The Rivalry of Nations

Thirty years ago as a young assistant to President Wilson, WALTER LIPPMANN played a formative part in drafting the Fourteen Points. Since then,as a political analyst,he has observed the American people as they pledged themselves to disarm, to outlaw war, to be neutral at all costs. Now, after a second war for which we were unprepared, he has come to believe that an error in our philosophy prevents us from forming an effective foreign policy. This article is the Phi Beta Kappa address he recently delivered at the College of William and Mary.


IF WE study the history of American foreign relations during the past forty years, we must be struck by an extraordinary paradox. During this period the United States has emerged from its long isolation. It has become one of the leading powers of the world. Not once but twice during this period the American people have had to face the awful issues of war and peace. Can it be said that during this momentous period we have ever succeeded in forming and agreeing on a foreign policy which foresaw correctly and enabled us to deal successfully with the actual course of events? The record is, I think, clear. We have won both wars. But on the crucial issues our diplomacy has thus far always miscarried. It has been unable to prevent war. It has been unable to avoid war. It has not prepared us for war. It has not been able to settle the wars when they have been fought and won.

At no critical phase in this epoch has the actual outcome conformed with our declarations and our expectations. Never has the country been able to achieve any of the principal objectives to which again and again it has been so solemnly and fervently committed.

Thus from 1914 to 1917 the country believed and hoped that it could avoid participation in the First World War. Yet it was compelled to participate. And when it did participate, it was unprepared because it had believed that it would not have to participate. During that war the country hoped and believed that by a victory it would achieve a lasting and democratic peace. The victory was attained. But the peace which had been promised was not achieved. After the First World War ihe country again believed that if there were another war, it would be able to remain out of it. Again it did not prepare for war. Once again it was unable to remain out of the war when it came.

During the Second World War the country again believed that with victory over the Germans there would begin an era in which all the victorious powers would agree and be harmonious and become unanimous on the terms and conditions of a just and durable peace. We have had the victory. But we have not been able to attain that peace.

Now, after two victorious world wars we find ourselves discussing the possibility of a third world war. And so we must ask ourselves whether we have become entangled in a degenerating cycle of wars that breed more wars, each more savage and more inconclusive than the last. It is a grim question. We must, however, face it; and I believe that we must answer it by saying that if our present estimates and calculations are no more correct than those on which we acted before, during, and immediately after the First and Second World Wars, then we shall be surprised and disappointed again. Once more we shall not know how to prevent war, or how to prepare for it correctly, or how, assuming we win it, to make peace after it. And if a second world war leads to the third — because we cannot make a settlement of the war we have just won — what ground is there to suppose that we could settle a third world war so that it did not lead to a fourth?

Copyright 1948, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

Is it not true that in the twentieth century we have witnessed on the one hand the rise of the United States to pre-eminence among the nations, to a position of great leadership and immense responsibility in shaping the destiny of mankind? And on the other hand, is it not also true that the course of events during the American rise to preeminence is strewn with the debris and wreckage of high and hopeful declarations of policy: with Wilson’s neutrality, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and the Covenant of the League of Nations; with the Washington treaties of disarmament and the Kellogg pact to outlaw war; with the Dawes Plan, the Young Plan, and the Hoover Moratorium to reconstruct 1 he world after the First World War; with the Stimson doctrine to prevent aggression; with the Neutrality Act before the Second World War; with the quarantine speech of Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms, and Hull’s Seventeen Points, and the Atlantic Charter, and the Yalta Declaration, and the Truman Doctrine?

When we reflect on this series of declarations and the disappointments which followed them all, we must be struck by the contrast between our capacity as a people to develop national power, and our ability to use it and to manage it successfully. And is it not plain that our failures lie in the field of policy— that is to say, in deciding correctly when, where, how, and to what ends we shall exert the enormous power and influence which we are able to generate?

It cannot be argued that the miscarriages of American diplomacy during the past forty years are due to the weakness of the American nation. Among the powers of the world the United States is the least vulnerable to invasion, to blockade, or, with existing weapons, to decisive assault. The United States has the material resources and it has the productive capacity to develop enormous offensive power in time of war. In time of peace it produces a great export surplus — a surplus above and beyond a high standard of life at home — which renders it economically invulnerable in the outer world. Two great wars have proved the valor of American troops, the fortitude of the American people, and the military competence of American military commanders. Our institutions and our traditions are respected. And on the whole our participation in world affairs is welcomed by the great masses of mankind as promising liberty, justice, peace, and plenty.

