Foreign Policy in a Bipolar World

Originally published January 12, 1979

BEFORE HIS old broom sweeps it all away, Ronald Reagan should give careful thought to the possibility that some of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy-in particular the human rights program and the downgrading of CIA activities-may have a better practical base than even its sponsors imagined. What probably was conceived as born-again do-goodism may actually be the epitome of hardheaded down-to-earth practicality in the world we face today. For unlike our parents and their parents, we now live in a bipolar world. This is something new under the sun.

We have had good experience with an analogous situation in domestic politics, where it is clearly recognized that a two party system is radically different from any other. We believe this  system gives our government a stability denied to those of, say, France and Italy. To the extent that our belief is well founded, and that we understand the nature of the foundation, we may hope for stability in international affairs. If we misunderstand the  situation, we are likely in for trouble.

From the point of view of the voter, the salient fact of two-party politics is that one is generally voting against, rather than for. To put it in its harshest light, as many recently did, one must choose the lesser of two evils. Only rarely is it possible to enter the polling booth with unbounded enthusiasm.

The resulting political atmosphere is often bland, which is another way of saying non revolutionary. The two parties crowd toward the center of the political spectrum and tend to become similar in their programs. That makes possible such sudden voter shifts as we experienced last November, when those who could have been expected to vote against Reagan voted against Carter because of his perceived ineffectuality.

Occasionally, true believers find ways of establishing something approaching an ideological difference between the parties, of giving voters “a real choice.” Handfuls of the faithful are made ecstatic, but the usual consequence is electoral disaster. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern are roundly defeated. Few can have loved Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, even at the height of their powers, yet vast majorities had reasons to vote against their opponents.

On reflection, the vote-against syndrome is not surprising. Quite apart from the great variety of opinion called forth by any question, all tragic or comic views of life recognize that no one is perfect, and moreover, that perfectionists never get anything done. Perfection is not to be looked for; and when the choice is narrowed to two, the less imperfect is the best available. Whether this is good or bad is not to the present point; it is in any case generally acknowledged that this is the way things are in a two-party system.

Where in the end the choice is the lesser of two evils, the winning campaign strategy is not so much to build up one’s own candidacy as to tear down one’s opponent. There is, of course, the danger of a backlash, so it is advisable to mask or moderate the strategy, In recent American politics a tactic has been for the candidate himself to take the high road and let supporters do the mudslinging. Thus Dwight Eisenhower uttered healing platitudes as Nixon and Joe McCarthy screamed about the mess in Washington and 20 years of treason. When the new Nixon ran with Henry Cabot Lodge in 1960, both tried to be statesmanlike and it did not work. Eight years later the new new Nixon was the picture of highmindedness, while Agnew went after effete Easterners and the like in strings of alliterative vituperation. Harry Truman effected a subtle combination of both roles in himself: He gave the do-nothing 80th Congress hell, but left his opponent alone and gasping. John Kennedy and Carter tried variants of this tactic, and it is noticeable how futile Carter became once he had to shift to promoting his own virtue instead of castigating Washington’s sinfulness.

The essential meretriciousness of most of the campaigns mentioned should not mislead us into thinking that bipolar politics is always largely a media event. The classic refutation is provided by the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where Lincoln forced Douglas to destroy his own credibility, especially in the South, by admitting that his doctrine of squatter sovereignty would allow the people of a territory to vote slavery down as well as up. The admission won Douglas the debates, in that he was re-elected to the Senate. But Lincoln achieved his aim of splitting the Democratic Party, and two years later he was elected President. Douglas became the candidate to vote against, whether you were a Southerner in favor of slavery or a Northerner opposed to it.

IT IS ONLY in the last quarter century that the international system has polarized. The balance of power was destroyed by the world wars and consensus was destroyed by Korea. The two superpowers now confront each other. Each has as its minimum goal the maintenance of its independence. Each has as its maximum goal the elimination or metamorphosis of the other. Neither one intends-or wishes -to use the bomb to gain its ends; they must wage their war by other means.

