Characteristic of American foreign policy since World War II has been the quest for a certain minimum of world order and a practical maximum of American control. Successive schemes for the regulation of power—collective security, bipolar confrontation, and now perhaps the balance of power—have differed in their objects and style. But interventionism—structuring the external political-military environment and determining the behavior of other nations, whether in collaboration, conflict or contention with them—has been the main underlying dimension of our policy. There has been no serious substantive challenge to this premise since the eve of our entry into World War II. The last "great debate," in 1951, over the dispatch of American troops to Europe, was about implementation and constitutional procedure.

How the world might look now had the United States not exercised itself for these 30 years, and how it might look 30 years from now if we were to cease exercising ourselves, are open to conjecture. More certain are the failures of deterrence and the costs of war and readiness. These speculations and reflections are materials for a larger debate about the critical objects and operational style of our foreign policy.

It is time for such a debate. We are at a turning point in our conception of the shape of the international system and our perception of the necessities and responsibilities it imposes on our foreign policy. This is more than the feeling that any year of crisis is a turning point, and more than the hope that after the tunnel of a long and obscure war we must be emerging into a new valley. Rather, longer historical perspective and larger categories of analysis indicate that the second of the major structural systems that followed World War II—bipolar confrontation—has been played out, and a new, but severely limited, set of alternative international systems is pending as both object and determinant of American foreign policy.

The alternatives are: (1) A limited constellation of powerful nations or blocs, all fully engaged and all with a stake in preserving the system, even at the cost of occasional forcible exercises; differing politically and contending economically, but observing certain "mutual restraints" or rules of engagement—in short, a balance of power. And (2) a more extensive and less-ordered dispersion of nation-states, great, large and medium in size and "weight," with relative power a less-critical factor in assessing and constructing relationships; agnostic about maintaining the shape and tone of the system as a whole, and not bound to restrain other—especially distant—nations for the sake of their own security or the integrity of the system. The latter system has no conventional verbal handle. We might call it "general unalignment," or "a pluralism of unaligned states." It is the baseline condition, the limiting case, of the international system—actually a quasi-anarchy, the situation that is reached if the major nations stop striving to impose external order. This system—or perhaps non-system—is the only present alternative to the balance of power (objective conditions not favoring the imposition of universal domination, the achievement of collective security, or the restoration of alliance leadership and bipolar confrontation); and it may well be its historical successor.

This analysis might seem abstract and impractical, were it not for the fact that the present Administration itself is sensitive to these large-scale alternatives and convinced of the importance of establishing a version of the balance of power. Moreover, this Administration seems to be aware of the restricted palette of present foreign policy choice, which it characterizes prejudicially as "engagement" (the rhetorical concomitant of the balance of power) or "isolationism" (the presumed counterpart of international anarchy). But to describe the choice in such flat terms is to efface the moral dimension of a foreign policy. For example, the balance of power—seen as a policy rather than a system—should be defined not simply by its main dimension of interventionism (or its euphemism, "engagement"), but also by another dimension: that of amoralism.

Similarly, the alternative policy orientation of nonintervention should be defined two-dimensionally: it can be either amoral or moral. Amoral noninterventionism is "isolationism." It connotes Fortress America, narrow prejudice and active xenophobia. It is hard to subscribe to this isolationism; but it may be fair to abstain from its further condemnation, if only because this condemnation has become a mindless litany, and because the diametrically opposite course of national action—moralistic interventionism—has often led beyond the point of general damage to the brink of universal disaster.

The other, moral, style of noninterventionism is not isolationism at all. Rather, it reflects (a) a strict and consistent principle of nonintervention in the political-military order, and (b) a concern for constructive contact with the world. Such a foreign policy orientation might be called "strategic disengagement."

