Late in 1986, the average American was jarred out of his domestic preoccupations by the sudden spectacle of secret arms sales to Iran and high-level disarray over the conduct of American foreign policy. The unfolding story seemed—at least in its initial telling—as bizarre as the episodes of a bad television serial. Whatever investigators and judges ultimately conclude about illegalities find however national policies and individual reputations are finally affected, the American citizenry may come to see foreign policy as a soap opera which some invisible hand occasionally turns on to distract it from its real problems. All the world’s a script—written by somebody else. It periodically provides us with foreign villains we love to hate and domestic characters we prefer to like—both heroes whom we idolize with sentimentality and courtiers whom we revile with impunity. We end up being not so much instructed about underlying issues as titillated by the messy minutiae of each passing episode.

But in our kind of democracy international affairs cannot be a spectator sport any more than policymaking can be the preserve of a small group of elites. Many must be involved; many more persuaded; and particular policies must be related to some general understanding of America’s place in the world. Yet ever since the breakdown of consensus during the Vietnam War we have lacked a coherent view of how America should relate to a changing world. Forming such a view requires a hard look at ourselves as well as at others. We may be surprised to discover that many outside trends are vindicating our inner ideals, that we need vision as well as realism in our foreign policy, and that we relate better to others when we rediscover in ourselves the historical commitment of America to both enlightenment and religion.


It is paradoxical that America is becoming ever more deeply involved economically in the outside world and at the same time ever more psychologically detached from it. Our legislative process tends to produce short-term palliatives for local interests rather than long-term solutions in the national interest. Our executive branch seems perpetually divided within itself—and more effective at increasing military strength than at integrating it into any broader political strategy. The Reagan Administration has helped America recover a sense of self-confidence, a positive feeling for who we are, but there has been no comparable gain in understanding where we are. Our academic researchers and national media tend to criticize whatever the government says or does—yet produce little new thinking, let alone constructive alternatives. Universities in general have let serious international and language studies erode in their curricula while periodically indulging in extracurricular enthusiasms for symbolic remedies (e.g., nuclear-free zones, economic boycotts).

Faced with confusion in high places, many ordinary Americans seem understandably inclined to withdraw attention as much as possible from the outside world. The impulse is loose in the land to solve problems by cutting ourselves off from them: by restricting imports and immigration, by redirecting our security from the protection of others toward the defense of ourselves. Popular support for foreign involvements of any kind may be quietly fading away—and with it the postwar assumption that America should continue to be a world leader.

This neoisolationist impulse in the general population is unwittingly aided by the philosophic relativism that has come to dominate the elite universities and national media. The generation of the 1960s has now gained tenure and given respectability to the view that power is bad, superpowers are the worst, and one superpower is more or less as bad as the other. To be sure, democracies need healthy self-criticism; and relativism in some thinkers counters absolutism in others and keeps our national dialogue civil. But excessive self-flagellation by intellectuals removes their needed talents from serious policy discussion, baffles foreigners who still look to us for constructive ideas, and encourages the nation’s adversaries to overestimate the prospects for dividing and manipulating America.

Far more dangerous than the withdrawal of some Americans from serious policy discussion, however, is the split that continues to exist among the large number in the mainstream who take seriously America’s national interests and international problems. For the responsible foreign-policy community still looks at the world with a deeply split personality. The division is often unrecognized, and it occurs within individuals and groups as well as between them. Schizophrenia does not go away just because the patient does not recognize the condition. In the troubled world we live in, it is urgent to analyze the condition now lest it compound a crisis later.

—View A, which might be called realist-conservative, holds that America’s involvement in the world is basically a negative response to the danger presented by the linkage of Russian imperial power to communist global ideology in the postwar world. The greatest need is for (1) military strength to contain that power and to aid those forces resisting its advance and (2) political skill and will to maintain and strengthen a network of supporting alliances. This view currently stresses the need for a continued military buildup with a strong component of high technology as an efficient means of increasing the West’s advantage over the more backward East. Though there are apocalyptical fringe versions of this view (which see the East-West struggle as part of a final historical redemption justifying unilateral military preparations), the dominant version concedes that other problems exist. But it insists that we must continue to concentrate on the Soviet danger.

—View B, which might be called idealist-liberal, holds that America’s involvement in the world is basically a positive phenomenon resulting from the dynamism of its economic and political system. The greatest need is (1) to renew and perfect the American example and (2) to encourage and support the spread of liberal democratic institutions throughout the world. This view assumes that the basic obstacles to be overcome in the world are not dangers from the U.S.S.R., but global problems of ignorance, poverty, pollution and so forth. In the shorter term, more emphasis is needed on economic and political development—especially in Third World countries emerging from traditional authoritarianism. Though there are also millennial fringe versions of this view (which see the Soviet danger largely as a figment of our own paranoia to be dispelled by penitential, unilateral pacificism), the dominant version concedes that there still is a military and political threat from the U.S.S.R. But this threat is seen as a secondary, receding problem that should not preoccupy us so much.

