How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Nineteen hundred and eighty-five begins as a year of promise in world affairs. The Soviet Union has returned to the bargaining table with the United States after a year's hiatus. The Middle East is relatively quiet despite the violence in Lebanon. The situation in Central America is unhappy but seemingly stalemated. Nowhere are American forces engaged in combat. No catastrophes hover over President Reagan as he begins his second term.
Nineteen hundred and eighty-four marked a passage of sorts for the Reagan Administration. After three years of stifling rhetoric and inaction, the White House and the State Department returned to more traditional diplomatic forms—moderate words that allow for compromise, and actual engagement with adversaries previously shunned. Of equal importance, President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz assert that the Administration has restored America's position and power in the world, and that on this basis they are ready to pursue diplomatic ends.
As always, however, the picture is decidedly mixed. On the plus side, Mr. Reagan has generally succeeded in generating positive perceptions of the United States, of a nation on the move while its chief adversary is in decline. For the most part, nations are treating the Reagan Administration with respect and looking to it for leadership.
Uncertain still is how much the Administration has actually improved American military and economic power. Upon closer inspection, America's gains in these categories over the past four years may turn out to be less impressive and enduring than they are commonly portrayed. Likely, they fall far short of the position of strength the Administration may feel it requires in order to compel others to bend toward American desires. And on the negative side, the Administration will find that the world it now wants to engage presents a frozen diplomatic landscape. This is due in part to the lack of Reagan diplomatic accomplishments and in part just to the way the world is, filled with enduring animosities and real conflicts of interest, and with circumstances where leaders are in fact seldom strong enough to impose their wills or resolve their differences.
Of more immediate and practical concern is whether the Administration, its new promises notwithstanding, is sufficiently led, organized and disposed to the sustained attention and kinds of compromises necessary to the conduct of more traditional diplomacy. Mr. Reagan's staunchest conservative supporters are arguing that his first term was right on course, and that he should stick with it. Better no agreements with adversaries than agreements that compromise American principles and interests, they contend. Besides, they are saying, the United States is still inferior militarily to the Soviet Union, and the Administration is not yet ready to negotiate from strength.
But the conflicts of the world will not stop or stop compounding until the United States is prepared to resume the role of peacemaker. Mr. Reagan can count himself fortunate thus far that he has not faced the difficult choices of his predecessors. But he cannot count on such continued good fortune. For the kinds of achievements the President now insists are his most cherished goals, he will have to turn his back on some of his most basic professions of faith.
The Reagan philosophy, as the President explained it in 1980 and 1981, represented a radical departure from the foreign policies of the previous decade. Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter had consistently, albeit in different ways, conducted foreign policies that were adjusting to the changed world. Each pursued an active diplomacy to compensate for the diffusion of international power that had become so evident by the late 1960s. Ronald Reagan reversed the logic: Washington's policies should not have to adjust to the world—a strong reassertive America could make the world adjust to Washington.
To understand how sharp the Reagan departure was, one must recall the evolution in American thinking about foreign policy during the 1960s. In the halcyon years of unequaled American power after World War II, the United States had essentially pursued policies of deterrence through the threat of force. Diplomacy with the Soviet Union was subordinate to simple deterrence. President Eisenhower was periodically intrigued by new diplomatic opportunities, but Secretary of State John Foster Dulles slowed the progression of such policies, and Eisenhower then ran out of time.
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were more prepared to deal with the Soviets. There was some progress after the Cuban crisis, and a limited nuclear test ban treaty was achieved. But the impulse for diplomacy, either with Moscow or in troubled regions, was increasingly diverted by the demands of the Vietnam War. When Lyndon Johnson called on others to reason together with us, his audience was his opponents in Vietnam. He could not find a larger diplomatic stage on which to operate. Foreign policy had become Vietnam policy.
Yet throughout the 1960s, more and more analysts were finding in Vietnam a fundamental conceptual error in American foreign policy. It was time, they argued, for America to recognize that the world had changed. Our strength was newly limited, not by a loss of American will, but by a profusion of new nations and a diffusion of military as well as economic power. This called, they argued, for adjustments, both in defining a more careful hierarchy of our interests and in how we pursued them.
It was not only liberals who were thinking these thoughts. Henry Kissinger wrote in 1968:
For most of the postwar period, America enjoyed predominance in physical resources and political power. Now, like most other nations in history, we find that our most difficult task is how to apply limited means to the accomplishment of carefully defined ends. We can no longer overwhelm our problems; we must master them with imagination, understanding and patience.
In 1969, Richard Nixon well understood the point Kissinger had made. He proclaimed the end of the postwar era in international relations, and laid out a series of new policy directions in which a new emphasis on diplomacy would help compensate for a reduction in America's relative strength. No longer possessing a preponderance of power, the United States would maneuver within a sustained balance of power. And under President Nixon important diplomatic achievements were attained: in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) agreements, in the opening to China, in the disengagement of Egyptian and Israeli forces in the Sinai.
President Nixon was struggling not only with changed international realities, but with basic changes in the domestic politics of foreign policy as well. Ever since World War II, the American public had insisted that its presidents' foreign policies successfully serve two goals: containing the spread of communism and Soviet influence, and keeping America at peace. Of course, the two goals were sometimes contradictory. But any politician who failed to promise both, and any president who could not produce both, was penalized at the polls.
Mr. Nixon found his way between the Charybdis of war and the Scylla of appeasement by winding down American participation in Vietnam while proclaiming policies of peace with honor. He was able to avoid reaction on the right to his recognition of a new era largely through his wars with the left. The attacks on him by the anti-war movement helped shield him from suspicions of softness. His tough rhetoric and emphasis on a sustained balance of power strengthened the shield.
