Nineteen eighty-nine was a year of great joy for lovers of freedom everywhere. For it was the “revolutionary” year in which totalitarian communism, throughout Eastern Europe and perhaps even in the Soviet Union itself, suddenly collapsed like a house of cards. Many of our pundits, equating complexity and permanent quasi-gloom with profundity, sternly warned us all through the year that we must avoid “euphoria” at all costs, and concentrate instead on the grave problems ahead. Well, of course there are problems, but we may be pardoned hosannas at a truly wondrous event. I have not often agreed with Mrs. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s view of the world, but I salute her willingness to admit that her famous distinction between authoritarian and irreversibly totalitarian regimes did not in the end hold up, and that a seemingly impregnable communism, though held together by systematic terror, can crumble, perhaps even more rapidly than authoritarian states. She was also willing to be euphoric. Shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, I was struck by Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s reply to a gloomy interviewer on CNN, who characteristically asked if she weren’t troubled by the “destabilizing” effect of the end of the Wall. Puzzled, she replied: ” ‘Destabilizing’? I think it’s wonderful!”
And so in almost one stroke our world has totally changed, and the old verities that we were all raised on, about monolithic communism and all communists everywhere being robotic agents of the Kremlin, appear now to apply only to an earlier age almost impossibly remote from our own.
How could it happen? Everyone stresses the palpable economic failure of communism, and there is no question that this played a large part in the process. But this conclusion, like all economic determinism, is far too simplistic. The economic failure has been evident for a long time; why did the collapse of the regime take so long? And besides, the economic devastation wrought in Cambodia by the Pol Pot regime was horrendous, and yet it was only toppled by invasion of the less rigorous communists from Vietnam.
From Etienne de la Boetie to David Hume to Ludwig von Mises, political theorists have demonstrated that governments are kept in power not merely by force but also, and ultimately more importantly, by ideology. It is ideology that fuels the enthusiasm of the ruling elite and engineers the consent, if only the resigned acceptance, of the governed. Even the Marxists, materialists though they may be, have shrewdly recognized that a ruling class can keep itself in power indefinitely unless it, or a substantial part of it, loses its will to power. It can lose that will because it doesn’t know how to handle an economic crisis or a losing war, or because it has lost faith in its own right to rule.
It was almost impossible for the first generation of communist revolutionaries, the ones who stormed the Winter Palace or who took part in the Long March to Yenan, to lose the revolutionary fervor to which they had committed their lives. But conservatives who adopted the “black hole” theory that once a country goes communist, it’s all over, forgot that once a revolutionary regime is established, generations who grow up in the system need not retain that fervor. They join the party as careerists, to get ahead in the world, and if they see that communism is an economic and moral failure, they begin to lose faith in the official ideology. One reason for the massacre at Tiananmen Square is that the first generation of dedicated Chinese revolutionaries, in their 80’s and 90’s, are still in power.
Over a decade ago and long before Gorbachev, a friend of mine who is a foreign policy specialist revisited Moscow after an absence of many years. He came back stunned, reporting that “nobody—nobody—believes in Marxism-Leninism anymore. They’re just going along with the regime because it happens to be in power.” We should all be delighted that the communist attempt to mold the New Socialist Man by massive propaganda obviously didn’t take. Everyone paid public lip-service to the official ideology but no one believed it. Perhaps the public school system in Russia and Eastern Europe is no more efficient than it is in the U.S. The Communist parties were therefore ready, at the first opportunity, to dissolve themselves, and to join the rush to pluralism and free markets. In Romania the vital role of ideology was starkly clear, for when the oppressed masses decided that dying (literally) was better than continuing to obey the orders of Ceausescu, the soldiers refused to keep turning on their own population, and the regime was toppled within a week.
If communism has collapsed, then obviously the Cold War is over. But U.S. foreign policy has been defined by the Cold War for the past four decades. If the Cold War is finished, what should American foreign policy be now? There is no need at this point to engage in controversy about whether or to what extent the Cold War was justified. One thing, however, is clear: that the collapse of communism was largely brought about by internal forces and had very little to do with U.S. policy, one way or another. Like it or not, the U.S. does not have the power to shape the entire world.
