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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 49, November 26, 2011

Foreign Policy Perspectives and the American Scene

Sunday 27 November 2011, by P N Haksar


[(November 27 this year marks the thirteenth death anniversary of P.N. Haksar, the eminent administrator and distinguished diplomat as well as one of the country’s foremost thinkers. He was the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and a Member, UN International Civil Service Commission. On this occasion we offer our sincere homage to the abiding memory of that towering personality, a recognised authority on foreign policy, by reproducing the following article which first appeared in Man and Development (December 1980), the quarterly journal of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh, and was thereafter reproduced in Mainstream (April 25, 1981).)]

Barely four years ago, a peanut farmer who had become a local celebrity in Georgia began to loom large on the political horizon of the United States of America. Seen against the backdrop of Watergate, he looked clean and hygienic, untouched and undefiled by the noxious exhalations from putrescent Washington. Soon he hit the American television networks as god fearing Mr Clean. And on January 20, 1977—two days after Indira Gandhi announced her decision to hold elections, James Carter was duly installed as the President of the United States of America.

His hundred days passed. But within a year, his domestic base began to look a bit shaky. Increasing inflationary pressures, industrial stagnation, unemployment and problems of urban decay began eroding confidence. There were no easy solutions, more especially for a President who began fighting for his second term from the middle of 1978 onwards. As is customary with politicians who have no wider vision than some sort of animal instinct for survival and possess no feeling for history, President James Carter thought that glory could be restored through foreign policy exploits. And so, Human Rights were proclaimed. This had a somewhat unexpected effect on the fortunes of the Iranian Monarch. Camp David was enacted without acquiring the skill appropriate for riding simultaneously the Arab and the Israeli horses. With the Russians, détente was continued up to the signing of the SALT II agreement which occasioned much hugging and kissing in Vienna.

In the meantime, President Carter’s domestic critics began to respond to the intimations of the Presidential elections. SALT II came into trouble. He got tough with the Russians. And SALT II got frozen with Afghanistan and the discovery of Russians in Cuba. The West Europeans went through a period of discontent over the way the US was handling the PLO issue and over the way the Soviets were being handled in a unilateral way.

In between there were some interesting episodes, not important in themselves, but showing how difficult it is to deal with the real problems through gimmickry and politicking. Some of these episodes are, perhaps, best perceived through an American eye. In the Winter 1979-80 issue of the quarterly, Foreign Policy, one Chester L. Cooper describes it thus:

“Hardly had I reached for the Geritol when the Case of the Muscovite Danseuse piled in. For 24 hours, I reverted to my old saucy self. Would she or wouldn’t and she didn’t. It was glorious while it lasted, but when all was said and nothing done, I had to admit that malaise-wise, the Bolshoi caper bombed. I sank back into torpescence and slug-gishness.

“But not for long, not for long. Senator Frank Church pushed the ‘on’ button in the nick of time. Carter and all the rest of us, he said, should be frenzied about the Russians in Cuba. Well, now here was a shemozzl worthy of getting out of bed to confront. Then, just when I felt a resurgence of pizzazz, the Senator blew it: Instead of confining himself to unadorned rhetoric—”hordes”, “swarms”, “mobs”,—he fell victim to the cursed Washington temptation to quantify: In short, he blinked.

“The realisation that the District of Columbia’s Police Department outnumbered by two-to-one the Russian troops in Cuba was a cruel letdown. And so, despite the best efforts of Carter and Church, the Soveit military presence off the coast of Florida turned out to be too little and too late—all the more so in light of the expec-tations aroused. The brigade marched into the sunset to the sounds of muffled percussion and muted brass.”

I would not mention other episodes like the failure of communication between Washington and New York when one Friday afternoon in March 1980 the Permanent Representative of the USA to the UN voted for a resolution which clearly rubbed the Israelis on the wrong side. The following Monday, the failure of communication was discovered. Earlier still, there was another failure of communication which led to the exit of that very attractive and persuasive US Ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young, who had to resign as he was, apparently, carrying on “illicit” relations with the PLO’s Tarzi.

President Carter’s four-year term thus came to an inglorious end on November 4, 1980. The American people, ”confused, worried and bruised as they are by decades of conflicting exhortations from their leaders”, turned massively in search of their lost identity towards another messiah. Ronald Reagan would be duly installed as the latest President of the United States of America.

