Courtesy Reuters

Once again we have reached a major turning point in American foreign policy. On this, at least, there is widespread agreement. The conviction that the nation has come to a critical juncture in its foreign relations is broadly shared by those who may disagree on virtually everything else. Everywhere the signs point to the conclusion that for the third time in the post-World War II period we are in the throes of far-reaching change in the nation's foreign policy. What these signs do not divulge are the eventual scope and magnitude of the change.

Yet the same was true of the two earlier occasions in which American foreign policy underwent significant transformation. The observer in 1947 could not know from the events of that year the form that the emerging policy of containment would ultimately take. In its inception containment had no determinate outcome. Neither the external circumstances in which containment arose and which conditioned the immediate development of that policy nor the domestic reaction to these circumstances dictated the form that containment would ultimately take. It is true that in the sweeping language of the Truman Doctrine-"We must assist free peoples to work out their destinies in their own way"-as well as in its sense of universal crisis-"At the present moment in world history every nation must choose between alternative ways of life"-we can see the subsequent course of a policy that led to the equation of American security with world order, world order with the containment of communism, and the containment of communism with the conflict-Vietnam-that brought an end to the policy of global containment.

But the Truman Doctrine did not foreordain Vietnam, whatever the intent of its authors. Instead, it was the Korean War, and the sudden extension of containment to Asia that the war precipitated, which led to Vietnam. It was the American intervention in Korea-prompted far more by conventional balance-of-power calculations than by the universal pretensions of the Truman Doctrine-that led to the extension of containment in Asia, which was divisive from the start and never supported by more than a negative consensus.

What may be said of the policy of global containment may also be said of the policy that succeeded it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Nixon policy reformulation held out the promise of a foreign policy that, while preserving America's essential role and interests in the world, would be far less burdensome than the policy it presumably displaced. That promise could not be fulfilled. The logic of the Nixon reformulation, with its centerpiece of détente, was the logic of retrenchment. But this is not to say that the "new structure of peace" had from its inception an outcome that had to lead to the general decline experienced by America in the 1970s any more than the policy of containment initiated by the Truman Administration had to lead to Vietnam.

The domestic circumstances that attended the coming to power of the Carter Administration did not dictate the foreign policy that it followed during its first three years in office. In contributing to the further decline in the American global position it acted as much from internal conviction-not domestic political necessity-as the Johnson Administration did in its pursuit of the war in Vietnam.

It is worth recalling these earlier occasions today, if only to question the view that the course of American foreign policy in the 1980s is already largely dictated by the present situation. This view is shared by otherwise very divergent groups in the foreign policy spectrum. Those who believe that we must adjust our interests and behavior to the more modest position we now occupy in the world emphasize such a view as much as those who believe that we can and must recapture the position and leadership we once enjoyed. To the former, adjustment to our diminished status is a necessity we can attempt to escape only at our peril. To the latter, the reassertion of something akin to the former policy of global containment is the only safe course we can take. Otherwise we shall suffer ever more severe threats to our security, whether in our competition with the Soviet Union or, more generally, in our attempt to preserve the essential elements of a moderate international system.

If these positions are oversimplified here, the emphasis common to both is clear enough. In a darkening international landscape, the view that we must return to our pre-Vietnam role has recently gained an unexpected strength. Even so, its emphasis on the virtual absence of any other choice lacks persuasiveness. The degree of freedom in foreign policy we continue to enjoy today, once immediate security threats are addressed, may not be as broad as it once was but it is still considerable. How this freedom will be employed remains an open question.


How are we to account for the rising debate today over American foreign policy? To some, the debate has been largely precipitated by domestic critics who have succeeded in creating the requisite atmosphere for disaffection and debate over the nation's foreign policy. This is the view expressed most notably perhaps by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. To him, "much of the current dissatisfaction with the world and our role in it rests on certain fallacies." It is those who have purveyed these fallacies or myths-above all, "the pervasive fallacy that America could have the power to order the world just the way we want it to be"-who have led the way not only to much of the current dissension over foreign policy but to the "disturbing fear in the land that we are no longer capable of shaping our future."1

The difficulty with this view is its inversion of cause and effect. If there is marked dissatisfaction over American foreign policy today, it is not mainly the handiwork of critics but the result of events. It has been the visible decline of American power and position that has led today to a greater dissatisfaction over foreign policy than we have experienced for a decade.

If there can be little question over what has precipitated renewed debate, there can also be little question that it is a debate over American security: once again, we are "reconsidering" our security. We are doing so, moreover, against the background of an experience that led to the discrediting of the security rationale on which postwar American foreign policy had come to rest. The debate provoked by Vietnam was, like the debates of the 1930s and 1940s, over security. At issue was a broad disagreement over both the conditions, and even the very meaning, of American security interests whose vindication would justify, if necessary, the use of American military power.

But the outcome of the debate was unlike the outcome of earlier ones. Whereas the earlier ones had resulted in the triumph of the view held by the administration of the day, Vietnam led to the defeat of the view urged by the Johnson Administration. The succeeding Nixon Administration was careful to avoid the appearance of attempting to restore this view. Indeed, though it continued the war, it did so ostensibly on other grounds and, at the same time, seemed to accept the principal critique brought against the war by liberal and moderate opponents.

This critique denied that there were any meaningful security interests at stake in Vietnam. Clearly, it was argued, this was true of the interests for which the war was allegedly undertaken. Yet it was also held to be no less true of the interests for which the war was continued after victory had been all but openly abandoned. Vietnam had neither intrinsic nor symbolic importance for American security. Even when judged from the perspective of the containment of China, the outcome of the war was deemed largely irrelevant to the nation's legitimate security concerns. Instead, what Vietnam showed in the view of most critics were the absurd lengths to which a security rationale might be employed in circumstances that bore little relationship to those in which this rationale had once been meaningful and persuasive. In this liberal and moderate critique, then, Vietnam was above all the product of intellectual error. It resulted from a failure to understand the changes that had occurred over a generation and more, which had irrevocably altered while radically improving the American security position.

The prolonged debate that attended the war led to the belief that the world which had emerged by the middle to late 1960s, though far more complicated than the world of a generation earlier, was a much safer one-presumably, on the whole, because it had become a far more pluralistic one. Interpreted, in essence, as the triumph of nationalism, pluralism was thought to mean that communist expansion no longer carried the threat to America it had once carried. Pluralism meant, as well, that the prospect of Soviet expansion had dramatically declined. A pluralistic world might, it was conceded, be more disorderly. But in the circumstances of the late 1960s and early 1970s this seemed a reasonable price to pay if such a world also pointed to a marked decline in the need for military intervention as a means for preserving vital American interests.

Yet it was not so much the optimistic expectations generally entertained of an increasingly pluralistic world that appear so striking in retrospect, as it was the change that many, this writer included, found to have already occurred in the structure of American security.2 Taken alone, the appeal to pluralism as a refutation of the security rationale that led to Vietnam seemed, at best, inconclusive. But the argument that concentrated on the change in the structure of American security which had presumably occurred between the late 1940s and a generation later was another matter. It rested on the tried and true calculations that have always conditioned a nation's security-or so it seemed. On these calculations it no longer appeared plausible, let alone persuasive, to imagine an imbalance of power resulting in a serious threat to American security-that is, to our physical security, our economic well-being, or the integrity of our democratic institutions.

A wiser counsel would have cautioned-as a few did-that the persistence of a favorable power balance cannot be taken for granted, and that this particular constellation of power, like so many in the past, might also prove to be fragile and mutable. Indeed, we can now see that the foundations on which this constellation rested were beginning to erode even at the time their solidarity was being so confidently proclaimed. For the security it appeared to afford depended primarily on a favorable balance of military power that could be maintained, if at all, only by measures that were not taken.

