This brace of articles revives a venerable custom. Sixty years ago Foreign Affairs published a similar exchange in which Ogden Mills, later Herbert Hoover’s secretary of the treasury, spoke for the Republicans and Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democrats. Such eminent precedent should establish the proposition that foreign policy is a legitimate party issue—though this proposition hardly needs legitimation in a republic where foreign relations have been a subject of vehement debate ever since Hamilton and Madison disagreed over George Washington’s neutrality program. Still the old saw "politics stops at the water’s edge" expresses a familiar misconception. The impression occasionally arises—and is always encouraged by whatever administration is in office—that debating the conduct of foreign policy is indecent or unpatriotic. Yet clearly nothing in a democracy is more entitled to uninhibited discussion than decisions of peace and war.

What follows is not a party statement. "I belong to no organized party," as Will Rogers said. "I am Democrat." No one can speak for the Democratic Party until a candidate is nominated and a platform adopted in the summer of 1988; the consequent mandate runs to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and the ticket will be good for that journey only.


In the judgment of this free-lance Democrat, the foreign policy of the United States has been on a radically misconceived course since President Reagan took office in January 1981. This is not to lay all blame for foreign policy failure on the Reagan Administration nor to reject everything that Administration has done in its conduct of foreign relations. The continuities of U.S. foreign policy are greater than European critics of the United States (and American critics of democracy) understand. Geopolitical imperatives fall impartially on Republican and Democrat alike. All American administrations, no matter how much they differ, will act to preserve a balance of power in Europe and to prevent extracontinental annexations in the Americas.

Even in the shorter run, the roots of Reagan’s national security policy (misdirected, in this writer’s view) as well as of his human rights policy (steadily improving) lie in the Carter Administration. It was Carter who, for better or for worse, advanced the movement away from the concept of mutual assured destruction toward a war-prevailing strategy, who approved the MX missile, who expanded American security commitments in the Third World and whose Carter Doctrine defined the Persian Gulf as within the zone of U.S. vital interests. And it was Carter too who placed human rights on the world’s conscience and agenda—for which Reagan roundly condemned him in the 1980 campaign, holding Carter’s human rights preoccupation responsible for the "loss" of Iran and Nicaragua. In abandoning the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier half a dozen years later, Reagan unabashedly adopted the policy for which he had so righteously denounced Carter in the cases of the shah and the Somozas.

Within this broad framework of bipartisan continuity, however, the Reagan Administration has carried forward historic differences between the Republican and Democratic parties, differences delineated by Ogden Mills and Franklin D. Roosevelt sixty years ago.

The salient difference is that the Republican Party has been in recent times the vehicle of unilateral action in world affairs and the Democratic Party the vehicle of international cooperation. Ogden Mills, an eastern, Wall Street Republican, had little sympathy for the defiantly isolationist William E. Borah-Hiram Johnson wing of his party. Yet even Mills emphasized the unshakable Republican commitment to the nation’s "traditional policy of independence in foreign affairs" and dismissed the legacy of Woodrow Wilson as one "under which our independence of action might be subordinated to the decision of other nations." F.D.R.’s 1928 article, on the other hand, saluted the League of Nations as "the first great agency for the maintenance of peace and for the solution of common problems ever known to civilization."

The Reagan Administration has now given the G.O.P.’s unilateralist tradition a global application. No administration in recent times has paid less heed to the views and interests of allies, has more systematically scorned multilateral forums or has taken greater pleasure in being able to say, as Reagan said after an American plane forced down Palestinian hijackers over Italy in 1985, that we did it "all by our little selves."

Reaganite unilateralism, moreover, is inspired by a messianic conviction that the American destiny is to redeem a fallen world. It is inspired by a crusading anti-communism of a sort not seen in the United States since the high noon of John Foster Dulles. Where presidents from Truman to Carter saw the cold war as a power struggle, Reagan saw it as a holy war. He regarded the Soviet Union as unchanged, unchanging and unchangeable and found communist deviltry at the root of most of the world’s troubles.

The presidential tone, it is true, has moderated as the years have passed. We hear less these days about the "evil empire," nor has the president recently repeated the remarks of his first press conference in 1981 ("The only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat") —perhaps because people might think he was talking about his own National Security Council staff.

Crusades generally exaggerate the menace of the enemy, and this one is no exception. Most of the world sees communism today as a burnt-out faith and the Soviet Union as a weary, dreary land filled with cynicism and corruption, beset by insuperable problems at home and abroad, finally (and sullenly) accepting reform as the only hope of assuring survival as a great power. The Soviet Union can trust neither communist China to the east nor communist satellites to the west, and the Red Army, which the Pentagon tediously tries to scare us about, cannot after eight years defeat ragged tribesmen fighting in the hills of Afghanistan. Yet for Reaganites the Soviet Union remains a fanatic state carrying out with implacable zeal, cunning and efficiency a master plan of world domination—except when they see it as so frail that a couple of small pushes will shove its ramshackle economy into collapse.