These contrasting points of view generally underlie and reflect basic differences in outlook over the last quarter of a century between Republican and Democratic administrations. Yet our political process has not brought either of these attitudes into clear focus, let alone into systematic debate with each other. American politicans seem compelled to claim a centrist position that incorporates elements of each outlook and thus muddies the issues. The most instinctively liberal of recent presidents, John Kennedy, felt a need to demonstrate a tough appreciation of the Soviet menace. The most instinctively conservative, Ronald Reagan, felt an equal need to articulate a liberal vision of global democratization and abolition of nuclear weapons. Lyndon Johnson, the only president of this era personally to master both the legislative and executive branches, was the last to practice a foreign policy simultaneously committed to the objectives of both views. And the failure of his presidency marked the beginning not just of America’s retreat from the outside world, but also of internal doubts about whether we can any longer satisfy both our conservative and our liberal impulses.

Since Johnson, the dominant trend has been toward conservative retrenchment (first heralded in the Nixon Doctrine and the Mansfield Amendment). Greater consensus exists now on the need to sustain American strength and to defend economic self-interest, but hostility to the conservative-realist view remains strong within traditional opinion-making elite circles. Relatively insulated from broader popular trends, professors and commentators still prefer the old liberalism to the new conservatism. There is also a deeper, more apolitical substratum of concern about policies justified solely by material self-interest among many Americans who have developed human and humanitarian links with the world through various private initiatives.

Can we honestly diagnose and sensibly resolve this basic split, or will we leave it in confusion to be resolved by illusion? With presidential elections coming, one can imagine a Republican candidate reassuring conservatives in the primaries, then liberals in the general elections, while a Democratic candidate follows the opposite course. Although the electoral result would depend largely on domestic considerations, the next president would face even greater difficulty than recent ones have faced in defining, let alone executing, a unifying foreign policy.

Isolationists and relativists might welcome such a process as leading to an across-the-board retreat in our international involvements. But our security and economy are so extensively and irreversibly intertwined with the outside world that major retrenchments could produce serious domestic disorders. Moreover, the very prerequisites for our national existence may—for the first time in recent peacetime history—hinge on our conduct of foreign relations: physical survival (now with the U.S.S.R.), economic solvency (soon with Japan) and perhaps even territorial and linguistic integrity (eventually with Mexico).

The beginnings of coherence in foreign policy may lie in recognizing that the two sides of our inner conflict do not necessarily contradict or mutually exclude each other. View A derives from the necessity of our involvement in the postwar era and suggests the indefinite continuation of a proven short-term response. View B describes an ideal view of ourselves that we periodically invoke and fundamentally believe in over the long run. There is no real incompatibility between the short-run need for a cold war and the long-run goal of a freer, more abundant earth. But many continue to question the rationality of continuing the former, the sincerity of our rhetoric about the latter, and the possibility that American leadership can ever again soberly combine the two.

Is there—can there ever be—a sustainable, unifying foreign policy for a pluralistic people? One that can harmonize View A and View B, short-term necessities and long-term goals?

For a practical people immersed in ongoing involvements it is best to begin by reexamining our short-term necessities, the bedrock assumption of postwar American foreign policy that the U.S.S.R. poses a continuing danger that justifies American global involvements.


The United States has never been at war with the Russian Empire and even today does not face a direct geopolitical threat of the classic kind (conquest or intimidation across a border) from the Soviet Union. Nor is the U.S.S.R. a serious economic competitor even for our allies. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union poses an altogether unprecedented and complex threat to the United States, deriving from its unique capacity to destroy this country physically with nuclear missiles, reduce the United States politically to vassalage by establishing conventional dominance over Eurasia, and drain it economically by becoming an increasingly dominant political-military force in the Third World.

With such awesome raw capabilities, the classic question of intentions becomes crucial. Here the recent historical record is not encouraging. Nine new Leninist regimes have come into being in the Third World in recent years and aligned themselves with the U.S.S.R. and its satellites. Many of these regimes pose new threats to the oceanic lifelines of Western trade and security. Large-scale Soviet bloc presence in places like Managua, Cam Ranh Bay, the port of Aden and both coasts of Africa provides a reminder that we are confronted not just by traditional Great Russian imperialism, but by the executors of a global ideology. Even the continuing atrocity of a classical imperial move into Afghanistan is justified by the Soviet nomenklatura, or elite, as the necessary defense of a threatened revolution. By this reasoning, social processes are no less irreversible than Leninist regimes themselves; and the only limit on Soviet assistance is the capability of the Soviet economy to support military power, and of the Soviet political machine to convert that power into political advantage.

But is there relief in sight now in the Soviet Union as a new post-Stalin generation comes into power facing deep internal social and economic problems and speaking constantly about reform? Will Soviet leaders increasingly stress internal investment over outside adventures in the years ahead—if only to sustain the economic base of their own power?

Internal problems do not, alas, necessarily incline a great power toward external retrenchment. The short-term effect may well be to strengthen Soviet determination to prove greatness abroad precisely because it is no longer demonstrable at home. Beyond the Soviet Union’s own foreign involvements lie unpredictable proxies and independent actors who could themselves fan regional conflicts into escalating confrontations between the superpowers.