Instead, the policy adopted by the Johnson Administration, and subsequently given formal expression by the Nixon Administration, accepted the Soviet Union as the equal-or soon to be equal-of this country in strategic military power. How this policy might be safely reconciled with the continued integrity of American vital interests and commitments in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, particularly if the United States together with its allies did not enjoy parity in conventional military power with the Soviet Union, was never satisfactorily explained. Those who made policy never persuasively addressed the central issue of what would effectively restrain the Soviet Union from taking such advantage as it safely could of an ever-improving military position. Instead, they largely proceeded from the undemonstrated assumption that the Soviet Union had become-or was in the process of becoming-a status quo power, and that it could now be expected to act with growing restraint. When, in the face of contrary evidence, this assumption began to wear thin, many fell back on the argument that even if the Soviet Union was intent upon expanding its influence, and would employ its growing military power to this end, the forces of resistance thrown up by a determinedly pluralistic world would ultimately frustrate its efforts.

Applied to areas of secondary interest, which also happen to be areas that are not contiguous to the Soviet Union, the merit of this argument may not prove to be of crucial concern. When applied to areas of primary interest that are also adjacent to the Soviet Union, or very nearly so, it is. With respect to these areas, among which the Persian Gulf is the prime case, the reliance on pluralism was and is little more than an expression of hope.

The degree of security that only yesterday was commonly taken for granted also rested on the assumption that continued Western access to the raw materials-above all, energy resources-of the developing world could be assured, and on terms compatible with substantial economic growth of the industrial democracies. Ironically, Vietnam and the debate the war precipitated appeared to many to confirm this assumption. America had entered the war, it was held, largely out of an excessive preoccupation in the 1960s with the Third World. An eminent commentator articulated the new understanding in noting that by any power calculus the states of the Third World "have no vital relation to the economic or strategic position of the developed countries. They do supply raw materials. But even here the typical observation concerns not their power as sources of such supply, but rather their weakness as competitive hewers of wood in the markets of the industrially advanced countries."3

These words were written when the storm was already gathering. In respect to the one transcendently important raw material, oil, demand was already pressing hard on supply. Rather than choosing to increase supply, and to remain competitive "hewers of wood," the producers chose to combine and to impose a fourfold increase in the price of their oil. At the time of the increase, some producers also initiated a limited embargo against states whose policies in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war were considered objectionable. Neither of these measures provoked significant Western reaction. Both challenged the foundations of the postwar order as no other event had since the 1940s.

Quite apart from the constraints on economic growth that OPEC price rises placed on the industrial democracies, the failure in 1973-74 to respond to the Arab oil embargo raised from the outset the issue of right of access to the oil supplies of the Persian Gulf. Obscured for a time by the preoccupation with the economic side of the crisis, the issue of access became apparent with the Iranian revolution, which shut off most of the production of a major producer. In swift succession, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan revealed the potential external threat to Western access, while the outbreak of war between Iraq and Iran illuminated yet another aspect of the indigenous threat to what remains of the Western position.

It is in the coalescence of these two momentous developments-a military balance increasingly favorable to the Soviet Union and the steady erosion of Western power and position in the Persian Gulf-that the essential dimensions of the American security problem are to be seen today. The point has often been made that in its origins and subsequent course the energy crisis had very little to do with the Soviet Union and that, indeed, the Soviets have been-at least, until recently-quite cautious and tentative in taking such advantage as they might have from the decline of the Western position in the Gulf. Though on balance this point is well taken, at present it is not possible to separate the issue of Western access to the Gulf from the military power the Soviet Union is able to bring to bear in order to inhibit and, it may be, to openly challenge the attempted reassertion of Western power in this vital region.


In light of these considerations, if we are to judge the significance of the present debate over foreign policy by way of comparison with the past, it is to the late 1940s that we must look and not the late 1960s. The prospect that was virtually dismissed by most observers only a short time ago has nevertheless materialized again. The fear that was entertained at the outset of the cold war-that the Soviet Union might succeed in extending its sway over Western Europe-is once again entertained.

Nor is this fear any less plausible today than it was in an earlier period, and this despite the great changes that have since transpired. The military balance was no more favorable to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s than it is today. If anything, it was less favorable then, the still prostrate condition of Western Europe notwithstanding. For if the American strategic capability then was miniscule as compared with what it is today, it was still considerable, while the Soviet capability of striking directly at the United States was nonexistent. Were the worst to have come, Western Europe would have been the helpless prey to Soviet conventional forces. At the same time, Soviet industrial and population centers would have been the helpless prey to the strategic power of a still physically invulnerable America.

True, in the late 1940s, Western Europe was not only still economically prostrate but politically and psychologically vulnerable. It was this vulnerability that some saw at the time and continue to see in retrospect as the real threat held out to Western Europe, and not the threat of Soviet arms. Undoubtedly, the ravages of a brutal war, the shock of defeat, and the pervasive conviction that Europe was historically spent, led to a profound crisis of self-confidence that found expression in an acute sense of vulnerability. Even so, an important part of Europe's sense of vulnerability could not be distinguished from the threat of Soviet arms. Nor, in fact, did most Western Europeans make the distinction.

In circumstances that in many respects are so radically changed, this sense of vulnerability has revived today. The oil crisis has accentuated it as perhaps no other factor, including the relentless buildup of Soviet arms. Were Western Europe to be denied the oil of the Persian Gulf, its economic life would come to a sudden halt. The intense awareness of this accounts for the willingness of Western European states increasingly to accept almost any economic or political terms producing countries may impose on them rather than to run the risk of being cut off from their oil supplies. There is no apparent reason to believe that this subservience would not be shown in far greater degree toward a state that controlled the oil of the Persian Gulf while, at the same time, holding a military position in Europe superior to that of the Western alliance. In the 1940s, the Soviet Union could threaten Western Europe's physical security, but only if prepared to endure American reprisals to which it could not directly respond. Today, the Soviet Union, if once in control of the Persian Gulf, could dispose of Western Europe's economic life. A militarily superior position in Europe would simply reinforce a control that the United States would be powerless to contest.

What is significant, then, about the present debate over American foreign policy is its unexpected familiarity. At issue are essentially the same security interests that were at issue in the years immediately following World War II. If the locus of the now most likely threat to those interests has shifted from Europe to the Persian Gulf, the vital interests at stake in the Gulf remain unchanged from the vital interests that were earlier at stake in Europe. None of the participants in the present debate seriously questions this, for no one seriously argues that the loss of Western access to the Gulf could eventuate in anything short of a mortal blow to the post-World War II structure of America's global interests. What is disputed is the Soviet intention to challenge Western access. But this dispute is not unlike the dispute that arose in the 1940s over Moscow's intentions toward Europe. Short of intention materializing through action, the present controversy is likely to prove as inconclusive as its predecessor.

The parallel thus apparent between the immediate postwar years and today is striking. Like any parallel, it can be pushed too far. The differences in the circumstances attending Western Europe in the late 1940s and the Persian Gulf today are also striking. Whereas Western Europe was relatively stable, despite appearances to the contrary, the Persian Gulf is a nightmare of present and potential instability. And whereas Western Europe on balance welcomed the American "intervention," the states of the Persian Gulf are still very far from doing so. It is, above all, the latter difference that has received considerable emphasis and that vitiates, in the judgment of many observers, if not the parallel drawn here then at least the prospect that a comparable response to that made in an earlier period is possible today. In this view, the states of the region hold it within their power to deny Western access and to defeat any attempt to force them to grant access to their oil supplies.

