Nizer Lectures (1994–1998): America and the World: Isolationism Resurgent?

Dec 12, 1995


JOEL ROSENTHAL: The Nizer Lectures on Public Policy were planned in the last year of Louis Nizer's life. Mr. Nizer, who passed away at the remarkable age of 92 in November of 1994, was deeply involved in this planning. Louis Nizer's primary interest was law, and, as you know, he was perhaps the most celebrated attorney in this country in the last half of the twentieth century.

But Louis Nizer was more than a lawyer who represented famous clients and also fought for justice. In last year's inaugural lecture, our speaker, Jack Valenti, described Louis Nizer as a polymath, a man of immense learning in many fields. Lawyer, court room genius, public speaker, best-selling author, painter, composer, historian, counselor to presidents and public officials. Louis Nizer was all of these and more. So it is fitting that the Nizer lectures concern themselves with public policy in its broadest sense.

We are grateful to the Occidental Petroleum Corporation, on whose board of directors Mr. Nizer served for many years, for generously sponsoring these lectures, and for the support of Mr. Nizer's law firm, Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin, Krim and Ballon. At this point I'd like to recognize representatives from each of these supporting institutions: Mr. Kenneth Huffman of Occidental Petroleum Corporation; and Mr. Perry Galler, a distinguished attorney and managing partner of the Phillips, Nizer firm. I would also like to recognize and thank Professor Ralph Buultjens. Professor Buultjens is a distinguished scholar and was a close friend of Mr. Nizer. He has been instrumental in organizing this program.

It is now my honor to introduce our lecturer, Arthur Schlesinger. It's hard not to resort to clichés when introducing our guest. Arthur is a precious national resource, a national treasure. His scholarship has been duly honored—Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, among others—and his work will certainly stand the test of time. He has written many books, including The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt. Perhaps someday someone will write about "The Age of Schlesinger." After all, no one can consider American political and intellectual history in the last half of the twentieth century without confronting his formidable contribution. It is gratifying to hear that he is now working on his memoirs. They will be a help to us all.

I feel a special privilege this evening, having enlisted him to speak about America and the world and the perennial theme of isolationism versus internationalism. Events have conspired to make this topic especially relevant today, and we thank him for agreeing to come and share his thoughts with us.


ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR.: I am greatly honored by this invitation to deliver the second Louis Nizer Lecture on Public Policy. While I never knew Louis Nizer well, I saw enough of him in his last years to appreciate his wide knowledge, his voracious curiosity, his impish wit, his gifts as a painter, and, above all, his dedication to the law as the essential instrumentality of civilization. Louis Nizer took much pride in his profession. He held legal craftsmanship in the highest esteem, rejoiced in the thrust and parry of legal argument, and saw in jurisprudence a means by which a democratic society registers its moral standards and secures its civil liberties.

"Wherever law ends," John Locke wrote, "tyranny begins"—and Locke might well have added that where law ends anarchy also begins. Law provides the foundation for peace and comity within nations. The Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs has spent its more than fourscore years exploring ways and means by which law might be made the foundation for peace and comity among nations.

Law is not law if, in the last resort, it is not enforced. Within nations, law has been sufficiently enforced to be moderately successful in restraining the destructive behavior of individuals. The success of domestic law has given rise to the hope of reducing the destructive behavior of nations in the international realm through the extension of law and the mobilization of the international community against war. Kant had this dream, and so did Tennyson, and Woodrow Wilson provided the machinery of enforcement in the League of Nations—a means, he hoped, of collective action to prevent or punish aggression, in the words of the famous Fourteen Points, through "mutual guarantees of independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike."

But law, however successful in restraining the destructive impulses of individuals, has been notably less successful in restraining the destructive impulses of groups and of nations. One reason for this failure, as the debate over the commitment of American forces to the implementation of a peace settlement in Bosnia has shown, is the tension between collective international action and conceptions of national interest.

Opponents of intervention in Bosnia emphasize the absence of any direct threats to the security of the United States. They recall the long, bloody, and insoluble annals of the Balkans—a record of intrigue, enmity, atrocity, and vengeance—and doubt that a year's occupation by NATO will repeal centuries of history. They mention the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe in murky civil conflicts, the threat of "mission creep," and the difficulties of extrication; they worry about the incompatibility between neutrality on the one hand and punishment of the aggressor on the other; they worry about the difficulty of maintaining public support when the body bags start coming home. They bring up Vietnam and Somalia and a world consumed by violence and say that America cannot be the world's policeman. "Bosnia is not worth the life of a single American boy"—and if this sounds like "Why die for Danzig?"—the cry of French rightists before the Second World War—they point out that Serbia is not Nazi Germany and Milosevic is not Hitler. Intervention, they argue, is simply not in the national interest of the United States; nor, they add, would it be constitutionally permissible without authorization by Congress.

