The Cold War Is Over
John Lewis Gaddis
John Lewis Gaddis is the principal historian of the strategy of "containment." His books include THE ORIGINS OF THE COLD WAR and STRATAGIES OF CONTAINMENT He has been a professor of strategy at the Naval War College and now teaches at Ohio University. At present be is completing a biography of George F. Kennan, the original architect of containment.
We asked Professor Gaddis for the insights his study of the Cold War has yielded.
From Vital Interests To "Pay Any Price, Bear
In the early days of containment, up to the time of the Korean War, the Truman Administration operated with a limited perception of means, both in economic terms - they believed in balancing budgets - and in military terms. After all, we had demobilized and the armed forces had disintegrated.
We started out by defining our vital interests. The Truman Doctrine broadly defined those interests as defense against Soviet aggression on a global scale. Then we realized our means were limited, so we pulled back, concentrating on keeping the industrial potential of Western Europe and Japan out of Soviet hands. We decided not to worry about the rest. That was our strategy up until the time of the Korean War.
In 1950, this strategy came under challenge from Paul Nitze, who argued we had to worry about the periphery because we couldn't allow it to be nibbled away without threatening the center. The whole point of NSC-68 (National Security Council Memorandum No. 68), principally authored by Nitze, was to demonstrate how the means could be generated for world-wide containment. The essential argument was for deficit-spending. We could afford to go into the red to start a military buildup because that would generate tax revenues and put the budget in balance. That economic rationale had the effect of broadening our conception of interests. When one defines interests more broadly, one tends to see more threats. After all, threats are a function of interests.
With the Eisenhower Administration, there was a move back to more narrowly defined interests because Eisenhower did not believe in deficit spending. Eisenhower was once again willing to write off parts of the world as not sufficiently important to incur deficits to defend.
Eisenhower proposed nuclear deterrence as our main defense because this accomplished the main ends while saving money The problem with this approach was that conflicts arose in theatres where using nuclear weapons was not reasonable, such as Indochina. In 1954, in fact, Eisenhower decided against sending troops to Vietnam because he felt that the costs of conventional engagement there were not justified by US interests and the allies weren't behind it.
The Kennedy Administration, of course, took a very different position. They worried less than Eisenhower about deficits and made the same assumptions about global interests as Truman. They defined our interests very broadly. "Bear any burden; pay any price" was the rhetoric. At the same time, and not by accident, they were very concerned about Khrushchev's speech on "wars of national liberation." This thinking led, quite logically, to American involvement in the Vietnam War. That war was the result of our willingness to defend even the most periphal interests.
But Vietnam, like Korea twenty years earlier, demonstrated the problem with that approach: there are limits both to what the public will support and to what the economy can stand. The "guns and butter" program of Johnson showed not so much a departure from Kennedy as the continued implementation of those policies with greater political skill.
With Nixon and Kissinger, once again, we see a contraction in perceptions of means available. Economic resources, and to some extent military resources, were perceived as more limited than under Johnson. One of the things that is not remembered about the Nixon Administration was its remarkable allocation of resources away from military spending toward social spending. Conventional military defense in peripheral regions wasn't an option anymore, yet neither was the classic nuclear deterrence of Eisenhower. By this time, the Russians had attained nuclear parity with us.
Thus, the Nixon Administration's strategy was two-fold. One part was to try to negotiate differences with the Russians, try to identify areas of common interest and reduce the level of competition. But also, quite interestingly, under Nixon if we wanted to make containment work, we needed to reduce the number of enemies we were containing in the first place. This was, of course, what led to the opening to China.
This same idea carried forward through the Ford Administration on into Carter's. Perhaps more than any other President, Carter operated under the post-Vietnam syndrome. Public opinion polls showed there was hardly support for military intervention beyond the defense of Canada or Britain much less half-way around the world. That perception clearly affected Carter's decision to continue detente through the negotiation of the SALT II Treaty as well as his continuation of Kissinger's China policy.
All of this, of course, broke down with the collapse of detente, an event for which both the US and the Soviets share responsibility.
With the Reagan Administration, we got another shift back to the idea that we could afford to do all that we needed to in the area of defense if we cut back on domestic spending. The military, under the first two or three years of the Reagan Administration was given, in effect, a blank check. And, under Reagan one has seen a corresponding broadening of interests and of the perception of threats. There has been more concern about insurgencies in the Third World being linked to Soviet control or instigation.
When Senator Lugar and the Reagan Administration argue for a defense buildup, including the trillion dollar Strategic Defense Initiative and support for anti-Soviet guerillas around the world - paid for with economic growth fueled by deficit spending - they are following the intellectual tradition of Keynesianism as reflected in NSC-68 and in the KennedyJohnson period. The inheritance runs from Paul Nitze and Leon Keyserling down through Walter Heller to Ronald Reagan and Senator Lugar! They have all argued that we have the resources to fight communism worldwide.
