Bush’s Choice

Tom Farer

In the early months of George Bush’s Presidency, before his reassuringly innocuous pronouncements and prudent compromises at the Nato summit had allowed the American media to discover prophetic qualities in him, editorial pages were much occupied by pundits clashing over what Bush, during the electoral campaign, had plaintively labelled ‘the vision thing’. Despite the country’s considerable domestic difficulties – some of which are on daily display in violent, drug-drenched streets within jogging distance of the White House – the President’s critics were aroused primarily by an alleged absence of vision about an exterior world whose familiar contours were melting into odd and unsettling forms.

United in demanding vision, they were divided over its substance. The militant right, which often sounds distressingly like Alcestis Dubois’s definition of fascism – ‘bayonets in search of an idea’ – indicted the President for failing to insulate the West from the narcotic of Gorbachev. Declarations, however hedged, implying that the Cold War is over were seen as evidence of a deepening addiction. The most benign consequence of collective stupefaction, it was implied, would be a lost opportunity to bury the Soviet threat. A less optimistic scenario had the Soviets achieving, at a time of maximum weakness, their greatest triumph: the collapse or emasculation of Nato.

Critics from the left also bewailed the prospective loss of opportunity. The one to which they referred, however, was the democratisation of Soviet politics and a concomitant negotiated settlement of the Cold War. But it was not only rosy visions that fuelled their antagonism to Bush’s deliberate pace and prose. Like those establishment figures, epitomised by Henry Kissinger, who are the self-conscious heirs of the Anglo-European conservative tradition in foreign policy, with its emphasis on balance and order, liberal commentators were moved by a sensation of danger impending from a massive convulsion within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence or the Soviet Union itself.

At no point evincing signs of a reflective bent, Bush has found success in public life by propitiating right-wing icons and plodding inconspicuously behind the brute force of events. But let us assume for the sake of argument that the grinding shift of plates beneath the surface of the post-war world moves the President to envisage bold departures in national policy – towards reconciliation with the Soviet Union, and an intensified collaboration with traditional allies. Could he act on the basis of such an epiphany, or would he be confined by electoral constraints rooted in the national character?

Investigating the American character is a line of work extending back at least to de Tocqueville. Rupert Wilkinson’s book, The Pursuit of the American Character,[*] is one of its more useful contemporary products. The book aims to give a fresh perspective on the tensions between individualism, community and conformity. It focuses on ‘four historic American fears that have surrounded the dual attraction of Americans to individualism and “getting together”: the fear of being owned (including fears of dependence and of being controlled and shaped by others); the fear of falling apart (a fear of anarchy and isolation); the fear of winding down (losing energy, dynamism, forward motion); and the fear of falling away from a past virtue and promise’. Only occasionally, Wilkinson concludes, can public policy be reduced to a confluence of these fears. This is so for two reasons. First, the fears often pull against each other: policies apparently responsive to one will aggravate concerns generated by another. Secondly, the practical implications of each fear are in most cases sufficiently ambiguous to permit its invocation on behalf of inconsistent policies. But at all times they infest the symbolic environment in which policy is formed. Hence, on all occasions, an American attempting to marshal support for a policy, or a foreigner attempting to influence American policy process, must employ language that pays them homage. At rare moments, rather than simply providing broad parameters and a distinctive language for discourse about foreign policy, they can coalesce to dictate its content.

The end of the 1970s was such a moment. Ronald Reagan, a man with few peers at personifying and manipulating the key symbols of American political life, seized on it. For fifteen years history had been conspiring to give him the chance. Fear of falling apart? Only a Pangloss could have lived through the social convulsions and assassinations of the Vietnam War years, and the longer-running disintegration of social mores, without beginning to doubt that the centre could hold. Fear of winding down? The prolonged humiliation of the Tehran hostage crisis, following so quickly the utter defeat of American purposes in Vietnam and experienced against the backdrop of apparently successful Soviet interventions in the Third World, signalled a stunning plunge from the apogee of world power. Fear of falling away? The tens of thousands of our Vietnamese collaborators rotting in Hanoi’s re-education camps and drowning in their efforts to escape, the killing fields assembled by the Khmer Rouge in the wake of our withdrawal from Cambodia, the sudden multiplication of Marxist regimes in all parts of the Third World – many Americans could not witness these events without the sense of a failed mission to save the world for freedom. And when, on top of military defeat, the collapse of client regimes, and the evident loss of industrial supremacy, the Soviet Union appeared to acquire, through the relentless deployment of additional weapons and the invasion of Afghanistan, the means to strike at the Persian Gulf and to neutralise our strategic deterrent, the fear of being owned was ripe for arousing.