Advocates of intervention emphasize Bosnia as a test of American world leadership and of the strength of the UN and the international community. With democratic Europe impotent before the horrors of the Yugoslav war, the United States, the world's only superpower, has, they feel, an obligation to stop the atrocities, stop the fighting, and punish the war criminals. Having organized the Dayton Accords, we Americans surely are bound and honored to do our best to see that they are carried out; otherwise, they add, NATO might collapse and American pretensions to international leadership would become a mockery. Letting war go on in Yugoslavia might encourage aggression and ethnic cleansing in other parts of Europe and produce general destabilization and a torrent of refugees. And, the interventionists say, it is within the inherent power of the presidency to send in troops, whatever Congress may think.

The conditions in Bosnia are not propitious. Although the three principals at Dayton agreed on the outlines of the settlement, so the NATO mission, strictly speaking, is one of peacekeeping—that is, monitoring a consensual situation—not one of peacemaking, still local zealots may see advantages to a continuation of the war. It is when contestants get tired of killing each other, as has finally happened in Ireland, Lebanon, and Palestine, that a stable settlement becomes possible.

Nor is the end-of-NATO-if-we-don't-act argument persuasive, at least in my mind. Yet having stage-managed the Dayton Accords, we can hardly back out now and invite the resumption of an atrocious war. The hope is that, as in Ireland and as in Palestine, the peace process, once sustained for a year or more, will develop a life and momentum of its own. President Clinton faces the dilemma famously defined by the old revivalist, Lorenzo Dow: "You will be damned if you do—and you will be damned if you don't."

I must add, the president seems to me on shaky constitutional ground when he argues that he can send troops into combat without congressional consent. This is what Justice Jackson called a "zone of twilight." History provides each side with arguments. William Howard Taft, for example, who served both as president of the United States and chief justice, thought that the president could order the Army and Navy wherever he wished as long as he had the funds to do so and war was not his purpose. But when, in 1951, President Truman proposed, without reference to Congress, to send four divisions to Europe—not to engage in combat but merely to reinforce the American Army under NATO—William Howard Taft's son, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, charged that President Truman was usurping authority "in violation of the laws and the Constitution."

Representative Frederic Coudert of New York City introduced a Sense of the Congress Resolution declaring that "no additional military forces" could be sent abroad "without the prior authorization of the Congress in each instance." Truman replied that he certainly did not need the approval of Congress to send more troops to Europe, and his administration "would continue to send troops wherever it is necessary to uphold our obligations to the United Nations."

The debate ended inconclusively, with the Sense of the Senate Resolution approving the deployment of Truman's four divisions, but declaring that no additional ground troops should be sent to Western Europe "without further congressional approval." According to Senator Taft, the resolution was "a clear statement by the Senate that it has the right to pass on any question of sending troops to Europe to implement the Atlantic Pact, that it is unconstitutional for the president to send troops abroad to implement that pact without congressional approval."

It shows how much Congress has acquiesced in magnified presidential authority that few today would question unilateral presidential decisions regarding troop deployment overseas in conditions where there is no immediate prospect of war. In any case, whatever the precise constitutional finding, presidents, including President Clinton, would be well advised to seek congressional approval, if only to guarantee a distribution of blame should things go wrong. And so, President Truman, in the unpopular years of the Korean War, must have regretted that he had not accepted Senator Taft's offer of a joint resolution passed by Congress authorizing the dispatch of troops to Korea.

Underneath the Bosnia debate there lie deeper issues, especially the general question of what international responsibilities the American people are today prepared to undertake. Earlier this year I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs entitled "Back to the Womb?" The basic argument was that isolationism may well be America's natural state, an attitude from which we are moved only by direct and palpable threats to our national security and to which we gratefully return when such threats fade away. Now that the Cold War is over, I suggested, the national impulse is to turn our backs on a chaotic and irresponsible world and cultivate our own garden, which has meanwhile suffered from considerable neglect and is overgrown with weeds.

Now, isolationism must be carefully defined. The United States has never been isolationist with regard to commerce; our merchant vessels roamed the seven seas from the first day of independence. Nor has the United States been isolationist with regard to culture; our writers, artists, scholars, missionaries, filmmakers, and tourists have ever wandered eagerly around the planet. But through most of our history the Republic has been politically isolationist.

George Washington said, "'Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world." And Thomas Jefferson called for "honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." Only a direct threat to American vital interests could justify any involvement in foreign wars, and that only for the duration of the threat.

The Founding Fathers had more than adequate geopolitical sensitivity. They understood that the United States had a stake in the preservation of a balance of power in Europe. "It cannot be to our interest," even the peace-loving and France-loving Jefferson wrote as Napoleon bestrode the Continent, "that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy." America would be forever endangered, Jefferson said, should "the whole force of Europe [be] wielded by a single hand."

But no such threat arose in the century after Waterloo, and two wide oceans offered protection from incursions on the Western Hemisphere, so through the nineteenth century isolationist habits and attitudes hardened.