The obvious means suggested by conventional diplomacy is a system of alliances; hence we have NATO on one side and the Warsaw Pact on the other. Yet not a day passes without some event reminding us that our allies do not exactly love us. Even when they seem to agree with us they find ways, often irritating ways, of asserting their independence. They also do not love the Soviets, however; should they have to make a vital choice they will rally, albeit reluctantly, to our side. It is much the same with the Russian satellites. Today the Poles are giving the Russians fits, but no one expects them to break away from their lord and master. In the end, the lesser of the evils will be grudgingly accepted.

The Third World offers a still closer parallel to that of the voter in a two-party system. The very claim of nonalignment testifies to an unwillingness to make an unequivocal commitment to either great power. It may frequently seem that nonalignment is a sham, and it is surely a nuisance. The Third World countries, however, no doubt all wish that they could simply follow the lead of one big power or the other with enthusiasm; their lot would be vastly easier if one of the two competing big powers were worthy of their undying affection. As it is, on issue after issue they must support what appears to them the less reprehensible side; they must decide against, rather than for.

Assuming the foregoing analysis is approximately correct, it would seem that U.S. foreign policy today should be directed more toward making the USSR mistrusted than toward making ourselves beloved or feared. In other words, it is more important for our opponent to lose friends than for us to gain them: the greater the world’s skepticism of the Soviet Union, the safer place it is for us, even if France thinks us tasteless and India is shocked by our materialism.

We have seen this principle at work. The Helsinki Final Act and the Carter human rights program have weakened the Soviet Union. Euro communism, only recently thought likely to engulf the Continent, is no longer heard of. Spain and Portugal, countries Henry Kissinger was ready to write off, have survived outside the Russian orbit. In America, the revisionists’ theory of the origin of the Cold War has become clouded with doubt. These substantial developments are at least partly due to the Soviets being forced to show their hand in their treatment of the dissidents. When Andrei Sakharov is not safe, after 60 years of total and unchallenged Bolshevik rule, it is difficult for anyone to believe in Moscow’s claims of having created an ideal society.

But since Sakharov is not safe, it can be argued as well that the value of the human rights program is open to question. Indeed, many of the dissidents themselves have made known their concern that the Soviet leaders have too weak a hold on power to tolerate being pushed very hard. Like the former American President who claims to understand them, they may, if forced to decide between admitting their guilt and acting it out, do the latter. To really help the dissidents, it is said, we should revert to quiet diplomacy.

There is no denying that our position here becomes ambivalent. Our national interest may be served by pursuing policies that could result in disaster for those we profess to assist. The unpleasant fact is, again, that it is more important for our enemies to have enemies than for us to have friends. This is equally true whether our potential friends are individuals or nations. It may therefore seem that we are using the dissidents to fight our battles, just as Britain was accused in 1940 of fighting to the last Frenchman. But of course the dissidents are using us, too. Humanitarians are, in the end, as tough-minded as self-advertised practical men.

In all this, though, there is an important difference between propaganda and policy. Young Abraham Lincoln’s plan for arguing a weak case was “Skin the defendant.” That is propaganda, and as Lincoln also said, “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” In the debate with Douglas, in contrast, he forced Douglas to skin himself. Naturally, Douglas could not have been forced to skin himself if squatter sovereignty had been a defensible idea-but then there would have been no need for a debate.

It is (or can be) the same in international affairs. Talk about Russians using gas in Afghanistan or Americans using germs in Korea or Germans slicing off virgin breasts in Belgium is propaganda. Such horrors are incidental to the main issue and almost  unprovable. Human rights is quite different. To a large extent it proves itself. If there is a free press, where are the opposition papers? If anyone can migrate, why all the barbed wire at the borders? If everyone can speak his mind, why prosecute those who do so? To a large extent, too, it confronts the defendant nation with impossible alternatives: If the Soviet Union cracks down on the dissidents or on the Poles, it loses credibility in the rest of the world. If it does not do so, it risks the gradual-perhaps rapid-erosion of its totalitarian system. To the Soviet leaders, these must be bitter options; we, meanwhile, might feel safer if their society opened up, yet even the first alternative would strengthen our position.

UNDER THE direction of five Presidents, the CIA has been operated on the opposite theory, namely that what we need in the world is friends. Given the results of its efforts, this may seem a perverse reading of events. But it is the sole sensible  explanation for our contributing to the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala, Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Salvador Allende Gossens in Chile, and similar attempts elsewhere. The CIA has tried to get us friends, by purchase or by pelf, and it has managed to corral a few, several of whom survive. These friends are reasonably sure votes in the United Nations. They are generally enthusiastic suppressors of anything that looks even remotely like a Communist or populist movement. And they have given us a bad name in the world.

