How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
Amidst the rapid and often bewildering change that characterizes our age, advocates of extreme solutions seem to be gaining ground everywhere. Lawlessness in the cities, the restlessness of a good part of the younger generation—especially those in college—and an inconclusive war cause a growing disquiet.
We live in an age of revolutionary transformation. We can seek to shape it or we can doom ourselves to irrelevance. We can accept the challenge to our creativity or we can resign ourselves to ineffectual bitterness. We can lose ourselves in passionate and paralyzing controversy over technical aspects of individual problems, or we can, as I deeply believe we must, develop a more creative perspective—one which enables us to see the inner relationship of great issues and the larger framework within which they can be solved.
A characteristic of a revolutionary period is that it appears to its contemporaries as a series of unrelated crises. What has seemed an obvious course of action in one decade becomes problematic in another. Familiar concepts for dealing with our problems become detached from present reality. This is a particular difficulty in a society like ours which historically has dealt with its challenges "pragmatically"—that is, on the basis of values and concepts accepted as too obvious to require explicit formulation. Such an attitude is effective in dealing with technical problems, but increases the difficulty where human considerations are involved—whether in changes of social structure or in our foreign relations. In the absence of a guiding philosophy, the tendency is to await developments. This attitude can make it difficult even to agree on the nature of a problem, much less on its solution. Thus the analysis of a technical issue takes precedence over purpose, which alone can make remedies relevant. More energy is expended on deciding where we are than where we should be going. While a crisis may remove any doubt about the existence of a problem, it also curtails the scope for productive action.
A constant problem in government is to establish a balance between creativity and knowledge. When the scope for action is greatest, the knowledge on which to base it is at a minimum. When "all the facts are in," the chance for imaginative action has often disappeared. This is why I believe that the test of a leader is whether he is willing to act on the basis of assessments which cannot be "proved" empirically when they are made.
In a democracy this can happen effectively only if leaders have the convictions and the faith to act when the tactical pros and cons seem fairly evenly balanced and only if there exists a constant dialogue between leaders and the public. My own experience has convinced me that, all too often, problems are tackled when it is too late. The art of government consists of identifying emerging problems in time, of understanding the forces that shape them, of confronting these problems with a clear sense of purpose, and achieving consensus on a plan of action drawn to an adequate scale and made relevant to the citizen.
A worrisome aspect of the present period seems to me to be the growing frustration of the public in the face of rapid change over which they feel they do not have much control. Too often the result is a feeling of not being a part of the political process. It may take the form of a sense of impotence in the face of problems believed to be beyond the ken of the average citizen, or of a distrust of all government, or of both simultaneously. If this trend continues we will lose the mainspring of our traditional vitality.
A democracy cannot afford "drop-outs" from the process of government. We must develop fresh premises that will demonstrate how our ideals remain relevant to the realities that confront the citizen. In the midst of perplexing technical problems, our deepest challenge is increasingly philosophical.
Industrialization and the specialization of functions inseparable from it, coupled with the growth of governmental bureaucracy and power, jeopardize the relationship of the individual to his work and of the citizen to his government. Democratic values developed in essentially agricultural or commercial societies. In no country did democracy develop as a result of industrialization. (Germany and Japan adopted democratic forms only after catastrophic military defeats.) An industrial economy depends on values like predictability and efficiency, which may call forth a sort of "constitutionalism"—a set of commonly accepted rules. Unfortunately, the values are not necessarily "democratic values" as the term is commonly understood in the West. In other words, democracy is not the result of a quest for efficiency and a higher standard of living but of other values that are deeper. These include the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the worth and dignity of the individual, the historical evolution in the West of autonomous Church and State hierarchies, the belief in a standard of justice which transcends the power to coerce, and faith in human creativity as a basis for progress.
Industrialization leads to two somewhat contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, it provides the means to realize the economic and social aspirations of the people more fully and the possibility of their participating more broadly in government. On the other hand, material progress by itself only exposes the need for a deeper purpose to life. If prosperity becomes an end in itself, it may well produce a growing alienation of the citizen from the body politic.
It is our tradition and conviction as a nation that the individual is to be protected from any undue accumulation of power. This purpose underlies the separation of powers in government, the divorce of Church and State, the civilian control of the military, and the labor and antitrust laws directed against the abuse of economic power. In the nineteenth century, it was believed that freedom depended on limiting the role of government. But in the 1930s, the threat to freedom seemed to come from the predominance of economic over human considerations. Sweeping legislation was enacted to help the economically deprived and to ensure that no citizen would become the victim of all-powerful economic forces. Now our generation is in the process of learning that some problems cannot be solved by legislation alone. The plight of the cities, for example, is in considerable part a problem of social relationships. Many of today's urban minority families have been uprooted from a simple rural environment and now find themselves thrust into a situation for which they were completely unprepared and which supports them neither economically nor emotionally. The key issue of race is not merely to legislate equality of opportunity; this is in many respects the easiest aspect. Nor is the solution limited to such necessities as jobs, housing and education. Beyond all these, it must be possible for minority groups to gain a sense of belonging.