Global unilateralism driven by an anti-communist crusade wobbles the Administration’s sense of reality. Local conflicts become tests of global resolve. Stakes are raised in situations that cannot be easily controlled, threatening to transmute limited into unlimited conflict. We are encouraged in the fallacy, one we share with the rival superpower, that we know the interests of other nations better than those nations know their own interests—that we understand remote and exotic problems more clearly than the countries most directly involved, most directly threatened and most familiar with the territory. Unilateralism breeds the arrogance of ignorance, and ignorance breeds bad policy.


Reagan’s Nicaragua policy is a spectacular example of unilateralism in action. From the start, the Administration took little interest in Latin American assessments of the situation. Yet Latin American countries are a good deal more endangered than the United States is by a Marxist Nicaragua; they are a good deal closer to the scene and a good deal more knowledgeable about it, and their leaders are just as determined as the United States is on their behalf to resist their own overthrow. Most Latin American governments feel that Reagan’s military remedy is far more likely to promote than to impede the progress of Marxist revolution. But Reagan, in his determination to make the Sandinistas cry uncle, has methodically disparaged and sabotaged the Latin American search for a political solution—first the Contadora effort, then the peace plan presented by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica.

Lebanon, another example, should have proved to us forever the dangers of random meddling in the Middle East, a part of the world in which we have had far less experience than we have had in Latin America and of which we have far less knowledge—a part of the world, moreover, so bedeviled by ancient religious and tribal hatreds that it defies not only Western management but Western comprehension. We did not have the slightest understanding of the historical tangle we were getting into when we sent the marines to Beirut and claimed that their mission was to save the Middle East. Nor has the Reagan Administration appeared to learn much from the massacre of the marines. Raising once again the standard of invincible ignorance, it then plunged unilaterally and mindlessly ahead into a larger mess in the Persian Gulf.

Let us recall the Reagan roller-coaster policy in the Gulf. Iraq initiated the war against Iran in 1980. The Reagan Administration first followed a policy of neutrality; then veered toward Iraq, a policy culminating in the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1984; then courted Iran with arms shipments on the grounds of Iran’s supreme geopolitical importance to American security; then, in order to recover Arab confidence and to preempt the Soviet Union, veered toward Iraq again, despite the Iraqi assault on the U.S.S. Stark and the death of 37 American sailors.

Then Reagan decided to raise the military stakes in the Gulf against Iran—the very country he had been secretly arming a short time before. This was a decision taken without consultation with America’s allies and with only sketchy notification to Congress. There was no evident effort to think through next steps, and the U.S. Navy did not even have the capacity to protect itself against Iranian mines. The reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers—again no consultation with allies—goes far to place the United States in the hands of two countries, Kuwait and Iraq, that have an obvious interest in drawing us into the war against Iran. "American naval forces in the Gulf," as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff report put it in October 1987, "are now, in effect, hostage to Iraqi war policy." An Iranian victory over Iraq would plainly be against the interests of the West, but the United States cannot do much by its little self to prevent it. Only as a last resort has the Administration turned to the international instrument it should have used from the start—the United Nations.

Sometimes the American government is wiser than other governments. Sometimes it is not. In any event there is no harm in taking other governments into account, especially when they are more intimately involved in the problem than we are. The realists who wrote The Federalist Papers understood this obvious fact of international life, which is why the 63rd Federalist called on the newly established American government to pay "attention to the judgment of other nations. . . . Particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed."

Unilateralism breeds something more than ignorance: it breeds illegality. Consider Central America again. President Reagan has pursued his policy of overthrowing the Sandinista regime in Managua in violation not only of congressional prohibitions but of nonintervention pledges repeatedly made to the Organization of American States ever since the Montevideo Conference of 1933, when the United States first subscribed to the declaration that "no state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another"; in violation too of the U.N. Charter and of customary international law. After Nicaragua appealed to the World Court, the Reagan Administration, having failed in challenging the court’s jurisdiction, walked out of the courtroom and refused to argue the case on its merits.

In 1983 Reagan despatched an expeditionary force against the island of Grenada, an action undertaken without warning, without congressional authorization and in presumptive violation of the charters of the United Nations and of the Organization of American States. Though he was invading a member of the British Commonwealth, he did not bother to consult or even to alert his most loyal supporter among world leaders, the British prime minister. The pretext—the rescue of American citizens—had ample standing under international law, but the real and unconcealed purpose was to destroy an obnoxious regime. The people of Grenada and neighboring islands welcomed the invasion, but the legal fig leaves notably failed to impress the British prime minister or the U.N. General Assembly.