The most remarkable, though unfortunately not surprising, fact about American responses to the end of the Cold War, whether among Republicans or Democrats, is how much they insist, despite everything, that nothing has really changed. The U.S. policy of militarism and global intervention, ostensibly pursued solely in response to the military threat of Soviet Russia and international communism, must, it seems, continue pretty much as before. This January, President Bush told a group of conservatives at the White House that there will be no “peace dividend,” and his proposed military budget reveals that standpat view all too clearly. The heralded “cuts,” like almost all budget “cuts” these days, are not real cuts at all, but only a lessening of the rate of increase. The proposed Bush budget increases military spending by 2 percent a year; only estimated inflation leads to a projected reduction of 2 percent a year, in “real” terms (corrected for inflation). All important weapons systems are to go full steam ahead, and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney insists that 200,000 U.S. troops are still needed in Europe even if all Soviet troops are pulled out. By what bizarre logic? Because the Soviets still have nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S. But U.S. troops were supposedly in Europe to combat or deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Since any idea now of the Warsaw Pact countries as a military menace to the West is surely loony-tunes, one begins to wonder about the real reasons for the policy of global military intervention.
Little help, too, can be expected from the Democrats. Note their frenzied reaction to the Bush proposal to eliminate admittedly obsolete military bases: “Not in my district you don’t!”
It is indeed extraordinary how many dire “threats” to the U.S. have been discovered by the Establishment since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. There is, first and implausibly as we have seen, still the Soviet Union, even as the old Russian—much less the Soviet—Empire is visibly falling apart. Second, there is the fact that some small nations have nuclear weapons: but do we really need all those missiles and all that vast apparatus against a few minor Third World countries? Or against France? Or Israel?
A third target, though around for a long time, has been touted highly as a brand-new menace: “international narcoterrorism.” But while narco-terror may prove useful in justifying a few Third World invasions, it can scarcely provide a rationale for a host of nuclear missiles, or at least so one hopes. Perhaps, too, the administration would be better advised to send troops into Washington, D.C., or even into federal prisons, where drugs are particularly rife.
A fourth, more generalized threat has been proffered by the Bush administration: that we live in an uncertain world. But surely this permanent but rather vague human condition does not justify bases everywhere and a $300 billion annual military budget!
A fifth terrible threat, in contrast, is all too concrete: one that emerged among Establishment pundits literally the day after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. As communism crumbled in East Germany, a new menace was found in the appearance on the near-horizon of an event that the U.S. had championed for forty years: the reunification of Germany. But suddenly, on a dime, we began to hear grim warnings: Hitler! The Kaiser! Germany as permanent butcher-bird of Europe! One newspaper article even dredged up the alleged sole German guilt for the Franco- Prussian War of 1870-71, conveniently overlooking the not-exactly-pacific role of the French Emperor, Napoleon III.
Finally, a sixth menace has been trotted out. This threat was raised in the course of a rambling discussion of post-Cold War foreign policy in the Wall Street Journal by Irving Kristol: the specter of Islamic fundamentalism. Kristol even went so far as to propose that the U.S. and its recent enemy the Soviet Union work together—discreetly, of course—to put down this rising menace.
There is something very curious at work here. Ever since Woodrow Wilson, the United States has had great difficulty in treating any nation coolly and realistically as a given fact upon the world scene. Instead, any given nation is either a grave menace to American interests and world peace, or it is a champion of the “free world” headed by wise and farsighted statesmen. Sometimes, the country will shift from one to the other, in American eyes, in disconcertingly rapid succession. But at the present time, while the book has scarcely been closed on the Cold War, indeed while we are still arming to the teeth to guard against a possibly lingering Soviet threat, the Soviet regime is being increasingly regarded as a benign military force, if not quite yet a gallant and heroic ally. Take, for example, the Bush administration’s attitude toward the sending of Soviet troops to troubled lands. After applauding the crucial Soviet adoption of the “Sinatra Doctrine” and its allowing East European Communist regimes to collapse, the United States went so far as to call upon the Soviets to send troops into Romania to overthrow the monster Ceausescu. The Soviets properly replied in some puzzlement that they had just condemned the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and that they had now repudiated the use of military force across national borders.
