How to Decommit Without Withdrawal Symptoms

"Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should, We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good." –R. Kipling after the Boer War The American debate over foreign commitments, inspired by a long and inconclusive war undertaken to fulfill one of them, has only begun. Contingent ...

"Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should,
We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good

"Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should,
We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good

–R. Kipling after the Boer War

The American debate over foreign commitments, inspired by a long and inconclusive war undertaken to fulfill one of them, has only begun. Contingent as it is upon the movement of events in Vietnam, the domestic crisis, and the changing nature of the whole international situation, the debate is dominated more often by mood than by logic. Theoretical study by scholars is highly colored by the special features of the Vietnam situation, just as the revived constitutional question of the foreign policy powers of Congress is tinged with Cambodian dust. Overnight changes on the international scene could alter or end the debate. But the conceptual problems it raises are too important to be tied to transient moods and events and one sad case of commitment-fulfillment.

History offers no useful analogy to the American alliance system, though perhaps on a smaller scale Athens and the Delian League compare with Washington and the NATO, SEATO and Rio pacts. The sheer scope, magnitude and multiplicity of America’s contractual ties with allies have no real precedent. Great alliance systems have existed in the past, yet this one — multiple, extensive, and hegemonic — must supply its own logic. Its own experience alone can offer instructive lessons for future conduct.

The idea of commitment has two distinct meanings: a promise or obligation entered into, as in an alliance; and the actual employment or intent to employ force in specific circumstances and situations. The two meanings, although closely related, are by no means the same; for in the latter sense we speak of an act, or of an intention to act, which may or may not arise from an obligation previously incurred. A nation may have declaratory and unilateral commitments which are not contractual: for example, the Monroe Doctrine. It may also incur contractual commitments to other nations, obliging it to act in certain ways in certain kinds of contingencies. In peacetime, the promissory character of the relationship is pointed towards important future hypothetical situations. The promissory commitment, even when prompted by motive of deterrence, paradoxically cannot be wholly credible until a casus foederis arises: the situation in which the promise is fulfilled, when deterrence, so to speak, "fails."

I. The Lippmann Doctrine

Walter Lippmann, in his book, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, framed the notion of an ideal set of norms by which the viability of a nation’s foreign policy might be determined. Writing in 1943, he argued that a nation can only be said to have a foreign policy when a balance is struck between that nation’s resources and its foreign commitments. When commitments were extended beyond available national resources, then a nation had no foreign policy. The task of statecraft was to bring commitments and resources into balance, while seeking to acquire a "comfortable surplus of power" to back up the nation’s security obligations. It was Lippmann’s argument that an imbalance of commitments and resources had existed, for America, ever since the Spanish-American War; for that war, resulting in a vast enlargement of our commitments in the Pacific, entailed no commensurate increase in our power to back them up. The implications of this imbalance had not been grasped until it was too late to prevent war with Japan.

This common-sense formula could apply to both contractual and declaratory commitments. No one would ever wish to overextend his obligations beyond his ability to sustain them. Yet this idea of balance is too simple. The hardest task is not to achieve an equilibrium of commitments and resources, but to determine the appropriate level and magnitude of the equation. One might think a nation overcommited or undercommitted even when there did exist a balance between means and aims. Whether one should seek equilibrium at a high or a low level cannot be determined merely by the equation itself. When commitments are "high," one increases the reserve of power to back them up. But, some would ask, why so high? If commitments are low, why so low? Obviously, the appropriateness of any particular level of commitments must depend upon judgment about the specific requirements of international and domestic politics. Necessity may dictate a certain level of commitments far beyond available resources — a bad situation, of course, yet one which might be unavoidable.

