Lately our national leaders seem to have taken it into their heads that their first obligation upon taking office is to get ready to write their memoirs once they leave it. We’ve had Nixon’s and Johnson’s, Kissinger’s massive volumes, and now Vance’s and Brzezinski’s. Jimmy Carter reportedly has a high-tech memoir in preparation, the entire record of his eccentric administration recorded in the memory of a word processor. These memoirs aren’t just after thoughts, hasty records thrown together to earn a few bucks or answer some critics’ charges immediately after the leader has left office. Rather, these memoir writers kept diaries and employed whole platoons of secretaries to transcribe them, to keep and record notes, reports, papers, minutes of meetings, and transcripts of phone conversations while they were in office. Shouldn’t our national leaders concen­trate on their immediate responsibilities rather than on just recording them for posterity? Let them make history, not record it.

True to the genre, Power and Princi­ple, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s memoirs of his term as head of the National Security Council, is long, detailed, and well or­ganized, though it could have had 150 pages trimmed. Granted, Brzezinski has a lot he wants to say, and it’s important, after all, to have some insight  into what it was like to be the chief proponent of an aggressive American foreign policy in an administration whose outstanding characteristic was its inability to make up its mind. Yet what Brzezinski has say in this regard is plainly said in his perspicacious title which gives the theme of the conflict in foreign-policy thinking within the Carter Administration: that is, the perceived conflict between guarding America’s interests beyond our own borders and conducting our relations with other nations according to disin­terested moral principle. The tragic ef­fects of this conflict are chronologically described in the three major parts of Brzezinski’s book: “Comprehensive Initiatives,” “Major Turning Points,” and “Progress and Frustration.” All show that high hopes and enthusiasm met the re­alities of international affairs (briefly, the evidence of Soviet aggression, as in Afghanistan), and turned into disappointment and defeat. It is the working out of this unresolved conflict–as Brzezinski would say, power vs. principle–in the Carter Administration that is the real subject of this book and which has the inevitability of tragedy. As such it would have significantly benefited from the exclusion of the many details of official or­ganization, bureaucratic infighting, and even the personality sketches that Brzezinski includes, for the tragic theme is overlaid by a camouflage of hectic en­thusiasm and concentration on manage­ment techniques that both Brzezinski and Carter took with them to their tasks of conducting the nation’s foreign policy. Brzezinski seems unaware of how disaster overtook him, even as he describes its stages in detail. Power and Principle is tragedy written by a technocrat.

What is the nature of the conflict be­tween power and principle? On an ab­stract level it is a question that has exer­cised philosophers including Plato and Kant; on a practical level the Carter Ad­ministration’s inability to answer it brought about the collapse of its foreign policy. It is a question worth answering, since neither Carter, nor Brzezinski, nor Vance were stupid or corrupt. If the failure of Carter’s foreign policy is not seen as the working out of an unresolved con­flict of principle, which led to hesitation and lack of consistency, then we have the impossible task of explaining how intelligent, honest, and hardworking men could fail so miserably in setting a consistent course for America’s foreign policy.

The issue that flummoxed Carter was: how is it possible to protect American interests and act at the same time in a moral manner?Obviously, there are two extremes to be avoided. Presumably America could act selfishly, only on be­half of its own immediate interests in a forceful and undiscriminating manner. The projection of a macho toughness becomes the responsibility of America’s statesmen in this view. At the other ex­treme is the possibility of America’s never acting out of self-interest, but purely as a sort of moral referee deciding interna­tional issues according to its high-minded ideals of self-determination, democracy, and human rights (in fact, liberal foreign policy is right now in the grip of agnostic vision of virtue, Kantian in its theoretical basis and resembling the code of an English headmaster in its practical outcome).

