Each of us has experienced the phenomenal central European revolution of 1989, its preliminaries in Poland and its continuing aftermath, particularly in Germany and the Soviet Union. But each has done so from his or her own window on the world.

Having spent much of my life as a policy planner, I tend to focus on the future, on what lies ahead, on what is desirable and perhaps practical, and on what policies would most successfully help to bring about these aims. I also tend to translate this forward-looking perspective into American terms: What should we in this country view as our role in collaboration with others in moving the world toward this desired future?

In charting a road to the future, it is sometimes wise to look back on relevant turning points of the past. For over forty years the foreign and defense policies of the United States have been guided by a central theme, a well-defined basic policy objective. That goal, throughout the Cold War, was for the United States to take the lead in building an international world order based on liberal economic and political institutions, and to defend that world against communist attack.

The political-strategic situation is now changed. We are in an important period of transition. Our postwar policies appear to have achieved their principal objective, and a new conception of our foreign and defense policies is required as we face a future less dominated by an ideologically driven U.S.S.R. Before we can formulate a new strategy, however, it is first in order that we review our postwar policy of containment, its origins and rationale, and where and the degree to which it has succeeded.


In the summer and fall of 1943 fragments of discussion could be heard in Washington about U.S. postwar relations with the Soviet Union. Much of World War II remained to be fought, but for the first time Hitler's eventual defeat seemed probable. It was not too early to think about what kind of peace and relations among the leading powers we wished to see established in the postwar world.

By the war's end a majority of Washington's policymakers favored a three-point plan. The first objective was to support the United Nations and its associated agencies and to make them operational. The second objective was to work out methods of collaboration with Stalin and his associates; this was seen as a prerequisite for the smooth and successful operation of the United Nations and its organs. The third objective was to rely on the British to deal with the wide array of political problems arising from the chaos of a world destroyed by two wars just twenty years apart. Only a minority at this point thought that the principal problems of the postwar period would be caused by the Soviet Union, which had borne a major share of the burden of defeating Hitler.

A key participant in this debate was of course George F. Kennan, who while serving in our embassy in Moscow sent to Washington in February 1946 a compelling analysis of Stalinist policy, its origins, its evils and its dangers, in what became known as the "long telegram." Stalin's expansionism, he informed Washington, was becoming more aggressive as it fed upon its successes. He elaborated in the well-known "Mr. X" article published in Foreign Affairs in July 1947 as follows:

The United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power. For no mystical, Messianic movement-and particularly not that of the Kremlin-can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.

Kennan recommended a policy of containment until such time as the Soviet people awoke to the destruction of their heritage and withdrew their support from Stalinesque policies. His recommendations were not immediately accepted by the Truman administration, which was still hoping for a cooperative relationship with Moscow. The evidence, however, soon became overwhelming that Stalin and Molotov had no intention of collaborating with the West to work out a just and equitable arrangement in Europe.

Other pillars of our postwar policy were failing as well. The Soviet Union's continuing opposition and frequent use of its veto power in the Security Council turned the United Nations largely into a forum for public debate and diminished its influence on matters where East and West disagreed. Additionally, the third pillar of American policy, reliance on Britain to maintain global political stability, became untenable when in February 1947 the British government informed President Truman that it could no longer sustain the burden of supporting Greece and Turkey in their struggle against Soviet pressure and Soviet-supported guerrilla units. This decision by Britain brought the postwar crisis to a head; if assistance to Greece and Turkey were to continue, it would have to come from the United States.

Truman's response was immediate: the United States would come to the aid of both countries. This historic and crucial decision not only implied approval of the containment policy and the European Recovery Program but, more generally, it represented America assuming leadership of a new postwar world order. We pledged our efforts to the creation of a world made in the mold of the best that Western culture had to offer, with full freedom for others to participate in its benefits if they wished to cooperate while doing so.