Reagan was swept to power by a rip tide of strategic pessimism. For a moment, it seemed capable of dragging American foreign policy into the sort of perilous waters that would normally be chanced only by a profoundly dissatisfied or ideologically crazed country. The US was hardly the latter, and being pre-eminent in influence (despite the decline in its relative power), affluent, cohesive, and more dependent than ever on the pacific environment requisite for a smoothly functioning global economy, it had ample reason for satisfaction with the fundamental norms of international Order. That may well be the main reason why the moment passed without producing disaster. I suppose, however, that one should not altogether discount the reassuring Reagan persona, the tranquillising effect of a few hundred billion additional dollars spent on defence, the suppression of inflation, the renewal of economic buoyancy (albeit floating on a sea of debt), and the non-appearance, despite avid predictions to the contrary, of a Soviet challenge in the Gulf, in Europe, or anywhere else.

For whatever reason, the country had recaptured its normal if slightly brittle optimism by the time Reagan met Gorbachev, pronounced him authentic, and declared a new era in Soviet-American relations, thereby reinforcing the collective sense of a nation restored. As the heir to this wealth of renewed confidence about America’s domestic health and global role, Bush enjoys unusual freedom. Whether he jogs along, marginally adjusting policy as events dictate, or innovates boldly, he is likely to retain broad public support.

If parts of the edifice of international relations built after World War Two appear vulnerable, the remainder seems stronger than ever. As principal architect, the United States designed a structure of international relations that would foster a global economy governed by free markets enforcing the law of comparative advantage. The first condition of such an economy is the existence of societies willing to exchange the risks of comparative advantage for its predicted gains and living in a state of internal and external peace, a state plainly welcome to the war-weary Western allies. The GATT, the IMF and the World Bank were established to encourage acceptance of those risks. Force was banned for any purpose other than as a last recourse against aggression. The classic means for legislating change in the relations of states was therefore gone.

Today, with China already inside and the other great post-war autark, the Soviet Union, sueing for entry, and with South-East Asia providing a cluster of dynamic new participants, the economic structure is arguably stronger and more stable than at any previous moment in post-war history. But just as the system is becoming truly inclusive, anxiety about disintegration has surfaced in respectable foreign policy discourse. We are moving, some experts claim, toward rival trading blocs led, respectively, by the West Europeans (primarily the Federal Republic of Germany), the Japanese and the United States, with the latter forced to organise a trading sphere out of the bits and pieces rejected by its competitors.

The motive force for this glide away from globalism is seen to come from at least three sources. One is the expansion and accelerating integration of a European common market with the strength and self-confidence needed to protect inefficient but politically significant sectors of its economy. A second is the declining capacity of the United States to resist centrifugal forces within the circle of advanced capitalist democracies. For domestic reasons both political and economic, it is progressively less able to bear the disproportionate material costs associated with its hegemonic role within the Western alliance. It has perforce become intolerant of free riders on its security investments and of less than full reciprocity insofar as it practises free trade. Japan is the third. The MIT economist Rudiger Dornbusch appears to be arguing in a recent piece that the problem is not so much its government’s policies as its acts of omission which express the very character of the place: Japan is structurally neo-mercantilist. That is to say, the forms of its political and economic life, together with its mentality, preclude for the foreseeable future anything like the level of imports required to offset the enormous value of its exports. Today much of the resulting surplus capital is productively employed (from the Japanese point of view) in accumulating foreign assets such as factories, real estate and raw materials, but the principal part goes towards financing the American budgetary and trade deficits.

Although American consumers have found this arrangement comfortable, the American élite is conspicuously uneasy about the country’s growing subjection to the investment decisions of Japanese lenders. The number of blue and white-collar employees who believe they have been injured by Japanese competition, or who are for less material reasons receptive to nationalist appeals, provides a popular base for an élite-led drive to restore equilibrium which is likely to accelerate with the next downswing in the economic cycle. If, one is tempted to say when, the US gets its accounts in balance, and if the Japanese political system still will not produce the unprecedented measures required to induce a sharp increase in domestic consumption of foreign goods and services, Japanese capital will have to find huge new outlets.