These two extremes currently domi­nate America’s foreign policy. In the Carter Administration, these contrary principles actually had human represen­tatives, with Secretaryof State Cyrus Vance taking the side of moralism and Brzezinski, of course, taking the side of pragmatism. Carter himself, the man who, after all, was responsible for determin­ing and implementing foreign policy, was basically like Vance, a moralist in the area of foreign policy, but who as President was occasionally forced to take a more pragmatic view. Brzezinski’s book alludes to Carter’s difficulty in con­vincing the Soviets that the United States would stand up to them. Nor did the split on principles affect only relations with the Soviets. Early in the Iranian crisis, when the Administration suddenly re­alized that the Shah’s government was crumbling, the issue of American aid to prop up his regime was discussed by Carter, Vance, and Brzezinski. Brzezinski advocated supporting the Shah but he quickly learned he was in the minority:

I do not know what historical assump­tions guided Carter’s or Vance’s ap­proach to the subject, but I assume that their assumptions were different from mine and involved a somewhat different scheme of the world. To me, principled commitment to a more de­cent world order did not preclude the use of power to protect our more immediate interests; to the others, it was not for America to decide what tran­spired within Iran.

Brzezinski obviously believes that power and principle, or pragmatism and moralism, should be combined, but he does not say how or why. The “how,” of course, depends on the specific set of events that make up each separate crisis, or issue. Thus, it is impossible to say how policymakers should act except as a generality. The “why,” however, can be answered: Not only do policies protect­ing America’s interests not have to con­tradict a moral approach to foreign policy but they are frequently the most moral thing we can do. The best evidence sup­porting this proposition is the results of America’s loss of influence in an area, i.e., what happens when we leave. In Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iran, the answer is the same–chaos, destabilization, civil war, the replacement of an authoritarian government with a totalitarian one, death and refugee status for millions of people. The further American influence is with­drawn from an area, the worse the situa­tion becomes. When the Shah’s govern­ment collapsed, the usual chorus of left­wing critics sang that the U.S. was only getting what it deserved for having sup­ported a repressive regime out of exag­gerated fear of the Russians. Now that the Shah and his associates are gone and the evil faces of Khomeini and his minions are exposed, it’s clear that the present state of the Iranian people is worse than it was under the Shah. No critic now grumbles about the role of the CIA and Kermit Roosevelt in setting up the Shah, for Khomeini has made the Shah look like Pericles. The same will no doubt happen in Central America, for again we hear the same themes: the nobility of the revolutionary regime, the sins of the U.S., the greed of capitalists, the treachery of Ronald Reagan, and always, always, our “inordinate fear of Communism,” to use Carter’s own phrase.

In the end, the morality of our for­eign policy cannot be separated from protecting the immediate concerns and interests of the U.S. Hence the artificiality of “human rights” as a criterion for America’s support of noncommunist governments, which under the Carter Administration was completely detached from any sense of how much a policy could help or hurt us. The first requirement, after all, of a foreign policy is to re­late our nation to other nations; the morality or immorality of our foreign policy depends on how we carry out our relations with other nations. Necessarily, relating to other nations includes promoting our own interests, representing our views, defending our integrity as a nation; otherwise we have no foreign policy at all.

The ethical question of how far we should go in protecting or extending America’s interests overseas–whether we should take part in war, assassinations, subversion, spying, blockades, pro­paganda disinformation, trade embargoes–depends in large part on how real the Soviet threat is. A greater threat allows for a wider range of ethical actions. The Soviet danger is very real, and we have not only a right in terms of self­ defense to oppose it,but an obligation as well. To be consistent, however, we must fight not only communism abroad, but also the materialism, atheism, and apathy in the face of human suffering in our own society. The sense of danger is mitigated by the fact that we do not have to defeat the Soviet Union militarily, but only fight a holding action until, by a law of Imperial Degradation, the Russians’ empire collapses for the same reasons that those of the British and the Romans did. In the meantime, we do not need to violate our own principles, but we must be pre­pared to get our hands dirty. Above all, we must not confuse morality with not defending our own interests overseas. To paraphrase Charles Wilson: What’s good for America is good for the world, and vice versa.