Foreign Policy: The Stuck Whistle

Economist, educator, editor, and author of several books, including THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY, JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH was a key figure in the presidential campaigns of Adlai E. Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. A firm believer in the practical interplay of economics and politics, Mr. Galbraith is also a strong exponent of candor on public questions. He has held a variety of posts in government, and from 1961 to 1963, he was United States ambassador to India, a post which gave him new perspective on the premises underlying our foreign policy.

by John Kenneth Galbraith

SINCE the election last autumn we have seen once again the striking difference in the public attitudes toward domestic as compared with foreign policy. In domestic matters, following the election it was taken for granted that there would be a new thrust forward on education, the urban crisis, the deprived, medical care for the aged, the increasing squalor of our surroundings, and other matters awaiting attention. Nor can anyone doubt that the President’s own intentions extend to foreign policy. His instincts here are clearly in the tradition of progressive innovation that marked the administrations of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, for three short years, that of John F. Kennedy.

But here also is the contrast. Those on whom a President relies who are professionally concerned with domestic matters invariably want action, They do not praise continuity in our approach to Negro voting, the Appalachian plateau, or the control of crime. But in foreign policy a mood of chronic contentment prevails. Here the official instinct is to continue present policies, whether right, wrong, or potentially disastrous. It seeks continuity in our Canadian and Mexican relationships, which work well. Equally, it accepts continuity in policies toward Southeast Asia, China, the arms race, which aren’t working at all or are certain to be a source of further deep trouble. Here change is the sort of annoying thing that restless outsiders are always proposing. They are a nuisance.

In domestic policy we also know that controversy is the price of change. We don’t expect to get medical care for the aged without arousing the wrath of the American Medical Association. No one supposed that the Civil Rights Act would win applause from Strom Thurmond. We think little of a public official who prefers his personal peace to the controversy that is inherent in progress. But with foreign policy, again there is a difference. Where the world’s newest nuclear power is involved, we rather expect those in charge to be fearful about arousing the ghosts of the China lobby or the communicants of the John Birch Society. Certainly they cannot afford to be thought soft on Communism, Castro, or the Panama Canal. Most conferences in the State Department — here I speak with the precision of firsthand knowledge — are not devoted to assessing the wisdom of a particular policy. They are concerned with what will be said on Capitol Hill. Everyone vastly prefers a foreign enemy to a domestic one.

At home a liberal is a man with a predisposition to change. In foreign policy his function is to use his liberal reputation to bless whatever is being done.

There is no reason why our foreign policy should be the natural stronghold of conservatism or contentment. And in foreign policy as well as in domestic policy, there cannot be progress without controversy. There is now great need for bringing our foreign policy abreast of the times, and even more, for bringing it abreast of simple necessity and of what, accordingly, we end up doing.

I also venture to think that the American people are in a mood for change.

One of the virtues of a presidential campaign is that it enables one to speak, with something less than the usual danger of contradiction, of what the American people want. Last autumn, out of a long-standing appreciation of the clearheaded intelligence of Lyndon Johnson and the need to repay the senatorial and congressional obligations that a reasonably active ambassador incurs, I campaigned in some fifteen or twenty states. Some of the audiences were impersonally large; in a wellestablished political tradition, some were intimately small. I am certain, as a result, that people would like to see a forward movement in our foreign policy similar to that which they expect in domestic affairs. They had no trouble deciding against Senator Goldwater; indeed, they needed no particular help from orators like myself. But it would be a great mistake were we to take comfort from this excessively easy choice. They want improved performance on our side. They will live with danger, but they also want serious efforts to mitigate it. They expect there will be disorder, tension, and conflict, but they want imaginative efforts to reduce them. They know of the problems of the poor countries and the danger of explosive population growth. They want to be assured, not that our efforts are inexpensive, but that they are serious and effective.

Most of all, people are tired of the litany of our foreign policy – with the endless calls for vigilance, the pious assertions of our own virtue, the repeated promises of prompt improvement in our affairs in Saigon and Paris, the never-ending reports of fruitful diplomatic missions and useful diplomatic talks when it is evident that nothing was accomplished, and the continuing assurances that we are toughminded and hardheaded and will never allow our better instincts to prevail. If Americans ever return to isolation, it will be because where foreign policy is concerned they have been bored to death.

