Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Editor’s Column Spring 2001

Editor’s Column Spring 2001

The administration of George W. Bush, which one might term Bush II in view of the fact that many of the new president’s foreign and defense advisers are veterans of his father’s administration, inherits a world of challenges any one of which may spawn a crisis at a spur of the moment. Thus, however daunting the tasks of leadership after a contested election, and of building consensus in a divided Congress, the president and his team have no choice but to try to fashion a strong foreign and defense policy posture. Perhaps they will have sounded the trumpet by the time this issue appears. But will they have answered for us the two yawning questions of the post-Cold War era? First, given the multitude of existing or potential threats to American security, interests, and values around the globe, what standards should govern the commitment of force and expenditure of diplomatic capital overseas? Secondly, how much and what sort of military power will be required to sustain U.S. commitments at a politically acceptable level of risk? There will be a strong temptation to continue “kicking the can” down the street, in the damning metaphor coined by Don and Fred Kagan (see below). But the neighborhood is still tough, and the more alleys past which Uncle Sam shambles, the more likely that muggers, gangs, or vandals will burst forth from the shadows. When Americans call, in polls and op-eds, for bipartisanship, they are presumably expressing impatience with scandals, impeachments, special prosecutors, and elections decided in courtrooms, and a hunger for action on such matters as education and social security. But nowhere will bipartisanship be more desperately needed than in foreign affairs.

In These Pages

To the Clinton administration, the slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” applied as much to foreign policy as domestic. To be sure, the United States intervened (albeit usually late and always half-heartedly) in numerous trouble spots on four continents in the names of peacemaking, state building, crisis management, human rights, or nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But Clinton’s rhetoric suggested that the futures of Africa, Latin America, the Balkans, the Middle East, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam, not to mention China and Russia, would be shaped above all by the irresistible forces of globalization, the Internet, and the new economy. Critics of this Washington Consensus, as it was dubbed, insisted on the other hand that the influence of revolutionary technologies and economic competition could not be decisive in the absence of secure regional and global balances of power. Hence, the debates of the 1990s often reduced to a clash between those who defined security in terms of the military and diplomatic equations that make economic and social progress possible, and those who defined security in terms of the economic and social progress that make military calculations unnecessary. And that means we Americans are still, in a sense, fighting the old Cold War fight: is military deterrence (i.e., containment) critical to the defeat of the bad guys, or will economic assistance and social uplift (i.e., global meliorism) suffice to do the job by winning “hearts and minds”?

The articles in these pages demonstrate the complexity of the debate. Rachel Bronson, for instance, willingly stipulates the now widely accepted conclusion that “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran has failed. But rather than calling on Washington to deploy still more firepower to the Persian Gulf, she advocates a new, long-range approach based on economic development (beyond petroleum), political reform, and regional security cooperation among the nations and sheikdoms of the Gulf. In a similar vein, Arthur Cyr examines the spate of recent books on globalization and gives an optimistic but realistic assessment of the ability of free flows of capital, technology, goods, and people to transcend power-political rivalries. James Kurth deploys his incisive logic to the question of religion’s role in ethnic conflicts. And Felix Chang, our shrewd and meticulous observer of Chinese affairs, examines Beijing’s intensive, cooperative, and heretofore peaceful campaign to locate at home and abroad the oil and natural gas needed to sustain China’s helter-skelter economic modernization. A China that depends on overseas energy supplies and Western firms to develop its own resources has a powerful disincentive to wage war.

On the military side of the ledger, Alvin Z. Rubinstein opens the fat sheaf of transcripts produced by his “not for attribution,” top-level interviews with Israeli defense officials and analysts, and reveals their thoughts about long-range security in the Middle East. Does Israel dare to trade land for promises of peace either because the new threats mounted by missiles and terrorism render buffer zones and high ground obsolete, or because Israel’s own high-tech systems provide all the early warning and deterrence it needs? What about India’s campaign to field nuclear-armed delivery systems? According to Gaurav Kampani, the Indian consensus in favor of nuclear weapons is so broad and determined that for the United States to bluster about it would only prove New Delhi’s contention that brandishing nukes is the way to earn the world’s respect. Better, he writes, for Washington to affect cold indifference to proliferation and get on with its other business in South Asia. One of the most serious but virtually forgotten issues in American military strategy is the role of nuclear deterrence. Since the Russian Duma finally ratified the START II accord, negotiators are moving ahead with a START III agenda that promises to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal to the lowest level in half a century. Would it really be safe and stabilizing to slash our strategic deterrent to a thousand warheads? Mark T. Clark argues emphatically that it would not. Finally, Michael Noonan examines the future of American military professionalism in the post-Cold War era.