II. Washingtonians and Jeffersonians

Advance promissory arrangements with allies are not the necessary preliminary to wars, and certainly not to American wars. Only once in its history has the United States become involved in war arising out of previous treaty commitments: Vietnam! The American tradition of abstention from alliances, broken in 1947 and 1949 by the Rio and NATO treaties, was no guarantee of peace. If anything, the doctrine of abstention, in the twentieth century, meant that the United States’ entry into conflicts tended to be late and total rather than early and limited. One price for abstention from early stages of conflicts was that situations could deteriorate to a point where major conflict, world war, might occur. More timely intervention would permit greater control over the movement of events, yet, of course, increase the frequency of conflict-involvement.

The American theory of isolationism practiced before World War II contained a basic ambiguity. Most Americans misunderstood the meaning of Washington’s Farewell Address, confusing its message with that of Jefferson. The essential parts of the Farewell Address were actually drafted by Alexander Hamilton. It was permanent alliances that Washington warned against, while Jefferson deprecated entangling ones. The advice of Washington was a prescription for national flexibility and maneuverability, not for inaction and passivity.

His injunction against permanent commitments, friendships and animosities was consistent with the classic eighteenth century rules of European Realpolitik. The Jeffersonian warning, with its stress upon entanglements, spoke of undesirable substantive outcomes of contractual commitments, particularly the risk that mingling American purposes with those of other states would severely limit American freedom of action and would lend our resources to exploitation by other states.

Failure to distinguish between these two prescriptions has periodically caused confusion about our foreign policy. There were really two isolationist traditions. The Washingtonian version was espoused by conservatives and nationalists like Senators Lodge and Vandenberg in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Jeffersonian tradition in this century has belonged to liberals and progressives intent on minimizing foreign involvements in order to stress domestic priorities. Traditionally, Jeffersonian liberals have been fearful of the domestic costs of sustained, active involvement in world politics and suspicious of the expansion of executive branch power which occurs in foreign emergencies.

Today’s American commitments depart from both Washingtonian and Jeffersonian principles. The credibility of the several alliance systems to which the United States is joined depends upon their assumed semi-permanence as a set of priorities for action. It is doubtful if it could be otherwise: for, to assume that our contractual alliances were simply temporary conveniences would be to detract from their credibility. They would have little deterrent effect if it were thought that they could be readily broken or abandoned. Whether or not we should ever have undertaken these obligations, or whether the undertaking of so many of them resulted in an overextension of American resources (thus violating the "Lippmann doctrine"), the inherent logic of the alliances currently lies in their systemic character. The easy flexibility of eighteenth century alliances and alignments — reflecting the condition of European politics in Washington’s time — is a far cry from the situation which obtained in world politics after the cold war had commenced.

To remind ourselves of the founding fathers’ advice today is to be aware of the fact that neither the Jeffersonian nor the Washingtonian doctrine was proof against the possibility of action-commitments. Until Vietnam, no war in which America became involved was entered for promissory reasons. No treaty obligations triggered American belligerency in World War I and II. In Korea not only was there no previous promise; there was even a previous assumption shared by the Joint Chiefs, the State Department, and General MacArthur that Korea lay outside the U.S. defense perimeter. Only the event itself — the 1950 North Korean attack — triggered the response. The absence of prior commitments was no guarantee against U.S. involvement, or indeed, against U.S. "overextension" in subsequent conflict. This is not to say that the existence of contractual agreements does not multiply the possibilities of potential large-scale future conflict. It is simply that one cannot really know, in the abstract, whether or not this is the case.

III. Lessons of the Thirties

After 1945 two basic assumptions underlay the alliance network which America joined and helped to devise. One was the "arm’s length" doctrine; the other was what could be called the Manchurian assumption. The arm’s length doctrine meant that American security was best maintained by keeping potential enemies as far from the North American continent as possible. A purely military doctrine, it came to have two corollaries — first, that an Asian equilibrium could be sustained only by permanent U.S. participation in it; and second, that a European equilibrium must be established. In both theaters, no one power should be permitted to dominate, for this would threaten American security.

