An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ten Years of Foreign Policy

The diffusion of power today, both inter­nationally and domestically, makes it impera­tive that the United States develop a more democratic foreign policy.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon took to the nation's television sets to announce the invasion of Cambodia by American troops and to rail against those at home who would allow the United States to become "a pitiful, helpless giant." Just five days short of a decade later, another president came before the cameras to reveal that eight charred bodies and some wrecked aircraft in the Iranian des­ert were all that remained of his administration's attempt to rescue 53 American hos­tages held for six months in Tehran. To many observers, in the United States and abroad, the failed rescue attempt was a grisly suggestion that perhaps Nixon's night­mare had come true.

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon took to the nation’s television sets to announce the invasion of Cambodia by American troops and to rail against those at home who would allow the United States to become "a pitiful, helpless giant." Just five days short of a decade later, another president came before the cameras to reveal that eight charred bodies and some wrecked aircraft in the Iranian des­ert were all that remained of his administration’s attempt to rescue 53 American hos­tages held for six months in Tehran. To many observers, in the United States and abroad, the failed rescue attempt was a grisly suggestion that perhaps Nixon’s night­mare had come true.

Those two events-the invasion of Cam­bodia that ultimately could not prevent the fall of Indochina to the communists, and the aborted raid in Iran that did not end the perception of a United States in decline ­exactly bracket the first decade of Foreign Policy’s existence. Founded in 1970 amid great uncertainty about the ends and the means of U.S. foreign policy, the magazine, has sought to provide a forum for re-examin­ing those purposes and techniques. Although successive editors have reiterated Foreign Policy‘s commitment-stated in its first is­sue-to publish writers at all points on the political spectrum, it is symptomatic of a larger national insecurity that the magazine has at times been under attack for allowing certain views into print.

This insecurity, both cultural and intel­lectual, reflects significant shifts in the global distribution of power, shifts that did not benefit the United States. During the decade just past, the Soviet Union achieved a broad parity with the United States along many of the dimensions of military power, particularly in the strategic realm. Some critics would argue that in a few crucial areas Mos­cow now has a commanding superiority.

Meanwhile, several Third World states have amassed so much sophisticated weapon­ry that, whether they themselves would ever be America’s adversaries, the net result has been to curb significantly U.S. power in var­ious regions of the world. Although this weaponry also places limits on Soviet ef­forts to exert influence, that is a factor for the future. For the time being, the world’s attention is on reduced U.S. influence.

While these adverse military trends were proceeding, the United States also lost its pre-eminence in the world economy. Al­though an economic giant, it was outstripped during the 1970s by the combined economies of its partners in Western Europe and Japan. And when the pulse rate of Western econ­omies slowed dramatically in 1973 to 1974 and in 1979 as the Arab oil-exporting states raised by many times the price they charged for the life’s blood of much of the rest of the world, successive American administrations seemed unable to confront that challenge either at home or abroad.

Suddenly, at the end of the decade, with the nation in economic crisis and with So­viet troops in Afghanistan, popular’ demands for simple and decisive solutions to the na­tion’s problems mounted. At home, many citizens were attracted to Republican — and now Democratic — proposals for a massive tax cut that would break the economic im­passe, release productive energies, and miracu­lously solve, with little pain to anyone, the nation’s economic problems.

To cope with crises abroad, Americans were inclined increasingly to favor the use of force. A growing body of intellectual opinion encouraged this shift. And it seemed that, to many of these advocates, the actual location of any demonstration of U.S. power was less important than a successful assault on the psychological barriers to the use of force that, it was argued, comprised the "Vietnam syndrome." The presidential candidates, with only a few exceptions, seemed to commit themselves to military action before they examined U.S. capabilities or interests.

The American Locomotive

It is scarcely surprising that campaign politics has reduced discussion of the American position in the world to bean counting regarding the military balance between the United States and the Soviet Union-how many missiles, ships, tanks, and aircraft each superpower has at its disposal. But the larger discussion within the society as a whole has been startling in its lack of historical per­spective. The prevailing focus on the military balance betrays a crippling ignorance of the sources of American postwar power.