Nevertheless, when Mr. Nixon was gone and the war was over, hard-liners who found Henry Kissinger's policies of adjustment at best distasteful, and at worst un-American, went on the attack. To accommodate either our goals or our diplomacy to a changed world would become a self-fulfilling admission of weakness, they argued. The attack on Mr. Kissinger within both the Democratic and Republican parties focused on his historical pessimism and his acceptance of the view that we could not order the world in the way we wished. For the Democrats, it was his lack of concern about the internal policies of other governments and their human rights abuses. For conservative Republicans, it was his willingness to negotiate and thus compromise with the Soviet Union: if we are all that is good and they are all that is evil, then to compromise with the devil is sin. So in 1975 and 1976, Gerald Ford bent to the winds from his right in the Republican Party, abandoned the pursuit of a SALT II agreement and banished the word "détente" from his Administration's lexicon. Policies of adjustment were put on hold. Serious diplomacy would wait.
Jimmy Carter came to office presenting a picture of the world in 1977 similar to that described by Richard Nixon in 1970. The challenge for American foreign policy was to adapt to and shape processes of change abroad. Certainly, there was more emphasis on human rights and less on containment than there had been with President Nixon; more effort at achieving regional solutions to regional problems and less on constraining the Soviets through détente and linkages. But like Nixon and Kissinger, Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance pursued policies of diplomatic engagement. And, again, important results were achieved: in the Camp David accords, in normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China, in the negotiation of a SALT II agreement, in the Panama Canal treaties and in helping to achieve a settlement in Zimbabwe.
Unlike Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter left office with his foreign policies largely discredited. Part of the reason was his failure ever to fashion a coherent policy toward the Soviet Union. Another was the way in which the Iran hostage crisis came to symbolize what was perceived as a weak presidency. It laid bare the limitations to American power, and the American public did not like it. Perhaps most important was a signal difference from the Nixon approach: while the former President had presented policies of adjustment in the rhetoric of national power, Mr. Carter presented them in the rhetoric of adjustment (except when it came to human rights). It was honest, but it alarmed both the American public and our allies. The containment imperative had been violated. In 1980, when his rhetoric shifted, his anti-Soviet tough line was more confusing than convincing.
As the pain of Vietnam receded in the national memory, Americans were ready for a return to the security of the 1950s. Ronald Reagan promised to achieve this. His was not the rhetoric of diplomacy; it was the rhetoric of supremacy, and it tended to exclude diplomacy.
President Reagan painted a picture of the world which was both more dangerous but also potentially much easier to shape to our interests and in our image than the world described by Presidents Carter and Nixon. The Soviets were more menacing than Mr. Carter had said they were, at least before 1980. But in the Reagan view we did not face a jumble of complex and intractable problems which required an American foreign policy of maneuver and adjustment. The problem was not a complex world; it was simply the will of America. Restore our spirit and our strength, and we could reverse the adverse growth of Soviet military power over the past decade. Restore America and there could be be a restoration of the "postwar era" whose obituary President Nixon had written in 1970.
From this followed a more expansive definition of American interests. If a failure to stand up to the Soviets anywhere would encourage further aggression, and if the Soviets were the source of radical challenges to the status quo almost anywhere in the world, then every trouble spot posed a vital threat to American interests. This required, in turn, a massive military buildup. As Robert Osgood wrote in a Foreign Affairs review of President Reagan's first year:
The overriding goal of the Administration's foreign policy was to make American and Western power commensurate to the support of greatly extended global security interests and commitments. There was no disposition to define interests more selectively and no expectation of anything but an intensified Soviet threat to those interests. Hence, the emphasis on closing the gap between interests and power would be placed on augmenting countervailing military strength. . . .
With new military strength would come two kinds of solutions to our foreign challenges. First, we could negotiate with the Soviet Union from a position of strength. The threat of an arms race which the Soviets could not hope to win would force Moscow to negotiate arms control agreements on terms less generous than those conceded by American negotiators in the SALT I and SALT II agreements.
In addition, new American military strength would also deter Soviet trouble-making around the world. Nixon's "era of negotiation" would be replaced by an era of American might. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, speaking in 1981, described the "four pillars" of the President's foreign policy: restoration of America's economic and military strength; reinvigorated alliances; progress in the developing countries; and a relationship with the Soviets "marked by greater Soviet restraint and greater Soviet reciprocity." Unlike such listings of goals and means by the Nixon and Carter Administrations, there was no separate pillar for policies of diplomatic engagement in the world's conflicts. President Reagan would create an era of deterrence without diplomacy.
This was Mr. Reagan's vision. It worked well in domestic politics, in allied and friendly capitals and, to a degree, with the Soviets as well.
The American public responded well to his pictures of the world, not only during the campaign but throughout his first term. Some have interpreted this as a sign that the American people are therefore prepared for foreign policies of reassertion—that the Vietnam analogy is dying, that the containment imperative is once again dominating the peace imperative in our political debates. It is more complicated than that.
President Reagan was not promising, in either the 1980 or 1984 campaigns, policies of global activism, a return to the impulse of engagement of a John F. Kennedy. He was promising a foreign policy that perfectly matched what seemed to be the national mood: a new, comfortable nationalism which was not so much assertive as narcissistic; a mood, in Stanley Hoffmann's phrase, of "happy self-contemplation." After the nightmare of Vietnam and the humiliation of the hostages in Iran, Americans wanted desperately to feel that they were again "Number One." They thrilled to the happy notion of national supremacy and the glowing terms in which the President promised it. But they did not want that supremacy to come at a serious cost. Mr. Reagan did not suggest that we bear more burdens or pay much of a price—except in defense spending. If we were economically and militarily strong, the world would be better behaved and we need not become involved in actual conflicts.