Thus, the balance of power, as system or policy, is neither an inevitable development nor a unique response. The "other" major international system, general unalignment, is a possible world—even a probable world, in time. And the "other" major foreign policy orientation, strategic disengagement, is a viable mode of behavior for the United States, indeed an appropriate mode if the international system continues to evolve toward a more diffused condition.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric of disengagement, unless it is presented meretriciously as a "new internationalism," is not appealing. Particularly in a season of peace and reconciliation, it may seem ungenerous to project skepticism about the future of world order, and to prescribe the curtailment of international ambition and the pursuit of national immunity. And it is bound to be diminishing for Americans—who are used to hearing that their identity depends on a special responsibility for world order—to be told that they ought to give up their honorable pretensions and to live modestly, like other nations.

But international politics is full of ironies, and not the least of them is that the desire to do good often leads to objective harm. Private virtues are often public vices; national virtues are often international vices. Even the most attractive motives, caring and helping, can be a source of danger and destruction. Conversely, even the private vice of indifference to disorder might, in this imperfect world of fragmented sovereignties, translate into the public virtues of preserving internal integrity and respecting external reality. If we can recognize these ironies of international politics, why should we resist their codification in a coherent scheme of national conduct?


Strategic disengagement is both a policy and the end-state of a policy. It can be defined, first, by exclusion—by differentiating it from other positions that are critical or limitationist. It is not the "old isolationism"; it has no xenophobic animus and does not entail autarky. It is not "neoisolationism" or "new isolationism"; these doctrines seem too eclectic in their criteria—sometimes evasively circumstantial, sometimes unabashedly geographical (merely a cover for a Europe-first policy), and sometimes vaguely sentimental. It is not the "new internationalism"; this misleading verbal straddle usually ends in moralistic interventionism, relying half-seriously on the resurrection of a potent United Nations. It is not "benign neglect"—simply because it is neither necessarily benign nor deliberately negligent. It is not just "never again," a narrowly based and intellectually confused reaction to the trauma of Vietnam, which could have only limited instrumental lessons for weapons, tactics, strategy or military organization. It is not a "spheres-of-influence" doctrine, either naïve or "mature";[i] it implies no collusion in others' spheres and claims none of its own.

Neither is it a "national-interest" policy; this perennial realist calculus lends itself as much to the extension as to the limitation of objects of intervention, and can lead, in a sort of perversion, to inconsistent, case- by-case, cost-benefit decisions, on the least-principled grounds. Nor has it much to do with arbitrary criteria, such as the limitation of troops abroad ;[ii] this is a technical indicator that may express tactical decision or budgetary restriction, not absence of commitment. And it should go without saying that it is not the equivalent of the Nixon Doctrine, which is a program of force substitution, not substantive disengagement.

Strategic disengagement should also not be implicated with the so-called "isolationist personality"—a pathological condition combining limited intellect and defective character that is much analyzed in meticulous but misdirected social science. Even if such social-psychologizing correctly identified the clinical syndrome, it would still not settle the policy debate. For one thing, the "behavior" of nations is not equivalent to the aggregate behavior of their citizens, or even the modal behavior of their leaders; the policies of nations are not crude analogues of the intentions of individuals, but are the structured responses of systems to complex goals and complex constraints. And furthermore, whatever else foreign policy may be, it is also strategic, in the sense that it is deliberate, objective and rational choice, and is determined—and must be judged—more by its consequences than its impulses.

And finally, strategic disengagement is not to be equated with "appeasement." The salient aspect of Munich—apart from the fact that the United States did not even participate—is that the powers that did conceive that short-lived solution imposed it on Czechoslovakia in an extension of active diplomatic meddling—the very opposite of disengagement. Similarly, the recent proposal of unilateral withdrawal from Indochina—now buried by the actual Vietnam settlement—was falsely characterized by its opponents: they likened it to "conniving at the overthrow of our South Vietnamese ally" in order to negotiate our exit from the war. The latter was a highly conditional alternative, which would have constituted appeasement. In absolute contrast, unilateral withdrawal was a completely unconditional position—though it would have had extensive implications.

