On November 4, 1980, the American electorate exercised its periodic constitutional and God-given right to throw the rascals out: the rascals in this case being, collectively, James Earl Carter and his administration. Mr. Carter was challenged successfully by a Republican candidate pledged to restore America’s greatness, both foreign and domestic, in the wake of the incumbent’s alleged failures.
Mr. Carter was unable to defend his tenure in the polls in 1980, but this year has seen a literary counterattack by the four principal foreign and defense policy figures of that administration: Carter himself, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Needless to say, these works (including Brown’s, which does not really qualify as a memoir) do what conventional memoirs are supposed to-offer a defense, or at least an explanation, of policies that may have appeared indefensible or inexplicable at the time.
Brzezinski goes so far as to assert that “Despite the very major setbacks suffered in Iran and the continuing stalemate in U.S.-Soviet relations, in an overall sense Carter left the U.S. position in the world considerably better than what he inherited” (Power and Principle [PP], p. 517). Among the successes of President Carter, Brzezinski lists the “reidentification of America with certain basic ideals” (i.e., the human-rights policy); the Camp David Accords; the normalization of relations with China; the Panama Canal Treaties; American commitment to majority rule in Africa; “the revitalization and modernization of American strategic doctrine and military posture, including PD-59, the RDF [Rapid Deployment Force], and the MX”; the Carter Doctrine relating to the security of the Persian Gulf; sanctions against the Soviet Union after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and Salt II (“not ratified but mutually honored”).
“The list speaks for itself,” Brzezinski concludes. “And it guarantees that President Carter will be praised more generously by posterity than he was by the electorate in 1980” (PP, pp. 528-29).
Mr. Carter was not treated so kindly by the electorate in 1980, however, precisely because this list of accomplishments was judged insufficient, if not harmful, to American national interests. After all, Ronald Reagan campaigned as a critic of the Panama Canal and SALT II Treaties. A “continuing stalemate in U.S.-Soviet relations” hardly seemed an apt description of what Mr. Reagan characterized as the relentless drive of the Soviet Union toward military superiority and global hegemony. And Mr. Carter’s human-rights policy had become by the end of his administration the same kind of political embarrassment that the term (but not the concept of) “detente” had been for the Ford-Kissinger Administration.
No matter how one would grade Mr. Carter’s national security “report card,” he clearly had the look of a loser during the last two years of his term. The books reviewed here barely dispute that point. Remarkably, the authors devote very little attention to the role that, say, Soviet misbehavior or Republican opportunism might have played in Mr. Carter’s troubles. Instead, blame is laid at the doorstep of a chaotic, undisciplined, and contrary world that never quite gave itself over to the liberal realm of reason and good order. But even more at fault-and this point is made thoroughly, if implicitly-were the American people, who refused to resign themselves to being satisfied with less power, less wealth, and lower expectations. They supported instead a candidate who promised a better tomorrow, good times, and no more Irans. Mr. Carter could and would not compete with this optimistic vision because he and his advisers did not believe it to be possible any longer, and, unlike the American public, they had come to grips with their brave new world.
This pessimism is significant because it marks the severe decline, and quite possibly the demise, of the most vital force in 20th century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism.
In Keeping Faith, Carter explains that he read the inaugural addresses of the past Presidents in order to prepare his own. “I was touched most of all by Woodrow Wilson’s. Like him, I felt I was taking office at a “time when Americans desired a return to first principles by their government” (KF, p. 19). The affinity between Wilson and Carter is deeper than the obvious fact that both were born in the South, gained their political experience in the office of governor, and placed a great deal of stress on Christianity. They also shared basic assumptions about the nature of political and human life-assumptions that have, in fact, dominated American politics and intellectual thought throughout this century.
Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy genius rested in his ability to create a synthesis between two previously antithetical American nationalisms: isolationism and interventionism. Wilson agreed with the isolationists that the existing international system, based on European imperialism, was fundamentally wrong and dangerous. However, he agreed with the interventionists (and disagreed with the isolationists) that American interests and honor required some degree of U.S. involvement abroad-including participation in a European war. Wilson’s solution-liberal internationalism-was intended to identify the moral energy of the United States with its global interests. In a September 1919 address in St. Louis, Wilson remarked:
I have sometimes heard gentlemen discussing the questions that are now before us with a distinction drawn between nationalism and internationalism in these matters. It is very difficult for me to follow their distinction. The greatest nationalist is the man who wants his nation to be the greatest nation, and the greatest nation is the nation which penetrates to the heart of its duly and mission among the nations of the world. With every flash of insight into the great politics of mankind, the nation that has that vision is elevated to a place of influence and power which it cannot get by arms, which it cannot get by commercial rivalry, which it can get by no other way than by that spiritual leadership which comes from a profound understanding of the problems of humanity.
