tacitly supporting Chinese policy and of performing humanitarian missions. The support of China-however willing or reluctant, planned or not-is in one sense part of the price that has been paid for the closer relationship with Beijing the Carter Administration has pursued since the fall of 1978. In yet another, it simply appears as the one recourse left to Washington in countering an expansionist Vietnam strongly backed by the Soviet Union. These considerations were not materially affected by the Administration's stated opposition to the Chinese invasion of Vietnam's northern provinces in February 1979. That opposition, though reportedly conveyed in strong terms to the Chinese Vice Premier during his earlier visit to this country, did not have, and in the circumstances could not have, the ring of conviction.

The Chinese action against Vietnam, and indirectly against the Soviet Union, was indicative of the way in which the "China card" would in fact be played, whatever the professed intentions of the American players. The China card was not dealt from a position of strength but from a sense of weakness. Its principal objective is not that "of keeping our relations with Moscow and Beijing in balance," as Administration officials have repeatedly stated, but of redressing what has been belatedly perceived as a growing imbalance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the price that America must pay for its China card will depend upon how far the imbalance grows and is perceived to grow. Yet even if the balance does not further deteriorate, the Chinese-American relationship may be expected to be, at best, moderately one-sided in its operation, for it rests fundamentally upon quite asymmetrical expectations (or fears). Whereas the Chinese appear to entertain no expectation that Washington might one day align itself with Moscow in common cause against Beijing, Washington cannot rid itself of the fear that Beijing and Moscow might at least so moderate their conflict as to permit the Soviets to look upon their eastern front with relative equanimity. True, the vast preponderance of expert opinion today rules out this possibility. But expert opinion has been wrong before. It does not require great imagination to conceive of the circumstances in which China and Russia might move to compose many of their differences. These considerations apart, the closer relationship the United States sought with China in 1979 appeared to have little perceptible effect upon Soviet policy. As a soft option for implementing a strategy of containing Soviet power, the value of the Chinese gambit has yet to be demonstrated.

In this Hemisphere, 1979 marked the victory of a radical revolutionary movement for the first time since Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. The triumph of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua cannot be seen other than as a defeat for the United States, and this because it represented an outcome the American government had not wanted and had sought without success to prevent. Moreover, it was a defeat because it was perceived as such by others in the Hemisphere and, beyond that, because it was seen as an indication of a markedly weakened American position in Central America and the Caribbean. That perception might have been largely avoided, or at least mitigated, by the clear repudiation of the Somoza regime well in advance of intimations of victory by the rebel forces. In lieu of this course, the Carter Administration either might have thrown all its support behind the Somoza government from the moment it became apparent the regime was in serious trouble, or simply washed its hands of the matter and taken an aloof attitude. Each course evidently entailed risks-domestic and international-but each course had policy coherence.

Instead, during 1978 the Administration managed to devise a fourth course of action. Based on the premise that there was a centrist solution to the conflict, its object was, first, neutralizing the Sandinistas, then compelling Somoza to resign, and finally installing in power a centrist coalition government backed by a modestly reformed national guard. It was an ingenious solution, defective only in that its essential premise bore little correspondence to Nicaraguan political realities. During the final stages of the conflict in 1979 this had come to be appreciated by American officials. By then, however, it was too late to set out on an alternative course that might at least have avoided the appearance of defeat. In the event, the Administration only managed to worsen an already unenviable plight by its clumsy last-minute efforts to salvage something from the situation. The proposal of June 21 by Secretary of State Vance to the Organization of American States, a proposal that looked toward replacing the Somoza government and sending an OAS peacekeeping force into Nicaragua to restore order and democracy, bordered on the pathetic given the circumstances in which it was put forward. Nor was there any real precedent for the humiliating manner in which the proposal was rejected by the OAS.

The outcome in Nicaragua represented a striking victory for Cuba and the cause it continues to represent in the Western Hemisphere. Did the appreciation of this in Washington account, in part at least, for the reaction of the Administration when American intelligence in August confirmed a report that the Soviet Union had a combat brigade in Cuba numbering two to three thousand men? That domestic politics played a considerable role in the development of the short-lived crisis over the combat brigade is clear. Whether the desire to redress the balance of the Cuban triumph in Nicaragua was also important in determining the Administration's reaction to the combat brigade must remain speculative. What is not speculative was the outcome of this latest Cuban crisis. Although the President and the Secretary of State formally declared that "the status quo was not acceptable," the Soviet government refused to accept the Americans' characterization of the status quo. There was, Moscow insisted, no Soviet combat brigade in Cuba, only a "training force." At the same time, the Russians gave private assurances to the President that the status of this training force would not be changed.

It was on the basis of these assurances, together with the transparently cosmetic measures announced by the President, that the Administration declared the brigade "effectively neutralized" in combat capability. The outcome could hardly be seen as anything but yet another setback. Having brought on a confrontation with the Soviet Union, the President had then in effect backed down. This, at least, was the way in which the world interpreted the episode. Moreover, the affair of the Soviet brigade reminded the world of the very great change that has occurred in the military balance between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 17 years that have elapsed since the Cuban missile crisis. To be sure, 1962 and 1979 cannot be seriously compared in terms of provocation and interest. But this did not deter many abroad from speculating anew on the significance of the vastly altered military balance and the possible outcome today of a confrontation comparable to that of 1962.

It was particularly in Europe that this speculation not unexpectedly arose. European skepticism and anxiety over the credibility of the American defense guarantee are hardly new. But the circumstances in which otherwise familiar problems presented themselves in 1979 were clearly more serious than before. One circumstance was simply the continuing decline of American strategic and conventional military power relative to the Soviet Union, a decline that was well advertised in the course of the prolonged debate over the SALT II treaty pending in the Senate. Nor did it seem likely that European apprehensions could be assuaged by the stationing of a new generation of medium-range strategic nuclear weapons systems in Europe. For these weapons would still remain solely under American control. If the consequences of ever using them are the same as the consequences of using weapons based on American soil (and there is every reason to believe this would be the case), it is difficult to see how they might resolve the credibility problem to which they are addressed. If they do not, the European perception of the liabilities attending the alliance will grow, while the assessment of the benefits will decline further. The attitude recently expressed by a well-known French critic of the alliance-"the protection no longer exists but the tutelage remains"-may yet gain general acceptance.1

The economic counterpart of the eroding American security pledge to Europe was the still eroding dollar. The European Monetary System, which went into effect in 1979, was as much a protective reaction of the European states against the destabilizing effects of the dollar as an instrument to strengthen the European Economic Community institutionally. Even if this latest European effort at monetary unification should fail, the EMS is one of the most significant indications given to date that the European states have lost confidence in the ability, or will, of an American government to exercise its leadership in other than a self-serving, if still mistaken, manner. The extent to which this lack of confidence has gone may be appreciated when a Chancellor of Germany, in thinly veiled allusion, can declare that "the oil producers' cartel is nowadays as great a menace to the functioning of the world's economy as is the menace of governments going it the easy way by printing money and parliaments asking for more spending and less revenue. This is the way by which you are ruining empires, states, world powers."2

The causes of the American decline go to the heart of the growing debate today over the nation's foreign policy. But whatever these causes, they ought not to obscure the decline itself. Even if the causes of America's eroding position were beyond our ability to alter in any significant manner-an issue to which I shall return-this would not of course alter the fact of serious erosion. Though disputed until recently, it is no longer a matter of serious contention. Indeed, the impact of the events which have brought this decade to a close has been such as to make the fact of America's decline very nearly a commonplace.