A second way to define strategic disengagement is by its connotations. Its keynote is large-scale adjustment to the international system, rather than detailed control of it. It is a prescription for an orderly withdrawal from our political-military commitments to other nations and from our military positions overseas, in a deliberate and measured fashion, with the timetable determined by our unilateral judgment but responsive to opportune circumstances and to the sensibilities of our allies and the conduct of our adversaries. Above all, it would be paced, not precipitate. To reach the end-state of the disengaged posture might take one or even two decades of initiatives and diplomacy.

Strategic disengagement comprises two syndromes: The first centers on the dissolution of alliances and includes rehabilitation of the civilized concept of neutrality, respect for international law (even if often its observance is asymmetrical and its sanctions only symbolic), and relations with any effective government regardless of its complexion. The second centers on a strict but limited definition of national security and includes acceptance of revolutionary change in the world, acquiescence even in the forcible rearrangement of other countries, and adoption of second- chance military strategies.

A third definition of strategic disengagement is by its geographical extension—where we would draw our security perimeter on the map. But this should be only illustratively sketched, rather than rigidly drawn. The reason for this reservation has to do with the meaning of "policy." Policy is not a set of instant declaratory propositions; rather, it is the total, but future, orientation of a system to contingencies, including some now unknown in their most relevant features. Thus we can talk competently about general policy orientations, but only tentatively about specific policy objects.

However, a quick, and thus more than otherwise provocative, tour of the world would yield these ultimate implications. Asia might be the earliest theater for the implementation of disengagement. The United States would withdraw to a mid-Pacific position and observe—but not necessarily count on or promote—the probable emergence of an East Asian regional configuration of China, Japan and Russia. We would seek no positions in the Indian Ocean; in South Asia a lesser regional array might emerge, consisting of India, supported by Russia and countered by China and the rump of Pakistan.

In the Middle East, the United States would not attempt to impose a settlement on the contending local states. We would enjoy as long as possible the flow of oil on reasonable commercial terms, and would yield with decent grace and little brandishing of force if seriously challenged by local irresponsibility or outside intervention.

In Western Europe, America would witness the continuing devolution of military power and fragmentation of political will, without making intricate efforts to control the Alliance or its deployment of forces—aspects that are obviously related. In fact, we would initiate the thinning out of our troops and continue a measured and irreversible redeployment to the continental United States, removing most of the redeployed units from our active structure and dispensing with most of the airlift and sea-lift and sea-control forces that are justified solely for reinforcement and resupply in an extended ground war in Europe.


Why do it? Why adopt a policy of strategic disengagement? In doing anything, one either initiates, hoping to achieve some gain or improvement, or responds, adjusting to a situation. Strategic disengagement has elements of both, but more of the latter. It is an anticipatory adjustment—a long, major adaptation to an evolutionary process in the international system and a basic social situation in the United States.

Nevertheless, there are some benefits, though these are not so much reasons for doing it as reasons for being glad to have done it. First, this posture does have tangible consequences for defense preparations—force structures, weapons systems and budgets. Though cost saving might not be the main determinant of this policy, it is not a contemptible by-product. In fact, the only way honestly to achieve meaningful defense budget cuts—of the magnitude mentioned in the 1972 presidential campaign, for example, on the order of $35 billion a year—is to execute a far-reaching program of strategic disengagement. The Asian portion alone, which could be accomplished in the earlier years, could save as much as $14 billion a year from the baseline allocations for this region under the Nixon Doctrine.[iii]

Another positive reason for strategic disengagement is to avoid the possible moral "costs" of conflict. These costs are not negligible and carry their own constraints in the form of international diplomatic reactions and domestic social pressures, which might limit our ability to persevere in a conflict. Moral costs can attach either to indecisive conflicts protracted by self-limitation or, conversely, to decisive measures to end conflict.

But the principal reason for strategic disengagement is to make an adjustment that will have sufficient coherence to weather a future of perplexing variations in the pressure of circumstances and the incidence of accidental events.