Industrialization coupled with increased concern for social welfare has produced what Daniel Bell has called the "communal society." One of its characteristics is the interdependence of people; another is that more and more actions are undertaken through group or communal instruments rather than through individual initiative. The requirement to specialize, moreover, has deprived the average individual of a sense of "visible product," reducing the feelings of independence and pride of accomplishment enjoyed by the artisan or farmer of former times.
The growth of this kind of society accounts for much of the current unease and discontent. In the nineteenth century, when the role of government was relatively small and issues were comparatively simple, many voters took part in politics as members of groups with clearly defined and competing economic interests. The conflict between such groups—farmers vs. merchants, South vs. North, planters vs. capitalists, labor vs. employers—was an important factor in the evolution of political parties. Although the clash of economic interests was exaggerated by some historians, it shaped the American political process in important respects. In the 1930s, many intellectuals held that the U.S. economy had "matured" with the settlement of the frontiers and that progress for any group within the economy could be made only at the expense of another group. Genuine concern arose as to whether democratic political institutions could survive the competing claims of economic interest groups.
In today's relatively prosperous society, the nature of the conflict has changed. The conflict of economic interest groups has diminished with the rise of the role of government and with the general recognition that legitimate economic claims of all groups can eventually be satisfied by a growing economy based on the seemingly limitless resources of science. Moreover, many of the issues represented by special interest groups are no longer a subject of serious argument. The view that society should help the less fortunate and the underprivileged is no longer urged in traditional pressure-group terms. The widely accepted need for more education and better health, for rebuilding our cities and modernizing our transportation systems, for purifying our air and water, is seen to be required for political, social, moral or aesthetic reasons rather than because of economic claims put forth by groups with competing interests.
Massive social programs have been launched to meet these goals. Their impact on all levels of government in our federal system has been staggering, vastly complicating the relationships between local, state and federal government. The power of the executive has grown in relation to other branches of government. This has resulted not only from the growth in the size of government, but also from the increasingly technical nature of knowledge, the complex nature of issues and the multiplicity of goals, many of them in conflict with each other.
The increased role of technical decision-making at all levels of government has had the effect of institutionalizing certain crucial controls and directive functions in the executive branch, and this has added new dimension and power to the bureaucracy. Foreshadowed in the 1930s by the growth of regulatory agencies exercising quasi-legislative and judicial functions, the bureaucracy has grown in direct proportion to the technical complexity of issues. When bureaucracy becomes too unwieldy and unresponsive to change, more energies are expended in managing the administrative machine than in defining its purpose. Success comes to consist of moving the bureaucracy to the point of decision—almost irrespective of content. A gap opens between the technical knowledge of bureaucracy and the leadership's capacity to absorb technical information and to transmit it to the public.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that more and more voters feel frustrated. Political parties, traditionally the strongest links between the electorate and the government, are losing their hold. The proportion of voters unaffiliated to either party is increasing, and indications are that those who are affiliated tend to cross party lines more and more often.
All of this gives contemporary politics its particular cast. In the nineteenth century, campaigns at least concerned issues, if not principles. Today the cult of the uncommitted voter too often turns political contests into a competition for the middle ground, making it hard sometimes to distinguish between contenders. The issue of a campaign often turns on "personality." In their attempt to draw in voters from the entire spectrum of opinion, parties tend to repeat within themselves the divisions in the society at large, with the result that internal party strife is sometimes more bitter than the contest between the parties.
The dangers of this tendency have been pointed out by Daniel Boorstin, who has noted the decline of the heroic leader and the rise of the "star" leader in the political process. He attributes this change in the character of political and other heroes to the increasing use of the "human pseudo-event"—an "event" staged by an individual, his press agent or the news media to create a desirable image. The need for images, he adds, stems from the lack of a clearly stated philosophy, which in turn results in uncertainty concerning our ideals. Our national politics has thus become "a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals."[i]
The result is a sense of insecurity and a distrust of all politics. Having been taught classical democratic theory in school, the citizen knows he is expected to vote and is taught to believe his vote is important. Often, however, he finds it difficult if not impossible to become informed on the issues and, most importantly, he does not know how to make his disagreement effective. He comes to believe his vote has little influence in the decision-making process.
