Special Report: The ultimate madness of today’s U.S. foreign policy is Official Washington’s eager embrace of a new Cold War against Russia with the potential for nuclear annihilation. A rational strategy would seek alternatives to this return to big-power confrontation, writes ex-U.S. diplomat William R. Polk.
By William R. Polk
In Part One, I dealt at length with America’s relationship with “Lesser” or “Third World” powers because that is where we have been most active since the Second World War. I now turn to America’s postwar rivalry with the other “Great” power, the Soviet Union, and offer some thoughts on our growing relationship with China.
For more than half a century, we and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War. During that time we were often on the brink of Hot War. We organized ourselves to fight it if necessary but we also created political alliances, economies and politico-military structures with the announced aim of avoiding war.
Thus we built such organizations as NATO, CENTO and SEATO, stationed much of our army abroad and manned thousands of bases around the world. We also recast much of our economy into the “military-industrial complex” to supply our overseas ventures.
Inevitably our efforts in foreign affairs upset traditional balances within our society. It is beyond my purpose here to describe the growth of “the National Security State” since the 1947 acts that established the governmental organs and profoundly altered universities, businesses and civic groups. Here I focus on the strategy that grew out of the Cold War and which is now returning to dominate our thought and action on China and shaping our action on the emerging alliance of China and Russia.
With shows of military force adjacent to major Russian bases, we have returned to the confrontation that marked the most dangerous Cold War episodes. [See The New York Times, Eric Schmitt & Steven Myers, “U.S. Is Poised to Put Heavy Weaponry in Eastern Europe,” and The Guardian, Ewen MacAskill, “Nato shows its teeth to Russia with elaborate Baltic training exercise.”].
The Cold War divided as much of the world as either the U.S. or USSR could control into what Nineteenth Century statesmen called “spheres of influence.” Both great powers used their military, financial, commercial, diplomatic and ideological power to dominate their “blocs.” Since neither side could establish precise and stable frontiers, each power built real or notional “walls” around its sphere, each probed into the sphere of the other and both competed for the favor of the uncommitted.
Spheres of influence, as earlier statesmen had discovered, require careful maintenance, are unstable and do not preclude hostilities. They are not a substitute for peace or security, but sometimes they have seemed to statesmen the most advantageous ways to manage foreign relations. It was the attempt to make the Soviet-American “frontier” more stable and lessen the chance of war that was the contribution of the preÃ«minent American strategist, George Kennan.
Hedgehog vs. Fox
George Kennan personified the hedgehog in an ancient Greek poem on the difference between the wise hedgehog and the cunning fox. Like the hedgehog, Kennan had one big idea “containment,” the strategy of the Cold War while all around him the “foxes” were chasing and arguing over tactics.
Kennan’s idea was that the Soviet drive for aggrandizement could be contained long enough that the state could evolve. Most of the foxes thought that the USSR should be “rolled back” and devised military means to do it. Some of them were prepared to go to nuclear war to accomplish that objective.
These were obviously major differences, but what is less obvious is that both Kennan and his critics thought of what they were doing as war: Kennan wanted it to be “colder” than the foxes, but he was prepared to engage in (and indeed personally designed and helped to implement) a variety of espionage “dirty tricks” that pushed relations between the U.S. and USSR close to “hot” war. Both he and the foxes aimed at American dominance.
When Kennan elaborated his ideas on containment rather than military conflict first in his 1946 Secret “Long Telegram” from Moscow and then anonymously in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, they were considered heresy. The then “dean” of Washington columnists, Walter Lippmann, wrote a series of articles attacking them. [Originally in New York Herald Tribune, his articles then appeared in book form as The Cold War: A Study in U.S. Foreign Policy (1947).]
Lippmann and the growing number of “big bomb” enthusiasts in government-funded “think tanks,” thought Kennan failed to understand the fundamental evil of the Soviet system and so was gambling with American security. The only answer, they felt, was military superiority.
Military superiority was the central idea in what became a long series of U.S. national policy statements. (The latest being the February 2015 “National Security Strategy” of President Obama.) The first, and most influential, statement of it was “NSC 68” which was written by Kennan’s successor as director of the Policy Planning Staff (as it was then known), Paul Nitze, and adopted by President Harry Truman as official policy. It called for a massive build-up of both conventional and nuclear arms.