What, then, is this expected future to which we are adjusting? We can identify six critical conditions in the future international system: The first is the high probability of troubles, such as embargoes, expropriations, coups, revolutions, externally supported subversions, thrusts by impatient irredentist states, and calculated probes of defense perimeters. These will be neither resolved nor constructively equilibrated by some benign balance-of-power mechanism. All of these situations could have consequences that would be unfavorable to U.S. interests. But they would threaten the central security of the United States only to the extent that we "adopted" them in ways that made them security issues, through such instruments as alliances, guarantees, collective security arrangements, and unilateral commitments by declaration or implicit orientation. In that case, any of these situations could begin an escalatory antiphony of deterrent threats, challenges and credibility-maintaining countermoves.

The second tendency is increasing interdependence-but this has a different implication from the one which proponents of interdependence recognize. Interdependence, in these terms, is a set of functional linkages of nations: resources—raw materials, energy and food; access routes—commercial and strategic; economic activities—trade, monetary and investment, and their patterns and organizations; populations—with their movements and impacts; and the physical environment. These areas harbor problems that could be aggravated to the point where they became threats to the security of nations, demanding, not suggesting, solutions.

The third element of the future international system is the probable absence of an ultimate adjustment mechanism in the form of a supranational institution that can authoritatively dispense justice and grant relief, especially in those extreme cases that threaten to unhinge the system—though in lesser cases of international disorder, mediation and peacekeeping might be effective, and in other functional areas some organized coöperation will exist. Even the tacit "rules" of the balance of power will break down precisely when they are most needed. These rules are not positive restraints, or even reliable predictions of the behavior of nations in the pursuit of their interests, but, rather, mere system-maintenance conditions—descriptions of ideal conduct that derive from the very definition of a balance of power.

The fourth factor is an interim conclusion of the first three—that stabilization, the long-range action of states to bring about conditions in the external system that enhance their security, will take the form of unilateral intervention rather than collaborative world order.

The fifth future condition is the unmanageable diffusion of power beyond some ideal geometry of powerful but responsible states. Instead, this process is likely to proceed to a kaleidoscopic interaction of multiple political entities. By any measure of power—military (nuclear or conventional, actual or potential), economic (total wealth or commercial weight) or political (the will to autonomy and achievement)—there may be 15 or 20 salient states, not necessarily equal and not necessarily armed with nuclear weapons, but potent to the point of enjoying the possibility of independent action. This would be a "Gaullist world."

The diffusion of power will have several aspects: One is that limits will become evident in existing unions, and cracks will appear in existing military alliances. Europe, for example, may agglomerate further, but it will not integrate politically. The Atlantic Alliance also will suffer from a continuing divergence of interests and allegiances. There will be the traditional cultural tug of Europe as an entity, and the blandishment of commercial deals with Eastern Europe, reinforcing the desire of individual allies for political maneuverability and military autonomy. Allies will increasingly, despite occasional contributions toward specific infrastructural items, fail to bear their "fair share" of the burdens of the Alliance and will demand a disproportionate share—or, bad enough, a proportionate share—of command authority. And there will be, within the Atlantic Alliance (and our Asian alliances as well), dissonance over the suitability of foreign policies, strategies and weapons systems. The result is that alliances and multinational groupings will become the least-efficient instruments for bargaining among the principal antagonists in the international system. Individual nations are already seeking out their adversaries directly, in order to make general political arrangements and specific deals on economic, environmental and resource issues.

Another aspect of diffusion is the impracticality of military power, whether nuclear, conventional or subconventional. Nuclear force, used or threatened, could be a trigger to uncontrollable or unpredictable violence, immediately or in the longer run because of adverse precedents. Conventional military power is increasingly ineffective in relative terms, because of the rising cost of its application and the diminishing value of its effects in politically unfocused, or geographically intractable, or great-power-stalemated situations. And subconventional force is vitiated by its unreliable by-products: it creates embarrassing clients, diminishes diplomatic maneuverability and invites escalation once a minimal stake is established.