Between 1804 and 1980, there have been only ten Presidents who had landslide victories. Reagan is one of them. In 1972, Richard Nixon was also one in the series, if anything, slightly better than his fellow Republican. It may be noted that while in a period of 92 years (1820 to 1912) there were only three landslide victories in the US presidential elections, in the period of 52 years (1928-1980) there have been six such victories testifying to the acceleration of the pace of human exasperation. However, the landslide victors have not left any great traces of their footprints on the sands of time except Roosevelt (1936) and Thomas Jefferson (1804) and, of course, Abraham Lincoln (1864). Reagan has not, to my knowledge, claimed any of these as his spiritual guides. And so, the problems in search of whose solutions the American people have put Reagan where he is, might inspire another landslide victory for someone else, or bring the American political system into a state of greater disarray than what Richard Nixon did through Watergate.

PERHAPS, I should pause here to reflect on what I have so far written. It might be construed as anti-American, both at home and abroad, by quite a few of those whose thought processes have not evolved beyond the simple reflexes of Pavlov’s dog. My only comfort is that even so ardent a supporter of the American connexion—

The Sunday Times—could comfort itself with nothing more than that Reagan might be in for a bumpy journey. In its editorial on Sunday, November 9, 1980, we have the authentic voice of unconcealed concern:

“What does Governor Reagan’s election to the Presidency mean for Britain and the Atlantic alliance? He has said too many rash things in the past, there are too many hard-nosed men around him now, for the new regime to inspire unreserved confidence. Mr Reagan may, almost certainly will, when faced with the facts and the files, adjust and modify his previous ideas. But for the time being his policies can only be assessed by testing them. The first of those tests will take place next week, when Helmut Schmidt, the German Chancellor, is due to meet him.

“This will be a meeting of men, not of minds. Schmidt, often openly impatient with Carter, did not conceal the fact that he would have preferred to see him back in the White House. On attitudes to Moscow Schmidt and Reagan are far apart. Reagan’s approach is not political or even strategic. It is psychological. He claims to know how to handle bullies. Mrs Thatcher, one of the few world leaders obviously pleased by Reagan’s victory, applauds this line but more practised political performers like Schmidt and Giscard think it too unsubtle by half… Mr Reagan’s campaign has greatly contributed to the simplistic American belief that where there is a problem, there must be a solution. With American opinion apparently longing to see, under the new Administration, the re-assertion of US power and influence in the world, there could be quite a bumpy journey ahead.”

So much then for Reagan and his West European, British and Sunday Times friends. One Henry Brandon who has been surveying the Washington scene for some considerable stretch of time, concludes his preliminary survey of Reagan’s prospects by saying that his chances of slashing inflation are minimal. “He can cut down the number of people in his Administration, he can introduce major changes of foreign policy, and, if a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court, he can influence its political outlook. But that about sums up a President’s powers of change—even after a landslide victory… Political revolutions are not made by 69 year-old men—at least not in the United States.”

However, one need not speculate about the President-elect. He has himself spoken to Time Mazagine’s Laurence Barrett. I quote below some relevant extracts:

“I believe that in the Soviet Union right now, there is an element of confusion about the vacillation of our recent foreign policy, the threats and then the back-downs, and so forth. I honestly believe that the Soviet Union would prefer consistency. That you can be firmer with them, make it clear that you would not be pushed around, and they would know what to expect. They would know what our policy is. They do not want to accidentally make a move that would bring them into a confrontation they don’t want. I believe that they would be happier with someone—even though it was someone who is firmer, someone who opposed some of the things they did—who let them know what they were dealing with. And this would be my approach… I remember a happier time when there was a tradition that the President of the US never left our shores, but I don’t say that you could do that today. Still, the first job is to let them see the course we were going to follow domestically, getting hold of our economy, straightening out our energy problems. And the fact that we have the will and determination to add to our defensive stature…. I think that in negotiations you are going to have to make it plain to the Soviets that there are some disadvantages for them if they do not go along. Maybe the disadvantage would be that you would not negotiate. I think they have a very great stake in those negotiations.”

