For the past fifty years American foreign policy has been formed in response to the threat posed by this country's opponents and enemies. In virtually every year since Pearl Harbor, the United States has been engaged either in war or in confrontation. Now, for the first time in half a century, the United States has the opportunity to reconstruct its foreign policy free of most of the constraints and pressures of the Cold War.

Upon reaching such a turning point, it is natural to fall back on certain basic principles as a guide to charting a new course. This is a difficult undertaking for the United States. The basic foreign policy principle of the Founding Fathers-nonentanglement-was prescribed for a weak republic surrounded by the territories of stronger European powers, who were determined to carry their ancient struggles to the New World. Nonentanglement in these endless conflicts was clearly in the national interest of the fledgling United States, and for well over 150 years the United States was secure behind the protection of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (and the British fleet). But Pearl Harbor destroyed the illusion that America could somehow remain safe while ignoring distant threats to the peace in Europe and Asia.

Since 1941 the United States has been fully entangled. Now as we move into a new era, a yearning for American nonentanglement may be returning in various guises. If the Cold War is over-and there seems to be a growing consensus that it is-how far should the United States go in disengaging from the positions it created during the past fifty years? Can America at long last come home?

The answer is not at all clear. The United States does in fact enjoy the luxury of some genuine choices for the first time since 1945. America and its allies have won the Cold War, and some disengagement is quite possible. No demands are heard from responsible quarters for a return to isolation, but there are proposals from both right and left for a substantial reduction in the American presence abroad. Even the centrists who advise maintaining a significant American involvement allow for some retrenchment.


The Great Debate has started once again; much as it did in 1914-20 and in the early years of the Cold War. The main question is this: For what purpose and to what end should America commit its awesome power and resources? What will be the new priorities of a post-containment foreign policy, and which instruments will be most effective?1

It is worth recalling that there have always been legitimate reservations about the extensive commitments that the United States undertook in the Cold War. Even as President Truman moved the United States toward a new internationalism, there were strong voices, especially from the moderate right (e.g., Ohio's Republican Senator Robert A. Taft), arguing against such commitments, or insisting that the new obligations be strictly limited. This was particularly true in 1950-51, after the Korean War broke out and the first American troops were returned to Europe, but that debate was easily resolved because the danger from the communist bloc was clear and present.

Now danger emanating from Moscow is no longer the driving force of debate. This country has to decide what role it wishes to play in the world when there is no overwhelming danger to national security and no clearly identifiable enemy. That is the central change, but there are other dimensions that will shape this new debate.

The most important structural change is that the clear bipolar division of international politics has broken down in two respects. First, the two superpowers are no longer clearly predominant, compared with the relative power of a number of other countries in Europe and Asia; this has been true for some time. The second change is more surprising: the once fundamental East-West division is now virtually eliminated by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the weakening of the Soviet state.2

The revolution of 1989 has yet to run its course, especially in Europe, but the character of American policy has already begun to change in response to the events in Eastern Europe. The Cold War was a broadly conceived struggle that gave primacy to geopolitics and military preparedness. At the outset, the United States was the most powerful nation in the world. Few questioned that it could afford the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the rearmament of NATO, the strategic arms race, the interventions in Korea and Vietnam or, more recently, the buildup of armaments in the early 1980s. For the next decade, however, ideological and military issues are likely to recede, economic factors will predominate and other issues (e.g., the environment, terrorism, drug trafficking) will grow in importance.

The United States remains the strongest world power, indeed the only truly global power, but its resources are no longer commensurate with the maintenance of the exalted position it held in the postwar period. In the 1990s few would claim that Washington has anything approaching the kind of freedom of action it enjoyed in the Cold War decades. In this regard, the world of the 1990s and beyond will resemble nothing in America's previous experience. This country will be required to conduct a "normal" foreign policy for which there is almost no precedent, with limited resources, in an increasingly competitive world in which the threat that held together the various anticommunist alliances will have vanished.

Because American resources are limited, the United States also has to weigh more carefully its international goals against increasingly urgent demands at home. In 1988 two former presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, formed a group of experts to examine the "American Agenda" and issue a report to the incoming president. They commented on the situation that the nation faced at home:

We see two Americas, one increasingly wealthy, one tragically poor, a land of opportunity for most and of idle hopelessness for too many, a nation never so prosperous or so profligate. And in between are middle Americans, many of whom are struggling to hold their own.3

The current arguments over a "peace dividend" are symptomatic of this conflict between domestic and foreign policies. That conflict has always been present, but in the Cold War national security concerns had to prevail. Now the arguments are likely to be more evenly balanced, and the choices will be more complex.