Thus one explains a contradiction in the polling data from 1984: the voters approved of Reagan's overall foreign policy leadership—but disagreed with him on the substance of such paramount issues as arms control, Central America and defense spending, as opposed to strong defenses. They applauded his rhetoric, for it promised "peace through strength," a kind of cost-free containment. They responded to the images and slogans he and his supporters used: "Go for the Gold," America as Number One. They loved the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. They were concerned, however, with the prospect of military entanglements in Central America or the deficits that paid for the defenses. It was a kind of cinematic nationalism; you could find in the images of supremacy an escape from reality.
Through his first term, the President was able to avoid a reckoning. As William Schneider has shown, he was a decisive leader in the terms of this national mood. The invasion of Grenada was a triple success: the military objective was achieved; it was over quickly; and the costs were small. But the President, Schneider argues, also exercised popular leadership in Lebanon. He acted decisively to get out once the costs of his policy became real. Schneider writes:
During the Vietnam trauma, pollsters regularly asked Americans if they preferred a "hawkish" or a "dovish" policy in Southeast Asia. The answer they got over and over was, "We should win or get out." What people didn't want was endless, pointless, escalating involvement. Well, what did Reagan do as President? In Grenada we won. In Lebanon we got out. So much for the Vietnam syndrome.
The President's rhetoric and emphasis on rearmament was welcomed not only at home, but among leadership groups in allied nations. Like the American public, they recoiled when the President went too far in attacking the Soviets, or showed a proclivity for unilateral action, or seemed insouciant about nuclear war, or pursued policies which implied future costs and dangers. And certainly there were major strains created by Washington's proclivity for unilateral action.
But European leaders responded positively to his vision of America reborn and his sense of optimism about the future. They admired the American economic progress of 1983-84 and welcomed accelerated U.S. defense spending. They found in the style of his leadership echoes of "America the Liberator." It was a rerun not only of the protected days of the immediate postwar era; it recalled the American strength of World War II itself. Thus the success of the imagery of Reagan's celebration in Normandy of the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
The Reagan approach may also have succeeded, in one sense, with the Soviets. While diplomacy between Washington and Moscow was rocky throughout his first term, as it had been in Jimmy Carter's last year, it may be that the Soviets were deterred from foreign adventures by Reagan's posture, although such a proposition is impossible to prove. The proportions of image and real intention mixed into Reagan's posture of toughness can be debated, but even images matter. There was a new appearance of American strength, and, as John F. Kennedy once noted, appearances contribute to reality. Without access to the councils of the Kremlin, there is no way of knowing whether America redux actually deterred contemplated Soviet moves. It is a fact, however, that Mr. Reagan was right when he said there had been no new Afghanistans on his first watch.
Thus, by 1984, there was an impression, at home and abroad, of a renewed America. And so, at the beginning of the year, President Reagan and Secretary Shultz could begin to speak of new policies of diplomatic engagement. It was good politics, but it also flowed from the initial premise of 1980: first restore America, and then move on to bargain. Addressing the American Legion on February 24, 1984, the President declared that the two "essential preconditions of a strengthened and purposeful foreign policy" had now been met: the restoration of a strong domestic economy and the "rebuilding of our foundation of our military strength." Mr. Shultz, in a speech before the Trilateral Commission on April 3, noted that: "We have rebuilt our strength so that we can defend our interests and dissuade others from violence." He went on to say: "A foreign policy worthy of America must not be a policy of isolationism or guilt but a commitment to active engagement."
In that speech and elsewhere, Secretary Shultz described the world and American diplomacy in terms much different from the traditional Reagan rhetoric. He told the Trilateral Commission that:
. . . evolution of the international system was bound to erode the predominant position the United States enjoyed immediately after World War II. But it seems to me that in this disorderly and even dangerous new world, the loss of American predominance puts an even greater premium on consistency, determination and coherence in the conduct of our foreign policy.
This statement could well have been made by senior officials in the previous three Administrations.
In some respects, Mr. Shultz went even further than his predecessors in opening the door to a stable arms control process with Moscow. To a Los Angeles audience on October 18, he announced that the Administration would not link progress in arms control to Soviet good behavior around the world. The arms control process and arms control agreements were good in themselves and should not be jeopardized, as they had been before, by differences in other areas. This went beyond the statements of Secretary of State Vance, who argued against a policy of linkage but acknowledged that linkage existed as a practical matter in American politics. That is, even if the Carter Administration wanted to keep arms control immune from Soviet conduct, political pressures would not allow it. The Shultz speech was a repudiation of the Nixon-Kissinger policy of explicit linkage, which maintained, in effect, that arms control was at least in part a reward for Soviet good behavior.
Despite the encouraging public statements, however, there were two levels of reality at the end of the first Reagan term. On one level, there were improved atmospherics, a sense that the strategic tide was now moving in an American direction, a positive response from foreign allies and perhaps greater caution on the part of adversaries—and the promise of a new American approach in the second term. On the other and more tangible level, there were three problems to be addressed: the actual state of the American military and economy; continued conflict on the Administration's bureaucratic battleground; and the frozen diplomatic landscape.