Political tradition has it that an administration must take responsibility for what happens in the course of its tenure. It is not surprising, then, that the Carter Administration has had to bear a heavy onus for the developments that have occurred since it came to office. There is even a kind of poetic justice at work here, for seldom in recent American history has an administration been as anxious to disavow the efforts of its predecessor and to proclaim "new beginnings" as this one. Understandably, many critics with an axe to grind-or a record to defend-have not been reluctant to equate the decline of American power with the actions of those who were so intent to mark 1977 as the start of a new era in the nation's foreign policy.

The equation, though perhaps understandable, is nevertheless false. It was not the Carter Administration that concluded the first SALT agreements, within the terms of which the Soviet Union was able by 1977 to develop a clearly superior counterforce capability. Nor was it the Carter Administration that inaugurated détente, 1972 version, and claimed that in doing so it had laid the foundation of a stable and lasting structure of peace. And it was not the Carter Administration that remained passive before the first great challenge mounted by the OPEC states in 1973-74. These were the actions of the predecessors of the present Administration. In their effects, they compromised American interests and power to an extent we can only now fully appreciate. The Carter Administration has had to contend with the consequences. If its efforts have left a great deal to be desired, it still cannot reasonably be assigned exclusive responsibility for our present vulnerability to Soviet arms and Persian Gulf oil, vulnerabilities which are likely to represent for years to come the two most critical problems for American foreign policy.

In truth, the legacy bequeathed to the Carter Administration in 1977 was already modest by comparison with what it once was. To what extent did this diminished legacy result from the actions of those responsible for the conduct of policy during the eight preceding years? Did the Nixon-Kissinger policies lead to the sacrifice of interests that might have been preserved and the compromise of positions that might have been maintained intact? Did the "new structure of peace" weaken further the domestic base of support by its sterility of purpose and its almost obsessively secretive methods? The Nixon policy reformulation called for a new modesty in thought and action; it emphasized the inherent limits to any nation's wisdom, understanding and energy. Yet it was not prepared to accept a significant change in role and interests. Was there not a contradiction between the emphasis on the limits to our power and what we could reasonably accomplish, and the almost equal emphasis on continuity in role and interest? Finally, was not the policy itself flawed by virtue of the assumptions on which it apparently rested: that allies would prove reasonably passive, adversaries reasonably restrained, and the developing world reasonably stable and undemanding?

These questions still do not yield clear answers. Even so, it is apparent that domestic events were very significant, perhaps even critical, for the development of a large part of the Nixon policy. Without Watergate, the end in Vietnam would almost surely have been quite different. An end there would have been and an end that spelled American defeat, but it would not have come with the suddenness and brutality it did in 1975. Whether in the absence of Watergate détente would have developed as it did is more arguable. Still, unless one is prepared to ignore the record of the Nixon Administration prior to 1973, it seems only plausible to project a different outcome from that experienced.

Domestic constraints alone, however, cannot explain the fate of the Nixon policy reformulation and particularly its centerpiece-détente. They cannot explain the flaws in the initial design. Nor can they account for the whole of its subsequent development over the succeeding four years. The principal question détente, 1972, raised was this: What would induce a more moderate Soviet Union that no longer sought to exploit opportunities and take advantage of instabilities-that would, indeed, increasingly accept American-inspired "rules of the game"? The Nixon Administration responded that this would result from a combination of positive incentives-primarily economic-and diplomatic pressures-expressed principally in the then emergent Chinese-American relationship. Clearly, it did not simply discard the previous methods of containment. But it was equally clear that it did not accord the same role to these methods in the new policy. Had it done so, there would have been little need for the new positive incentives and diplomatic pressures upon which so much emphasis was placed and which indeed formed the core of the ostensibly novel design.

To argue otherwise in retrospect, to present détente, 1972, as a continuation of earlier methods, now more effectively employed if only by virtue of their linkage to still other means of inducing Soviet restraint-to argue, in effect, that détente was in reality intended as a kind of super-containment or containment-plus-does not accord with the words and certainly not with the actions of those responsible at the time for American policy. Nor is it the way to read memoirs written with an eye to tailoring the past to the political requirements of the present. A design of containment-plus would have had to assume that in the early 1970s the United States was in a more favorable position to contain Soviet power than it had been a generation before. Moreover, even in the circumstances of 1972, the design would have defied obvious political realities at home. After 1972, in the atmosphere generated by Watergate, it could have made no sense at all.

Instead, the containment envisaged in 1972 was more optimistic than its predecessor both with respect to method and result. An emphasis on the importance of economic inducements in moderating Russian behavior reflected the view that internal constraints would turn Soviet leadership away from an expansionist foreign policy. Even the marked growth of Soviet military power was given an optimistic interpretation. The principal expositor of détente, Henry Kissinger, found external constraints on Soviet behavior that were, it seemed, self-operating. The rough parity in power that now prevailed between the nuclear superpowers, he insisted in 1972, made the "constant jockeying for marginal advantages over an opponent" either very unrealistic or very dangerous or, more likely, both. If true, this made the economic incentives held out to the Soviet Union largely superfluous. At best, those incentives would only serve to ensure such behavior that was in any case in the Soviet Union's interest to pursue.

It is not unlikely that détente was the outcome of motives that were mixed and that were never easy to reconcile. The new version of containment that détente expressed evidently reflected the conviction that the growth of Soviet power, when taken together with what was perceived as growing reluctance at home to support a policy of global engagement, required that American interests would have to be preserved largely through other and easier means than those employed in the past. There was a measure of self-deception-perhaps even of deception-at work here since the new means afforded no assurance that they would prove effective. If not, the question persisted: What would prevent the steady concession of interests to the Russians?

The answer may be that the Nixon-Kissinger détente was conceived-despite the manner in which it was put forth-more as a holding operation than a settled strategy. If so, it may have responded more to internal than to external constraints, and there was no need to assume that these internal constraints would remain unchanged. In any event, the practical meaning of détente would be revealed only in its implementation and, it may be argued, there was little in the Nixon record to suggest the implementation would be one-sided. Once again, though, we are brought back to the significance of Watergate, for it was Henry Kissinger who was left to implement détente and to do so in very unfavorable circumstances.

These circumstances apart, the subsequent history of détente was also due to the unpromising methods by which the new relationship was to be largely implemented. Since economic means had never influenced Soviet high policy in the past, there was little reason to expect they would now do so. Nor was it ever very plausible to assume that a more effectively exploited triangular relationship might have done what economic incentives could not do. It is true that Mr. Kissinger did very little to exploit the new relationship with China. It is by no means apparent, however, that had the opening to Beijing been more imaginatively and assiduously pursued the result would have had an appreciable effect on the development of détente. For in the new relationship with Washington, the Chinese had cast themselves almost entirely in a passive role. They would make no contribution to American efforts other than the contribution they were already making by virtue of their hostile position toward the Soviet Union. What was never successfully exploited was probably never there to exploit. If anything, from the start the Chinese indicated that it would be the other way around. Instead of being the exploiting party, Washington would have to act so as to fulfill Beijing's expectations. And this, it soon became clear, meant that the policy of détente would be hostage to the Chinese relationship.

There is today little disposition to question what was only a short time ago still very much the subject of controversy. Henry Kissinger himself, one of the principal architects of détente and certainly its most articulate defender, has since become its severe critic, though the criticism is directed at what détente has presumably become in the hands of the Carter Administration rather than what it had originally been. But what it was at its inception is, as we have seen, no easy matter to determine. What can be said with some assurance concerns the consequences to which détente, 1972, has led. They are clearly not the consequences projected at the time by its architects. Although defended by the Secretary of State until mid-1975, the policy reformulation of the early 1970s was by then a failure when judged by results.