But this was not all. The Bush administration soon let it be known that the U.S. would not be too upset if the Soviets sent troops into Lithuania to keep her from leaving the U.S.S.R., an action that Gorbachev has so far refused to take. One almost sensed a sigh of relief in the Establishment when Gorbachev at last sent troops into Azerbaijan; perhaps the administration was getting fearful that Gorby had turned into some kind of crazed pacifist!
It is not surprising that the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War has set off a profound rethinking and a foreign policy split among conservatives. In particular, the dominant foreign policy of conservatives, in the Old Right that lasted from the New Deal until roughly the end of the Korean War and the founding of National Review in 1955, was nonintervention in the affairs of other nations, what has been much derided since as “isolationism.” The position of National Review in those early days was that libertarianism and isolationism (the limited government equivalent of nonintervention at home) was the proper basic policy for America, but that it had to be overridden by the grave threat of international communism controlled by the Kremlin. On that happy day in the future when the Soviets were no longer a threat, Buckley and NR promised, libertarianism and isolationism could be taken out of mothballs and restored to the conservative agenda. But if the Cold War is over, why not isolationism now?
Mitch Daniels, head of the Hudson Institute and former political director in the Reagan White House, recently put it this way in the Wall Street Journal. Since a “Taft-style isolationism was one tributary of what we thought of as a conservative coalition,” Daniels notes, “there are plenty of conservatives who always viewed defense at the levels we reached as a very necessary evil but something not for perpetuity.” Mr. Daniels seems to be lamenting this trend; but, in truth, why are militarism and global intervention supposed to be America’s lot, seemingly regardless of what threats exist or if any exist at all, in short, “in perpetuity”?
One of the most brilliant answers to this puzzle was provided by the veteran Old Right journalist Garet Garrett, in his perceptive and prophetic pamphlet The Rise of Empire, published in 1952 during the last great burst of isolationist thought during the Korean War.
Lamenting the end of the old American Republic, Garrett declared that “we have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire.” Garrett laid out the hallmarks of empire, and gauged America’s course accordingly. First, the dominance of the executive power, embodied in President Truman’s unconstitutional act of going to war with North Korea without bothering to ask Congress for a declaration of war. A second hallmark is that “domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy,” so that foreign policy becomes an excuse for all manner of domestic aggressions against the rights of person and property. This is what happened to Rome and to the British Empire, Garrett warned: we like they had embarked, in effect, on a policy of perpetual war, resulting in a costly permanent garrison state. Accordingly, a third brand of empire, for Garrett, is the “ascendancy of the military mind.” He went on to quote a devastating critique of the burgeoning garrison state by General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur warned that “our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear.” MacArthur noted prophetically that “while such an economy may produce a sense of seeming prosperity for the moment, it rests on an illusionary foundation . . . and renders among our political leaders almost a greater fear of peace than is their fear of war.”
Garrett’s final hallmark of empire cut straight to the heart of its psychology: “a complex of vaunting and fear.” The fear we have already examined: all the various “threats,” real or nonexistent, that may beset us; fear that leads the U.S. to seek a system of dependent “satellite nations.”
But the other side of the fear is the “vaunting”: the assertion by interventionists of America’s historic duty to exert world power. As Garet Garrett summed up the interventionist vision four decades ago: “It is our turn. Our turn to do what? Our turn to assume the responsibilities of moral leadership in the world. Our turn to maintain a balance of power against the forces of evil everywhere. . . . Our turn to keep the peace of the world. Our turn to save civilization. Our turn to serve mankind.” But, Garrett warned:
this is the language of Empire. The Roman Empire never doubted that it was the defender of civilization . . . The Spanish Empire added salvation. The British Empire added the noble myth of the white man’s burden. We have added freedom and democracy. Yet the more that may be added the more it is the same language still. A language of power.