The problem with Reagan's policy, of course, is that he can't continue to increase arms spending indefinitely. Congress has begun to dig in its heels. The Administration has gone about as far as it can go propping up the military budget at the expense of everything else. And, there may well be a connection between this and the softening tones toward the Russians that we have seen in the last year or so and at Geneva.
Containment Has Been Achieved
The second objective Kennan outlined was the fragmentation of the international communist movement. That began with our policy toward Yugoslavia in 1948. This objective has been met to such a degree that no one talks seriously anymore about international communism as a unified, centrally directed monolith controlled from Moscow. We don't often realize just how successful we've been in this regard.
The third area, and up until now the one where we have been least successful, is negotiating a resolution of differences with the Russians themselves. But even here, although our negotiations don't proceed as smoothly as we'd like, both nations have come to identify common interests. It is very interesting that despite all the tough rhetoric of the past five years, there have been no real military confrontations between us and the Russians of the kind we had back in the 1970s. It's really been a very stable period.
The Geneva Summit can be seen as a tacit admission that both of us have significant common interests in perpetuating the existing order of things. While this doesn't completely meet Kennan's objective of forty years ago, it comes very close.
The Present Nature Of The US-Soviet Conflict
Another analysis, from a more emotional level, has to do with violations of human rights, the invasion of Afghanistan, or the shooting down of the Korean airliner. We can never completely get rid of these kinds of problems. These things are going to happen. If we're talking about a democracy, these problems are going to affect foreign policy. They're going to affect our attitude toward the Russians.
So, one can't really just approach it on a rational, systemic level. The emotional level must be addressed as well.
My own view, as far as the rational, systemic analysis is concerned, is that the Cold War is over. We are now into an oldfashioned great power rivalry which is not much different from the rivalry between, say, England and Russia in the 19th Century or England and France in the 18th Century. It's not peace and it certainly is not harmony, but it is not an unusual or abnormal situation either.
However, given the intellectual and historical baggage that has carried over from the Cold War, an adjustment is much more difficult to make at the emotional level. These are real forces that must be dealt with. That's what distinguishes the situation from other such rivalries in the past. That's why I think we are not completely over the Cold War. We're still conducting the relationship from a largely emotional basis.
People fail to realize that the Soviet Union today is one of the most conservative nations in the world. Certainly it is internally in the ways it administers itself, thus causing all kinds of economic problems out of sheer lack of imagination. It is buried by bureaucratic inertia. In terms of foreign policy, the last thing the Soviets really want is a bunch of communist revolutions around the world.
What the Soviets want are the fruits of imperialism in the oldfashioned sense. That is not surprising for a great power. However, it is hard for us to see that because we remember when the Cominform really was operative and there were communist movements in the world controlled from Moscow. Also, in those days, the Soviet economic model appealed to the outside world. None of that exists today.
Now, one of the obvious questions that arises is "what about Afghanistan?" Situations like Afghanistan can be explained in several different ways. The most accurate is traditional, oldfashioned power politics. There was an area of instability along the border. Soviet prestige had been committed there, and rather than lose face, the decision was made to send in troops when the going got tough. I don't see anything ideological about it. Afghanistan is hardly the place to start a world revolution. On the other hand, there have always been good imperialist reasons to move into Afghanistan.
Yet, there's no question that because of the intellectual baggage left over from the Cold War, it was possible for people like Zbigniew Brzezinski to argue that the invasion of Afghanistan was the first step in a coordinated effort to control what he called the "arc of crisis" all the way from Pakistan to Mozambique. This is a highly dubious proposition. The last five years have not proven it to be accurate. Afghanistan has not turned out to be the first of several dominoes. It has not expanded Soviet influence in that region, but rather lessened it. As a result, the Soviets have become more cautious.
Implications For Future Strategy
The US also need not assume the total burden of fighting this traditional great power empire. Our national interests are more congruent with those of most other nations in the world than are the national interests of the Soviets. The Soviet Union seeks to reduce diversity in the world. We are, reasonably speaking, more flexible and open as a nation than they are.
To the extent that the forces of history are on anybody's side, they are more on our side today than they are on the side of the Russians. As a result we need not feel that we have to do everything ourselves. The task of our strategy ought to be to align our own policies with trends that are already going on in the world, trends that are not unfavorable to our interests. We can tolerate the trend toward nationalism far better than the Russians. The trend away from state-run economies back toward private enterprise is in our favor. One sees this most dramatically in China, but also one sees it in Africa as well.
Finally, if one thinks about it, world domination is not easy to attain. There are a lot of built-in forces of resistance that we don't have to create because they are there naturally. It is very difficult for anyone to achieve what the Chinese call "hegemony." Clausewitz talked about this 150 years ago when he noted the concept of "friction" - all the things that go wrong when an army tries to move across a landscape. The same thing exists today. The capacity of any nation to achieve world hegemony is very limited. This works in the favor of our national interests.