Where one man sorts out his thoughts in public


Bruce M. Russett


Essays by Me

Essays by Others


No Clear and Present Danger

A Skeptical View of the U.S. Entry into World War II

Harper & Row, 1972 


Bruce M. Russett


Chapter 5

Force and Choice in the Environment of International Politics

A presumption against force

In the now-standard evaluations of American politics before Pearl Harbor, it is agreed that the interventionists were the realists who accepted war for realpolitik, to preserve the balance of power.  As such they are contrasted both with the Wilsonian idealists who went on crusade a generation before, and with the isolationists whose true understanding of international politics is thought to have been hopelessly deficient.   Doubtless Roosevelt and his supporters tried to think objectively of the national interest in a more detached way than had Woodrow Wilson, but it is not clear that they were correct in their strategic evaluations.  Their thinking held elements of a sentimental attitude toward China, an anxiety to protect American foreign trade and investment, extreme concern for the purity of American interest in Latin America which fed fears of German influence there, oversimplified Mahanist strategic notions and excessive worry about disposition of the British fleet, and an attachment to England that allowed them to see the United States in Britain’s traditional role of balancer.  Even a detailed intellectual history would be unlikely to tell us how to weigh the importance of these elements, and it would be unwise to emphasize any of them.  It certainly is not possible to sort out the various motivations here. Nevertheless—and especially in light of how dubious the strategic justification appears—further inquiry is an important and necessary task.

What is sure is that the United States ultimately went to war, as a consequence of some theories that now seem inadequate.  My discussion of the ill-effects of World War II is directed to the overall experience of having fought that war, not simply to the consequences of allegedly “losing” the peace to Russia as some have charged.  The reader may not accept all the elements of this revisionist view.  But if he agrees with much of it he may concur that, to a greater degree than has been true in American policy during recent decades, there must be an initial presumption against the use of force in international politics. 

In the cold war period, the threat of violence often seemed the only available means for influencing America’s antagonists because other potential means had been deliberately abandoned.  This was most noticeable in American relations with Communist China, North Korea, and North Vietnam.  When in the winter of 1968 the North Korean government seized the intelligence ship Pueblo and its crew, there was in fact nothing the United States could do to obtain their release.  The threat or use of military force was impossible because of the circumstances: any resort to force would doom the crew at the hands of its captors.  But since the United States had previously cut off all normal intercourse with the North Korean regime—diplomatic relations, trade, travel, cultural exchange all were suspended or had never existed—Washington had no bargaining levers.  The circumstances were hardly appropriate for offering new carrots, and since the normal commerce of nations was nonexistent there were no carrots available to be withdrawn, or of which withdrawal could be threatened.  Left with only the big stick, the stick’s wielder was in fact impotent. And the North Koreans, knowing in advance how limited the range of options open to the United States would be, could plan their operation with confidence in its safety.  How much more reluctant might they have been if they had had some stake in good relations with the United States, a stake to be lost by initiating hostile action?

Less dramatically but more importantly this same kind of limitation, an abandonment of most of the means of persuasion other than violence or its threat, has hampered the American government in its efforts to influence the rulers of Peking.  Generally, political leaders, especially when dealing with states seen as predominantly hostile, tend to emphasize punishments and prohibitions.  Opponents must be deterred, they must be presented with a high probability of pain if they commit acts of which we seriously disapprove.  In holding such a view leaders are like the lawmaker who hopes to deter socially undesirable behavior solely through the threat of arrest and imprisonment.

That focus, however, ignores the simple fact that most people obey laws less from an overt fear of punishment than from habit, convenience, and a sense that to do so is accepted and in some way correct.  When authority is no longer perceived as just, only coercion will enforce its wishes—but times are indeed hard when that happens.  Law-abiding behavior is normally rewarding behavior; an effective lawmaker structures the situation so that people will do as he wishes as much because in some material or psychic way it rewards them as because undesired behavior will result in punishment.