Indeed, during his last year in office, Mr. Kissinger all but acknowledged the failure. He did so by his effort-his last defense-to equate détente with the prevention of nuclear war between the superpowers and, this failing to persuade, by his emphasis that "the problem of our age is how to manage the emergence of the Soviet Union as a superpower." This emphasis was not to be taken at face value, since the problem had been with us since the 1940s. Instead, it was an admission that earlier expectations had not materialized and that, in consequence, the outlook and strategy which had informed the policy of détente would have to be seriously altered or abandoned.

But if this were so, there was no escape from the attempt to refashion containment in a manner that would deal more effectively with the problems posed by the startling growth of Soviet military power. The great problem that had confronted Nixon and Kissinger in 1969 remained now, in worsened form, to their successors. To it would have to be added the challenge emanating from the Persian Gulf.

These considerations must be balanced by recalling the adverse domestic circumstances of the years in question. Any judgment of the Kissinger period must take into account the difficulties marking his tenure. Half of these years were taken up by a war that presented no opportunities but only risks. Nor could these risks be readily turned aside without the prospect of incurring other, and possibly graver, risks. Even if the argument is granted that the war was needlessly prolonged, its earlier settlement would not have been on better terms and could not have avoided the broad consequences attending defeat.

The years immediately following the war were marked by growing dissension over the course American foreign policy should take. The real breakdown of the foreign policy consensus, particularly among the elites, occurred during the mid-1970s. This fact alone made the conduct of policy a difficult task. To it, however, must be added the effects of Watergate. Whatever the deeper meaning of that traumatic event, its effects on the conduct of foreign policy are not in doubt. A distracted, then paralyzed, President was followed by an appointed President whose powers in foreign affairs were substantially circumscribed by Congress. The institution that had forged America's global position had lost, for the time, its former dominance. Thus the years marking Mr. Kissinger's clear ascendancy as the guiding force of American foreign policy were years during which the domestic base was weaker than it had been at any time since the period preceding World War II. Nor was this all. The principal defects that were increasingly found in Mr. Kissinger's policies by 1975-76 had not always been seen as such. There was a time when they had been viewed as virtues. It was an indication that time had overtaken these policies and that by 1976 the domestic base to which they had once responded was already in the process of re-formation. The waters of Vietnam and even of Watergate were slowly beginning to recede. What remained unclear was how far the recession would go and what a new administration might do with the changing situation.


One of the many ironies of recent American history is that in 1976 an election brought to power an Administration that looked either to the recent past or to a policy-irrelevant future, while turning from office an Administration that had begun to confront the present. In appearance, the contrary seemed true. Whereas Kissinger was seen by most critics as a throwback to an age the world had now moved far beyond, the Carter Administration was considered sensitive to the realities of the new world we had presumably entered. The world of Kissinger was one dominated by the "old politics" with its parochial interests, its one-way dependencies, its hierarchical ordering and marked inequalities, its obsession with equilibrium and the careful balancing of power, and its reliance on forcible methods. By contrast, the world of the Carter Administration was characterized by truly global interests, by growing mutual dependencies, by far less hierarchy, by less concern with equilibrium, and by the recognition that much less reliance could be placed on the forcible methods of the past.

Above all, what impressed the new Administration most, and continues to do so today, was the vast change it found occurring throughout most of the world. How to play a constructive role in this change, how to get on the side of it rather than to oppose it and to suffer increasing isolation from so many nations and peoples, was and has remained a dominant concern-perhaps the dominant concern-of the Carter Administration.

This concern has continued to evoke uncertainty in policy. But there has been little uncertainty over the transcendent importance of the concern itself. Its implications may be summarized thus:

The system had become far more complex and far less hierarchical. It had been transformed by the startling increase of relationships of interdependence which, once formed, could be broken only at exorbitant cost. These relationships might breed conflicts of interests, but such conflicts were rarely susceptible to the arbitrament of force and for the reason that force was likely to prove more injurious to the user than nonforcible means. The principal sanction of the past no longer responded to the logic of the new world. For this reason alone, the hierarchy that formerly marked the international system could no longer have anything approximating the salience and significance it once had. The great powers could no longer expect to play their traditionally preponderant roles and to enjoy their once customary advantages.

One might have viewed such a new world and its policies with a sense of foreboding, since if believed in, it betokened a period in which conflict and disorder would be rampant precisely because of the many mutual dependencies to which the traditional instruments of order could no longer be readily applied, if applied at all. The oil crisis had already afforded an example of how the new world might be expected to function if given full sway, and it was far from reassuring. Yet the Carter Administration faced the prospects of the new system with equanimity and even optimism. Whatever its disadvantages, they were apparently considered preferable to the disadvantages marking the traditional system. At any rate, there was presumably no escape from the new world.

It was this outlook that prompted the conclusion that the Carter Administration was oriented to the relevant future, in contrast to a Kissinger who remained mired in an irrelevant past. The principal policy expression of this contrast was the emphasis placed by the Carter Administration on the importance of North-South relationships. Kissinger had left office more preoccupied than ever with East-West relationships and their centrality to American policy. His successors announced their intention to alter Kissinger's priority of concerns. Nor was it surprising that they should do so. For it was the North-South relationship, between developed and developing countries, that appeared to fit their view. By contrast, relations with the Soviet Union were but ill-accommodated to it. North-South relations evoked the need for "world order" politics. East-West relations were a reminder of "balance-of-power" politics. As such, they were a kind of residual atavism, increasingly at odds with the forces gaining ascendancy in the new global system.

From the perspective of 1979, who, then, looked to the past and who to the future? Was it Kissinger with his emphasis on the growth of Soviet military power and the problems this growth held for American policy? Or was it his successors with their concern to adjust policy to the requirements of the new world? Certainly the vision entertained of the world by the Carter Administration has not afforded much guidance for effectively coping with the problems it has had to confront. In part, it has not done so because the vision has responded to the experience of our recent past-Vietnam, above all-an experience officials of the new Administration have been more than anxious not to repeat. Some had been active participants in this past and had come to repent of it. Others had been active critics and were intent upon showing by deed that their criticism had been sincere. Whatever the precise motivation at work, the future many saw as the basis for planning policy was one that was rooted in a disillusioning past.

In part, however, the vision entertained of the world has been without much policy relevance simply because it was futuristic. The future that is relevant for policy can be little more than an extension of what is already immanent in the present. But the Carter Administration looked for grander vistas and what it saw, when it was not indeed looking at the recent past, was a future which, even if some day it were to materialize, carried little significance for policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The vision of the Carter Administration was futuristic in yet another sense. For the future it saw had a substantial element of the Utopian, and this despite the lurid colors in which the world was drawn should we refuse to respond to the rising challenge of the developing countries. Although the North-South relationship held out great danger if the demands of the Third World were ignored-the argument ran-the relationship also held out great promise if these demands were given serious and sympathetic consideration. They could be given such consideration because they were essentially moderate in character. Provided that we acted wisely and sought to play a constructive role in the great transformation unfolding before us, there was little to fear. Rather than oppose change, as we had so often done in the past, we could instead be on the side of change. But this in turn implied that conflict-at any rate, serious conflict-with the developing countries was unnecessary because the basis for an essentially harmonious relationship was already there, inherent in the relationship. Conflict, if it came, would presumably result from a willful refusal to see and to act upon this essential harmony.