The next 15 weeks saw a whirlwind of activity. Truman announced the Greek-Turkish aid program and the Truman Doctrine, declaring U.S. willingness to consider such aid as could prudently be made available to any country subject to aggression or intimidating pressure and prepared to act in its own defense. Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson outlined in a Mississippi speech the rationale for a general program of European economic aid, and Secretary of State George C. Marshall set forth the concept of the Marshall Plan in June 1947 in a commencement speech at Harvard University.

Surprisingly, bipartisan support for this ambitious program developed in Congress, which approved all necessary authorizations and appropriations. Congress then passed the 1947 National Security Act, establishing the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, providing for an air force independent of the army and creating the Central Intelligence Agency. Legislation authorizing the Marshall Plan cleared Congress in 1948, and shortly thereafter negotiations began on the North Atlantic Treaty, and then NATO. Concurrently, we began working to bring both Germany and Japan back to economic self-sufficiency and, step by step, into the community of nations.

The detonation of a Soviet nuclear device in September 1949 gave further impetus to the U.S. policy of containment, as the Soviet threat acquired a new and more ominous dimension. That event, together with the consolidation of communist rule on the Chinese mainland, suggested that we were on the verge of what the communists would call "a shift in the correlation of forces" in their favor. The question was what Moscow would do and how Washington should react.

A crucial aspect of the problem was whether the United States should move forward with the development of a thermonuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb. Truman appointed a special committee of the National Security Council composed of the secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission to study the problem and make recommendations. A heated debate led to the question of whether the Soviets themselves had the potential to develop a thermonuclear device. When he was told in January 1950 that the Soviet Union did indeed have the necessary capabilities, Truman authorized an accelerated program to test the possibility of a thermonuclear reaction, though he did not make a decision to proceed beyond a test. What we did not know was that the Soviet Union had initiated development of the hydrogen bomb a full three months earlier.

Truman ordered the National Security Council to reexamine the aims and objectives of our national security policy in light of the possibility that thermonuclear weapons were technically feasible. Acheson and Defense Secretary Louis Johnson were given joint responsibility for the review. On the State Department side, the policy planning staff and I, as director, were responsible for the review work. From this study evolved NSC-68, which was eventually approved by the president in September 1950, after the North Koreans attacked South Korea.

This report was highly classified until 1975, when it was released to the public, finally shedding the mystique that had gathered around its long years of official secrecy. NSC-68 did not call for as sharp a departure in U.S. policy as was commonly believed. It reaffirmed conclusions of NSC-20/4, an already approved policy paper regarding relations with the Soviet Union prepared in 1948 by Kennan. The major change recommended in NSC-68 was a stepped-up effort to counter recent global developments, specifically a significantly increased Soviet military capability, with emphasis on strengthening our own military capability. NSC-68 stressed the thesis that U.S. and allied power, including military power, had become fundamentally important to the successful pursuit of our foreign policy objectives and to the defense of our national interests.

In this respect NSC-68 differed from NSC-20/4, which reaffirmed the fundamentals of "containment," only in the method of implementation; Kennan did not attach the same degree of importance to the role of military power in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives.

Sustaining the policy of containment for the time necessary to achieve its objective-almost four decades as it turned out-required great perseverance on the part of the nation. It was necessary during the Korean War for us to expand our military budgets; likewise, in the Eisenhower years we had to expand significantly our strategic nuclear capabilities in order to offset extraordinary efforts by the Soviet Union to obtain nuclear superiority.

Efforts on arms control began immediately after World War II with the Baruch Plan. They continued thereafter in international forums under the aegis of the United Nations. But the actual limitation of offensive and defensive systems foundered on efforts, largely by the Soviets, to use the negotiations as a platform for worldwide propaganda.

The United States and the Soviets agreed by 1969 to initiate bilateral negotiations to limit offensive systems, as well as the defensive systems designed to counter them. For different reasons both sides were interested from the beginning in equal limitations on antiballistic missile systems. With respect to offensive systems, however, the Soviets believed time was on their side and insisted on advantages that the United States could not permanently accept.