Europe, Dornsbusch argues, will still not need and Latin America will not be able to afford to borrow more than a fraction of the Japanese surplus. The first alternative, then, will be direct investment. In Europe and North America, however, this option will be constrained by political forces determined to limit foreign ownership of land and other productive resources. Rebuffed by its erstwhile allies, according to this hypothesis, the Japanese will summon their capital and political energy to build an Asian trade and finance zone, a move likely to be facilitated by the limits imposed by Europe and the United States on the exports of all Asian countries. In addition or alternatively, the Japanese might decide to mate their money, technology and capital goods to the natural resources and untapped markets of the Soviet Union.

In fact, the economic consequences of the world’s division into three trading blocs are far from clear. In the first place, one cannot predict how much the division would add to existing trade restraints. Protectionism is a political decision, not a force of nature. The formation of blocs might do nothing more than force a moderate increase in the global deviation from that optimum production of goods and services presumed to result from unlimited free trade. Theoretically, such an increase would occur if the value of inter-bloc trade restrained was somewhat greater than that of intra-bloc trade unleashed. But whatever the aggregate consequences of disintegration into blocs, the United States is likely to experience the largest relative losses and fewest gains, above all in the currency of political influence, among the powerful nations concerned.

With whom will America bond other than its immediate neighbours? Even after it achieves equilibrium in its balance of payments, it will not have the huge quantities of surplus value capital which Japan will be able to deploy. That is one reason why both China and the Soviet Union are likely to gravitate into Japan’s orbit. A second is what appears to be the greater ability of public and private actors in Japan to identify, and collectively to pursue national economic objectives: public and private élites in Japan are more compact and homogeneous; their relations are marked by mutual respect; their cooperation is not haunted by the distrust of government and the visceral individualism that are so much a part of the American character.

Japan Inc. will not rely on the drift of events. It will actively court the Marxist giants with offers uninhibited by balance-sheet anxieties. Strategic considerations should enhance their receptivity. A militarily powerful state will normally prefer economic dependence on a comparatively weak one. This strategic factor, coupled with the proximity of major decision centres, might alternatively draw Moscow into close association with the EEC, which is, in any event, likely to incorporate most of Eastern Europe.

The relative weight and cohesion of each bloc would affect the terms of trade it could negotiate with the other two. Negotiations would also be affected by the political environment in which they would be conducted. The environment for negotiations between an Asian bloc led by Japan and one dominated by the United States promises to be poisonous. Aside from the fact that a defining characteristic of each bloc would be skin colour – a less than propitious element in the diplomatic mix – both sides will feel sorely aggrieved. By hypothesis, the Japanese decided to concentrate on organising an Asian bloc because of rebuffs to Japanese goods and capital in Washington no less than Brussels. As for the United States, it will find itself negotiating to retain some part of what it won with blood and treasure in World War Two: an unrestricted Asian presence. For a country which has imagined itself throughout the 20th century to have an Asian vocation, the very need to negotiate will be a source of rage. Mutual resentments will complicate negotiations on purely economic issues, in part by investing them with torrid symbolic values. The severity of those negotiations could in turn shadow the prospect for co-operation on other matters.

History, being sloppy, will probably not allow anything nearly so neat as a three-bloc world. But the centrifugal forces identified by Dornbusch and others could certainly produce a more fragmented and less open international economy than we have today. The potentially sizeable opportunity costs that would accrue from the failure to maintain, much less expand, an open global system are reason enough for an American President to question a largely reactive policy of marginal adjustments. But more ominous than the notional loss of goods and services is the inevitably associated loss of political cooperation – an element which is already insufficient to cope with multiplying threats to the security of nations.

As the electoral strides of the Green Parties demonstrate, the ecological threats have finally begun to bore deeply into mass consciousness. Collectively we are poisoning the water and air, levelling the forests, dissipating the soil, raising the temperature, spreading the deserts, depleting the ozone, and just plain shifting the whole balance of nature. Through their acts and omissions, governments all over the globe commit crimes against the Earth. The consequences of those crimes ooze inexorably across national frontiers. Some governments cannot stop because they are inept. They need expertise or trustees. Others will not stop because they are delinquent. They need sanctions. Others again do not stop because the immediate political and economic costs threaten their survival. They need contingent rewards and sanctions too. Many wait for others because acting alone is both costly and inconsequential. They need company.