In the apparent exemption of North-South relationships from the conflicts over wealth and power and status that have been endemic to state relations in the past, the Carter Administration betrayed an extraordinary optimism. Were it not for this optimism, the apparent ambitiousness of Administration policy would have seemed curious, coming as it did from those who placed such considerable emphasis on the limits to our power. Given these limits, how could we expect "to create a genuinely global framework," as the President's National Security Adviser has so often and so grandly put our purpose? Yet the possibilities held out for policy appeared almost boundless. Nowhere was this more strikingly illustrated than in the Administration's early hopes, and indeed expectations, that it might achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict. Whereas Kissinger had left office extremely skeptical of the near-term prospects for any further progress, his successors looked at the conflict and found the basis for a settlement. They had come to office with a plan for a comprehensive settlement. There was no intractable conflict here, just as there was no intractable conflict elsewhere.

Many observers have made the point that the Carter Administration has been characterized above all by its good intentions. Yet it was not so much good intentions as an immoderate optimism that marked the new Administration. There was little indication of an awareness that the new departures in policy might, if seriously meant, entail a substantial price. Even to put the matter this way is misleading. For the Carter Administration gave the impression that it had considered the consequences of its initiatives and that it was persuaded the price to be paid for its policies was very modest. In the new world, American leadership would still prevail. So too, in the new world a continuity of role and interest was assumed. Only the disagreeable, counterproductive, and-to many-morally offensive features of this role would be altered. Their place would be taken by policies and means that would give a new sense of purpose and that would respond to the idealism of the nation, so long ignored or suppressed by a foreign policy that had been committed to little other than the promotion of equilibrium and stability.

Immoderate optimism especially characterized that apparent lodestar of the Carter Administration's foreign policy, human rights. The point is not whether the emphasis given to human rights reflected political expediency or philosophical conviction. Very likely it reflected both, together with the desire of the Administration "to do something different" in order to establish its separate identity. What was significant was the belief that here was a policy that would confer benefits at home and abroad, at little if any cost. There is little evidence of serious thought having been given at the outset to the conflicts arising between a human rights policy, however cautious and qualified that policy might prove in implementation, and the integrity of strategic interests to which the Administration was presumably committed. It was simply assumed that there was no more than a nominal price tag attached to a human rights policy. The same may be said of the policies respecting the prevention of nuclear proliferation and the reduction of conventional arms transfers.

In its professed intention to preserve an essential continuity of role and interest, the Carter Administration appeared to remain faithful to the professed intention of its predecessors. Where it differed was in the assumption that this essential continuity could be realized at very little cost. True, the Nixon-Kissinger reformulation had also sought an essential continuity of policy though at a lower price, and this had been the key to the détente of 1972. But this easier version of containment still bore a resemblance to the original; it still was predicated on the centrality of Soviet power to American strategy and interest; and it still gave recognition to the need to contain this power, though the new means it gave emphasis to could not, and did not, live up to their promise.

The Carter Administration not only rejected anything resembling a return to an earlier version of containment but gave little indication of concern over the consequences to which the later and easier version had led. It seemed neither impressed nor oppressed by the continuing growth of Soviet military power. Was this due to a conviction that the United States remained militarily superior to the Soviet Union? Or was it due to a belief that, even if we were no longer superior, military power was of declining utility? Or, finally, was it due simply to an unwillingness to face the problem until the course of events left no alternative?

Whatever the answer, the reasons given at the time for the reduced importance of the Soviet-American relationship were clear enough. Stress was placed on the innovative potential of nations, their economic power, and their ideological appeal. When measured by these standards, the Soviet Union was not considered a serious threat. Indeed, by these standards it was scarcely even a worthy rival. This estimate was reflected in the confidence with which the Carter Administration undertook its abortive arms initiative in 1977 and the apparent equanimity with which until 1978 it viewed Soviet policy, whether in Africa, the Middle East or Asia.

Even where it did seem that the Administration was prepared to pay a serious price for maintaining continuity of role and interest, the appearance was deceptive. In the Middle East, the American role appeared far more ambitious than in the Kissinger period. Yet the significance of the change from Kissinger's policy of step-by-step diplomacy to Carter's policy of a comprehensive peace was not that there was now a willingness to commit American power in a manner that had been absent before. The policy of directly seeking a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict reflected more than an obsessive ambition to achieve the unachievable. At root, it betrayed an unwillingness to commit American power.

It was of course recognized that even a comprehensive settlement would require some commitment of American power. Still, there was a considerable difference between the kind of commitment required by a comprehensive settlement and the kind required by a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. The policy of directly pursuing a comprehensive settlement did not simply reflect the conviction that a separate peace would eventually unravel or that it would facilitate a Soviet reentry in force into the Middle East. At a deeper level, opposition to a separate peace expressed the unwillingness to employ American power to forestall or, if necessary, to counter these consequences, along with the fear of having to counter a substantial portion of the Arab world. By contrast, a comprehensive settlement would presumably avoid this price. Though it might have to be attended by an American guarantee, the very comprehensiveness of the settlement would presumably give the guarantee little more than a pro forma character. In reconciling the various interests of the parties to the conflict, a comprehensive settlement would obviate the need for an American commitment that might prove both burdensome and dangerous. And despite the fate that has since pushed the Carter Administration to support a separate peace, the outlook that led to its initial championing of a comprehensive peace persists.

Whether with respect to East-West, North-South, or, for that matter, West-West, relations, the general pattern has been reasonably clear. The Carter Administration has often been distinguished from its predecessor by dint of its rhetoric, its manner and style, and of course its moralism. But these differences, though significant, do not go to the substance of policy. In terms of substance, the distinction must principally be found in what the Carter Administration was willing to risk in blood and treasure to achieve its foreign policy objectives. The brief answer is that it was willing to risk considerably less than its predecessors had been willing to risk.


After almost three years, it is reasonably clear that the Carter Administration's foreign policy has been a failure. It is a failure even by its own admission, for there is no other way to read the statements made in the closing weeks of 1979 by the President and some of his principal advisers. In proposing a five-year expansion of American defense forces-an expansion which responded to insistent demands of Senate defense critics who made increased military spending a condition for approval of the SALT treaty-Mr. Carter declared that "not every instance of the firm application of power is a potential Vietnam."3 Such a judgment would not have been made by the President in 1977 or, for that matter, in 1978. It was, in fact, almost a paraphrase of a statement Henry Kissinger had made in 1976, shortly before leaving office.

Even more striking was the December testimony of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in support of the Administration's proposal for increased defense expenditures. The change, Mr. Brown noted, reflected an appreciation that "we are in for a long pull in adversary relationships," and not necessarily with the Soviet Union alone. "We must decide now," the Secretary warned, "whether we intend to remain the strongest nation in the world. Or we must accept now that we will let ourselves slip into inferiority, into a position of weakness in a harsh world where principles unsupported by power are victimized, and that we will become a nation with more of a past than a future."4 These and similar declarations by Administration officials-whatever the political pressures which brought them forth-come perhaps as close to a mea culpa as it is possible for a government to come.

The Carter Administration's foreign policy has been a failure not so much because it has not succeeded in resolving the great problems of American foreign policy but because until the past year it had not squarely addressed these problems. It has only been in 1979 that the dangers arising from the continued rapid growth of Soviet military power have been freely conceded, and then largely as a result of the debate engendered over the SALT treaty. Equally, it has only been in 1979 that the nation's vital interest in retaining access to the oil of the Persian Gulf has been acknowledged for the fragile thing that it is, and then largely as a result of an event-the Iranian revolution-that revealed in almost blinding light the extent of our vulnerability. Finally, it has only been in 1979 that the first serious measures have been taken to correct a now chronic condition of global monetary instability, and then largely as a result of the belated realization that if the United States would no longer accept responsibility for monetary stability, with all that this entails, the days of the dollar as the reserve currency might soon come to an end.