Some of this bad name is no doubt unjustified. Whenever anything goes wrong anywhere it is readily blamed on the CIA, whose initials have become a universal cussword. The charges are sadly credible because the CIA’s own propaganda claims credit for many dirty tricks and boasts of the Agency’s ability to do more if only unleashed. Even granting its view of international relations, this boasting is stupid. From any rational view, it undermines the national interest.

In yesterday’s multipolar world (where active friendships could be vital to us) subversive activities made it very difficult for potential friends to ally themselves with us. In today’s actual bipolar world, with its quite different requirements, a policy of buying friends and destroying apparent enemies makes it hard for opponents of the Soviets to declare themselves or to remain steady in their opposition.

It does not much matter to us whether the next blood-and guts corporal or law-and-order colonel announces he is Marxist or anti-Marxist. Either way he will be as suppressive of his fellow countrymen as he feels necessary and as eager for foreign handouts as the game will allow. Either way he will encourage foreign investors on Barnum’s principle about suckers. Either way he will vote against us in the UN as long as CIA posturing validates the theory that we are neocolonialists-and probably a while longer for good measure. But he can’t do us much harm, and more important, he can’t do the Russians much good. We can afford to be scrupulous in our dealings with him; and if our only pressure on him is in regard to human rights, we will, at the least, win the respect of his neighbors and, possibly, the gratitude of the internal opposition that may moderate his excesses or eventually supplant him.

Now that Angola is no longer in the news, for example, one wonders what all the flap was about. Gulf Oil still has its relatively minor business there, because the Angolans need it (or merely want it) regardless of ideology. And looking back, it is hard to see how anyone could have imagined that Angola was of more than marginal strategic importance. In the first place, Arabian harbors and Arabian oil fields would be handier targets for Russian missiles than tankers of whatever registry in the South Atlantic; in the second place, the German experience in World War I demonstrated the uselessness of isolated African outposts. Yet our UN ambassador made a tremendous fuss about Angola’s presumed threat to world peace, and the CIA semi-clandestinely wasted American lives (they were mercenaries but still human beings) and supplies there. Worse than that, the CIA encouraged the entry of the South Africans into the fray, thereby reinforcing in every black and every colored from Capetown to Cairo a conviction of our perfidy. Finally, the CIA’s actions made it impossible for us to gain a diplomatic triumph by exposing the Cubans, and this in turn made it easier for the Cubans to interfere in the horn of Africa.

The CIA (under orders, it would appear, from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and so, presumably, from President Gerald Ford) could scarcely have done more damage to American national interests if the script had been written by the Russians themselves. It cannot be over emphasized that the ineffectiveness of the CIA is not the point. Most of the damage to the United States would have occurred even if the intervention had succeeded, and all we would have gained would have been another expensive client whose nonexistent Olympic team would have boycotted Moscow. In a bipolar world friends like that are of no use to us, and generally are actually harmful.

The dirty tricks operations of the CIA might have made sense in the last half of the 19th century; In the last quarter of the 20th century they are irrational in the extreme and flatly destructive of the national interest. It is admittedly exasperating that a curious double standard seems to let the KGB be 10 times dirtier and trickier than the CIA ever was. But that is no reason for a grand unleashing. Our interests will not be advanced by presenting ourselves as no better than the Russians, simply somewhat clumsier.

At first glance it might appear that the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan exposed the futility of the policies advocated here. After all, the human rights program and some restraining of the CIA have been in effect for upwards of three years, yet the Russians invaded with impunity. But the most obvious and regrettably soonest forgotten fact of American foreign policy is that its aim should be to protect and advance U.S. interests. Although an independent regime in Kabul might marginally contribute to that aim, it is not identical with it. Afghanistan fits Chamberlain’s mistaken description of Czechoslovakia-a far country of which we know little. It is by no means a second Czechoslovakia, nor is Southern Asia a second Western Europe.