Nitze castigated Kennan, writing, “Without superior aggregate military strength, in being and readily mobilizable, a policy of ‘containment’ which is in effect a policy of calculated and gradual coercion is no more than a policy of bluff.”
McGeorge Bundy later commented in Danger and Survival, “NSC 68 took the gloomiest possible view of the prospect of any agreed and verifiable bilateral limitation” on weapons. It also “explicitly considered and rejected the proposal that George Kennan had put forward for a policy [of] no first use of nuclear weapons.” [On Kennan’s and Nitze’s complex relationship reminiscent of that of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton — see Nicholas Thompson’s The Hawk and the Dove (2009).]
NSC 68 provoked a massive Soviet nuclear weapons development. It also set off a limited (but then muted) debate within the American government. Willard Thorp, a noted government economist who had helped draft the Marshall Plan, pointed out that as measured by such criteria as the production of steel the total strength of the U.S. was about four times that of the USSR and that the current “gap is widening in our favor.” In effect, he was saying the Cold War was mostly hype. [Willard Thorp. Memorandum to the Secretary of State: “Draft Report to the President,” April 5, 1950].
More wide-ranging was the critique of William Schaub, a senior official in the Bureau of the Budget. In a memorandum to the NSC, dated May 8, 1950, he pointed out that the almost exclusive military emphasis of NSC 68 would “be tantamount to notifying Russia that we intended to press war in the near future.”
Moreover, he wrote, the policy “vastly underplays the role of economic and social change as a factor in the ‘the underlying conflict.” And, as a result of our focus on the Soviet threat, “We are being increasingly forced into associations [with Third World regimes] which are exceedingly strange for a people of our heritage and ideals.”
So it was that Kennan, Lippmann, Nitze, Thorp and Schaub opened the door on the issue that would engage policymakers for the next half century. And dozens of would-be strategists rushed to enter.
But, before NSC 68 could be seriously discussed, on June 25, 1950, North Korean military forces crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson later remarked, Korea preÃ«mpted discussion on American strategy. The argument over containment and superiority never ceased.
Discussion on American strategy, actually, had already been preÃ«mpted. America had the bomb and most of the “Wise Men” (a term coined by McGeorge Bundy for the Cold War foreign policy “Establishment”) in the upper reaches of government thought that threat of its use was the bedrock of American security because, as the American army faded away in 1945, it was evident that the Russians had overwhelming power in conventional forces. In military terms, the Cold War was already staked out.
The Cold War created a “need” for intelligence. From 1946, the U.S. Air Force was monitoring the borders of the USSR and its satellites. At first the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed mounting probes, and the Soviet Union protested them. A compromise was reached with an implicit U.S.-USSR “gentleman’s agreement” that restricted flights to no closer than 40 miles from borders.
Then in 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device and in November 1950 Chinese forces entered Korea. On Dec. 16, 1950, President Truman declared a state of National Emergency. Suddenly, gathering intelligence on Soviet capabilities, particularly on the presumed ability of the Soviet air force to attack the United States across Alaska, became insistent.
Truman immediately approved aerial penetrations of Siberia. The US had just acquired a new relatively fast, high-flying bomber, the B-47, that could be modified for the task. That was the first step in a lengthy game in which both Russian and American fighter planes intercepted, followed, photographed but usually did not attempt to shoot down each other’s reconnaissance aircraft.
Usually, but not always. The first armed clash came, apparently, in 1949. In the following 11 years a dozen or more U.S. aircraft were shot down or crashed in or near the USSR. Neither side admitted their existence. Keen on “deniability,” and so to avoid serious conflict, President Eisenhower asked the British to perform the mission.
But finally, the CIA ordered a new aircraft, the Lockheed jet-powered glider, the U-2, and had it flown by CIA pilots. It was the CIA contract pilot Gary Powers who flew the U-2 that was brought down over the USSR on May 1, 1960.
It was because of the U-2 and related communications intelligence that the United States developed its close relationships with Turkey and Pakistan. The relationship with Pakistan set the conditions for American aid and incidentally determined the relationship with India. Without Congressional authorization, the CIA had entered into a deal with the government of Pakistan to create a base for the U-2 to overfly the USSR. [The National Security Archive, August 15, 2013, Jeffrey T. Richelson (ed.), “The Secret History of the U-2 and Area 51.”]