Whether these problems will now be effectively addressed remains an entirely open question. But there should be no doubt that they are the great problems of policy, alongside of which other problems are either largely derivative or simply peripheral in significance. That the present Administration did not make them the central concerns of policy until events finally forced it to do so is as good a test as any of its failure.

There has been no dearth of criticism of Administration policy. On the whole, however, this criticism has failed to enlighten. If anything, it has often served to obscure the causes of failure. Thus the criticism once heard that the Administration erred in trying to do too much and too soon merely obscures the matter if it does not ask why it was that the Administration tried to do certain things which were of secondary importance while avoiding problems which were, and remain, of prime significance. More substantial, it would seem, is the criticism that the Administration has lacked a strategic rationale and that, in the absence of such a rationale, policy has remained fragmented and incoherent.

Is this view well taken? Is the apparent drift of policy due to the absence of a strategic rationale, or is it rather due to a strategic rationale that has not worked? The distinction is no mere quibble. If the Administration has indeed lacked from the outset a strategic rationale, it is difficult to see how it can be said even to have had a foreign policy in any meaningful sense. Yet it evidently has had one whatever we may think of it. And if policy and strategic rationale have been subject to varying interpretations by Administration officials, this is testimony only to the fact that there are those who have become increasingly restive over both. At that, the seriousness of opposition to the prevailing contours of policy are easily exaggerated. Certainly at the outset there was no apparent division of real import. And if there is today, it is not so much because of the Administration's admittedly unusual style of policymaking as because the failure of policy not uncommonly generates serious divisions within any government.

But whether one takes the position that there has been no strategic rationale or the position that there has been such a rationale and that it has suffered the fate of policy, the same question would arise: What accounts for either the absence or the failure? Clearly, one answer is the world view entertained by the Administration on coming to office, a view that apparently continues to claim the allegiance of a majority of its policymakers. The world has not conformed to this view. Instead of the emergence of a new politics we find ourselves still very much enmeshed in the old politics. In this familiar world, the stakes overall of superpower rivalry remain largely unchanged from the stakes of a generation ago.

There are, to be sure, changes that have occurred in the respective positions of the contenders. Whereas a generation ago the United States was still in its period of youthful exuberance, today it has entered a period of "maturity." The former aspiration to preside over and give direction to change in the developing countries has been succeeded by the desire to find a way by which we may get on the side of change we no longer aspire to control, or believe we could control even if we so aspired. And whereas a generation ago the United States enjoyed a marked advantage over the Soviet Union in the means of carrying on the competition in the Third World, today this former advantage has considerably narrowed. But these differences notwithstanding-and they are, of course, of great significance-the rivalry itself remains very much the same. Indeed, to the extent the rivalry has changed, it is for the reason that in an increasingly resource-hungry world the stakes have become all the more serious.

Nor is it the case that the old politics must at least be partially abandoned because those who were once the largely passive objects of great-power rivalry are no longer so. Certainly the peoples of the developing countries are no longer characterized by the passivity they once displayed. But this change has prompted the superpowers to alter their methods of competition for power and influence in the Third World, not to abandon this competition.

Even then, the nature of the change when compared with a generation ago is easily exaggerated. Although enjoying a relative power position then we no longer enjoy today, we nevertheless sought to contain Soviet expansion and to ensure stability through the strengthening and support of friendly regional powers. In the Nixon-Kissinger period, this strategy was endowed with greatly increased significance due to the recession of American power. The Nixon Doctrine of 1969 made of it a central feature in the new policy reformulation. It remains the favored strategy of containment today, all the more so given the continued erosion of American power. The hazards of heavy reliance upon it as a substitute for American power also remain, as the case of Iran has so vividly shown.

In a still broader sense, however, the growing assertiveness of the developing countries cannot be found to herald the beginning of a new world. This assertion must rather be seen as the completion of the old world. What we find in the demands of the developing countries is not a challenge to the essential structure of the international system but a challenge to the distribution of wealth and power within this system. It is not the state system per se that is condemned, but the manner in which the system operated in the past and presumably continues to operate even today. It is primarily through the state that the historically oppressed and disadvantaged nations seek to mount a successful challenge to what governing elites of developing countries view as persisting unjust inequalities. These inequalities are not defined primarily in individual terms but in collective terms. It is not individual inequality that forms the gravamen of the indictment brought by the developing countries against the developed states but collective inequality. The greater measure of collective equality demanded, however, does not ensure a greater measure of individual equality. In the new order, as in the old, states are both the agents and subjects of equality, just as they are the agents and subjects of justice generally.

Thus the challenge of the Third World is one made by states and on behalf of states. As such, it is altogether traditional, and this whether it is considered in terms of claimants or in terms of the claims. If North-South relations, and the challenge implicit in those relations, are nevertheless found to represent something that is new, the novelty must come from the number of claimants and from what is commonly seen as the growing power they represent. But these features scarcely bear out the case for the singularity with which North-South relations have been seen. Even less do they support the view that the sudden completion of the old world-with all the attendant dangers this completion holds out-requires a foreign policy that no longer operates within the categories of the past.

Why has the Carter Administration persisted in the attempt to fashion a foreign policy that would presumably transcend the limits of the old politics and the problems the old politics necessarily impose? Are we dealing here with the tyranny of intellectual fashion, a tyranny that has been so pervasive in the past decade that it finally found expression in policy? If so, the further question arises: Why has intellectual error in foreign policy been so fashionable in the 1970s? The answer cannot simply be that in the past decade the complexity of the world has been such as to promote error. For the world did not suddenly become complex in the 1970s. Many of the characteristics of the new world that were discovered only in the 1970s might have been discovered in the 1960s or, for that matter, in the 1950s. Yet they were discovered and converted into common currency only in the 1970s.

The reason for this, we will be reminded, is that failure is often the cause of serious reflection. The great failure of the 1960s, Vietnam, led to widespread attack upon the intellectual rigidities that marked the period of the cold war. It led men to discover those transforming changes that were taking place before their eyes, but to which they had theretofore been largely blind because of the rigidity of thought induced by the cold war. Yet another and by far the more important result was to create the almost obsessive desire that the great failure of the 1960s never be repeated. That desire could not possibly be ensured without very far-reaching changes in policy. For so long as the United States retained an essential continuity of role and interest in the world-that is, as long as it retained its position of primacy-further Vietnams always remained an altogether real prospect. Either the role had to be abandoned or the prospect had to be accepted.

The result of reflection, however, was to avoid choosing either course. Instead, a world was created in which the American role might be preserved while the former dangers and hardships that attended this role might be avoided. We can find the beginnings of this delusion in the Nixon-Kissinger policy reformulation. The false message conveyed by détente was that what we did not wish to do-or at least some of the things we did not wish to do-need not be done. The Carter Administration, however, gave this message its full flowering. Now reflection not only showed that what the new Administration-in the manner of its predecessor-did not wish to do need not be done but that to do it would be entirely counterproductive to the nation's role and interests. In the beginning, with Nixon and Kissinger, the wish had been father to what was still a moderate thought. Now the thought-that is, the new politics-was no longer moderate because desire had markedly grown in the intervening period.

Given the nature of that desire-to avoid confrontations of power, above all, confrontations that raise the distinct prospect of employing military power-its policy expressions have been no less apparent than the desire itself.

How else may one account for a defense establishment that according to expert consensus is considered incapable of preserving, if necessary, Western interests in the Persian Gulf? The prospect that this need might arise has, after all, existed for most of the 1970s. If we were incapable of vindicating our interests by force five years ago, as it was then commonly argued, there has been time to remedy the vulnerability. Instead, the time has been used only to increase the vulnerability. At the outset, the prevailing response to our predicament was simply to deny its reality. It could scarcely have been otherwise, else there was no alternative but to do what we have persistently refused to do. And if the Soviet arms build-up continues at its present far greater rate than our own, it may be that within the foreseeable future the argument urged five years ago will have become not only true, but very nearly irreversibly so.