Faced with so many unpleasant realities and future uncertainties, America should maintain its strength—and indeed its preoccupation with the U.S.S.R. Though Gorbachev’s generation may not bear the guilt or perpetuate the paranoia of the Khrushchev-Brezhnev generation (which personally participated in, and benefited from, Stalin’s genocidal policies of the 1930s), Stalinism will be a difficult legacy to shake. Gorbachev’s very determination to launch reforms triggers fears within the system (which he no doubt shares himself) of launching a process that might unravel the Stalinist system of controls and privilege through which he and his colleagues rose.

Times of transition and tension within the Soviet Union generally widen the range of both opportunities and risks for the outside world. The important changes that seem likely to unfold within the U.S.S.R. in the months ahead will be defined by Russians for Russians—and are unlikely to produce approximations of Western models. Nevertheless, the United States does play a role—as the U.S.S.R.’s principal rival and standard of comparison. Our ability to affect Soviet internal evolution depends on our ability to make clear what we really want of the U.S.S.R.

Our long-term goal cannot be merely containing the external expansion of a system whose external behavior results so largely from its ideology. Responsible American leadership has the obligation to encourage any power with the capability to destroy us to develop stronger moral and structural restraints against doing so. Our simple goal should be to have the Soviet leaders renounce their expansionist ideology and concentrate on developing their own country. We should bluntly insist that they acknowledge peaceful coexistence to be the enduring condition of a pluralistic world—not a tactical stage in a continuing struggle. We should neither call for a crusade nor suggest a blueprint for them. But we must stop suggesting that our basic antagonism is toward the Russian nation (which will not go away) rather than to their current communist commitments (which are already fading).

A parallel, priority goal of American policy is to prevent nuclear war. Since the greatest danger of nuclear war in the short term lies in the possession of nuclear weapons by a Soviet oligarchy unaccountable to its own people, we must make sure that Soviet leaders continue to believe in the reality of our deterrent power and will. But what is necessary may not be sufficient—and not just because of the number of weapons and the risk of accidents. The deeper danger is the growing tendency to permit weapons to become the measure of everything else in foreign policy, and the arms control process the main public measure of superpower behavior. This subtly favors the U.S.S.R., since weaponry is almost the only area in which they meet an open competitive standard—and it takes international attention away from other, more immediate dangers that the U.S.S.R. continues to pose through (1) sub-nuclear regional conflicts to which it and its proxies remain committed, and (2) its massive advantage in conventional military strength with which it continues to threaten Europe.

There will be differences and debate over who should amass what kind of strength in the West and where it should be deployed to contain Soviet power. But the West must realize that the U.S.S.R. remains our principal, common source of danger, and that this danger will not vanish simply by controlling or reducing strategic nuclear weapons. It is not enough to answer "better dead than red" with "better neither than either." The deeper point is that becoming red could in itself lead to becoming dead. No conflicts have been more bitter in the postwar era than those among communists (for example, the Cambodian holocaust); and this is the logical fruit of a system that produced under Stalin the largest internal genocide of any political oligarchy against itself in modern history.

There is, then, a continuing logic in the realist-conservative position. Its basic assumptions are that containing Soviet power militarily remains the major reason for U.S. involvement in the world, and that maintaining credible deterrent power and Western political unity are still the main tasks of U.S. foreign policy.

Two new emphases seem needed for the period ahead (particularly if the superpowers were to agree on substantial reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals): (1) the buildup of Western conventional military strength to deter the Soviet use of its conventional military advantage for conquest or intimidation in Eurasia; and (2) launching a bilateral dialogue with the U.S.S.R. to evolve "rules of the game" in areas of conflict in the Third World where special dangers of escalation are raised by proxy activities, arms shipments, terrorism and so on.

This is a familiar, modest program for maximizing strength and minimizing risk using traditional military and diplomatic means. Perhaps it is all that America can or should undertake in view of isolationist sentiment and looming economic problems at home.

But broader developments in the world suggest that even this updated version of conservative realism (View A) will not provide a sufficient basis for American foreign policy in the long term. We may have to draw again on our idealist-liberal legacy (View B), not because anyone has yet persuasively restated that ideal, but because a changing world compels us to work with dynamic forces rather than merely to conserve static balances.

What dynamic force can produce constructive internal change in the U.S.S.R.?

The realist-conservatives ultimately assume that only external force can induce such change; they point to the historical fact that defeat in war has provided the major catalyst for serious reform throughout modern Russian history. But no one seriously suggests major war in the nuclear era, and there is no reason to assume that the mere external accumulation of military force would have anything like the same internal effect. Such buildups tend rather to reinforce militaristic and xenophobic tendencies in the Soviet system.

To be sure, the need to counter Western weapons advances does put acute pressure on the Soviet leaders in a time of economic stagnation and technological lag. But they will always choose guns over butter, and those within the leadership seeking to perpetuate the Stalinist system of repressive rule can be unintentionally aided by outside bluster. They will use it to convince their subjects that now, as in the 1930s, there is an external danger great enough to justify mobilization and xenophobia.