Those sources were economic and political as well as military. In the 1970s all three of them eroded. During the first two decades following World War II, the United States could simultaneously play the roles of world policeman, world banker, and world man­ager. These roles were most evident in the immediate aftermath of the war-as late as 1950, for instance, the United States ac­counted for 50 percent of the world’s mili­tary spending and disposed of 50 percent of its financial reserves. Yet the decline of this position of relative advantage was so gradual that, until the nation’s will cracked against the rock of Vietnam during the late 1960s, most Americans did not comprehend just how unnatural and temporary, as one con­sequence of a devastating world war. U.S. preponderance had been.

During the period when that preponderance was largely unquestioned, the United States exerted a powerful locomotive force in the international system. The advantages to other societies of hooking onto U.S. policy were considerable. The United States car­ried most of the military burden; the eco­nomic benefits were without precedent; and the political control exerted by Washington was benign by any historical standard.

By the end of the 1970s, however, the American locomotive no longer pulled with sufficient force, and there were alternatives to which dependent states could turn. The United States now held less than 7 percent of the world’s monetary reserves; its industrial might, which accounted for two-thirds of the world’s production in 1950, accounted for less than one third in 1975. And by that year, its share of the world’s military spend­ing had dropped to 25 percent.

Much-too much-has been made in recent years of the supposed unwillingness of the United States to use military force to achieve its political objectives. A more startling and sweeping change, because it is relevant in more concrete situations, has been U.S. unwillingness to use economic power to influence the behavior of other nations. Between 1961 and 1977, U.S. official development aid declined by 38 percent in real value.

Military assistance program grants and foreign military sales credits for 1979 were 23 percent smaller, in constant dollars, than in 1960. What was happening to the com­position of these programs? In 1969 Israel and Egypt received 2.7 percent of total U.S. military assistance. In 1979 they received 82 percent. In the same 10 year period their share of economic assistance soared from 1 percent to 24 percent overall and 42 percent of bilateral assistance. Thus, through its concentration of increasingly limited resources on just two Middle Eastern countries, the United States lost valuable access and potential leverage elsewhere. Ironically, without anyone noticing, the United States was retreating into just the kind of regionalism of which former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has accused the West Europeans.

This is not to argue that the United States can now, or ever could, buy compliant behavior on the part of other governments with economic or military assistance funds. In a few instances, such aid has obtained desired responses from particular governments. But those instances are rare. Indeed, one reason why Congress has been so reluctant to sup­port foreign aid in recent years has been the overselling of aid by successive administrations as a means of assuring desired behavior by client governments.

In fact, as aid officials have long known, their programs cannot be judged by such a criterion. Occasionally, but not often, aid from external sources so affects a particular government’s calculus of incentives and dis­incentives as to cause sharp departure from previous policies. More usually, aid pro­grams make it easier for governments to do what they would have been inclined to do in any event, had they had the resources. In many instances, those actions will be con­sonant with U.S. interests.

But as long as aid programs are of more than token dimensions, such programs create a network of relations between donor and recipient in which frank, confidential com­munication is possible. They insure that Washington’s views will have a serious hear­ing. They make the United States a constant, relevant actor in a regional setting. The recipient government may, in the end, decide to reject U.S. advice, as any sovereign state is entitled to do, but it will not reject it out of hand. There are Third World countries that, for geopolitical reasons, are important to the United States, but for which the United States — because it is not present in any con­crete sense — is relatively unimportant. Aid equalizes the balance.

Driven to Sticks

Except in the early, heroic, Marshall Plan years, American aid programs — economic and military — have always been modest by comparison with the resources of the Ameri­can economy. They seem especially inade­quate now when developing countries have alternative sources of support. Among them, of course, are some of the Arab oil-produc­ing nations, whose funds go mainly to help a target group of developing countries cope with escalating oil prices-and also to buy weapons for Palestinian guerrillas.