The sixth condition that will complicate the enforcement of international order is the lack of consensus in domestic support—not when our system is free from external pressure, but precisely when it most needs steady support. Few societies—especially one such as the United States—will hold together in foreign exercises that are ill-defined or, conversely, dedicated to the maintenance of a balance of power. Indeed, this Administration does not cultivate active, fervent public support. Acquiescence would be entirely sufficient, and more appropriate, for a subtle, flexible balance-of-power policy—as long as it was limited to the faint demonstration of force. But where escalation is required to validate an earlier countermeasure that was indecisive, support would be lacking and the intervention might fail before it had achieved its effect The lack of public support might not prevent intervention, but it might critically inhibit its prosecution.

Let us return for a moment to draw some conclusions about interdependence. The typical argument for interdependence recites the material or spiritual facts that push and throw nations together and concludes with the "ethical necessity" of binding nations together in world order. It urgently, humanely, reminds us that we are living in One World. But it fails to recognize a paradox that is embedded in the situation:

(1) Interdependence creates the need for more world order—the authority to restrain and dispose—without creating order itself. Indeed, it diminishes the effectiveness of the existing degree of world order, which might be barely viable only because it is relatively unstressed. In short, interdependence, which is widely mistaken for part of the solution, is actually part of the problem.

(2) The diffusion of power—in the form of the persistence and increasing authority of the nation-state, and the increasing impotence of constructive coercion—prevents the more perfect world order required by the conditions of interdependence.

(3) But, paradoxically, both interdependence and diffusion are simultaneously increasing in the world. And since diffusion causes disorder, while interdependence merely requires order, the prognosis is more disorder in the international system.

Now, if the foreign policy of an individual state could be logically "ideal," it would either cut down on interdependence in order to be freer from the uncontrollable effects of the system, or would reverse the diffusion of power by gaining more control over the system. But neither of these logically ideal courses is within the scope of a single nation's policy. Interdependences cannot be avoided at will, since they are primarily created not by the policy of the nation but by factors that are outside the frame of choice at the national level. And, conversely, the attempt to increase or manipulate power—even constructively—would be resisted by jealous and defensive nation-states.

So nations will have to live with greater interdependence, but in the face of less world order. Thus, a general policy prescription, confronting these contradictory tendencies, would have to be formulated in a "split level."

The face of the policy would be hopeful and constructive, selectively accommodating interdependence—stressing practical coöperation in specific areas, encouraging the universal observance of an international law of self-restraint, and joining in the mediation of disputes and some limited but noncommittal peacekeeping.

But the residual level of the policy would be skeptical and defensive, hedging and insulating against disorder. Where other nations could expropriate our investments or interdict our access to raw materials or energy resources, we would hedge—the only alternatives being deprivation or gunboat diplomacy. And where trading patterns might become adverse, we would adjust our expectations toward import substitution; this does not imply instant autarky, but gearing the mind and the system to deal with incipient mercantilism by means other than irrelevant bluster. This policy also favors an international monetary system that depends on the implicit flexibility of exchange rates, rather than the necessity of explicit initiatives and bargaining.

In political-military arrangements, we would insulate. Security frontiers would be retracted to defensible lines that corresponded generally to national boundaries and related ocean areas. Force structures and base locations would change accordingly. Military strategies would not be absolutely frozen, but would be capable of second-chance reactions, in case major calculations were upset by events or impending events. Strategic nuclear sufficiency would be maintained. But commitments would be gradually dissolved. We might hope that affected nations would adopt compensatory measures that were sensible and stable, but there would be little way to enforce our preferences. And we should not contribute to their compensatory measures to the point where we were recommitted.


Is strategic disengagement feasible for the United States? Part of the answer lies in the way the question is posed. It is often posed in a falsely static form: Can the United States even think of opting out of the international system, as it is? And in any circumstances that seem to be a dereliction of responsibility or a breach of the rules of the system?

Rather, the question should be put in dynamic form: Can the United States adjust to the system as it would be changed by its own behavior? For one quality of a great power is that its major choices define the structure of the international system, not simply influence its process.