This was related to an interpretation of World War II, the Manchurian assumption. It was thought that the peril America faced from 1941 to 1945 was largely the result of our passive foreign policy in the thirties, when the interwar system deteriorated. By not actively manipulating specific small international crises, America permitted them to accumulate into a grave threat. The long road from Japan’s invasion of Manchuria led inexorably to the Rhineland, from the Rhineland to Ethiopia, from Ethiopia to Munich, and from Munich to major war in 1939. Each unchecked aggression was additive. An active America might have employed its deterrent influence, and World War II might have been avoided. The Manchurian assumption thus became the implicit rationale for America’s postwar alliances. The "domino theory" derives from it: if aggression undeterred is aggression enhanced, then the "fall" of one domino will mean the fall of another ad infinitum.

The "arm’s length" doctrine and the Manchurian assumption called for an early and intimate involvement in conflict situations on the assumption that only thus could they be contained. In theory, of course, this did not necessarily require the making of contractual commitments. A "free hand" can be an active hand without engaging in an embrace or handshake. But the lessons of the thirties did seem to teach the need for a wide-ranging diplomacy and willingness to threaten in order to deter.

IV. Priorities of Obligation

The uniqueness of the American commitment system constructed after World War II can be seen in the following combination of qualities: its hegemonial nature (for the immense power of the United States made it primus inter pares); its plurality (being not one, but several distinct security systems, each playing itself out in a different region of the world among a different cast of characters); its ultimate reliance on American force (in each alliance U.S. military power was the key); and finally, its geopolitical rank ordering (for few doubted the primacy of the West European-Mediterranean commitment in the hierarchy of U.S. interests or the magnitude of resources made available to it). In each separate alliance the U.S. contribution has been the main one, with the resources flowing outward from the North American continent. It was the power of the Soviet Union and the states and movements associated with it, as well as their tendency toward forcible expansion, which has brought the American security system into being and supplied its essential logic. That the Communist world became polycentric, while the Soviet Union tended to become more conservative as it grew more powerful, did not essentially alter the complexion of the blocs, nor modify the expansionist goals of Communist governments. Forged to constrain this expansion, the American alliance system has been sustained in its purpose by defensiveness, reactiveness, and prudence.

But the unwieldy scope of U.S. commitments caused problems from the beginning. How were the disparate alliances to be interconnected? Though Washington has naturally wished to make its separate alliances compatible, each of them has embraced different countries with different interests in different parts of the world. Obligations in Europe were not binding in Asia, yet the American presence on both continents would necessarily establish a relationship between them. U.S. performance toward one set of allies would affect resource allocation elsewhere. This has worked both ways. The Korean War in 1950 set in motion an American-European mobilization which bolstered Europe’s defenses, but Vietnam has operated in opposite fashion, reducing U.S. contributions to NATO and probably encouraging Soviet gambles in the Middle East and Mediterranean. The risks incurred in fulfilling one set of commitments can weaken others, either by suggesting that some allies are being downgraded or that they may become involuntarily dragged into a conflict not of their choosing.

In each alliance, the degree of deterrent credibility has hinged upon the credibility of the United States. Under what circumstances would the honoring of one set of commitments enhance another? Under what circumstances would the dishonoring of one weaken the others? Are commitments taken as a whole divisible or indivisible? Are there ever occasions when honoring one commitment might undercut another?

These questions of credibility raise more practical questions of priority. Though the United States might set a rank order of priorities among its regional alliances ("Europe first," for example), that rank order could not with any certainty reflect the sequential order of commitment-fulfillment. Since World War II, the American commitment to Western Europe has been fundamental; yet the only occasions when U.S. commitments have been "called" in a shooting war have been in Asia — Korea and Indochina. When the commitment system is challenged, the hegemonial power has to decide whether to honor (or dishonor) a particular commitment, even though it may not have "high" priority. Indeed, an inherent difficulty in the alliance system is the likelihood that challenges are more likely to occur, not in its "central theater," but on its peripheries, where the risk of general war is less great.