Night Thoughts of an I.R. Professor

Night thoughts tend often to be waking nightmares. It is dark at night, and probably quiet. We are tired at night, and the fears of the morrow intrude without our being able to do anything immediate about them. We brood on the events of the day, week, or month just past, and confess to ourselves that they may not mean or portend what our own public judgments (not to mention the spin and cant of our adversaries) have suggested. Night thoughts may not be truer than day thoughts they may indeed be paranoid fantasies like the bogeymen under children’s beds but they are usually more honest.

What then, is one to make of Yale historian Donald Kagan’s latest book, co-authored with his son Frederick, a professor of military history at West Point? Its message, in a nutshell, is that the United States has been living through an equivalent of Winston Churchill’s “years the locust hath eaten,” that lost era in the 1920s and ’30s when Britain allowed her defenses to slip so far beneath the level needed to maintain her global commitments that appeasement and another world war were rendered inevitable. To be sure, the authors grant that there is no threat on the order of Nazi Germany or imperial Japan in evidence at the moment, but they remind us that such threats can arise quickly, that a self-indulgent, complacent post-Cold War America is not ready to meet them, that in a world of missiles and terrorism Americans are likely to be targeted at once and at home, and that we, unlike the British in World War II, will have no “America” out there to save us in our hour of need. Indeed, American security and world peace may already be forfeit because “[t]his warning, in many respects, is already too late” (p. 434).

Has Donald Kagan, a universally respected authority on war and peace in ancient and modern history, been so audacious as to publish his own “night thoughts”? If he had vented his fears in an op-ed or even an article hastily written, the answer might be yes. But this dense work of nearly 500 pages is not only the product of sober reflection and research, it amounts to the latest and heaviest salvo in a five-year campaign led by William Kristol, Kagan’s other son Robert, and their colleagues at the National Interest to reinvigorate U.S. foreign policy, rebuild its military, and remoralize its politics at home and abroad. Frustrated by the failure of their crusade to win converts, they even went so far as to name many of their fellow conservatives today’s “clear and present danger” by dint of their “absentmindedness, or parsimony, or indifference” to world peace and the spread of democracy. “The middle path many of our political leaders prefer, with token increases in the defense budget and a ‘humble’ view of America’s role in the world, will not suffice.”

The present volume drives home that point with a sledgehammer of an historical analogy whose lessons presumably no one except a Patrick Buchanan would gainsay. Their very title is an echo of John F. Kennedy’s book Why England Slept and a compilation of Winston Churchill’s speeches from the 1930s, While England Slept. And their historical reconstruction of British defense strategy (or what passed for one) during the interwar decades is detailed and accurate. The coalition cabinet under Prime Minister David Lloyd George rapidly demobilized its army after the Armistice of 1918, and its navy after the Washington Conference arms limitation treaties of 1922. The British Empire emerged from the war even larger than before 1914 and inherited the lion’s share of responsibility for policing the world, especially after the United States rejected the Treaty of Versailles and forswore military commitments beyond the Western hemisphere. And yet Lloyd George’s government and those that followed only looked for excuses to do nothing when challenges to the postwar order arose, and failed to back up with the necessary force those halting initiatives Britain did take. Most symbolic, perhaps, were the British cabinet’s promises to rededicate its resources to domestic welfare in order to make a country “fit for heroes to live in” and to adopt the notorious Ten Year Rule of August 15, 1919: “It should be assumed, for framing revised estimates, that the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years, and that no Expeditionary Force is required for this purpose” (p. 35).

The authors recount the serial results of Britain’s abdication of responsibility to establish and preserve a new, liberal world order. When the Turkish nationalist movement rebelled against the old Ottoman sultanate and the Treaty of SŠvres imposed on it by the victorious Allies of World War I, the British government was loath to deploy sufficient forces to oblige compliance with the treaty. Instead, it unleashed the Greek army, whose invasion of Anatolia ended, in mid-1922, in a disaster. Kemal Atatrk’s Nationalists routed the Greeks, whose army and civilians alike fled across the Aegean. The result was that Britain was obliged to recognize the new Turkish republic and treat it as an equal. Also, in 1923 Italy’s new dictator Benito Mussolini seized the island of Corfu, and Greece appealed to the League of Nations. But rather than take a firm stand against aggression, the British sold out the Greeks and in so doing grievously weakened the League’s prestige from the start. Meanwhile, France and Germany were engaged in a ferocious struggle over the execution of the Treaty of Versailles. But the British failed either to restrain the French (who sent an army into the industrial Ruhr Valley in 1923, sparking the ruinous German inflation) or to satisfy their craving for security by offering a meaningful alliance to deter or defeat future German aggression. Finally, in the 1925 Locarno treaties, Britain did promise to guarantee the demilitarization of Germany’s Rhineland frontier with France and Belgium, but her lack of an expeditionary force (see the Ten Year Rule above) rendered the guarantee anodyne.