I HAVE served happily and instructively with the Department of State. It includes among its members perhaps the most intelligent and responsible servants that any government has ever had. The younger men who have come into the service since World War II command special respect — they are liberal, well educated, and anxious for the kind of change being here discussed. My difference is not with persons but with performance. In handling labor relations, protecting natural resources, developing the technology of defense and deterrence, exploring space, and guiding the economy, we regard the federal government with confidence. Competent management is assumed. But in the field of foreign policy, our expectations are much lower. Here we are inured to setbacks, misfortunes, sudden changes of direction, and desperate efforts to retrieve error. When things go badly, it is only fair to attribute something to the difficulty of the problem. But if things continue to go badly, it makes good sense to search for deeper causes.

The first cause of trouble is an ancient tendency to base policy on official convenience and belief – what Senator Fulbright calls “myth” – rather than on the underlying reality. What is convenient is usually what is being done or not done. This gets defended in speeches, before congressional committees, and in conferences. The persuasion is excellent; the only problem is that the reality is different and the leadership accordingly is in the wrong direction. Then, alas, comes the day of reckoning when the reality must be recognized and the price must be paid. Error has to be confessed and an escape plotted at the point when all the exits have been painted in. As a result, we give a maximum impression of political infirmity, both at home and abroad. This is a formidable bill. Let me suggest particulars.

The fulcrum of our foreign policy is our relation with the Soviet Union. Here the problem is less one of a change of policy than one of affirming the policy we actually follow. This, however, is no small step.

According to tradition and the official litany, our relations with the Soviets are implacably hostile. Warnings of the comprehensively adverse intentions of the Soviets come from the Department almost automatically. There is a fine simplicity about reducing everything to a simple opposition of interests. It shows one has no illusions. It implies membership in a kind of inner foreign-policy club going back to the Truman Administration. It also avoids trouble. The domestic anti-Communist crusaders are rather rough-spoken people. The litany of total conflict flows over into the news columns and editorial pages, and is fed back to the Department.

Yet the reality, as most lucid people have recognized since the Eisenhower Administration, is that the preservation of peace – not of our way of life but of life itself– depends on a tacit understanding with the Soviet Union. This understanding is the fruit not of charity, softheartedness, or goodness of soul; it is the product of the most elementary selfinterest. Its elements are also reasonably clear. We are careful not to confront each other in Berlin, the rest of Europe, the Middle East, or Cuba in such fashion that the other country has no alternative but to fight. That would be to destroy both. We both keep up the threshold on the employment of nuclear weapons; they are not things to be employed casually against people or trees in Laos or Albania. We both resist the proliferation of these weapons. We are both conscious of the dangers of nuclear accident and take appropriate precautions. We both support the United Nations, not as a final solution of the world’s problems, but as a shock absorber and alternative to what otherwise would be a bilateral monopoly of world affairs by the two great powers. These are formidable points of agreement. They are also very serviceable. In their absence, the peace would not last a month.

Three times in the last fifteen months we have had dramatic proof of how profoundly both countries are attached to this undertaking. The Soviets were deeply alarmed lest it be menaced first by the death of President Kennedy and then by the election of Senator Goldwater. This latter threat was compulsively on the mind of everyone, large and small, when I visited there last summer. (The Marxist doctrine that there was no difference between the two great bourgeois parties had taken a disastrous beating.) We were similarly alarmed by the removal of Chairman Khrushchev. Even the professionally and theatrically hard-boiled were to be seen looking for reassurance. The litany of conflict had made it obligatory to condemn Khrushchev when he was in office. He must have been a little surprised by his popularity after his departure.

The litany is of implacable conflict. The reality involves practical accommodation. The problem is that both in and out of government simple men tend to be guided by the litany. Historians will have an interesting and doubtless moderately remunerative time explaining the latter-day emergence of Senator Goldwater in the year 1964. But was he so inexplicable? His policy of uncompromising and sanguinary opposition to the Soviets was much more logically a product of the hundreds of official speeches warning of Communist intentions and calling for all-out opposition than President Johnson’s speeches about peace.