Of course, the offer of rewards will not always be effective either.  Sometimes it may be interpreted, perhaps correctly, as a sign of weakness and an encouragement to blackmail.   Sometimes too, a previous emphasis on threat and violence may have so charged the atmosphere that the offer of reward is met only with contempt or suspicion.  Such a condition undoubtedly existed at the time of President Johnson’s apparent offer, in 1965, of massive development aid to the entire Mekong Valley area in Southeast Asia.  The offer was particularly meant to include North Vietnam, but was quickly brushed aside by the Communists.  By that time the offer was dismissed as just an imperialist bribe or an empty public relations gesture.  It is much harder to force an opponent to change a policy already embarked upon than to deter such action before it has begun.  A decade earlier, and before the war, an offer of American assistance might not have been received quite so negatively as it was later.  The Hanoi government was in any case by 1965 deeply committed to assisting the Viet Cong, and a major reversal of policy would have caused great difficulties in its internal politics.

Imagine a scenario rather like this: After the French evacuated Indochina and signed the Geneva agreements calling at least temporarily for separate governments in North and South Vietnam, the United States could have recognized the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi.  It really is not such a preposterous idea, considering that after all, the United States had not been fighting in Indochina and so there was no question therefore of recognizing a regime against which Americans had fought.  At the same time, Washington might have encouraged trade with the new regime.  Thus North Vietnam would not have been put on the strategic embargo list that forbade or sharply limited American trade with China, North Korea, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe.  So long as the North Vietnamese did not break the embargo by shipping Western goods on to other Communist states, the United States might not only have permitted but actually have encouraged trade with Hanoi.  Furthermore, some economic aid for reconstructing the economy might have been extended.  In public statements the American government might have managed to say some complimentary things about “nationalist” Ho Chi Minh, deemphasing the fact that he also happened to be a Communist.  The United States might have stressed, as it did, the fact of important differences between North and South Vietnam and the need for the government of the South to be independent of the North, but the tone could have been quite different.  Instead of emphasizing anti-Communism and the ideological differences, it might instead have stressed the cultural, religious, and ethnic differences between the two halves, and how they had never really formed a unified nation.

The purpose of this strategy would have been to convey to the governments of both parts of Vietnam a desire to see South Vietnam remain independent, without directing strong condemnatory statements against the North.  Instead of cutting virtually all the normal ties among nations, a rather substantial carrot would have been dangled before Hanoi to encourage peaceful relations with the South.  The threat to withdraw the carrot in case of a Northern inspired or assisted effort to overthrow the Saigon government could have been made clearly enough implicitly, as could the ultimate intention to oppose any such effort militarily.  But the primary effort would have been to soft-pedal threats and to build, over time, substantial positive incentives for the behavior desired by the American government.  Note that such a policy is not one of appeasement.  It does not consist in giving things away in the vague hope that the opponent will be satisfied; rather it expects concrete acts and concessions in return for those extended.  Furthermore, the threat of force remains in the background should he prove unwilling to seek agreement.

Now as always with hindsight no one can say whether this policy would have worked, or even whether it was better than some other, such as accepting unification of the country from the beginning.  But certainly the punishment-oriented policy that was tried brought no great success, and it is intriguing to speculate about the possibilities of a reward-oriented effort.   Learning theory in psycho-logy stresses rewards as well as punishments, and indeed under many conditions rewards for desired behavior are more effective than is punishment for undesired acts.  Punishment, or threatened punishment, may make a decision-maker so fearful that it becomes hard for him to perceive alternatives or to weigh calmly the consequences of his action. As a result he may act rashly or “irrationally,” perhaps doing just what the would-be deterrer wants him not to do.


An alternative far eastern policy in the thirties?

On the whole, American policy toward Japan in the 1930s consisted largely of punishments and threats.  Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson greeted Japan’s occupation of Manchuria with a determina-tion to reverse it, even at substantial cost to the United States.  He issued a declaration that the United States would recognize no territorial changes resulting from the war.  Privately, he urged both President Hoover and the British government to impose economic sanctions to force the Japanese to withdraw, coupled with a willingness to accept war as a consequence if sanctions failed.  Hoover and the British refused to support Stimson on a matter which did not, they considered, affect vital interests. So he was limited to a doctrine of nonrecognition as “moral suasion,” which was of course effective in angering the Japanese without causing them in any way to reverse their actions.  But a policy very much like that advocated by Stimson in 1932 was in fact adopted in 1940 and 1941—economic sanctions to halt (and then, more ambiguously and dangerously, to reverse) Japanese occupation of China, even at the risk of a general Pacific war.  Stimson applied the lessons of Manchuria as others did those of Munich.