The net result of these instances, and recently of the far less justified intervention in Nicaragua, is that never before in our history have we had fewer friends in the Western Hemisphere than we have today. . . . We are exceedingly jealous of our own sovereignty and it is only right that we should respect a similar feeling among other nations.

So F.D.R. wrote in Foreign Affairs sixty years ago; plus ça change. . . . If a real crisis arises, Roosevelt added,

it is not the right or the duty of the United States to intervene alone. It is rather the duty of the United States to associate with itself other American Republics. . . . Single-handed intervention by us in the affairs of other nations must end; with the cooperation of others we shall have more order in this hemisphere and less dislike.


The climax of the present Administration’s self-arrogated right to intervene single-handedly everywhere in the world is the famous Reagan Doctrine. Once again unilateralism breeds bad policy. The Reagan Doctrine exhorts people to take up arms in order to overthrow communist regimes. "We must not break faith," Reagan said in 1985, "with those who are risking their lives on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, to defy Soviet-supported aggression." Reagan’s cry recalls the prizefight manager in the old cartoon urging his battered and bleeding pug into the ring for one more round: "Go on in there. They can’t hurt us."

Obviously it is one thing to help people who, on their own, are resisting a foreign invasion, as in Afghanistan. Indeed, a Democratic administration initiated this policy. It is something quite different to create an insurgency in order to overthrow a government, such as Nicaragua’s, recognized by most of the world, including ourselves. The contras are a wholly owned CIA subsidiary. When we organize a rebellion ab initio, does this not imply a moral obligation to those whom we spur on to risk their lives? Suppose their efforts are inadequate to the task. Having urged them into the breach, have we not incurred a responsibility to make sure that they succeed? If the "freedom fighters" we have invented fail on their own, are they not entitled to expect that we will send in our own troops to win what we have told them is our fight too? Or are we to "break faith" and ignobly abandon them? In the end the Reagan Administration will probably abandon the contras rather than send in the marines, as the Nixon-Ford Administration abandoned the South Vietnamese and the Kurds. Here, as elsewhere, the Reagan Administration takes the first step without having thought through the last step or calculated the consequences, political and moral, of failure. We Democrats, I trust, have learned these grim lessons the hard way—in the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam.

Reagan claims sympathy for those fighting for freedom as a cherished American tradition. "Time and again," he has said, "we’ve aided those around the world struggling for freedom, democracy, independence and liberation from tyranny." But the men of the old republic drew a bright line between sympathy and intervention. As John Quincy Adams put it:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. . . . She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.

President Reagan, on the contrary, seeks monsters, and, in stalking them, he risks what J. Q. Adams predicted—the involvement of the United States "beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxim of [America’s] policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit." Given the existing balance of forces, the dictatorship of the world is not a likely outcome. Corruption of our own spirit is.

The Reagan Doctrine has made covert action its chosen instrument and has thereby made secrecy, deceit and mendacity the foundation of American foreign policy. The very adjective "covert" is a misnomer. Covert action is often easy to detect, always hard to control and in its nature illegal and immune to normal procedures of accountability. Covert action, moreover, is a weapon of marginal consequence in the scale of things. Its importance in the conduct of foreign affairs is greatly overrated. It appeals, as John Le Carré observes, to declining powers, who place "ever greater trust in the magic formulae and hocus-pocus of the spy world. When the king is dying, the charlatans rush in."

In January 1961 President Eisenhower’s Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities, a group of eminent citizens with Robert A. Lovett taking the lead on this question, told the president after a review of the CIA record: "We have been unable to conclude that, on balance, all of the covert action programs undertaken by the CIA up to this time have been worth the risk or the great expenditure of manpower, money and other resources involved." Nothing the CIA has done in the quarter-century since gives reason to alter this considered verdict.

Covert action should never become, as it became in the Reagan Administration, a routine instrument of foreign policy. One is interested to note that this thought belatedly dawned on Robert C. McFarlane, the former national security adviser, as he prepared for the Iran-contra hearings. "It was clearly unwise," McFarlane told the joint congressional committee, "to rely on covert activity as the core of our policy. . . . You must have the American people and the U.S. Congress solidly behind you. Yet it is virtually impossible, almost as a matter of definition, to rally public support behind a policy that you can’t even talk about."

Once again, unilateralism breeds illegality. "Support for freedom fighters," Reagan opines, "is self-defense, and totally consistent with the O.A.S. and U.N. Charters." This is a perilously elastic interpretation of self-defense and not one that legal scholars or allies are inclined to endorse. The Soviet Union asserted a similar right of global intervention in support of "wars of national liberation." Americans did not hail the principle when Khrushchev announced it a quarter of a century ago. Does it really sound better on the lips of an American president?