But Iraq has established relations with the Puerto Rican independence movement, per­haps recalling earlier U.S. support for the Kurdish separatists in their rebellion against Iraqi authority. Venezuela and Nigeria, also major oil producers, have become important aid donors; Nigeria has given the liberation movements in southern Africa a source of support that enables them to escape total de­pendence upon communist funds. Brazil and India — neither one an oil exporter — have also increased their regional influence through well-targeted aid programs.

Because of congressional whittling away at the aid budget and the insistence of suc­cessive administrations on concentrating re­maining funds so narrowly, the United States has shortsightedly deprived itself of its long suit-the magnetic attraction of the American economy. In recent years, largely lacking economic carrots, American policy makers have been increasingly driven to sticks-the economic sanctions imposed against Iran following the seizure of the U.S. embassy there, and against the Soviet Union following the invasion of Afghanis­tan. These measures take their places along­side some of the punitive economic actions of the past, such as the embargo against Cuba and restrictions on credits and tariff conces­sions for the Soviet Union.

None of the entire panoply of sanctions has been very effective at influencing political behavior. Few policy makers have faced up to the reason, namely, their unilateral applica­tion. And therein lies the difference between economic carrots and economic sticks. Car­rots are most effective precisely when they are unilateral; economic sticks, however, must be multilateral if targeted governments are not to evade them merely by finding al­ternative suppliers and markets. Only one kind of stick, however, can be applied uni­laterally: force. That may explain the sud­denly enhanced appeal military measures seem to hold for many Americans.

Among the outspoken domestic critics of recent U.S. foreign policy, only a few call for substantial increases in military and economic assistance. Instead, most call for greater evi­dence of U.S. willingness to use direct mili­tary power as a way to regain the nation’s previously dominant position in world af­fairs. There may be particular circumstances for which military measures are appropriate. But as a panacea, such a prescription repre­sents a political hoax on the American people.

No matter how many additional dollars an administration is willing to devote to military forces, the United States cannot so overshadow its allies as to maneuver them back into the position of economic and po­litical subservience in which they found themselves in the decade following World War II. And the actual use of U.S. military forces in a Middle Eastern crisis, for exam­ple-would be at least as likely to inspire a neutralist posture on the part of most U.S. allies as to inspire greater willingness to ac­cept Washington’s direction. Similarly, the states of the Third World are not likely to be induced by American military posturing to resume the condition of political or psycho­logical dependence from which most have now liberated themselves.

As for the communist states, they con­sistently give evidence of a healthy respect for U.S. military capabilities more, indeed, than many Americans display. This respect relates to their understanding of the dangers of direct military confrontation with the United States. The difficulty has always been how this respect comes into play.

It is difficult to imagine that more capable or ready U.S. forces would have led Moscow and Havana not to intervene in the Angolan civil war in 1975, or not to respond to a plea for help from a duly recognized Marxist government in Ethiopia two years later.

(Likewise, it is difficult to imagine better­-equipped Soviet forces persuading the United States not to send troops into the Dominican Republic — or Vietnam — in 1965.) Nor. would greater U.S. preparedness have kept Soviet forces out of Afghanistan, or to move beyond the communist world, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on his Peacock Throne. For it is difficult to imagine an American administration ordering, or Con­gress acquiescing in the use of U.S. military forces in combat in any of these situations.

Frustrating Coils

The lasting legacy of Vietnam is not (al­though in most circumstances it should be) a greater national squeamishness about using force. Rather, it is a greater skepticism about the ability of outsiders, even those willing to employ a large-scale military intervention, to control the politics of Third World states over the long haul. This skepticism is com­bined with a view of U.S. interests that at­taches less importance to the political align­ment of individual Third World govern­ments and with a more realistic recognition of the high costs of using military force against even guerrilla troops that are armed with sophisticated modern weapons.

