Winning the Cold War

Although I agree with the main thrust of Angelo Codevilla’s criticism of American foreign policy for the past century or so (“While the Storm Clouds Gather,” Fall 2014), his indictment is so comprehensive and fundamental as to portray America’s international actions as complete failures. It is not solely good luck or divine grace, nor bungling that turned out well, that explains why the United States remains the world’s most powerful and exceptional nation. In other words, it is important to account for our successes as well as our failures lest we be blinded to genuine acts of statesmanship.

Codevilla passes over the American-induced collapse of the Soviet Union, which he accounts for only in terms of Soviet weaknesses. But we were blessed with a president who, for the first time, was determined to take advantage of those weaknesses—first, by identifying the USSR as the “evil empire” it truly was and, second, by combining military, economic, and diplomatic pressure on that regime, which it could not counter. The mere possibility of the U.S. building a space-based anti-missile system convinced the Soviets that they were no match for our technology. The details have been recounted in various places, but all take their bearings from Ronald Reagan’s deliberate change of policy from containment of the Soviets’ expansionism to liberation of their subject peoples.

Whatever limitations the containment policy had, it prevented a Soviet takeover of Western Europe. Even the Korean and Vietnam wars—which should have been fought to victory—placed limits on the Soviets’ advance.

No human endeavor brings final, complete success. Even the American Revolution secured our independence but did not end slavery; and the Civil War saved the Union and ended slavery but left government-protected racism in place. We do well to warn of alarming circumstances and point out the source of the problems, but should take our victories where we can.

Richard H. Reeb, Jr.
Helendale, CA

Angelo M. Codevilla replies:

With all my heart—and in no small measure for my own vanity—I wish I could agree with Richard Reeb that the Soviet Union’s collapse was “American-induced.” Without doubt, it was the greatest blessing visited upon mankind in the horrid 20th century. But one that came about because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s incompetent effort to re-establish central control over a party apparatus that Leonid Brezhnev’s long reign had allowed to slip into feudal mode. Gorbachev hurt the apparat not enough to intimidate its members but enough to induce them to fend for themselves. The regime, founded on mass murder, could not survive without it. We will never know whether such an incompetent rose to absolute power in Moscow because of the Soviets’ poor selection of elites for three quarters of a century, or divine grace.

But, alas, we know that—despite the efforts so many of us put forth, often at great personal cost—the United States did not cause countless Communist Party officials to cast off central control and take openly the powers, privileges, and property that had become theirs in practice during the previous quarter-century.

Yes, we had a president who wished, and said, that the Soviet Union was a sad chapter in mankind’s history, the last pages of which were being written. But, when he spoke these words, Strobe Talbott wrote in Time magazine that these were Reagan’s personal opinions, and that they did not reflect the views of the U.S. government. And Talbott was correct. Even though the American people had elected Reagan by a landslide, the government—including most of his appointees—continued to regard the Soviet Union as eternal, and suggestions to the contrary as madness. Yours truly, together with Richard Pipes, wrote what (to our knowledge) remains the only government document that advocated making the end of the Soviet Union the objective of U.S. foreign policy. Secretary of State Alexander Haig dismissed both of us angrily.

Under Reagan, the U.S. brought less economic and diplomatic pressure against the Soviets than the Carter Administration had done—rescinding the wheat embargo and doing nothing like the Olympic boycott. It did continue and increase the military buildup that Carter started, as well as its not-so-covert actions in Afghanistan and Nicaragua.

Reeb writes that “The mere possibility of the U.S. building a space-based anti-missile system convinced the Soviets that they were no match for our technology. The details have been recounted in various places….” The Soviets were frightened—as well they should have been—about our building a space-based missile defense because it would have negated the great advantage in counterforce missiles that was the centerpiece of their military strategy. They made opposition to it the principal focus of their diplomacy. And guess what? They influenced American opinion enough that Reagan’s own defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, opposed ballistic missile defense even more than liberals did.

This is particularly painful to me because I invested a substantial part of my life, beginning in the 1970s, to devising and promoting the technology programs that would have produced such defenses if pursued but that—once they had attracted attention—became the basis for the fruitless hullabaloo called the Strategic Defense Initiative (or SDI). If Reeb were correct, I could look at myself as having contributed much to something great and good. But no.

