essays

Mar 1, 1978

In Defense of Isolationism

“Each war inflated the economy and gave the federal spending mechanism a scope it did not previously have.”

Throughout the past year, a stormy debate has raged over Soviet-American relations: a fierce crossing of verbal swords between those who see America as confronted by an expanding sphere of Soviet power, menacing world peace and freedom, to be countered by escalating American defense spending, and those who, seeing no such threat, believe that Soviet-American rap-proachement is possible and welcome, based on detente, mutual arms reduction and nonintervention.

This debate differs radically from those that have come before: Today, those in favor of a more militant foreign policy are extraordinarily well-organized, well-financed, and willing to go virtually to any length to achieve their ends. The spearhead of this drive is the “Committee on the Present Danger,” which numbers among its board members a host of establishment liberals from both parties, including most of those who have been agitating for a more aggressive American foreign policy literally for decades. Daniel Yergin, in his excellent article “The Arms Zealots” (Harper’s, June 1977), comments that the Committee “has consciously modeled itself on groups of distinguished laity that campaigned before World War II for preparedness and, after, for the Marshall Plan.”

One of the strongest allies of this arms coalition is Commentary magazine, edited by Norman Podhoretz. It was Commentary that fired the biggest gun in the current debate by publishing Richard Pipes’ article on “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” which summarized the conclusions of President Ford’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board “Team B” study of Soviet strategic objectives more than a year ago.

The wide support evinced for the arms coalition is partly due to the relative lack of opposition which it faces. While every issue of Commentary carries new, hawkish scare stories about the Soviet arms build-up, the evils of detente, or the consequences of appeasement, and virtually every other major magazine has picked up the lead — Norman Podhoretz, for example, recently moved over to Harper’s with his appeals for more defense spending in “The Culture of Appeasement” — those capable of refuting this view have been all too silent and, even more importantly, ill-organized. Aside from Daniel Yergin’s excellent article, the few major criticisms include Earl Ravenal’s “Towards Nuclear Stability” in the Atlantic(September 1977), Richard Barnet’s “Promise of Disarmament” in the New York Times Magzaine, and Barnet’s “The Present Danger” in the November issue of Libertarian Review.

Recently, however, a major voice on the subject of American-Soviet relations, George F. Kennan, has risen to answer the naive dogmas of the “arms zealots.” In his latest book, The Cloud of Danger: Current Realities of American Foreign Policy (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1977), Kennan presents perhaps the most important noninterventionist analysis of American foreign policy offered since before World War II. It is important because George Kennan cannot be dismissed out of hand, and his qualifications are unquestionable: Having entered the American foreign service fifty years ago, he has held several crucially important foreign policy posts, and has written a dozen books on foreign policy subjects, including American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920, Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-1941, and two volumes of his Memoirs. After gaining his initial fame as one of the principle architects of the doctrine of containment, Kennan has moved progressively toward a noninterventionist position in foreign policy questions.

Kennan’s book was written during the winter of 1977. As he writes:

It was a time dominated by an intensive debate in American opinion over the question of how to deal with the Soviet Union. On the outcome of this debate there seemed to hang the entire future of American policy and of world events. This appeared to be a real and crucial parting of the ways: one road leading to a total militarization of policy and an ultimate showdown on the basis of armed strength, the other to an effort to break out of the straitjacket of military rivalry and to strike through to a more constructive and hopeful vision of America’s future and the world’s.

In 14 chapters devoted to the broadest questions of policy and strategy, from a penetrating critique of the necessary inner conflict between the requirements of a democratic form of government and the consequences and requirements of global interventionism, to an analysis of the nature of Soviet-American relations, Kennan shows why a large-scale and systematic move in the direction of noninterventionism is both necessary and proper.

It is perhaps understandable, then, that he has earned the wrath of the defense establishment and its intellectual apologists, and has drawn a vicious assault from the pen of Edward Luttwak in the November 1977 issue of Commentary, “The Strange Case of George F. Kennan.” It is a vindictive review which reminds one of the vile blitzkrieg conducted against Charles A. Beard for questioning the conventional wisdom on the origins of World War II. In particular, one is reminded of Samuel Eliot Morrison’s “History Through a Beard,” which appeared in the Atlantic shortly after Beard’s death. (Ronald Radosh has recently done an exceptionally fine job of reviewing the case of Charles Beard and other postwar critics of intervention in his Prophets on the Right.)