We must seek the cause of our diplomatic failures, therefore, in our own minds. We must look for the cause of trouble not in material circumstances but in our own habits of thought when we are dealing with foreign affairs and with the formation of American policy. In the period from Woodrow Wilson to Harry S. Truman our foreign policy has miscarried so regularly because there has been interposed within our own minds, between the outer world and ourselves, a collection of stereotyped prejudices and sacred cows and wishful conceptions, which misrepresent the nature of things, which falsify our judgments of events, and which inhibit the formation of workable policies by which our available means can be devoted efficiently to realizable ends.

We have brought along with us from our age of innocence, from the nineteenth century when we were isolated and when we were sheltered from the rivalries of states and empires, an ideological picture of the world, a philosophical framework of preconceptions. We think this picture of the world is real and noble. In fact it is imaginary and false. And because our philosophy of the nature of international life is imaginary and false our efforts to play an effective part in world affairs are frustrated.


WHAT then is it in our philosophy which, instead of guiding us, misguides us continually? I think that the question can be answered. The point, as I have already indicated, where our declarations of policy have regularly miscarried is in avoiding war, in preparing for war, and in settling wars. We must ask ourselves whether there is here some common factor of error which confuses all of us on the issues of war and peace. I think there is. I think the error is a refusal to recognize, to admit, to take as the premise of our thinking, the fact that rivalry and strife and conflict, among states, communities, and factions are the normal condition of mankind. The popular American philosophy of international life refuses to recognize this fact. It denies that in the world as it is, the struggle for existence is fundamental and in the nature of things. This, I believe, is the philosophical error which prevents us from forming an effective foreign policy.

In the American ideology the struggle for existence, and the rivalry of nations for advantages, are held to be wrong, abnormal, and transitory. Our foreign policy throughout this period has been dominated by the belief that the struggle does not exist, or that it can be avoided, or that it can be abolished. Because of this belief our aim has not been to regulate and to moderate and to compose the conflicts and the issues, to check and to balance the contending forces. Our aim has been either to abstain from the struggle, or to abolish the struggle immediately, or to conduct crusades against those nations that most actively continue the struggle.

Yet in the world as it actually is, the struggle is not abnormal, and it is perpetually renewed. Twice during this period we have sought to abstain from the struggle by declaring our neutrality. We have not been able to stay out of it. Twice we have conducted victorious crusades against the chief troublemaker, believing what was soon disproved by events: that if he could be eliminated, we would then have eliminated all troublemakers. Twice we have sought, by forming universal societies like the League of Nations and the United Nations, to abolish the struggle. They have not abolished the struggle.

Our refusal to recognize the struggle for existence as the normal state of mankind in international affairs has resulted in the repeated miscarriage of American policies. Our efforts to deal with events, as if they conformed or could be made to conform with our ideological picture of what they ought to be, has been rather like using a map of Utopia to find your way around New York City.

The American refusal to recognize the struggle for existence has in this century crystallized in three recognizable patterns of conduct: in a neutrality which assumes that the struggle can be ignored and avoided; in crusades that assume that by defeating the chief troublemaker the struggle for existence will end; in the sponsorship of a universal society which assumes that the struggle can be abolished.

Since 1914 American relations with the outer world have oscillated among these three patterns of conduct. The great debates within this country have turned upon them. But the experience of these forty years shows conclusively, I think, that if we insist on treating the conflict of states, communities, and factions as abnormal, as exceptional, as transitory, we are unable to form an efficient foreign policy. Our American ideology, which we have brought over from a time when we did not have to play a responsible part among the powers of the earth, distorts our judgment when we deal with the problems of power. It distorts our judgment when we have to calculate how a balance can be struck between our aims and our power to realize them.

In practical judgments — and diplomacy, when the stakes are life and death, calls for very practical judgments — the criteria are always relative. There is no such thing as absolute power. Whatever the wealth, the power, and the prestige of a nation may be, its means are always limited. The problem of the maker of policy is to select objectives that are limited—not the best that could be desired but the best that can be realized without committing the whole power and the whole wealth and the very existence of the nation.

But if we examine the issues of foreign policy as they are presented to our people, we find an overwhelming disposition to regard the choices before us not as relative but as absolute. We are disposed to think that the issue is either this or that, either all or nothing, either isolationism or globalism, either total peace or total war, either one world or no world, either disarmament or absolute weapons, either pious resolutions or atomic bombs, either disarmament or military supremacy, either nonintervention or a crusade, either democracy or tyranny, either the abolition of war or a preventive war, either appeasement or unconditional surrender, either nonresistance or a strategy of annihilation.