There is also not much realistic hope that either internal democratization or imperial disintegration will come along to lessen the Soviet danger in the near future. Liberalization is not built into the general process of modernization, and democratic institutions have been particularly absent from Russian history. The much-discussed demographic rise of the non-Russian peoples to majority status in the U.S.S.R. has not brought any lessening of Great Russian dominance either in the party leadership or in control of the army and police that hold the empire together.

The only force that can rid the Soviet colossus of its global involvements is the rising generation in the U.S.S.R., with the substantial participation of ethnic Russians. The only battlefield on which foreigners can affect the process is that of ideas. Ideas are the historical currency of modern Russians and will be increasingly important for the new, better educated post-Stalin generation as it confronts the need for deferred reforms and new technologies. For any new ideas to take root in the U.S.S.R., they must not be perceived as transplants from foreign soil, but rather be rooted in universal values congruent with a wide range of possible Russian futures.

It is precisely here that View B becomes newly relevant—but also acutely in need of redefinition. The idealistic view that America’s role in the world is a positive one with broader relevance could embolden us to speak to our opponent’s deepest need. But can we speak in terms that are inviting rather than threatening? Can we articulate universal ideals for tomorrow that may help us move beyond the parochial preoccupations of today?


Any attempt to redefine the liberal democratic ideal for a broader audience must first face the relativist’s skepticism that any single society today has much to say to any other. Can any norm drawn from the America of yesterday really be relevant to the emerging world of tomorrow?

The surprising answer, I believe, is yes. Four features of contemporary development suggest some unanticipated recent convergences between the ideals of Americans and the realities of a changing world.

The first current of our time that may make the American experience more relevant to the world is the replacement of revolution by evolution as the new pattern for social change and source of political legitimation. It has always been a cliché, and may now be an anachronism, to say that we live in an age of revolution. Despite some successes in extremely authoritarian societies like Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua (and in scavenging the French transition from colonialism in Southeast Asia and the Portuguese one in southern Africa), the inventory of Leninist victories does not seem very impressive given the long postwar era with all its disruptive change and Soviet investment in subversion.

The real dynamism in social, economic and political development during recent years has lain in constructive evolution toward democracy rather than in destructive revolution leading to dictatorships. In Western Europe and Japan, southern Europe, South America and South Asia, particularly in the case of India, democratic evolution rather than totalistic revolution has increasingly been the means of bringing real change to stagnant societies. The most profound and perhaps prophetic challenge to a Soviet-type regime in Eastern Europe has come not from any revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary) elite driven by ideology, but from a spontaneous popular movement in Poland calling not for power, but for radical evolutionary change.

The revolutionary fire is still burning itself out on the peripheral killing fields of the Third World. But French (and other European) intellectuals, who originally lit and long tended the flame of revolution, have decisively turned away from their historical Marxism in one of the most dramatic intellectual developments of recent years. As historians everywhere inventory the horrors perpetuated in the name of authoritarian revolutionary ideologies, humanity seems increasingly inclined to look to evolution rather than revolution for fresh beginnings. In such a world, the meliorative American model with all its compromises and improvisations may have more to say than the absolutist models with all their public myths and private murders.

A second powerful force at work in the world that gives new relevance to the American experience is the rising importance of education and intellectual elites in world politics. The increase in the educated population of the world may be even more portentous than the global population explosion itself. The life of the mind has a vested interest in liberty, and liberal learning produces an inherent bias toward free societies. Our commitment to higher education is the largest, both relatively and absolutely, that the world has ever seen—and a magnet as well as an example for much of the world. Spreading the taste for the unlimited pursuit of truth powerfully challenges systems such as that of the U.S.S.R., which claims in the very name of its newspaper, Pravda, already to encapsulate truth in state policy. More fundamentally, the pursuit of truth tends to keep us from the pursuit of each other. It is ultimately noncompetitive, and in an age when rising populations face finite resources, it may be that only in the expanding pursuit of truth can the horizons remain truly infinite for our cherished ideal of freedom.

A third force that may give new relevance to the American experience is the return of the sacred. Far from becoming irrelevant with the spread of education and modernization, religion has in many parts of the world become a resurgent element in that change. The most unforeseen new developments of the last decade in the communist and Third Worlds (respectively, the rise of Solidarity in Poland and of Khomeini in Iran) were both political movements rooted in prophetic monotheisms. Much of the unanticipated, fresh dynamism of both conservative politics in North America and radical politics in Latin America has been linked with religion and religious leaders.

Our individual commitments to faith enable Americans to identify with an entire dimension of human experience that communists, committed as they still are to atheism, can relate to only in insincere and manipulative ways. The force of religion may prove a positive element within the nativist revivals currently noticeable in Eastern Europe—in East Germany, and perhaps even in the U.S.S.R. as it looks ahead to celebrating in 1988 the millennium of the eastern Slavs’ conversion to Christianity.

