Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Editor’s Column Winter 1999

Editor’s Column Winter 1999

The tabloids proclaim that the winter of 1999 is to be the coldest in decades, a guess inspired by the climatic astrology that has the warm and moist El Ni¤o giving way to the cold and dry influence of La Ni¤a. (No reaction yet from the feminist camp about said sea change, nor from White House reporters.) Scare stories in more responsible journals trumpet the Y2K effect that the coming of the year 2000 will have on our computers, and warn that if institutions, industries, and whole nations have not already taken precautions, it is probably too late to avert a season of chaos. Still others imagine nuclear or biological terrorism’s visiting American shores, or a global economic meltdown triggered by the collapse of currencies in East Asia, Russia, and other developing markets. And all the while America, the “indispensable nation,” only conceivable world leader, and last, best hope for mankind resembles the decadent Roman Empire more than the self-confident Republic governed in the name of the Senate and People by the virtuous consuls Franklin, Harry, Dwight, Jimmy, Ronald, and George.

But all this should be greeted with a certain equanimity. If war is described as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, world politics is characterized by a lengthy parade of fears interrupted by moments of boredom moments significant mostly for the harm they do to the funding of foreign policy institutes.

In These Pages

After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Winston Churchill enjoyed taunting disarmers, appeasers, and League of Nations faithful with the politically incorrect cry, “Thank God for the French army!” Alas, the French army would later let everyone down, but Churchill was nonetheless right that it was the only force capable of stopping Nazi Germany without world war, at least up through 1936. Today, the armed forces of the United States play a similar role in that they alone can squelch the ambitions of aggressors before they get out of hand. And that is why signs of demoralization, dissension, dishonor, and anti-intellectualism in the uniformed officer corps should prompt the alarms that others sound for bad weather and crashing computers. Simply put, the U.S. military on which the world relies is wandering without maps onto uncharted terrain after the Cold War. No one knows just what the national security challenges of the near future will be, what the next big war will be like, and thus how to win it. No one can be sure whether U.S. defense spending is at a needlessly high peacetime level, or at a dangerous post-Pearl Harbor nadir. No one knows whether the apparent “gap” between civil and military values and institutions in the United States is a healthy or sick development for our democracy. Above all, perhaps, no one knows whether the U.S. military’s unprecedented experiment with respect to the thorough integration of women will spawn a brave new world of gender equality or do severe damage to American combat performance. Worse still, what passes for debate over these issues has to date been ignorant and politicized, as strident civilians denounce each other’s motives rather than examine their contentions, and active duty officers duck for cover in a conspiracy of silence.

This summer the Foreign Policy Research Institute hosted a candid, off-the-record conference on these issues and more, in the hope that even if we could not pronounce where U.S. military culture is or ought to be going, we might at least frame the right questions. The results of that highly charged colloquy appear in these pages. First, Don Snider tackles the problem of definition, demonstrates that we have in fact numerous military cultures, and asks how well they work together. Next, Wick Murray asks why military cultures matter, and his examples from the past and present prove that they could not possibly matter more. Thirdly, John Hillen tackles the provocative issue of whether and how the cultures of America’s armed services ought to be changed, especially in the face of multiple new pressures, including demands from the advocates of women’s and homosexuals’ rights. Finally, Andy Bacevich reviews some recent books calling for real revolutions in American military affairs, including ex-Senator Gary Hart’s appeal to restore the draft and entrust this democracy’s defense to a militia comprised of citizens-in-arms.

Looking abroad, 1998 would appear to have been one of those years in which small hints of big changes first make their appearance. One need only think of the Asian economic flu, the testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, the de facto end of the inspection regime in Iraq, the war in Central Africa, and the financial collapse and reactionary political turn in Moscow. But our other contributors warn against premature prophecies of doom. Thus, Mohammed Ayoob explains to us why the Indian government did what it did when it did, and advises America how to adjust to the new reality. Alvin Z. Rubinstein reports on what Germany’s foreign policy experts really think about their nation’s future leadership role and whether the election of the Social Democrats will make a real difference on the course of German history. And Henry Hale recounts the powerful constraints that have inhibited any neo-imperialist initiatives in Russian foreign policy constraints that will vex reactionaries whatever the fate of Yeltsin or his liberal economic agenda.