When the fascist powers went on the march in the 1930s, Britain was ill equipped to resist, and that weakness in turn sapped her will. In 1931, the Japanese military seized all of mineral-rich Manchuria, a province as large as France and Germany combined. But when China appealed to the League, Lord Lytton’s commission merely studied the matter and recommended that the Japanese withdraw (instead, they withdrew from the League). In 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), which also made an appeal to the League. But Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare not only continued to ship oil to the Italian military and permit it to use the Suez Canal, he fatally undercut the League’s sanctions against Italy by trying secretly to bargain with Mussolini. Finally, when Hitler tore up the Locarno treaties in 1936 and reoccupied the Rhineland, the cabinet of Stanley Baldwin accepted the fait accompli, while the French dared not act without British support. That was perhaps the most critical turning point because, as George F. Kennan later wrote, the remilitarization of the Rhineland meant that henceforth Hitler could not be stopped except by risking a total war, and could not be beaten in such a war except with the aid of the Soviet Union. It would seem therefore that the British bear much responsibility not only for World War II, but for the Cold War that broke out in its aftermath.

The second half of the book focuses on American defense and foreign policy following the Western victory in the Cold War, which the Kagans effectively liken to Britain’s self-defeating posture after 1918. The first Bush administration and especially the two Clinton administrations inherited even broader responsibilities than the United States assumed during its struggle with the Soviet Union, albeit the postÛCold War dangers were of a lower order of magnitude. Accordingly, the United States has systematically expanded its commitments, such as the dual containment of Iran and Iraq, occupation of the Balkans, and expansion of NATO to former Soviet-bloc countries. And yet the U.S. government, like the British in the 1920s, has slashed its armed forces so severely as to call into question its ability to meet its present requirements, much less any new and genuinely fearsome threats on the order of the fascist tide of the 1930s. When American force and diplomacy have been engaged, the United States and its allies have repeatedly stopped short of the thorough victories (e.g., in Iraq, Serbia, North Korea) needed to eradicate the problem at hand and send a clear signal to other potential enemies of peace and human rights. Most risky of all, the Pentagon has virtually closed down its research, development, and procurement of high-technology weapons in a manner reminiscent of Britain’s failure to pursue air power during its “long sleep.” The lesson would therefore seem clear: the new American administration must rearm and quickly if the United States and its allies are not to fall into mortal peril in the next decade or two, much less build and maintain the liberal, democratic, and open world order of which President Clinton boasted.

I agree with the Kagans that the U.S. military has been hollowed out and that a yawning gap exists today between America’s power and her commitments. Still I wonder (especially at night) whether the authors’ interpretation of the causes of British passivity is correct, for if it is not, then their analogy to the United States today may not be apt and their remedya mere call to armsmay fail to address the real sources of American torpor. In particular, was Britain’s flaccid leadership then (or America’s now) a function of material disarmament or moral disarmament, a matter of means or a matter of will?

Let us look first at the story of Britain. The authors indict the Lloyd George cabinet’s eagerness to reduce its military after the Armistice, end conscription, and turn attention to domestic affairs. As a result, the “chance to create a stable new order came quickly and passed unheeded” (p. 17). But what else could one expect the British to do? They emerged from the Great War with a debt of billions, their industrial plant exhausted, and their merchant marine destroyed by the U-boats. Healthy veterans demanded jobs, crippled veterans and war widows expected generous benefits, labor unions agitated for the higher wages, shorter hours, and welfare programs that had been put on hold for four years, and the Irish question that spawned armed rebellion in 1916 remained unsolved. Perhaps the best indication of the restraints under which Lloyd George labored was the fierce opposition of the unions to any large-scale effort to overthrow the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. As for defending the “new world order,” most Britons soon came to view the Treaty of Versailles as vindictive (a “Carthaginian peace” in the phrase of John Maynard Keynes), damaging to European economic recovery, and morally illegitimate. But even if the British had been prepared to enforce the peace and take the lead in the new League of Nations, they were inhibited from doing so by the United States itself, which spent the 1920s and early 1930s urging Britain to disarm further, break its alliance with Japan, balance its budget, pay off its war debts, and accommodate Germany’s demands for revision of the peace treaties!