Has there actually been a dramatic improvement in America's military and economic position? The real military picture is cloudy. There is little question that America is stronger and has been getting stronger militarily for the last eight years, with the expenditure of well over a trillion dollars. The Reagan Administration itself has spent about $800 billion in four years. But military experts hotly debate whether the country has gotten its money's worth. One must wonder whether key members of the Administration, though they publicly claim great improvement, are all that confident that this is so.
The Administration has substantially increased spending on the readiness of American forces. Yet, by standard measures, the improvement is slight or nil. The percentage of combat units judged to be in the top two categories of readiness has gone up by only one percentage point in the last four years. Progress shows up only in two areas: overall quality of personnel (attributed mainly to the economic recession and pay increases) and naval aircraft readiness. The number of main-line tactical aircraft for the air force, navy and marines has grown by only three percent, from 2,996 to 3,092. Main-force navy ships have gone from 479 to 524, but the air force actually ordered more tactical aircraft during the Carter years than under Reagan. To be sure, there is a much higher percentage of modernized aircraft, for example, F-15s replacing the older F-4s. And overall, the conventional forces are more capable. But it is hard to argue that there has been a good total return on the large expenditures in readiness.
It is harder still to argue that, if there was a strategic nuclear window of vulnerability in the first place, the Administration has done anything to close it. Initially, it was a cardinal tenet of the Administration that the most pressing military problem for Washington was to do something about the Soviet ability to launch a few hundred of its big land-based missiles and destroy virtually all of the American land-based nuclear forces. But, in four years, the Administration has done nothing to reduce that theoretical vulnerability. The new MX missile, whose future is in doubt, is to be based in "vulnerable" silos and not in a survivable mode. The small, mobile Midgetman missile is still years from deployment. The Administration is interested in a ballistic missile defense system to protect the land-based missiles, but that is even further in the future—leaving aside questions of feasibility, cost and the impact on arms control.
The President's Commission on Strategic Forces, also known by the name of its chairman, retired Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, did the White House the favor of closing the theoretical window of vulnerability by a simple proclamation. The commission stated that for all practical purposes it is not now open. Senior Administration officials have stopped talking publicly about this infamous window, and that in itself is a good sign. But the idea dies hard and still lives on in some quarters of the Administration.
Nor can the Administration credibly claim that the overall gap it said existed in strategic nuclear capabilities has been narrowed. For the first time, the United States is now behind the Soviet Union in the total number of ballistic missile warheads, by about 7,000 to 8,000. The United States is also further behind the Soviet Union in gross megatonnage and missile throw-weight with the decisions to retire the aging Titan missiles and older B-52 bombers. Not that we believe that these particular calculations are of central consequence, given the tremendous overall nuclear capabilities possessed by both sides and the fact that the United States continues to lead in the total number of deliverable strategic warheads and bombs. But there are many in the Administration who have maintained over the years that the numbers concerning heavy missiles and throw-weight, and the attendant perceptions of relative Soviet-American strength, are of critical importance.
Perhaps Administration leaders are calmer about these numbers today in the knowledge of future American capabilities. Perhaps they think that the Trident submarines and Trident II missiles coming on line, the new force of cruise missiles now being deployed, and American superiority in the technology of antisatellite and space-based weaponry are sufficient to correct the presumed imbalances. Perhaps they draw the necessary comfort and confidence from the trends. But that is not reflected in the private statements of many officials as new Soviet strategic programs plunge ahead as well.
The balance of nuclear forces in Europe is also a subject of mixed feelings. On the one hand, the Administration can take justifiable pride in having held the alliance together to bring about the deployment of the Pershing IIs and ground-launched missiles. About 100 are now available in West Germany, Italy and Britain. Deployments scheduled in 1985 for Belgium and the Netherlands will be a problem. On the other hand, the Soviet Union has more than doubled its lead in modern medium-range nuclear missiles since Mr. Reagan took office. The number of operational SS-20s now stands at 378 with 1,134 warheads, compared to 140 with three warheads each four years ago (and other SS-20 sites are under construction). Moscow has also increased the number of forward-deployed battlefield nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union now has more nuclear warheads of all types in Europe than the United States, some 8,000 to about 6,000. These numbers can mean much or little, depending on one's perspective on nuclear power, but they are unlikely to give real comfort to the Reagan team.
It is far from clear that the Administration is at peace with itself on these questions and on defense policy matters and the use of force generally. If anything, the disparity between commitments and capabilities has grown under this Administration, largely because commitments have been extended. In his annual posture statement to Congress in 1983, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger stated that, "given the Soviets' capability to launch simultaneous attacks in the Persian Gulf, NATO, and the Pacific, our long-range goal is to be capable of defending all theaters simultaneously." Thus, instead of closing the gap between commitments and capabilities by cutting back on commitments, as did President Nixon, President Reagan has expanded both commitments and capabilities—and the former faster than the latter.
After the elections, in late November 1984, Mr. Weinberger confused matters further in a speech to the National Press Club detailing the standards which should guide American military intervention. He said the territory or the issue should be "deemed vital to our national interest," without defining this in any way; that involvement must command public and congressional support, with clearly defined political and military objectives; and that the Administration must be determined in advance to win or not get involved at all. The Pentagon portrayed the speech as both an effort to sharply limit American military interventions and a rebuke to Secretary Shultz for being willing to use force too readily for fuzzy diplomatic ends. Mr. Shultz had spoken in September of the need to use force against terrorists and states sponsoring terrorism, even at the risk of innocent civilian casualties and further military involvement. In general, the pattern has been that Mr. Shultz and his State Department aides have been more willing to use military force, as in Lebanon and Grenada, than Mr. Weinberger and the Pentagon. It seems as if Secretary Weinberger believes that having more American arms will speak for itself, deter challenges and obviate the need to actually use force in the first place.