A century ago, tiny handfuls of troops from the metropolitan centers could main­tain colonial rule over large tracts of terri­tory with tens or even hundreds of millions of inhabitants. Today, while there is no question that the United States or the Soviet Union could prevail in battle against, say, Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Vietnam — countries they themselves have armed — the cost would be great. And the perceived inconvenience, at least for the American polity, if not for the Soviet, would be considerable.

For resistance to outside military inter­vention is now in fashion, worldwide. One reason why the colonial powers of the nine­teenth century could rule so effectively was that their victims could not talk to one an­other. The successful resistance of one tribe in one territory was often unknown else­where in the same territory, much less among other colonialized people in other lands. Nowadays — and this is another trend that has been accentuated in the 1970s — the po­tential victims swap war stories, and ex­change tactical manuals and instruction in the latest techniques for infiltrating terrorists or for destroying aircraft with hand-held, heat-seeking missiles. They also meet with the international media to publicize their cause.

And unlike their 19th-century predeces­sors, today’s resisters find that there are plenty of sources, ranging from other revolu­tionary movements and regimes through the covert services of the great powers to overt support by Moscow or Washington, where they can acquire those missiles or the efficient Kalashnikov rifles that have become the to­tems of resistance for groups whose politics range across the entire spectrum.

The Soviet Union, the armorer if not al­ways the inspirer of so many insurgent move­ments over the past 30 years, now finds it­self enmeshed in the same frustrating coils in which the United States and other Western powers have too often labored. Moscow is not subject to the same domestic constraints that have hobbled one after another of the Western capitals. With its monopoly on all media and its refusal to countenance opposi­tion, the Kremlin makes sure of that.

It is true, also, that in the 1970s Moscow’s armed forces had for the first time developed an ability to project military power beyond their East European glacis. But in Africa, two alleged Soviet "successes" — Angola and Ethiopia — are the sites of civil wars that after years of blood and treasure seem to remain unwinnable for Moscow’s clients. Mean­while, Mozambique, another Soviet "suc­cess." is showing signs of turning more toward the West than ever before (as is An­gola itself). More serious for the Soviet leadership, because its direct investment of military force and therefore of prestige is higher, is the struggle in Afghanistan. Far from being able to call its troops home by May Day, the USSR finds them in a quagmire, whether of Vietnam dimensions remains to be seen.

Meanwhile. Vietnam itself — another So­viet client with strong support from Mos­cow — has been unable to complete its con­quest of Cambodia. The unexpectedly strong Khmer resistance, with aid from China, may last indefinitely. And even Cuba, Moscow’s first important Third World "success," seems to be turning sour; despite the con­tinuing massive Soviet subsidy, the Cuban economy is woefully inefficient, and internal opposition to the Fidel Castro regime is in­creasing. There is a remarkable irony here: An American president with a record of sim­ilar "successes" might well face impeach­ment; yet this record of Soviet "success" is the standard by which this and future U.S. administrations are judged.

A Fundamental Weakness

Thus, the political base of the Soviet Union’s new empire is extraordinarily frag­ile. At any moment, a reversal might take place that would severely damage Moscow’s image of invincibility. This is a point foreign­ers understand better than Americans.

A fundamental weakness of the Soviet position in the world is that, owing to the nature of its economy and political system, military power is the Soviet Union’s most es­sential tool, and this power is more difficult to use in Africa or Asia than it is in Eastern Europe. Yet rather than exploiting that weakness by making more effective use of U.S. political and economic strengths, the re­cent policies of the Carter administration­ and the policy prescriptions of Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan — in­creasingly emphasize direct military measures.

The president’s most recent State of the Union message in January 1980 did not even mention the more positive instruments the United States has to increase its influence. Moscow can thereby point to the build-up of U.S. military forces (and of American mili­tary rhetoric) and tell its clients that now they do have something to fear. The in­creasingly militarized approach to the prob­lems of the Third World threatens to impart to U.S. positions something of the same one­-dimensional focus that characterizes that of the USSR.