Under Reagan the United States now vies with the Soviet Union in proclaiming its right to act as a law unto itself around the planet. An especially obnoxious example is the Administration’s effort to reinterpret the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972—a unilateral interpretation contrary to the "original intent" (so heartily acclaimed by Reagan in other contexts) of the officials, both American and Soviet, who negotiated the treaty and of the senators who ratified it; a reinterpretation contemptuous both of international law and of American constitutional practice; a reinterpretation, moreover, that undermines the principal superpower arms control agreement and the foundation-stone for future arms control. "What is missing from all this," as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has commented, "is the sense we once had that it is in our interest to advance the cause of law in world affairs." Does the American interest really lie in imitating the Soviet Union—or does it lie in opposing the Soviet model with the idea of a world of law?

To deny that the United States has a profound stake in the operation of law in international affairs is more than a rejection of American tradition and a disservice to longer-term American interests. It is also to embark on a course that in harder cases than Grenada (i.e., involving more American casualties), Congress and public opinion will not long accept. "A policy is bound to fail which deliberately violates our pledges and our principles, our treaties and our laws," Walter Lippmann wrote after the Bay of Pigs. "The American conscience is a reality. It will make hesitant and ineffectual, even if it does not prevent, an un-American policy."

Still worse, the Reagan Doctrine carries illegality from foreign relations into the domestic polity. Founded as it is on lawbreaking, deception and lies, covert action imports very bad habits into a constitutional democracy. There is no need here to rehearse the squalid story revealed in the Iran-contra hearings. One has only to note that the Reagan Doctrine led on to actions that violated both the Constitution President Reagan swore a solemn oath to uphold and the laws he was pledged to execute. Of course the "neat idea" advanced by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North was a dumb policy. But the issue is not the Rube Goldberg scheme to get the ayatollah to subsidize the contras, nor even its mode of execution, which seems to have been devised by Inspector Clouseau. The issue is whether the president of the United States is above the Constitution and the laws.

"When the president does it," as Richard Nixon inimitably put it, "that means that it is not illegal." Ronald Reagan’s White House seems to share this view. Throbbing through the testimony of Colonel North and Rear Admiral John Poindexter is ill-concealed envy at the Kremlin’s capacity to act as it wills without obstruction, restraint or disclosure. But the theory of the divine right of presidents finds little sustenance in the American Constitution.

When pressed, defenders of the Imperial Presidency redivivus, like Colonel North, invoke the case of United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. in 1936. Those who do so could not have read the decision. For what the Supreme Court did in Curtiss-Wright was to affirm the power of Congress to impose an arms embargo and further to affirm the right of Congress to delegate to the president the power to institute such an embargo. As Justice Robert H. Jackson later put it, Curtiss-Wright "involved, not the question of the president’s right to act without congressional authority, but the question of his right to act under and in accord with an Act of Congress." The decision sanctioned presidential action within a framework ordained by Congress. It did not sanction independent presidential action.

It is true that Justice George Sutherland, who wrote the opinion, indulged in imaginative historical asides in order to distinguish the delegation of power in foreign affairs the Court was approving in 1936 from the delegation in domestic affairs it had struck down when it invalidated the National Recovery Administration in 1935. Sutherland’s asides were dicta, bad history and not part of the Court’s holding. The Court has never sustained the proposition that the president has an extraconstitutional source of power in international relations.

The Reagan endorsement of unilateral presidential power in foreign affairs comes oddly from an Administration whose attorney general lectures us so often about "the jurisprudence of original intention." For the framers of the Constitution explicitly rejected the idea that foreign policy was the private property of the president. The foremost proponent of executive energy in the Constitutional Convention was Alexander Hamilton, and Hamilton himself wrote in the 75th Federalist: "The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human nature which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind, as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of. . . a President of the United States."

The Reagan version of unilateralism gives the Republican tradition a novel and ominous twist. The Reagan policies have been characterized—far more than those of the Nixon Administration, for example—by a studied subordination of diplomatic to military methods and remedies. The National Security Council staff has been effectively taken over by men whose experience has been in the Pentagon and in the armed services. The Foreign Service has been purged and humiliated. Professional diplomats occupy today a smaller proportion of ambassadorial posts than at any time in recent history. Reagan’s budget reflects his priorities: spoiling the Department of Defense, starving the Department of State. The budgetary stringencies created by the defense budget have led to the cutback of State’s budget by $185 million in 1986-87, with another $84 million scheduled to go this year. The result is the closing of consulates and even embassies around the world, the retirement of experienced diplomats and the weakening of America’s diplomatic resources—all for the cost of a B-1 bomber.