Then came the First World War. Once again, as in the time of Napoleon, the prospect arose of a single hand wielding the force of Europe. Maintaining the balance of power in Europe would protect America, as it had long protected Great Britain. The United States entered the Great War in its own national interest.

For Woodrow Wilson, however, national interest was not enough to justify the sacrifice and horror of war. His need for a loftier justification led him to offer his country and the world the bold vision of collective security. Wilson's aim was to transform the whole structure of international politics, to replace what he regarded as war-breeding balance-of-power by a "community of power." The establishment of the League of Nations, Wilson said, promised a peaceful future. "Should this promise not be kept," Wilson added in a speech in Omaha in September 1919, "I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war."

Wilson's conception of a community of power implied a world of law and the collective prevention and punishment of aggression. It implied also that the United States would take a prominent and continuing enforcement role. This would be a drastic break with the Washington-Jefferson tradition of no entangling alliances and freedom of national action. American troops, for Wilson, might be sent into combat not just in defense of the United States, but in defense of world order, and might have to kill and die for what many would regard as a theory or a fantasy, and do so when the life of their own nation was not at stake.

Under the pressure of world war, Americans for a moment appeared ready to accept a larger measure of international responsibility. But the coming of peace revived the isolationist impulse, and so even more did the prospect of military enforcement. Article X of the League of Nations Covenant imposed on member states the "obligation" to "preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the League." Does this mean, as Theodore Roosevelt asked sarcastically, that Woodrow Wilson would go to war "every time a Yugoslav wishes to slap a Czechoslav in the face?"

The commitment of troops to combat has been the perennial obstacle to American acceptance of the Wilsonian vision. It is a constitutional obstacle: how to reconcile the provision giving Congress exclusive power to declare war with the dispatch of American forces into hostility at the behest of a collective-security organization? And it is a political obstacle: how to explain to the American people why their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons should die in conflicts in remote lands where the local outcome makes no particular difference to the United States?

Wilson's fight for the League foundered on these obstacles, and America, after a two-year internationalist binge, reverted to familiar and soothing isolationism—"back to normalcy," as the next president, Warren G. Harding, put it. Wilsonians fought a rear-guard action. America, said Wilson's able young assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1919, would commit a grievous wrong to itself and to all mankind "if it were ever to attempt to go backwards towards an old Chinese wall policy of isolationism." As Democratic candidate for vice president in 1920, young Roosevelt continued to defend the League as the road to peace. "If the World War showed anything more than another," F.D.R. said, "it showed the American people the futility of imagining that they could live in smug content their lives in their own way while the rest of the world burned in the conflagration of war."

But disenchantment over the Great War accelerated the return to isolationism. Revisionist historians and publicists portrayed American entry into the war as a decision imposed on the people by secret and sinister forces—British propaganda, international bankers, munitions makers—as well as by Wilsonian delusions and deceptions. Novelists and playwrights depicted the sacrifice of war as meaningless. "I was always embarrassed," Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, "by the words ‘sacred,' ‘glorious,' and ‘sacrifice.' I see nothing sacred, the things that were glorious had no glory, and the sacrifices were like the stockyards of Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it." A Farewell to Arms and Look Homeward Angel are emblematic titles of the period.

The onset of the Great Depression accelerated the retreat into isolationism. Franklin Roosevelt, now in the White House, had no illusions about the threats to peace posed by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. But, though a mighty domestic president, he could not, for all his popularity and all his wiles, control the isolationist Congress when it came to foreign affairs. Congress rejected American membership in the World Court in 1935. It enacted rigid neutrality legislation denying the president the authority to discriminate between an aggressor and the victim of aggression and thereby nullifying any significant American role in deterrence. Isolationism thus put American foreign policy in a straitjacket during those critical years that led up to the Second World War.

It is hard to overrate the appeal of isolationism in the 1930s. Many wondered whether even an isolationist Congress could be trusted with the power to go to war. Congressman Louis Ludlow of Indiana proposed a constitutional amendment transferring the war-making power from Congress to the people. The Ludlow Amendment provided that, except in cases of invasion, "the authority of Congress to declare war shall not become effective until confirmed by a majority of all votes cast in a nationwide referendum." In 1937, according to the Gallup Poll, three-quarters of the country backed the Ludlow Amendment. It took Roosevelt's personal intervention to defeat the amendment in the House of Representatives, and then only by a very close vote of 209 to 188.

In 1939, the outbreak of war fulfilled Wilson's Omaha prediction and justified Roosevelt's warnings. But it did not destroy isolationism. Rather, it ushered in the most intense and angry national debate of my lifetime. Pearl Harbor settled that particular debate, but in vindicating internationalism it did not vanquish isolationism. The young Wilsonians of the First World War were now in command of American foreign policy—F.D.R. in the White House, Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles in the State Department, the Republican internationalists Henry Stimson and Frank Knox in the War and Navy Departments.