Why have U.S. policies emphasized so poorly America’s comparative advantages?

One reason, surely, is the adversary nature of U.S. domestic politics: The easiest way for those out of office to score points against a sitting administration is to accuse it of be­ing insufficiently attentive to threats to the nation’s security. This has been the case no matter which party holds the White House. Whatever the real state of the U.S. military, American foreign policy has been overly mili­tarized for most of the period since the late 1940s because no administration has been willing to risk a contrary posture.

A more fundamental explanation, how­ever, lies in the U.S. Constitution itself. More than other Western democratic govern­ments, and much more, of course, than au­thoritarian regimes like that of the USSR, U.S. administrations find it difficult to pur­sue consistent, coherent policies. In parlia­mentary systems, where governments serve only so long as they command a working legislative majority, they can knit together sets of policies that form a coherent whole. No British, French, or West German govern­ment could find itself in the intolerable posi­tion of holding out the prospect of economic or political support to another nation, only to find that its parliament either blocks its proffered package altogether or else so re­duces its magnitude or surrounds it with con­ditions that its final effect is largely vitiated. Yet that has happened so often to U.S. administrations that it is scarcely newsworthy.

Not only aid is thus affected. The U.S.­-Soviet trade agreement, a centerpiece of the Nixon-Kissinger notion of detente, was still­born because Congress made the trade con­cessions on which Moscow counted depend­ent upon Soviet removal of all restrictions limiting Jewish emigration. And one reason for the Carter administration’s largely un­creative response to Third World appeals for international economic reform has been its knowledge that Congress would be unwill­ing to agree to the trade and investment tradeoffs an effective response would entail.

These institutional handicaps have af­fected Washington’s ability to conduct a coherent military policy, too. The last stage of American military involvement in the In­dochina war, in which the Nixon administration launched bombing raids right up to the moment of a congressionally mandated halt, is grotesque in retrospect.

Consistence and Coherence

The proper course for a government so re­pudiated would have been to resign and to call for new elections. But the American sys­tem does not provide such an option. Dis­credited administrations continue in office.

The American response has been to pass the War Powers Act. Yet congressional be­havior in the wake of the abortive Iranian rescue operation suggests that provisions of the act will obtain to the letter only when the military action ordered is unpopular, as well as unsuccessful.

Otherwise, why did congressional leaders, at first contending that the conduct of the raid violated the War Powers Act, fall silent when it was evident that the country was fully behind the president? From the Iran­ian hostage rescue effort came an important lesson for future presidents: The ability of the president to resort to military action has not been as severely circumscribed by the events of the last decade as many thought.

Yet the 1970s also saw a new develop­ment that those conducting foreign policy have still not absorbed. As Arthur Schle­singer pointed out in The Imperial Presidency the Founding Fathers expected that com­mercial issues, not political or military issues, would dominate the foreign policy agenda for the United States, and they lodged the primary responsibility for international eco­nomic policy in Congress, not in the presi­dency. The Founding Fathers’ tilt in the di­rection of Congress was deliberate, a careful expression of their 18th-century liberal dis­trust of centralized power, and of their awareness of the inherent difficulties of pre­serving a compact whereby separate states with quite distinct economic interests came together to form a federal union.

The 1970s saw a vast exacerbation of the nation’s domestic economic problems because of skyrocketing energy costs, aging of the country’s industrial plant, and a whole series of other factors that led to a sharp decline in the nation’s ability to increase its pro­ductivity. These problems, in turn, made it more difficult to relate to other economies.

The scope and complexity of these prob­lems made it all the more desirable that there should be consistency and coherence in the management of the U.S. domestic economy. But they were not forthcoming, as Carter’s repeated inability to secure congressional ap­proval for an effective energy policy was graphically to demonstrate. Individual sen­ators and congressmen feared for their own political futures if they were to vote for measures that would adversely affect living styles in their states or districts. And the dif­fuse nature of the U.S. political system — the absence of meaningful parties — prevented the administration from imposing the kind of discipline that is the prerequisite of co­herence. It is no wonder that European lead­ers, such as West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, sometimes speculated openly about whether the Carter administration could be even minimally effective as an interlocutor.