All of this tends to cast doubt on whether the Administration is in fact united behind Secretary Shultz's recent statements that the United States has succeeded in restoring the military balance and now will move forward to negotiate. There remains a powerful segment of the Administration which continues to argue that the United States is still behind the Soviet Union. Centered in, but by no means limited to, the Pentagon, this group fears that the combination of budget-cutting pressures plus the lure of arms control will erode support for necessary further large increases in military spending.
These budget-cutting pressures are the consequence of some hard economic truths. The abundant confidence the Reagan team had in the American economy throughout most of 1984 now seems generally in shorter supply, and with some reason, as 1985 begins. Beyond the domestic dilemma of how to reduce deficits while not raising taxes, there is the fact that the United States is becoming a debtor nation for the first time since World War I. Whether having foreigners invest more here than Americans do abroad will be helpful or harmful in the long pull is not known, and that uncertainty has caused considerable unease. Beyond that, the $130-billion trade deficit causes outright distress. Protectionist pressures, resisted by the Administration in the first term, will be harder to blunt now. More basic and distressing still is the growing realization in the Administration that deficits will not be conquered by higher and higher levels of economic growth. Administration leaders know they will be embroiled in a continuing struggle among themselves and with Congress over what to do about budget cuts and tax reforms. All of which means that Mr. Reagan will have to spend a lot of time once again on the economy, and that he will not have as much time as hoped to devote to foreign affairs or be able to act with quite the expected economic clout when he does.
These problems are exacerbated by another harsh reality: the President has apparently been unwilling or unable to create peace within his own government. Every administration has been torn by internal conflicts. Under every president, some high officials have opposed making deals with communists and some have always insisted on best bargains or nothing. Other high officials were willing to risk compromises with adversaries, communist or not, on the grounds that such risks were less painful and costly than the alternatives. It is unlikely that any administration could or should be free of such internal disputes. But from the Nixon Administration on, presidents were able to exercise the necessary leadership within their administrations to achieve realistic diplomatic agreements.
President Reagan has not done this. The problem is not that he faces divisions between the Department of Defense and Department of State or between the State Department and White House staff that are greater than in previous administrations. In fact, the philosophical divisions are far fewer in this Administration than in the Carter Administration: there was a greater distance to travel between Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski than there is between Mr. Shultz and Mr. Weinberger.
The problem, at least in part, is that the right wing in the Reagan Administration is further to the right and less willing to countenance compromise than the right in previous administrations. When it came down to it, National Security Adviser Brzezinski and his allies either actually favored or were willing to back SALT II, the Panama Canal treaties and the Camp David accords, to name a few. Mr. Weinberger and his allies have not been so flexible. When a powerful group in any administration is flatly against compromise, it is very difficult for a president to make concessions without substantial political vulnerability. But it can be done, if a president is in as strong a political position as is Mr. Reagan.
The problem is that the President has rarely chosen decisively, in particular situations, between contending factions. So, one week Lebanon is vital to American interests and the next, the marines are withdrawn. So, one day Moscow is told the Administration is prepared to be flexible and the next, Mr. Reagan decides against compromises at a cabinet meeting. So, at one meeting he orders compromises only to have the bureaucracy continuing to fight as if no decisions had been made.
Thus, on foreign policy, the Administration has been in almost perpetual disarray, or worse, profound internal stalemate. Mr. Reagan could have cut through this by removing the anti-diplomacy group. But he did not, and there is every reason to believe thus far that he will not in his second term. Perhaps these officials reflect his own true ideological beliefs, or perhaps he finds it impolitic to remove them.
Nor has the President established a steady middle path of his own, as Robert McFarlane, the national security adviser, has tended to recommend. Mr. McFarlane does not have that kind of clout in the White House and has not proven himself a match for the two departmental elephants. The President could have taken an active and intimate part in the internal debates and gained the necessary knowledge to impose his own position. But, again, he did not. He has not mastered the substantive issues, if his news conferences and news stories are to be taken as evidence. Whether he is disposed to do so now remains a central question. For without mastery, or at least a solid working knowledge, of foreign cultures and the intricacies of arms control issues, it is highly doubtful that this or any Administration would feel comfortable making compromises. In the absence of such intellectual control, the natural tendency is to put matters off, to refer the problems back down to the middle levels of the bureaucracy for further study, in search of elusive and magical consensus, while using comforting slogans and rhetoric as a substitute for substantive policy.
Policy statements by the Administration, to be sure, have become more or less consistently moderate during the past year, but everything else is seemingly unchanged. Nor is there appreciably less skepticism about the value and necessity of compromise if diplomacy is to produce agreements. In the upper echelons of the State Department, there may be more talk about using diplomacy to manage differences with other governments—but even here, the effort to resolve disputes is made more through rhetoric and highly visible diplomatic encounters with adversaries than through hard and politically risky compromise. Promises and prospects essentially come down to White House assurances that the President is determined to achieve diplomatic successes in his second term, especially in arms control, and now feels he is in a position to do so.
It is difficult to assay those assurances or how the President perceives his political circumstances. Does he believe the right wing of the Republican Party is now more powerful and independent of him than before? Will Republican conservatives in Congress be more or less cooperative? Does he think that freedom from running for reelection will permit him to become more philosophically pure or more pragmatic and independent of unwanted and narrow political pressures? These are critically important questions, but highly speculative ones.
Less speculative is the frozen quality of the international diplomatic landscape which the President now surveys, as he considers new policies of diplomatic engagement and new efforts at arms control.