There is no place in this ideological pattern of the world for the adoption of limited ends or limited means, for the use of checks and balances among contending forces, for the demarcation of spheres of influence and of power and of interest, for accommodation and compromise and adjustment, for the stabilization of the status quo, for the restoration of an equilibrium. Yet this is the field of diplomacy. These are the substance and the matter of an efficient diplomacy.

Our ideologists, however, regard the use of power to achieve and maintain an equilibrium of power as “power politics.” And they regard the recognition of spheres of influence as “appeasement.” Yet in the absence of a world state, and except in a world dominated by one supreme power, there must be an equilibrium among several powers and a recognition of their spheres of influence. A diplomacy for the world as it is, which is not to expend itself in verbal declarations on the one hand, and on crusades of annihilation on the other, must deal with the balance of power and the determination of spheres of influence.

But under the spell of our ideological picture of the world, we exclude from our minds the very subject matter of diplomacy itself. We would exclude it, we would outlaw it, and we would excommunicate those who discuss it. We insist on treating the rivalry of nations as something that could not exist among right-thinking men. We do not regulate the rivalries because we hold that the rivalries ought not to exist. And so we are left with our three patterns of policy: to ignore the rivalries by proclaiming our neutrality, or to deny the rivalry and to believe it will disappear if the nations are members of a universal society, or to conduct crusades of annihilation against the lions who do not wish to lie down with the lambs.


How does what I have been saying bear upon the subject which preoccupies us all so anxiously and so profoundly — upon our relations with the Soviet Union, with which we are now engaged in a worldwide diplomatic conflict?

The beginning of wisdom on the Russian question is, I believe, to recognize the historic fact that the division between eastern anti western Europe, the rivalry between Russia and the nations of the West, did not begin with Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, nor would it end if the Soviet regime were overthrown or defeated. The cultural and ideological division of Europe is as old as the division of Christendom between Rome and Byzantium. The imperial rivalry with Russia in the Baltic, in eastern and central Europe, in the Danube valley, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in the Far East did not begin with the Communists and will not end with Communism. It was one of the great fields of diplomacy under the Czars as it is under the Communists. Rivalry with Russia is a new problem for the United States. But the British Foreign Office has been preoccupied with it for a hundred and fifty years. We had better make up our minds that we shall now be preoccupied with it for a very long time to come.

That being the case, we must give up the notion that the choice is between one world, in which the Russians are our partners, and two worlds, in which we must annihilate the Russians or they must annihilate us. I do not believe that we must either marry the Russians or must fight them, that we must have either a perfect peace or a total war. I believe that the best policy is to recognize that the rivalry will remain, and not to expect it to disappear, and not to think it could be abolished by the United Nations, and not to think it could be abolished by a victorious war; and having recognized that the rivalry is a permanent fact, to use our whole power and influence to regulate it, to keep it within bounds, to establish spheres of influence which limit the rivalry, and a balance of power in the world which checks it.

I do not believe that we can settle the Russian problem once and for all. I do believe we have enough power and influence, if we use them efficiently, to bring about a settlement with Russia in this generation. But it will have to be a settlement which aims not at unanimity, not at ideological harmony, not at the abolition of all our differences and disagreements, but at a truce in the cold war, a modus vivendi during which the nations can recover from World War II, at treaties which end in the withdrawal of the armies of occupation in Europe, and the restoration of Europe to the Europeans.

This will not be easy to achieve. It will require the pressure of power — which will offend those among us who do not like power politics. It will require political and economic compromises — which will offend those who regard all compromise as appeasement. But if a truce, and a modus vivendi, and a treaty are hard to achieve by power and by compromise, it is certain that without power on the one hand, and compromise on the other, nothing can be achieved.

If we will not or cannot use the classic procedure of diplomacy — which is always a combination of power and compromise — then the best we can look forward to is an era of disintegration in the civilized world, followed perhaps by a war which, once it began, would be savage, universal, and indecisive.

That must not happen. And it need not happen if only our people will abjure their illusions about the nature of the world in which they have so recently become a leading power, and will permit and assist those who must form our policy, to go forward on the assumption that our aim is not to marry the Russians and then to live with them happily ever after, nor to fight them and let the whole world be devastated. Our aim is to transact our necessary business with the Russians, at arm’s length, coolly, shrewdly, without fear and without extravagant hope, and with as much justice as may be possible where there is as yet no agreement on first principles and where the rivals do not live in the same moral order.