Let us say, for the purposes of argument, that the Russians in Afghanistan are a threat to Pakistan. If they should try to take over that troubled land, it would serve them both right. The USSR would, to be sure, then have access, via Baluchistan, to the warm sea, thus satisfying a long-since-meaningless ambition of the Tsars. It might also, if it were not careful, wind up conquering and ruling India and Bangladesh.

The dominoes of Southern Asia line up from west to east, just as a quarter century ago we feared they were from Vietnam westward. But no matter what direction they topple, they offer nothing except trouble to the toppler. We are not dealing with a situation reminiscent of World War II when Hitler’s dominoes gained for him (and denied to his enemies) productive industry, productive agriculture, skilled manpower-plus a protected eastern flank that facilitated his conquest of Western Europe and opened the route for his eventual attack on the Soviet Union. This last may suggest a geopolitical question: Could the Russians use a conquered subcontinent as a springboard for an attack on China? No one who has heard of the Himalayas is likely to think so. Or could they have in mind an attack on Iran? But they already have a more congenial route open via Azerbaijan.

There remains the question of collective security, in which we have a serious interest. But it is quite different in our bipolar world from what it was hoped to be in the days of the League of Nations, or the early days of the united Nations. The conquest of Cambodia has dealt us a cultural deprivation in the inaccessibility of Angkor Wat; our strategic loss has been insignificant. In the same way we could have afforded to contemplate the takeover of Afghanistan with something less than absolute horror. .

It was really an issue for the Third World, and they rose to the occasion. The UN censure was a major Soviet defeat. But instead of letting this defeat stand as a permanent reproach and inhibition, we trivialized it by connecting it with, of all things, the Olympic Games. That might not have been so bad had we contented ourselves with our own boycott, which would have been noticed whether anyone joined us or not. We made the boycott the subject of a major diplomatic effort, however, and then trivialized that with such ham handed moves as sending Muhammad Ali to Nigeria. Even our handling of the grain embargo showed us more fervent believers in economic determination than the Russians.

As a result, we distracted attention from the Soviet defeat on a major issue to our own defeat on a trivial one. We had an opportunity for productive diplomacy and we threw it away, because we did not understand the bipolar world.

A POLICY IN the present world that involved tarnishing the Soviet’s image would not necessarily hurt their national interest, and this fact should be held steadily before their eyes and ours. Politics is not a zero-sum game. The election of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew amounted to a loss not only for the Democrats but for the Republicans as well. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a universal victory. It is the same in international affairs. The winners of a war suffer grave damage, too; the losers in a trade negotiation may still be better off than they were before. John Paton Davies, John Service and the rest may have lost Chiang Kai-shek’s China, but Mao’s China has proved a greater curb to Russian aggrandizement.

It is often remarked that American foreign policy is now an unstable amalgam of moralizing and Realpolitik. The instability is a consequence of the failure of either element to base itself on the historical situation of the world today. Fine talk and tough talk are equally inappropriate. Both hawks and doves are obsolete. We do not need either to join the Soviet Union or to bury it; we need merely to prevent it from getting into a position where it can bury us.

It is possible that in the long run the constraints of a bipolar international system, like those of a two-party national system, will narrow the differences between the contenders. It should not be expected that such narrowing will automatically decrease hostility. In 1914 Germany and Great Britain were more nearly alike than the most fanciful scenario can project for the Soviet Union and the United States. Nor should it be expected that people-to-people contacts (desirable though they may be in themselves) will invariably have positive nation-to-nation results. In 1940 young Germans, who as children had been cared for in Norway during the starving times of 1918-21, returned to their foster homes as Gauleitern.

In any event, whatever narrowing of ideological differences occurs will come about as a byproduct, not as the consequence of deliberation. Our deliberate policy should be to keep the Soviet Union on the ideological defensive. If this requires improvements in American treatment of black people and black nations, and in Russian treatment of dissidents: well and good. In the unlikely case that the policy requires the opposite: too bad. The objective of American foreign policy remains what it has always been: to maintain the independence of the United States of America. But the means of achieving that objective must suit the times. Our bipolar world is different from everything that has gone before, and policies like the human rights program are precisely what is needed, while unleashing the CIA will damage us severely.

GEORGE P. BROCKWAY, a previous NL contributor, is the
chairman of the board of dir
ectors of W. W. Norton & Co.

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