The Reaganite assumption is that, in the words of the Financial Times of London, "military might would provide answers to political questions." Military action becomes a first, not last, recourse.


Reagan rode to power determined to rescue the United States from what he had peculiarly called Carter’s policy of unilateral disarmament. In fact the arms buildup began with Carter, whose last Five-Year Defense Plan called for nearly as much spending as Reagan actually accomplished. Citing inflated Defense Department estimates of Soviet defense spending (estimates later refuted by the more scrupulous CIA), Reagan periodically proclaimed that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union—which, if true, represented a stirring presidential tribute to the superior efficiency and productivity of a collectivized economy. The Soviet generals engaged in comparable lamentations, each side announcing that the other was ahead in order to get bigger budgets for itself. As President Kennedy once put it, "The hard-liners in the Soviet Union and the United States feed on one another." It is difficult to figure how anyone could take these self-serving wails from the Pentagon seriously, especially around budget time.

But Congress did. It will have lavished nearly two trillion dollars on the Pentagon during the Reagan years. For much of this period Pentagon spending was deemed sacrosanct, and Pentagon megalomania was unbridled. Recall, for example, the award of 8,612 medals after the glorious American victory over Grenada, a small island without army, navy or air force, though we never had more than 7,000 troops on the island. This prodigality did not deeply impress veterans who had earned medals in the Second World War or Korea or Vietnam. But it was typical of an army that had more generals in peacetime than it had in 1945, when it was six times larger and fighting a world war.

In these years, the military budget was annually presented by our secretary of defense as a sacred text, not a line of which could be altered without incalculable harm. It finally took the minor outrages of overpriced coffee pots and toilet seats to awaken a complaisant Congress. But the major waste came in the enormous outlays for weapon systems so complex and delicate that they rarely worked in tests and are most unlikely to work in combat. The much vaunted MX cannot reliably land in the target zone. The much vaunted B-1 bomber turns out to have a befuddled electronic brain. The armed forces, The New York Times reported this summer, were "so short of spare parts that they must cannibalize some airplanes to keep others flying."

As for the $485 billion spent on the wonderful 600-ship navy, much went for aircraft carriers, fine for movies like Top Gun but sitting ducks in case of serious war, while the Persian Gulf intervention found the United States with only three operational minesweepers, all of Korean War vintage, and reduced American destroyers to the humiliation of being convoyed by the unarmed tankers they were charged to protect. There has been, I gather, real improvement in the quality and morale of the armed forces. But too much of the taxpayers’ money has disappeared down a black hole, leaving a military establishment rich in glamorous but brittle high-tech gadgetry and poor in such mundane matters as combat readiness, stockpiles of munitions and equipment, depot maintenance, sea and air transport, not to mention minesweeping. The abiding Reagan theme has been overemphasis on nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional capabilities.

The culmination of the science-fiction approach is President Reagan’s dream of "Star Wars"—an impenetrable defense shield to be erected over the United States like an astrodome. Star Wars has been presented in a succession of models, some designed to replace, others to reinforce, deterrence. All require the solution of problems of extraordinarily technical complexity by means scientists have yet to discover. Ultimate effectiveness depends on inordinately complicated systems working together in perfect unison under conditions of ultimate stress. Does no one remember the Challenger?

Most Democrats agree with former Under Secretary of State George W. Ball that Star Wars is not only a fantasy but a fraud. Few scientists think it likely to work in the long run. Its short-run effect will inevitably be to prevent agreement on the reduction of strategic weapons and, more than that, to rekindle the nuclear arms race. For the Soviet military establishment will seize upon it as an excuse to demand from Gorbachev more intercontinental ballistic missiles to overwhelm the space shield and more cruise missiles, bombers and other low-flying weapons to rush in under the shield. Since countermeasures are technically simpler than construction of the shield and cost far less, they will be relatively easy to sustain. And the arms race will roar on.

Reaganites defend Star Wars, or the Strategic Defense Initiative, precisely as a means of bringing the Soviet Union to the negotiating table. Maybe so, though this contention has been denied by no less an authority than Andrei D. Sakharov, who adds: "To the contrary, the SDI program impedes negotiations." Surely the deeper reason that inclines Gorbachev to cut back the arms race—and would have so inclined him whether or not Reagan had ever dreamed of Star Wars—is his need to transfer capital, materials, scientists and engineers from military tasks to the modernization of the Soviet economy.

The militarization of foreign relations has had further effects. From the start the Reagan Administration has regarded arms transfers as a major tool of diplomacy if not as a substitute for it. The result has been to pour American weapons into the most explosive parts of the world—Central America, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, South Asia. Given chronic instability and an unpredictable future, a good many of these weapons may be turned against the United States before the century is over—as has already happened with arms sent to China in the 1940s, Vietnam in the 1960s and Iran in the 1970s.