By thinking largely in terms of threats the United States government was left on both occasions with policies that could not achieve their aims.  But some officials did consider quite different strategies.  In November 1941, for instance, a proposed economic policy was drawn up in the Treasury Department designed to discourage Japanese military expansion insofar as that expansion was economically motivated.  It proposed to give the Japanese an opportunity to expand their markets in prosperity, without military occupation that would destroy the independence of Asian peoples or utterly exclude the western powers.

Accordingly the proposal included the following bargain: Japan should withdraw her military forces from all of China and probably Manchuria, and also from Indochina and Siam.  It would recognize Chiang Kai-shek’s government and surrender its extraterri-torial rights in China.  Economically, it would offer the Chinese a loan of a billion yen at two per cent interest, sell the United States as much as three-fourths of its current output of war materials, and accord the United States and China most-favored-nation treatment in trade.   Japan would cut its ties with the Axis and negotiate a mutual nonaggression pact with America, China, and Britain.  These represented all the major goals of American far eastern policy at the time, in some cases to a degree not anticipated by the most optimistic Americans.

In turn, according to this proposal, the United States was to make important concessions to the Japanese.  Like Japan, America would give up its extraterritorial rights in China and persuade the British to follow suit, and it would repeal the immigration laws discriminating against Asians.  It would reciprocate the Japanese extension of most-favored-nation treatment, extend Tokyo a two billion dollar credit at two per cent interest, and try to assure Japan access to raw materials.  Militarily it would withdraw the bulk of its naval forces from the Pacific.1

Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau was intrigued by the proposal, and sent it on to Secretary Hull at the State Department, who read it with some sympathy.  Hull incorporated many of its components in his own draft for the President.  Roosevelt also considered it for a while, but the Chinese government heard of it and reacted fearfully to what it called “appeasement.”  Roosevelt then put the plan aside as unrealistic.  Probably it was, by then, almost as absurd as Johnson’s much later development plan for the Mekong.  Japanese-American relations had deteriorated so far into hostility and suspicion that no such settlement—in which trust would have to be a major component—was likely.

But it might not have seemed absurd earlier, especially back in 1932.  At that point a comprehen-sive Japanese-American agreement that recognized legitimate economic and strategic interests of each might have been received much more favorably in both governments.  Relations between them were not then so bad as to make the exercise pointless.  In fact, on reading it one is struck with the similarity of many major points to what actually occurred after World War II—which America fought, in the Pacific, to diminish Japanese power.  Japan certainly did give up its special privileges in China, the Axis was smashed, and the United States has, with other nations, obtained substantial (though by no means unrestricted) access to Japanese markets.  On the other hand, the United States has also lost its economic position in China, it extended billions of dollars of economic aid for the reconstruction of Japan, and the national origin quotas of American immigration laws have been repealed.  Japan is busy establishing a favorable trading relationship, if not with China, then throughout Southeast Asia.

It would be unfair to push this reasoning too far as criticism of actual American policy in the 1930s.  The comprehensive settlement would have met with severe political opposition on emotional grounds and from entrenched economic and military interests in both countries.  Probably in 1932 the need was not so obvious as to attract enough concentrated attention from busy men.  And statesmen normally do not think this way, especially in terms of broad far-reaching agreements.  But it was an alternative to force and the threat of force.  Just because the United States government did not and perhaps even could not have pursued it must not keep us from considering the virtues of it and other alternatives under more favorable circumstances.  It was an alternative between unilateral intervention and isolation, an overlooked item on a menu of conceivable choice.  It illustrates a kind of international involvement intended to promote major national goals even with powers whose relationship to America initially contains important elements of hostility.  It represents a kind of thinking that might now be revived as Americans and Chinese reconsider their policy toward each other.  In a period when many fear a new isolationism, it may represent a sane option between “manic intervention and depressive withdrawal.”2


The menu of choice in foreign policy

What determines the range of choices potentially available to national decision-makers?  What are the limits within which personality differences, bureaucratic roles, different theoretical perspectives, or alternative styles of bargaining and negotiation can affect choice?  The distinction between the process of selection among alternatives and the set of choices offered is crucial to an understanding of current United States foreign policy dilemmas.  If you walk into a restaurant, what you order of course depends on how hungry you are, your tastes, and how much money you have.  It also depends on what the menu offers.  Dinner at a pizza palace offering dozens of varieties of pizza is not likely to be very satisfactory if you don’t happen to like pizza.