Two arms control agreements were entered into in 1972. The first was the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, evenhanded in its terms but containing a number of ambiguities, not all of which have yet been fully resolved. The second was an Interim Agreement on offensive systems, which it was agreed would be superseded by a comprehensive permanent treaty to be arrived at through prompt subsequent negotiations. Eighteen years later, such a comprehensive treaty has still not been achieved or ratified, and inventories of offensive nuclear weapons have continued to grow.

By 1981 both the United States and the Soviet Union had shifted their primary focus in negotiations to the issue of elimination, or at least control, of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). This issue was of crucial importance to the European members of the NATO alliance. The United States had agreed with its NATO partners to deploy Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe in order to offset the Soviet Union's earlier deployment on the continent of longer-range nuclear missiles with multiple warheads. The Soviet aim in these negotiations was now to block the U.S. deployment, without giving up their own missiles. If successful in this objective, the Soviets would have shattered the NATO alliance and isolated the United States.

NATO did not flinch, however, despite a concerted Soviet propaganda campaign and Moscow's walkout from the INF talks. This check to Soviet policy was a crucial point in the long, continuous Western effort to contain Soviet expansionism. It provided clear evidence to a new generation of Soviet leaders that old tactics of intimidation would not work. Led by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviets were now prepared to reconsider their former policies and methods.

In a meeting in Moscow in 1987 with Secretary of State George Shultz, Gorbachev recalled that when he first became general secretary of the Communist Party he did not begin from a standing start. He and Nikolai Ryzhkov were appointed to the Politburo in 1982 and, Gorbachev recounted, it was then that they exchanged views on the serious internal problems facing the Soviet state-the political structure of the party, the backwardness of the economy, the excessive allocation of resources to defense, and more. After these discussions, Gorbachev said, they appointed a hundred teams composed of the brightest minds they could find to analyze these problems and come up with suggestions for solutions.

When I heard these statements by Gorbachev, it seemed to confirm that our policy of containment had indeed achieved its basic aim; Soviet leaders were forced to look inward, and they did not like what they saw.

Containment has thus been largely successful, the Cold War is waning and communist ideology may well be in its final decline, much as Nazism and fascism were at the end of World War II. The non-Soviet part of the Warsaw Pact has now lost its strategic significance. It is time therefore to reexamine containment, our longstanding central policy objective, with the goal of making a transition to a new conception of U.S. policy, one better suited to a changing future.


A time of transition is bound to be a period of uncertainty; old guideposts are gone or quickly fading and new landmarks need to be sorted out and established. The United States cannot possibly ensure that global stability will follow this period of transition. The most we can do is to use our influence to move world events in a direction of peace.

We first need to break down the problem into its relevant parts-political, economic, military, regional, environmental, etc.-and reach tentative conclusions about sensible policy in each category, testing from time to time the coherence of an overarching line of policy that integrates these various components. Thus while thinking through the long-term measures that we hope will lead to global stability, we must also deal concurrently with the immediate problems before us. It is only by successfully handling these problems that we keep our long-range planning from losing touch with the practical world as it is evolving.

What are our current issues?

-First, should we continue to focus our policy toward the Soviet Union on helping Gorbachev preserve his base of power, or should we focus more on our longer-term relations with whatever regime may emerge in control of the Russian people and those willing to remain associated with them?

We need to walk a fine line on this question. It is in the U.S. interest that Gorbachev remain in charge. He is a known quantity and his policies, with all their faults, are probably preferable to those we could currently expect from any likely successor.

On the other hand, we should not tie ourselves so closely to Gorbachev that we undermine our ability, should he lose power, to work with those who will follow. We made that mistake with Chiang Kai-shek in China and the shah in Iran. We cannot afford to repeat it with Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.