The ultimate premise of Reagan’s foreign policy is that military power creates political and diplomatic power. It seems more likely, however, that the subordination of diplomatic to military interests has diminished American influence around the world. A foreign policy dominated by military men and ideological zealots degrades the role and narrows the scope of negotiation. Thus 13 South Pacific nations, led by Australia, recently proposed in the Treaty of Raratonga to make their part of the world a nuclear-free zone. Australia made a particular effort to ensure that the treaty did not compromise American interests. But the Pentagon objected and the United States refused to sign, causing vast irritation throughout the area over what the Australian foreign minister called the "clumsy" way Washington handled the matter.

The obsession with military buildup and military remedy has exacted a damaging price. The vain quest for American military leadership has resulted in the loss of American political and economic leadership. The combination of colossal defense spending with a major tax cut produced unprecedented peacetime budget deficits, an overvalued dollar and the transformation of the United States on Reagan’s watch from a creditor nation to the world’s number-one debtor. The concentration of America’s science and technology on military research has held back American productivity and further endangered America’s competitive position in world markets. "American scientists," The Economist observes, "are in a bind. Their research must aim either to deter the Russians, or to compete with the Japanese. No longer can they expect a single contract from the Pentagon to achieve both goals." Reagan’s military priorities have accentuated America’s financial and industrial vulnerabilities.

We have seen in recent months—well before the Iran-contra scandals—an ebbing of faith, first in American skills, latterly in American intentions. Ian Davidson, the foreign affairs columnist of the Financial Times, summing up the situation in a valedictory column in the summer of 1987, concluded that Reagan "has probably caused more damage to the European-American relationship in the Atlantic Alliance than any of his predecessors. What is more, he probably does not even realize it." Reagan’s unilateralism is Gorbachev’s most potent weapon. A recent Gallup poll showed that 56 percent of European respondents thought that Gorbachev was contributing to world peace; only 12 percent thought Reagan was. "The outside world almost unanimously views us with less good will today than at any previous period." This was F.D.R. in 1928 during another time of Republican unilateralism.

The infirmities of the Reagan foreign policy are not redeemed by the belated prospect of the treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles. This would unquestionably be a useful, if limited, step forward; nor can one be much impressed by the claim, urged by Democratic as well as Republican conservatives, that the agreement would leave Western Europe naked before Soviet conventional force. Unless one dismisses the three-to-one superiority that offense is required to have over defense, assumes the loyalty and efficiency of the Soviet satellites, forgets the deterrent power carried by American submarines and bombers and believes that the invasion of Europe is on Gorbachev’s agenda, Western Europe is safe enough. It could be rendered safer by negotiated limitations on conventional forces and by parallel reduction in Western nuclear artillery and Soviet tanks. But the supreme question—stopping the strategic arms race—is still ahead. Nor can any progress be expected here so long as the American government regards Star Wars as nonnegotiable.


It remains a tough world filled with intractable problems, and it is reasonable to inquire what the Democrats would do differently. There is, at least in advance of the convention, no party line. George McGovern and Jesse Jackson on the party’s left and Senators Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Sam Nunn of Georgia on the right have very different views on such issues as aid to the contras and Star Wars. Yet these four able men might agree on a broad reaffirmation of the Democratic Party as the party of responsible internationalism.

This does not mean, as Ogden Mills affected to fear, subordination of our independence of action to the decision of other nations. Neither Wilson nor Roosevelt, Truman nor Kennedy nor Johnson, was notably averse to asserting the national interest. But it does mean a recognition of interdependence as a prime fact of international life. It means a sensitivity to the interests of other nations, a readiness to consult with allies and to negotiate with adversaries. It would mean U.S. support for Latin American peace initiatives in Central America. It would mean reinvigorated American use of the United Nations and other multilateral agencies. It would end the unlovely spectacle of the United States careening around the world as a law unto itself and restore the historical American conviction that a world of law is in the national interest.

If Gorbachev and his reforms survive, a Democratic administration will believe—as most Democrats who have visited Moscow already believe—that the time has come to take Gorbachev seriously. A Democratic president will not dismiss the new Soviet look as propaganda or disinformation or, in the Reaganite cliché, "cosmetic." The changes under way in the Soviet Union hold out the hope of tranquilization in world affairs. Gorbachev needs an international respite to carry forward his program of domestic modernization.