Ever since Woodrow Wilson set the disastrous course for America in the 20th century by intervening in World War I, the global interventionists have proclaimed two resounding goals for U.S. foreign policy: in Wilsonian phrases, to “end all wars” and “to make the world safe for democracy.” Pursuing, the latter aim meant imposing democratic institutions by coercion throughout the world, or, in practice, invading the realm of any dictator we don’t like in the name of the democratic shibboleth. One leading Bush administration excuse for the invasion of Panama—that it was “restoring democracy” there—rang particularly hollow. For when did democracy ever exist in Panama?
As America entered World War II and then the Cold War, the eminent historian and political scientist Charles A. Beard prophetically warned that America was embarking on a program of “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” The Bush administration’s newfound enthusiasm for the use of Soviet troops by a possibly “democratic” Soviet Union, in the case of the march into Azerbaijan, stemmed from the alleged Soviet goal of keeping peace between the Azeris and the Armenians. Indeed, it has become increasingly clear that the liberal/neoconservative Establishment has reacted to the end of the Cold War not by abandoning interventionism or the garrison state, but by moving to welcome the Soviet Union into a junior partnership in a superpower condominium for the rulership of the world, in the name of imposing democracy and keeping the peace.
There is one striking characteristic of the cherished goals of Establishment foreign policy: that the wars for democracy and perpetual peace are both impossible to win. We live in a world run largely by dictators, and there is no reason to expect that any of these countries are about to go democratic. Moreover, the breakup of centralizing totalitarian communism in the Soviet Empire has quickly brought to the surface the deeper substructure of inter-ethnic hatreds. The Azeris and the Armenians, the Croats and the Serbs, and countless other nationalities, have hated each other for centuries, often with good reason. The fatuous and pervasive liberal slogan of “world peace through understanding” is given the lie by the fact that these peoples have long known each other only too well, with a consequent piling up of grievances that seem to cry out for vengeance. For the United States to attempt to impose settlements of all these conflicts is to take on a task not only impossible but also counterproductive. Just as the Versailles Treaty sowed the seeds of World War II and the Cold War, so the crusade for perpetual peace throughout the world is indeed a recipe for perpetual war. We have unfortunately forgotten the isolationist insight of the Old Right: that intervening in every local conflict in the name of internationalism or “collective security” only serves to internationalize and therefore to broaden and to maximize the conflict.
What could be the point, then, of a foreign policy guaranteed never to achieve its stated objectives? Perhaps the answer lies not in the official rhetoric, but in a desire to perpetuate the interventionist process itself, to maintain a garrison and interventionist state for its own sake. Or rather, for the sake of the perks and the contracts and the jobs and the power that goes along with it. For it is human nature to impute economic determinism to our enemies, while conveniently overlooking the important economic motives that may lure us at home. Take, for example, the massive foreign aid program, which seems to expand every year regardless of conditions—threats or need for reconstruction or whatever—that allegedly give rise to the policy. The foreign aid program does not help the economy of foreign countries, nor is it designed to do so. The purpose of foreign aid is to mulct the U.S. taxpayer for the benefit of three favored groups: (1) the recipient government, which obtains the aid and which acquires more power at the expense of its citizens and the private sector of that country; (2) U.S. government bureaucrats, who receive salaries for administering the aid; and (3) first and foremost, the U.S. exporters upon whom the recipient showers the aid dollars. For dollars can only be used to purchase American exports. In short, foreign aid, a crucial part of the policy of global intervention, is essentially a racket through which the U.S. taxpayer is conned into subsidizing U.S. export firms. As a side-benefit, statism is fostered abroad as well as at home.