A third, and now most acute, problem concerns the central role of the hegemonial power. While many other states are joined with America in sustaining one particular defense system, America is joined in them all. Locked as it is into each system, the armed forces of the hegemonial power are bound to be committed to battle more frequently than the forces of its partners, on the assumption that conflicts remain localized. Since World War II, U.S. forces have fought in major wars twice, while the Soviet Union has avoided direct involvement, limiting its role to one of material and ideological aid to its allies.

V. Decommitment

American foreign policy faces a serious decommitment problem today. The United States must somehow withdraw from Vietnam and cancel the forward defense policy which led to our commitment there, while at the same time keeping its more important commitments elsewhere. This is a dangerous and delicate task. It requires unusual political finesse to pick the right time and the right way out, for there is risk of major national embarrassment and loss of prestige which might damage the balance of power — and the hope of peace — in Europe and Asia, while feeding domestic convulsion in America. The unwanted commitment must be divorced from the rest of the commitment structure without undermining the basic credibility of that structure.

In general, withdrawal from commitments requires a convincing set of demonstrations that the unwanted commitment (a) is against one’s own interest, or (b) is no longer relevant; but (c) that neither of these conditions apply to other, more valuable commitments that one means to keep. In the words of Machiavelli, "A prudent ruler ought not to keep the faith when by so doing it would be against his interest or when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist."

The problem is how to abandon or modify commitment in such a way as to appear prudent, rather than cowardly, feeble, or opportunistic. First, one can argue that a higher interest counsels non-fulfillment. Khrushchev, defeated in his move to install medium-range missiles in Cuba, mitigated the severity of his defeat by claiming to be a champion of peace who had saved the world from nuclear incineration by irresponsible warmongering Americans. The Cuban setback undoubtedly cost Khrushchev prestige at home, but with the help of a propaganda offensive and President Kennedy’s acquiescence, he was able to neutralize the damage to Moscow’s international reputation. When a commitment is challenged, particularly in high-risk situations, it may be in the interest of the challenger to release the committed opponent from his commitment. Withdrawing from a dangerous commitment is made easier if one’s opponent allows one to back down gracefully. That this requires tacit cooperation from the antagonist is obvious.

But one cannot always rely on an opponent’s generosity, for the propaganda gain from exploiting a withdrawal may outweigh his interest in allowing one to withdraw gracefully. In high-risk nuclear situations the danger is such that an opponent is unlikely to risk disaster by goading his adversary into a position that makes withdrawal difficult. In low-risk situations, however, this strong incentive is absent.

A second withdrawal mechanism would be to deny the existence of any commitment in the first place. It is extremely difficult to make such a claim without appearing cowardly or capricious. Bismarck was able to do it by renouncing a commitment before it was called. The ploy occurred after the Peace of San Stefano of 1878. Germany was allied with Austria and Russia and both countries, about to go to war with each other, expected German support. Not waiting to be caught in the trap, Bismarck announced that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, thus renouncing his commitment to both parties in advance.

A change of government affords perhaps the best opportunity for renouncing or redefining commitments. Right after he took office, President Nixon could have claimed much more easily than his predecessor that the U.S. should not be committed to Vietnam. A major change in the Saigon government would offer a comparable opportunity.

A third approach would be to claim that the commitment has been fully discharged, canceling out any further obligation. Several U.S. senators have proposed this line of attack, offering a rationale something like the following: "If we withdraw in eighteen months we will have had American soldiers in South Vietnam for seven years, killing the best enemy troops and training the South Vietnamese. After all this time and effort, Saigon should be able to hold its own. If it cannot, no nation can accuse us of failing to meet our commitment."

A fourth withdrawal mechanism, a close relative to the "having-done-all-one-can" argument, is to claim that the aided party has been unfaithful or incompetent, and that his negligence cancels all prior claims. Charges of draft-dodging in Saigon, corruption in the bureaucracy, and inefficiency in the army could be used to build a case of contributory negligence against the South Vietnamese, which might be used as an escape clause absolving the U.S. from any prior responsibility it might have had for their defense.

A fifth rationale for withdrawal is that of substitution. This requires showing that another party will assume the burden, replacing one’s own effort. The British withdrawal from Greece and Turkey after World War II supplies an example of this: the burden was passed to the United States.