Not many Americans are very happy about the menu that has recently faced the United States in Indochina.  Neither escalation nor withdrawal, in any of their possible permutations, nor continuing to slog on somewhere in between, looked very attractive. There was no “good” solution to the predicament, only a selection of more or less bad options.  Now of course there were differences among Americans on just what the possible range of choice offered really was.  Yet strong opposition to the war did not spread far beyond intellectual circles before 1968.  Even then the range of realistic choice, as perceived by the general public, was not wide.  While Gallup poll respondents had become as likely to refer to themselves as doves as hawks, few favored a unilateral withdrawal.3  Though many would have preferred a somewhat different policy by their government, most had in mind matters of style and emphasis rather than a drastic shift.  Much the same happened to both Americans and Japanese in late 1941.  They saw their nations as distressingly bound, by a combination of previous acts and factors beyond their control, to a short and not very varied menu. But a much earlier recognition of the constraints on choice and on the prospects for success might have prevented them from becoming boxed in.

I stressed earlier the basic similarity in structure (largely ignoring the labels on the participants) of global politics as it emerged from World War II and what was most likely to have emerged had the United States not fought.  The failure of men in high places, now as well as then, to weigh such a view is in large part a failure of political theory and research.  Conventional thinking on international politics has, I contend, too much neglected the environment of politics.  That is, we have often failed to study the role of social, economic, and technological factors in providing the menu for political choice.  Relatively speaking, too much effort has gone into examining the ways in which choices are made, the political process itself, rather than into asking, in a rigorous and systematic way, what possible choices were in fact available and why those possibilities and not some others were available.

I use the term “a macroscopic view,” to describe this emphasis on looking at the wider environment within which political decision-makers act.  A microscope is of course an instrument for looking in great detail at a tiny portion of tissue or other material, ignoring the whole of a large organism or system for the sake of a painstaking examination of the structure or processes of one element.  By contrast, we can use the term macroscope for just the opposite kind of tool, one for examining, in a gross way, the entire system or at least large portions of it.  The fine detail available from the microscope is lost, but compensation comes from an image of the interrelationships of the parts.  I deliberately use the word macroscope in place of telescope as the opposite for microscope.  A telescope is used for making distant objects appear close, for bringing out the detail of distant objects that one cannot approach physically.  In this sense its function is not so different from that of the microscope.  Like the latter it implies a relatively narrow view; one chooses to focus upon a particular star rather than on the entire galaxy that is visible to the naked eye in the night sky.  So what I refer to is more nearly analogous to a wide-angle lens for a camera than to a telephoto lens.

A self-consciously social-scientific study of international politics is crucial to the rigorous use of the macroscopic view, in contrast to the require-ments of the earlier emphasis on microscopic analysis of particular events and personalities.  The analyst needs to make use of a wide variety of data on the components of international systems, both present and historical systems.  Scientific analysis by itself imposes no restrictions on where, that is, at what level of analysis, to develop powerful hypotheses, but it seems especially appropriate for macroscopic analyses.  For example, we are just now beginning to see important systematic studies of the patterns of interactions among nations.  One scholar is compiling a complete mapping of governments’ verbal and physical acts toward other governments in the current international system, and has begun to publish some very important analyses of recent patterns that show unsuspected ways in which the sequence of events in crises is different from that in “normal” times.4  Other analyses have been concerned with comparative foreign policies, in the sense of how differences in national characteristics affect national policies.  These may be relatively small differences, such as between parliamentary and presidential systems, or changes in the structure of particular countries over time, or they may investigate what difference being economically developed, or democratic, or European makes for behavior.  Finally, at this same level of aggregation are the patterns of linkages among nations.  Included here are studies of trade ties, bonds of communication, and membership in international organizations.  Such studies lead on to comparisons of international systems, defined by a combination of the pattern of linkages plus certain characteristics of the states being linked.  Thus a comparison of bipolar with multipolar systems depends on measures of the relative size of the major nations making up the systems, and the linkages among states that signify the bonds of alliance.