To a considerable extent, the growth in government and the increase in specialization are irreversible. Nostalgia for a simpler age will not help matters. What is at issue is nothing less than whether life can be given meaning—as I deeply believe it can—in an environment which sometimes seems to dwarf the individual. The contemporary uneasiness—especially of our young generation—reflects rebellion against the emptiness of a life which knows only "practical" problems and material goods and seems to lack a deeper purpose.
I have learned in New York State that people are willing to make whatever effort is necessary to resolve a problem if they understand its relationship to our purposes as a society. For example, when public opinion was said to favor retrenchment, the voters of New York State approved by a wide margin a $2.5 billion bond issue for a new and comprehensive approach to transportation—an important key to the solution of fundamental economic and social problems in the state. Previously they had voted four-to-one in favor of a $1 billion pure-waters bond issue to end pollution of our rivers, lakes and ocean fronts, and so restore them to the full use of our society. In both cases, there was protracted and intensive dialogue between the government and the people, in which organized citizen action played a vital role.
Great accomplishments require inspiration as well as technique. The challenge to our democracy is whether we can establish a framework of purpose and concepts which will enable us to see in the day-to-day difficulties the raw material for a renewed creative action. I am profoundly convinced that this is possible.
The conduct of foreign policy vividly illustrates how contemporary problems test the democratic process. Here we see the need to establish a larger framework of objectives, purpose and concept if we are to act constructively. In an article in the inaugural issue of this journal forty-five years ago, Elihu Root wrote:
The demand for open diplomacy and contemporaneous public information . . . rests upon the substantial basis of democratic instinct for unhampered self-government. . . . The usefulness of this new departure is subject to one inevitable condition. That is, that the democracy which is undertaking to direct the business of diplomacy shall learn the business. The controlling democracy must acquire a knowledge of the fundamental and essential facts and principles upon which the relations of nations depend. . . . The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent a people from having an erroneous opinion.[ii]
Since then, the formulation of foreign policy and the business of learning about foreign policy have become even more complex and the penalties for error potentially much graver. Elihu Root wrote in the twilight of a period of international order centering on Europe—an order which had regulated relations among nations throughout the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth century. The First World War shook this system and the Second World War completed its destruction. The European powers have declined relatively in power and influence; the United States and the Soviet Union have become the strongest nations, while new nations have come into being in every continent. International relations have become truly global—a process which has been accelerated by the rapidity of travel and the speed of communication. Two things have been lacking: a new concept of relations between nations and a framework of order in which the aspirations of humanity can be peacefully realized and in which nearly sixty new nations can find their places. To complicate matters further, the sense of security has been shaken by East-West ideological conflicts and by new weapons of unprecedented destructiveness. Our age lacks safety, structure and international consensus.
In the light of these concerns, it is especially hard to define the basis of our physical security. Our concepts of a threat to security are geared to traditional notions of territorial expansion; thus our doctrine tells us to resist physical aggression across existing national borders. But we have had to learn that much more fundamental changes in power relationships can occur within the frontiers of a sovereign state, either through domestic upheavals, sometimes inspired and supported from outside, or through technological change, such as the development of nuclear weapons by Communist China.
Moreover, the incomparable risks created by the new technology impose a special burden on both decision-makers and individual citizens. Never before have major protagonists had to fear almost instantaneous and simultaneous destruction. With new weapons, a strategy becomes almost entirely dependent on theoretical calculations and psychological criteria. Never has so much hung on weapons for which there exists so little operational experience. At the same time, judgment of the interaction of complicated weapons systems is largely psychological. In a policy of deterrence, what matters above all is the opponent's state of mind. For purposes of deterrence, a threat meant as a bluff but taken seriously is more useful than a serious threat interpreted as a bluff.
Perhaps nowhere is the gap between substantive knowledge and the operation of the democratic process so complicated as in the field of defense. The issues are highly technical; experts with years of experience disagree among themselves, often violently. Congressional committees have difficulty in acquiring comprehensive knowledge as to the interrelationship of technical, strategic and policy issues involved; their resulting frustration often strains executive-legislative relationships. For the average citizen, the task may seem almost insurmountable. Yet his very existence may quite literally depend on decisions about our strategic posture. Confronted with this dilemma, he may become cynical or fall prey to demagogic appeals. It is the task of leadership to encourage thoughtful discussion and to make certain that the public understands the fundamental—essentially non-technical—considerations on which our strategic posture depends.
Meanwhile, the world has become fragmented as never before. In the nineteenth century, the emergence of two new states—Italy and Germany—disturbed the equilibrium for decades. In the twentieth century, the development and aggressive spread of communist ideology and the appearance of scores of new states were bound to be accompanied by turmoil. The unrest has been intensified because the domestic instability of many new states tempts outside forces to exploit their internal weaknesses and encourages their own leaders to use foreign dangers to strengthen their hold on a shaky domestic position.