-Should we seek a prompt conclusion to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) along the lines suggested in the communiqué at the U.S.-Soviet summit in June 1990, or should we reassess the possibility and desirability of a deeper set of stabilizing reductions?

I believe it is in our interest to seek deeper and more stabilizing cuts in strategic forces than those contemplated by the summit communiqué. These cuts should focus on land-based missiles with multiple warheads, particularly the Soviets' heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS). As long as these missiles exist, their great destructive capability will poison our political and military relations with the Soviet Union. These missiles will cause us to take costly and undesirable countermeasures to assure that there is no possibility of the Soviet Union exploiting their enormous potential. It would be far better for all if the Soviet Union were to eliminate its heavy ICBMS as part of an agreement under which both it and the United States eliminated land-based, multiple-warhead missiles and placed equal ceilings on remaining strategic nuclear warheads.

Specifically, I suggest the draft START treaty be amended as follows:

-to ban land-based missiles with multiple warheads;

-to relax or even eliminate the limit of 1,600 on the number of weapon systems for each side, as this would remove the necessity for either to deploy destabilizing, multiple-warhead systems;

-to limit the weight of individual warheads to 200 kilograms or less in order to prevent the deployment of new large special-function nuclear warheads, such as those the Soviets are suspected of planning to deploy on their new SS-18 Mod 6; and

-to reduce the number of existing strategic warheads by at least twice that contemplated by START, i.e., by approximately 75 percent as opposed to approximately 35 percent.

If all ground-based, multiple-warhead nuclear missiles were banned, the remaining systems permitted to each side would be highly survivable against a first-strike nuclear attack. These remaining systems would include single-warhead, fixed or mobile, ground-based nuclear missiles; submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and nuclear cruise missiles; long-range air-launched nuclear cruise missiles; and bombers armed only with gravity bombs and short-range attack missiles limited to less than 600 kilometers.

If the nuclear systems permitted to each side were inherently highly survivable and unable to attack more than a single target, there would be no point in either side's attempting to improve its position by initiating an attack on the strategic forces of the other. Three to five thousand such systems on each side would suffice to make undetected cheating or the capabilities of other nuclear powers-now and in the foreseeable future-insufficient to upset the inherent stability this type of arrangement would bring to the nuclear relationship between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

I believe the opportunity for a radical and mutually beneficial solution is better now than it would be if the issue were postponed. We should therefore insist now on a truly stabilizing treaty, rather than being satisfied with the half-measures currently proposed.

-Should we encourage Lithuania and the other Baltic states seeking greater independence to postpone or scale back their demands in order to relieve the pressure on Gorbachev, or should we support our long-held position that the absorption of these states by Stalin through an unsavory deal with Hitler was improper?

This is of course one of the issues important to Gorbachev's prospects. In the case of the Baltic states, however, I believe other considerations must prevail. The United States has never recognized the propriety of Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, and to change our position now would be inconsistent with our values and counterproductive in the long term. It is thus sensible to encourage negotiations between Moscow and the Baltic states, but we should allow the Baltic governments to decide for themselves what negotiating position to take.

-What should our attitude be toward a united Germany and NATO?

The United States and NATO continue to have an important role in maintaining stability on the European continent and contributing to stability elsewhere on the globe. Other organizations, such as the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), may play useful supporting roles, but could not possibly substitute for NATO, at least as far as the United States is concerned. It is important that NATO include the powerful political, economic and military forces that a unified Germany will represent. I also believe that Soviet security interests will be better served by a Germany united within NATO than by a neutral Germany. Recent negotiations suggest that Gorbachev has also come around to this view. Clearly, an isolated Germany is potentially more dangerous than one cooperating as a valued member of a community of nations.

-What are our primary economic concerns and what should we do about them?