But this judgment is almost certainly misplaced. The Gulf today constitutes a power vacuum that will eventually be filled, whether by the one or the other superpower or by both. If, contrary to all reasonable expectation, this vacuum does persist, its very persistence would indeed herald a transformation of revolutionary proportions in the international system. The outcome would confirm what has now been contended for more than a decade-that certain traditional forms of power, above all, military power, have been substantially deprived of their former utility.

Were this contention to be borne out by events, the Western predicament in the Persian Gulf would very likely issue in the altogether grim prospects that have been recently outlined in these pages by Walter Levy.4 Rather than from the Soviet Union, the great threat to the stability and security of the West would come from the very vacuum that the West must continue to rely upon but which it cannot effectively fill. In these circumstances, the military power of the Soviet Union would presumably prove as impotent as that of the West. But in these circumstances as well, the military power of the Soviet Union could in general be safely neglected. For what this power could not do in the Persian Gulf, it could also not be expected to do in Western Europe.


If we instead assume the persistence of a more traditional world, we have little alternative but to respond to a conventional security threat in the way that states have regularly responded to such threats. An imbalance of military power, present or prospective, must be met by countervailing military power. We have no choice when faced by threats that, if permitted to go unmet, could result in sacrificing interests on which the nation's economic well-being and the integrity of its basic institutions depend. The purist may cavil even at this restricted meaning given to necessity in foreign policy, but short of circumstances in which an insoluble conflict between physical security and the other attributes commonly identified with security is demonstrably apparent, it will suffice.

The case for considering our immediate options today as very narrow is difficult to contest. Admittedly, it is still contested, as the continuing debate over America's proper policy in the Persian Gulf testifies. Even so, the shifting nature of that debate also demonstrates the compelling force of vital interest once a threat to it becomes inescapably clear. At each successive stage in the unfolding of the threat to Western access to the oil supplies of the Gulf, resistance to measures once dismissed as either unnecessary or impossible has steadily weakened. Confronted with the stark alternatives of risking loss of access, or of deploying military power to prevent such a loss, the Carter Administration had no choice in the end but to respond to a vital interest.

Its response was marked by ambiguity. In implementation, it was faltering and tortuous. But whatever criticism one may make of it, there has been a response. Moreover, under the impact of events that have left little room for doubt over the straitened position of the West in the Persian Gulf, this response gathered momentum. A comparison of the American position in the region in the fall of 1979 with the nation's position in the late fall of 1980 reveals the extent of the change that has taken place, a change that was clearly uncongenial to President Carter and that he resisted until events left him no meaningful choice.

More generally, the compelling force of vital interest has left us no meaningful choice in deciding whether or not we will respond to the continuing arms buildup of the Soviet Union with an improved military position of our own. The manner and emphasis, the pace and magnitude, of the response continue to elicit controversy. The diplomatic consequences that some fear rearmament to hold out provoke even greater controversy. These and still other considerations notwithstanding, a majority among elites and public alike now accepts the imminent prospect-if not the present reality-of an overall arms balance that favors the Soviet Union. The need to redress this actual or prospective imbalance is also broadly accepted.

The wellspring of this consensus must be traced to the growing conviction that the United States has steadily moved throughout the past decade toward an insolvent foreign policy, whether in the Persian Gulf-where commitment was not in accord with interest and where the means to sustain interest or commitment were almost totally lacking-or in Western Europe-where credibility of commitment was increasingly called into question by the growing inadequacy of the necessary means. The remedy for a foreign policy that has come close to insolvency-because the means to secure vital interests are inadequate-is plainly to restore the necessary means. In the two most critical areas of concern to the United States, the necessary means-not the only means but the necessary means-are military. This point deserves particular emphasis with respect to the Persian Gulf. Though it is here that the need is greatest, it is also here that the temptation persists to find a substitute for this need.

The experience of a decade, however, has amply demonstrated the truth that should have been apparent from the outset: there is no reliable substitute for Western power in the Gulf. The continued search for such a substitute-whether in the form of another American surrogate, of alignment with the West by means of a regional arrangement, or of collective nonalignment-is entirely vain. The conditions of domestic instability and of intraregional rivalries that characterize the Gulf render any and all of these schemes either impossible to achieve or without real value even if apparently achieved.

Nor is there any plausible reason for believing that these schemes would prove feasible and effective if a satisfactory settlement of the Palestinian issue were achieved. A settlement of the Palestinian issue would not materially lessen the need for Western power in the Gulf. It would not do so because it would not remove the many sources of conflict and instability in the region. Of the major events that have shaken the Gulf in the past two years and that have threatened Western access-notably the fall of the Shah and the Iraqi-Iranian war-none have had more than a peripheral relationship to the Palestinian issue. The continued insistence upon seeing in a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict a critical part of the solution to Western vulnerability in the Gulf has become the refuge of those who do not believe there can be an effective reassertion of Western power and that, this being so, we must clutch at such straws as best we can.

A recent variation on this view holds that Arab states of the Gulf-particularly Saudi Arabia-would be more receptive to an American military presence if the Palestinian issue were to be satisfactorily resolved.5 Those urging this view seem oblivious to the notorious fact that there is no consensus among Arab states on what a "satisfactory" solution would consist of and that such a consensus is not likely to emerge. The argument that the receptivity of the Gulf states to an American presence depends on the politics of the area is surely right. But it does not follow that the Palestinian issue is the key to a favorable attitude of the Gulf states toward a Western military presence on their territory. Instead, the key is a restoration of American credibility, a restoration that will not be furthered by an America that is seen to be pressuring Israel on the Palestinian issue in order to improve its standing in the Arab world. If anything, such pressure is likely to have the opposite effect from what its advocates claim it would have. The Saudis will see it not as an indication of American credibility but as further evidence of the weakness of our position.

Although the conditions of solvency have been increasingly placed in question even in Western Europe, in the Persian Gulf their fulfillment has until very recently never been seriously attempted. Now the task can no longer be avoided. Yet it is bound to prove far more exacting than the effort required for Western Europe. This is so not only because the current military advantage of the Russians in the Gulf region is considerably greater than it is in Europe, but also because the purposes for which American power might have to be employed today in the Gulf are more complex and ambiguous, and the conditions of employment more difficult, than in Europe. Whereas in Europe the purpose of American power is either to deter or to defend against Soviet armed aggression, in the Persian Gulf the purpose is to ensure access to the region's oil supplies.

This being so, we can have no single standing and identifiable adversary in the Gulf; the threat to access may arise from any number of possible sources, of which a direct Soviet armed intervention, though the most serious, is only one. More likely, a threat to access will arise primarily from developments indigenous to the Gulf, though the Soviet Union may play a peripheral role even here. The diversity and ambiguity of the circumstances in which force may have to be threatened or employed imposes both political and strategic dilemmas-political dilemmas in that the use of American power may have to be undertaken in response to internal politics of a Gulf state, and strategic dilemmas in that American forces may be required to act in circumstances impossible to foresee.

What is still more sobering is that the Western position of conventional inferiority with respect to the Soviet Union raises the issue of nuclear deterrence as it has not been raised for many years. In the limiting situation-a determined Russian assault in the Gulf-we must either rely on the threat of responding with nuclear weapons or concede that as matters now stand there is no effective response we can make. To acknowledge this unpalatable truth is not to cast doubt on the need for making a serious effort to strengthen conventional forces in the region. Without such an effort, a strategy of nuclear deterrence in the Gulf would not only encounter the now familiar problems of credibility arising from our European experience, it would meet the additional difficulty resulting from a variety of circumstances which are absent in Europe but which largely define the condition of the Gulf. In these circumstances, a nuclear tripwire would either lack credibility or simply prove irrelevant.