Finally, a pledge can outlive its usefulness, leading one to withdraw from a commitment on grounds that the reasons for it no longer exist. The British exit in 1922 from the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 can be used as an illustration. Originally conceived by Britain as a means of checking Russian expansion in the Far East, the alliance had lost this meaning twenty years later, when Japan was the main threat in her own right.

"Vietnamization," depending upon how one defines it, partakes of at least four of the six strategies mentioned above, but particularly the fifth one, "substitution." It seems to claim that the American commitment to Vietnam will be fulfilled at some early (but not yet defined) point in the future. The problem remains one of how to withdraw in a way that does not seriously undermine other, more important commitments. The logic of commitment argues that one cannot back down from one pledge, no matter how costly, without calling all other pledges into question.

This is a serious argument, but what if honoring a commitment reveals weakness rather than strength? Domestic reaction against continuing the war is bound to raise doubt about our stability at home and our resolve to meet future foreign challenges. An orderly withdrawal would probably better serve to maintain the rest of the structure than would a continuing demonstration of weakness. As Francis Bacon said, "A man is an ill husband of his honor, that entereth into any action, the failing wherein may disgrace him more than the carrying of it through can honor him."

However withdrawal occurs, the slogan "No More Vietnams" is full of dangers. It may encourage military strategists to believe that quick, "total," and decisive measures are required in any future conflict. Within the general public it encourages the feeling that no commitment is worth the cost of armed intervention. The first of these dangers might add a certain random credibility to U.S. security pledges, credibility in the sense that a future adversary risks massive retaliation for the most marginal of challenges. But whatever gain this might bring (at tremendous risk, of course), it is overshadowed by the second danger: that no United States government could command sufficient public support for any kind of intervention even if its most vital interests were threatened.

If public opinion polls are accurate, this is no imaginary danger. In the Time-Harris poll of mid-1969, only one-quarter of all Americans were found willing to use U.S. troops to resist overt Communist aggression in areas which have long been considered vital to American interests. The domestic uproar which greeted the Cambodian intervention last spring is further evidence of the trend. To potential opponents we must look like an angry, divided nation with troubles at home and increasing pressures for withdrawal from all foreign obligations. As George Ball put it recently: "Not only has the disenchantment over Vietnam been translated into suspicion of all military commitments overseas, it has led us dangerously close to pacifism and isolationism."

VI. Rebalancing Alliances

If we indeed face a period of continued danger and insecurity, it is time to rethink the purposes of our postwar alliance system. Nineteen years ago, during the Senate debate over the President’s authority to commit U.S. troops to Europe, the prevailing view of our legislators was that American aid was a temporary expedient designed to foster the self-defense of Europeans. Senator Lodge proposed at the time that the dispatch of American troops be contingent upon a certification by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that our allies were doing their utmost to provide for their own defense and were supplying the bulk of NATO ground forces in Europe.

But the tensions of the period, including the Korean War and memories of the Berlin blockade, gave rise to a second and quite different conception of NATO. That alliance and others were seen in the ideal as interposing a massive counterforce to Russian and Chinese power. They were to be the locus for American advance bases, conceived as the major bolstering element in Western defense. This conception prevailed, and the United States assumed the role of primus inter pares in all its alliances. Our allies, seeing a high proportion of their defense costs borne willingly by the United States, were reluctant to tax their own economies by taking the main share of the burden for themselves.

Senator Lodge’s approach of 1951 is being rediscovered in the seventies. Self-help was the main theme of President Nixon’s first foreign policy report to Congress. A new balance is being sought, for the post-Vietnam re-evaluation of U.S. foreign policy which has already begun must reopen the question of the entire American alliance system. Reconsidering commitments is the first step toward American movement from a primus inter pares role toward that of an "equal among equals," a par inter pares.