Our recent experience in the Persian Gulf also provides some insight into the likely consequences of the attempt to get on the side of change. There is of course nothing novel in the desire of this Administration to place itself on the side of the great changes it finds taking place in the developing world. Earlier administrations-the Nixon Administration excepted-professed a similar desire. The desire, whatever one may think of it, is understandable, given the image we persist in entertaining of ourselves as a revolutionary society, and one whose experience we assume must be relevant to nations and peoples everywhere. Moreover, desire becomes a virtual need once the change occurring in the developing world is equated with "history." We must get on the side of change, identify with it, or not only suffer isolation but, what is even worse, become historically irrelevant.

Does this emphasis today spring from an intensity of commitment to change, including revolutionary change, that is novel to the Carter Administration? On the face of things, one must doubt it. What has given rise to the new tolerance is in the main something much less grand than philosophical conviction. It is the desire to escape from the horns of the familiar dilemma that arose out of the great failure of the 1960s, a dilemma that time and the relative erosion of American power have only served to sharpen.

This dilemma is particularly apparent in cases of change we might be expected to oppose, that is, change which holds out the prospect of communist regimes coming to power. Yet it is precisely in these cases that we must choose either to become involved, with the risk of confronting Soviet arms, or to stand aside and to acknowledge defeat, while making clear our opposition to the new regime, or, finally, to get on the side of change in the hope that we may be able in time to exert some modest influence over it. If the risks of the first course are found unacceptable, the consequences of the second course are considered almost equally distasteful. What remains, and what we hear so much about today, is the third course. The evident attraction of getting on the side of change is that the American role may still be preserved though the risks of yesterday are presumably no longer incurred.

Politics, like other forms of behavior, has a pathology. Its symptoms are relatively clear. They consist in the refusal to confront reality (hence also in the attempts, often ingenuous, to create a reality that responds to desire), in the voluntary concession of power and in the persuasion that all the while role and interests are being preserved. When judged by these characteristic symptoms, what has been at work in American foreign policy throughout most of the 1970s has been a political pathology. Difficult to detect at first-at least for any but the shrewdest observer-the symptoms are now unmistakable. The issue is whether they can at last be arrested.


Certainly these symptoms will not be arrested so long as the belief persists that the drastic decline in American power we have witnessed since the late 1960s has been inevitable. For that belief is itself a critical part of the malaise. The theme that gained currency over a decade ago in reaction to what was judged to be the misuse of American power has since become the received wisdom. In the process, what began as a modest and even salutary admonition on the limits to this or to any nation's power has become a virtual catechism, endlessly invoked to instruct those who persist in the error of questioning whether the course of American policy over the past decade might have been substantially different from what it has been. It is this catechism on the limits to power that expresses the true spirit and inner wisdom of the foreign policy of "maturity."

In one sense, the current wisdom is as true as it is irrelevant to our present circumstances. The almost uniquely advantageous position enjoyed by the United States in the immediate post-World War II years cannot be recreated. The dreams of a return to a golden age are vain. But what follows from this? That a decline in the postwar American position was inevitable does not establish the inevitability of the degree of decline we have in fact experienced. The reasonable issue for debate today is surely not that change-even significant change-was bound to occur in the nation's international position, but the nature and scope of this change.

The matter may be put in yet another way. The wisdom that there are limits to our power and that we must recognize and adjust to these limits, raises the question: Limits in relation to what? If the answer is: In relation to unbounded aspirations, it is evidently well taken. Here again the point seems largely irrelevant to our present circumstances. The limits-to-power theme does not rest simply on a refutation of the indisputable, though in outward form it often enough takes this appearance. It should not be so trivialized. Yet if it is not to be trivialized, the significance of the theme must be that we have not the power to do today essential tasks that a growing number of critics insist should be done, and that we have not had this power for some years. And what critics for the most part insist should be done is not obscure. It consists in a marked improvement in the overall military balance between the United States and the Soviet Union, the ensuring of access to the oil of the Persian Gulf (if necessary by military means), and a very substantial improvement in the nation's international monetary position. These are nothing other than the enumeration, previously given, of the major problems of American foreign policy today.

Is their successful resolution beyond the limits of American power? If it is, then we are rapidly moving into a period of very great peril, if indeed we are not already in it. We are moving into such a period if only because it is now apparent-though it should have been before-that the military balance between the superpowers cannot be separated from the retention of access to the Persian Gulf. Should the day come when the power of Soviet arms rules out American recourse to force in the Gulf, whatever the circumstances otherwise prompting such action, then we and our major allies will live at the mercy of contingent events in the Gulf and, of course, of Russian good intentions. Even assuming the best of intentions, the Soviets' need for oil in the 1980s may well be such as to tempt them to put their arms to good use, if only through the effective, though indirect, inhibition of the presence of Western power. Given present trends, this may be a benign projection. More somber, though by no means ruled out, is one in which Soviet arms lead to pro-Soviet regimes in the Gulf. In this case, the oil that flows to the West will do so by Russian approval. The fears of 1946-47 would then be realized, though in circumstances far worse than those of an earlier period.

These possibilities need not materialize. They need not do so because it is well within the capabilities of the American power base to prevent them from materializing. It is curious that when the matter is starkly put, there are very few who will be found to dissent from this assertion and from its inescapable implications. It is not seriously argued that we are literally unable to redress the conventional military balance in a manner favorable to us as well as to neutralize any advantage the Russians may presently enjoy in the strategic balance. Equally, it is not seriously-certainly, it is not consistently-argued that we are literally unable to guarantee access to the oil of the Persian Gulf, whatever the effort we might be prepared to make in order to secure access. The former argument must imply that the very considerable technological superiority and general economic advantage we enjoy relative to the Soviet Union cannot be translated into military terms, that we cannot spend on defense a portion of the GNP that is still well below the portion spent during the years of the early 1950s and that we cannot do so despite the fact that the dangers we face today are markedly greater than those faced in an earlier period. The latter argument implies that if the oil of the Persian Gulf were to be shut off, for whatever reason, we would have to meet the strangulation of this economy, and of Western economies, with passivity.

Is either argument in principle credible? Is it necessary to specify force structures and to devise scenarios of intervention to refute them in principle? The view that it is necessary reflects the conviction that present material constraints on our power will not permit the realization of either objective, save perhaps on a scale of planning and discipline of almost wartime dimensions. But surely a defense expenditure of eight to ten percent of our gross national product falls rather short of wartime dimensions (in 1944 it was 45 percent; in 1954, 14 percent; today it falls short of 6 percent). And it strains credulity to believe that a substantial military presence in and around the Persian Gulf would require America to go on a wartime footing. It would do so only if it were the case that the Russians are today both willing and able to deny such presence. If this is indeed true, then we are already living on the edge of the precipice.

It is another matter to argue that the actions requisite to achieving the above goals would require a reordering of national priorities and that, in particular, they would impede efforts to curb inflation. In some measure, this argument is evidently well taken. There is no way by which military spending can be increased, yet all else remain unchanged. But this argument scarcely supports the view that is considered here. It does not demonstrate material constraints on our power to effect the measures in question. It simply admonishes us that if we are to take these measures, choices will have to be made and other goals sacrificed, at least in part. How significant the choices and how great the sacrifices are by no means self-evident. Much will depend upon the order of increase we can expect. If it is of the magnitude suggested above, the reordering of domestic priorities would still be limited. Yet a reordering there would have to be, and clearly so if inflationary pressures were to be contained within tolerable bounds. Whether this or succeeding administrations would prove willing and able to undertake so politically unpalatable a task remains very questionable. Again, however, this has little if anything to do with the material constraints on our power.

