essays

Feb 1, 1979

The Habit of Confrontation

“American citizens…spend and risk [to benefit] a small coterie of foreign policy bureaucrats, who want to play their power games in the world.”

Guest Editorials

Professors and policies

ONE OF THE MAIN troubles with American foreign policy these days is that it is the product of professors—theorists, conceptualizers—the gnomes of Harvard and Columbia and other notable American academies that furnish every administration’s foreign policy establishment. What we see is not that myth of the liberals—the “militarization of foreign policy.” It is rather the intellectualization of foreign policy. The whole reference of policy-making has shifted away from the practical realities of our own political, social, and economic system, to the abstract state of the outside world. There is heightened sesitivity to the so-called global “correlation of forces” (to borrow a Marxist term). There is an inordinate emphasis on maintaining the “credibility” of American force and preserving external “equilibrium.”

This is an outside-in way of looking at foreign policy. Domestic loyalties and resources are mobilized by our government to support the game of foreign affairs—which is played by power-dazzled academics, in its own airy terms of national prestige and international influence. They play nations like “cards,” and pursue their triangular geopolitical schemes; they tilt or unhinge regional balances, and invite exemplary tests of strength and resolve. The score is kept, not in terms of national well-being and the safety of the individual American citizen, but in a sort of “zero-sum” calculus, where other nations’ gains are necessarily our losses, and vice versa.

For all their heavyweight verbiage, there is a real confusion on the part of our academic policy-makers about the purpose of foreign policy—a confusion that the Carter administration shares with its predecessors. Brzezinski is not a whit different in this respect from Kissinger. Watching these people, you get the sense, not of people at work, but of people at play—though it is a rather grim kind of play. It certainly isn’t business as most of us understand it. Instead, there has to be a big theme. In the words of Brzezinski, you “choose” a “focus”—something like “planetary humanism” or “power realism,” or the “managed interdependence” that is exemplified by Brzezinski’s own Trilateral Commission. And then you make up the rules.

In all their fabulous intellectual games, to which most citizens are invited as idle spectators, the professor-strategists never bring foreign policy down to the bottom line—how other nations’ behavior, and what we do to influence it, might affect the lives and interests of ordinary American citizens. I would almost rather entrust our foreign policy—insofar as I would entrust it at all—to a tactical commander who understands what a ditch is, a patch of cover; that a wound hurts or disables; that you, and others, can get killed in an attack or in a defense; that there are always unforeseen losses; and that some odds are too steep to accept no matter what the prospect of possible gain.

The habit of confrontation

YOU ALL REMEMBER the foreign policy of Nixon and Kissinger. Despite their professions of peace-making, detente, and international cooperation, they waged a belligerent foreign policy—intent on creating positions of strength; concerned with a reputation for decisive, violent actions; dependent on nuclear threats; anxious to fight for balances of power at the drop of a bomb, or a missile. They were prone to globalize every regional encounter-any local revolution, military coup, or change of government, any nationalization or expropriation, any little border war between neighboring countries.

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Zbigniew Brzezinski

Indeed, a succession of American administrations for the past three decades has developed a habit of confrontation. And the Carter administration, despite its criticism of Nixon and Kissinger before it came to office, is no exception or improvement. If anything, there is even more confrontation and less cooperation—particularly with our major adversary, the Soviet Union. There is more to defend in the world now, and so there will be more occasions to defend it. To the traditional objects of quarrels between nations, the Carter administration has added some additional baggage: economic warfare, and “human rights”—the knee-jerk defense of our own peculiar values in other countries.

By adopting a so-called “global agenda,” and by insisting on the “linkage” of all things with the behavior of the Soviet Union, the Carter-Brzezinski regime has multiplied the occasions for intervention abroad.

To get the flavor of this administration’s approach to foreign policy, you have to look at Brzezinski’s obsession with what he calls “will.” Every foreign challenge and probe is somehow a test of our resolve, our crediblity. To him the only trouble with Vietnam was that it has induced a “self-imposed paralysis,” as he puts it.

But this is just a tissue of abstractions. Because, when we speak of the “will” of a nation, we aren’t talking about the state of mind of an individual. We are talking about the operation of a complex political and social system—the United States. A president can’t just exercise his “will”—he can only try to mobilize support from the citizens of his country. And support is what is eroding in this country, as Americans begin to understand the full costs, and experience the pains and sacrifices, of our forty-year binge of interventionist foreign policy.

The Carter-Brzezinski administration is trying to impress upon our adversaries in the world certain “codes of conduct,” or “rules of the game.” Well, they can invent the rules, but how do they propose to enforce them? Who will put the bell on the cat? And at whose expense? The Carter administration isn’t giving much thought to those questions, as it calls for 139-billion-dollar defense budgets and perpetuates double-digit inflation.

Individual American citizens are being asked to spend and risk in order to put some cards in the hands of a small coterie of foreign policy bureaucrats, who want to play their power games in the world.

—Earl C. Ravenal