His speech of September 17, 1987, printed in Pravda, apparently signals an extraordinary departure in Soviet policy, a dramatic shift in direction from unilateralism toward collaboration. Still, the Soviet record since 1917 justifies skepticism when a Soviet leader starts talking about strengthening the United Nation’s peacekeeping responsibility, establishing a U.N. force to protect Persian Gulf shipping, accepting the compulsory jurisdiction of the World Court, giving the United Nations new authority in human rights and disclaiming the pristine Soviet commitment to world revolution. The Democratic response to these overtures will not be to spurn them but to test them. The world faces a historic opportunity to bring the cold war to an end, or at least to reduce it to considerably less dangerous dimensions. The American task is to seize the Gorbachev challenge and to translate his words into constructive and enduring agreements.

In particular, the possibility now exists to end the nuclear arms race. The bargain is there; if we renounce the Star Wars fantasy/fraud, we could complete a deal tomorrow. How long will the door remain open? A Democratic president, if he keeps his faith with Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, will not miss the chance. He will have, I hope, a bold and generous vision of the world’s possibilities when humanity begins to devote its energy and ingenuity to cooperation rather than to conflict. In this spirit the 21st century may yet see the realization of F.D.R.’s world of the Four Freedoms.

To move the republic in this direction, a Democratic president would aim at the resurrection of diplomacy, the revitalization of the State Department and the restoration of competence and coherence to the management of foreign relations. The process by which the government made foreign policy under Reagan could hardly have been worse. "Is it not your view," Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) asked the secretary of defense about the Iran-contra decisions, "that it’s an inexcusable and deplorable way to conduct the policymaking process of the government?" Even the indefatigably loyal Caspar Weinberger responded, "Yes."

The Reagan method has been to treat foreign policy as the president’s personal property, to be conducted without undue regard for the laws and the Constitution and to be concealed, if necessary, not only from Congress and the American people but even, on occasion, from his own secretaries of state and defense. A Democratic president would recognize the futility of trying to run foreign policy in a democracy on any other basis than consent. He would especially recognize the necessity of restoring Congress to its constitutional partnership in the making of foreign policy. As a great American—and Democratic—diplomat, Averell Harriman, once put it: "No foreign policy will stick unless the American people are behind it. And unless Congress understands it the American people aren’t going to understand it."

In a properly organized administration the national security adviser should see his duty as the coordination and clarification of choices presented to the president. He would have a small, crack staff and would not try to replicate the State Department in the basement of the White House. A Democratic president would be well advised to choose a secretary of state who has served in Congress as a way of strengthening the executive-legislative relationship. He would send out as ambassadors both Foreign Service officers and non-professionals qualified by knowledge, experience and stature to represent the United States abroad. He would place the CIA under vigilant oversight, executive as well as legislative, and direct it to concentrate on what its founders saw as its essential job: the collection and analysis of intelligence. He would regard diplomacy as the weapon of first resort, put covert action well down the list and use military force as the weapon of last resort.

In the field of national security a Democratic president would, I hope, appoint a strong secretary of defense equipped to regard Pentagon budget submissions with due and informed skepticism. He would shift priority from the elaboration of nuclear systems to the modernization of conventional capabilities and to the application of high technology to conventional warfare. In the nuclear field he would certainly not pursue costly busts like the B-1 bomber and the MX, but would go ahead with small missile-launching submarines, the Stealth bomber and, more cautiously, with the single-warhead, silo-based Midgetman. I suppose he would accept a research program for Star Wars; astute subcontracting, at home and abroad, has created a vigorous lobby, and Star Wars remains a bargaining chip for arms control. But he would respect and extend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, negotiate limits on testing in space and stop babbling about early deployment (deployment of what?). Nor would he permit Star Wars to block a comprehensive test ban—a high priority—or the sharp reduction of nuclear weapons. He would reorganize the system of defense contracts and procurement. He would do his damnedest to reduce the defense budget.

Lack of total reverence for defense strikes some members of my party as, even if sound on the merits, politically hazardous. They fear, especially in the south, that the Democratic Party has acquired a reputation for keeping the United States weak, and they do not want to be taken for unpatriotic wimps. Reagan’s flag-waving act, they fear, has cast a spell on the nation. Emphasis on the limits of American wisdom and power, they think, might offend the deluded electorate.

Possibly there is something in this, though polls show that most voters are skeptical about the military, prefer peace to war and arms reductions to arms races. The bloodthirstiness of our countrymen can be exaggerated, and their intelligence can be underestimated. I think most Americans take the point President Kennedy made more than a quarter-century ago:

We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient—that we are only 6 percent of the world’s population—that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent—that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity—and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.


The day of the messianic foreign policy, the United States as the redeemer nation commissioned by the Almighty to rescue fallen humanity, is coming to an end, for a while at least. A modesty more akin to the mood of the Founding Fathers may be taking over: "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Reaganism is running its course, the cycle is turning, and the time impends for a sharp change in the national direction.