We forget sometimes what a brief flash of history separated the First and Second World Wars—twenty years, the same flash of time that separates us today from the presidency of Gerald Ford. Remembering what had befallen Wilson a short twenty years before, Roosevelt and his generation were haunted by the fear that peace would again bring the resurgence of isolationism.

The isolationists staged an apparent comeback in the 1942 mid-term election, when only five of 115 legislators with isolationist records were beaten. Cordell Hull told Vice President Henry Wallace after the election that the country was going in exactly the same steps it followed in 1918. Hull, Wallace noted in his diary, thought it "utterly important to keep the sequence of events from following the 1918–1921 pattern because he felt if we went into isolationism this time, the world was lost forever."

For President Roosevelt the great objective in 1943–1945, besides winning the war, was to tie the United States into a postwar structure of peace. The memory, still so vivid, of the repudiation of the League two short decades before was not encouraging. Isolationism had been the American norm for a century and a half; internationalism was only a two-year Wilsonian aberration. No one could assume that isolationism would simply wither away. It had, Roosevelt felt, to be brought to a definite end by binding American commitments to an international order. And he felt additionally that as many of these commitments as possible should be made while the war was still on, before peace could return the nation to its old isolationist habits. F.D.R. said privately, "Anybody who thinks that isolationism is dead in this country is crazy. As soon as this war is over, it may well be stronger than ever."

So, while the war was still on, Roosevelt organized international meetings at Bretton Woods, Dumbarton Oaks, San Francisco and elsewhere to involve the United States in the international machinery that would deal with postwar questions. In particular, in the words of the diplomat Charles E. Bohlen, who served as White House liaison to the State Department, F.D.R. saw the United Nations as "the only device that could keep the United States from slipping back into isolationism." And, as Winston Churchill said on his return from the Yalta Conference, this new international organization must "not shrink from establishing its will against the evildoer or evil planner in good time and by force of arms." Once again, the ultimate guarantee of peace, the ultimate test of collective security and world law lay in military enforcement.

But, strangely, the United States did not, as Roosevelt feared, slip back into isolationism. Within a few years after the end of the Second World War, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, other security pacts, and overseas troop deployments entangled the United States in the outside world in ways that isolationists in their most despairing moments could hardly have envisaged. Nor did we flinch from the use of arms. In two hot wars fought on the mainland of Asia, under the sanction of the Cold War, the United States lost nearly one hundred thousand men.

The internationalist mood was inspired, of course, by the new turn the Soviet Union gave to the old Jeffersonian warning against permitting the whole force of Europe to be wielded by a single hand. The prolongation of the Soviet threat over nearly half a century produced in time the conviction that classical American isolationism was truly dead and buried.

Even the traditionally isolationist Republican Party joined in support of the United Nations and collective action. Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a prewar isolationist, was converted by war to internationalism and gave President Truman's internationalist policies indispensable bipartisan support. The nomination of General Eisenhower over Senator Taft at the 1952 Republican convention was a victory of the internationalist wing that then existed in the Republican party. The grandson of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who had played a key role in blocking American membership in the League of Nations became a notably effective American ambassador to the United Nations.

Americans forty years ago thought of the United Nations as an instrument of peace and collective security. In 1958, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wrote Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary-general of the United Nations, that the United States "has a strong interest in the early establishment of standby arrangements for a United Nations Peace Force." The United States, Dulles added, "is prepared to assist you in every feasible manner in strengthening the capacity of the United Nations to discharge its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace." Both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed resolutions calling for the establishment of a UN peace force.

By the 1950s it seemed that at last America had made the great turning and would forever after accept collective responsibilities. The age of American isolationism, it was supposed, was finally over. Seen through the prism of the 1990s, this appears an illusion. It is now surely clear that the upsurge in American internationalism during the Cold War was a reaction to what was perceived as a direct and urgent threat to the security of the United States. It is to Joseph Stalin that Americans owe the forty-year suppression of the isolationist impulse. The collapse of the Soviet threat faces us today with the prospect that haunted Roosevelt half a century ago—the reversion to isolationism.

This suggestion requires qualification. The United States will never, unless Pat Buchanan makes the White House, revert to the classical isolationism of no "entangling alliances." We will continue to accept international political, economic, and military commitments unprecedented in our history. We may even expand some of these commitments, as in the curious mania to enlarge NATO and thereby commit American forces to the defense of Eastern Europe, presumably against a Russian army that cannot even beat Chechnya.

But there has been an unmistakable revulsion against the United Nations, especially by the majority party in Congress. Compare John Foster Dulles' support of the UN peace force with the attitude of Republican leaders today. In the June commemoration in San Francisco of the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations' founding, not one leading Republican, not even the Republican governor of California, attended the ceremony.

"International organizations," Senator Dole tells us, "whether the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, or any other, will not protect American interests. Too often, they reflect a consensus that opposes American interests or does not reflect American principles and ideals." In this spirit Congress declines to pay the money we owe to the United Nations, making the proud United States the world's greatest international deadbeat.