Wilson conceived the task of the statesman as recognizing the flow of history, identifying himself with its course, while maintaining an even keel. To go against the flow of history was hopeless and reactionary; to attempt radical alterations or an unwarranted acceleration of history was to court revolutionary chaos. Domestically, the flow of history was the tide of Progressivism; internationally, it was the desire for self-determination. Wilson believed that the United States had to wage war, and had to seek peace, with international self-determination (“the heart of its duty and mission among the nations of the world”) as the objective.
By self-determination, Wilson in essence meant an extension of his New Freedom progressivism to the world (and specifically to Europe). Together with the interventionists, he argued that in the new age of steam and electricity, events overseas could threaten the well-being of the American regime. Wilson saw a link between the success of progressivism at home and self-determination abroad; to threaten the latter would eventually endanger the former.
Unlike the interventionists, however, Wilson and the isolationists did not regard the danger as coming from German aggression so much as from the old international system that resulted in such violence and oppression. That system, based on the balance of power and driven by competing nationalisms, had impeded the flow of self-determination and, by making conflict likely, had created a situation where violent reaction or revolution was inevitable.
Wilson’s solution was a new international system, which was “not a balance of power, not one powerful group of nations set off against another, but a single, overwhelming, powerful group of nations who shall be the trustee of the peace of the world.” Those nations would be led by the United States out of the darkness of Old World militarism and into the light of New (World) Freedom.
The liberal internationalism of Woodrow Wilson was defeated politically in 1919-1920 by a coalition of isolationists and interventionists. The isolationists rejected Wilson’s contention that American democracy depended decisively on the growth of world democracy. The interventionists objected to Wilson’s preference for universalism over specific American national interests. And so the American majority turned its back on Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Pure Wilsonian internationalism seemed dead.
Just as appeasement in Britain had been thoroughly discredited by Hitler’s repeated aggressions, isolationism became politically untenable in the United States after Pearl Harbor. Thus, internationalism had been proven right after all. In the Presidential election of 1944, Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey were constantly pressured to outdo one another in support for the creation of a new international organization after the war. Four or eight years before, such a pledge would have been political suicide.
Since the end of World War II, the internationalist strain in American foreign policy has been dominant. Even though its basic assumptions remained those of Woodrow Wilson, there have been several discrete formulations of internationalism that resulted in quite different policies.
Franklin Roosevelt fought World War II to prevent German and Japanese domination of Eurasia, while building toward a new international system in which Soviet-American cooperation would be the cornerstone. He also sought the peaceful breakup of the European colonial empires so that the forces of nationalism in the “Third World” could be harnessed to democratic nation-building rather than to violent rebellion against their colonial masters.
When the Truman Administration decided that Soviet hostility made significant U.S.-U.S.S.R. cooperation impossible, the decision was made to build an international order against the Soviet Union. This became known as the Cold War, and the international system was referred to as containment. Decolonization was still seen as an essential step toward international peace and justice, but the political and economic stability of Western Europe (and later, Japan) became the principal focus of American policy.
This anti-Soviet internationalism (the famous bipartisan consensus heard so much about these days) was subtly altered during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Now that Europe and Japan were presumably secure from Soviet nuclear or conventional attack, the new challenge for the United States was one of managing the inevitable revolutionary process in the Third World. The success of American policy was contingent on the ability to identify the United States with moderate, pro-democratic forces, in opposition to existing reactionary structures, and to extreme pro-Soviet or local Communist elements.
Despite their differences, all of these variations of internationalism were based on the synthesis created by Woodrow Wilson: the belief in an inevitable historical process; the assumption that the United States is and must be on the side of history, both at home and abroad; the preference for remaining in the placid center of the historical stream rather than risking the turbulence of either the right or left banks-to say nothing of foolishly swimming against the tide; the goal of creating a comprehensive world order that would actively preserve the peace and promote international justice.
For all its flaws, liberal internationalism brought the United States fully into world affairs. Under its principles, America fought and won two world wars, and then opposed Soviet expansionism after 1945. Taking everything into account, that is not a bad record.