I believe in the value of historical counterfactuals. But I do not think it plausible to ask “what if” the British had remained on a war footing throughout the 1920s in an attempt to cajole Germans, Italians, Turks, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and Soviets into playing cricket by Britain’s rules. Nor would it always have been wise for Britain to try. For instance, the Kagans assert that the British would have been right to reinforce their garrison in Turkey and “secure control of the strategic Straits,” but they refused to recognize “that these appropriate political and strategic goals required the maintenance of armed forces to guarantee their achievement” (p. 77). I believe those judgments are contradicted by the events themselves. A massive British intervention aimed at enforcing an “imperialist” protectorate over Constantinople would not only have violated the principle of national self-determination on which the new, moral order was supposed to be based, it would have also amounted to a forcible effort to prevent the very “regime change” everyone heralded in Germany when the Kaiser stepped down. Indeed, the only prudent way for Britain to establish friendly relations with Turkey in the long run, and not incidentally win Turkish recognition of Britain’s oil-rich mandate in Mesopotamia, was to negotiate with Kemal Atatrk’s nationalists over the status of the straits and other Western interests in the region. That is what the British finally did at the Lausanne Conference of 1923, and they were rewarded for their conciliatory stance when the Turks later defied Hitler and stayed neutral during World War II.

On the matter of Britain’s lackluster commitment to French security, I agree with the Kagans wholeheartedly. But their text or subtext implies that the British and French failed to defend the postwar order because they had unilaterally disarmed. That was so only for the case of Manchuria: no one (including the United States) deployed forces in the Far East anywhere near sufficient to persuade the Japanese to shelve their ambitions. But the authors themselves grant that when Mussolini attacked Abyssinia it was well within Britain’s power to sink Italy’s navy, cut off its supply lines, and put paid to Mussolini’s New Roman Empire in a matter of weeks. They also admit that when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936 it was well within the French army’s power to cross the border, scatter the Wehrmacht’s feeble formations, and quite possibly instigate the demise of the Fhrer’s regime. Finally, they even conclude that Britain’s infamous Ten Year Rule proved valid and was abandoned even before Hitler took power.

Is it not more convincing to suggest that the calamity of World War II was due not to the fact that the democracies lacked force, but rather to the fact that they had long since lost their nerve? The “disarmament” of the British and French was moral, not material, which is why the great French historian Jean Baptiste Duroselle titled his book on the 1930s simply La d‚cadence. Why, for instance, did the British not do more in defense and foreign policy in the mid-to-late 1920s? Because the nation was being torn asunder by the economic retrenchments accompanying the return of the pound sterling to the gold standard, by the general strike that erupted in 1926, and by the fear of communist penetration of the labor unions. Why did Britain not do more in the early-to-mid 1930s? Because the nation was buried in the Great Depression, and economic orthodoxy dictated balanced budgets and elimination of “wasteful” military expenditures. Why were the British paralyzed in 1936? Because their greatest constitutional crisis since 1688 was clawing daily at the nerves of the government and people: the Abdication Crisis born of Edward VII’s desire to marry a divorced American commoner. As for the French, they scarcely had a government in March 1936 as cabinets toppled and socialists and fascists fought in the streets.

But even these contingencies and distractions do not get to the heart of the matter, which is that the British and French did not defend the world order against the fascists because they had long since ceased to believe in its legitimacy. Woodrow Wilson had declared national self-determination to be the new organizing principle of international relations, but it was the Germans who appeared to have the legitimate national grievances. Wilsonians and Marxists alike damned atavistic imperialism, but it was the British and French who possessed the greatest colonial empires. A generation of historians had concluded that the Great War was caused not by German aggression, but by the imperialism, militarism, alliance systems, and secret diplomacy practiced by all the powers. Hence, high-minded Britons of all parties demanded that their government avoid the mistakes of pre-1914 by refusing to engage in arms races or alliance building and rely instead on direct appeasement or the League of Nations. Another important source of the democracies’ moral disarmament was fear. Military theorists predicted that the next war would either bring another bloodbath in the trenches or else the quick destruction of London and Paris by air bombardment. No government could have stayed in power a week if it were not seen to take every step to avoid a second world war. Finally, one of the most important effects of World War I on British strategy was the increased influence exercised by the Dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand): if Londoners were chary of risking the British Empire to keep Germans out of the Rhineland or Japanese out of Jehol, how much more so were the Dominions?