Each Side’s Fears
At the time, Cold War strategy came into focus at the junction of Russian mass and American technology. Each side feared what the other side had and sought to counter it: the Russians pushed their powerful land forces up to the line in Europe while the Americans built sophisticated weapons like the ICBM and multiple warheads.
Few then believed that a balance could be reached short of the capacity to obliterate the world. All eyes were on military issues. And, at least on the American side, the aim was to achieve security by military superiority. That was the strategic advice of such cold warriors” as Thomas Schelling, Henry Kissinger, Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn. [For their writings at the center of the Cold War period, see Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (1960), Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (1960), Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1969), Albert Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” Foreign Affairs 37, January 1959].
It took the Cuban Missile Crisis and the analyses of it that followed within the U.S. government to challenge the strategy of the Cold War. The crisis made clear that the quest for military superiority had reached a dead end. Pressing ahead with actions to overawe the Soviet Union were likely to destroy the entire world.
I have spelled out elsewhere the consequences of conflict, but since this is so important in any attempt to understand a conceivable American strategy and is, I fear, receding in memory, I will just mention here the key points:
Even the great advocate of thermonuclear weapons, Edward Teller, admitted that their use would “endanger the survival of man[kind].” The Russian nuclear scientist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Andrei Sakharov, laid out a view of the consequences in the Summer 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs as “a calamity of indescribable proportions.”
More detail was assembled by a scientific study group convened by Carl Sagan and reviewed by 100 scientists. A graphic summary of their findings was published in the Winter 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs. Sagan pointed out that since both major nuclear powers had targeted cities, casualties could reasonably be estimated at between “several hundred million to 1.1 billion people” with an additional 1.1 billion people seriously injured.
Those figures related to the 1980s. Today, the cities have grown so the numbers would be far larger. Massive fires set off by the bombs would carry soot into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to fall to a level that would freeze ground to a depth of about 3 feet. Planting crops would be impossible and such food as was stored would probably be contaminated so the few survivors would starve.
The hundreds of millions of bodies of the dead could not be buried and would spread contagion. As the soot settled and the sun again became again visible, the destruction of the ozone layer would remove the protection from ultraviolet rays and so promote the mutation of pyrotoxins.
Diseases against which there were no immunities would spread. These would overwhelm not only the human survivors but, in the opinion of the expert panel of 40 distinguished biologists, would cause “species extinction” among both plants and animals. Indeed, there was a distinct possibility that “there might be no human survivors in the Northern Hemisphere … and the possibility of the extinction of Homo sapiens…”
The Missile Crisis solidified my disagreements on strategy with both Kennan and Nitze. From my participation in the crisis as one of the three members of the Crisis Management Committee, I became convinced that the “option” of military confrontation in the age of nuclear weapons and ICBMs was not realistic. Armed confrontation was suicide. And, the “strategy of conflict,” as laid out by Schelling, Kissinger, Wohlstetter and Kahn, was likely to cause it. That was the first conclusion.
My second conclusion was that both the “hedgehog” and the “foxes” that is both Kennan and the military-oriented strategists led by Nitze had misunderstood what caused war to actually break out. Because this may be absolutely crucial to avoiding stumbling into war, let me explain.
Basic to the American Cold War strategy was the belief that, regardless of the intelligence, politics or desire of whatever government it then had, in armed conflict America would be forced to fire its nuclear weapons because it did not have conventional forces adequate to stop an invading Russian army.
Knowing this, sensible Soviet leaders would “back off” from determined American challenges because they would realize that, as Schelling put it, “the option of nonfulfillment no longer exists.” Moreover, Schelling and the Cold Warriors believed that because the Russians knew that even a limited retaliation would lead to their destruction, America could engage in “limited” nuclear strikes. In the war game Schelling designed, this was the assumption.
All-Out Nuclear War
In Schelling’s war game (to test what he had written in The Strategy of Conflict on limited war and reprisal) that was played out with access to all information the U.S. government had and involved only senior American officers, I was the political member of “Red Team.” The game was played in the Pentagon and was classified Top Secret. It was taken very seriously, as it should have been, by our senior officials.
In Schelling’s scenario, in a hypothecated crisis (following a coup in Iran) “Blue Team” obliterated Baku, killing about 200,000 people. How would Red Team respond? The chairman of our team, the then Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Anderson, playing Chairman Khrushchev, asked me to recommend our response.