Jimmy Carter came into office with traditional internationalism at a low ebb. Rightly or wrongly, it had been discredited during the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger had unsuccessfully attempted to create an international order based on an entirely different understanding of the historical process. Traditional isolationism was no longer politically viable. In order to fill this foreign policy vacuum, Carter proposed to revive internationalism with his own peculiar agenda.
To be sure, the principal foreign policymakers in the Carter Administration were in full agreement with the general tenets of Wilsonian internationalism. Brzezinski argues for a fusion of power and principle as “the only way to ensure global stability and peace while we accommodate to the inevitable and necessary reality of global change and progress.” Human rights “was the wave of the present. It was the ‘central form in which mankind is expressing its new political awakening,’ and it was essential for the United States to be identified with this.”
“As President,” Carter reflects, “I hoped and believed that the expansion of human rights might be the wave of the future throughout the world, and I wanted the United States to be on the crest of this movement.” Carter understood human rights to be more than “democratic principles such as those expressed in the Bill of Rights.” They also included “protection against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or ethnic origin. . . . The right of a people to a job, food, shelter, medical care, and education. . . .” (KF, p. 144).
If this sounds very much like Carter’s domestic program, it is further evidence that Wilsonian internationalism remained alive, if not well, between 1977 and 1981. Indeed, internationalism is based on the ultimate indivisibility of domestic and foreign concerns. Its proponents have believed that the rest of the world would and should become more like the New Freedom, the New Deal, the New Frontier, or the Great Society. For Carter, this meant applying something like the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to the world at large. As Vance noted in a memorandum to Carter, “There can be no exclusively American solutions. There can only be international answers, or there will be no answers at all.” This is precisely the point that separates American internationalism from traditional isolationism and interventionism.
But the global order that stems from the Carter Administration’s view of internationalism is decisively different from its predecessors. Wilson, F.D.R., Kennedy, and Johnson were very much a part of the American Century, when the United States assumed itself to be ahead of the rest, to be the single most important instrument in creating a peaceful and democratic world order. The Carter Administration seemed overwhelmed, in Brzezinski’s words, by “issues stemming from a complex process of global change. A concentrated foreign policy must give way to a complex foreign policy, no longer focused on a single, dramatic task-such as the defense of the West” (PP, p. 543).
The tasks that the Carter Administration set for itself went by the collective name of “the global issues.” These included “human rights, economic development, energy, population growth, environmental damage, food, nuclear proliferation, and arms transfers . . . that array of complex problems that transcend bilateral and regional relations” (Hard Choices, [HC], p. 28). Brzezinski created a Global Issues cluster on the National Security Council Staff “to deal with human rights and the range of problems that cut across traditional foreign policy areas” (PP, p. 125). Or as Vance would have it, “Building on our own experience as a pluralistic nation, we must also learn to work effectively in an increasingly pluralistic world” (HC, p. 435).
A pluralistic world meant for the Carter Administration a decisive rejection of Cold War internationalism’s bipolar world model. The United States, as Carter said in 1977, must overcome its inordinate fear of communism: “. . . I believed that too many of our international concerns were being defined almost exclusively by the chronic United States-Soviet confrontation mentality, which seemed to me shortsighted and counterproductive.” Brzezinski, the geopolitician, argued that “The world had entered a new post-Eurocentric era; that concentration either on the Atlantic alliance or on the U.S.-Soviet competition would not suffice to assure both international peace and increasing global justice in a world that has become politically awakened and active” (PP, p. 515).
But why had the Soviet danger posited by the Cold War internationalists declined? Brzezinski, the “hard-liner” of the Carter Administration, responded by arguing that the real threat to American security was international disorder, and not the Red Army or Communism.