The Kagans, of course, understand most of these factors and even employ them to buttress their analogy to the United States today in a series of a fortiori arguments. Were the British so exhausted by one world war and so fearful of another that they balked at assuming leadership in the post-1918 world? Then how much more blameworthy would Americans be if they fail to lead, inasmuch as their Cold War triumph was comparatively bloodless? Were the British so financially strapped after World War I, and again during the Great Depression, that they were loath to pay for the arms needed to secure the world? Then how much more niggardly would Americans be if they fail to pay, inasmuch as their economy is booming as never before? Were the British inhibited in their exercise of leadership by American isolationism, French vengefulness, German resistance, Soviet communism, and Japanese ambition? Then how much more inexcusable would be an American failure to lead, inasmuch as no other power can challenge U.S. military and economic strength, and all but China and Russia share American values?

Yet, the Kagans point out, what we have witnessed since 1989 is American complacence and reticence based on the beliefs that democracy and capitalism will triumph everywhere through globalization, that no “peer competitor” is evident even on the horizon, and that second-rate rogue states can be brought to heel through air power with scarcely an American casualty. So the public, politicians, and pundits (and even some generals and admirals) have happily spoken of peace dividends, a strategic pause, and a unipolar world in order to justify meat-axe cutbacks in defense. What they seem not to grasp is that credible force in being and force in reserve are just as necessary to construct a peace as they are to liquidate a war. The upshot is that the United States, like Britain in the 1920s, has settled for “hollow victories” that only signal to the world America’s lack of resolve, bold new commitments that America’s disarmament renders incredible, and singularly short-sighted defense plans. Indeed, the Kagans perform a valuable service by describing and analyzing the recent plans including the Base Force concept that provides for two Major Regional Contingencies, the Bottom-Up Review, the General Accounting Office critiques, the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the National Defense Panelall of which echo Britain’s Ten Year Rule in that they assume that no peer challengers will arise until 2020 or so, and thus inhibit the Pentagon from designing the force structures needed to prevail in a major war.

And yet, and yet. Somehow all these arguments by analogy leave me unconvinced, and the reason is precisely the Kagans’ emphasis on material force as opposed to moral disarmament. It can certainly be the case, as they write, that “the inadequacy of military forces to cope with worldwide responsibilities can cripple a nation’s will to combat even a single challenge for which its power is more than enough” (p. 431). But how can one argue today that the nations devoted to world order have inadequate forces, when the United States and its allies presently account for 80 percent of all the military spending on earth? Of course, vast sums of money can be easily wasted, and it may be that despite its present hegemony, the United States is still unprepared for the big wars that may come in the near future. But why then do the authors say nothing about nuclear deterrence in the post-Cold War era, or national missile defense, or rapid deployment forces, or the high-tech revolution in military affairs? For that matter, why do they ignore the palpably flagging morale of the U.S. armed services, or the effects on combat effectiveness of social experimentation such as the mixing of male and female, straight and gay personnel, or the devastating impact of high operational tempos, or the wisdom or folly of using combat units for open-ended peacekeeping missions? In sum, they boldly affirm the Clinton administration’s rhetoric about America’s responsibility to be the world’s policeman, but offer no recommendations about where, when, and why U.S. forces ought to be deployed, or what force structures and weapons are likely to be needed in case one or two regional wars erupt. Their only remedy to our putative “British disease” is to spend more money. But on what, and for what?

The fundamental question regarding the British analogy is whether Americans today believe that building and defending the new world order everywhere is both their duty and in their national interest, and that a failure to do so may soon invite the sorts of challenges that pushed the world onto the slippery slope leading to World War II. If the answer is yes, then the United States is indeed unready and needs to be far more hegemonic than it already is! If, however, one answers that the purpose of America’s defense establishment is to defend America, her interests and allies, and ensure that the United States remains top dog for a long time to come, then aggressive arms racing in the absence of clear and present dangers, and aggressive policing of all nations everywhere, may perversely encourage other states to retaliate across a spectrum ranging from countervailing alliances to terrorism to weapons of mass destruction, and so reduce U.S. influence and security.

As Harvey Sicherman has wisely observed, the top dog may squander its status if its bark is worse than its bite, or if it barks incessantly while attempting to bite every mutt in the pack. The top dog maintains its status if it barks seldom, but loudly, and bites seldom, but hard. The British once knew that, before World War I sapped their spirit, because it was Lord Curzon who admonished that a great power ought never to intervene unless its intervention is decisive. If the Kagans would identify just one country or one contingency in which they would not have U.S. forces engaged, then we would have grounds for argument and quite possibly agreement over America’s duties in the world and whether Americans possess the material and moral force to discharge them. But until they do, I remain unconvinced that America 2001 equals Britain 1928. Not yet, anyway.