Economic problems abound worldwide, from the collapse of the Soviet economy, to the struggles of the East European countries to convert to free-market economies, to the ordeal of Third World nations seeking to emerge from overwhelming debt. In considering the panoply of global economic problems and possible solutions, I think we must first concentrate on getting our own house in order. The U.S. budget deficit, coupled with our balance-of-payments problems, is limiting our ability to aid the new democracies of Eastern Europe and Central America, to help fund solutions to global environmental problems and to otherwise bring our economic clout to bear on world problems of great interest to everyone. If we are to suggest sacrifices by others attempting to shift to market economies, pay off their debts and remedy sources of ecological damage, then we must also be prepared to reduce excessive consumption and heal our own economy.

The United States must also deal with other domestic problems currently exacerbating international difficulties. A stepped-up campaign against drug use should be undertaken in an effort to reduce the U.S. demand that is such a major factor in the worldwide drug trade. Separately, strict enforcement of the clean air law is necessary to help reduce the U.S. emissions that are major contributors to worldwide environmental deterioration.

-How should we deal with problems that transcend national boundaries, such as global environmental decay?

Many problems we now face cut across national boundaries and affect many cultures. Economic and environmental problems are but two categories; others include terrorism and drugs. Still other problems that face many individual nations, such as hunger, can best be addressed through concerted international efforts.

These types of problems can generally be handled more efficiently and effectively by supranational institutions than by individual governments acting in the absence of some central coordinating body. Any grant of authority to a supranational body, however, implies some loss by nations of sovereign choice. We must therefore be careful to balance the gains of centrally directed efforts against the costs of reduced freedom of choice for individual nations. The gains to be derived from a supranational authority most clearly outweigh the costs in environmental issues. One nation's efforts to reverse the growing damage to the world ecology can easily be undercut by the negligence of other countries. A coordinated international effort is certainly required if we are to save our environment.


Returning to the question of an overall policy line, a strategic concept to guide our approach to the panoply of issues we face and to give our individual policies larger coherence. The new strategic concept I propose is captured in the following four sentences:

-The central theme of the policy of the United States should be the accommodation and protection of diversity within a general framework of world order.

-Our aim should be to foster a world climate in which a wide array of political groups are able to exist, each with its own and perhaps eccentric ways.

-Supranational institutions, such as the United Nations and its organs, NATO, the European Community, CSCE and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, should be given the role of providing stability and forward movement on important global and regional issues that transcend national or ethnic boundaries.

-The United States, with inherent political, economic, cultural and military strengths, and no territorial or ideological ambitions of its own, can and should play a unique role in bringing its powers to the support of order and diversity among the world's diffuse and varied groups.

The emphasis on diversity derives from one of the most important lessons of the past few years: the near impossibility of erasing cultural ties, ethnic identities and social practices in a world where communications and ideas cannot be suppressed. Despite the efforts by communist leaders for decades to impose a common culture and society on their subjects, a Europe with a rich mix of nationalities and cultures is once again reviving. A similar process is occurring on other continents as well. Not only are the aspirations of individuals and ethnic groups once again being realized, but this constellation of the cultures promises to enrich us all.

While there is much to learn from the ways of others, diversity also creates problems. The tensions that diversity had generated in the past have arisen once more-between Hungarians and Romanians, Bulgarians and Turks, Serbs and Albanians, and among the many nationalities throughout the Soviet Union. Such tensions may be the primary threat to peace in the years ahead.

Diversity therefore presents us with mixed blessings. As a democratic nation that honors freedom, we protect the right to dissent and to be different, as well as the rights of minorities from discrimination, and thus the United States supports this movement toward greater diversity. As a people who can learn from the ways of others, we welcome the opportunity to do so. As students of history, we understand that the aspirations of various peoples to realize their heritage cannot in any event be long suppressed.