We also welcome back Felix Chang, whose previous appearance in Orbis involved a three-part analysis of Chinese military capabilities that was so compelling that certain American security agencies took note. He now offers a two-part series on the Russian Far East, examining in this issue the almost total economic collapse of those far-flung Pacific provinces, and in the next issue the military strength (or weakness) of Russia in the Far East. Finally, Mark Clark returns to assess several new books on Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy legacy, a subject still of great moment not only to Reagan’s critics, but also to those Republicans who would claim Reagan’s mantle for themselves in the run-up to the 2000 election.

Night Thoughts of an I.R. Professor

Objectivity is the historians’ highest professional virtue. They are, in theory, pledged to attempt to reconstruct the past, in Leopold von Ranke’s famous phrase, “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” That is usually translated “as it actually was.” The German really says “as it essentially was”a more modest ambition but the intention is nonetheless clear.  Historians are supposed to try to suppress their personal biases, transcend their own time and place, and see the world through the eyes of their historical subjects.  How else can they claim to “explain,” say, the words and deeds of a medieval pope or a French revolutionary?

It goes without saying that historians, being human, fall short of that goal.  They may, for instance, marshal evidence to support interpretations of the past that will attract attention, impress their critics, and advance their careers, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. But even scrupulous historians have a way of fooling themselves.  When confronted with a daunting mass of memoranda, policy statements, and public speeches, they may read too much, or not enough, into the words of their historical actors.  Take for instance President Clinton’s 1998 statement in Beijing in which he associated the United States, for the first time, with China’s insistent “Three No’s” regarding the status of Taiwan. Did he himself understand how radical a shift in American policy that was, or did he just blunder from having been put on the spot or inadequately briefed by his aides? And if he did understand what he was doing, did he do it because he believed it was wise on the face of it, or because it was a concession made to obtain Beijing’s help on some other foreign policy problem, or because he was “paying off” the Chinese for services rendered to his political campaign? Now, diplomatic historians tend to assume rationality. They assume that the U.S. government does have a China policy, and that that policy is based on some calculation, be it a good or bad one, of the national interest.  But that assumption is not always warranted, and not only because politicians are even more slippery than those who attempt to explain them.  It is not warranted because words themselves are opaque.  Consider the wisdom of Aristotle:

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all. Injustice is all the graver when it is armed injustice; and man is furnished from birth with arms (such as, for instance, language) which are intended to serve the purposes of moral prudence and virtue, but which may be used in preference for opposite ends. That is why, if he be without virtue, he is a most unholy and savage being, and worse than all the others in the indulgence of lust and gluttony.

How modern he sounds! But then, to say that an ancient writer sounds “modern” is just to admit that not only these times, but all times try men’s souls in similar ways for similar reasons born of the immutable human condition. Whether one prefers to name it vice with the philosophers, sin with the theologians, or dysfunction with the psychologists, the universal perversity of human behavior is an empirical fact. It is what makes governments necessary, then promptly corrupts those governments, making necessary a balance of power within states and among them if human beings are to enjoy some interstices of peace and liberty during their brief span of years.

Aristotle is especially wise to identify language as a tool apt to be turned into a weapon, and to associate its corruption with savagery. In our own time we think of George Orwell’s essays and novels decrying the way twentieth-century tyrants make words mean their opposite and govern through lies. He himself first witnessed this crime as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. His heart was with the earnest revolutionaries fighting for the Republic against Franco, but their cause was betrayed by their Communist “allies” who said there would time enough for social revolution after the war was won. “The thing for which the Communists were working,” he realized, “was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure that it never happened. This became more and more obvious as time went on, as power was twisted more and more out of working-class hands, and as more and more revolutionaries of every shade were flung into jail.”

The corruption of language is a specialty, of course, of totalitarian regimes as satirically exposed in Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, where freedom is slavery, war is peace, and some animals are more equal than others. But the human condition being what it is, all statesmen of whatever stripe must practice deception to some degree or else be outmaneuvered by more ruthless opponents. Strategic thinkers from Sun Tzu to Sir Basil Liddell Hart and our own Edward Luttwak have explained how deception and the indirect approach are often fundamental to victory in any sort of strategic conflict. A cynic might claim that this applies as well to everyday life: in an automobile showroom, in competitive games and sports, in a negotiation on the job, committee meeting, or court proceeding, in an encounter with a traffic cop, or quarrel with a spouse indeed in any social situation in which we hope to advance our cause whether for good motives or ill. That does not mean we tell bold-faced lies, only that we choose our words so as to soften or shade the truth in situations where blunt honesty would be imprudent. At other times, we may indeed tell the “naked” truth, or profess to do so, but not because we are mythical George Washingtons who “cannot tell a lie,” but rather because we judge that the appearance of honesty, or a reputation for honesty, best serves our purpose at this time before this audience. In sum, words and truth, rhetoric and reality, do not coincide as often as we might like.