While the President-elect was speaking to Barrett of Time Magazine, Richard Allen, an important person in the Reagan entourage, was speaking to Martin Kasindorf of Newsweek. And this is what he had to say on the central issue of US foreign policy, namely, US-Soviet relations:

“In my personal view the Soviet leadership should feel comfortable in dealing with the Reagan Administration. They may not like all its policies, but that would not be anything new in the US-Soviet relationship. A Reagan Adminis-tration would take special pains to identify those areas where we do have a mutual interest: regional peace, arms reduction and reduction of tensions across the board. We should not think in terms of confrontation and truculence. We should think in terms of finding areas of co-operation—based, however, upon our own interpretation of our national interest… As the Governor has said, he is going to move on to SALT III. He believes that SALT II is flawed. One of the aspects of this election that was overlooked was that SALT II was a factor in the votes on the US Senate races. Governor Reagan knows that the American people favour arms control. What he will not contenance is an agreement that locks us into long-term strategic inferiority. The Reagan-Bush Administration will have a serious attitude toward balanced, verifiable, realistic arms control. The Soviet leaders have nothing to fear from such a proposal. Nor do any of our allies. One additional component in the process of conducting arms-control negotiations: this time, more stress will be laid upon genuine consultation with our allies.”

So much then for the initial sparring by the forthcoming US Administration. Since, as our proverb has it, you cannot clap with one hand, one might look for the Soviet response. We have the views of one Spartak I. Beglov. He is the Chief Political Columnist for the Novosti Press Agency in Moscow and is, apparently, a man of sufficient importance to be given a page in Newsweek to hold forth. This is what he had to say:

“…any hope for a stable international peace inevitably depends on the ability of the United States to demonstrate a stable foreign policy. Many observers in the Soviet Union felt that Jimmy Carter’s main objective during his Presidency was to get himself re-elected for another four years. Other goals were subordinate to this end and in the pursuit of re-election Carter tried to ingratiate himself with the different interest groups and power centres that influence American politics. As a result, the policies of his Administration were inconsistent and, ultimately, unstable. Carter’s approach was to ‘zigzag’. One of the most pressing questions in the minds of the Soviet people concerns the degree to which Ronald Reagan’s Presidency will be shaped by the same political consi-derations…

“If Ronald Reagan believes that US foreign policy needs stability—and if he wants to prove himself as a genuine alternative to Carter—he must demonstrate an unwarped understanding of Soviet intentions and Soviet priorities in world politics. He must understand the SALT process is equally necessary to the United States and the Soviet Union. SALT provides the only means to deter an arms race and should not be used by either nation to achieve a military advantage.

“The Soviet people want to believe that Reagan clearly realises the possible consequences of rash military action or of the rash denunciation of the arms-limitation talks that three American Presidents have accepted. Despite the current deadlock and the obstacles created by the erratic behaviour of the outgoing Administration, many of the positive aspects of Soviet-American relations remain intact. These relations, set up during the co-operative period of détente, are the common property of the American and Soviet peoples. They remain intact because, throughout the difficulties of the past four years, the Soviet Union has retained an unswerving commitment to peace.

“Leonid Brezhnev recently expressed the hope that America would soon realise its problems could not be solved by sabre-rattling from a position of strength. The sooner that happens, the better.”

Thus we have the perspective of the new US Administration wanting to deal with the Soviet Union with steadiness combined with firmness. And we have a Soviet response in its readiness to deal with Reagan provided the idea of “firmness” is not carried to the point of creating a perception in the Soviet mind that the US is dealing with it from, what is called, a “position of strength”. Reagan thinks that he can deal with the Soviet Union with firmness, howsoever defined, only when he puts the American economy in order and combines it by adding more teeth to America’s defence potential.