Reeb’s apparently unassailable point is that “containment…prevented a Soviet takeover of Western Europe.” But that assumes that Stalin intended to do it. There is quite a bit of evidence that Eastern Europe was his target, that he had his hands full there, that he ordered his troops not to resist any major American push eastward because his forces—undermined as they were by fierce local opposition—could not resist, and that he sent Western Communists into kamikaze attacks to divert the Americans and give them a bellyful of meaningless victories.

The extent to which “the Korean and Vietnam wars—which should have been fought to victory—placed limits on the Soviets’ advance” versus the extent to which our failure to try winning them radically accelerated the Soviets’ advance and our internal rot, is debatable.

Law of War?

I appreciate Jeremy Rabkin’s review of Point of Attack: Preventive War, International Law, and Global Welfare in the CRB’s Fall 2014 issue. He makes two criticisms that pose problems for my argument that we should adopt a cost-benefit or global welfare approach to reviewing the legality of war. First, he rightly responds that estimating all of the costs and benefits of a war, ex ante, may prove too difficult for decision-makers. It certainly seemed so to the Bush Administration. Second, Rakbin points out that the world’s nations may be too diverse to adopt a common approach to war. Although the United States may honestly assess whether a war promotes global welfare, we cannot trust Russia and China to use force to maintain international order rather than to advance their territorial ambitions.

These are difficult questions, though ones that would affect other important policy decisions, too. For example, one could level the same criticism against a nationwide healthcare law: the consequences are so complex that it is difficult to make an accurate decision based on costs and benefits. Yet, as Rabkin observes, domestic regulators make such decisions too often. Conservatives will intuitively respond that it is better for the government to do nothing rather than to leap to a mistaken action, whether launching a war or setting drug prices.

But there is an important difference between domestic and international affairs and the costs of inaction. Under our Constitution, if the federal government refrains from acting in domestic affairs, the states and the common law remain to regulate. Without Obamacare, the states would continue to make the primary decisions on the healthcare market—with advantages both for experimentation and the satisfaction of residents. But with international affairs, there is no background system of states and laws that will address harms in the absence of national action. If the great powers do not intervene to stop a humanitarian catastrophe, terrorist group, or rogue nation with WMDs, no one will. A system can draw its rules to favor inaction, but we should make that choice depending on the magnitude of the costs of doing nothing. I am uncertain from his review where Rabkin would draw the line between the U.N. system—which he agrees is a failure in both theory and practice—and the global welfare approach I recommend in Point of Attack.

Rabkin’s second point raises an even deeper and more difficult challenge: whether any international law of war is possible. Our rivals and even allies in the world may have very different views on the use of force, and do not of course apply them consistently. Russia opposed our war in Iraq as a violation of the U.N. Charter, even though we left after deposing a terrible regime. But then it claimed the right to invade Georgia and Ukraine, followed by the annexation of Crimea. France opposed the war in Iraq, too, but believes the interventions in Kosovo and Syria are legal.

My response is a rule—global welfare—that allows us to sort through these conflicts and encourage those that benefit international peace and stability. I’m not sure what Rabkin favors once we ditch the U.N. Charter’s failed system. He invokes the tradition of natural law thinkers on international affairs, which culminated with Vattel and greatly influenced America’s founders. But it is unclear why the other great powers would coalesce around the natural law approach to international law, especially when countries such as Russia and China do not enjoy a natural law tradition. Rabkin’s position will need to answer the even deeper question why these nations, or any others, follow any form of international law on war.

My hope is that the great powers will follow a global welfare approach out of self-interest, because, in the long run, they will reap the benefit of a relatively liberal international order (as they have for the past 70 years). It may be true, as Rabkin suggests, that there is little consensus on when intervention is necessary because of the diversity of the world’s nations. But does that not leave us in a world with no legal restraint on war at all? I do not take Rabkin to be making that argument, but his review leaves that important question unanswered.

John Yoo
University of California at Berkeley
School of Law
Berkeley, CA

Jeremy Rabkin replies:

In my review of Point of Attack, I expressed much skepticism that “global welfare” could be a sufficient guide, in itself, for a U.S. resort to force. Now my friend John Yoo raises two questions in response: Since we now rely on disputable assessments of national welfare in assessing domestic policy, why not do the same for global policy? And if we worry that other nations won’t accept our assessments of global welfare, why imagine they will accept our appeals to “natural law” as justifications for force?