We lack relevant processes, institutions and norms, not to mention an inherited disposition, to monitor behaviour, identify threats, deploy assistance, allocate funds, and to impose sanctions. Brazil consumes its forests; the world wails; the World Bank lends the means for consuming them faster; the forests continue to shrink. That is the status quo.

Irreversible ecological damage will kill us slowly while progressively depressing the standard of living. Emerging strategic developments presage conflicts that will kill lots people quickly while battering global GNP and doing their own bit for ecological degeneration. Within the next ten years at least two dozen countries will have the means to make nuclear weapons. The weapons themselves are spreading. Missiles capable of delivering them at great distances are spreading faster. Virulent chemical weapons seem accessible to any state with money or a half-way developed scientific-industrial base. Meanwhile the norms governing the use of force and protecting the independence and integrity of states have lost at least some of the clarity and authority they enjoyed when first incorporated in the United Nations Charter.

During the past fifteen years Indonesia has invaded East Timor, Vietnam has invaded Cambodia, Israel invaded Lebanon, Iraq has invaded Iran, Morocco has invaded the Western Sahara, India has invaded Sri Lanka, and South Africa has invaded whoever in the region it was disposed to invade. Events confirmed their evident conviction that they would not be punished. The superpowers, by their interventions in the name, respectively, of scientific socialism and democracy, have contributed to the view, rejected at Nuremberg but manifested in the actions of these powers, that every state is the exclusive judge of the measures required for its security. Preoccupied with the Cold War, avid in the cultivation of clients, the Soviet Union and the United States have sheltered instead of disciplining norm-busting nations.

Since it is strategically secure, and dependent for its affluence and therefore its domestic harmony on the smooth operation of the international market economy, the United States has ample incentive to help restrain inter-state violence: The imperatives of perestroika, or perhaps one should say the political and economic imperatives that have produced perestroika, have led Soviet leaders to see more clearly than ever before that international anarchy does not serve their interests either.

In a world of competitive states and transnational loyalties – particularly those stemming from race and ethnicity – the fuse of interstate conflict will often be lit by events within states: wars, coups, insurgencies, massacres. For that reason the great powers have a material interest in fostering the peaceful resolution of internal disputes. As it becomes a more plural and open society, a society more dependent on the uninterrupted movement of people and goods across frontiers, the Soviet Union’s stake in repressing international terrorism and the movement of illicit goods – narcotics, materials for manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, art treasures, nuclear and other toxic wastes – will increasingly approximate to that of the United States and its traditional allies. The growth of environmental consciousness in the Soviet Union, coupled with the growing exposure of decision-makers to popular pressure, is establishing another point of convergence between the concerns of its élites and those of our own.

This happy conjuncture of interests (and the perception thereof) between the two great protagonists of the Cold War cries out for institutional expression designed to avert misunderstandings, to concert policy and to strengthen within each country the advocates of co-operation. But although the US and the USSR are necessary participants in any collective effort to address the central risks to security, they are not sufficient. In order to contain the destructive and centrifugal forces at work in the world, all of the leading states must be drawn into a structure that will invest them with the prestige and power, and the constraints and responsibilities, of system managers.

Bush has not responded to this cry, and will not as long as he imagines that policy consists only of incremental adjustment and, when adjustment fails, of crisis management. Through an excess of caution, or an insufficiency of imagination, he has ignored this opportunity, just as he has lagged thus far in confronting the risk that reform of the Soviet system will explode in the hands of its practitioners, in such a way as to restore – with heightened inflammation – the condition of cold war.

By getting aid for Poland and Hungary to the top of the agenda at the recent economic summit of the Group of Seven, and by committing the United States to contribute $119 million, Bush made a beginning. But the risk is greatest in the Soviet Union itself, where the authority of the regime is unravelling at a stunning pace. If Stalin were in power, that would be marvellous, because any alternative would be superior. With Gorbachev in power, it is distressing, because the most likely alternative is a reactionary government ruling by terror. And if, to save themselves, Gorbachev and his colleagues yielded to pressure for the imposition of martial law, they, too, would end up ruling by the knout. After glasnost, anything like the old order of things will not be easily restored. It appears unlikely that Gorbachev can dampen combustible social tensions, or inspire economic discipline and initiative, solely through accelerated deregulation and enhanced political participation. Necessary as those steps are, they are not sufficient. Exhaustion and cynicism are running high. The Soviet people needs to experience now the taste of the promised fruit. Over the longer term, Gorbachev’s reforms should enhance consumption. In the shorter term, the conflict and confusion associated with the transition seem to have produced further deterioration in living standards for some and greater frustration for almost all.