Of course, the malleability of the international system is not unlimited. By its defection, a great power can defeat any existent scheme of world order; but it cannot necessarily create new ones by its own intention and means. Thus, in present circumstances, single-nation hegemony is obviously an impossibility. And various forms of collective security, including a condominium of superpowers, seem beyond attainment. The bipolar order is passing and defies restoration, though certain of its features persist- notably, the formal alliances and the habits of zero-sum strategic thinking. But recalcitrant allies, third forces and crosscutting institutions are too prevalent. So there remain the practical alternatives of a multipolar balance of power or a pluralism of unaligned states.

We are asking, then, whether the United States can live in a situation of general unalignment which its own conduct would materially help to establish. This question has its tangible and its intangible components.

The tangible questions are: Would such a situation be minimally supportive of the political and economic life of the state? Can the nation live with the consequences of its failure to intervene readily with sufficient force to preserve its real interests, principally its access as a key to further benefits from the external system? Can it even defend what it must unavoidably defend—its own existence and integrity—if it allows certain ancillary strategic assets to go by the board? Can it credibly deter the central threats to its existence if it declines to deter lesser threats to lesser objects? To what extent is it implicitly dependent on the self- restraint of other nations, or the simple hope that they will fail in the attainment of their objectives?

The intangible questions are: Could our system adjust to the probable "loss" of some previously valued objects—no less real, though intangible and indirect in their impact on our security—the slippage of allegiances, the lapse of comfortable relationships, the extension of hostile control? The adjustment to intangible loss may be the most critical condition for the viability of a policy of strategic disengagement.

A posture of strategic disengagement is favored by several factors, some peculiar to the American situation and some generic. The first is a condition which we have mentioned in another context as a reason for disengagement: the increasing diffusion of usable power among nations. This is not the same as an assertion of "no threat." It is to say that the same condition that frustrates the exercise of American control also frustrates the efforts of competitive states to profit directly and proportionally from our withdrawal, and would mitigate the consequences for us even if they were to succeed.

The second factor has impressed observers as a reason, and a condition, for disengagement since the time of George Washington : the peculiar geographic position of the United States ("Our detached and distant situation invites us to a different course and enables us to pursue it. . . ."). Even—perhaps especially—in the nuclear age, geography still confers military advantage and allows political-military detachment,[iv] as long as it is complemented by a third factor—adequate conventional military forces.

A fourth factor that permits a disengaged political-military stance is nuclear weapons. This factor has two dimensions. On the one hand, for the individual nation, nuclear weapons are like certain other military and situational resources writ large. For example, a secure nuclear retaliatory capability is, for the United States in the twentieth century, the equivalent of the protection of the British fleet in the halcyon era of American isolation, the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, for the international system, nuclear weapons have extraordinary consequences. The distribution of nuclear force ushers in a distinctive variant of the international system of general unalignment—a "veto" system, in which the competent nations pursue independent foreign policies and protect their autonomy with the power to maim an attacker. Even threshold nuclear powers, such as Japan, partake indirectly of this quality, just as analogously in a balance-of-power system nations can wield power by allying and threatening, though limited war is the residual arbiter of that system.

In fact, nuclear weapons precipitate a gradual and inexorable movement toward unalignment—beyond a balance of power—once they are held by more than one potential major antagonist. It is wrong to attribute this effect to the general proliferation of nuclear weapons among third, fourth or fifth states, including lesser alliance partners. The point of no return occurs when two "polar" powers have attained them. The rest is an inevitable disintegration and an eventual transformation—the logical progression to a "Gaullist world."