Since 1945 the United States has had to bear the bulk of the burden of the Cold War, as well as the risks. In some periods, American leaders have welcomed the freedom to go it alone. Unilateral globalism was a charge frequently heard in the early days of the Reagan administration. But the United States is no longer alone. More recently there has been a revival of the idea of burden-sharing, given the obvious fact that America is allied to most of the wealthiest and strongest powers on the planet. In the next decade, going it alone will become an increasingly less justifiable course, and working out a redistribution of burdens will become a crucial challenge to American foreign policy.


In the name of what principle, therefore, will the American people be asked to continue bearing their international commitments and responsibilities abroad: the balance of power, economic security, human rights, democratic freedoms?

Throughout American history there has been a conflict between the dictates of geopolitics and the values the United States has championed-human rights and democracy.4 The Cold War saw constant tension between, on the one hand, a preoccupation with strategic requirements and, on the other, a concern that the unpalatable compromises and alliances the United States was forced to make, or chose to accept in the name of anticommunism, were corrupting America's traditional support of democratic values. It was periodically charged that the United States subordinated human rights and democratic institutions to realpolitik.

As the Cold War winds down, this tension over goals and practices will become more acute. It is reflected in two current debates: which policies won the Cold War, and what is the proper balance between concern for human rights and the requirements of realpolitik.

As to the first question, in the wake of the communist collapse in Eastern Europe two lines of argument are taking shape. One is that communism surrendered to the irresistible demands for human rights and that freedom triumphed because its time had come. This view has been eloquently expressed by Czechoslovakia's new president, Václav Havel:

The tide turned and the concept that turned it was the old European (and American) concept of human rights . . . with the moral rather than the tangible support of other Europeans (and Americans and Canadians) this concept of human rights paved the way for the enormous changes in Eastern Europe that we have recently witnessed.5

The opposing interpretation takes the following line:

What is clear is that in the fourth decade of the East's imprisonment, the U.S. and its allies determined to stand up more firmly than ever to the 'other force' and that the Soviet Union decided to stand down.6

This debate is not only about history; it is also about the next phase of Western (and American) policy and the path which that policy ought to follow. Those who are convinced that the anticommunist revolution of Eastern Europe was encouraged mainly by American power argue that it is too soon to give up positions of strength. They add that a reversion of the U.S.S.R. to its past expansionism is possible, though not probable because Soviet foreign policymaking is tied too closely to Gorbachev, whose problems at home are only growing. Others claim that a new era is opening, that matters have gone too far for Soviet policy to be reversed, and therefore it is high time to address a new agenda and leave behind much of the Cold War mentality and its policies.

New fuel to this debate has been provided by the elections in Nicaragua: one side is already arguing that it was the pressures from the contras and the United States that forced Sandinista President Daniel Ortega to hold elections, which then led to his downfall. The other side argues that the credit should go to the Latin American presidents who promoted the peace process and the elections, and thereby gave the Sandinistas a face-saving way out.7

The second debate is similar, but it is over China. It has erupted with considerable vehemence:

Once again China offers a choice especially difficult for Americans: between a foreign policy based on moral concerns and one that gives priority to geostrategic factors. Again, the U.S. relationship with China poses a head-on conflict between realpolitik and human rights.8

The Nixon-Kissinger opening to China in 1972 was justified in the name of creating a balance of power against the Soviet Union, and was welcomed in the United States even though the regime in Beijing had just emerged from the long bloody repressions of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In 1989, however, the Cold War was virtually over and the "China Card" was worth far less. Although the post-Tienanmen Square debate has been cast in terms of China policy, it is at bottom a debate over the new purposes of America's post-Cold War policy.

The case for geopolitics was expressed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger:

A crackdown was . . . inevitable. But its brutality was shocking, and even more so the trials and Stalinist-style propaganda that followed. Nevertheless, China remains too important for America's national security to risk the relationship on the emotions of the moment. The United States needs China as a possible counterweight to Soviet aspirations in Asia and needs China also to remain relevant in Japanese eyes as a key shaper of Asian events.9

The contrary position was summed up in congressional debate by New York Democratic Representative Stephen Solarz:

It is the view of the House and the American people that our relationship with China will be influenced by the extent to which the Chinese authorities respect the fundamental human rights of their own people.10

Which side is right in these two debates is not the only issue; the broader question is whether the United States should now realign its foreign policy, leavening the older concerns over national security and geopolitics with greater concern for moral values, namely democracy and human rights.