On the first challenge, I dispute that government coercion can rest on mere assessments of “national welfare.” Some clever academic might argue that rich people own too much real estate or too many large houses, so there would be a net gain in “welfare” if the government seized a lot of wealth from the small number of super-rich (which they wouldn’t really miss that much, if we let them keep a lot of their remaining wealth) and handed over this bounty to a much larger number of less affluent people (for whom even small gains in wealth would be much more valued).

I think basic constitutional guarantees—like the Takings Clause and the Due Process Clause—were intended to block this sort of open-ended “welfare” policy. Political debate about proposed new programs certainly doesn’t turn on economic projections of “costs and benefits,” when unmoored from any initial showing that there is a “problem” that needs remedy (not merely an opportunity to advance overall “welfare” as estimated by some economist). Reckonings of “costs and benefits,” as by the Office of Management and Budget in reviewing new regulations, are a secondary control on regulatory measures, not the initial justification for action. To justify coercion, we usually demand some showing that leaving citizens to their own choices causes concrete harms—pollution or some threat to public safety, for example.

Second, even if courts and voters have come to accept a more open-ended view of legitimate grounds for coercion, we still have procedural controls on government action at home. Government coercion normally requires statutory authorization, normally requires opportunity for appeal to the courts on the application of the standard, normally faces legislative oversight and other forms of political control on the application of force. There is no international counterpart to these controls. We wouldn’t trust our own president to coerce people at home without these legal and political controls. Why expect the world to trust our president to use force without any such controls? We can’t be as cavalier about force abroad as about coercion at home. Among other things, force abroad is more apt to provoke violent resistance.

But if other nations wouldn’t trust our claims to advance “global welfare,” Yoo asks, why would they trust claims we advance in the name of older standards? No one should be spooked by the term “natural law.” Let’s call the relevant standards, “traditionally accepted reasons.” If we are attacked, we can respond. If there is an imminent threat of attack, we may, in some circumstances, act to preempt that threat. What we can do in our own defense, we can do in defense of friends and allies, if they ask for assistance. Nations may dispute, in particular circumstances, what the principle of “self-defense” allows, but no nation today disputes the principle. That principle should cover most uses of force.

Down to the mid-20th century, treatises on international law also recognized the legitimacy of resort to force to protect well-defined international rights—like the right to sail freely in international waters. President Reagan deployed the Sixth Fleet to the Gulf of Sidra in 1986 to demonstrate that the U.S. would not abide Muammer Gaddhafi’s claim to exclude foreign ships from this vast part of the Mediterranean. I think that was entirely reasonable, even though it ended up causing loss of life (on the Libyan side, when our Navy repulsed their gunboats).

But such justifications ought to be restricted to very well-defined claims. The point is not to win approval for every deployment of American force but to reassure other nations that we don’t make open-ended claims to strike anywhere we choose. If we define our claims more concretely, we also make it easier for others to avoid triggering an American response inadvertently.

I think humanitarian intervention may be justified in an extreme case—as to rescue refugees threatened by ISIL’s jihadi forces. If we are going to fight ISIL—which seems to me a good idea—we should have some articulated rationale, such as helping the legitimate democratic government in Baghdad defend its territory. I don’t think it is good for us or good for the world to assert an American right to use force anywhere in the world where we think our intervention would promote “global welfare.”

So far as I know, John Yoo is the first serious scholar to advance such an open-ended rationale for the use of force by individual nations. To my mind, that’s an argument against Yoo’s doctrine. As his book acknowledges, a lot of smart people have thought about international law and justice for many centuries. I think it unlikely that earlier thinkers missed Yoo’s formula because they were simply less imaginative. I think they were more aware of the problems in allowing any one nation to assume the authority which our Declaration of Independence attributes to “the Supreme Judge of the world.”

The Illiberal Left

In his otherwise excellent essay, “Left, Right, and Human,” William Voegeli endorses Joseph Cropsey’s view that, unlike conservatives, liberals believe in the “natural goodness” of human beings and in the right “to live uncoerced in society” (Fall 2014). Voegeli acknowledges that this worldview is not always consistently maintained, citing “the apparent contradiction between, on the one hand, liberals’ moral relativism [and commitment to free speech]…and, on the other, their censoriousness, manifested in political correctness that anathematizes an ever-expanding list of expressions deemed harmful or hateful.”