A true cynic might agree with Machiavelli’s observation that

the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains, and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation. . . . I will only mention one modern instance. Alexander VI did nothing else but deceive men, he thought of nothing else, and found the occasion for it; no man was ever more able to give assurances, or affirmed things with stronger oaths, and no man observed them less; however, he always succeeded in his deceptions, as he well knew this aspect of things.

To be “practiced at the art of deception,” to quote the Rolling Stones’ lyric, is thus a sine qua non of what the world considers success and a reputation for honesty useful only insofar as it is undeserved.

All this confounds historians, who must work almost exclusively from literary sources documents in their attempt to reconstruct past events and explain why they happened. Harvey Sicherman, president of the FPRI and veteran State Department speechwriter, knows from experience that in our Republic of Leaks and Freedom of Information Acts few documents are drafted, especially those classified Secret (!), without the author’s keeping in mind the impression they will make on the media (and future historians) once they become public. Or, as a wise man of my acquaintance once said, “Don’t put anything on paper that you can say on the telephone; don’t say anything on the telephone that you can say in person; and don’t say anything even in person that can be conveyed with a wink.” Frankin D. Roosevelt was just such a sphinx. He put very little of substance on paper. He habitually and breezily promised one thing to a cabinet member, reporter, or visitor in the morning, implied the exact opposite to another after lunch, and denied both accounts to a third in the evening. Then, in speeches and press conferences, he wittingly mocked those who dared challenge his veracity! No wonder historians are still in the dark about the real motives behind his domestic and foreign policies. But for all his dissimulation over thirteen years in office, he never lost the trust of the majority of the American people.

So far, I think, the post-modern deconstructionists would applaud what I have written. To them, all language is without intrinsic meaning and all values and concepts, from love and beauty and truth and justice to freedom, equality, sanity, and reality are mere social constructions: conventions, really, that the dominant race, class, or gender in a given culture at a given time has imposed on the masses, the better to maintain its own privileged position. Thus, not only ideological dictatorships, but also monarchies, liberal democracies, churches, clubs, families, and every sort of human hierarchy employ language as a mere tool of power. According to the post-modernists, language does not need to be twisted, because it is of its nature a twist. There is no such thing, pace Aristotle, as language “intended to serve the purposes of moral prudence and virtue” because somebody did the “intending” and somebody decided what is to constitute “prudence and virtue.”

But I must disappoint the post-modernists. For even as I agree, being a student of politics, that language is a tool of statecraft susceptible to infinite manipulation, I do not conclude that it therefore means nothing or anything, as in the Alice in Wonderland world of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In the world of strategy, words do mean something real and important to the speaker and to the audience. The words just do not always mean what they appear to mean, and if the statesman is good at his task, the audience knows and applauds it. For the people are in on the fraud: they are the willing accomplices in their own apparent deception. To be sure, such political chemistry is hard to measure, and any attempt to decode political rhetoric, much less deduce from it a statesman’s genuine policy, will strike some as intuitive. But the tweaking of rhetoric is grounded in the hardest reality: the need to persuade, admonish, or dupe the masses into supporting the leadership so that policy may move ahead, while at the same time signaling friends and foes alike as to what that policy is. It is a reality that politicians (indeed any strategist) and their speech writers and spin meisters must confront every day.

We are overdue, I know, for examples, and at the risk of my reputation I shall suggest some. When FDR told the American people that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” he was not saying to them, “Don’t worry, be happy” or “What, Me Worry?” or “Happy days are here again.” He was really telling them, “I know you are afraid. You have every right to be. And I intend to exploit that fear to rally support for whatever emergency measures I decide to take, because elements in the Congress, courts, and business community are going to resist them and say terrible things about me. So don’t forget your fear. I’m going to need it.”