A fourth area in which an American ideal is becoming a global necessity lies in our commitment to religious and ethnic plurality. The rise of new religious passions alongside old ideological ones creates an urgent need for the world to better accommodate variety in the crowded global conditions that lie ahead. One speaks of plurality or plural communities rather than pluralism because the American experience—for all its imperfections—celebrates a variety of authentic beliefs rather than a monistic secularism that finds all beliefs equally irrelevant.

The maintenance of a civil, civic unity among diverse communities is an aspect of American aspiration that may prove increasingly relevant to a world that seems to become ever more diverse culturally as it becomes more interrelated technologically. America has been a proving ground for bringing some measure of unity out of diversity—and could prove to be something of an experimental laboratory for the broader global community. Our principal new immigrants—Hispanic and East Asian—provide internal links with major external problems that will face us in the period ahead: our sociopolitical confrontation with Mexico and our economic-cultural confrontation with Japan. If confrontation with the former will pull us south into greater interaction with the Third World, our already intimate link with Japan will pull us increasingly east into contact with a number of cultures that are foreign to us—but which must be grasped in new ways since they represent the oldest and most populous civilizations on earth.

Our greatest long-term challenge may well be learning to live harmoniously with the great Asian cultures as they emerge into the modern world. Our special relationship with Japan and our growing links with China provide important opportunities to begin building bridges, not just with these Confucian-based societies of East Asia, but also with two other extra-European culture zones that we understand even less: the great Islamic belt of nations that stretches from the Indonesian archipelago through Central Asia to the Middle East and North Africa, and the Indian subcontinent of Hindu and Buddhist peoples in South and Southeast Asia. The long-term instruments for building understanding (deeper cultural and commercial relations) need to be developed intensively now if we are to avoid confrontations and deal more effectively with these cultures in the future.

But one can build bridges out to other cultures only if one has begun with casements deeply embedded in one’s own native soil. We cannot relate to others if we do not know who we are ourselves. Unless the Western world acquires a clearer and more unified sense of its common ideals than it has had in recent years, we may not be able either to contain Soviet power in the near term or to deal with an emerging Chinese, Islamic or Indian colossus over the long term. The managers of Soviet foreign policy may continue so effectively to divide Europe against America and public opinion against governments that Soviet leaders may continue to legitimize their system by seeking gains abroad more than reforms at home. By the 21st century, Western liberal democracy may be eclipsed by new autocratic models from the East—whether under communist, Islamic fundamentalist or some other proto-totalitarian auspices.


But what is this "West" that we must uphold and defend? It is not just a NATO alliance, a North Atlantic community, or even a trilateral club of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Nor is it an empire in any meaningful economic or political sense of the term. The term "free world" comes closer, but represents more the statement of a preferred condition than the description of a complex polity.

"The West" can best be described as an international commonwealth of the relatively free and accountable industrialized democracies. The key problem for this loose but dynamic community lies hidden within the word commonwealth. For the advanced democracies are precisely the places where one finds a lot of wealth but little in common. The unprecedented economic productivity of a global network of large and small market-oriented nations has created a web of economic interconnections that in effect constitutes a new international system. But this economic system has not yet produced any shared values, let alone common vision—and its workings are not clearly understood, let alone legitimized, by the democratic populaces who benefit from it. As a result, the economic strength and long-term advantages of free-market democracies over authoritarian rivals is not accompanied by moral force or political will. This lack of underlying will and purpose is a far more serious problem for the West than the oft-discussed travails of foreign-policy management in the United States or of coordination with allies. The first prerequisite of effective management is clear common purpose within the enterprise, and it is this lack of shared goals in the West that takes us back to the present danger from the East.

The classic image of the West, in Imperial Russia as in Soviet Russia, has been of a superior material force that is nonetheless morally weak and politically divisible—and thus ultimately unable to prevail against a more determined rival which combines a clear strategic objective with infinite tactical flexibility. The more educated Soviet leaders now moving into power are hothouse products of the nomenklatura who are inclined to assume that younger and brighter people can make old techniques work better by new sophistication in implementation rather than by real changes in policy.

Just because the Stalin-type campaign against American missile emplacements in Europe did not succeed a few years ago is no reason, in their view, for not mounting another campaign against the Strategic Defense Initiative and perhaps preparing a third for some kind of nuclear-free Europe. The vast Leninist mechanism for political manipulation needs periodic exercise. Its targets remain the same (to separate Europe from the United States and public opinion from governments), and there are promising new prospects for widening the penumbra of front activities (with church groups) and for exploiting the breakdown of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy within major Western countries: the U.K., Germany—perhaps even the United States. The basic Soviet target remains the same and just as subject to threats and inducements as ever: Germany, the key to Europe. The U.S.S.R. still controls a large piece of its property, and the U.S.S.R. always retains the dual options of proposing a deal or staging a power play. Soviet policy remains focused on a West German state that combines an increasingly addictive special attachment to East Germany with the general weaknesses of the advanced democracies: divisiveness and complacency tinged with its own isolationism and relativism.