The power of macroscopic prediction

The aggregate, macroscopic view can be shown to have a good deal of predictive power.  This is so because perceptions, policy, and capabilities all are quite stable for most nations, as I will now try to demonstrate.  On capabilities, for example, most nations have changed remarkably little in their relative levels of economic development over the past 60 years.  The rank-order of major countries has varied but slightly since before World War I.  Japan has moved up a bit and France down a couple of notches, but on the whole the rankings of income levels are about the same as they were, with the United States at the top followed, in approximately the same order as before, by Sweden, Switzerland, and Canada.5  In the modern industrial world it is extraordinarily difficult for a nation to maintain, over a long period of time, a rate of growth that will enable it to surpass many of its rivals.  And it seems almost as hard for a nation to mess up its economy so badly as to fall very far behind.

On matters of perception and policy the necessary research did not exist for policy-makers in 1941, and even now the prewar period is not covered adequately.  Nevertheless we can obtain some important information from studies of the postwar world.  My initial example will be from work on voting behavior in the United Nations.6  First, it was found that a very wide variety of particular issues and roll-calls—about the Congo, Korea, Chinese representa-tion, disarmament, South Africa, West New Guinea, and many others—are in fact usually concerned with one of the major broad issues of contemporary world politics.  Three great cleavages or “superissues”—the cold war, colonialism, and the role of the United Nations organization itself—account for about 60 percent of the variation in roll-call voting.  This in itself was a surprising regularity.  Although United Nations voting is not intrinsically of great importance, governments’ behavior there does provide major evidence on their positions in world politics more generally.  And most observers would agree that the above are truly the issues around which the entire globe (as contrasted with more parochial regional disputes) currently does divide.

From there it was easy and appropriate to try to predict the voting behavior of particular nations on these superissues.  On cold war issues it was possible to predict 75 percent of the variation in voting position by knowing only a few basic facts.  Simply categorizing the various states according to regional or caucusing groups would do that well, as would knowing a few facts about the military and economic bonds among nations (their alliance commitments and their receipt of trade and aid from the United States and the Soviet Union.)  This too is surprising in view of many predictions that nothing resembling this level of regularity would emerge; that delegates’ voting decisions depended too heavily on the vagaries of instructions from home, or upon volatile interests of the delegations, or interdelega-tion bargaining, or upon what nation’s representative happened to be sitting next to a delegate on a particular day.  Furthermore, over 80 percent of the variation in states’ voting can be predicted by knowing their past voting behavior.  Even positions taken ten years previously provide that kind of predictive power.

Votes on smaller, more parochial, and more transient issues are of course more difficult to predict.  But on these three continuing and salient cleavages one can do very well at the aggregate, macroscopic level without knowing anything about changing conditions or decision-processes within individual governments.  Changes of personnel in the delegations; changes in the leadership of the home governments; alternation of parties; all had little effect.  Even changes of regime or governmental structure, as caused by coups or palace revolutions, make little difference to the leaders’ perceptions of choice in the United Nations, or at least to their actual choices of behavior.  In all but a literal handful of cases it took a virtual social revolution, with an impact on the level of that occurring in Iran with the overthrow of the Mossadegh regime or Guatemala and Arbenz in the 1950s, to produce a very marked shift.

Furthermore, we can specify what we mean by a marked shift.  Cuba’s change of polarity from Batista to Castro was by far the greatest national flip-flop over the past decade and a half.  On a scale of cold war issues, Guatemala and Iran shifted their UN voting by an amount that is roughly one-third of Cuba’s change, and there are but six other states that moved by even a fifth as much as Cuba did (not necessarily in the same direction).7  In most instances one could “map” the political differences and concurrences of nations in a very stable way.

Whatever the domestic consequences, even such important revolutions as those in Iraq in 1958 (when the king was overthrown and killed) and Argentina in 1955 (the political end of Peron) did not have great impact on their nations’ international alignments. Iraq withdrew from the Baghdad Pact and bought arms from the Soviet Union, but did not otherwise alter its policies so very greatly.  Even the most publicized change of regime in recent years, the rise of Gaullism and of Republic number five, did not affect France’s international alignment more than marginally.  Seen through the microscopic eye of contemporary American reporting, France’s new independent policy seemed to make a great difference in Western Europe and French relations with the Communist states.  But on the basic alignments that have characterized international behavior over the past two decades Paris did not deviate significantly.  It remained as it had been: anti-Communist on most of the critical cold war issues, sympathetic with its fellow colonial and ex-colonial powers, and resistant to efforts to strengthen the United Nations’ feeble powers to coerce its members.