Once again, one of the most perceptive explanations of global interventionism was written by another distinguished Old Right journalist, John T. Flynn, who opposed both World War II and the Cold War. In his brilliant and neglected work, As We Go Marching (1944), written in the midst of a war he had tried to forestall, Flynn traced foreign intervention to the domestic failure of the New Deal to establish the corporate state in its National Recovery Act. Entry into World War II, noted Flynn, reestablished this collectivist program, by means of “an economy supported by great streams of debt and an economy under complete control, with nearly all of the planning agencies functioning with almost totalitarian power under a vast bureaucracy.” After the war, Flynn prophesied, the New Deal will attempt to expand this system to international affairs. The great emphasis of government spending, Flynn declared, would be military, since this is the one form of spending to which conservatives are not likely to object, and which workers will also welcome for its creation of jobs. As Flynn wrote: “Thus militarism is the one great glamorous public-works project upon which a variety of elements in the community can be brought into agreement.” Flynn added:
The great and glamorous industry is here—the industry of militarism. And when the war is ended the country is going to be asked if it seriously wishes to demobilize an industry that can employ so many men, create so much national income when the nation is faced with the probability of vast unemployment in industry. All the well-known arguments will be dusted off—America with her high purposes of world regeneration must have the power to back up her magnificent ideals; America cannot afford to grow soft. . . . America dare not live in a world of gangsters and aggressors without keeping her full power mustered . . . and above and below and all around these sentiments will be the sinister allurement of the perpetuation of the great industry which can never know a depression because it will have but one customer—American government to whose pocket there is no bottom.
Wrongly accused of being a “fascist” for opposing American entry into the war, Flynn was happy to turn the indictment around. “The test of fascism,” he pointed out, “is not one’s rage against the Italian and German war lords. The test is—how many of the essential principles of fascism do you accept?” Warning that the coming American fascism will be “virtuous and polite,” Flynn prophesied that:
Fascism will come at the hands of perfectly authentic Americans . . . who wish to commit this country to the rule of the bureaucratic state; interfering in the affairs of the states and cities; taking part in the management of industry and finance and agriculture; assuming the role of great national banker and investor, borrowing billions every year and spending them on all sorts of projects through which such a government can paralyze opposition and command public support; marshaling great armies and navies at crushing costs to support the industry of war and preparation for war which will become our greatest industry; and adding to this the most romantic adventures in global planning, regeneration, and domination all to be done under the authority of a powerfully centralized government in which the executive will hold in effect all the powers with Congress reduced to the role of a debating society. There is your fascist . . . masquerading under the guise of the champion of democracy.
In the concluding sentence of his book, John T. Flynn eloquently proclaimed that his “only purpose is to sound a warning against the dark road upon which we have set our feet as we go marching to the salvation of the world and along which every step we now take leads us farther and farther from the things we want and the things that we cherish.”
The sudden disappearance of the Gold War has brought America to what Walter Lippmann used to call a “plastic juncture” in history—a period in which we are effectively free to choose and to change our foreign policy. The growing conflict among conservatives over foreign policy is an important manifestation of this new state of affairs. Never, in half a century, have the eloquent lost words of the Old Right been so pertinent to our current concerns. The choice is not, as the interventionists like to put it, between a glorious idealism as against a narrow and crabbed selfishness. The choice is between a return to the American ideal of liberty under a strictly limited government, an America that functions as a beacon-light of freedom for the world, as against an American superpower pushing its weight around everywhere, vainly attempting to impose American values and institutions by massive coercion, and to use that coercion to end every age-old quarrel throughout the world. And underneath that hopeless and quixotic crusade, the grim reality of a gigantic welfare-warfare state financed by systematic aggression against American liberty and property.
The choice for America is clear. Americans will choose correctly if only noninterventionists can retake the moral high ground that the global interventionists have long ago managed to seize. The world has, at long last, come to see through the trumpeted moral superiority of a system—communism—that pursued a phony and impossible dream by means of coercion and terror, for the tangible benefit of a ruling nomenklatura. Gan repudiation of an impossible quest for world democracy and perpetual peace on behalf of a kinder and gentler kleptoklatura be far behind?