Such weaknesses in Germany are more a product of the successful democratization—even Americanization—of the Federal Republic in the postwar era than of special German traditions. Even the anti-Americanism of recent years has a curiously American flavor. Die Zeit’s lofty disdain for recent American leaders has an Ivy League faculty club ring to it. The Greens’ emotional war on technology and the military is reminiscent of student demonstrators from the 1960s.


Time and again, the problems of individual Western countries turn out to be common ones crying out for common solutions, and more often than not the solution must begin where the problem did: in America. The way that America does or does not deal with its key problems is therefore of central importance for the entire commonwealth of advanced democratic nations. In particular, two basic American problems today will sooner or later affect much of the rest of the world: deficits and decadence. These forces probably represent a greater long-term threat to the survival of free societies than the divisions within these societies.

Massive budgetary deficits in the United States represent a ticking time bomb for the entire world economy and are particularly unsettling for our closest friends and allies. Deficits have a moral as well as an economic dimension. They represent a society devoid of discipline, spending more than it earns, consuming more than it produces—living perhaps on borrowed time as well as borrowed money. President Eisenhower, the last leader to hold the line, feared in his later years that this proclivity within our society (and the massive governmental-technological bureaucracy that it spawned) might come to represent an internal threat to our type of society no less real than the external threat posed by the U.S.S.R. A society where wealth is made by producing lawsuits and buy-outs rather than the basic goods on which it depends is in danger of losing control over its own destiny.

The deeper question arises of whether America is in fact living off its capital spiritually as well as materially. Are we in fact the new version of the late Romans—a decadent people living off the sacrifices of previous generations, likely to decline from the sheer weight of our own flabbiness? Isolationism and relativism are to a large degree part of this late Roman syndrome. As the elite turns increasingly to lounging on the latifundia and the great urban complexes continue their slow process of decay, it has become almost respectable to be indifferent to one’s neighbor and preoccupied with narrow, self-centered issues. Conservatives have made self-aggrandizement the necessary engine of social progress, and liberals have made the self-interest of special groups the main vehicle of social justice. There would not seem to be much help on the way as the "me generation" of students enters the "information age." In our passive, television-oriented consumer culture there is too much information to digest but never too much scandal. No one cares much about the public agenda anymore. Civil decencies and civic involvements are undermined by a visual medium that encourages spectatorism and destroys interest in issues (let alone participation in their resolution) while relying on sex, violence and sheer noise to arouse us from our self-indulgent stupor.

The root problem is that America has divorced freedom from responsibility, and our kind of society cannot survive without both. The success of freedom here and the spread of free institutions elsewhere has been the most constructive force in the postwar world. The erosion of individual responsibility within America and the West generally now threatens to be the most destructive force. The loss of shared values within probably threatens our international commonwealth of advanced democracies more than the growth of hostile forces without.

George Washington warned in his Farewell Address that our kind of system could survive only for a morally responsible people, and that morality historically depended on a strong religious faith. Durable societies are always rooted in shared values—which will in the long run be imposed from without if they are not sustained from within. But how can meaningful common values be defined for a pluralistic democracy like ours, let alone an even more pluralistic international commonwealth of democratic states? One can almost hear the relativists warning us that it is best not even to try; the isolationists reminding us that Washington also urged us to avoid all entangling alliances; and the conservative-realists ending up in charge once again with their minimalist approach of moving out from the cocoon only to combat clear dangers, never to advance broader ideals.

But we are doomed by our own destiny to take seriously something more than mere material self-interest or self-preservation. For it is our dynamism more than any other single force that has already imparted to so much of the postwar world its irreversible infection with a thirst for education, material opportunity and, yes, spiritual aspiration. So the real question is not can we avoid shared ideals but can we agree on any that are deep enough to affect our own people yet broad enough to move others?

Any attempt to redefine the liberal democratic ideal for today’s pluralistic world must begin by sorting out the peculiarities of our development from the genuinely universal part of our ideals. We must move beyond earlier visions of a future world as essentially an extension of American institutions: whether political, as in the Wilsonian idea emerging from World War I, or economic, as in the American hegemony that emerged from World War II. A new statement of the ideal can draw strength, if it does not draw exact models, from the type of responsible government projected by Wilson and from the type of free economy projected by Reagan. But the ideal is less narrowly culture-bound when defined as freedom and accountability: (1) freedom and autonomy for individuals and small groups—materially, intellectually and spiritually, and (2) participation and choice for the governed in holding accountable all those exercising political and economic power.

Political accountability, economic opportunity and religious freedom are widely shared aspirations even in places where parliamentary democracy, market capitalism and the Judeo-Christian tradition may be unknown. The thirst for national self-determination and human freedom articulated in the American Revolution has proven more enduring in its appeal than the call for communal equality sounded in the Russian Revolution. It is not just that equality has proven illusory and the Soviet model unattractive. The ideal of human freedom simply seems to be more inherently appealing. The key question may not be whether the ideal will spread to others, but whether or not freedom can be rooted once again in responsibility among its original proponents.

The American ideal—reduced to its essence—is compounded of two vital elements: enlightenment and religion. There is, and will always be, an inherent tension between the two. But both have been essential to American achievement in the past, and both may be needed for global survival in the future.

