The New Protracted Conflict

Robert Strausz-Hupé, founder of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and first editor of Orbis, passed away on February 24, 2002 at the age of 98. He completed this document— his last— in December 2001; it is the introduction to the Spring 2002 issue of Orbis, which had a special focus on the war on terrorism.


In 1959 I wrote a book called Protracted Conflict, which became my most popular work. Perhaps this was because the central idea spoke to the times and because, although a professor, I did not let too much learning interfere with the theme.

What I proposed was simply that after a dozen years of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a pattern was in place that would continue until one side or the other was transformed. Either the United States would cease to be a democracy or the Soviet Union would cease to be a Leninist dictatorship. The ideological divide was too deep and wide for any lasting peace, and while tensions might grow or diminish, these were tactical decisions dictated by geopolitical convenience, not strategic changes. Try as Western statesmen might to bridge this divide with detente or, from the Soviet side, with the ideological sleight of hand called “peaceful coexistence,” the conflict would not end until one side or the other triumphed.

I thought it was supremely important for Americans and their statesmen to understand that we were in for a “protracted conflict.” This ran against our national preference for quick solutions and our tendency to believe that goodwill and money would always turn an enemy into a friend. We would have to stay alert, dispense with illusions about the other side, and keep ourselves mobilized. It would indeed be a severe test of our democracy to prevail.

There were times when I feared we might persuade ourselves that the conflict was over when it was not, and that then the dangers would remain or even grow in the face of our weakness. Many wagered against us, impressed only by our material cravings, political cacophony, and apparent attachment to foreign policies predicated on avoiding a fight. But they were wrong. This was one story with a happy ending. The Soviet Union disappeared and that protracted conflict was over.

I have never been of an apocalyptic frame of mind, and so the end of the Cold War did not strike me as the end of history. The last decade, although peaceful and prosperous, was still disfigured by ethnic slaughter and the ascendancy of hostile doctrines, not least the simple envy of American success. The American people, led by their government, thought all of this was very far away. After September 11, we knew that it was not.

This struggle will be difficult and protracted. Our opponents deem us evil and some of them see an attack on us as the best and shortest route to paradise. This is a formidable stimulus to action. Terrorism is the instrument of the weak, and many of our adversaries are weak. Americans still want quick solutions, still like to be liked, and still see force as the very last resort. Our leaders must keep a psychological balance between despair and euphoria as the campaign proceeds, as most campaigns do, in fits and starts, on a field of battle obscured by smoke, some of it rhetorical. There can be no successful foreign policy without semantic leadership.

Still, we start with several advantages that the Cold War generation lacked. There is no serious domestic opposition to President Bush’s strategy, at least not yet, no agitation for detente and no arguments over arms control with our enemy. Furthermore, all the major powers are ranged on our side. That Vladimir Putin’s Russia has seen fit to ally itself with us is not an adverse development so long as we do not take it too far out of gratitude, for instance by extending Moscow a veto over NATO. As for the Atlantic alliance itself, this is another challenge to its role in a post-Cold War world and one that extends beyond welcome military solidarity to domestic affairs. Our European allies share with us issues of home security. One hopes also that this time at least, Turkey’s indispensable contributions— as a member of NATO and a Muslim state that seeks rather than rejects association with America and the West— will be recognized. These are all important assets that must be conserved.

My main point, however, is that this protracted conflict, like the last one, will end only when one side vanquishes the other. Either the United States, at the head of the international order— such as it is— will forfeit its leadership, or international terrorists and the states who use them will find violence against innocent civilians a tactic too dangerous to be used.

I have lived long enough to see good repeatedly win over evil, although at a much higher cost than need have been paid. This time we have already paid the price of victory. It remains for us to win it.