Luttwak launches his attack by evoking the old codeword for noninterventionism: isolationism. Instantly, one is supposed to imagine that Kennan is calling for cutting America off from the world completely, ignoring reality, sticking his head into the ground like an ostrich, and all the other hideous myths about “isolationism” that have been so carefully perpetuated for the last forty years— whenever a person questions the prevailing assumptions about American foreign policy.

Luttwak is at least very open about his own points of view. He says that

it is the balance of power alone that will unfailingly determine what can be protected and how securely… . It is the relative military strength, economic leverage, and social influence of the United States as compared to its antagonists that defines the scope of American protection, influence, and access.

George Kennan, on the other hand, argues persuasively that expanding the scope of American “influence” has not produced greater security for the United States, but rather has created more and more risks of military involvement in areas which have no relationship to American security. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, and any number of lesser engagements since World War II—costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars—are ample proof of Kennan’s assertion. Consequently, Kennan advocates

the reduction of external commitments to the indispensable minimum. And I would see this minimum in the preservation of the political independence and military security of Western Europe, of Japan, and—with the single reservation that it should not involve the dispatch and commitment of American armed forces—of Israel… . In order to concentrate our resources and efforts on these essential tasks, we would … ruthlessly eliminate ulterior commitments and involvements that would distract us from their performance. This would involve the abandonment of several obsolescent and nonessential positions: notably those at Panama, in the Philippines, and in Korea. It would involve the restoration to our Western European allies, who are the proper bearers of it, of the responsibility for shaping the future relationship of Greece and Turkey to NATO and for working out with the governments of those two countries the disposition of NATO military facilities and garrisons on their territory. American facilities and garrisons would no longer be maintained there.

With respect to the so-called Third World, Kennan advises that we should “not overly concern ourselves for words and reactions of the governments of this area, remembering that the best we can expect from them, over the long run, is their respect, not their liking or their gratitude.”

To this, Mr. Luttwak replies:

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George Kennan

 

If the United States continues to allow its relative military power to decline as compared to that of its antagonists, and principally the Soviet Union, sooner or later it may well be forced to retreat into Mr. Kennan’s restricted perimeter, if not beyond. But the reverse does not obtain; if the United States were to abandon all but Western Europe and Japan, this would not allow it to reduce its military power with impunity, as Mr. Kennan seems to believe. On the contrary, the industrial democracies under siege would probably ~ieed much more military power than they now have, merely to survive.

In a nutshell, Luttwak and the other members of the arms coalition are saying that more defense spending and more allies automatically guarantee a better defense. They seem incapable of seeing two sides to the coin: that more defense spending and more far-flung commitments by the United States may in fact create the very conditions which necessitated that spending and those commitments in the first place. In other words, a smaller defense may indeed be a better defense.

Kennan, because he is a historian, understands that much of what passes for proof of communist imperialism is actually Russian imperialism —which is a very different thing. He knows^ that Russian emperors coveted Eastern Europe for centuries before it finally came under Russian domination after World War II. Indeed, the Crimean War was fought, by England and France for the very purpose of keeping Russia out of Eastern Europe. Moreover, it should be remembered that Eastern Europe is the route through which Russia had been invaded three times in the twentieth century alone. The point is that when it was handed the opportunity to get that which it had coveted for so long—a buffer zone and expansion of its sphere of influence — Russia naturally sought to put Eastern Europe under its control. Russian imperialism had absolutely nothing whatever to do with communist ideology.

