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Charles Longford explains the confusion and demoralisation that has followed America's Cold War triumph

America's Pyrrhic victory

  • Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy, George F Kennan, Norton, £16.50 hbk

  • Seize the Moment: America's Challenge in a One-Superpower World, Richard Nixon,Simon & Schuster, £19.99 hbk

  • A Cold Peace: America, Japan, Germany and the Struggle for Supremacy, Jeffrey E Garten,Times Books, $22 hbk

  • The Consequences of the Peace: The New Internationalism and American Foreign Policy, James Chace, Oxford University Press, £15 hbk
Forty-six years ago, George F Kennan, architect of America's postwar foreign policy, wrote a famous article, under the pseudonym 'X', entitled 'The sources of Soviet conduct' (Foreign Affairs, July 1947). The article advocated the containment of the Soviet Union in order to 'promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power'. When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 and, along with it, the Soviet Union, it was with apparent justification that many Western foreign policy experts congratulated Kennan for having finally had his Cold War policy thoroughly vindicated.

Kennan's new memoir Around the Cragged Hill provides a personal and political insight into the man whom many regard as the sage of America's post-Second World War foreign policy success.

The title comes from the poet John Donne's Satyre III --the image of Truth standing on a huge hill, cragged and steep, about which he who would reach Truth must go. In a lucid and patient response to scholars who he notes have laboured to extract from his writings over the years 'something resembling a coherent personal and political philosophy', Kennan circles around a variety of topics that are important to him. Despite the fact that he has little to say directly about the Cold War, his skirting of the craggy mountain of America today reveals truths that many of his supporters will have difficulty accepting. What Kennan exposes, in direct opposition to those who trumpet the end of the Soviet Union as proof of American greatness, is that far from scaling the heights of craggy mountains, America is stuck in a swirling creek below without a paddle.

The man who is held responsible for the defeat of the Soviet Union is very sombre about the America that won the Cold War. Forty-six years ago, in the conclusion to his seminal 'X' article, Kennan described the Cold War as 'a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations'. Moreover, he argued back then that there was no cause for complaint:

'[The] thoughtful observer...will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.'

However, 46 years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kennan's conclusions belie any notion of America having successfully accepted its weighty responsibility to history. Instead he concludes that the post-Cold War era marks 'something close to a major crisis in the life of the nation. In the question as to whether this deficiency can be corrected, it is nothing less than the adequacy of our form of government to meet the unprecedented challenges of the modern age that is at stake' (p248).

Kennan suggests that the 'major crisis in the life of the nation' today is at least as great as that of the past. However, this time Kennan does not tell Americans to thank Providence for providing them with such a historic challenge. On the contrary, he emphatically rejects any and all 'messianic concepts of America's role in the world: rejecting, that is, the image of ourselves as teachers and redeemers to the rest of humanity, rejecting the illusions of unique and superior virtue on our part, the prattle about Manifest Destiny or the "American Century"'(p182). And to cap it all, the architect of global containment ends by advocating a 'very modest and restrained foreign policy....far less pretentious in word and deed than the ones we have been following in recent years. It means, in particular, a rejection of the tempting but fatuous assumption that we can find, in our relations with other countries or other parts of the world, relief from the painful domestic confrontations with ourselves' (p183).

According to Kennan, the 'painful domestic confront-ation' America has to make will involve an attack on all the things that were supposed to make America great: democracy, freedom and the individual pursuit of happiness. Kennan's America is a nation fatally wounded by modern tendencies - unbridled technology, the cults of consumerism and growth, by the proliferation of cities, by the spread of bureaucracy, by the overfondness of bigness, and by the overdoing of egalitarianism.

In his chapter on 'The addictions', Kennan castigates the national infatuation with the car, television and advertising. Most American conservatives would probably share Kennan's nostalgia for the past in which people lived in the countryside, walked in forests, read books, travelled on railroads, employed domestic servants and inhabited separate cultural and ethnic communities (seeing no 'intrinsic virtue in the melting pot'). But it is when allotting blame for the 'nation being seriously out of control' that Kennan says out loud what most conservatives would prefer kept quiet.