Why, then, if all this is true-or even approximately so-does it so raise the ire of the devotees of our limits to conclude that the prime cause of the decline we have experienced must be found in factors other than the material? And if other than the material, what else could they be save desire or will? No judgment need even be made about the quality of that desire or will, only that it has been such as to lead to the decline of American power and influence, and that it has been one of our own choice and making rather than one imposed by the world beyond. The world no more dictated the defense budget we should have in the 1970s than it dictated the monetary and fiscal policies we should follow. Nor did it decree that many instruments of presidential power to conduct foreign policy be eviscerated. It was not the world that conducted hearings on the CIA, that revealed its several attempts at assassinating foreign leaders, and that published numerous documents relating to its covert operations-actions that are normally the fate reserved to a defeated country.

These were self-inflicted wounds. Whatever their origins, it does not follow that these wounds need to have been inflicted. To the degree that the erosion of American power and influence have resulted from these, and yet other domestic failures, the erosion might have been largely avoided. In turn, the global position of the United States at the end of the 1970s might have been considerably different from what it is.

To argue otherwise, as some do, to contend that the decline we have undergone is the result of the kind of society we have always been and are all too likely to remain, is to find in recent events a very different explanation from that considered above. It is a view that must be taken seriously. Nothing is more commonplace than the observation that the American experience has been with rare exception a particularly benign one. The point is no less important for being commonplace. Save for a very brief period at the time of our infancy, the nation's history has not been one of encounters with an external world that was at once threatening yet necessary. Our security from the world was as free, or very nearly so, as our material dependence on the world was slight. The plight that other nations accept as a part of the nature of things, America came to consider as almost a perversion of its destiny.

This sunny history has afforded little preparation for stormy times. As a people, we simply are not used to such times and do not submit to them with resignation, let alone with equanimity. Even our wars-the Civil War apart-have been, for wars, benign experiences. In this century we reached the summit of world power in large measure as the result of wars that exacted a remarkably modest sacrifice by comparison with the sacrifice that other great powers have had to pay simply to survive, let alone to reach so exalted a position. We did not so much win that position by virtue of World War II as simply find ourselves heirs to it, though we certainly accepted it with greater alacrity than a conventional historiography is prone to admit.

In great-power success stories, then, the American story reads like the quintessential success. Perhaps this is why that success is now placed in jeopardy by setbacks and obstacles which others, had they enjoyed a comparable power base, would have taken in stride and considered the expected liabilities of an imperial position. If Americans have not so reacted, it is not only because of their persisting inward orientation. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, because with respect to their imperial position they share a view of easy come, easy go. Nor does it necessarily matter that the letting go may prove in the end far from easy. For those who have not been schooled in adversity, what matters is the present and not the future pain.

This speculation may prove to be misplaced. There is already some evidence to suggest that it is. It may be that the nation will begin to revert in the period immediately ahead to something resembling a position commensurate with its potential power. Whether the requisite political and psychological conditions for such a reversion are present, however, remains a matter of conjecture and is dependent upon considerations that range far beyond the scope of this essay. What is relevant to note here is that should a resurgence of American power take place, we will be confronted with a new set of problems. For the circumstances of a generation ago cannot be recreated. This much, at least, of the limits-of-power message cannot be gainsaid. The power of the Soviet Union relative to our own will be far greater than in an earlier period, and this even were we to make a very considerable defense effort. In general, the power of others relative to our own will be greater than a generation ago.

In these circumstances, we will have to pick and choose the occasions for using power not only with wisdom and restraint, but with more wisdom and restraint than we once manifested. There is no reason why we cannot exercise restraint once we have regained a position from which it will again be possible to pick and choose; at least there is no reason why we cannot do so if we assume that our security and well-being are not dependent upon the creation-or recreation-of order in the vast Third World. Admittedly, that assumption does not find general acceptance today, whether among those who believe that we must adjust to the changes occurring in the Third World or among those who believe that we must shape such change as does occur, if necessary by the use of our military power. For both the "adjusters" and the "shapers," it is the presumed interdependence of today's world that does not permit us to view with relative unconcern most of the change taking place in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

If the assumptions commonly made today about the kind and degree of interdependence we have forged with the developing world are indeed true, then one can only conclude that we are in for a very difficult period ahead. For the imposition and maintenance of our vision of order in the Third World would require a moral and material effort that would put our resources to the most serious strain, and then with no solid promise of success. Is the effort necessary? Apart from the one exception noted throughout these pages, are there any other interests sufficiently compelling to warrant an effort of such magnitude and of so uncertain a positive result?

If oil is indeed the great exception, our fate does not otherwise depend on the change occurring in the Third World. If oil is the great exception, we can otherwise accommodate ourselves to a Third World that remains quite unstable for an indefinite period. Even more, we can remain relatively indifferent to most of the change taking place in the developing countries. This indifference expresses, in turn, an indifference to the prospect that much of the developing world may find us as historically irrelevant as we find them less than vital to our interests. Surely, they have many good reasons for doing so.


In the days that finished out the old decade and inaugurated the new, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan appeared to many as a flash of lightning that suddenly illuminated the political landscape. One of those who now professed to see what he had not seen before was the President. In a remarkable public declaration, Mr. Carter stated that his opinion of the Russians had changed more drastically in a week than in the entire previous period of his Presidency. The invasion of Afghanistan, coming as it did on top of the Iranian crisis, has obviously dealt the coup de grace to the Carter Administration's foreign policy. What was before a failure, in fact, is now seen as such by virtually all. Persisting illusions must at last be abandoned; a cherished vision of the world can no longer be defended. An inability to respond effectively to serious challenge has laid bare as never before the vulnerability of the American position in a region of vital interests.

Not unexpectedly, the Administration's reaction to the Soviet move has been one of surprise and outrage. Yet it is entitled to neither. A sea-change has occurred over the past decade in the military relationship of the superpowers. The consequences of this change do not begin with Afghanistan. They have been increasingly apparent since the mid-1970s. What Afghanistan has done is to make them considerably more explicit than before. Even so, why should this occasion such surprise and give rise to endless speculation over Soviet motivation? The answer, of course, must be found in the feckless assumptions of a decade and more about the growing disutility of military power, in the ingenuous explanation given for the relentless buildup of Soviet power and in the misguided reliance placed on what were seen as constraints on the overuse of this power.

If there is little legitimate reason for surprise, there is equally little reason for outrage. The Administration has not been betrayed by Soviet actions.5 The Russians have not defied an unwritten code that had evolved between the superpowers. The rules of the game they are now charged with breaking are those of our making. The Soviet Union has never agreed to them. To the contrary, Soviet leaders have been quite explicit in declaring that they did not consider themselves bound by any rules of Western invention in their competition for power and influence in the Third World. The Soviet position has been precisely one of the points repeatedly made by critics of détente. Certainly Moscow has never entertained any understanding, tacit or otherwise, over the limits to the actions it might take within countries recognized by the West as comprising its sphere of influence. There is no substance, then, to such complaints as that voiced by The New York Times: "Even the world's recognition of a Soviet political sphere of influence in Afghanistan or in Finland was not enough; the Asian Finland has become a Czechoslovakia."6 The Asian Finland has become a Czechoslovakia, because it threatened to escape from the Soviet political sphere. In all likelihood, the same would happen to the real Finland should it pose a comparable threat.