These considerations do not mean that there is no proper role in a Gulf strategy for the threat of nuclear escalation. Instead, they point to the conclusion that this threat must be reserved for the limiting situation. If it is argued that even here the threat will fail to carry the persuasiveness that it has carried in Europe, the reason must be either that we do not have the same interest in the Gulf that we have in Europe or that, though having a comparable interest, we do not have the conventional forces needed to give the requisite credibility to nuclear deterrence. And since the former reason cannot be sustained, given Western Europe's critical dependence on the Gulf, it is the latter that is evidently intended. But the dependence of a credible nuclear threat on a substantial conventional force structure is not questioned here. Clearly, the experience we have to date supports the need for a substantial ground presence if a nuclear threat is to be credible. What is questioned is the view that the Gulf can be successfully defended against a major Soviet assault by conventional forces. It cannot be done at present. Nor is there much likelihood it might be done in the immediate future.

A viable strategy in the Persian Gulf, then, must have as its goal the creation of a conventional force structure that can effectively deal with the contingencies that may arise short of a determined Russian assault. If such a force were established, it would still not remove the possibility of the limiting situation arising, but it would severely reduce this prospect. It would represent a very great improvement over our present position. As matters now stand, however, establishing it will prove quite difficult, largely because of the persisting obstacles to deploying conventional military power, other than naval forces, in the region.

These obstacles to the permanent stationing of ground forces and land-based aircraft, if not in, then immediately proximate to, the Gulf, are not insurmountable. They are not dictated by the unchanging "realities" of the region. Instead, they are the result of a decline in power and position that has made the kind of relationship needed to entertain such forces a liability for most governments in the area. They reflect the low estate to which American power has sunk in a decade, while making extraordinarily difficult any attempts at the effective restoration of this power within a reasonable period of time.

Whether the constraints on the deployment of American power can be overcome in the near future must remain an open question. What does seem reasonably clear is that there is no apparent way by which we can conform to these constraints and still respond adequately to the deepening crisis in the Gulf. A permanent and much larger naval combat presence in the Arabian Sea could effectively meet some of the disabilities thereby imposed, though by no means all. Even then, the creation of such a presence will itself require considerable time. This being so, we must choose either to resign ourselves to a future over which we can have but limited control, or attempt to break out of constraints that hamper a more effective response than is now possible.


If this is the realm of necessity for American foreign policy today, what are the implications of responding to necessity? First and foremost, what kind of relationship can we reasonably expect to have with the Soviet Union? A candid answer is that the measures required to redress the arms balance and to improve the Western position in the Persian Gulf will strain our relationship with the Soviet Union in the immediate future. Still other issues may also intervene to compound the difficulties and dangers that are now all too likely to mark the relationship. In any case, the outlook is bleak.

The principal reasons for this are clear enough. Moscow is quite likely to view a significant effort at rearmament as an attempt not merely to redress an arms balance but to reestablish an overall position of superiority. Moreover, whatever the Soviet leaders may say about their determination to match any American effort, they are bound to entertain serious doubts over their ability to do so in the longer run. They may well be skeptical over the willingness of this nation to accept for long the sacrifices substantial rearmament would entail-certainly their skepticism finds ample support in the doubts entertained by many American observers-but they must harbor no little apprehension over the results of our rearmament if given sustained public support. Even if the Soviet government were nevertheless willing and able to match the American effort, the result would severely strain the Russian economy and, in the bargain, might even produce serious domestic unrest. Yet if Moscow should fail to respond to the American effort, the result, again in Russian eyes, might well be seen as the beginning of the end to pretensions of global power status.

These considerations alone provide ample grounds for pessimism. To them, however, must be added the structural causes for conflict that are provided by the Persian Gulf. The observation has been regularly made that the instability characteristic of much of the Third World provides the single most significant, and seemingly intractable, source of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. But it is not the points of contention and conflict generally in the Third World that have brought the superpowers into potentially dangerous confrontation today; it is the growing competition in the region of the Persian Gulf that has done so. It is the Gulf that forms the indispensable key to the defense of the American global position, just as it forms the indispensable key without which the Soviet Union cannot seriously aspire to global predominance. Alongside the stakes accruing from control of the Gulf, the contest in other regions of the Third World can have but peripheral significance.

The intrinsic importance of the Gulf thus acts as a magnet that, for different reasons, neither superpower can resist. The competition for control of the area is about as certain as anything can be in politics. So long as it persists-and it probably will for some years to come-it will hold out the constant prospect for dangerous confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

With the advantage of hindsight, a number of observers now find that this prospect might have been largely avoided had American policy accepted the Soviet Union as a partner in the Middle East peace process. Instead, by seeking to exclude Moscow from a Middle East settlement, we succeeded only in provoking renewed Soviet determination to improve its position in the areas around the Persian Gulf.

This argument, however, indicates an unwillingness to acknowledge that the Gulf cannot be bought by a policy conceding the form in the hope of retaining the substance. Quite apart from the notorious difficulties raised by including the Russians in the peace process, how would this inclusion have diminished their aspirations in the Gulf? Presumably including them would have been an acknowledgement of the equality upon which they are so insistent. But unless this acknowledgment could also be expected to yield tangible consequences in the Persian Gulf, it would represent in the end little more than an empty gesture. Is there any plausible reason for believing that the Soviets would have been satisfied by such a gesture, or that they might be so satisfied today?

It is, of course, the prospect of a very difficult and dangerous relationship with the Soviet Union that is the principal objection to a policy whose first priority is the restoration of American power generally and, above all, in the Persian Gulf. Yet unless one argues that such restoration is simply unnecessary there is no viable alternative to it. The risks it gives rise to can only be weighed against those that must be run through failing to respond to a still growing Soviet strategic and conventional arms momentum.


If the risks inherent in the Soviet-American relationship today cannot be exorcised by the simple refusal to acknowledge their existence, is there nevertheless substantial reason to believe they can be kept to a moderate threshold? While pursuing a restoration of American power and position, and while once again drawing lines which the Russians are expected not to violate, can we still keep the relationship short of one that is under constant strain? Is it plausible to expect a U.S. policy that will involve, in the phrase of Robert Legvold, "containment without confrontation"?6

Clearly, this would be a far more attractive prospect than the one indicated in these pages. What would a U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union look like that might be expected to lead to this happier relationship? Mr. Legvold argues that it must consist of two principal elements or, in his words, "must proceed on two tracks: one of firmness, military strength (but not by seeking military superiority), and a will to act (requiring a public readier for the possibility); the other of cooperation, the extended hand, and a renewed interest in dealing with problems jointly rather than in turning problems against each other."7 The first track would provide the means of a refurbished policy of containment and draw the lines of such policy. The second track would provide the incentive for the Soviet Union to accept, though perhaps not without occasional lapses, the first. It would include "an economic policy founded on cooperation," "arms control efforts as a significant and carefully coordinated element in a national security policy that does not rely only on arming," and "a serious attempt to open the one area of détente that never got started, namely, crisis management."8

This is clearly a prescription for a return to the policy of the early 1970s, though a return without the illusions of these earlier years. Legvold's "sound, resurrected détente" is a détente that is based on power and a willingness to use that power. It does not assume that Moscow will refrain from seeking "marginal advantages" in the Third World, but rather accepts that Moscow will be so tempted and that the temptation must be countered by a combination of threats, rewards and a growing recognition-encouraged by institutionalized procedures-of mutuality of interest in managing the inevitable competition. The earlier détente presumably failed because it was too soft where it should have been harder and too hard where it should have been softer. A resurrected détente can proceed on the basis of this experience and can do so without having to contend with the domestic constraints of the early to middle 1970s.