For Kennan, the common element of all of America's difficulties is that they are 'long-term problems rather than short-term ones'. It is the failure of modern democracy, which he contends is ill-equipped to deal with long-term problems because voters demand short-term benefits. He goes even further in blaming what he calls 'unbridled free enterprise' and the indifference of public authority to advertisers who have no 'public commitment, educational, intellectual, aesthetic, or otherwise' (p159). Indeed, in his epilogue, Kennan goes so far as to argue for 'limits...beyond which free enterprise should not be permitted to go, and that it is the duty of the government to make those limits clear and to insist on their observance' (p252).

This is a theme Kennan had begun to develop even before the Cold War ended. In the spring of 1987, for example, he wrote in an article, 'Containment then and now', that 'the first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves' (Foreign Affairs, Spring 1987). In Around the Cragged Hill, Kennan is less restrained. His solution is, as he admits quite freely, 'unrepentant elitism' (p133).

'If we are to have a hope of emerging successfully from the great social bewilderments of this age', he points out, (unlike last time when Americans as a whole were urged to rise to the task), then 'the weight must be laid predominantly upon the spiritual, moral, and intellectual shaping of the individual with a view to the development of his qualities for leadership, rather than on the prospects for unaided self-improvement on the part of leaderless masses'. And it is within this elite that the material must be found for Kennan's proposed Council of State - an advisory body drawn from a national pool of outstanding persons, which would be charged with addressing national problems freed from the exigencies of party or electoral politics. Thus it could ensure that government followed through the resolution of 'long-term' problems, without worrying about public opinion.

Here Kennan presents the exact opposite of what his most fervent supporters would have us believe about America's victory in the Cold War. Where people like Arthur Schlesinger argue that American democracy and its free market ethos destroyed 'Marxist totalitarianism', Kennan sees democracy and even the market as the source of America's current problems. Far from presenting these American institutions as universal for all to emulate, he calls for their restriction. Where most establishment thinkers present the end of the Cold War as a victory, Kennan sees it differently. He describes the world which 'appears to be devoid of anything that could be seen as a major great-power enemy of this country' as a 'problem for which few of us are prepared' (p180).

Kennan's fears about the lack of a worthy opponent for America are almost as remarkable as his criticism of democracy and unbridled free enterprise. Throughout the Cold War years, the world apparently lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation. You might imagine that the lifting of this threat to America would be welcomed with relief and celebration. Instead, Around the Cragged Hill echoes with pessimism and disillusionment.

In attempting to describe the post-Cold War malaise of American society, Kennan unwittingly puts his finger on an uncomfortable truth about American capitalism and Western societies in general. What he describes is a slump-ridden society which no longer has the Soviet system to look good against. Robbed of the Soviet Union, America now has to stand on its own merits - an exercise in which Kennan has revealed it to be severely wanting. His disillusionment with American values, like his rejection of their universality and international applicability, simply exposes the fact that whatever resonance they had in the past relied upon the contrast with 'totalitarian communism'. The problem for America today is not the advertising which Kennan lambasts, but the loss of the Soviet system which acted as the best advert for capitalism, endowing the West with much needed legitimacy.

Kennan's bleak vision reveals the embarrassing truth that the ending of the Cold War has robbed America of a precious mechanism for promoting a positive self-image. When Kennan discovers there is little to be positive about today, this is not because he has not looked hard enough, or because he has looked in the wrong place. It is because there is nothing inherently positive about Western society. This is why Kennan can only see the end of the Cold War as a problem. By exposing the malaise in American society, America's victory has been revealed to have been a Pyrrhic one.

While Around the Cragged Hill concentrates on the consequences of the end of the Cold War for America's domestic malaise, the ending of the Cold War presents a similar problem for America's foreign policy today. It was inevitable that the collapse of the Soviet Union would provoke a debate in the West about the implications for the future of international relations. It was inevitable, too, that the debate would be most sharply focused in America, the leader of and inspiration behind the postwar Western alliance.

James Schlesinger, former secretary of defence and CIA director, has written that 'with the end of the Cold War...the United States has lost the magnetic north for calibrating its foreign policy' ('Quest for a post-Cold War foreign policy', Foreign Affairs, Vol72 No1, 1993, p17). Schlesinger was highlighting the fact that not only America, but the whole Western world had lost its foreign policy. The problematic question posed by these events was more than simply how to establish a new 'magnetic north for calibrating foreign policy', but what position an economically weakened America would occupy in any New World Order.