By invading Afghanistan, the Russians have committed their forces to protecting a sphere of influence, and one that had been quite clearly conceded to them by the United States. That earlier this country would not, or could not, act forcibly if necessary to protect an adjoining sphere of influence in Iran only makes the comparison between the effectiveness of Russian and American power all the more vivid. But this restraint-or impotence-scarcely created any obligation for Moscow, and it is sterile to argue that by failing to fulfill this alleged obligation the Russians have somehow betrayed us.

The unpalatable truth is that we have betrayed ourselves. This is one reason, perhaps the deepest, for our sense of outrage. We may soon be even more outraged, for there is no assurance that a Russian triumph in Afghanistan will not be followed by further actions now in what was once our sphere of influence. Should this happen, Moscow will be again charged-on this occasion, with rather more justice-with having broken the most elementary rules of conduct if the superpowers are to coexist in peace. It will have done so, though, under the "provocation" of a policy that has created opportunities which would be difficult to resist for any state aspiring to a position of global primacy.7 The sense of outrage, then as now turned against the Soviet Union, will be the outrage of those who have been the beneficiaries of a status quo they quite naturally endow with legitimacy, though they make little effort to defend it. From this perspective, the code of conduct against which Soviet behavior is now arraigned is indeed an American conceit.

That conceit is almost certain to bewilder future historians. There are not many examples on record of a world power almost deliberately neglecting to protect one of its most vital interests in a period of visibly rising threat to that interest. Yet for years we have made almost a fetish of acknowledging our inability to protect our interests in the Persian Gulf, if necessary by military force. Now we have been rudely forced to confront the possible consequences of this inability, first by Iran and then by the Soviet Union. To the reaction of surprise and outrage must now be added the sense of impotence that is no longer a matter of speculation but a grim reality.

Nor is it likely that this sense will be significantly altered in the immediate future by any action taken by the Administration. Certainly it will not be altered by the actions thus far taken. Soviet leaders are very foolish indeed if they have not anticipated and largely discounted Washington's initial response to their behavior in Afghanistan. It is implausible to assume they did not anticipate that a SALT treaty already in deep trouble would be shelved, just as it is implausible to assume they did not anticipate that Washington might well take such economic sanctions as were readily available to it. Nor did it require an unusual degree of foresight to expect the United States to reach for its China card on the morrow of the invasion and openly to abandon the fiction of evenhandedness.

If the American response to date is nevertheless held out as the principal evidence for believing the Soviets miscalculated, the conclusion must be drawn that in invading Afghanistan, the Russians were playing for trivial stakes. For only if the stakes were trivial would it have been foolish for the Soviets to risk what has in fact been a quite modest response. The argument is thus on its face suspect. Even if the American response were to harden considerably, this would not constitute persuasive evidence for believing the Soviets miscalculated. If Moscow is playing for high stakes-and it would be very imprudent to assume otherwise-a hardening of the American response might still fall well within the limits of Soviet anticipation.

The theme of Soviet miscalculation is born of optimism. It is of a piece with other explanations of the Russian action which find this action, after all, of limited significance. On what is this optimism based? Unless Afghanistan is expected to vindicate the disutility of military power, it cannot be based on the presumed limited character of Soviet ambition, or, even if these ambitions are far from limited, on the prudence of Soviet leaders. In effect, this must mean that the case for optimism is based on Soviet prudence, since their ambitions in the vast area contiguous to their southern borders and stretching from Turkey to Afghanistan are a matter of historical record. They did not arise with the present Soviet leaders or even with the Soviet state. In Russian history, they have been almost as fixed an object of desire as Eastern Europe has been. What has changed today is that a perennial object of desire has grown enormously in importance and that Russian capability to realize this desire has also grown.

Will the Soviet leaders nevertheless act prudently in the pursuit of their ambitions? Even if the answer is that they will, according to their lights, it may prove to be of cold comfort. Given the American record of recent years, Moscow has reason to believe that once Afghanistan is reduced, we will not spurn yet another détente. Moreover, Soviet leaders have the history of 1968 to consider, when outrage in the West over the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia soon gave way to détente in Western Europe. If Western Europe did not permit Czechoslovakia to stand in the way of détente, why should it permit Afghanistan to do so? Even if the United States is disposed to persist in sanctions, and possibly to harden its position further, France and West Germany may be of a different disposition. The prospect of Western Europe unwilling to follow the American lead is a very real one, and the Russians would be very careless if they had not already considered it. In the last great challenge to the Western alliance-in 1974 by OPEC-the fragility of Atlantic ties was made abundantly clear. The continuing decline of American power has only made these ties more fragile. European unwillingness to follow the American lead would merely register this decline, and, of course, the lack of confidence that Europe has long had in the Carter Administration.

These considerations suggest that if the Soviet Union enjoys a reasonable military success in Afghanistan, and does so within a brief period, the consequences are likely to prove distinctly advantageous to Moscow. An important strategic position will have been secured. An impression of near-irresistible power will have been conveyed throughout the region. The Western alliance will likely be put under severe strain. As against these prospects, there are the modest American countermeasures and the promise of an equally modest American military presence in the Middle East. If this is the case for Soviet miscalculation, one can only hope that somewhere a better case for optimism exists.

In truth, the invasion of Afghanistan must signal, even for the most obtuse, that we have entered a very dangerous period. The salient features are of classic proportions. A great military power has emerged intent on altering the global status quo. Its position of military ascendancy may nevertheless prove to be quite transient, since it does not have the material base to sustain the present advantageous position, should its principal rival-let alone its rival together with the rival's allies-determine to redress the military balance. The Soviet leaders cannot but be keenly aware of their predicament. Moderation is not only the safer course, it is one that might put off the day when the camps of the adversaries begin seriously to rearm. But moderation also limits one's gains and may lead in any event to the gradual loss of military superiority. Moscow may already see the approximate point in time when the presently favorable "relationship of forces" is likely to be reversed. If the gains that military power may bring are to be harvested, the period when this must be done cannot be safely extended for long. Immoderation carries considerable risks even when possessed of military superiority; it also holds out the prospect of rewards-particularly in the Middle East-that may make it almost compellingly attractive even to a relatively prudent leadership.

1 Michel Jobert, "Ah, Mr. Kissinger, We Agreed," The New York Times, October 27, 1979, p. A27.

2 Interview with Helmut Schmidt, The Economist, September 29, 1979, p. 50.

5 The President has given the contrary impression, and has even brought it to a personal level. His now-famous remark about what he learned in a week from the Russians followed his equally famous "hot line" exchange with Leonid Brezhnev. In this exchange, Brezhnev asserted that the Soviets had intervened to meet a third-country threat from Afghanistan. The response was, in Mr. Carter's words, obviously false. But Brezhnev was scarcely under any obligation to tell the President the truth. Mr. Carter's anger at the response might have been justified only if the Soviet leader had betrayed a personal understanding he had made with the President. There is no evidence of any such understanding.

6 "What Lies Broken In Afghanistan," The New York Times, January 9, 1979, p. A22. The Times editorial goes on to note, in self-contradiction, that "always before since World War II the thermonuclear powers committed their own forces only to protect spheres of influence they had ceded to each other." More to the point is the comment that "maybe the code of conduct has been an American conceit."

7 The point in the text may be made yet more explicit. We have little right to complain about the alleged misbehavior of others we have almost persistently tempted to misbehave. In the history of statecraft, the point is a commonplace.



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  • Robert W. Tucker is Professor of Political Science at The Johns Hopkins University, co-director of studies of The Lehrman Institute, and the author of The Inequality of Nations and other works.
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