The diplomatic agenda contains four crucial problems: Central America and the Caribbean; the Middle East; southern Africa; and relations with the Soviet Union, including notably the achievement of "meaningful arms control." In each case the legacy of the past four years is one of no catastrophic failures but no concrete and positive diplomatic accomplishments.
In Central America and the Caribbean, the Administration in 1984 stepped up both diplomatic and military activities. Gone was any talk of going to "the source" in Cuba. Gone also was the earlier total opposition to talking with the Sandinistas and Salvadoran guerrillas. The United States began talking regularly to the Sandinistas. The Salvadoran government and the Salvadoran guerrillas started meeting face to face, at the initiative of Salvadoran President José Napoleón Duarte and, initially, against Administration wishes. The Contadora group had produced a draft treaty to settle matters between and within Nicaragua and El Salvador, but the Administration found its terms too vague and provisions for verification inadequate. The draft was shunted aside. There was, in sum, diplomatic communication throughout the region, but the parties to the various disputes seemed no closer to compromise than before. The real talking was still being done on the battlefield.
That may be the only place in the region where the Administration believes satisfactory outcomes are possible. Washington will not countenance any power-sharing arrangement between the Salvadoran government and the guerrillas. Nor is it likely to find any agreement made with the Sandinistas to be acceptable as long as the Sandinistas remain in power by virtue of that agreement. The prevailing view in the Administration still seems to be that, inevitably, left-wing revolutionaries will refuse to honor negotiated agreements—and by that time, the American people may not want to become reinvolved to stop them.
It would not be stretching what is known too far to say that the Administration's real aim is to unseat or substantially dilute Sandinista power in Nicaragua and to make the Salvadoran government sufficiently strong to eschew compromise. Some Administration officials argue that progress has been made toward these ends; the weight of expert opinion is otherwise. The indubitable fact is that the adversaries in the region are more heavily armed than ever, with still more weapons on the way. Increased fighting is the most likely prognosis for the coming year.
The American position and the prospects for negotiated settlements also dimmed in the Middle East, beginning with the virtual collapse of American policy in Lebanon in the first three months of 1984. As fighting exploded among the various Lebanese factions, Mr. Reagan reassessed his position and decided to withdraw the marines and the offshore naval presence. The immediate effects were a realignment of power within Lebanon favoring Syria, and as a consequence, Lebanese President Amin Gemayel's decision to renounce the 1983 peace treaty with Israel.
This experience will not be lost on Israel when and if the Administration starts pushing Mr. Reagan's plan for Jordanian-Israeli negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But in the meantime, Israel was overwhelmed by internal economic difficulties and was forced to declare its intention unilaterally to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. So the Administration's main aim, to bring about withdrawal of Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon, collapsed. Syria, it appears, is the winner in Lebanon after having been defeated by Israeli forces on the battlefield. The losers are Israel, the United States and serious hopes for diplomatic progress.
This kind of outcome seemed almost foreordained by an Administration that never appeared to know what it wanted in the Middle East—or at least, how to get it. First, it wanted a "strategic consensus" of Israel and the moderate Arab states against the Soviet Union. When that proved unattainable, it switched its focus to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis proved not to be the key to peace in the area. Then, when Israel attacked Lebanon, the Administration condemned the action, and relations with Jerusalem were deeply strained. Just as suddenly, the Administration altered course once again and began emphasizing its ties to Israel.
There is every indication now that Mr. Reagan's diplomatic position in the region is in a shambles. The Administration has all it can do to help the Israelis restore their economy and withdraw their forces from Lebanon, without trying to convince Jerusalem to compromise on the West Bank as well. King Hussein of Jordan has shown himself unwilling or unable thus far to chance negotiations with Israel, and he is to be the linchpin of the Reagan peace plan. And while the Administration busied itself with new strategic conceptions every year and with the Reagan plan, it allowed the one diplomatic track that had proved successful—the Camp David process between Egypt and Israel—to languish, if not die. Egypt now has little to do with Israel, and Egypt and Jordan are pushing for a return to a U.N.-led Middle East peace effort. As Mr. Reagan begins his second term, he will have no alternative but to start all over again.
Southern Africa is the one area where Administration policy has been quite constant and where it has pursued policies of sustained diplomatic engagement. Instead of pressuring South Africa as President Carter did, Mr. Reagan chose a policy of "constructive engagement" with Pretoria. In theory, this improved relationship would, in turn, be used to wheedle concessions from Pretoria on the role of blacks in South Africa and on granting independence to Namibia. Political repression has not lessened in South Africa, and at year's end, a sudden outburst of political protests in Washington helped produce a rare criticism of Pretoria's policies by President Reagan.
There have been active discussions on the future of Namibia, but the Administration complicated the chances for a settlement there by tying South African departure from that territory to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. Despite some give and take, Angola and South Africa remain at odds on this issue. The Angolans are also demanding that all aid be stopped by Pretoria and others to the insurgency led by Jonas Savimbi. At the end of 1984, the Administration claimed that it was moving in on a settlement—but it had been making such claims for two years or more.
It was in the area where diplomacy matters most—relations with the Soviet Union and the negotiation of limits to the arms race—that the Reagan Administration encountered the greatest difficulties in its first three years. Then in 1984, Soviet-American relations went from bad to worse to, suddenly, just before the November elections, better. By most indications, the almost four-year deterioration seems to have ended.