It is the quest to find the new 'magnetic north for calibrating foreign policy' which has come to occupy the minds of America's foreign policy experts, policy-makers and academics. Jeffrey E Garten, a managing director of the Blackstone Group who has held senior posts in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, argues in A Cold Peace, for example, how easily serious frictions can arise between Germany, Japan and the USA and how difficult it will be for them to retain their cooperation in the absence of the Cold War. 'The roots of the world as we have known it are being pulled up', resulting in 'the forces of divisiveness, not of cooperation...gaining momentum' (p45).

While he sees little hope for Japan or Germany taking responsibility for international affairs, which by default allows America to retain its global position, Garten, like Kennan, believes the priority is for America to deal with its domestic economic weaknesses and social problems. But while Garten can easily assert that a strong America at home will renew America abroad, he is as silent as the other experts on the question of how the decades of capitalist stagnation in the USA can suddenly be reversed.

In The Consequences of the Peace, Professor James Chace of Bard College, the former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, recognises that America can no longer insist that the world takes orders on how to run the global economy, nor impose an international Pax Americana. He sees a new global balance of power coming into being, within which America would have to abandon any pretence to being the only superpower. Chace's call for a new 'American internationalism' ends up with a similar message to that of Kennan and Garten: that America's ability to play an essential leadership role in the New World Order will depend upon repairing its economy. But just how that can be achieved remains as elusive as ever.

Former president Richard Nixon, on the other hand, has little doubt about America's role in the world. He sees international conflict remaining a fact of life which by definition gives America its global duty. Being the most powerful military power on Earth means America will continue to have a leadership role. Where Chace, Garten and others see economic revival as part of America's future security, Nixon insists that the goal of US policy must now be the expansion of freedom. Invoking that which Kennan explicitly rejects, Nixon argues that
America now has 'a moral imperative to use (its) awesome capabilities as the world's only superpower to promote freedom and justice'. A Nixon-style 'moral' foreign policy would mean a bullish assertion of American power in thethird world, such as you might expect from the man who carpet-bombed Vietnam and Cambodia in the name of freedom throughout his ill-fated presidency.

Seize the Moment illustrates one of the more confusing aspects of America's foreign policy debate - the ease with which people switch from dove to hawk and back again. Nixon's own foreign policy under Henry Kissinger was famous for its pragmatism. In contrast to the Kennedy and Johnson years of hawkish challenge to the Soviet bloc, Nixon pursued a policy of detente. Today, however, Nixon sounds uncharacteristically principled for someone who was forced out of office for bugging his opponent's offices in the 1972 elections. Kennan, meanwhile, along with many conservatives, now counsels a more cautious foreign policy, while younger liberals are at the forefront of demands for a pro-active foreign policy, a 'New Internationalism'. Beneath the policy confusion lies a real uncertainty about America's role in a post-Cold War world.

In fact the malaise is even worse. As the protagonists in the debate have attempted to discover something that will cohere the international system and give America a leading role within it, so further divisions have appeared. What began as a triumphant discussion about America's ascendancy has produced bitter acrimony and an end to the old anti-communist consensus.

Kennan and his colleagues will find that the absence of the Stalinist system in 1993 makes all attempts to regenerate American foreign policy elusive. What Around the Cragged Hill shows is that America and the West only temporarily resolved the malaise within their own societies when they could rely upon their sworn enemies' system to give them some purpose. These books should be read by those who are concerned about the dangerous drift of international relations, and who wish to gain an insight into the depth of the problems facing the Western elites today.
  • May the Lord in His Mercy Be Kind to Belfast, Tony Parker, Jonathan Cape, £16.99 hbk
This is a book you cannot put down. Despite Tony Parker's off-putting description of himself as a 'middle-class English agnostic pacifist', his chosen style of letting his 64 interviewees tell their own stories makes for a powerful read. Parker's professed aim is to counter the inaccurate media coverage of Northern Ireland by allowing the ordinary people of Belfast to have their voices heard 'for the first time'.