Schmidt and others undoubtedly have a point when they show particular scorn for the Carter administration, but they may mis­understand the real nature of the administration’s failure. It may not be merely absence of coherence. Incoherence is built into the American system, which has become more unmanageable as each significant act of for­eign policy seems to require formal congres­sional support. Rather the failure may lie more in Carter’s inability to understand that the growing power of Congress and the rise of economic issues to the top of the inter­national agenda have opened a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy.

Whoever occupies the White House must find better ways to develop joint manage­ment responsibility with Congress, or he must scale back American pretensions to sus­tained international leadership in foreign pol­icy. For unless economic issues recede in im­portance or the Congress undertakes unex­pected reforms, U.S. foreign policy will never again have even the minimum level of coher­ence it enjoyed in the postwar era.

A More Populist Foreign Policy

Contributing to the incoherence has been the rise of the U.S. press as a much more ac­tive participant in the policy process. In all political systems, power flows from knowl­edge and access. Because of the Freedom of Information Act and the proliferating cen­ters of foreign policy power in Washington, the press now has much more of each.

Passed in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, the Free­dom of Information Act was a necessary corrective to the dangerous abuses created by these two events. There is no gainsaying that it also reduced drastically the ability of the executive branch to restrict information. The act not only provided a torrent of informa­tion — foreign journalists express astonish­ment at the degree of official cooperation they receive — but it has also fostered a more per­missive approach to the provision of in­formation throughout the government. Re­cent efforts by the Central Intelligence Agen­cy to muzzle its former employees or of the president to receive affidavits of loyalty from his cabinet are not so much symptoms of a new repressiveness as they are a rearguard ac­tion that points up how much the old ground rules have changed.

The hostage crisis in Iran threw the new role of the press into sharp relief. Journal­ists — especially television journalists — be­came central elements in the processes by which all parties to the complex conflict in­teracted. Journalists, not U.S. government officials, had access to Tehran’s streets and to the groups, official and unofficial, that strug­gled for power there.

Thus, a new and undoubtedly permanent element of incoherence entered the process of conducting American foreign policy. An earlier harbinger was Egyptian President An­war el-Sadat’s brilliant use of the U.S. media to orchestrate his peace initiative to Israel in 1977. Then, as in the Iranian crisis, the government was reduced to a role assumed historically by the press-that of passive commentator on events beyond its control. Now, for the first time in history, foreign leaders like Sadat or the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini can speak to the American people instantaneously, over the head of the U.S. president and even around the desks of edi­tors. It is a foreign policy tool that they will use more frequently as they seek to exploit the diffusion of power in the United States.1

Because of the immediacy afforded by to­day’s television coverage, Americans are probably more aware of dramatic interna­tional events, such as the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, than ever before. Yet the effect of this issue im­mediacy and power diffusion has been to make U.S. foreign policy not more demo­cratic but more populist — less confined to elitist prescriptions but more subject to pop­ular whims; less conscious of past mistakes but more open to new errors; less understanding of foreign cultures and more strident about America’s own. The lines of responsibility and accountability running be­tween controlling institutions and the public that would be necessary for a more demo­cratic foreign policy are lacking, and little has been done to explain to the country why it is necessary to create them.

The diffusion of power today, both inter­nationally and domestically, makes it impera­tive that the United States develop a more democratic foreign policy. For unless those who hold power in Washington practice seri­ously the democratic arts of governance and consultation, neither domestic support nor the approval of other nations will be forthcom­ing. As America moves into the 1980s, coali­tion building at home and abroad may well be the priority issue in U.S. foreign policy.

<p> Charles William Maynes and Richard H. Ullman are co-editors of Foreign Policy magazine. </p>

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