In November 1983, Moscow kept its promise and walked out on the talks on intermediate-range nuclear forces in response to the first deployments of American Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. At the time, Soviet officials insisted they would not return to the table until the missiles were withdrawn. In a related move, Moscow refused to set a date for the resumption of the December 1983 round of Strategic Arms Reductions Talks. Unless Soviet leaders were substantially detached from reality, they must have realized that there was no chance Washington would agree to remove the new missiles from Europe. Thus, they deliberately painted themselves into a diplomatic corner and put an end to the offensive nuclear arms talks until after the American elections.
Perhaps the Politburo had painted itself into a domestic political corner as well, and the Soviet leaders felt they could not back down for internal reasons. At the same time, however, they seemed to be sending a message to the American electorate: there could be no genuine arms control while Reagan remained President. They steadily denounced him in the first six months of 1984 as a dangerous militarist, a man who might cause a nuclear war. Trying to influence the American elections was a gamble, to be sure. But it was not a ludicrous calculation at the beginning of 1984. Mr. Reagan was ahead in the public opinion polls, yet he did not have a commanding lead and much could have happened in an election year to jeopardize his reelection. Also, the Russians were having troubles of their own with the death of their leader, Yuri Andropov, in February, and his replacement by Leonid Brezhnev's protégé, Konstantin Chernenko.
Meanwhile, the more intransigent and dyspeptic Soviet rhetoric became, the more conciliatory was Mr. Reagan's. In January 1984 alone, he gave two major speeches, one of them the State of the Union address, calling for a new "dialogue" with Moscow and for improving relations between the two superpowers. Moscow countered that it was all election-year propaganda. While the polls showed that many American voters were skeptical about Mr. Reagan's sincerity on arms control, they also showed that most Americans were blaming the Soviets for failure to return to the bargaining tables. The same reaction held when Moscow decided in May to boycott the summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Instead of making Mr. Reagan look warlike, Moscow's strategy boomeranged and made the Soviet Union into the villain.
By June, any significant hope of defeating Mr. Reagan in November had vanished, and Moscow began to soften its stance. In late June, Mr. Chernenko proposed a new Soviet-American negotiation aimed at preventing the militarization of outer space, including a moratorium on the testing of antisatellite weapons. The United States had just successfully downed one missile in space with another—the first time this had been accomplished by either superpower. Also, Washington was getting ready to test an antisatellite system more sophisticated than the older and unreliable Soviet one. Soviet leaders may have reckoned there was some chance Mr. Reagan might agree to negotiate on Soviet terms, if only to prove to the electorate that he was serious about arms control. If, on the other hand, Mr. Reagan rejected the Soviet offer, perhaps this would weaken his credibility with the American electorate on arms control issues generally.
Once again, however, Soviet leaders outsmarted themselves and Mr. Reagan outmaneuvered them. He "accepted" the Soviet proposal for talks on space weapons, but refused to concede in advance that their aim would be to prevent the militarization of outer space. That kind of judgment, he responded, could be made only if and as the two superpowers also agreed to address once again the subject of offensive nuclear forces. In other words: no talks on defense without resuming talks on offense. Mr. Reagan also continued to argue that the two sides should reconsider the value of space-based defense and even offered to share American technology in this field. He was ready, he said, to send his delegation to Vienna in September or October or after the election as the Soviets had proposed. Not willing to accept talks on American terms and give Mr. Reagan a major political victory as well, Moscow let the matter drop, publicly at least.
But Soviet leaders were already making their policy shift toward the Reagan Administration. In July, a Soviet delegation came to Washington and quietly initialled an agreement upgrading the hotline, or crisis communications, pact between the superpowers. Other agreements and arrangements were proffered by Washington and accepted by the Kremlin: resumption of talks on cultural exchanges and building new consulates, restoration of Soviet fishing rights, and initiation of talks on a boundary dispute in the Bering Sea. All of these were below the political threshold, but the signal was clear.
There was no mistaking this in September when it was announced that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko would meet with Secretary Shultz at the United Nations later that month, and then would meet in Washington with Mr. Reagan for the first time. Even though Mr. Gromyko arranged to visit also with the Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, the game had obviously changed.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on September 24, 1984, Mr. Reagan said that the two superpowers had "to extend the arms control process to build a bigger umbrella under which it can operate—a road map, if you will, showing where in the next 20 years or so these individual efforts can lead." He made this same kind of presentation to Mr. Gromyko at the White House on September 29, and reportedly stressed that he would be willing to "consider" restraints on antisatellite weapons testing if the arms control process as a whole, including, especially, offensive arms, were to be renewed. Then, on November 22, it was announced in both capitals that Mr. Shultz and Mr. Gromyko would meet in Geneva on January 7-8, 1985, in "new negotiations" to discuss space weapons, medium-range missiles and intercontinental-range nuclear forces.
As a result of this meeting, the two superpowers agreed to conduct one "umbrella" negotiation with working groups in the three main areas. Mr. Shultz did not convince his Soviet counterpart of the potential virtues of defensive systems; nor did Mr. Gromyko convince Mr. Shultz about the dangers of an arms race in space. They did agree, however, that there would be "an interrelationship" among the different negotiations. But the meaning of this relationship, that is, whether progress on offensive weapons would depend on progress on defensive systems as well, was left ambiguous. In the end, the overriding message of this Geneva meeting was not so much that the two sides were now ready to make serious progress on arms control, but that they were prepared to improve overall relations and reduce tensions between them.
It has taken a full year and more for the two superpowers to get back to where they were in November 1983. Even that was not a notable high point in bilateral relations, either in managing political disputes or in arms control. The two sides were far apart then and, by most indications, neither has altered its substantive positions since. Most of the blame for the hiatus in bargaining has to rest with the Soviet leaders. They walked away from the table. Their excuse for this, that the Administration was not negotiating seriously, did not wash with the Western audience they sought to influence.