Three characteristics of our age—a basic sense of insecurity, the lack of a political structure and the absence of consensus as to objectives—mark it as a period of transition in international relations. So long as there is no agreement on objectives, the temptation is great to deal with issues one by one. There is a tendency to break up problems into their constituent elements and to assign each to be dealt with by experts in that area.
Such an approach means we deal with symptoms. Debate is polarized between those who see every upheaval as caused by the deliberate design of evil men and others who, in our age of intercontinental missiles and instantaneous communication, question whether we have any national interest beyond our shores. In the face of such complexities, and lacking unifying concepts and long-range objectives, many leaders are tempted to invoke their assumedly superior information rather than resort to patient explanation. And critics who demand perfection forget that, while great objectives are essential, they can be reached only if one is prepared to advance by measured steps. Some rely for help on what are thought to be the automatic processes of history: the "inevitable" amelioration of dictatorships or the "automatic" association of humane governmental systems with economic development. But history will not do our work for us. Whether totalitarian systems can be brought to a more accommodating posture depends at least in part on whether there are penalties for bad faith and bad behavior. And the history of this century should have demonstrated that economic progress, if not leavened by humane values, may only refine the tools of slavery. Nazism did not develop, after all, in an economically backward society.
The sense of impotence—of being unable to affect events—is even more acute in facing problems of foreign policy than in domestic policy. Yet the challenge is relatively straightforward. The crucial fact is that we have not developed an effective political structure to bring about peaceful change. The upheaval in the world will subside only with the emergence of a more or less generally accepted international system. Until then, all nations will live with the consciousness of danger, and until then military power will remain essential to national security.
At the same time, one must recognize that security cannot be achieved by power alone, for this would be the road to empire if not to cataclysm. The goal is order, but order is not created simply by moral affirmation. In world affairs there are few "final" solutions; foreign policy has no terminal point. Each successful settlement establishes a new set of relationships, with their own complexities and potentials for friction. And though we cannot create order by ourselves, it surely cannot come about without us.
The deepest problem before America, then, is moral or psychological. Since much of the current uneasiness reflects a search less for solutions than for meaning, remedies depend for their effectiveness on the philosophy or values which inspire them. The student unrest is impressive, not because some of it is fomented by agitators, but because it includes some of the most idealistic elements of our youth. In fact, much that disquiets us today gives cause for hope, for it reflects not cynicism but disappointed idealism.
Decades of "debunking" and materialism have left the young generation without adequate moral support in face of the challenges of a revolutionary age. Leaders at all levels are seen to have been asking not too much of our people but too little. The contemporary discontent proves among other things that man cannot live by economics alone; he needs quality and purpose in addition to material well-being; he needs significance and meaning beyond physical comfort. The quality and success of the Peace Corps can be explained on no other ground. The spirit of idealism which it has fostered should—and can—animate our actions in meeting a wide range of challenges.
A democracy, to be vital, must be able to mobilize the moral energies of its people. If government at any level should consistently take the attitude that "Father knows best," those moral energies will be sapped at the base. If, on the other hand, protest confines itself to striking poses, it, too, will be doomed to sterility. The dialogue we need is one geared to a conceptual approach to the problems at home and abroad, not to individual "solutions" based on the illusion that we can escape problems by fragmenting them.
Over the years our society must cherish the pluralism, the centers of initiative, that made America so great. We must give thought to the effort to decentralize initiative. Within the framework of our federal system we must encourage all private organizations, supported by a sense of responsibility on the part of private citizens, which can provide the building blocks to make that effort succeed. Such institutions, and others which are governmental in character, can play a vital part in our conscious strategy to revive the belief of the average American that his opinion matters.
The stakes could hardly be higher. In previous centuries, a part of mankind might languish while another advanced. In a world which is indivisible, a failure to deal with our own problems could spread disintegration worldwide.
For a people grown great in the experience of the frontier, the twin challenges of humanizing a technocratic bureaucracy and helping the world find a modern structure offer an adventurous opportunity. This is an exciting age. The current uneasiness exists because people care—and yet do not see the way to make their aspirations come true. The task is to prove that their aspirations are relevant and attainable. This cannot be the responsibility of the President alone; it is the responsibility of all public officials, of leaders in all walks of life—indeed, of all of us.
[i] Daniel Boorstin, "The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream." New York: Atheneum, 1962, p. 249.
[ii] Elihu Root, "A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy," Foreign Affairs, v. I. n. I.