Republican legislators miss few opportunities to emphasize their contempt for the organization, its peacekeeping role, its leadership, and its civil servants. In President Clinton's first year, according to the National Journal, "90 percent of the GOP's 178 House members either voted against the United Nations every time (112 of them) or all but once (49)."

The post–1994 Republican majority in the House is even more hostile to the United Nations. When an American soldier assigned to duty on a NATO peacekeeping mission in Macedonia recently refused to wear a UN blue beret and shoulder patch, Republican legislators in Washington rushed to sign a petition in his support. One Republican congressman has already introduced a resolution entitled "The United Nations Withdrawal Act of 1995." Said Representative David Obey of Wisconsin of one such initiative, "When I see it coming from the party of Vandenberg, I do not know whether to cry or laugh."

It is no wonder that Sir Nicholas Henderson, the brilliant British diplomat who served in the 1980s as ambassador to Washington, characterizes the present situation as "the rejection by the Republicans of the main plank of U.S. foreign policy for the last fifty years."

The anti–United Nations campaign has reached the point of lunacy in those parts of our land where militiamen anxiously scan the sky to defend their homes and guns against black UN helicopters they believe are about to descend upon them, destroy American freedom, and impose world government.

Now, the argument can be made that distaste for the United Nations does not constitute a rejection of internationalism and a retreat into isolationism. According to some critics of my Foreign Affairs article, for example, what is involved, rather, is a salutary shift from an internationalist policy inspired by the visionary dreams of Woodrow Wilson to an internationalist policy inspired by the robust national-interest/balance-of-power geopolitics of Theodore Roosevelt. The Theodore Roosevelt approach, it is contended, would call for a turning away not from the world or from superpower responsibilities but from entanglements in international institutions that hamper national freedom of action. It would reject sentimental global idealism in favor of the sober and unilateral exercise of American power in support of American ideas.

But no responsible Wilsonian proposes to surrender U.S. freedom of action to defend vital U.S. interests. And militant unilateralism has its costs, too: unilateral action is often unwelcome; it is often expensive; it is often mistaken; and, powerful as we may be, we cannot always attain our goals in the world by going it alone. As Secretary Christopher often reminds us, "Many of our most important objectives cannot be achieved without the cooperation of others." Why not share the burdens—thereby defeating accusations of American imperialism, benefiting from the knowledge and experience of other countries, and, in most cases, improving the chances of success?

In any event, multilateralism is not the only target of our contemporary neo-isolationists. The attack on internationalism extends far beyond the United Nations. The congressional wrecking crew is bent as well on destroying what would be the essential instrumentalities of a T.R. national-interest/balance-of-power foreign policy. The current Republican version of unilateralism is based not, like Theodore Roosevelt's, on the projection of American power abroad, but on the withdrawal of American power from the world.

Look at what is happening to our foreign service. Under Republican pressure, the U.S. government is closing thirty-six diplomatic and consular posts and ten United States Information Agency (USIA) posts. The State Department has already lost 1,100 jobs, the USIA six hundred. The Department even lacks the state-of-the-art high-technology communications system essential in the age of the computer and the microchip.

Meanwhile, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, with the acquiescence of the Republican leadership, held up for many weeks the appointment of ambassadors and the ratification of treaties. In consequence, we lacked ambassadors in nearly twenty world capitals, among them such essential countries as China, South Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Lebanon. And in consequence, action was long delayed on the treaty that would cut the Russian stock of nuclear warheads by two-thirds and on the international convention banning chemical weapons.

Senator Helms was trying to blackmail the State Department into accepting a reorganization plan designed to demote USIA, the Agency for International Development (AID), and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to bureaus in the Department, a further diminution of the instrumentalities of foreign policy. Under such pressure the foreign assistance budget request has already been reduced by 20 percent. Polls show that many Americans are under the impression that 15 percent—or even 20 percent—of our budget goes for foreign aid. In fact, less than 1 percent goes for foreign aid, and much of this money is spent in the United States. Measured by the per capita share of the gross domestic product, our contribution to foreign assistance is last among the twenty-five industrial nations. Yet congressional isolationists have forced the closing down of twenty-eight foreign aid missions abroad, and by 1997 AID is scheduled to lose about two thousand jobs.

The neo-isolationists are, it is true, prepared to increase the military budget to levels even higher than the Pentagon has requested, but they are determined to cut back the nonmilitary instrumentalities through which the United States exerts influence in the world. Our military budget is really preposterous. The idea is to defend the United States against such rogue states as Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. The combined defense budget of these "dangerous" nations is less than $10 billion. In order to be prepared to fight any two of them at once, we are, according to Seymour Melman's calculations, spending twenty-seven times what those half-dozen potential adversaries are spending. Throw in Russia and China and we are still out-spending all potential enemies by a wide margin. And, more curiously, we are lavishing this money on forces we are reluctant to use. The same House of Representatives that voted to give the Pentagon more funds than it asked for also voted to prohibit the use of funds to send U.S. ground forces to Bosnia to help monitor the peace settlement.