President Kennedy in his American University speech and President Johnson at the United Nations a year ago outlined in general fashion the policy of restraint and accommodation on which we depend. Apart from this there has been little explanation of the policy we actually follow. Thus we entered an election with no real defense of the course of action on which the peace depends. If we avow a course of action but do not follow it, we should not be surprised if someone comes along and demands that we do. Perhaps we were lucky that the demand came from such a studiously maladroit politician as Barry Goldwater. In any case it will be safer henceforth to coordinate the script and the action.

There are other consequences or possible consequences of our failure to bring our avowal of the Soviet policy abreast of the reality. There is always the chance that somebody, somewhere, military or civilian, will take the litany of conflict to be part of his personal responsibility and start shooting. Thus it enhances the risk of accidental conflict. And at present, those who are concerned with day-to-day matters can never be sure whether they should be guided by the litany or the reality of the policy, assuming they recognize the difference. So, understandably, they play it safe. They continue trade restrictions which hurt our manufacturers and exporters but do no real damage to the Soviets or the satellites. (At the cost of a little delay or expense, our allies or the neutrals fill the orders.) They continue travel restrictions which seem to suggest that Americans are afraid of themselves. There is foolish bickering about cultural exchanges lest it appear that someone is having an unfair advantage in light opera. Enthusiasts in southern California naturally take the cue and go out on a patriotic crusade against Polish hams.

THE clash between litany and reality showed itself in classic form in the matter of the UN assessments to pay for peacekeeping forces in the Congo and elsewhere. Our legal position on this was strong. It is also true that the actions which cost the money generally served our interests. For many months last year secondary officials in the State Department. guided by the litany, issued regular rescripts to the Soviets promising that they would be thrown out of the organization unless they paid. (The UN bureau of the State Department in Washington has a certain local reputation for the humorlessness with which it accepts the litany and the priestly diligence and solemnity with which it grinds out telegrams, statements, and speeches for its highly indifferent audiences.) Right-wing critics of the Department and all who dislike the United Nations and would like to see us pay for none of it were well pleased. But as the day of reckoning approached, the ultimate understanding–which was that we and the Soviets both agree on remaining in the UN – came into view. We did not want them to go. The press turned a little sour. Also it doubtless occurred to some people that a President just returned to office on a platform of peace and prosperity might be reluctant to begin by presiding over the dissolution of the United Nations. At more responsible levels of government a search began lor some promising avenue of retreat and compromise. Soon we were agreeing with some haste to an understanding according to which there would be no voting at all and the Russians would stay. Eventually, one supposes, a more satisfactory compromise will be found. Perhaps there will be a token payment. One hopes the settlement will not be damaging to the UN or give too serious an impression of retreat. Both dangers could have been avoided had we made it clear from the outset that while we would press the Russians and the French for payment, we set an even higher value by the UN. That was the reality.

To base policy on the reality not only avoids recurrent backdown and retreat; it also allows forward movement. A frozen policy cannot exploit opportunity; it is frozen in all directions. And fear of criticism at home is unlikely to be combined with self-confidence abroad. If Roosevelt had feared doing business with Stalin and had been sensitive to the criticism of the American right, then more virulent than now, there would have been no UN. The greatest diplomatic success of the Kennedy years was the partial test-ban agreement. It was negotiated by Averell Harriman, who has a long record of self-confidence in dealing with the Soviets and is singularly indifferent to domestic criticism about his being soft on Communism.

I don’t suggest that Soviet polemics have come to an end. We shall have to answer them as we shall have to continue to defend our position where our interests are in conflict. But we can no longer afford the illusion or language of total conflict. We must be clear that our policy is based on a vital area of understanding and agreement.

The unwillingness to accommodate policy to reality, with the consequence that we regularly find ourselves painted into a corner, is not, of course, confined to the Soviet Union. Renegotiation of the Panama Canal Treaty was in order long ago. The first response of the Department to trouble there a year ago was to appease the bitter-enders by proclaiming the treaty sacrosanct. The trouble was blamed on Communists. Now the treaty is to be renegotiated.