President Nixon has called for a more "mature partnership" with Western Europe, less U.S. dictation to Latin America, and a more responsible role for Asian nations in their own defense. Significantly, he has described the Nixon doctrine not only as a means for more effective sharing of common resources, but also as the "American policy which can best be sustained over the long run." There is recognition of the urgent need for retrenchment in our world security role, lest the nation slide into isolationism in reaction to Vietnam and there be reckless miscalculation on the part of our overseas opponents. The Time-Harris poll of 1969 revealed 64 percent of the American people feel that if the United States is to defend weaker countries at all, it must do so in conjunction with our principal allies. By nearly two to one (52 percent to 28 percent), Americans agreed: "We cannot go it alone in the world any longer."

A more equitable partnership could diminish the strain on U.S. resources, allowing for more to flow toward pressing domestic needs and thereby lessening potential isolationist pressures. It is in this sense the policy which can best be sustained over the long run. Because it can be sustained it will tend to add stability to the current highly unstable environment by more closely equating American obligations not so much with what the nation is able physically to do, as with what it is willing to do in a period of domestic upheaval.

If the hegemonial power ceases to be hegemonial, that may, of course, decrease the credibility of its alliances. The game theorists tell us that if one succeeds in making one’s opponent identify a particular object as directly relating to one’s own national security, then the first step toward a credible commitment has been taken. The defense of Paris relates directly to the national interest of the French, Bangkok to that of the Thais, Tokyo to that of the Japanese. Since many Americans are unwilling today to support security guarantees to any of these allies, it would increase the credibility of the entire alliance system if our partners reaffirmed their own central concern with their own defense in this time of domestic American troubles.

This is not to say that the United States will cease to be generally hegemonial. The power realities of economics and nuclear weapons are such that the United States would vastly predominate in any alliance combination, except in the unlikely case of an alliance with the Soviet Union. But in specific regions of the world and in conventional arms this need not be the case. The conventional military potential of America’s allies in any particular region far outweighs any force the United States can expend, given the diffusion of its power around the globe. The problem remains one of getting our allies to play conventional yeoman to America’s nuclear knight.

Thorny command and control problems may make partnership difficult. By becoming a more "equal" ally, could not the United States be dragged into a war against its will and best interests? Theoretically this is possible, though the escape clauses in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the stipulation in our defense treaties that U.S. intervention occur only "in accordance with constitutional process" offer a way out.

The six methods of decommitment previously described suggest good reasons why the United States should pull back to play a more modest role in its present alliance system. First, a higher interest compels modification of our hegemonial activism abroad, and that is the need to employ our resources at home. Second, as the alliances have grown incrementally over the last 23 years, the United States at no point ever really committed itself to the preponderant conventional military role which it now occupies.

Third, we can claim fulfillment in the sense that the United States has done its share in maintaining Western defenses while others were weak. It is now time for our partners to assume their share of the burden. Fourth, most of our allies have been negligent, failing to live up to their promises in terms of defense contributions. Fifth, the reasons for our temporary assumption of alliance leadership no longer exist, since many of our allies are now strong enough to defend themselves in every field except the nuclear one.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the argument of substitution or transformation. By placing greater reliance on indigenous conventional support, the United States can transform its present forward policy, which is losing credibility, into a stronger shared partnership which is indeed the kind of commitment which can "best be sustained over the long run."

VII. Equal Among Equals

Risks inhere in any attempt to shift from a primus inter pares relationship with allies to the more modest role of par inter pares. Retrenchment would not alter the fact that America’s capabilities remain those of a superpower, and her quest for partnership must still be viewed in relative terms. If present force ratios and common defense contributions can be altered, partnership might then find new factual expression in regional arrangements which leave the major defense task (other than the strategic deterrent) in the adequate hands of local partners. If this is feasible in Southeast Asia, it should be no less applicable to the Eastern Mediterranean, an area of most interest to Western Europe, yet a place where U.S. forces are the main element today. In 1947, the British decision to abandon its commitments to Greece and Turkey occurred in circumstances of impending national economic collapse. Was this transferral of responsibility by a European power to America something irrevocable and permanent? It now seems possible that Western Europe should resume a considerable role in Mediterranean defense; after all, the strategic implications of Soviet expansion into North Africa affect Europe directly, and America only indirectly.