Is it reasonable to believe that Legvold's détente would enjoy a better fate than its predecessor? One must doubt that it would. This is so even if we freely grant the assumption that this détente would not suffer from the domestic constraints attending the implementation of the earlier détente. For the principal question the Nixon-Kissinger policy raised-what would induce the Soviet Union to become more moderate, one that no longer sought to exploit opportunities and take advantage of instabilities?-must also be raised by current proposals for a resurrected détente. Moreover, this question must be raised in circumstances much less auspicious than those of an earlier period.

Whereas the détente of 1972 was undertaken at a time when this country was still considered to enjoy a position of net superiority in the arms balance with the Soviet Union, today this no longer holds. And whereas the détente of 1972 was undertaken at a time when the temptations held out by the Third World appeared to have receded, today they have sharply risen-above all, in the one most critical area of the Third World. Finally, Soviet insistence upon being treated as an equal of America, with all that this implies in the various areas of competition, has markedly increased. The time when Moscow could be appeased or fobbed off with the symbols of equality has passed.

Against these considerations, what are the incentives that might induce Moscow to accept an American-inspired definition of moderate behavior? The belief that a more cooperative economic policy might do so is surely a slender reed to rely on. Those who continue to do so have yet to demonstrate how such a policy, once free of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and other impediments, could promote more than a modest relationship without creating more economic risks than benefits for the United States. They would also have to indicate the benefits-whether in trade, providing credit facilities, or technology transfers-that the Russians do not already enjoy in increasing measure by virtue of their economic relationships with West European countries. And even if these propositions could be persuasively demonstrated, they would still have to indicate why the Soviet Union might be expected to do what it has never before done: to subordinate high policy to such benefits as an improved economic relationship might bring. In this regard, it may be recalled that the first serious test, and failure, of the promise of détente, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, preceded the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

The emphasis placed by advocates of a new détente on a continuing and even greater effort toward arms control is easy to understand though difficult to credit. It is easy to understand since the SALT process has come to be seen as the principal achievement of the old détente. In the course of the 1970s, this process has even been increasingly viewed as constituting the principal ongoing method of political communication with the Soviet Union, the jeopardizing of which would measurably enhance the prospects of nuclear war. Not surprisingly, this view has become the more insistent as the normal forms of communication have atrophied in the wake of Afghanistan.

Yet the emphasis placed on the SALT process remains difficult to credit. In the last eight years this process has not hindered the Soviets from pursuing substantially the same arms buildup we have every reason to believe they would have pursued in its absence. Nor did Moscow's stake in SALT prevent it from exploiting those situations in the Third World that opportunity presented. We have, of course, no way of knowing what the Soviet Union might have done in the Third World without SALT. But it is special pleading to point to Afghanistan as an example of what might have occurred earlier had it not been for Soviet interest in arms control. There are many reasons that account for Afghanistan. The Soviet calculation in late 1979 that the cause of SALT II had been lost-at least for the time being-could only have been one such reason and likely a subordinate one.

If we put aside economic policy and arms control, there remains the area of "crisis management," of dealing jointly with problems arising from superpower competition in the Third World. Without question, this has been, as Legvold and others remind us, the area in which the old détente never got started. It is also the area that more than any other proved fatal to the old détente. The reasons it did so, however, must surely tell us something about the prospects held out by a new détente, for these reasons are clearly no less relevant today than they were in the early to middle 1970s.

If the Soviet leadership was unwilling then to acquiesce in a definition of equality that, in its eyes, denied Moscow the substance of equality, it is all the more unwilling to do so today. An improved military position has given added weight to Soviet insistence upon equal rights in the Third World, while the rising opportunities for exploiting instabilities have made the claim almost compelling in its attraction.

On the American side, though the arms balance has steadily moved in an adverse direction, there is an increasing disposition to resist Moscow's claim to equal rights not only because of a general change in the climate of opinion-a change resulting in part from the experience with the old détente-but also, and more important, because of the rising fear that the claim, once acknowledged in principle, would soon be applied to regions of critical interest to this country.

In these circumstances, the prospects for crisis management must be rated as very low. Nor is it apparent why in these circumstances crisis management is intrinsically desirable, even if presently unobtainable. Clearly, it is desirable if such management may operate within a framework of state relations to which the parties can meaningfully subscribe. Within this framework, the competition of the great powers for position and advantage has been difficult enough to manage. Without it, the search for crisis management-in effect, for mutually agreed "rules of the game"-must either prove barren or lead to quite undesirable results. For the search itself necessarily presumes the basis for the desired goal, else the effort to fashion reliable patterns of mutual restraint must prove feckless. Unfortunately, the evidence that this basis exists is no more convincing today than it was in the period of the cold war. It is only the belief that it exists which has increased.9


The renewed search for détente with the Soviet Union, this time a détente without the illusions and excessive expectations attending the old détente, reflects the fear that in its absence we will be tempted to return to something akin to the policy of containment that prevailed from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. In turn, that fear finds a two fold expression. In one, it is that if we attempt to resurrect the containment of yesterday in the conditions of today, we may well tempt the Soviets to exploit their present position of strength in a manner that will lead to an ultimate confrontation. In the other, it is that if we attempt and even partially succeed in resurrecting the containment of yesterday, we will tempt ourselves to repeat the excesses of yesterday. Thus, whether we fail or succeed, the alternatives to a new détente are seen as forbidding.

There is no need, however, to accept these as the only alternatives to a new détente. The Soviet-American relationship may take yet other expressions and hold out less forbidding consequences, even in the short term. What American policy cannot avoid, save at the risk of sacrificing its global position and gravely jeopardizing its security, are the measures outlined earlier in this essay. But these measures form no more than a limited policy of containment. They respond essentially to the same security interests that an earlier policy of containment responded to in the years immediately following World War II. Even so, a policy of moderate containment today would necessarily differ from the moderate containment of the late 1940s because we cannot regain the relative power advantage we once enjoyed. Certainly there is no way by which we can recapture the immunity from direct attack we once enjoyed. Nor can we determine the behavior of our principal allies in the manner we once could.

These changes, not to speak of the changes that have occurred in the once-passive Third World, require us to recognize that today we could only pursue the methods and even the aspirations which characterized an earlier period of containment at very great cost and effort, and even then with no more than a modest prospect of success. If this is so, the containment of today and tomorrow, unlike yesterday's containment, will have to deal with the Soviet Union in a manner that those who presided over containment in the past were often reluctant to accept. The containment of today and tomorrow will have to make concessions and compromises in areas of contention where concession and compromise were once spurned. And if it is at all prudent, a refurbished containment will, wherever possible, avoid measures which at once sharply exacerbate the relationship with the Soviet Union and make the prospect of its future amelioration virtually impossible.

Nothing would be more likely to have these effects than a military alliance, even if only de facto, with China. Yet this is the direction in which American policy has been inexorably moving in the past year or so. If it is carried forward much more, it will soon seal the Soviet-American relationship in a fixed and truly dangerous mold by making it hostage to our relations with China. Nor will it matter that this is done from a position of growing strength rather than, as in the recent past, from a position of relative weakness.

The promise of a policy of limited containment envisaged here is not the promise of détente-even of a "sound, resurrected détente." It suggests far more competition than cooperation. It finds the sources of this competition primarily in the structural causes of conflict between the superpowers rather than in the still profoundly different visions of the world and of the state system that the two respectively entertain.

Even so, the great ideological divide that continues to separate the Soviet Union and the United States remains an important source of conflict. When combined with the structural causes, the result gives the Soviet-American relationship greater continuity with the past than is commonly acknowledged. It is, indeed, this continuity in change that prompts some to insist that a policy of moderate containment will not work and that the logic of our position requires a resurgent America in pursuit of goals reminiscent of the later period of containment.