The French did not create this condition; nor did they merely react to it. They anticipated it, even before de Gaulle's return to power in 1958, and began to draw the correct (though not the only possible) policy conclusions, however unpalatable these might have been for the United States. The standard American characterizations of national nuclear forces as completely useless because militarily useless, and at best (or at worst) a "trigger" for the American deterrent, are wide of the mark. A national nuclear force might not be much "good" in a strict military calculus of reciprocal destruction. But this is not the intention of its architects. Its purpose is political—not in the trivial sense of an entrance ticket to a prestigious "club," but in the most profound sense of that term.[v]

For a medium power, such as France, the utility of nuclear weapons lies not in any plausible coercive strategy, but only in a desperate retaliation, defensive in strategic significance even though "offensive" in military form. Thus the contemplated use of nuclear weapons by a people will be credible if, and only if, it is in the "final defense of their supreme self- interest." And conversely, in that extreme context, any other protection—through generalized "umbrellas," multilateral nonproliferation treaties or the calculated interest of alliance partners—will not be credible or, to the ultimately logical nuclear theorist, even necessary.

For the nuclear superpower, the potency of its own weapons, and their limitations in the face of other nations' weapons, will have two effects that reinforce each other. First, it will not need to acknowledge a seamless web of degrees and cases of deterrence; it can be content to default on nonvital foreign commitments. And second, it may be deterred from fulfilling purely external commitments; regardless of their merit, it will be pressed to default on them by the risk to its own central security. Thus a veto system allows, but also demands, tolerance of very wide swings of accumulated power before any counteraction is indicated (though it is also difficult to see how any other power would risk the aggressive moves necessary to accumulate such power).

For these reasons, nuclear weapons, once beyond the possession of a single polar power, begin to corrode alliances. No ally can be confident that, in a crisis, it will not be disowned by a joint or senior nuclear protector. Thus, in a veto system, an alliance, to be effective, must approach the status of a political union or a feudal subordination. However, once it has acquired its own nuclear force, there is no particular reason for an ally to pool it within the alliance. The sheer power of the pooled force will probably be redundant; and yet no ally will take advantage of this to cut its force and consent to cost-effective joint targeting if this means delegating to an alien political will—and thus an implicitly untrustworthy ally—the decision to withhold or fire against some vital target. Therefore, a nuclear veto system discourages casual and ambiguous commitments and enforces a more severe choice: to create a political community—through union or subordination—integral enough to make mutual nuclear defense credible, or to acquiesce in the dissolution of alliances.


Disengagement has been proposed before. It is a perennial response to the insoluble problems of the international system epitomized by periodic wars. It was adopted after World War I, debated after World War II, and advanced in the 1950s as a way out of the cold war. It is an authentic vision—not necessarily noble, but often practical and even moral in its tendency to avoid the senseless, unfairly apportioned and ruinous costs of war.

But somehow the vision is always rejected—sometimes when proposed, sometimes later when our national response is tested. The nation, and even some of the proponents of disengagement, respond to strategic challenge with reëngagement, intervention and war. What goes wrong? Possibly this: (1) In prospect, disengagement seems too comprehensive, too extreme; it seems to involve us in an undifferentiated retreat from the world, a kind of total—even amoral—isolationism. And (2) in the moment of truth, when an issue threatens to become strategic, in scale and in political-military effect, we are not willing to lose—that is, to risk the consequences of nonintervention.

For the critical question in any proposal of disengagement is not its techniques and provisions, but rather our strategic concern for the objects at risk in the proposal. As long as we maintain this strategic concern, any scheme of disengagement will be vulnerable to objection on its own terms: it cannot ensure that we will not "lose" and our adversaries will not "gain."

It was really on this point that George Kennan's scheme of disengagement in Central Europe in the late 1950s foundered. He argued for the avoidance of risk and tension, the extension of incentive and reassurance to the Soviets, the futility of defense through NATO, and the greater chance of healing the division of Europe. The problem was that disengagement was represented as a better tactic to advance the interest of the United States in the wholeness, health and safety of Europe. And for this it required a reciprocal move by our adversary, Russia. Thus, its opponents could demonstrate generally that the risks of this initiative were greater than the possible gains—always in terms of the conceded interest in the condition of Europe—and specifically that the risk of nonadherence by the Soviets to the reciprocal terms was too great and was irreducible. So Kennan's initiative evoked the critical antagonism of Henry Kissinger[vi] and the patrician disgust of Dean Acheson.[vii] And there is some justice in their reactions. For it is not a valid disengagement if we simply withdraw and continue to hope for the best.