But hazards may attend specific American force reductions. If these were compensated by local build-ups on a step-by-step basis, or accompanied by negotiated reductions of adversary strength, equilibrium would not be lost. Yet if U.S. reductions were interpreted as a prelude to abandonment or as signals of American unreliability, it is by no means certain that balance could be achieved. There would be no incentive for the adversary to bargain to obtain an agreed lower level of force, and allies might feel compelled to make an "agonizing reappraisal" of their alliance. An impending American withdrawal from Asia, for example, would provoke a major foreign policy debate over Japan’s defense and foreign policy orientation, with profound implications for the stability of internal Japanese politics and for the peace of the entire region. In Western Europe, where the Soviet Union has in recent years been judged a "satisfied" power despite its greatly increased military capabilities, an American force reduction would not necessarily elicit a rise in European defense spending for self-help. Indeed, were American retrenchment publicly justified as a happy downward readjustment of force corresponding to new and improved conditions in the area, European incentives to take up the slack would be undermined. Inexorably, Europe might slide toward vulnerability and offer the U.S.S.R. a tempting chance to exploit suspicion of the "undependable," "neurotic" American ally.

Hamilton remarked in his first Federalist paper that when men are not able to decide important questions "from reflection and choice," they are "forever destined to depend… on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark," he added, "the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind."

The powerless take delight in the troubles of the powerful, which is why great powers are almost never liked, and are respected only when their policies succeed. But even during times of trouble a great power can maintain respect and reputation by carefully changing the course of its policy. The change of course must seem reasonable, wise, internally consistent, and broadly supported at home. To institute such new policies will require strong bipartisan support of the kind which, until recently, undergirded the original set of American postwar commitments. To make the delicate adjustment to a less conspicuous new level of shared alliance commitments would demand a degree of domestic support which does not exist for current levels. The period of American withdrawal from Southeast Asia, now a time of confusion and recrimination, could also become the occasion for a national resolve to assume steadier and more modest commitments in the future.

Machiavelli and de Tocqueville, two of America’s ancient tutors in world politics, had opposite views about the ability of a democracy to conduct foreign policy. The author of The Prince was optimistic about republics as reliable partners:

… in such cases which involve imminent peril, there will be found somewhat more of stability in republics than in princes. For even if the republics were inspired by the same feelings and intentions as the princes, yet the fact of their movements being slower will make them take more time informing resolutions, and therefore they will less promptly break their faith.

De Tocqueville, on the other hand, had fewer illusions:

… a democracy is unable to regulate the details of an important undertaking, to persevere in a design, and to work out its execution in the presence of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy, and it will not await their consequences with patience.

Before the Vietnam War, Machiavelli had the edge in the argument; now de Tocqueville surges ahead. The argument could continue indefinitely. Yet unhappy recent experience should give us new insights into the problem. Vietnam raises a serious question about the capacity of liberal democracy to engage in sustained "lonely" action in support of unilateral guarantees. Our traditional image of America — as a great, virtuous, and singular nation — was suited to the long Jeffersonian era of non-entanglement. The greatest domestic successes of American democracy were obtained with little or no outside help. But in more recent times our most effective action in international politics has invariably occurred only when the United States acted in close concert with many others.

If this is true, future American action abroad should be grounded in broad coalitions. This need for "multilateral legitimation" is not without risk. Yet the test of future American policy will be our success in encouraging indigenous coalitions to keep the peace and assure their own defense. As America reduces its military presence abroad and local strength grows, U.S. forces and commanders ought to move out of the forefront and into the background of regional guarantee systems. Meanwhile, America’s allies should heed with sympathy the current signs of our domestic difficulties. An unstable democratic imperium is not a good ally, but a reunified America, with a lower scale of commitments, could be a steady partner for the common problems which lie ahead.

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