Military enforcement remains the acid test of collective security, and it cannot be said that the neo-isolationist mood misrepresents American public opinion. Some polls show nominal support for the United Nations and for an activist U.S. role in the world. Citizens readily endorse euphonious generalities. But these pro-UN opinions are weakly held. Attacking the United Nations is a cost-free exercise for politicians—at least, I've never heard of a politician getting into any trouble by doing it. Senator Dole has discovered that drawing out the pronunciation of the name of the secretary general is always good for a laugh. The intensity factor, which polls inadequately reflect, is on the side of the neo-isolationists—those who hate the United Nations hate it more than those who like it like it.

Nor do polls show much appetite for international activism. According to the Time-CNN poll conducted in November 1995, 73 percent of American adults think "the country should further reduce its involvement in world politics to concentrate on problems at home." All polls show a marked drop-off in internationalist sentiment when it comes to committing not just words but money and lives. A recent Gallup survey reports that defending the security of American allies, rated very important by 61 percent in 1990, has now fallen to 40 percent; public support for the protection of weaker nations against aggression has fallen from 57 percent to 24 percent.

This evident resurgence of isolationism has legitimate causes. The end of the Cold War removed the major international threat to American security. The desire to concentrate on improving things at home is justified by the neglect of urgent domestic problems in the 1980s. Neo-isolationism also draws strength as America and, indeed, all nations confront the ultimate price of a peace system, for the essence of collective security remains, as Churchill said, the readiness to act against evildoers "by force of arms." Without military enforcement, and with economic sanctions of limited effect, punishment of aggression by the international community would become hortatory.

Are Americans prepared to play a major collective security role in enforcing the peace system? How do you persuade the housewife in Xenia, Ohio that her husband/brother/son should die in Bosnia or Somalia or some other place where the outcome of the fighting does not affect vital U.S. interests? And is it just the Xenia housewife who must be persuaded? How many stalwart internationalists would be prepared to have their own sons die in Bosnia?

We are not likely to achieve a new world order without paying for it in blood as well as in words and treasure. Dying for world order when there is no concrete threat to one's own nation is a hard argument to make. Let a few American soldiers be killed and the congressional and popular demand for withdrawal of the rest becomes almost irresistible.

It may seem heartless to point this out, but ours is not an army of draftees put in uniform against their preference and their will. Ours is a professional army made up of men and women who volunteered for the job—and the job, alas, includes fighting, killing, and being killed. Yet the outcry when our soldiers are shot at in remote lands has become a major obstacle to getting the job done.

Americans are certainly not alone in this understandable reaction. As General Mladic of the Bosnian Serbs has cynically remarked, "The Western countries have learned they cannot recruit their own children to realize goals outside their homelands." No doubt some of Mladic's followers, acting on this principle, will begin shooting at NATO peacekeepers in the hope of rousing their homelands to call them back from Bosnia.

Why this reluctance to use professional armies as they were used in the past? The military historian Edward Luttwak suggests that in earlier times people had larger families and were more fatalistic about their children dying through disease and war. Today, Luttwak writes, people "lack the war-expendable fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh sons which overburdened families were once glad to hand over to the sovereign's care and feeding in uniform, and whose death in combat was not felt as the fundamentally unacceptable tragedy it has now become." Today, when parents in developed countries tend to have one or two children and children no longer routinely die of disease, there is, according to the Luttwak thesis, much greater emotional investment in each child; hence, death in warfare, except for the most compelling of reasons, is much harder to accept.

Whether or not the Luttwak thesis provides an explanation, one cannot doubt the difficulty democratic governments have these days in sending their armies into war. In the Bosnia case, our troops, as President Clinton rightly emphasizes, are on a mission of peace, not of war. They are engaged not in peacemaking but in peacekeeping; they are not trying to force peace on parties who would rather keep on fighting but are policing a settlement already accepted by the contending factions. The risks in the Balkans are always considerable at any point in history. Still, if the most powerful nation on the planet refuses a peacekeeping role, we can hardly expect smaller, weaker, and poorer nations to ensure world order for us.

Maybe we should revive the idea, endorsed forty years ago by John Foster Dulles, of a UN peace force, perhaps in the form recently proposed by that distinguished international civil servant Sir Brian Urquhart—that is, a United Nations volunteer army and a foreign legion recruited from idealists, adventurers, and mercenaries that could serve the Security Council as its active deployment force. But that proposal, in the present anti-UN frenzy in this country, would provoke widespread resistance. Think what our excitable militia men would make of it! It is ironical, but true, that just when we are reluctant ourselves to get involved in military enforcement, we are determined not to give the United Nations the funds and tools to do the job.

And even if a UN force could be recruited, trained, armed, and financed, its deployment would be complicated in an age when so much military violence is not aggression across frontiers in the style contemplated in the UN charter but explosions within nations of ethnic, religious, and tribal hatreds.