In fact this clash may not be as sharp as it seems in the abstract. As the Cold War recedes, the interests of geopolitics and human rights may actually come to coincide in American policy more than at any time in the past. Consider, for example, two recent unrelated but instructive incidents-the intervention of the U.S. Air Force in Philippine politics in support of the Aquino government, and the invasion of Panama. Neither action was taken to suppress a communist threat, but both actions received strong American popular support. Both were justified as a defense of democracy, but at the same time these two areas, Panama and the Philippines, would fall clearly within any definition of U.S. security interests.

The promotion of democracy is a laudable American ambition, but could become a perilous guide to policy. If applied indiscriminately, such a policy could invite interventionism in the 1990s much as anticommunism did during the Cold War. It is one thing to support the new democracies of Eastern Europe that have liberated themselves, but it would be another matter to intervene to institute democracy in, say, South Africa or Iran.

There will also be instances where democratic alternatives are simply lacking (e.g., currently in Cambodia), and the United States will still be forced to accommodate itself to some unpalatable partners. Americans must decide to what extent the United States should intervene to support rebellion in the name of democracy. It is ironic that the regions where progress has been minimal in human rights are areas where direct U.S. involvement either would be ineffective (in most of Africa) or dangerous (China, Indochina and the Middle East).

Nevertheless, present evidence suggests that the realism of geopolitics is giving way to the idealism of human rights. If, after all, this turns out to be the new thrust of American policy it should not be too surprising; at the base of its motivation, containment was always intended as a means to this end.


During the Cold War every administration was concerned with the high cost of a global strategy of containment. But in almost every instance where there was a clash in priorities between economic policy and national security, the latter prevailed. As a result, after almost fifty years of containment policy the United States has emerged from the Cold War in a precarious economic position. Just how precarious is open to debate, but there seems to be a consensus that, "the new force in the world is neither arms nor political ideology; it is economic power."11 There also seems to be a consensus that the United States has lost its economic hegemony, and to correct new imbalances it must put its fiscal house in order. Unfortunately there is no agreement on how to do this.

Reducing the budget deficit seems to be the starting point of every plan. This always leads to the question of reductions in defense spending, for it is in the Pentagon's budget that large sums of money can be saved by making even modest spending reductions; some experts envisage a fifty-percent reduction over the next several years.12 But budget reductions ought to reflect a military strategy, and there has not yet been enough time to work out a new military strategy that supports post-Cold War foreign policy goals and priorities. Hence the budget debate and the strategic debate feed on each other-and end in stalemate. The way out of this dilemma is through a new policy that reflects a realistic appraisal of the near- and long-term threats of the post-Cold War era, and a new consensus on the balance between commitments and resources.

The trade deficit, on the other hand, is linked to the issue of the increasing economic power of Japan. Efforts to correct the American trade imbalance have badly eroded Washington's political relationship with Tokyo. Each new technical issue is escalated into a political challenge. One observer, former Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Alan Wolff, has said that "for the first time in at least two decades, you have open hostility between those on either side of the trade debate." The danger is that what began as a squabble over trade is degenerating into a more fundamental conflict with important geopolitical consequences. Thus, prominent Japanese accuse the United States of outright racism, and important elements of American opinion increasingly view Japan as a hostile force.13 Public opinion polls taken among Americans show a souring of attitude consisting of two factors: resentment over Japanese investment in high-profile areas (e.g., Rockefeller Center in New York), and a fear that too great a dependence on foreign sources will make the United States vulnerable to political and financial blackmail.

The strategic issue is whether the United States intends to continue anchoring its policy to the alliance with Japan. If not, what are the alternatives? If so, a reappraisal of trade and other aspects of the relationship is urgently necessary on both sides to avoid a collision.

