In a musical comedy popular in America twenty or thirty years ago, the hero announced as a curtain line that he was departing to ‘join the Thirty Years’ War’. The larger wisdom implied in that absurdity was, of course, that no generation can comprehend how history may characterise major events that occur during its lifetime. While one cannot place the current scene in the context of what may occur in the next few years, however, there is still a widespread feeling – often encysted in layers of qualifications – that the world is undergoing massive change that is both political and economic. That change is of such epic proportions that one might legitimately equate it with the disappearance of the Greek city states before the swelling tide of Hellenism, with the advent of the Reformation or the experience of the Enlightenment.
Changes of major magnitude rarely occur as discrete historical events unrelated to the past. Far more often, they are the culmination of a prolonged discontent inspiring sceptical reassessment – discontent that continues to fester until a courageous new leader or a popular outburst translates the smouldering spark of grievance into political action. The massive changes we are now witnessing are reflected in the coincidence of a more realistic Soviet policy under Mikhail Gorbachev and a remarkable political convulsion in China. The common causal element in these phenomena is the conclusion by the people in the major Communist powers that their system has failed. In addition to this seminal shift, there are two other developments on the world scene which, though not of the same order of magnitude, are also contributing to the redesigning of the world’s political physiography. One is the drive to restructure Western Europe with the announced target goal of 1992; the second is the advent of Japan as a leading economic power on the world scene, with the prospect that it must, over time, be increasingly recognised as a major player in the world’s political councils.
An academic friend once told me that no speech or article on American foreign policy can have legitimacy unless it includes a quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville. The quotation most apt to the present subject is de Tocqueville’s reference to the United States and Russia as ‘two great nations in the world which seem to tend toward the same end, although they started from different points’. ‘Both of them,’ he wrote, ‘have grown up unnoticed; and while the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place among the nations; and the world learned of their existence and their greatness at almost the same time. All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and only to be charged with the maintainance of their power ... but these are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term.’ It was an extraordinarily prescient comment to have been written, almost a century ago, by a French aristocrat who had come to America at the age of 26 and had remained only about a year and a half. But let us now ask ourselves whether de Tocqueville was correct in predicting that the two nations will ‘tend towards the same end’.
Since the Second World War, history appeared to offer little to confirm such an optimistic assessment: throughout that entire time, both great nations remained bedevilled by what we now refer to as the Cold War. But at last there are distinct signs that the Cold War is losing its position of central focus and becoming largely irrelevant to the foreign policy either of America or its Nato partners. Sovietologists are sharply at odds as to the current state of affairs: for my part, I strongly agree with the scholar and diplomat George Kennan, who has spent a lifetime studying the Soviet Union, and who has written that the remnants of the Cold War are ‘now being dismantled at a pace that renders it no longer a serious impediment to normal Soviet-American relationships’.
A number of unusual developments account for this dismantling. First, Communism has disclosed its total failure as a viable economic system. The Soviet Union has missed the chance to approach anything like economic parity with the United States or the EEC nations and is in formidable economic trouble. Second, the leadership has unequivocally recognised that an all-out nuclear exchange would mean suicide on a global scale. Third, the Soviets are by no means eager to endure once again the agonies of mass warfare. They lost twenty to forty million killed defending their country during the Second World War, and the Soviet people have never forgotten that heartbreaking statistical summation of the ghastliness of war. They endured it because, as had so often happened, their country was being invaded, but there is nothing to suggest that they would now make a comparable effort merely to preserve and extend a doctrine which experience has discredited. Fourth, while many of the West’s nuclear theologians are concerned at what they regard as the swollen size of the Soviets’ peacetime conventional army, historians have repeatedly pointed out that the maintainance of numerically excessive ground forces in peacetime has been an aspect of Russian-Soviet policy for most of the last two hundred years, yet never in all this time have the Russians used their forces to initiate hostilities against a major military power.
Until the Nato Summit Meeting on 29 May, my own government did not appear to have progressed much beyond the puerile view that the Gorbachev initiative was a mere Soviet ploy in a public-relations contest. Though the White House had failed to propose any initiatives of its own, it still issued shrill warnings against more affirmative responses by its Nato partners. But those warnings had little effect, for, without exerting itself to devise a common Western response, most Western European governments – with the possible exception of the United Kingdom – resisted Washington’s negativism. The problem perhaps is physiological: latent in the genes of most Western political leaders is a resistance to major changes that disturb rigid ideas and vested interests and thus generate their own opposition. So today even our more enlightened bureaucrats find it difficult to free themselves from their entrenched attitude that the Cold War is the only framework in which policy should be formulated. They are, one suspects, concerned that adjustment to the new reality will require them both to engage in new and complex analysis and to undertake the awesome task of inventing a fresh vocabulary of clichés and banalities.
I am aware from personal experience that, prompted by a conditioned reflex, Western diplomats have long responded to any new foreign policy proposal by first asking: ‘How much will such a move advance or discourage the expansion of Soviet interests?’ The new American Administration will need a clear White House decision before it abandons a shibboleth that has served it so long as a device for avoiding difficult decisions on complex issues.
Reflections of this kind often lead me to recall a poignant news item that periodically appeared in the American press as late as the Seventies – the report on a lonely Japanese soldier discovered hiding in a cave on one of the more remote Pacific islands. He was still cowering in fear of discovery because no one had ever come by to tell him that the Second World War had been over for decades. When I hear the alarmist rhetoric still emanating from the top reaches of my own government, I sometimes worry that no one has yet penetrated the cavernous chancellories of Western capitals – and particularly those huge Romanesque buildings in Washington – to tell our leaders that the Cold War is substantially ended and that we must now revise our thinking in consonance with a new set of realities.