Similarly, recent work on regional groupings found that knowing international organization memberships ten years previously, or trading patterns ten years previously, allowed one to predict between 85 and 95 percent of the variation in the later period.  In the case of trade, one could predict more than three-quarters of the 1963 variation from the 1938 pattern, despite World War II, the Cold War, and decolonization.8  These influences, and we include here the very important regional and other bonds of community among nations, change at a glacial pace in this international system.   The stabilities of our world are, on examination, very impressive.

Moreover, even the few major shifts turn out to be of less moment than they seemed at the time.  The big one, Cuba, stimulated the greatest foreign policy fiasco of the Kennedy administration: the Bay of Pigs invasion.  The invasion failed and Cuba remained under Castro, and under a Castro newly-reinforced in his hostility to the United States.  Yet from the perspective of a decade it is hard to contend that the results have been very dire for the United States, despite Cuba’s proximity and former economic importance to this country.  Few countries, even if they made a sharp switch in the alignments, would greatly alter the global balance of power.  Only four countries in the non-Communist world (Japan, West Germany, Britain, and France-none of them undeveloped) have a GNP as large as 10 percent of America’s.

Finding these continuities contrasts sharply with the task of day-to-day journalism and impression-ism.  The journalist’s job is to tell us how today is different from yesterday, and to do so in a sufficiently vivid manner to attract and hold our attention.  When writing about Anglo-American relations, for instance, a good journalist like Drew Middleton changes his evaluation frequently.  He looks at political events, personalities, and personal changes in decision-making positions.  Anglo-American relations may improve following a meeting of chiefs-of-state, and deteriorate as a consequence of a new disagree-ment.  However valuable this participant’s eye-view can be, one must also try to back up and gain perspective both on how the relations between two states fit into the global pattern of relationships and how they perform over a much longer time-span.  A day-to-day journalistic view risks confusing the business cycle with the long-term secular trend in the economy.  And at that it is not likely to be analogous to a concentration on the depression and inflation ends of the business cycle, but only on the numerous rather mild fluctuations in between.

There is of course a critical limit to the kind of knowledge we can derive from inductive analyses of stability, and it concerns the difference between prediction and explanation.  Inductively-derived patterns can be used for substantial periods of time to predict political behavior.  If we know empirically that A is associated with B, we may derive important policy benefits from predicting stability in B as a result of stability in A, without knowing why.  But however exciting and important the discovery of high aggregate correlations may be, prediction without “understanding” is vulnerable; when we do not understand why two factors are related our predictions will fail if the relationship shifts.  The high degree of association between environmental factors and political ones could be deceptive in future international politics.  Only new theory could tell us which regularities would hold and which would be shattered.

In this respect our present understanding of international politics is perhaps comparable to the understanding of American voting behavior achieved by early public opinion analysts.  They established that certain demographic characteristics, such as religion, income, and occupation, were highly correlated with partisan choice.9  These correlations were fairly stable over time, but enough individuals, typically less than 20 percent, changed their votes and so could reverse the outcome of the preceding election.  Knowing the gross correlations was not enough to identify the dynamic elements—who would change, and whether the changes would be enough to make a major shift in the state of the system.  Yet the earlier findings have been of great value, and it is hard to imagine these later questions being studied in their absence.


Choice in retrospect and future

A macroscopic perspective on the stabilities of world politics has crucial policy implications.  Too often observers and policy-makers take alarm at every foreign coup or change of government.  The Chicken Little syndrome is widespread.  But if important policy reversals in these countries are rare, expensive attempts to affect the composition of the next governing coalition in Boonistan are at best unnecessary, and more likely a dangerous waste of resources that will ultimately weaken the United States both abroad and domestically.  And these stabilities limit the prospects for success in intervention just as they limit the risks of avoiding intervention.  Even a power so great as the United States cannot readily produce in a foreign land a government that will be notably pro-American unless the necessary social and political substructure is present.