Implicit bargains between leaders and voters are more complicated in foreign relations because most Americans most of the time don’t want to hear about foreign policy, while the president must craft his words for their effect on foreign governments as well as for their effect at home. Thus, when Khrushchev rattled his rockets and threw up the Berlin Wall in 1961, President Kennedy made loud noises about resistance, beefed up U.S. forces in Europe, visited Checkpoint Charlie himself, and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” That satisfied both his constituencies perfectly, because it made the American people and Europeans feel good while at the same time signaling the Soviets that he in fact had no intention of risking World War III over Berlin. That is, Kennedy took it upon himself to reconcile Western public opinion to the Soviet outrage. And if you doubt that, contrast it with Eisenhower’s handling of the previous Berlin crisis of 1959. He said nothing and even withdrew some American conventional forces from Germany, while at the same time quietly reinforcing U.S. nuclear forces on station. Not knowing how serious its government was, American public opinion was quiescent. Khrushchev, knowing full well what Ike’s signals meant, forgot all about his ultimatums and deadlines.

What did Mao Zedong expect to achieve when he bragged that the East is Red and denounced the United States as a “paper tiger”? Surely he did not think Americans would collectively answer, “Mao is right! We Yanks should be ashamed of ourselves, imperialist running dogs that we are, and withdraw from East Asia immediately.” On the contrary, by simultaneously promising to assist Communist “wars of liberation” in Asia and belittling American resolve and power, he was all but inviting the United States to remain engaged in Southeast Asia. Why? Because the Chinese had no desire to see Vietnam, which had hated and feared China for a thousand years, unite under the tough regime in Hanoi and make common cause with Mao’s real enemy, the Soviet Union.

Orwell was right: in political rhetoric peace often means war, and war peace and not just in the propaganda of dictators. Recently, President Clinton declared war on terrorism. Did he really mean it? Of course not, and the American people knew it, which is why they continued to give him high marks for leadership instead of rising as one to protest a “war” that could make their daily commute to work a nightmare of uncertainty. Do the American people really want to bomb and invade half a dozen Islamic countries and thus invite retaliatory acts of terror in their own hometowns, which is what Clinton’s declaration, taken literally, would entail? Of course not. What really happened was that just as Osama bin-Laden needs to blow up some embassies once in awhile to establish his bona fides among his own followers, so Clinton needs to express outrage and fire off some missiles into obscure corners of the Islamic world so as to liquidate the affair in American politics.

“We are the folk song army and every one of us cares/We all hate poverty, war, and injustice, unlike the rest of you squares.” So went Tom Lehrer’s spoof on the 1960s protesters’ penchant for declaring risk-free war on abstractions. But real statesmen do not publicly target abstractions like terrorism. They secretly target terrorists, instruct their agents to put a dozen contracts out on the ones they want out of the way, then rely on the intrigues of the bazaar to provide at least one assassin with a motive and a chance to succeed. That’s the way the British did it, from the Sudan to Afghanistan, for over a century.

The art of political signaling is ubiquitous, ancient, and highly developed. But diplomatic and political historians have only begun to study that art in any systematic fashion. Reading the tea leaves of what statesmen say and how they are heard, in order to make an educated guess as to what they are trying to achieve, is no simple task. Some statesmen are literal to the best of their ability: Harry Truman comes to mind, at least by reputation. But recall that reputations, too, are pieces in the political chess game. A notorious liar can use the truth in ways honest people cannot, whereas a reputedly honest man can run bluffs the liar cannot. That is why prestige, derived from a medieval French word denoting “a juggler’s tricks” and considered by some an unworthy pursuit, can be a critical political asset. Consider a country whose military force is always underestimated by its rivals. Such a country will not fare well in negotiations and can only exploit the misperception of others through war (just think of Prussia in the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, and Japan between 1890 and 1941). By contrast, a country always deemed stronger than it is in reality can often prevail without war, but it takes a mighty risk in throwing its reputation around, for if war should come anyway it may face disaster.

Historians have developed a number of structural theories and identified a plethora of material forces at work in human events in the  hope of explaining the patterns of the past. But history can never cease to be about individual people for the reason that if people did not display vice, sin, dysfunction whichever you will there would be no history at all. Language, in turn, is the medium people use to communicate, and without it there would be no nations or governments, societies, cultures, or families. In our quest to understand the place of words in the arena of power and to judge their effect on real events, we historians will indeed have much to learn from semiotics (the science of symbols) and linguistic theory of the constructive variety. But we may learn even more from Aristotle, Cicero, and the ancients. And we shall learn most of all, I suspect, from observing ourselves, which is to say, the contrast between our true selves and the selves we craft for others to see and hear.