INCREASINGLY, the American foreign policy postures are going to be determined in an even more decisive manner by domestic concerns. This intrusion of factors relating to internal evolution within sovereign states as a crucial factor in international affairs is going to be of increasing importance in the coming decades. Serious literature on the problems of foreign policy in our contemporary times has been reflecting the increasing intensity of the interplay between domestic and foreign policies. This is in contrast to the neatness of the pattern of the world which existed between the Congress of Vienna and the end of the First World War when a sovereign State was a kind of molecular unit in international relations. We are now in a different sort of world. It is a world of revolutionary changes, of confrontation between a power dedicated to change and a power dedicated to the maintenance of status quo. We have a world in which there is a bi-polarity in terms of sheer power and an anarchic multi-polarity expressed by the existence of hundreds of newly emerging peoples organised in the form of sovereign states. We have thus a situation where aspirations of millions upon millions of people make a turbulent impact on the structure of the international order. Can Reagan and his entourage of the “best and the brightest” handle such a world without being gauche and clumsy?

In his book titled The Cloud of Danger which George F. Kennan wrote in 1977, we have the following reflections by a seasoned diplomat who was one of the architects of the Cold War policies on some of the dilemmas facing the makers of American foreign policy:

“It was a time (1977) dominated by an intensive debate in American opinion over the question of how to deal with the Soviet Union. On the outcome of his debate there seemed to hang the entire future of American policy and of world events. This appeared to be a real and crucial parting of the ways: one road leading to a total militarisation of policy and an ultimate showdown on the basis of armed strength, the other to an effort to break out of the straitjacket of military rivalry and to strike through to a more constructive and hopeful vision of America’s future and the world’s… There is not a daily newspaper in the country that compares, from the standpoint of foreign news coverage, with the great papers of Western Europe, such as Le Monde and the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, and there are only three or four that even approach them. This general failure must explain such pheno-mena as, for example, the positively weird misconceptions about Russia and ‘Communism’ that prevail in large parts of the western section of this country…. One of the first requirements of clear thinking about our part in world affairs is the recognition that we cannot be a source of hope and inspiration to others against a background of resigned failure and deterioration of life here at home.

“I would like to point out, however, that in all three instances—in taking the military-industrial complex under control, in overcoming our dependence on the Arabs and other OPEC countries for our supply of oil, and in mastering those various problems which, if not soon mastered, are going to produce something resembling a profound crisis of our national life—the steps that need to be taken are ones that would normally be thought of purely as measures of domestic affairs. Yet, as I have tried to show, they are ones that affect most intimately our posture, and our capabilities, as a world power. And therein lies a lesson which many people in our country have been slow to learn: namely, that foreign policy, like a great many other things, begins at home—that the first requirement of a successful foreign policy is that one places oneself in a favourable posture for its conduct. This means, of course, designing and shaping one’s society consciously to this end. And this in turn means bearing in mind, as one approaches domestic problems, the effect on foreign affairs of those decisions one has to make.”

Problems, when left unresolved, do not disappear. They simply get more complicated. The decade of the eighties will thus carry forward in an infinitely more acute form all the unresolved problems of previous decades. Massive tomes have been written on the theme of strategic doctrines appropriate for the thermonuclear age. The pages are littered with bodies of dying doctrines and slogans. “Preventive war”, “massive retaliation”, “limited war”, “mutual assured destruction”, “fractioned nuclear response option”, “balance of terror” are all attempts to resolve the dilemma of how to use thermonuclear weapons diplomatically so that these are not used militarily.

The simple-minded idea that one could stabilise the status quo by conceiving it as a function of balance of power between the NATO plus Japan and the Warsaw Pact—with China playing the role of the proverbial monkey intervening in the quarrels of two cats—has not quite worked. The result is that neither the Middle East, nor South-East Asia, nor, indeed, the problems of South Africa and Latin America can be becalmed under the flag of the status quo. As for the economic problems, both domestic and international, one can only hope that there would be enough wisdom to see that if these are allowed to fester, poison and pus will be generated to make the world frighteningly sick.

Way back in 1974, Walter Mondale showed his concern about the inescapable impact of economic matters on US foreign policy. In the October 1974 issue of the US quarterly, Foreign Affairs, he tried to look beyond détente towards international economic security. I should like to record his views for two reasons: First, he subsequently became the Vice-President of the USA; and second, because he could do nothing, despite his high position, towards resolution of any of the problems which he saw with some clarity:

“…just as inflation has now emerged as by far the most pressing domestic concern, so international economic policy is now our top external challenge. In terms of the scale of the problems and the imagination required for their solutions—and especially in light of the inadequate attention economic questions have received in recent years… If we do not resolve them, the security problems that may ensue could dwarf those that now remain… If we can redefine our foreign policy and our national security to include not only the concern over strategic position and political influence but also the basic issues of inflation, economic stability, jobs and growth, and in fact make these a key concern, we will find that once again a broad consensus on our world role is possible. To meet the threat we now face to our economic security, foreign policy must truly become the extension of domestic policy by other means”. (Emphasis added)

Such was the perception of Mr Walter Mondale in 1974. In the meantime, none of the problems—economic, political or strategic—has been squarely faced. In a mood of disenchant-ment the US voter has seemingly voted for “toughness”. To the writers of Nuclear Weapons and World Politics, a study conducted by the US Council on Foreign Relations under the 1980s Project Studies, such a mood was discernible before Ronald Reagan was thrown up by the American electoral processes. David C. Gompert describes it in the following terms:

“Public, academic, and bureaucratic support within the United States for maintaining unquestionable strategic equality relative to the Soviet Union is likely to gain strength from the currents of anti-Sovietism gaining momentum in American society today. Cynicism and disillusi-onment over the benefits of détente, revulsion to the nature of the Soviet political system, and a general return to a zero-sum-game mentality (though less ideologically charged than during the Cold War) appear to have coalesced into broad, bipartisan support for strategic equality (at a minimum) in all categories of weaponry. In allying with conservatives, liberal anti-Soviet forces may find it increasingly propitious to eschew the position that the United States is over over-prepared and to join their conservative stepbrothers in contending that the Soviets are exploiting détente while Washington is giving away the store. Further Soviet political gains in Africa, in South-East Asia, in the Indian Ocean, and perhaps in European parliaments are fairly likely in the next few years. In response, Washington and the American people may look more and more to strategic arms (and less to an assertive foreign policy and conventional military strength) as the most effective equaliser in the global political balance of power. An American tendency to deprecate its own strategic capabilities would be amplified if political incumbents and challengers alike found it useful to do so in public debate—the former to justify higher expenditures, the latter to illuminate the shortcomings of the former. In general, then, in the coming decade we may find Americans less and less satisfied with the country’s strategic strength, even in the absence of any rational basis for such dissatisfaction.” (Emphasis added)

The author, however, cautions against the search for “strategic superiority”:

“To suggest that American strategic superiority would probably have beneficial consequences for the West and for the international order in general is not to recommend that it be made the goal of the United States. In the first place, as was indicated earlier, the Soviet leaders would probably not allow it to happen or they would at least do their best to keep pace no matter what the cost to the Soviet people in quality of political and economic life…. Pursuit of strategic superiority by the United States would most likely accelerate trends toward mutually, if not equally, improved first-strike capabilities. Second, there are more fruitful ways for the United States to direct its talents, resources, and energies than the quest for nuclear supremacy. Revitalisation of American cities, upgrading of health care, improvement of education, and sustained development of alternative energy sources might not increase the influence of the United States in world politics, but the probable rewards of such efforts to the American people compare favourably with the uncertain dividends of strategic superio-rity. Finally, while one might not expect American leaders to resort increasingly to nuclear diplomacy in the event of imbalance favouring the United States, there might be a strong, if unintentional, tendency on their part to exercise America’s power more and its leadership less. Power and leadership are obviously not strictly competitive tendencies, powerless leadership is a rarity, and even then quite shallow: But the United States, by virtue of its many strengths, enjoys an unrivalled potential for leadership in the 1980s—through creative diplomacy, an active commitment to the world’s poor, self-confidence in its own institutions, and responsible manage-ment of its domestic and foreign economic affairs. To see the United States rely less on these sources of strength and more on political-military muscle would leave one less optimistic about general international conditions in the next decade.”