Making perestroika work may well be as important to the interests of the United States as the restoration of Europe was after World War Two. One response to that imperative was the Marshall Plan, which made financial adjustments and outlays play the dual role of supporting reconstruction and of inducing a habit of consultation and collaboration among the nations of Western Europe, and between these nations and the United States. The plan’s rapid implementation eased social tensions in Western European countries, re-invigorated their economies and imparted a momentum to international relations which culminated in the institutions of co-operation which dominate the current scene.’

In his letter to the G-7 Heads of State, Gorbachev announced the readiness of the Soviet Union to become an active participant in global economic affairs. The members of the Group of Seven should respond by proposing discussions among Soviet and G-7 officials about means for increasing economic interaction. Each of the G-7 party leaders should designate a prestigious figure, backed by a small staff of experts from government, research centres, academia and the private sector, to conduct those discussions. The designee would report directly to his president or prime minister. In proposing discussions, the G-7 should have several immediate objectives. One is to identify the scale of credits required to give Gorbachev breathing space and leverage. A second is to assist Soviet experts in planning the integration of foreign investment into the transition toward a relatively open economy. A third is to strengthen personal and institutional links between important segments of the Soviet bureaucracy and their G-7 counterparts. And a fourth is to deepen those links among the Group of Seven. On the basis of proposals developed by the participants in this exercise, the relevant G-7 cabinet members, working closely with business and financial pashas (and in the United States with Congressional luminaries), should assemble export credits and investment guarantees sufficient in scale to furnish Gorbachev with the means for tangibly improving the condition of Soviet consumers. They should also agree on institutional arrangements for collective allocation of the credits and guarantees so that the allies move as one to reinforce positive developments in the Soviet transition.

Since the Japanese have most of the spare capital required to finance Soviet imports. Japan should chair the group of experts, the ministerial consultation, and the co-ordinating mechanism. And the Japanese Prime Minister should co-chair the summit, with President Gorbachev required to negotiate the precise arrangements and understandings that would commit the capitalist democracies to helping perestroika succeed. As things stand now, however, it is the United States that must set the project in motion.

Bush’s decision to inaugurate this process would be one important measure of the man. A second would be a decision to advocate systematic consultation among the G-7 and the Soviet Union on the full slate of international issues. To that end, the G-7 could expand the agenda of the proposed summit and urge that it be an annual event. Twenty years ago agreement between the G-7 and the Soviet Union on almost any issue would have been decisive for the remainder of the international community. The subsequent diffusion of power has made other states, or blocs of states, necessary parties to effective decisions on many issues. While Bush and his colleagues should visualise a broad and regular consultation with Moscow as a way of sealing the end of the Cold War, it should also be seen as an immense step toward global co-operation. To further this aim, the first summit would establish a planning group authorised to create support among other states for converting the Security Council into an institution able to identify risks to widely shared interests and to adopt and implement decisions. The conversion would involve adding Japan and the Federal Republic as permanent members and expanding the Council’s authority to include all serious threats to human welfare.

If the past is prologue, Bush will go on drifting with the current of events, steering to avoid a shoal here and there, husbanding his stores, exhorting his crew, defending his flag, all the while hoping to arrive at an agreeable place, but unwilling to raise sail in the favouring wind and plot his own way. And yet, as he himself concedes, an extraordinary and fragile process of change is occurring in the Soviet Union, which the United States is in a position to support. It is also in a position to attempt to determine a future in which the governing systems of the world may be able to act collectively in relation to the changes they share. No President since Truman, possibly since Franklin Roosevelt, has faced an environment so full of promise and peril. Bush’s acts and omissions will soon settle the question of whether the American people have elected a man, if not for all seasons, then at least for this one.

[*] Harper and Row, 166 pp., £10.95, September 1988. 0 06 438876 X