I replied that I saw three options: first, play tit-for-tat, destroying, say, Dallas. Limited nuclear war enthusiasts would presumably then expect the American president to go on television and say, “Fellow Americans, I am sorry to have to report to you that if you had relatives in Dallas … they are gone. The Russians retaliated because we incinerated one of their cities. So now we’re even. Now we’ll just go back to the normal Cold War.'”
The team agreed that this was ridiculous. America would “re-retaliate”; the USSR would re-re-retaliate also and war would quickly become general. There was no stopping in a “limited war.”
The second option was to do nothing. Was this feasible? We agreed that it would certainly have led to a military coup d’Ã©tat in which the Soviet leadership would have been shot as traitors. Knowing this, they would have been unlikely to adopt that move. Even if they did, and were overthrown, that would not stop retaliation: the coup leaders would strike back.
So there remained only one option: general war. And only one feasible move: striking first with everything we had in the hope that we could disable our opponent. We signaled that we “fired” as many of Red Team’s notional 27,000 nuclear weapons as we could deliver.
Schelling was shocked. He stopped the game and scheduled a post-mortem to discuss how we had “misplayed.” The issue was serious, he said: if we were correct, he would have to give up the theory of deterrence, the very bedrock of the strategy of the Cold War. Why had we made such a foolish move?
In our meeting, I repeated our team’s analysis: I emphasized that the fault in his (and America’s) limited war strategy was that it failed to differentiate “interest of state” from “interest of government.” Schelling and American military planners assumed that they were the same. They were not.
It was obviously better for the Soviet Union not to engage in a nuclear exchange, but to appear to knuckle under to an American threat would be suicide for the leaders. Nikita Khrushchev’s backing down in the Missile Crisis was a rare and nearly fatal act of statesmanship. He could afford it for two key reasons: first, no missiles or other air strikes happened so that no Russians had to be avenged and, second, the Soviet civilian and military leaders all agreed (as they later confirmed to me when I lectured at the Institute of World Economy and International Affairs of the Soviet Academy) that they accepted the geostrategic reality: Cuba was in the American “zone.” They had gone too far.
Still they did not forgive. His body was not buried in the Kremlin Wall as was done for other leaders. The reverse would also be true for our leaders.
My conclusion was that the idea of limited nuclear war was a recipe for general war; that the quest for supremacy was likely to lead to war; and, therefore, that the policy underlying the Cold War was unrealistic.
Obviously, those in a position to make the decisions did not agree. While limited and sporadic moves were made to ameliorate the U.S.-USSR relationship, particularly in the area of nuclear weapons, we continued to seek weapons superiority and political dominance.
President Ronald Reagan escalated American weapons production with the aim of bankrupting the Soviet Union. Initially, the policy seemed to work. When the Soviet Union “imploded,” Reagan was given the credit. His policy seemed to vindicate the hard-line policy proposed 40 years earlier by Paul Nitze in NSC 68.
We now know that the Soviet collapse was caused mainly by its “Vietnam,” its disastrous nine-year war in Afghanistan that coincided with the Reagan administration. [This was the conclusion of British Ambassador to Russia Sir Rodric Braithwaite in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989 (2010).] That cause was largely overlooked.
So the wrong lesson was taken into the administration of Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush. His advisers concluded that since the quest for military superiority worked, an even greater emphasis on it could be expected to work even better.
That assumption led to a far more radical approach to American foreign policy than had ever been contemplated. It was the program set out under the auspices of Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. (While it became known as the “Wolfowitz Doctrine,” the “Defense Planning Guidance of 1992” was written by Wolfowitz’s fellow neoconservative, the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, with the help of neoconservatives Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Richard Perle and Albert Wohlstetter.)
The “Wolfowitz Doctrine,” slightly toned down by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, set the tone for American policy for the next 20 years.
Taking advantage of Soviet weakness, the Wolfowitz Doctrine sought “to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival” and “to preclude any hostile power from dominating a region critical to our interests” and to “discourage them [our European allies] from challenging our leadership.”
If any of these challenges arose, the United States would preÃ«mpt the challenge. It would intervene whenever and wherever it thought necessary. It particularly threatened the Russian government if it attempted to reintegrate such newly independent republics as Ukraine.