Nonetheless, the Administration bears a heavy responsibility for the diplomatic stalemate in Soviet-American relations and many other areas as well. There have been two reasons for this. First, Administration leaders have displayed an attitude of almost anti-diplomacy. It was as if they felt that to engage with adversaries, or sometimes even friends, would mean being tainted or taken. Also, diplomacy requires knowledge of foreign leaders, cultures and issues, qualities which have not been in overabundance around the cabinet table. Above all, diplomacy entails compromise, and this does not come easily to those in the Administration who equate compromise with capitulation.
The intractability of the central diplomatic challenges which confront the Administration is not a consequence only of its own performance or the policy decisions of other governments. The problems are complicated by a fact almost completely beyond American control or even influence: few of the current leaders in pivotal nations are powerful enough internally to make important concessions externally.
Under the best of circumstances, personal courage and solid domestic backing are required before a leader can put together an internal coalition to make compromises. Instead of Mr. Brezhnev, who seemed to be the unchallenged leader, there is Mr. Chernenko, a man who apparently must operate by strict consensus. Instead of President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, we have Hosni Mubarak and a coalition government led by Shimon Peres. Governments in Japan and Western Europe operate with slim majorities. It is doubtful that President Duarte of El Salvador can go very far without approval from his armed forces. Only Deng Xiaoping of China appears to have the authority of his immediate predecessors, at least on strictly domestic matters.
Domestic political weakness is reinforced in almost all cases by military stalemate. While an essential balance may be a prerequisite to arms control agreements, military stalemates tend to work not only against accepting diplomatic compromises, because there is not much fear of losing, but against escalating conflicts as well, for there is not much prospect of winning. For the next year or two or more, the Sandinistas are not strong enough to eliminate the contras (counterrevolutionaries), and vice versa. The same kind of balance holds between guerrillas and governments in El Salvador, Namibia and Angola. The Arab states have no real military alternative for some years against a clearly superior Israeli military force. Neither Iran nor Iraq seems able to mount a convincing offensive to end their war. The Khmer Rouge and Vietnam appear at a standstill, as do the Soviets and the Afghan resistance. Thus, Mr. Reagan faces situations where neither side is in a position to force a settlement on the other, and yet the prospective costs of escalation are not forcing a compromise on both.
We do not quarrel with Mr. Reagan's sincerity about being flexible and wanting to settle disputes through serious diplomacy. We do question whether the present East-West military balance will be enough to satisfy Administration supporters and hard-liners, whether the Administration is sufficiently united and disposed toward the hard compromises necessary to reach agreements, and how well the Administration will do when it comes up against the stubborn realities of world affairs and regional conflicts. Our concern is that after an initial period of efforts which bump into these realities, the pressures and temptations to recoil, to go back to temporizing measures and to rhetoric that disguises inaction, will be enormous. What will Mr. Reagan do when the Russians do not capitulate or give him what he may now expect, or when diplomatic efforts in Central America or the Middle East do not yield early results?
Our hope is that he will persist, and our belief is that the President has powerful incentives to do so.
First, he is almost uniquely in a position to bring American power to bear and get things accomplished. He has a better chance than any of his post World War II predecessors at quelling opposition from the right. He has succeeded in creating the impression that the United States has turned the tide against the Soviet Union in broad strategic terms. Allies feel he will defend Western interests, and adversaries fear him. He would have the support necessary to make agreements and to press those who would violate the terms of agreements. In fact, from both domestic and diplomatic vantage points, he is better positioned than Presidents Nixon and Carter when they made their breakthroughs on arms control, the Middle East and, in Mr. Carter's case, the Panama Canal treaties. They faced diplomatic stalemates and intractable regional conflicts comparable to those that exist today. And they managed to deal with them at a time when American power was ebbing and Soviet power seemingly rising.
Second, if he does not succeed diplomatically, the problems will get worse. The nuclear competition between the Soviet Union and the United States is at a crossroads. Both sides are developing and testing new technologies—antisatellite weapons, antisubmarine warfare, terminal guidance for warheads, space-based defensive systems and the like. When and if these are all deployed, possibly in the next 10 to 15 years, the essential calculus of deterrence—that no matter which side strikes first, both sides lose—could be undermined. In times of crisis, leaders on both sides could come to believe that they might be able to strike first, destroy almost all the other side's assets, and blunt the small retaliatory attack. Steps must be taken to curtail this new competition now.
If the Administration's optimistic predictions prove false and the situation in Central America deteriorates, an escalation in the fighting and decisions about possible American intervention could follow. Nor can continued stalemate be taken for granted in the volatile Middle East. Even without diplomatic progress, a diplomatic process there is critical to offering the parties an alternative to violence and maintaining an American role.
Third, if the problems get worse, President Reagan will no longer be able to avoid the domestic political dilemma that undid many of his predecessors—the choice between military intervention or foreign defeat. Thus far, events in Central America, the Middle East and elsewhere have not posed this dilemma in stark and inescapable terms. But time and luck could run out.
The assets which Mr. Reagan has developed can turn quickly to gossamer—if the American economy deteriorates, if defense budget increases are unduly and increasingly slashed, and if, above all, the Administration does not move to demonstrate that it is as wise in the ways of diplomacy as it has been determined to restore American power. The fact that the problems are difficult does not absolve the Administration from trying to reconcile differences and keep conflicts under control. For the stalemates of today can turn into the opportunities and explosions of tomorrow.