The polarisation of Belfast society is clear. Everyone identifies themselves in relation to the national question. People live in Protestant or Catholic areas. Many Protestants profess never to have met a Catholic and vice versa. In his introduction Parker describes the tell-tale signs: 'Someone who's given his dog a Scottish name is bound to be a Protestant...someone pressing you to convey the positive side of life in Northern Ireland is probably Protestant middle-class.'

There's plenty here to assist those who see the war as a conflict between British imperialism and Irish national liberation. Not least the admissions by Loyalist paramilitary groups that they regularly receive information and weapons from the British security forces and the statement from the Royal Ulster Constabulary that they are engaged in a war. One IRA volunteer tells Parker, 'you don't join the IRA for the same reasons soldiers join your army, like a settled career, good money and good housing. Those are the things you give up when you join the IRA'.

'Everyone's a story, eh Tony, aren't they for sure?', asks Eamon Collins, a republican. 'And depending on who's telling it, it'll look different in different ways.' Collins' comment sums up the problem with Parker's book. It cannot see the wood for the trees. Concentrating exclusively upon individual experiences, taken out of their wider context, leaves the substantial questions about the causes of the war and the potential resolutions unanswered.

Giving a voice to both sides of the divide does little to shed light on the causes of division or indeed the means of overcoming it. The British media's enthusiastic reception for Parker's book reflects the current vogue for presenting the Irish War as a religious feud defying rational explanation.

Fiona Foster
  • Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture, Noam Chomsky, Verso, £9.95 pbk, £29.95 hbk
Veteran anti-war campaigner Noam Chomsky's Rethinking Camelot demolishes the myth that president John F Kennedy would have pulled America out of the Vietnam war but for his assassination in 1963. The myth of Kennedy's secret wish to end the war was the story of Oliver Stone's three hour-long paranoia epic JFK. In Stone's telling America's Central Intelligence Agency got wind of the president's plans and had him killed.

JFK summed up the nostalgia for a lost idealism of the Kennedy era, thwarted by the conspiratorial efforts of America's military-industrial complex. If only Kennedy had lived, the argument goes, America would have been saved the anguish and lost innocence of the Vietnam War.

Chomsky traces back the origins of the withdrawal myth principally to Democratic Party historian Arthur Schlesinger who, in his 1978 biography of the late president's brother Robert, has John Kennedy taking advice from Douglas MacArthur that it would be a '"mistake" to fight in South-east Asia'. As Chomsky points out, this was a judgement that Schlesinger did not advance in his memoir of John Kennedy's administration, 1000 Days, where we read '1962 had not been a bad year:...aggression checked in Vietnam'. And this was a description of America's escalation of the war against Vietnam.

Chomsky meticulously traces the actual policy statements of the Kennedy administration to show that there is no evidence of any secret plan or even desire on Kennedy's part to withdraw. On the contrary all evidence points to a determination to pursue whatever course was necessary to win.

Most pointedly Chomsky overturns the traditional view of the war as being led by the military and opposed by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the media. Rethinking Camelot provides ample evidence that the media and the Democratic Party were overwhelmingly in favour of escalation at a time when many military advisors, like MacArthur, counselled caution.

Only after the Viet Cong's spectacular successes in the Tet Offensive of 1968, when it seemed that the Americans would lose, did the media and the liberal wing of the party criticise US involvement. Until that point, liberals like the Kennedys and Arthur Schlesinger, as well as the US press corps, outstripped even the generals in their demands for a decisive victory in Vietnam.

Lynn Rawley
  • The Revolt Against Change: Towards a Conserving Radicalism, Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook, Vintage, £5.99 pbk
'We began to wonder if the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed, who had been compelled to change, too much.'

With that thought, former radicals Jeremy Seabrook, a contributor to the New Statesman and Society, and Trevor Blackwell adopt the mantle of conservatism. Indeed they criticise conservatives for having sold out to change, disrupting ordinary communities in the name of economic progress.

'We are all abused children', they write, 'injured by the longing for permanence, stability and continuity, whereas our experience is all of separation, dissolution and disruption'.

Cut the apron strings, you big sissies.

James Heartfield
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993

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