The Wolfowitz Doctrine, repackaged as the “National Security Strategy of the United States” was published on Sept. 20, 2002. It justified President George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan (for harboring Osama bin Laden) and Iraq (for allegedly building nuclear weapons). And, although it was not, of course, cited by the Obama administration, it laid the foundation for its policy toward Russia in Ukraine and explains some of the emerging policy of the American government toward China.
The attempt to use China against Russia, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s ploy, seemed to work, for a while, but has faded because both Russia and China realized that their immediate challenge came not from one another but from America.
Despite accommodations (as in Hong Kong), China is determined to realize at sea (in the southwest Pacific) and in international finance (with its establishment of a rival to the America-dominated World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), its historic self-image as a major or even the central (Mandarin: Zhongguo) world power.
The Chinese policy confronts America with two choices: recognize and gradually accommodate the Chinese thrust into what it regards as its sphere of influence or try to thwart it. Early moves suggest that America will try, even militarily, to continue its established policy of blocking Chinese outward moves.
In short, it seems that we are at the beginning of a replay of the Soviet-American Cold War. But since history never exactly repeats, I will briefly consider the changes that are taking us into this new world.
The Arena of World Affairs
The modern and future arena of international affairs is the whole world; so the template of international affairs is and will be composed of and interplay of geography, climate, resources, technology and population. Changes in each are unprecedented. Today, we are at the onset of a new revolution. The revolution is already creating a new world in which older concepts of strategy are becoming irrelevant.
While we are still powered by coal and oil, we are in a race to make the transition to wind and solar power before we do irreparable damage to the planet. Lester R. Brown et al, point out in The Great Transition (2015) that solar and wind power costs are falling rapidly so that they are becoming competitive with coal and that, among other costs of fossil fuels, the rise of sea levels already has dramatic effects on agriculture in Asia. Many scientists believe we may be too late and that we will suffer catastrophic changes in our climate.
Avoiding that fate has not yet led to effective international cooperation, but as rising seas and deteriorating climate become increasingly severe, and prevent us from producing food as readily and economically, states will be forced to cooperate. Population is also being altered in size and in kind.
People today are more politicized than ever before but are also more susceptible to manipulation by the increasingly controlled and concentrated media (in America, not only is the media increasingly concentrated under a few major corporations whose profits depend on advertising with the exception of National Public Radio but there is increasing evidence of self- and outside censorship. For one instance, see The Nation, James Carden, “The crusade to ban Russia policy critics.”).
Populations of the advanced industrial states are aging while those of poorer areas are multiplying. Migrations of people from poorer areas are inevitable but are increasingly bitterly opposed in America and elsewhere.
Spread of disease by movement of peoples has been predicted to lead to pandemics. So far, advances in medicine and availability health care facilities have avoided the worst, but several diseases, including malaria, are still major killers in poorer areas and, in mutated form, could spread to even the rich North.
Our most critical resource, fresh water, is increasingly deficient. Drought already affects America, and attempts to overcome water shortage are flash points in relationships among countries in Africa and Asia.
Damming rivers in Central Asia as China is doing and in Kashmir as India is doing could be flashpoints for international conflict, while buying relatively well-watered lands in Africa, often corruptly, and evicting the inhabitants, as China and other countries are doing are likely to lead to popular resistance or guerrilla warfare.
What television began a generation ago has been multiplied by new forms of distribution of information. Even relatively poor people in remote areas have access beyond the imagination of even the rich and powerful a generation ago. Retrieval of information also allows far greater intrusion into the privacy of citizens and potentially control of them by governments. Cyberwar, a concept that hardly existed a few years ago, is a new arena of conflict among nations.
Projection of power is taking new forms. Armies are changing shape: large formations are passÃ© and are being replaced by elite squads or special forces. Indeed, soldiers are being replaced by robots.
Nuclear weapons, once an American monopoly, seem likely to spread in the coming decade beyond the nine states known to have them, nations to the “nth country.” As the war game I described above showed, any temptation to use them in “limited war” would be devastating for the whole world.
Particularly between Pakistan and India this is a clear and present danger. Elsewhere, especially in eastern Europe, the chances of accidents or “miscalculations” are ever present and perhaps rising. [See The Guardian, Ewen MacAskill, “Nato to review nuclear weapon policy as attitude to Russia hardens.”]