The case for recognizing the central importance of the ideological stakes of the conflict has been most forcefully and acutely made by Norman Podhoretz.10 It is not sufficient, he has argued, to treat the Soviet-American rivalry in the manner of conventional great power contests. The "new nationalism" that has arisen in reaction to the visible decline of American power (though needed and healthy) has a tendency to do just that. Podhoretz finds in this reaction little awareness of the deeper meaning of the conflict. Yet unless a deeper meaning is given to Soviet-American rivalry-now more serious in its implications than perhaps it has ever been-he fears that the requisite base for carrying us into and sustaining a new period of global containment will prove lacking. The threat that ought to rouse us but that is still missing from a long overdue reaction to a policy of strategic retreat is communism. Without an awareness of the all-embracing threat that the advance of communism implies, the change we are witnessing today will lack direction and purpose. He writes:

In resisting the advance of Soviet Power . . . . we are fighting for freedom and against Communism, for democracy and against totalitarianism. Yet it is precisely this sense of things that the new nationalism thus far lacks . . . . Without such clarity, the new nationalism is unlikely to do more than lead to sporadic outbursts of indignant energy.11

It is in Podhoretz's outlook that we may find perhaps the clearest advocacy of a resurgent America committed again to the goals of a policy of global containment. Directed not only against Soviet expansion, but against the coming to power of communist governments generally, this policy would be restrained only by considerations of prudence. But if the constraints of prudence are to be taken with greater seriousness than in an earlier period, they are not to be used as an excuse for a policy indistinguishable from moderate containment.

If we contrast the alternative that Podhoretz presents with the requirements of a policy of limited containment, it is apparent that in choosing between them we are destined to retrace an old argument. For they are strikingly similar to the alternatives held out in the years that followed World War II. The two principal versions of containment that vied with one another then promise to become once again the major source of contention today.

Though the earlier debate ultimately turned on two different views of the requirements of American security, it is important not to exaggerate the differences between them. The circumstances of the late 1940s made the application of containment roughly identical with a balance-of-power policy. Yet even then, containment in Europe was from the outset undertaken for reasons that went beyond security, narrowly construed. Here, as well as in the case of Japan, the intent was not only to prevent these centers of industrial power from falling under Russian control, but to ensure that they would remain-or become-democratic societies. From the outset, then, the policy of moderate containment expressed a security interest that went beyond a conventional security interest in balance-of-power terms to identify security with the internal order maintained by states. Though modest, it still implied a scheme of things that went beyond the order implicit in a balance of power. This scheme cannot be equated with the universalist pretensions of the Truman Doctrine; but it also cannot be equated with a narrow and traditional conception of security.

In a word, the differences between the two initial views of containment were relative, not absolute. Had this not been the case, it would have been much more difficult than it was to move from the narrower and more conventional view of security characteristic of the early years of containment to the broader view that came to prevail in the period following Korea. Still, these relative differences were important. They carried distinctive implications not only about the kind of world we needed for our security but also about the kind of world we wanted. Indeed, in both views, it was virtually impossible to distinguish need from want.

This inability to separate need from want in the evolution of containment is scarcely unusual. It is a common characteristic of all great nations. For the latter, the ultimate expression of security can rarely be found in its physical or economic dimensions, but must instead be found in the moral-psychological-or, if one prefers, the spiritual-dimension. What else can explain the insistence that security cannot be limited to "mere" physical security? And what else can explain the insistence that although the nation's physical being may remain inviolate and its economic base secured, the nation "itself" may not survive? In failing to take these questions seriously, we misunderstand the meaning not only of great power behavior, but of our own as well.

In abandoning isolationism in the 1930s, we responded not only to a perceived threat to our physical and economic security. We also recoiled from the prospect of a world in which America's political and economic frontiers would become coterminous with her territorial frontiers, a world in which societies that shared our institutions and values might very possibly disappear-in sum, a world in which the American example and American influence would become irrelevant. In such a world, it was argued, America could no longer realize her promise, since a hostile world from which America was shut out would inevitably affect the integrity of the nation's institutions and the quality of its domestic life. The issues of physical security and economic well-being apart, it was to prevent this prospect from materializing that the nation abandoned its interwar isolationism, intervened in World War II, and, in the years following the war, adopted a policy of containment. And it has been to prevent this same prospect from materializing that we have been willing to incur the risk of physical destruction through nuclear war, rather than to abandon interests which would not jeopardize our physical existence if once lost.

This experience does indeed indicate that the initial and indispensable stimulus prompting the exercise of American power has been a perceived threat to the nation's physical security or material well-being. But it also points to the inadequacy of conventional security calculations in sustaining the exercise of American power. Once the initial threat has brought forth a response, America has needed a broader rationale for the effort and sacrifice required to sustain the exercise of power. When it has not been forthcoming or when it has been discredited, the result has been drift and uncertainty. So it was that in the early stages of containment the response that was initially evoked, largely as a result of conventional security considerations, was sustained and even expanded by what came to be a still broader motive for policy. When that broader motive was discredited, as it was by Vietnam, even the narrower and conventional security policy became difficult to sustain.


The American experience would thus appear to support the view that our alternatives today are either a policy of a resurgent America intent once again on containing wherever possible the expansion of Soviet influence-as well as the expansion of communism generally-or a policy of moderate containment that may prove inadequate to sustain the power and discipline even to protect interests on which our essential security depends. For if the latter is less demanding, it is also considerably less appealing in the promise it holds out: not of a world moving progressively under American leadership toward the eventual triumph of liberal-capitalist values, but of a world in which America would have to abandon expectations that only yesterday she confidently held. We would have to reconcile ourselves to the prospect of a world of which a large, and perhaps increasing, part outside the industrial democracies would resist American influence.

If that prospect is viewed with alarm, it is not only so viewed by the proponents of a resurgent America. Even those who decry the call for a resurgent America and insistently remind us that we no longer have the power to shape the world according to our desires appear uneasy over accepting the prospect of a world in which American influence would decline. This, at least, is what they have repeatedly declared. The officials of the Carter Administration, including the President, were no doubt quite sincere in expressing the desire to see the developing world move in a manner that would ultimately prove congenial to us. To be sure, they advocated the need for America "to get on the side of change." But they did so presumably in order to guide and to manage the great changes they found sweeping the world. Through different and more congenial methods than those that were often employed in the past, they nonetheless aspired to achieve the goals of the past.

This strategy inevitably failed. The goals of the past could not be achieved while foreswearing the methods that once attended those goals. Even a policy of moderate containment cannot escape incurring the risk of intervention. Clearly, it cannot do so in the Persian Gulf; and circumstances there may prove even more ambiguous than those attending past interventions. It will not do, then, to charge that a resurgent America will be an interventionist America. Any policy of containment must accept the risk of intervention, and in circumstances that we may find in many ways undesirable.

Still, there are risks and risks, and it would be disingenuous to deny that the risks, and costs, likely to attend a return to something resembling the former policy of global containment would be anything less than considerable. The circumstances in which such a policy would have to be undertaken today are much less auspicious than they were a decade and a half ago. Nor is it reasonable to expect a substantial change for the better until the military measures discussed earlier have been successfully undertaken. This will require several years, though, and even then the outcome will not necessarily yield advantages in the overall military balance that a policy of a resurgent America would require. For that policy presupposes a position of clear military superiority; it cannot be prudently undertaken from a position of parity or even from a position of slight advantage.

What might the Soviet Union be expected to do in the face of a policy that wherever possible intends to resist its every move, and that undertakes to develop the necessary means to do so? I am not speaking here of a policy intent on preserving interests outside this hemisphere, which for the United States are indispensable to its entire position in the world, such as the Persian Gulf. For the Soviet Union these interests are indispensable as the key to global predominance. The measures required to implement such a policy are not without risks. Confronted even with these measures, the Soviet leaders must anticipate the time when they will no longer enjoy their present military position. Moreover, they can have no assurance that, having once taken these measures, we will forego the temptation to achieve a position of military superiority. But if the risks inherent in the attempt to redress the present military balance are substantial, how much greater would they be if accompanied by a commitment to a policy of global containment?