But if one disregards the Russian conquests in Eastern Europe, there is relatively little evidence remaining of communist imperialism. There are occasional minor interventions, in Africa and elsewhere, but these are nowhere near the scale of a great many American interventions since the Second World War. Those remaining countries which are presently under communist domination were not “conquered” by the Soviet Union, or put under communist domination by outside military might, but rather were subject to large-scale, domestic, communist revolutionary activity, often in the face of Soviet opposition. But this places the “threat” of communist expansion by means of a nuclear war into an entirely different light. Since the communists have never expanded by such means before, why should anyone think they shall do so in the future?

The idea is almost never seriously considered that the Soviet Union may be building all those missiles and submarines not for offensive military purposes, but for defense against us.

The answer usually given is that the Soviets must be building all those missiles and nuclear submarines for something. Unfortunately, the idea is almost never seriously entertained that they may be building their weapons not for offensive military actions, but for defense —from us, from those allies which we have, over the past few years, armed to the teeth, and from China.

Imagine yourself in the place of the Soviet Union, surrounded by American military bases which circle the world, with the United States admittedly spending billions of dollars more for military spending every year, and with a hostile power to the south—China. Would it be unreasonable for the Soviet Union to fear attack?

There are a great many things which might be offered in proof of this, among them the fact that a considerable amount of Soviet military spending is clearly defensive, not offensive. It is a well-known fact, for example, that the Soviet Union spends a very large portion of its military spending on civil defense, especially the kind most likely to be useful, not in a confrontation with the United States, a major nuclear power, but with China, an admittedly minor nuclear power. Moreover, the biggest share of the Soviet Union’s armed forces are not poised on the edge of Western Europe, preparing for some sort of blitzkrieg against the West, but rather on the border of China. If there is this sort of fear of China, which historically has not been very aggressive in its foreign policy, is it unreasonable for the Soviets to have an even greater fear of the West, which is the avowed enemy of communism, and has shown itself more than a little interventionist over the years?

Furthermore, the evidence frequently cited by supporters of increased defense spending that Russian nuclear weapons have a greater throw-weight, or megatonnage, ignores the obvious point that this is more likely to be the response of a country preparing for a second-strike, rather than a first-strike against a presumed opponent. The United States, by stark contrast, has always and continues to emphasize accuracy in its weapons—the sort of thing which one would emphasize if one were preparing for a first-strike, rather than a defensive second-strike.

Lastly, there is considerable debate over the fact that the Russians undoubtedly spend more of their gross national product for “defense” than the United States does. However, we should take into account here two facts: first, that the Soviet Union has less than half the GNP of the United States —so it is natural to expect the proportion spent on the military will be higher—and secondly, that since the Soviet Union has a totally state-controlled economy, a great many things are done by the government in the name of “defense” which are done in America under another name. For example, Soviet soldiers are frequently drafted for the purpose of garbage collection and other municipal tasks, and are often sent into the fields for the harvest. Thus, in the context of a state-controlled economy, the existence of a large armed force may not necessarily imply that there is greater preparation for war. After all, the United States Army Corps of Engineers has carried out various public works projects for nearly 200 years. The analogy between this activity and much of what passes for defense spending in the Soviet Union is a direct and precise one.

Given these facts, a pruning of the defense establishment in America and a unilateral reduction in some nuclear weapons might very well yield great benefits in terms of reducing tension and the likelihood of war with the Soviet Union. As Earl Ravenal has detailed, this could be accomplished with no appreciable loss of strategic deterrence, and might even make America better equipped to withstand any possible attack. Ravenal specifically emphasizes the case of land-based nuclear missiles, which make the territory of this country a particularly vulnerable and likely target in the unlikely event of military confrontation.

This brings us to another point raised by Ken-nan which Luttwak chose to ridicule: the effect of more and more defense spending on the American economy. In particular, Kennan points out the inflationary nature of most defense spending, which has been noted by Seymour Melman in The Permanent War Economy.