It would be more accurate to say that, for the Left, belief in humans’ “natural goodness” and the right “to live uncoerced” are merely slogans with no more substance than Stalin’s commitment to peace and freedom. In other words, the Left is no longer liberal.

The Left’s “censoriousness” extends far beyond speech that could seriously be “deemed harmful or hateful.” Ubiquitous speech codes silence virtually any disagreement with the Left’s agenda.

Rather than belief in human’s “natural goodness,” the Left now preaches that most Americans (at least) are tainted by deep-seated racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and any number of other sins. If there was ever some sinless prehistoric Eden, this innocence was lost long ago. Contemporary man is fundamentally evil.

Accordingly, far from letting (naturally good) people “live uncoerced,” the Left subjects as many as it can to sensitivity training and other forms of thought control in an effort to instill its catechism. Citizens are compelled not merely to tolerate but to venerate behavior blessed by the Left. And, going beyond brainwashing, the Left demands that individuals endorse such behavior in deed as well as expression, as when a baker and a florist are prosecuted as criminals for refusing to provide services for a same-sex “wedding.” Of course, taxpayers are also coerced to pay for the Left’s preferred policies.

And rather than accepting the will of the (naturally good) people, the Left invokes its elite, enrobed priesthood—the judiciary—to implement not the Constitution but its own higher law of “social justice,” and to reject any democratic results it dislikes and to impose instead its own agenda. So far, the judiciary has not always cooperated, but leftists hope to fix that.

Voegeli also accepts that liberals believe, quoting Learned Hand, that the “spirit of liberty” is “not too sure that it is right” and “seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.” This is not the spirit on any of the vast majority of American campuses dominated by the Left. In addition to the aforementioned speech codes, conservatives are rigorously excluded from faculties. Conservatives are rarely invited to speak, and when the machine malfunctions and a conservative is invited, he or she is usually later disinvited.

The Left does not need to hear opposing voices; it already knows what is right. Indeed, the Left fears opposing voices because (again) it views most people not as naturally good but as fundamentally flawed and therefore more likely to be persuaded by evil rather than good.

Finally, Voegeli accepts that “liberals always stand ready to propitiate aggressors” and to “rationalize moral and physical cowardice.” This is true but needs clarification. In places where the Left has the upper hand—in academia, for example—it never seeks to “propitiate” or compromise with conservative opponents. Like any authoritarian regime, it bullies its opponents whenever it can. However, it is true that, though leftists repeatedly boast of their moral courage, they never place their bodies or their cushy jobs at risk.

Whatever the state of liberalism in the past, those who are mislabeled liberals today may occasionally preach the creed that Voegeli ascribes to them, but they certainly never practice it.

George W. Dent, Jr.
Case Western Reserve University
School of Law
Cleveland, OH


William Voegeli replies:

I agree with Professor Dent that modern liberals frequently preach one thing and practice another. This human failing is far too common, of course, to be judged as a distinctive quality of liberalism. The question is what else it reveals.

He suggests it tells us that liberalism has changed for the worse: the “Left is no longer liberal.” That’s not wrong, but I think a more complete account would be that the contradictions in liberal thinking have manifested themselves in dilemmas more obvious and severe than the ones liberals faced 50 years ago, when Joseph Cropsey wrote “Conservatism and Liberalism.” The old ideal of racial integration in a color-blind society, for example, has been dislodged by the new one of diversity, but no one can give a clear account of what this requires or how it should work. The liberal response to such dilemmas has been ad hoc and unprincipled, consistent only in the sense of serving, in the ways Prof. Dent describes, liberals’ immediate political interests as they understand them.

Thus, asking liberals to revert to the time when they weren’t such hypocrites won’t really solve the problem, which will recur chronically. Liberals can only be good liberals by being ex-liberals, discarding flawed ideas for sounder ones. As Cropsey put it,

The perfection of plurality supporting the consummation of unity may permit or require the cultivation and expression of all idiosyncratic differences; but it could not tolerate differences of an invidious character. At least two classes of differences are invidious: differences of opinion as to good and bad, right and wrong, or just and unjust; and differences of interest. Whether a liberal society would be in fact a free society, and if not, whether the oppressions would conduce to the highest good, are grave questions unknown to liberalism.