Democrats will continue to stand, as they always have, for national strength. They will never hesitate to use force when force is required to defend the national interest. But they will remind the nation that strength in the modern world has economic as well as military dimensions. The impending crisis for the United States is rather more likely to be in the banks than on the battlefield. We are instructed incessantly about the deadly threat of Marxist Nicaragua (population 2.8 million). But the damage Nicaragua can do to U.S. interests is nothing compared to the devastation that a large-scale repudiation of the Latin American external debt—now approaching $400 billion—can wreak on the already shaky U.S. banking system.

Our great international vulnerability today is economic rather than military. Should a Democrat be elected president in 1988, he would be prudent to devote his first State of the Union message to a sober inventory of the national condition. He would recall America after the Second World War: a nation with a capital surplus, an export surplus, 40 percent of the gross world product, 22 percent of world trade, and every indication of continuing technological and financial supremacy. He would draw the dread contrast 40 years later: the huge budget deficit; the huge trade deficit; the huge bubbles of public debt, private debt, external debt; the decline in America’s ability to compete in world markets; the stagnation in America’s productivity; the shrinkage of America’s industrial base; the decay of America’s infrastructure; the dissipation of capital in mindless speculation, mergers and leveraged buyouts; the increasing dependence on capital flows from abroad; the transformation of the United States into the largest debtor known to history. America, the new president could properly say, is at the mercy of international economic forces as never before. To avert disaster, America must work out modes of international collaboration as never before.

In the age ahead, economic power will be quite as significant as military power—a fact Gorbachev has recognized, though Reagan has not. Secretary of the Treasury James A. Baker 3d has done his best to call this Administration’s attention to the Latin American debt, overhanging American banks like the sword of Damocles; but the president prefers to fume about the Sandinistas. The debt question would be high priority for a Democratic administration. Its containment would require debt relief for the Third World in exchange for the promotion of growth, conversion of debt into equity investment and an increase in international capital flows through wholehearted support of international institutions—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, regional development banks.

No issue has more perplexed Democrats than the classical argument between free trade and protection. Opening U.S. markets to Latin American exports, for example, would help considerably to alleviate the debt problem. But such a policy encounters understandable resistance at home from those whose livelihoods and communities are wasted by imports from abroad. Protection is a bad answer, but it signifies a real problem.

Free-trade purism at the expense of jobs and lives is irrelevant to a world already cluttered with obstacles to free trading. The Reagan Administration has done some good things, like this year’s agreement with Canada. But it has undercut free-trade sermons by protectionist actions. And its deeper failure has been its refusal to support its aspirations toward an open trading world with the domestic measures necessary to make the policy work. It is inhuman to place the burden of transition on the workers and communities least able to pay the price.

A Democratic administration would take active responsibility for the domestic consequences of an open trading world. It would provide assistance to communities and retraining for workers during the ordeal of transition. It would increase national investment in the modes of education essential for a high-technology future. It would establish standards for plant closings. There is, I believe, a case for emergency tariffs during the lifetime of existing workers. There is a case for preserving industries vital to national security and technological growth, like the automotive, space, steel and machine tools industries, if protection is accompanied by tough standards for modernization. There is a case for government-to-government negotiations on trade matters. There is a case for tools in our kit to facilitate retaliation against closed foreign markets. There is no case for general long-run protection. No country can afford a beggar-thy-neighbor world. Because the Democratic Party has earned the trust of workers and their unions, it is in a far stronger position than the Republican Party to negotiate the tricky currents and shoals of trade policy.

Whether the question is diplomatic, military, political or economic, the choice today is not all that different from the choice of 1928: Republican unilateralism or Democratic internationalism. We have had seven years of a unilateralism militarized, ideological, messianic foreign policy, and look where it has got us.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded his Foreign Affairs piece sixty years ago:

In the simplest terms, this is the argument for a policy different from that of the past nine years. Up until then most of our history shows us to have been a nation leading others in the slow upward steps to better international understanding and the peaceful settlement of disagreements. During these nine years we have stood still, with the unfortunate effect of earning greater or less ill will on the part of other civilized peoples. . . . The time is ripe to start another chapter.

On that new page there is much that should be written in the spirit of our forebears. If the leadership is right—or, more truly, if the spirit behind it is great—the United States can regain the world’s trust and friendship and become again of service. We can point the way once more to the reducing of armaments; we can cooperate officially and whole-heartedly with every agency that studies and works to relieve the common ills of mankind; and we can for all time renounce the practice of arbitrary intervention in the home affairs of our neighbors.

A free-lance Democrat, remembering America in glory and in shame from the 1930s to the 1980s, can only say: Right on, F.D.R.! Let the Democratic Party keep sailing ahead on its historic course.

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  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Copyright © 1987 by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
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