In the present circumstances, then, a return to the expansive version of containment, if seriously intended, is likely to place us on the most dangerous of courses with the Soviet Union. For that policy must in effect convey the message to Moscow that the clock is to be set back at least 15 years, that the status of equality accorded the U.S.S.R. by the late 1960s is henceforth to have a largely honorific significance, and that the United States no longer intends to accept the Soviet Union as a global power. Quite apart from the reaction of Soviet leaders to what they would see as a renewed determination to treat them as a regional power, what effect would this have on our principal allies?

If the experience of the past year is any indication, the answer is reasonably clear. At best, it would further exacerbate the existing crisis in the Western alliance. At worst, it might lead to an open rupture and to the greatest diplomatic defeat for this country in the postwar period. Disagreement within the Atlantic Alliance has almost always been greatest over issues that have not been specifically European. In truth, the alliance has seldom effectively functioned as an alliance with respect to these issues, even when the issue in question has vitally affected alliance interests. Of these, the energy crisis and ensuing differences over the proper Western policy to be pursued in the Middle East afford the most dramatic and important examples.

Of course, one may argue that these differences are largely the result of a markedly declining confidence of Western Europe in American leadership, discipline and will, and that a resurgent America dedicated again to global containment would, in demonstrating these qualities, restore this badly impaired confidence. Without question, a more consistent and resolute American leadership would restore a measure of European confidence and elicit a greater degree of cooperation. It is, after all, scarcely surprising that given the character of American policy in recent years, Western Europe did not greet the hardened position toward the U.S.S.R. in 1980 with enthusiasm. If this shift were to prove abortive, or if it were not to be followed up, America would risk losing a great deal. But Western Europe would risk losing everything.

In these circumstances, and with a vivid memory of the American record since the mid-1970s, what is perhaps surprising is that West European resistance to shifts in American policy this past year was not more pronounced. At the same time, the effective reassertion of American power and leadership may yet prompt a quite different reaction-and sooner than is commonly expected. It will do so, however, only if the Europeans are persuaded that the United States is pursuing a policy that does not risk confrontation with the Soviet Union over interests deemed extraneous to the Western alliance. This task of persuasion has been difficult enough in the Middle East, where Western Europe's interests are manifest but where American policy has been seen to jeopardize those interests because of Washington's position on the Arab-Israeli conflict and-to a lesser degree-even on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yet how much greater would European opposition be to a policy that, in seeking to deny the extension of Soviet power and influence in areas of no intrinsic concern to Western Europe, threatened to take Europe back to the conditions of the 1950s?

To the risks that a policy of a resurgent America would likely incur must be added the costs. How great those costs would be, when added to those of a more modest policy, is difficult to assess. Certainly they would be substantially greater, if only because a policy of global containment implies military superiority over the Soviet Union. They would also be substantially greater because this more ambitious policy holds out a greater promise of intervention. It would be reckless to assume that interventions in the future will prove less costly than those in the past. The Third World has not become more passive since the 1960s. Instead, it has become almost everywhere more resistant to great-power attempts to exercise the control or even the influence that was once part of the order of things.

This being so, the risks of intervention, when measured in terms of domestic support, have not diminished but, if anything, increased. They have increased not because of the many, though dubious, "lessons" that have been drawn from our experience in Vietnam but because of one indisputable lesson. It is that success is the great solvent of serious public disaffection over foreign policy, and particularly over military intervention. Had the intervention in Vietnam succeeded within a relatively brief period, it is reasonable to assume that significant opposition to the war would not have arisen. Unless future interventions can find a justification in security interests that the public finds compelling, they will have to enjoy relatively quick and cheap success. Yet the prospects for satisfying these requirements are today less favorable than ever.

Given these considerations, could a policy reminiscent of the later period of containment be expected to command the necessary support at home? Could it elicit the broad domestic consensus required to sustain it over the long term? There are no easy answers to these questions. It is reasonably clear, however, that the domestic support required for a return to the policy of a generation ago does not yet exist. Instead, in the emergence of a "new nationalism" we find a public that at once rejects the guilt and withdrawal of the post-Vietnam period while reluctant to embrace again the enthusiasms of the pre-Vietnam period. Though it has become increasingly supportive of greater defense efforts, it has also remained cautious of the purposes for which American arms might be employed. Accordingly, though it is supportive of existing commitments, it has also remained cautious over endorsing new commitments-witness the less than overwhelming public response evoked by the Carter Doctrine.

To date, then, the new nationalism appears thoroughly self-interested. It is precisely this trait that leads observers like Norman Podhoretz to conclude that the new nationalism lacks "a sense of things." Yet what it lacks is not an anti-communist disposition as such, but the anti-communist disposition of yesterday and, of course, the willingness of yesterday to act on the basis of that disposition.

Whether the prevailing public mood of today can be sustained remains to be seen. It may be that it cannot. Expressing as it does an outlook supportive of a modest policy and based on calculations of self-interest, it is, as already noted, different from our experience since World War II. To this experience, moreover, must be added the attractions of investing great significance in conflicts that bear only marginally on our core interests. If, however, the new nationalism could be sustained, if it could avoid the disenchantment and withdrawal that followed Vietnam as well as the enthusiasm and involvement that preceded Vietnam, it would not need the intellectual guidance that many believe it must have. Indeed, the foreign policy elites might well benefit by taking their cue from the new nationalism rather than by endeavoring to instruct it. The essential elements of a viable consensus on foreign policy need not be further sought after. For the moment, at any rate, they are apparent in the prevailing public mood.


If a domestic consensus can be sustained in support of a policy of moderate containment, as outlined earlier in these pages, what is the great objection to its acceptance? Though described as moderate, it is not, after all, an inconsiderable enterprise. To redress the overall arms balance, to ensure Western access to the oil supplies of the Persian Gulf, and generally to restore confidence abroad that America has the understanding and the discipline to maintain a solvent foreign policy, seems a substantial enough undertaking. Why, then, should we consider taking on more unless it can be shown that the more is essential to our security?

These questions bring us back to the difficult, perhaps even insoluble, distinction between need and want. It is clear what we generally want to happen in the Third World (and it is the Third World that we are talking about). Yet it is also in much of the Third World that our distinction between need and want has often been the most tenuous, just as it is here that containment in the past has enjoyed the least success. The issue a refurbished policy of global containment must raise is not whether it should be applied to those areas where need is or should be apparent to all, as in the region of the Persian Gulf, but where it is plausible, at best, only if unverifiable assumption is piled upon unverifiable assumption.

The argument may be illustrated by reference to an area, Central America, that seems almost certain to provoke rising concern and controversy in the coming period.12 In Central America there are no vital raw materials or minerals whose loss might provide the basis for legitimate security concerns. Yet Central America bears geographical proximity to the United States, and historically it has long been regarded as falling within our sphere of influence. As such, we have long exercised the role great powers have traditionally exercised over small states which fall within their respective spheres of influence. We have regularly played a determining role in making and in unmaking governments, and we have defined what we have considered to be the acceptable behavior of governments. In Central America our pride is engaged as it cannot possibly be engaged in Africa or in Southeast Asia. If we do not apply a policy of a resurgent America to prevent the coming to power of radical regimes in Central America, we have even less reason to do so in other areas where conventional security interests are not apparent. Reasons of pride and historic tradition apart, it is here, if anywhere, that we enjoy clear military superiority and may expect to retain such superiority in the future. In Central America, then, one risk of an ambitious containment policy would be absent.