The flinching from military enforcement calls for a reexamination of the Wilsonian doctrine of collective security. The current campaign against the instrumentalities of even a unilateralist foreign policy holds out small hope that the disciples of Wilson are to be succeeded in the halls of Congress by disciples of Theodore Roosevelt. The national mood is neo-isolationist, but it is not, I would judge, deaf to reasoned argument. The debates over Bosnia show how divided the American people remain on questions of internationalism and isolationism. The test will come if General Mladic's men start shooting American and other NATO soldiers. Then we will know to what extent the American people are prepared to meet costly international challenges when the United States itself is not under threat.

The reluctance to undertake military enforcement of a peace system ought to lead democratic nations to greater concentration on preventive diplomacy—that is, on trying to compose disputes before they erupt into violence. This is obviously a delicate and tricky field of maneuver and prediction, but the challenge of mediation and arbitration in avoidance of disaster is surely worth exploring. I'm glad that George Soros's International Crisis Group is exploring the possibilities of preventive diplomacy, and one hopes that the United Nations itself will be able to devote more attention and personnel to such exploration. Preventive diplomacy has had some success in Ireland, in Macedonia, in the dismantling of nuclear weapons in Russia, in the argument between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea, and for a time at least in Haiti. As Sir David Hannay, the recently retired and much missed British ambassador to the United Nations, puts it, "The cost of remedying a situation once it gets out of control is infinitely greater than the cost efforts to head off such disasters before they occur."

If we cannot find ways of implementing collective security, even in the reduced form of preventive diplomacy, we must be realistic about the alternative: a chaotic, violent, and dangerous planet.

Maybe the costs of military enforcement are too great. Withdrawal may seem a safer rule in an anarchic world in which our power and our wisdom are limited. Maybe we should let the law of the jungle take over.

But let us recognize that we are abandoning a noble vision. As Tennyson wrote:

For I dipp'd into the future far as
human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the
wonder that would be....
Heard the heavens filled with shouting,
and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling
in the central blue....
Till the war drum throbbed no longer and
the battle flags were furled,
In the Parliament of man, the Federation
of the world.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Mr. Schlesinger, you pointed out many glaring inconsistencies in Republican actions with regard to both principle and cases, particularly the decimation of the State Department. Now, even though it's true that Senator Dole rarely mentions the word "business" without putting the adjective "small" in front of it, we all do seem to all agree that major corporations are a principal constituency of the Republican Party. These major corporations are international corporations, and it would seem to be against the best interest of this constituency for us to be isolationist. I wonder if you see any pressure from this constituency on the congressional leadership of the Republican Party against the neo-isolationist drift in the party?

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR.: You are quite right that one would expect such pressure. But particularly in the House of Representatives there is a collection of first-term congressmen who are very ideological in their approach, who represent small rather than big business, and who are deeply suspicious of Wall Street and international bankers. Remember in the 1952 convention when Everett Dirksen pointed his finger at Governor Dewey of New York and said, "It's people like you who have led the Republican Party down the road to defeat and destruction." That mood, I think, is very strong, and therefore there is probably resistance to pressure from international corporations.

Why more business leaders have not spoken out against the attack on the instrumentalities of foreign policy I can't imagine.

QUESTION: I heartily applaud what you said and I hope your message is widely heard. I'd like to invite you to extend your remarks in a direction that seems to me a necessary part of the argument, both for your Foreign Affairs article and for what you have said here. In our present circumstances, in which we seek to define our national interest in the world, we must consider not only the Wilsonian conception of collective security as he defined it at that time, but also the changed circumstances of international relations in the present period. During the whole period of the Cold War, when we were so much preoccupied with the Soviet Union, the ground was shifting under our feet, the nature of international processes was changing. Technology had progressed—and not only in the direction suggested by the previous question—and we were experiencing increasing global interdependence through the financial transactions of multinational corporations. Today, our security and our well-being and the fulfillment of our values really rest upon the preservation of the international system, keeping it from unraveling and strengthening it in a way that we are not now doing, primarily because the nature of international relations in the present period is such that if ever there was an argument for isolationism, it is considerably weakening now.

You can extend your remarks, I hope, to make the point that under present circumstances, when we seek to define our national interest, it is not because a particular territory is important—because there is oil there or because it is strategically important—but because we have an interest in the international system surviving and strengthening.

When we went to war in Korea, it was not because the territory of Korea was critical to us. It was because of the nature of the aggression. Similarly today, in Chechnya, in Bosnia, and elsewhere, what is critical is not that particular piece of territory, but the nature of the crime against humanity. What we have been witnessing is a growing acceptance of intervention by the international community based on the nature of the acts, the crimes against humanity—genocide, human rights offenses, the indiscriminate slaughter of people in Chechnya or in Bosnia or elsewhere.

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR.: I welcome these remarks of Marshall Shulman, who was a wise and trusted counselor of Dean Acheson in the Truman administration and of Cyrus Vance in the Carter administration, and for many years was the director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia from which, alas, he has recently retired.