The economic component of national security shows up in other areas as well. The strain on resources affects policy for the western hemisphere because of the huge debts incurred by key Latin American countries. One of the immediate aims of the Treasury Department's current "Brady Plan" is to reduce these debts rather than defer or restructure them. Thus far the results have been mixed at best. Important Latin American countries have not even joined the process. A failure of this plan risks a backlash among U.S. investors against making any new foreign investments or loans, i.e., a creeping tendency toward American economic autarky at the very moment that Latin America has made its greatest progress toward democracy, and at the moment when new demands on public and private resources for Panama, and probably Nicaragua, are required.14

There is also the prospect of increasing energy costs over the next decade; rising oil prices and increasing American dependence on foreign oil sources could add billions to the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit. Such an increased dependency on oil from the Persian Gulf could have a renewed impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East, on attitudes toward Israel and on questions of arms sales to friendly Arab countries.

Finally, the United States finds that its resources are almost certainly too limited to allow it to play the major role expected of it in other areas, especially in Eastern Europe. That region's nations are likely to turn to Germany and the European Community for support, thus magnifying the loss of American influence.

In fashioning a response to these various economic difficulties the United States will be reconstructing, whether deliberately or not, its foreign and defense policies. To what extent will the United States be willing to make economic sacrifices and concessions to further its political goals? Alternatively, how willing will we be to allow such responsibilities to devolve onto others, with a corresponding reduction in American influence in broad areas of the world?


Not all of the Cold War's issues have been solved by any means. There is a residue of important issues that will remain at the center of American policy for the next several years.

In the postwar era the United States and its allies constructed a political, military and economic system based on the strategic assumption that the confrontation with the Soviet Union would continue indefinitely. Active policy planning for a post-Cold War era ceased long ago-if, indeed, it ever got started.15 The stationing of large American forces in Europe, as well as in South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, assumed a protracted conflict. The same rationale applied, in varying degrees, to American commitments to Iran and the Persian Gulf, to Pakistan and to friends in the Middle East. Even the commitment to Israel, which has had a strong moral dimension, was sharply enhanced by the Soviet intervention in support of Nasser in 1955-56. Although the American presence in many areas was originally conceived as a riposte to Soviet thrusts and as a deterrent, these commitments seem to have gradually taken on an added significance as an element of regional stability and reassurance. Indeed, the American military presence in Europe was recently justified by President Bush in the name of "stability" and "predictability."

As the Cold War ends, the United States confronts an obvious question: Can or should America's commitments and presence abroad be reduced, in response to the decline in the threat to U.S. interests and the limitations on American resources, without risking a destabilization of the very areas in which the United States wishes to remain involved?

No abstract principle can be applied. Few believe that a Soviet attack is likely in Europe, but many observers fear the irrationality of, say, North Korea. Weakening military support for Israel could threaten that nation's very existence, whereas disengaging from Southeast Asia or the Indian or South Asian subcontinent could be justified as a reorientation of American policy.

The situation in Europe is still the most critical in the near term. The collapse of communism has ended the Cold War, and as a consequence Soviet power is receding, Germany is unifying and a new balance of power is emerging. The United States still plays the dominant role in reconstructing the new security order in Europe. But America faces two conflicting pressures. On the one hand, the United States wants to facilitate the unification of Germany together with the construction of security guarantees that Germany will not disrupt the European balance, now or ten years from now. This implies that limitations and restrictions be placed on Germany as well as the provision of American guarantees for Germany's neighbors, including perhaps the U.S.S.R.

On the other hand, American policy cannot ignore the possibility, if not the probability, that Soviet power will revive some years hence and again pose a threat to Eastern and central Europe. This suggests a policy of reinsurance, including a strong Western alliance and a strong, united Germany. It also suggests a military posture that can be rebuilt in fairly rapid order. Such a posture, in turn, influences how far the United States can go in reductions negotiated in arms control agreements, which seem less critical now than five years ago; indeed, their value may lie more in their intricate inspection and verification systems than in the actual reductions of nuclear weapons.

Executing the subtleties of a reinsurance policy, however, may prove quite difficult in the atmosphere of conciliation and euphoria that is taking shape in Europe and the United States. What the United States needs is a new policy plan similar to the one that was approved by Truman shortly after the communist invasion of South Korea. That document, NSC-68, had the virtue of bringing together the various strands of policy, under the broad theme of containment.