Would a return to a policy of the past work in Central America? Providing that we exercise some care in defining what we mean by "work," there is no persuasive reason for believing that it would not. The measures required to ensure success may prove unwelcome and embarrassing today since we can have no assurance that indirect methods of intervention will prove sufficient. We have now passed the period of overthrowing an Arbenz in Guatemala, when disposing of governments to which we took offense was a quite easy undertaking. Today we must expect to deal with a far more determined and effective opposition. The price promises to be markedly greater, and it will have to be paid not only in the actions we take but in the reaction of others-particularly, though not only, in Latin America-to our actions.

Moreover, this price cannot be trimmed by halfway measures, that is, by an opposition to radical movements that still fails to prevent their taking power, or, more important, that fails to remove them should they achieve power. The expected result of such halfway measures will only be to create the conditions for another Cuba. Radical movements or radical regimes must be defeated. Yet even if we pay the necessary price for defeating them, we cannot be sure how long our success will endure. Success is likely to prove precarious not only because the defeated may well continue to enjoy broad support, but because the victors will have to do what has to date been impossible for them to do-enlist the support of centrist elements. Unfortunately, these elements no longer exist in Central American states. Right-wing governments will have to be given steady outside support, even, if necessary, by sending in American forces.

It can be done. But why should we do it? If one replies that our security requires doing it, we still have to determine the nature of the security interests at stake. One presumably relates to Mexico. Is it reasonable to assume, however, that the course of Central America will seriously influence the course of Mexico? Most outside observers think not, believing instead that Mexico's future will be determined by that nation's internal policies. Certainly the Mexicans do not think so, else it would be difficult to explain their current policy toward Central America. It does not seem unreasonable in this instance to accept the Mexicans' assessment of their interests.

There remains, it is true, the broader relationship-of-interests argument. If, it runs here, the Soviet Union observes our passivity to events in our own backyard that signal the loss of American control, what conclusions might it draw about our probable passivity in other, far more difficult, areas? The argument cannot simply be dismissed. Yet its persuasiveness depends, in the final reckoning, on what we do or fail to do in areas where vital interests clearly are at stake. If we remain passive in these areas, what we do in Central America will have only marginal significance. The eagle that kills the deer in Central America will not frighten the bear in the Middle East.

It is not need that would prompt this course but want-a want, moreover, which the Soviet Union would not only accept but probably endorse, since it would be seen to help legitimize much of its own behavior. The only other coherent policy is to observe a hands-off position toward the events now occurring in Central America, a position that implies stopping military aid to El Salvador. Should further radical regimes come to power, we would accept the outcome. More, we would give them reason to maintain a normal relationship with the Soviet Union, rather than to follow in the footsteps of Cuba. Such inducement, of which the present economic aid to Nicaragua forms an example, may be seen as a mere euphemism for blackmail. I have no objection to the term. But then blackmail is a commonplace in the relations of states. Having put up with the spectacular instances of it that we have seen in the past decade, to balk here would truly be a case of straining at the gnat while swallowing the camel.

If we were instead to swallow the gnat, and perhaps a few others as well in the years to come, it would not signify that we liked this diet. It would only mean that we recognized at last that we are in a position where we can afford to view changes we do not welcome with the equanimity they deserve.

What we cannot view with equanimity is that the states of Central America enter into a relationship with the Soviet Union that resembles the relationship with Cuba. Geographical proximity has not lost its significance. At issue, then, is not whether Central America continues to form a part of this nation's sphere of influence. Instead, it is the nature of the influence we should seek to exercise within our sphere and how best such influence may be preserved. It is between those who define our sphere of influence to include the internal order of states, and those who do not, that there is a clear difference in principle. That difference ought not to be confused with the preeminently practical judgment on the policy best suited to prevent the kind of intrusion by an outside power we should clearly aim to prevent.

In the Central American case, our claims are rooted in geography and history. If these claims ought not to extend to the internal order of states here, there is still less reason for extending them elsewhere in the Third World. The strictures earlier made with respect to the Persian Gulf do not contradict this conclusion. In the Gulf, we are necessarily concerned with internal order because this issue cannot be separated from a vital interest in access to oil supplies. The same vital interest bids us oppose the extension of Soviet influence in that region. Were it not for this interest we could view changes in the internal order and, for that matter, the extension of Soviet influence, with relative detachment. Not with utter indifference, but with the relative detachment that holds out the best promise of avoiding the excesses which have characterized American foreign policy in the past.


There is no fate that decrees we must repeat these excesses of concern and withdrawal. Having experienced the consequences of both in the past two decades, we ought to have learned that the result of both is to lead to the insolvency of policy. A period of withdrawal and of passivity has come to an end. If it is to be succeeded by a period of an America everywhere resurgent and activist, we will only risk jeopardizing interests that are critical to the nation's security and well-being.

The restoration of those interests will prove no small task. Once done, the great object of American foreign policy ought to be the restoration of a more normal political world, a world in which those states possessing the elements of great power once again play the role their power entitles them to play. In the case of our principal allies, this disparity between latent and actual power has, if anything, grown rather than diminished. If not substantially reduced, the disparity is almost certain to lead to still greater difficulty in alliance relationships, and this quite apart from the manner in which America conducts her foreign policy.

For the principal difficulty that characterizes alliance relationships today goes much deeper than issues of style or even of substance. It reflects instead the frustration, and resentment, of those who are now able to assume responsibility for their security but have yet to do so. If they were at long last to do so, the political world as we know it today would be transformed. A third of a century after World War II, that transformation is surely long overdue.

1 Speech delivered by Cyrus Vance at Harvard University, June 5, 1980, The New York Times, June 6, 1980, p. A12.

2 Robert W. Tucker, Nation or Empire? The Debate Over American Foreign Policy, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968, p. 32. Surveying the changes that had occurred over a generation in the structure of American security, I concluded that: "There is, in fact, no meaningful comparison to be drawn between the security position of this nation in the late nineteen-forties and its security position today. Whereas in the nineteen-forties it was still entirely possible, if not entirely plausible, to imagine an imbalance of military power that would threaten the physical security of America, today this contingency is no longer a meaningful possibility. Whereas in the nineteen-forties it was still entirely possible, and altogether plausible, to imagine an imbalance of power resulting in a security problem the solution of which would severely strain the nation's resources and jeopardize its democratic institutions, today this contingency is, at best, very remote."

3 John Kenneth Galbraith, "Plain Lessons of a Bad Decade," Foreign Policy, Winter 1970-71, p. 37.

5 See David Watt, "The Atlantic Alliance Needs Leaders Who Face the Facts," The Economist, October 11, 1980, p. 26.

7 Ibid., p. 93.

8 Ibid., p. 95.

9 A telling sign of this belief in the past year has been the fashionable analogy drawn between 1914 and 1980, with its evident implication that the Soviet Union is today's Wilhelmenian Germany, a revisionist power, to be sure, but one whose revisionism is nevertheless limited by adherence to the same framework of state relations as its competitors. The progression of thought from the early 1970s, then, is this: whereas in these earlier years the Soviet Union was seen by many as an increasingly status quo power in the literal sense, now it is seen as revisionist, though revisionist in the conventional meaning of the term.

10 Norman Podhoretz, The Present Danger, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

12 In considering the Central American example, I have benefited much from conversations with my colleague, Professor Piero Gleijeses. These conversations were all the more instructive in that Professor Gleijeses reflects the perspective of the Left, while I of the Right.



  • Robert W. Tucker is Professor of Political Science at The Johns Hopkins University, co-director of studies at The Lehrman Institute, and the author of The Inequality of Nations and other works. The author wishes to express his gratitude to David Hendrickson for his invaluable assistance in preparing this essay.
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