Similarly, the American people will be prepared for changes in the structure of NATO if we accept as the basis of our policy the fact that Europeans are far less dependent on the United States than they were fifteen years ago, and that also, as the result of lessened tension, they are far less subject to the cohesive influence of fear. This independence and lowered tension were things we sought and obtained. But we must accommodate to their consequences. We convert success into failure when we make NATO not a means to an end but an end in itself.

The military alliances which John Foster Dulles sponsored or negotiated in the Middle East and Southeast Asia were always of somewhat dubious value and even more questionable wisdom. From the beginning they caused friction with the countries which were not members; now they are becoming increasingly unpopular in the countries which adhere to them. (Pakistan, militarily one of the two significant members of these alliances, is currently having an election on the issue of which candidate is least allied with us.) Instead of holding on to these arrangements as though they were immortal, the time has come for friendly re-examination while it is still between friends.

Our avowed policy toward the poor countries is based broadly on the notion that economic assistance and technical support will bring a fairly early takeoff toward economic self-support. Everyone in a position of consequence now knows that this will not happen; in some places it will not be possible to prevent further deterioration. And in India, Pakistan, Egypt, and a number of other countries we can no longer escape the terrible reality of the population explosion. We cannot abandon the efforts that are the only hope for improvement. Our only course is to abandon the facile promises and face the facts. Otherwise, having promised too much too soon, we will have more disillusionment and more disappointment, and we won’t be doing the things that need to be done.

FINALLY, there is China. It fell to me two years ago to be our executive when the dispute between China and India broke into open war. The policies which we concerted with the Indians and the British and which combined support to the Indians with a clear indication of our disinterest in promoting a war in those distant mountains passed through my hands. I had some part in forming them. They worked; at the point of their main attack in the Northeast Frontier Agency, the Chinese returned to their previous lines. I cite all this not to serve my own vanity but to urge my credentials. I am in no need of sermons from those who say we must stand firm, must never underestimate the Chinese menace.

But our China policy has been on dead center now for fifteen years. During that time we have had an ingenious succession of slogans to stop thought or explain why nothing should be done: the first move is theirs; they cannot shoot their way into the United Nations; recognition and admission to the UN are not a reward for bad behavior; they should stop whatever they are doing in Africa; membership in the UN is no guarantee of good behavior - although it is not clear that anyone ever suggested it was. What passes for an American policy on China is really an effort to devise plausible explanations for inaction and plausible reasons for urging other countries to support us therein. Some of the latter may well be among the world’s better exercises in meretricious eloquence. Unfortunately, everyone between here and Nepal knows that the real reason for our position is domestic politics.

We must have a new effort. The integrity of Taiwan is an obvious condition. The permanent seat in the Security Council for Taipei is not. Neither Taiwan nor China has a better right to this seat than, say, India. The proper course is to seek a reorganization of the Council. Without postponing other steps, we should certainly make a prompt effort on travel and trade. Among other advantages this would mean that we would no longer be impelled to invest diplomatic effort in largely futile efforts petitioning to our friends in Europe and Asia to refrain from trading with, or lending money to, or sometimes even speaking to. the Chinese.

It is of course possible that the Chinese do not wish to come into the world. But if we make an effort now there is at least a chance that a decade hence China, with its nuclear arms, will be somewhat responsive to world opinion and hence will become a more responsible member of the world community. Acceptance of the test ban and control of delivery systems will at least become possible. If no steps are taken – if we do not take the initiative, and if we reject all Chinese proposals as propaganda then we can be sure that things will be no better and very likely will become much worse. That is what the proponents of continuing inaction urge. The present policy is not one of strength. It is one of surrender to internal weakness.

We are impatient of progress on domestic policy because these matters are close to home. And excuses for inaction are easily identified as such. We must become equally suspicious of those who try to sweep our foreign-policy problems under the rug.

We have also learned here at home that the future does not lie with the hard-nosed men who declare that nothing can be done or that we should defend the status quo in Mississippi or Harlem with a gun. We must realize that things are not much altered when we go abroad. There too one must either anticipate change or be its victim.