America was guided by a covenant even before it was governed by a constitution. If the intellectual vitality of the Enlightenment guided us in shaping institutions for self-government, the Christian convictions of the original settlers created the sense of responsibility that prevented liberty from sliding into license. The applied intellect of the Enlightenment, which we have developed so extensively in our system of higher education, is by nature critical and cannot invent new values as easily as it can destroy old ones. In American tradition the question of responsibility to whom has almost always been answered by responsibility to God: the ultimate source of justice and judgment. Unless that answer can be given more firmly by more people in the educated American opinion-making elite, there will continue to be a polarization that will make it impossible to define any common values. America will remain divided between those who are spiritually committed but not intellectually trained and those who are highly educated but deficient in moral and spiritual conviction. While some purely secular system of values might theoretically be devised for a smaller, more homogeneous society, religious values are in fact by far the controlling ones in the United States; and it is hard to envisage effective leadership in a democratically accountable society that does not build on, rather than snipe at, these values.

The Americans’ God was mainly Christian, but is now generally described as Judeo-Christian—a healthy reminder of the deeply Old Testament base of the faith of the original Puritans as well as the special contribution to America of one of our most creative religious minorities. In general, America has added new faiths rather than destroyed old ones—and has insisted that freedom of religion not mean freedom from religion.

Those relativist intellectuals who fear real religion and reject a strong national defense put themselves in opposition, respectively, to the deep convictions and basic instincts of most Americans. In doing so, they unwittingly help undermine the very society that has permitted such unprecedented scope for the life of the critical intellect. By refusing to play a leading role in combating the advance of Soviet-type systems, which call for enlightenment without religion, they have left the field open to the growing number of extremists in our midst who call for religion without enlightenment.


Since the common Western problems of division and decadence more immediately endanger our exposed allies than ourselves, it might be advisable to have the leaders of the advanced democracies discuss values rather than economies at their next summit. The marketplace can deal better with economic than with value questions. Now might even be a time to sketch out some declarations of principles for the commonwealth of free democracies not unlike the Atlantic Charter and Four Freedoms of the wartime period. These should be developed jointly—and not be the product of unilateral American moralism. But Americans should not be afraid to discuss publicly and even to proclaim some moral ideals, for the deepest values of a people must, in a democratic society, provide the basic legitimacy for its behavior in the broader world.

The new generation in the U.S.S.R. could ultimately be the most important (if most immediately hidden) audience for a fresh display of a common higher purpose in the West. The Soviet leadership’s determination to undertake extensive economic reform may lead to unintended consequences. To give their system new dynamism, the Soviet leaders will have to infuse it with either new fear through repressive chauvinism or new hope with scope for incentives. If the West can speak both firmly to the outer, older face of power and at the same time hopefully to the inner, younger voices of aspiration, we could help the process of change in the U.S.S.R. become change for the better. Any such change would probably draw more deeply on Russian tradition than on Western example, but that tradition includes Christian resources no less deep than those of Western Europe. And America plays a special role in the internal Russian drama as the only power that can destroy them and the only power by which they measure themselves.

What, then, if we were to provide them—and ourselves—with a different measure? What if we were to move from a reaffirmation of shared values in the West to the declaration of a large-scale shared project by the commonwealth of advanced democracies for the development of the Third World? Unless we believe in our ideals strongly enough to sacrifice some of our wealth to spread them, we would be better advised simply to retreat to the minimalism of View A—or further still into fortress America. But what if we were able to help define a common strategy for the advanced democracies to aid in developing the Third World in a way that maximized both freedom for their people and accountability in their governance? We would be establishing better links with new leaders in Latin America and Africa who have often moved beyond reflexive anti-Western rhetoric to begin building freer societies that combine traditional and Western values. And we would be inviting the new generation of Soviet leaders to move from the zero-sum game of our present bilateral competition to the positive-sum game of global democratic development. If they were not willing to join us in this enterprise in the twentieth century, they would face the risk of becoming irrelevant to the 21st.

Such a new strategy would be multilateral in origin and collaborative in implementation. It would initially emerge from discussion among the advanced democracies; small ones may have as much to suggest as larger ones, but much might also be learned from the creative recent experience of the American private sector as well as from earlier public initiatives like the Marshall Plan and the Fulbright program. Within the Third World itself, existing community-based institutions and local ethnic and religious groups may prove to be more efficient and humane vehicles for facilitating development than distant bureaucracies. If the ideal is deeper than mere material development, the advanced democracies might collectively fashion a variety of new programs that would avoid either reinforcing local autocrats or overthrowing local cultural traditions.

Such policies would link aid with self-help and would promote respect, not only for universal human rights, but also for indigenous ideas of divine responsibility and local traditions of social organization. Development would be a collaborative activity designed to root liberty and accountability in civil society rather than just to generate wealth for a centralized state bureaucracy.