Yet this Soviet thrust toward global preeminence was less likely to lead to a Pax Sovietica than to international chaos. The Soviet Union might hope to displace America from its leading role in the international system, but it was too weak economically and too unappealing politically to itself assume that position. This, I argued, was the ultimately self-defeating element in the Soviet policy; it could exploit global anarchy, but was unlikely to be able to transform it to its own enduring advantage. The Soviet danger was of a different order than that usually stressed by staunch conservatives. And this is why I felt that the proper American response should not be a deliberate return to Cold War tensions, but a carefully calibrated policy of simultaneous competition and cooperation of its own, designed to promote a more comprehensive and more reciprocal detente – one which would engage the Soviet Union in a more constructive response to global problems. (PP, pp. 148)
In a memorandum to Carter early in the Administration, Brzezinski explained:
. . . my concern for the future is not that the Soviet Union will emerge as the dominant world power, imposing a ‘pax Sovietica.’ I fear something else: that the destructive nature of Soviet efforts will increasingly make it impossible for us to give order and stability to global change and thus prevent the appearance of a more cooperative and just international system. We will become more isolated and fearful and inward-looking. Eventually, the Soviet Union too will suffer, for it is vulnerable in many ways. The East Europeans are restless, non-Russian Soviet nations are becoming more assertive, the Chinese remain hostile. But that is small comfort if Soviet discomfiture is preceded by some decades by our own decline and withdrawal. (PP, p. 318)
Carter’s internationalism, based on such a premise, ultimately decayed into a form of moralistic isolationism. As the Reagan Administration has discovered in Lebanon, it is difficult to sustain public support for simply maintaining international order. The American people need to be convinced that an action is both moral and in the national interest-whether justified in terms of rescuing American citizens or eliminating an advanced Soviet military base in the Caribbean. This inability to link morality with national interest proved to be the downfall of Carter as well as Wilson.
But Carter’s internationalism was unique in that it was founded not on the assumption of American moral superiority, as was the case from Wilson to Johnson, but rather on American moral culpability. Guilt, not duty, was the imperative. America was not the answer, but the problem. Such a policy foundation did more than inhibit public support for an outward-looking policy, it logically demanded an American withdrawal from the corrupt international system that it had created.
To be sure, there is much celebration of American morality in these memoirs. But behind this lurks the guilt over Vietnam, the CIA in Chile, multinational corporate conspiracy. It is implicit in Cyrus Vance’s decision to resign over the use of force in the Iran hostage crisis. It is present in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s incredible remark that Central America was “a region which we never understood too well and which we occasionally dominated the way that the Soviets dominated Eastern Europe” (PP, p. 139). It is evident in Jimmy Carter’s observation that the strengthening of America’s defenses would have to be undertaken “without alarming our own people or our allies” (KF, p. 223).
Vance is undoubtedly sincere when he attempts to place the Carter Administration in the “centrist mainstream” of American foreign policy since World War II; i.e., liberal internationalism. But the “lessons” of the Vietnam War were so strong as to skew the moderate historicist approach of internationalism far to the left. One Administration official became famous for referring to the Ayatollah Khomeini as a saint, and Cuban intervention in Africa as a stabilizing factor. But by the light of the new internationalism, Andrew Young was entirely correct. The “wave of the future” was revolution, not moderate change-whether in Nicaragua or Iran. It is probable that Carter and Vance, caught uneasily between their Kennedyesque optimism and the Vietnam experience, never understood fully where “the flow of history” was taking them. Rather than simply abandon the internationalist standard of progressive change of the status quo, Carter was willing to surrender America’s claim to omnipotence as well as to moral purity. The world was in trouble because that was how the new reality worked, not because of a failure of (his) American policy. In his memoirs, Carter recalls that during his Inaugural Address he
broached a concept that was to prove painfully prescient and politically unpopular: limits. We simply could not afford everything people might want. Americans were not accustomed to limits – on natural resources or on the power of our country to influence others or to control international events.
He then quotes from his address:
We have learned that “more” is not necessarily “better,” that even our great nation has its recognized limits, and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems . . . we must simply do our best. (KF, p. 21)
Whether true or not, this argument certainly undermines the internationalist tradition from which Carter’s foreign policy is drawn. (Henry Kissinger made the same point as part of his realist critique of internationalism.) As a result, by radicalizing internationalism, Carter succeeded only in discrediting it even further.
Is there any longer a decent basis for the moral and self-interested participation of the United States in world affairs? Some Democrats such as Max Kampelman, the U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe talks in Madrid, believe that it is possible to re-create a moderate bipartisan internationalist consensus. President Reagan himself, after a brief but intriguing fling with semi-unilateralist interventionism, seems to be backing toward the presumed center on these questions. These are not necessarily bad moves; indeed, they are probably quite prudent. But this really begs the question: Is internationalism, even rightly understood, a sound doctrine? Who is truly the black sheep in the internationalist flock, Jimmy Carter or Harry Truman?