As children of modern psychology we all are well aware of the limitations on our personal choice as individuals—limitations of genetic endowment, of environment, and of experience.  Without accepting a rigidly deterministic model of human action, we nevertheless comprehend the severe restrictions within which our private choice is able to move.  Yet we perceive less clearly what are the bounds on the public choice exercised by leaders of nations; we too often fail to consider their real options, either as might be seen by an objective observer or as seen by the decision-maker himself.

If it is true that political choice is severely circumscribed, we must focus attention on a particular kind of choice node, on those decisions which sharply restrict the menu of future options. Often choices are not irreversible, and one may at least approximate, at a later point, an option that was rejected earlier.  For this kind of situation the adage about any decision being better than no decision, or a paralysis of will, is applicable.  But this happens less often than we may like to think. In too many circumstances as we proceed from one node to another previous options become irrecoverable.  Japanese leaders in 1941 found that successive choices cost them so many alternatives that in the end the decision to fight the United States, in a war they did not really expect to win, seemed unavoidable.  The American decision to develop atomic weapons brought technical knowledge that cannot be unlearned, immensely complicating disarmament efforts.  The Red Army, whose incursion into Central Europe for the defeat of Hitler we applauded, became less welcome in a changed international system.  The decision to fight a “limited” war now may be at the expense of later economic growth, with the consequence that a nation’s material power base is forever smaller than it might have been had armaments not taken the place of capital investment.  The entry of America into World War II was irreversible; a policy better designed to stay out could, I have contended, have been reversed without irrecoverable damage to this country.

This is an especially serious problem in international politics because we know so little about the articulated consequences of our decisions. Neither the best theorist nor the most confident man of action can really know what the ramifications of an act will be.  And the danger is compounded by the speed with which decisions often are forced upon leaders before even whatever inadequate analytical tools we have can be brought to bear on the choice. Scientific and technological advances that now bring the entire world within reach of instantaneous communication, or any target on the globe within 30 minutes of destruction, can leave little time for reflection.  When population natural increase rates are two percent a year, total population doubles in thirty years.  A world whose population has once reached three billion will never again be the natural, uncrowded environment that our ancestors knew. The further environmental consequences of a jump from 3 billion to 6 billion on earth are far different from those of a jump from 3 million to 6 million. There are also unimagined consequences of the level of power available to change our environment.  One manifestation is the potential destructiveness of nuclear warfare, but another ostensibly more constructive manifestation is in the changes that modern industrial processes and urban living patterns are inflicting on the environment.  We face an “ecological crisis” from pollutants that could quite literally make the globe uninhabitable.

Hence the old virtues of any decision being better than none become transmuted.  The avoidance of a decision that would work irreversible changes looks attractive if there is some chance that we can, with time, better evaluate the consequences of decision.

Japan’s 1941 policy is a good example of how hard it may be to recognize critical decision nodes when they do appear.  America’s incremental creep into the Vietnam quagmire is another.  Regrettably, there is no automatic warning signal to flash before the decision-maker.  For now, perhaps all one can do to identify such nodes before they are passed is always to have someone ask explicitly, “What will it cost if this decision turns out badly?  How, if at all, could we turn back?”  This scepticism might help prevent seduction by alternatives that seem to carry fairly high probabilities of favorable outcomes, and high benefits if they work, but disastrous costs should they fail.  The acquisition of very expensive weapons systems (because their costs will foreclose other military or civilian options) is an especially relevant class, as is the procurement of systems with very greatly enhanced capabilities.  So, in this world, is a superpower’s decision actually to use military force.  And so, perhaps unfortunately, would be a decision to implement a major disarmament measure.  In the last case, however, our foreign policy-making system is well supplied with cautionary voices; for the others the devil’s advocate has too often been reticent or unwelcome.

Politics, it sometimes seems, has become the arena for avoiding cataclysm.  Political gladiators can destroy far more readily than they can create; their task is one of avoiding error.  But they are human, and in repeated encounters ultimately they do blunder.  It may be more fruitful to ask what shapes the arena than what determines each stroke of their blunt swords.