It is important to set a new global agenda that adds the vision of View B to the realism of View A in order to keep us from making weapons the main focus of our attention in the discussion of foreign policy. Paradoxically, even those who call for reducing or freezing our strategic arsenal can involuntarily compound the problem by focusing either on technological carvings on the totem pole or on symbolic actions that do not go to the heart of the main problem, which is the risk that other kinds of confrontation could involuntarily escalate into nuclear conflict. Unless our own unifying ideals transcend the materialistic ones of prosperity measured in consumption and security measured in weapons, our society may become ever more fixated on the thermonuclear totem in a debt-ridden garrison state. America as we have known it will be in its terminal travails, and the only real question will be whether we end with a bang or a whimper—burning in space or freezing in place. Setting a new global agenda would help turn our attention from rival totem worship to new rituals of collaboration. We would be following the main injunction of the best theological writings on the nuclear problem: the obligation to use the time gained by mutual deterrence to begin establishing a more positive basis for peace.

But can our type of democracy really manage a complex foreign policy—one that combines View A and View B, that simultaneously speaks realistically to the outer face of Soviet power and idealistically to its inner aspirations? Would we be just projecting our own pride once again out into the world, moving back from the conservative realism of Nixon-Kissinger to the overextended globalism and potentially tragic hubris of Kennedy-Johnson? Should we not pull in our horns and go back to Eisenhower, or to even earlier forms of withdrawal that might satisfy both the isolationism of our people and the relativism of our intellectuals?

The fact is that we cannot either go back or stay home. We are in the world psychologically and ethnically as well as economically and ecologically. That world—all of it—is increasingly interrelated by (1) the unity and destructive potential of our technology, (2) our ecological and resource interdependence, and (3) our economic interrelationships in producing and distributing the world’s goods and services.

It can be dangerous for an imperfect people to proclaim a higher ideal (groups being even more fallible than individuals). The exercise will be redeemed only if our people recognize again that we are subject to a higher, more universal standard of judgment—and then pay a price in homage to that ideal. If it costs us something voluntarily, it minimizes the danger that we will be merely projecting our coercive force onto others. Each nation in our pluralistic world is most likely to help others by first rediscovering the highest ideals within itself. Our interrelated, endangered planet needs not the lowest common denominator of agreement based on indifference but a higher numerator of hope, which only faith can provide.

If we do not have enough faith in democracy to make new sacrifices to share it, we will risk breaking our own links with our forefathers’ concurrent faith in a God of justice and judgment. And we will fail our heritage of rational enlightenment no less than that of revealed religion. For experience has confirmed Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous dictum that, if man’s capacity for good makes democracy possible, his possibility for evil makes it indispensable.

But are faith and vision finally compatible with realism, with the tangible realities and more manageable tasks of simply responding to the passing parade of external dangers? Our dangers in the nuclear era will not pass away, and deep conflicts in history—such as ours with the Soviet Union—are not likely to be solved so much as bypassed. We cannot ultimately "solve" our problems with the Soviets’ ideologically based empire either by amassing ever more weapons to put pressure on them or by offering ever more concessions for agreements to reassure them. But, by creating a new agenda of constructive democratization elsewhere in which they also can participate, we provide a positive way out of indefinite confrontation and perpetual danger.

Of course, it would be simpler and cheaper for the United States to subscribe to either View A or View B rather than to both. But our kind of system will not ultimately survive without both ways of looking at the world, for the democratic experiment has always needed both a strong defense and a transforming ideal.

The cause of peace would not be promoted by drastically retrenching the defense commitments dictated by View A in order to subsidize the development called for by View B. In the absence of major Soviet retrenchment abroad, such unilateral disarmament on our part would inspire contempt rather than gratitude among Soviet leaders, encourage advocates of violence in the Third World and impede rather than advance the latent potential for real change within the rising generation in the U.S.S.R. But we cannot drift into accepting the military strength required by View A as our only serious international obligation—and viewing the programs required by View B only as marginal additions or rhetorical embellishment for realpolitik. Our positive long-term objective keeps short-term military necessities properly subordinate to higher civilian aims. View A will be unacceptable in the long run to our people and to the other members of the international commonwealth of democratic states unless it is complemented by View B.

The vision of more accountable governments and freer societies ultimately provides not only a common ideal for the democracies, but a better basis for communicating with the nondemocratic nations of a pluralistic world. We must be tough and specific with the ruling Soviet elite precisely because we wish to be broad and generous with their long-suffering people.

The centrality of human rights in such an agenda introduces real difficulties, but human rights have provided a banner for both deepening the democratic commitments of Western Europe and reviving them in Latin America. The proclamation of such rights was part of our founding identity as a nation and has become—through the Helsinki agreements—part of the international obligations of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites.

The cause of human rights provides a valuable vehicle for peaceful, evolutionary democratization throughout the communist world. It can help them to come up gradually from their long submersion in the Stalinist depths to the fresh air of freedom—without going through the bends of military dictatorship or civil war. There as elsewhere, the approximation of democracy through increasingly accountable governments may ultimately prove, in an imperfect and divided world, the best long-term guarantee of peace. Out of the large literature on how wars start in the modern world, there emerges one heartening fact: democracies do not fight one another.

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  • James H. Billington is Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and author of Fire in the Minds of Men and The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture.
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