International trade will continue to grow but is likely to be increasingly controlled by governments; particularly in food grains, which are becoming harder to grow, governments cannot afford to allow market forces to control their ability to feed their citizens.
Monetary policy appears to be moving in the opposite direction. As the American economy is increasingly removed from supervision, concentration of wealth will continue and both the middle class and the poor will suffer. Cutbacks in social services and public works will increase the danger of a major turndown or even a depression. This could also affect foreign policy: it was, after all, the shift to a war economy that ended the Great Depression.
Under these pressures and trends, it seems to me likely that the need for more intelligent formulation of policy and more modest relations among peoples will become more urgent. The world of the future will arrive faster than we expect. Change is inevitable but a wise policy will seek to make it as smooth as possible.
So, in this perhaps not so brave new world, what do we really want?
Fundamental Objectives of U.S. Foreign Policy
The fundamental objective of American policy was clearly set out in the Foreword to the Constitution: “Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure The Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Put in less elegant terms, I suggest that the foreign affairs component of this fundamental objective is to achieve affordable world security in which we can pursue the good life and the “Blessings of Liberty.”
When our Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, they were motivated and guided by fears of anarchy and tyranny. They sought a path between them in the Constitution they wrote: the Federal Government was to be strong enough to hold the Union together, but not so strong as to tyrannize the states that composed it. They regarded the United States as an experiment to find whether or not we could remain free and responsible participants in the management of our lives.
Since they assumed and hoped that we would live in a republic where the opinion of citizens has some ability to control government decision making, they believed, that to have a chance to combine liberty and responsibility, citizens needed to be educated. Enhancing the intellectual quality of our citizenry thus became essential in securing of “The Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
(By way of contrast, in Britain, the ignorance of the public made little difference since the aristocracy and the monarch made the decisions; in dictatorships like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the public had even less influence. The danger in a democracy is manipulation of the public through control of the media, unlimited financial intervention in politics and the belief that it has lost control. Despite bouts of public “activism,” this sense is growing.)
Impressively well read in history, the authors of the Constitution saw militarism as the mother of tyranny. Their discussions make clear their fear of the ambition of leaders and manipulation of public sentiment. They wanted, above all, to prevent American government from copying European despots in the game of war. Thus, they specified that only in an actual attack on the United States was the president allowed to act independently. Otherwise, the legislature, speaking with multiple voices and representing diverse local issues, had to be convinced of the need for military action.
The delegates recognized that foreign military adventures were the biggest threats to the republic they were founding. This was because war would create such insecurity at home as to undermine our way of life, diminish our sense of trust in one another, denigrate our civil liberties, undercut our respect for our social contract, the Constitution, and divert the fruit of our labor from “the general Welfare.”
Operational Steps Toward Achieving Objectives
Experience has shown that the Founding Fathers were right: it is in our foreign relations where the greatest danger to our overall objectives lies. So it is in foreign affairs where the need for a well-informed citizenry is greatest. But experience also shows that the public is subject to surges of emotion or “war fever” in which reason is overwhelmed. Faulty perception of danger has triggered moves that have threatened our “Domestic Tranquility.”
So, a fundamental challenge is posed for us: how can we, the citizens, acquire sufficient reliable information, trustworthy analysis and objective opinion on which to form our judgment of government decisions.
Citizens need help in addressing such fundamental questions as 1) is there a sufficiently serious threat to American security that requires American response? 2) what are the kinds of response (diplomatic, military, legal, economic) that could be implemented? 3) how likely to be effective are the various possible responses? 4) how costly would each of those responses be? 5) are there alternative, non-American, means of solving the problem we identify? 6) does whatever seems to be the correct answer move toward a more secure, peaceful and productive world environment in which America participates?
For most citizens such questions are inscrutable. Not only do they lack knowledge and experience but they are not able to devote sufficient time to finding answers. Consequently, they are apt to answer with incomplete or biased information or by emotion.
In his farewell address, George Washington pointed to this danger. As he wrote, by allowing passion rather than knowledge or logic to set policy, “The peace often, sometimes perhaps the Liberty, of Nations has been the victim.”
But, we have both personal and political experience in finding sensible answers. Whenever we face difficult problems, most of us seek advice. In matters of health and finance, for example, we seek the opinions of specialists who have the training and experience, and we try to guard against their having conflicts of interest.