The point is very important. The structural changes in the international context require us to rethink the issues of foreign policy. We are much more dependent on a world system than ever before. Self-sufficiency of any sort—economic, military, cultural—has been enormously reduced. Dependence means vulnerability. The problem of trying to prevent the international system from unraveling is one which the successive administrations are trying to get hold of in one way or another. So it's not so much any specific piece of real estate that is at stake. It's the impact on the international system.

Of course, a great problem is the measurement of priorities and resources. When, and where, and how do you act? It's a new ball game. When people say Clinton has no foreign policy, Bush had no foreign policy, and so on—they miss the fact that no nation has a comprehensive foreign policy today. The world is in such a state of transformation that it is very difficult to get an intelligible set of priorities, and an intelligible set of assumptions, in foreign affairs.

It took some years after the Second World War, when Marshall Shulman was in the State Department, to work out the policy of containment. To respond to one big challenge was relatively simple compared to figuring out a pattern of response to the barrage of little challenges we face today.

QUESTION: If you don't use the touchstone of our narrow national interest and we don't get involved, what criteria would you use to decide where we commit troops today? Why Bosnia and not Rwanda? When do we go in and when do we not?

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR.: I think one criterion, obviously, would be the expected effects on the United States. What are the chances of the intervention having any great success? What would be the consequences of failure to intervene? There are a lot of parts of the world where we would not be very successful, where we have had no historic experience, where we have had no historic interest, where we don't speak the language, where we don't connect really with the people or the problems. I'm not enthusiastic, for example, about the Bosnian intervention. I feel that having carried it to the point that we have—sending Dick Holbrooke there to argue everybody into signing the joint document, which I think is a great achievement—I don't think we can drop out now. But in general I am not an enthusiast for military intervention.

QUESTION: Wasn't it an error for President Clinton to create an expectation that American enforcers could handle their problem in only twelve months? Aren't we going to have a very nasty situation in this country in December of 1996?

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR.: Was it an error for President Clinton to say that the American troops would be withdrawn in twelve months? Well, it may be. But I think the assumption—or the hope—is that, as in Ireland, once we get the killing stopped, those who wish to resume killing will find themselves bucking a tide. The cease-fire in Northern Ireland has held for fifteen months now. If you can sustain the peace process long enough, it can become irreversible. I also think that all he was talking about was the withdrawal of American forces, and there would still be, presumably, European forces.

Though the European Union subsequently made very useful secondary contributions to relief and redress in ex-Yugoslavia, its failure in the first instance to seize hold of the situation before it became a crisis has had lamentable consequences. Bosnia, after all, was initially a European problem. It is a part of the world where an adverse outcome will affect the countries of Europe much more than it will affect the United States. It is also a part of the world with which European countries have had much more experience than we have and of which they have much more knowledge, and it was a problem they should have dealt with. But they failed to deal with it, and we were faced with the choice of either letting it continue—letting the killing and the atrocities go on and possibly expand—or trying to bring it to a halt. Finally, various forms of ethnic cleansing created the foundation for partition, and we intervened.

QUESTION: It seems that the solution that was given for the Bosnian problem is going to be a pest, more or less, whether the isolationists are wrong or correct. Now, if this intervention succeeds, then the isolationists seem to be wrong or weak. But if it fails, is it because the way we did it is wrong or is it because the isolationists are right? We decided to solve the problem of Bosnia by going there and enforcing a peace because if we don't maintain or protect the peace, there is no peace there. If we succeed in keeping peace in Bosnia, then we are right and the isolationists are wrong. But if this way that this government decided to go in was wrong—the way, not the philosophy—is that going to then justify the isolationists?

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR.: If we succeed in keeping peace in Bosnia, that would vindicate internationalism. If it goes sour, as quite possibly it may, would that vindicate isolationism? It would certainly make it much more difficult for another foreign intervention in cases where the threat to the United States is not palpable. That's why, it seems to me, we have so many political and emotional obstacles now to military enforcement that we have to work on some other forms of dealing with disaster. The whole area of preventive diplomacy, misty and chancy as that may be, seems to me certainly worth promoting.

About the Speaker

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. is Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at the City University of New York. Before his retirement he was Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at CUNY and taught at Harvard and Princeton. Educated at Harvard University, Professor Schlesinger served in the Office of War Information and the Office of Strategic Services; was a member of Adlai Stevenson s campaign staff; and served as special assistant to President Kennedy from 1961 to 1963. A prolific writer, Professor Schlesinger has written about Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. and Robert Kennedy, and about Vietnam, violence, "multiculturalism," and other aspects of American history. Among the many prizes and awards he has received are the Pulitzer Prize for History (1946) and for Biography (1966), the National Book Award in 1966 and 1979, the Fregene Prize for Literature from Italy in 1983, and the Signet Medal from Harvard in 1989. He is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Historical Association, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the National Council of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Independent Committee on Arts Policy.

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