Thus any review of American policy eventually returns to the point where the Cold War started. Because the changes in the Soviet Union are so far-reaching, for perhaps the first time since 1917 Washington has a chance to work out a genuinely new relationship with Moscow. Americans have given little thought to what could be expected of a postcommunist Russia. That is no longer a subject for idle fantasizing. The Bolshevik Revolution has finally run its course, and we may be witnessing the breakup of the Soviet empire; that is, of the Soviet Union itself. But we cannot know what will replace it-a relatively benign confederation or a belligerent, nationalistic Russia.

What can, or should, the United States do about it? Where do America's interests lie?


It is often argued that the United States needs a new "vision" of its role in the world. Such arguments take on added weight if one also agrees with the conventional wisdom that the United States will have less and less influence in world affairs and therefore will be forced to navigate more skillfully. But as events of the past year show, there is good reason to question conventional wisdom. Who would have thought one year ago that any Soviet leader would propose the dismantling of the leading role of the Communist Party, that the Berlin Wall would be torn down and Germany be united, that a dissident playwright would become president of Czechoslovakia? It has not been a vintage year for punditry, and as America begins to reconsider its world role, it might do well to prepare for more surprises that will defy any carefully crafted vision.

A final note of warning is also in order. One of the most astute observers of American foreign policy, the late Hans Morgenthau, warned against the tendency of American policy to swing between the extremes of an "indiscriminate isolationism and an equally indiscriminate internationalism or globalism." Both extremes, he concluded, are "equally hostile to that middle ground of subtle distinctions, complex choices and precarious manipulation which is the proper sphere of foreign policy."

1 For an analysis of post-Cold War choices, see Charles William Maynes, "America Without the Cold War," Foreign Policy, Spring 1990; see also Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance, "Bipartisan Objectives for American Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1988; Stanley Hoffmann, "What Should We Do in the World," The Atlantic Monthly, October 1989; and Burton Yale Pines, "Waiting for Mr. X," Policy Review, Summer 1989.

2 See Hoffmann, op. cit.

3 American Agenda: Report to the Forty-First President of the United States of America. Camp Hill, Pa.: Book-of-the-Month Club, n.d., p. 22.

4 See Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, "Thomas Jefferson and American Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, Spring 1990.

5 Václav Havel, "The Chance Will Not Return," U.S. News and World Report, Feb. 26, 1990, p. 30.

6 "Who Won Eastern Europe?," editorial in The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 23, 1990, p. 10. For a recent critique of Cold War policies see Strobe Talbott, "Rethinking the Red Menace," Time, Jan. 1, 1990; an opposing view is provided by Richard Pipes, "Gorbachev's Russia: Breakdown or Crackdown?" Commentary, March 1990. See also Paul Taylor, "Cheney Finds That CIA Chief is No Comrade in Arms," The Washington Post, March 6, 1990, p. 21.

7 Al Kamen, "U.S. Strategy: Pressure for Vote," The Washington Post, Feb. 28, 1990, p. 1.

8 Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, "Realism and Chinese Repression," The Washington Post, Oct. 13, 1989.

9 "The Caricature of Deng as a Tyrant Is Unfair," The Washington Post, Aug. 1, 1989. For a defense of the Bush administration's policy see Michel Oksenberg, "Bush is Right on China," The New York Times, Dec. 13, 1989, p. 31 and A. Doak Barnett, "Increasingly Bush Seems Right on China," The New York Times, Jan. 21, 1990, p. 21.

10 Quoted in Martin Tolchin, "House, Breaking with Bush, Votes China Sanctions," The New York Times, June 30, 1989, p. 1. Also see Winston Lord, "Misguided Mission," The Washington Post, Dec. 19, 1989, p. 23; and Anthony Lewis, "Kissinger and China," The New York Times, Aug. 20, 1989, p. 23.

11 American Agenda, op. cit., p. 19.

12 See William T. Kaufmann, "A Plan to Cut Military Spending in Half," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1990. See also "$150 Billion a Year, Where to Find It," editorial in The New York Times, March 8, 1990, p. 24.

13 See "The Japan That Can Say No," by Akio Morita and Shintaro Ishihara, as quoted in The Congressional Record, Nov. 13, 1989, remarks by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

15 For a prescient analysis of the possibilities for postrevolutionary Russia, see George F. Kennan, "America and the Russian Future," Foreign Affairs, April 1951, excerpts reprinted in Foreign Affairs, Spring 1990. Also see James H. Billington, "Looking to the Past," The Washington Post, Jan. 22, 1990, p. 11.

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