Here I suggest a way to apply our daily experience to public policy. It is to create a sort of foreign affairs ombudsman a council to provide information and advice for the public. There is precedent for this suggestion. Much of what I propose already exists:
Existing governmental information and analytical resources in foreign affairs are extensive. For over a century (since 1914), the American Congress has been advised by the Congressional Research Service. The CRS is an independent organization situated in the Library of Congress and is staffed by approximately 600 scholars who are recognized as expert in their various fields.
The President is advised on economic matters by the Council of Economic Advisers and on sundry other matters by the Office of Management and Budget whose predecessor organization was formed in 1921. It has a staff today of about 550.
The Secretary of State is advised by the Department’s small but highly regarded Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Finally, the director of Central Intelligence is provided with an analysis of the “product” or “take” of the 17 American intelligence agencies by the National Intelligence Council which grew out of the Office of National Estimates that was founded in 1950.
What I propose is the creation of an independent institution, a National Commission, composed of a council of perhaps a dozen senior officers and a staff of perhaps 50 men and women who are expert in the various fields related to foreign affairs. Both groups would be chosen by carefully crafted criteria after a “peer review” and on the basis of their credentials.
They would be obligated by contract not to go to or return to business, law or professions related to foreign affairs but would be given some form of tenure and generous retirement and other benefits. The aim would be to assure their lack of any conflict of interest.
Their task would be to study and report in the public domain upon the fundamental questions on which citizens should be informed. So they would be empowered to demand information without delay or hindrance from all government sources, authorized to hold symposia, conferences and seminars and to commission outside studies and reports. They would also be afforded adequate means of reaching the public through, for example, National Public Radio, press releases, magazine articles, pamphlets and books.
Of course, it is probable that much of the public will not read these materials. That is the worst case; the more likely result would be that they would set a standard which the Executive Branch, the Congress and the media would feel obliged to emulate; and the best case would be that the public education program would raise the level of citizen participation in matters of national importance.
Such an institution is not likely to be warmly welcomed by government officers, some of whom will see it as an intrusion on their “turf.” Congressmen, however, will at least verbally approve it since many of their constituents will welcome its reports. And the media or at least working journalists will find it a source to be tapped and so a welcome aid to their work.
The experience of the Congressional Research Service and the Bureau of Management and Budget suggest that in proper political circumstances creation of such an organization is not impossible.
In addition to the National Commission, we should resurrect a modern version of the educational programs that were begun just after the Second World War. Undertaking them was spurred by a recognition that we needed both to know more about the world outside our frontiers and before our lifetimes.
Programs in General Education were organized at Harvard (under James Conant) and Chicago (under Robert Hutchins), gave birth to publications (inspired by Sumner Wells) and funded by the major foundations. They were partly followed by subsidies given to universities for teaching exotic languages. Some of these efforts need to be revived and better focused on national needs.
Do and Don’t
I turn now briefly to a few major points on what we should not do: We should not attempt to force other societies or nations to transform themselves into our image of ourselves; we should not impose upon other nations puppet regimes.
While we have a legitimate need for intelligence, we should ban espionage which has proven to be so detrimental to our national image and purpose. That is, we should not engage in “regime change” or “nation building” as is currently practiced.
And, we should not sell arms abroad. While we cannot suddenly abolish the military industrial complex, we can and should redirect the activities of our industry toward such domestic activities as fixing the thousands of dangerous and dilapidated bridges spanning our rivers, cleaning up our cities, engaging in massive reforestation, repairing or building schools, hospitals and other public facilities, repairing our roads and recreating a national high-speed rail network.
There is much to be done and we have the skills required to do it.
Lastly, I suggest a few points on what we should do: It is both in our long-term interests and in accord with our heritage to join and support the international legal system; we should financially support but generally not engage our troops in peace-seeking operations; we should continue our efforts to cut back, bilaterally, with Russia, nuclear weapons development and deployment and encourage other nations to move toward denuclearization; and we should support both American private and UN aid programs in the Third World.
In conclusion, we must come to terms with the reality that we live in a multicultural, multinational world. Our assertion of uniqueness, of unipower domination and of military power has been enormously expensive and has created a world reaction against us; in the period ahead it will become unsustainable and is likely to lead precisely to what we should not want to happen armed conflict.
Moderation, peace-seeking and open-mindedness need to become our national mottos.
William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.