This point of view also puts into better perspective the questions that have been raised specifically about Franklin Roosevelt’s wisdom.  Many readers will conclude that ideally perhaps America should have stayed out of the war, but for reasons of domestic politics or limited visionary powers the option really was not available.  That, however, does not excuse us from raising the question.  As it happens, it is likely that most other men who might have occupied his position would have behaved similarly.  Certainly had Wendell Willkie won the presidential election of 1940 it is hard to imagine the ultimate outcome being very different.  The anti-interventionists of the time had another vision of America’s interests and dangers, but they failed, especially as the wars in China and Europe dragged on, to sustain their case.  They too generally lacked both well-developed theory and empirical evidence on which to build their case that the global environment was not as threatening to America as the interventionists believed.  Thus the political basis for a delicate policy of all-out aid short of all-out war, if it had ever existed, had eroded by late 1941.  The lack of an adequate intellectual basis played no small part in the failure to develop a viable political course.

Now Americans are again, in large numbers, questioning the moral and intellectual basis of interventionist policies pursued by the American government over the past quarter of a century. Others fear that the emotional reaction against those policies will be so strong as to lead to a new isolationism.  To such people it may seem virtual treason to risk assisting that reaction by questioning American participation in World War II—a matter on which, as I granted at the outset of this book, the approving case is appreciably stronger than it is for many more recent American interventions.  But a reasoned questioning, leading all of us to rethink our premises and search out new evidence, is required if we are to make wise political choices in a new era.

As Robert Penn Warren once put it, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption.”  Less theologically, injustice will always remain in the world.  Americans can, by judicious use of their abilities, somewhat diminish the amount of that injustice.  But attempts to oppose injustice everywhere by military means will simply destroy our own polity, economy, and society, bringing greater injustice nearer at hand.  Americans are neither omnipotent nor omniscient.  As I have said earlier,

Military force becomes Tolkien’s One Ring of Power.  On occasion we must wield that power to defend ourselves and our friends and to keep the Ring from passing to our enemies. . . . Yet employment of the Ring must be rare and restricted to cases of great necessity.  Used rashly, unworthily, or even often, it will corrupt its bearer.  Perhaps the United States, by its history and its ideals, carries some limited degree of immunity to the Ring’s curse.  But excessive reliance on force will quickly weaken, not strengthen us, and ultimately we will be no better than those we oppose.10

When contemplating intervention in another land or distant war the following questions should first be answered as precisely as possible:

1. How bad an outcome, by whatever criteria, really is likely if American intervention does not occur?

2. How likely—highly probable or only a long-shot—is it that such a bad outcome will in fact happen?

3.    What favorable outcome really is likely as a result of the contemplated intervention?

4.   How likely is it that such a good outcome will in fact be produced?

5. At what cost—political, material, and moral—would the outcome probably be achieved? Would success be worth the price?



1 This description is taken from Blum, pp. 384-87. I am grateful to Blum for pointing out its possible applicability to the early 1930S.

2 The phrase is from James Patrick Sewell, “Functional Agencies,” in Richard A. Falk and Cyril Black, The Structure of the International Environment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).

3 American Institute of Public Opinion press release, April 30, 1968.

4 Charles McClelland, “Access to Berlin: The Quantity and Variety of Events, I948-63,” in J. David Singer (ed.) Quantitative International Politics: Insights and Evidence (New York: Free Press, I968) is a preliminary study of these data. See also McClelland and Gary A. Hogard, “Conflict Patterns in the Interactions Among Nations,” in James N. Rosenau, ed., International Politics and Foreign Policy (New York: Free Press, I969), 2nd ed.

5 Theodore Caplow, “Are the Poor Countries Getting Poorer?” Foreign Policy, 1 no. 3 (Summer 1971): 90-107.

6 Hayward R. Alker, “Dimensions of Conflict in the General Assembly.” American Political Science Review 58, no. 3 (September 1964): 642-57; Alker and Bruce M. Russett, World Politics in the General Assembly (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965); and Russett, International Regions and the International System (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967), Chapters 4 and 5. See also R. J. Rummel “Some Empirical Findings on Nations and Their Behavior,” World Politics 21, no. 2 (1969): 226-41.

7 Russett, International Regions, pp. 90-91.

8 Ibid., Chapters 6-n. Also Russett, “Regional Trading Patterns, 1938-1963,” International Studies Quarterly 12, no. 4 (December 1968): 360-79.

9 Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet, The People’s Choice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944) and Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee, Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

10 Russett, What Price Vigilance?, pp. 183-84.


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