Kennan notes that not only is inflation harmful to the economy in itself, but is especially harmful if we are in fact losing ground to the Soviet Union in terms of weaponry. As Kennan puts it:

Even if it were true that we were rapidly being overtaken and left at a disadvantage by the rate of development of the Russian armed forces … we ought to recognize that the reason for this, if carefully examined, would turn out to lie less in the pace and dimensions of the Soviet effort than in the wildly increasing expensiveness of our own. Considering the rate at which the costs of national defense are now being permitted to rise in this country, we can hardly expect to keep up such a competition except at enormous, steadily increasing, and finally almost prohibitive cost to our economy as a whole. … If the protagonists of heavy military spending really wished to find the shortest path to the correction of what they see as a growing disbalance to our disfavor in the relative strength of Soviet and American forces, they would do well to give more attention to our own inflation on the military budget, and less to the effort to convince the rest of us of the menacing intentions and fearful strength of our Soviet opponents.

The expansion of the public sector, which the conservatives hate almost as much as they hate communists, is largely the consequences of the policies conservative themselves advocate.

Of course Luttwak recoils in horror at this assertion. But rather than refute its logic he launches into one of the most vicious tirades against the chief proponent of this view, Seymour Melman, that has ever seen print. Luttwak writes:

Mr. Kennan is obviously unaware that his authority is not a disinterested scholar driven to write by some late discovery, but rather a full-time critic of the military establishment, willing to attack any defense project on economic, environmental, diplomatic or moral grounds interchangeably, and who would no doubt oppose defense expenditures just as strongly even if by some miracle their effect were to be deflationary.

Of course, Melman’s motives are totally irrelevant to the soundness of his analysis. And Melman certainly is not the first person to point out that one of the worst features of the rise of a military state is the effect it has on the domestic economy. Felix Morley used to emphasize this point constantly in his writings. (See his chapter, “The Need for an Enemy,” inFreedom and Federalism; see also this author’s essay, “Why We Still Have a War Economy,” Reason, April, 1977). And more recently, Jonathan R.T. Hughes, a conservative professor of economics at Northwestern University, wrote in his book, The Governmental Habit:

Each war inflated the economy and gave the federal spending mechanism a scope it did not previously have. The historical expansion of the federal sector has been mainly achieved by a few short bursts of wartime spending, not by a steady rise related to the country’s population growth, or the GNP it produced. After each war there were expanded interest payments, new veterans benefits, as well as the actual growth of government costs. Once a new plateau of expenditures was achieved the gains were held. For this reason alone, those who proposed some abatement of federal expenditures in the post-Vietnam War period had little reason to hope. The tax system ensured self-financing of government expansion.

The expansion of the public sector, which conservatives hate almost as much as they hate the communists, is then in very large part the direct consequence of the policies conservatives themselves advocate, leading to all the attendant evils of which we are well aware, such as inflation.

There is much more in both the Kennan book and the Luttwak eassy, but there is one final point to be made about George Kennan.

Despite the fact that his principal fame derives from writing one famous essay about the Cold War back in 1947, which developed the idea of containment, Kennan always has been, for the most part, in the revisionist camp. His most important work in this respect is American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, which is little read today.

He writes, for example, with reference to the world wars:

When you tally up the total score of the two wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it is pretty hard to discern.

Does this not mean that something is terribly wrong here? Can it really be that all this bloodshed and sacrifice was just the price of sheer survival for the Western democracies in the twentieth century? If we were to accept that conclusion, things would look pretty black; for we would have to ask ourselves: Where does all this end? If this was the price of survival in the first half of the twentieth century, what is survival going to cost us in the second half? But plainly this immense output of effort and sacrifice should have brought us something more than just survival. And then, can we only assume, some great miscalculations must have been made somewhere? But where? Were they ours? Were they our Allies?

All this is not to say that George F. Kennan is a libertarian or anything like it, but he is a remarkably astute observer of foreign policy whose writings reflect a very strong trend of noninterventionism and revisionism, and whose qualifications in this area are beyond repproach. This is why he is feared so greatly by the “arms zealots” like Edward Luttwak. Let us only hope that Kennan is not cowed by the viciousness of Luttwak’s attack on him (and the other attacks that are likely to follow) and continues to write and speak out on the important issues facing American foreign policy. If he does, he can be a very strong voice for rationality.


Bruce Bartlett is a congressional aide whose column “The Public Trough” is a regular LR feature. He has written for Reason magazine and many other periodicals.