How might a fresh proposal effectively differ? Strategic disengagement depends on the ability, in logic and in fact, to maintain two distinctions. The first is the separation of strategic interests from other concerns, and the sympathetic pursuit of these nonstrategic concerns in collaborative international bodies and in our own unilateral acts; disengagement should not affect commercial relations, humanitarian expressions or cultural contacts.

The second is the distinction of objective from nonobjective factors. The key to this is the concept of equanimity. This is not an attitude of negligence or unconcern or rejection; it is an acceptance of situations and consequences.

This equanimity is "objective" in several senses of the word:

(1) It refers to an objective policy orientation, not a subjective psychological state; (2) It is directed to the objects of our policy—whether they be the international system as a whole, or particular allied nations, threatened resources or strategic situations—not the style of our policy-making or its specific values. And in the last resort, it is not even our sympathy for these objects of our policy, or our formal "commitments" to them, but what we consider their strategic necessity that implicates us in foreign conflict and virtually dictates our intervention.

Thus, if we are to achieve disengagement, we must make our policy deliberately neutral toward a wide range of differential strategic conditions and outcomes in the world. We will be able to afford this orientation only if we hedge and insulate. But even these are not enough. To sustain a strict and consistent disengagement, our decision-making system must adjust its most fundamental presumptions—about the relevance of threats, the calculus of risks and the nature of the national interest. These are the primal categories that mold our response to strategic challenge, despite apparent shifts in surface values.

Nevertheless, in final ethical terms, we are left with an unsatisfactory choice: whether to choose the sins of commission and intervention, or the sins of omission and disengagement. We may have to resolve this dilemma on the basis of the Kantian categorical imperative: We cannot control the behavior of others; we can only behave as we will others to behave-though we expect little reciprocity or symmetry. Admittedly, this is not a self- executing policy. But, at least in moral theory, it could be a self- fulfilling prophecy.

[i] See Ronald Steel, "A Spheres of Influence Policy," Foreign Policy, Winter 1971-72.

[ii] See Michael Roskin, "What 'New Isolationism' ?" Foreign Policy, Spring 1972.

[iii] Instead of the Administration's planned Asia-oriented force of five to six land divisions and 15 to 17 tactical air wing equivalents, including eight navy wings on nine attack carriers, a disengaged posture would require only minimal reinsurance against some unimaginable Pacific catastrophe: perhaps two land divisions and six tactical air wings, including two navy wings on three attack carriers, of which only one would normally operate forward. After a half-decade of adjustment to this, there would be no U.S. troops west of Guam. And no military assistance would be going to any East Asian client state.

[iv] 4A contrary case is made by Albert Wohlstetter ("Illusions of Distance," Foreign Affairs, January 1968) on the basis of logistical and technological factors, which overcome raw distance. But logistics and technology are not the whole point, nor is raw distance, without the help of other dimensions of geography. Every tactical commander realizes the obstructive value of an earthwork, or a fifty-yard ditch such as the Suez Canal. A fortiori, the Pacific Ocean remains a formidable barrier, cheap for transport no doubt, but forbidding for conventional invasion. (Central nuclear protection, of course, is a separate problem and a discontinuous calculus.) Barriers force the enemy to stop and mass, and—perhaps most important—put upon him the onus of unmistakable initiative. We are reminded again that arguments deriving from a "shrinking world" must always be qualified.

[v] This is a cardinal concept of the Gaullist nuclear theorists. See, for example, Michel Debré, "France's Global Strategy," Foreign Affairs, April 1971.

[vi] "Missiles and the Western Alliance," Foreign Affairs, April 1958.

[vii] "The Illusion of Disengagement," Foreign Affairs, April 1958.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington; Director, Asian Division (Systems Analysis) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1967-69; author of the forthcoming Beyond the Balance of Power: Foreign Policy and International Order.
  • More By Earl C. Ravenal