As realists, however, we must recognize and try to contend with the dangers that accompany excessive nationalism and threaten to destroy the general peace. The assertion that the United States has no ideological ambitions does not mean we are without strong values; it means only that we should not impose these values on others. Just as we can learn from other peoples, they too can learn much from us, but we must realize that cooperative efforts among nations are generally more effective in achieving this end. The central element of my theme is thus the accommodation and protection of diversity within a framework of global order.


The emphasis on a global role for the United States is perhaps controversial. Many Americans argue that the current mood favors a withdrawal from a leading role in international affairs. Their reasoning is that a great threat is no longer evident, and the United States is therefore free to turn inward and tend to its domestic concerns.

This outlook is shortsighted. As the issues I have addressed above indicate, there remain numerous international problems that deeply affect American interests. New problems of this same nature are bound to arise. The United States remains uniquely capable of contributing in conjunction with others to the effective solution of these problems. No other nation can do the job as well.

The Soviet Union, for example, even with the reductions I have advocated for a START treaty, will retain thousands of nuclear warheads and remain a potential threat to the United States and its allies. The current instability in that country only exacerbates the problem; no one can be sure into whose hands these weapons may eventually fall. No other country is capable of relieving the United States of the burden of deterring the use of these weapons, and none is likely to be able to do so in the future. Nor would we want any other country to deploy the nuclear arsenal needed to assume that role alone.

Similarly, should nationalist tensions in Europe erupt into civil or cross-border conflicts, no other country would seem as well qualified to play the role of honest broker in facilitating, with others, a peaceful resolution of these differences and terminating hostilities. In the absence of the United States from Europe, Germany would seem to have the greatest military, political and economic power on the continent, and thus leadership would fall to it in such a situation. Germany, however, is not well suited for such a role. Suspicion of German intentions, justified or not, remains too high among the nations of Europe for Germany to be effective in the role of honest broker.

The United States therefore must remain in a position to contribute to the continent's stability should European nations, including Germany, wish us to do so. This does not necessarily mean the continued presence of large numbers of American troops in Europe; we will only keep such forces there as are wanted and only for such a time as they are wanted. A constructive U.S. role in European affairs can be derived from more than simply the number of troops deployed; potential power can be symbolized even by the presence of forces of limited size.

Similar examples of problems meriting a U.S. role exist in other regions of the world. In the Middle East, the strategic importance of which is obvious, the United States is currently actively supporting the peace process, attempting to work with Israel, Egypt and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is not evident that any other country has the clout necessary to assume this role effectively.

In time our leading role in the Far East could perhaps be assumed by Japan. But this would raise considerable concern among other Asian nations, especially those who have fallen under Japanese domination in the past. It is further doubtful that the Japanese would find it feasible to consider the interests of others comparable to their own.

All of these cases argue for the American role I have proposed. But let me also make clear the constraints on this role. I am proposing active U.S. participation in cooperative efforts with varying groups of sovereign nations to deal constructively with common problems; I am not proposing unilateral U.S. action. I am suggesting we act internationally where the common interest can be served; I am not suggesting unduly impinging upon the sovereignty of others. Our engagement on the world scene should therefore be carefully selective, based on our new objective of tolerating and strengthening diversity around the globe.


As we advance further into this difficult period of transition, the West will find new opportunities to resolve longstanding problems. The United States must remain alert to signs of conflict and creative in analyzing new means of cooperative efforts among nations interested in resolving these conflicts without unnecessarily impinging upon national sovereignties or individual rights. We must be ready to bring our unique levers of influence to bear when they are able to play a constructive role in world events.

In a world of growing interdependence, where even the problems of distant neighbors are increasingly our own, it is not now the time for the United States to retreat from the world stage. It is, rather, the time for prudent leadership to bring America's extraordinary potential to bear on today's problems so that the many benefits promised by a free and diverse world can soon be realized by all. In order to create the public foundation for such action, however, we need to build a broad consensus on a new concept for America's foreign and defense policy and, to build upon that, a new national resolve.

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  • Paul H. Nitze is Diplomat in Residence at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.
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