THE gnawing question is: Will Reagan’s Adminis-tration grasp the simple truth that there are no American solutions to the problems even of US economy and US security? Attempts to find purely American solutions will aggravate immensely all the problems. Warnings lie scattered all over the place. Kichi Miyazawa, formerly a Japanese Foreign Minister, urged “America to acknowledge the plurality of interests of allies and accept its consequences”. Giovani Agnelli, Chairman of Fiat, says:

“...if the United States fails to take into account the variety of national interests and viewpoints, which are the result of economic structures and of historical realities, it will be led to misjudge the reactions of its allies. Some recent and sudden changes in American policies, as well as the inadequacy of consultations, may have made it increasingly difficult for the Europeans and Japanese to align themselves with America’s strategies, especially when they often have little or no influence in defining and timing such strategies... no subject is more central, or controversial, than the policies to be followed in East-West trade relations. Europe’s trade with the East now far exceeds that of the United States; yet it is the United States, not only the present Administration but its predecessors, that has pressed for a forceful approach linked to political developments. The need for understanding and co-ordination is acute.”

(Foreign Affairs, Summer 1980 issue)

There is much to be learnt from the experience of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. We have in Britain an extraordinary situation of a self-confessed arch conservative Prime Minister beleaguered and besieged not so much by the two-and-a-half million unemployed but by the Confederation of British Industries. Modern capitalism cannot survive in an atmosphere of real laissez faire; it requires state protection in its favour. The monetarist pundits look ridiculously anachronistic.

And so the Eighties are going to be difficult, even turbulent. For a country like India, the difficulties would be even greater because all the bastions which could hold us together are being wantonly destroyed. Such a situation is not ordained by Fate or God but simply by lack of perception. It is still possible to prepare the political foundations for erecting a self-reliant economic and political structure. Without it, however, we shall be living from day to day when the need will be to gather ourselves together in a spirit of national resurgence. Only such an awakened India could effectively intervene as a factor for international peace, stability and co-operation and as the leading force in the non-aligned world.

Assuming that our government can, by some supreme act of will, succeed in restoring to our country a sensation of possessing a national will directed towards the moulding of some kind of common destiny of a credible design which will then sustain the spirit of our people with a hope, we would still have some difficult set of problems to resolve in the decade of the 1980s and even beyond. The problem of generating a national will and sustaining ourselves with a hope is not a matter of rhetoric. I have endeavoured to show how in an affluent country like the United States, the problem of dealing with the external world boils down to the problem of making the United States internally cohesive. One does not have to stretch one’s imagination too far to perceive that in a developing country like ours where nearly half of our people are left as mere spectators of affluence often expressed crudely and vulgarly, a situation is created which is full of dangers to our national solidarity. Foreign policy of a country, so besieged within and so deeply enmeshed in poverty, cannot be meaningful even in protecting, let alone advancing, our true national interests.

It is by no means an accident that during the last 33 years of our existence as a sovereign state, we conducted meaningful foreign policy only in the first decade of the Nehru era. History has not recorded any significant contribution having been made by us between the years 1957 and 1966. And of course, it was in the years 1971 to 1973 that we once again became possessed of a promise of restoration of national will for a brief period. The periods of successfully coping with the problems of foreign policy in the Nehru period and in the period of Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership are thus strictly relatable to one dominating factor, namely, the existence of a widespread belief in national purpose, a national will and credibility. The fracturing of this will and credibility is writ large on the face of India of recent years. The route to the restoration lies through internal mobilisation rather than through externalisation of our national concerns. George Kennan, contemplating the American foreign policy, comes to a state of an almost Buddhistic enlightenment and says that the USA “cannot be a source of hope and inspirtion to others against a background of resigned failure and deterioration of life here at home”. If this be true of the USA, how much more it must be for us.

Since political illiteracy, often masked as “pragmatism” or “realism”, distinguishes the culture of organised politics in India, it is well to remind oursevles of what the architect of India’s foreign policy thought about the destiny of our country. In Discovery of India, he perceived India’s position in the world in the following terms:

“I was not interested in making some political arrangement which would enable our people to carry on more or less as before, only a little better. I felt that they had vast stores of suppressed energy and ability and I wanted to release these and make them feel young and vital again. India, constituted as she is, cannot play a secondary part in the world. She will either count with a great deal or not count at all. No little position attracted me. Nor did I think any intermediate position feasible.” (Emphasis added)

No one contemplating the Indian scene, unless immunised against the virus of facts, can feel that we have a country today where the suppressed energy and ability of our people is being harnessed to any national vision and purpose. In such a situation, our foreign policy is reduced to reacting to situations rather than being actively engaged in moulding and giving shape to situations involving our region and, more particularly, our neighbours.

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