The North Dakota Plan

A few weeks ago a Paris-based organization called APHIA (Association for the Promotion of Humor in International Affairs) made its annual award for the most relaxed and innovative figure in the field of international affairs to John Kenneth Galbraith. In accordance with the rules of the organization, the recipient of the award was required to make a significantly innovative contribution to the field of foreign policy. Mr. Galbraith, in consequence, thought and proposed the North Dakota Plan, here revealed to an American audience for the first time.

by John Kenneth Galbraith

In times past, I found a certain amusement in maintaining a watching brief on international affairs and then enlarging on its inherently comic tendencies. The Dulles brothers, as an example, were a fine opportunity to this end. With very little effort one could picture John Foster, with his capacity for losing friends and making enemies, and Allen, with his talent for truly spectacular misjudgment, as agents of the communist conspiracy which each so feared and featured. Any issue of Foreign Affairs provided inspiration for a dozen imagined articles, equally unreadable and with only slightly more ludicrous titles. One that came almost automatically to mind was “Panama Looks North and South”—ghostwritten for the Panamanian foreign minister. Another, by one of my less imaginative Harvard colleagues, would be called “Germany Divided.” A third, by the Finnish foreign minister, would be called “Finland Looks East and West.”

Of late, however, I’ve been stopped by the Buchwald syndrome, something I’ve mentioned on other occasions. It parallels the problem that Art Buchwald faced during the days when Ron Ziegler was picturing Richard Nixon as a model of rectitude and public grace. Nothing he could invent, Buchwald said, was as funny as the original; there was no room for improvement. And so it is now with international affairs.

In some cases the humor is rather black. This is true of the efforts being made in the Middle East to prove once again, as for some thousand years before, that the certainty of war is safer than the terrible uncertainties of peace. That, for too long, has been a source of too much dark laughter.

But I do not believe that anyone can improve for amusement on the thought that Ethiopia is now a workers’ paradise. Or that Somalia, which was last year’s workers’ paradise, is now a bastion of liberty and free enterprise and that soldiers recently fighting well inside what used to be Ethiopia were the victims of Ethiopian as well as Soviet and Cuban imperialism.

Nor could any humorist improve on the efforts a few months back of my onetime Canadian compatriots to explain to an Eskimo named, I believe, John Smokehouse that he shouldn’t pick up radioactive fragments of a space satellite. John, it was explained by the distinguished engineers and scientists involved, had never heard of radiation or satellites. Nor, more seriously, had he ever heard of space.

The last great generation of Frenchmen and Englishmen defended their empires as the cutting edge of Western civilization. Now the adequately motivated sons (and daughters) of the empire-builders are defending their homelands from the people who were so civilized. Only one generation separates the two sets of heroes. God, I believe, so arranged it. He wanted some relief from the terrible solemnity of his new companions, Larry Flynt and Chuck Colson.

Only where American foreign policy is concerned can one be more lighthearted than the reality. That is because Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite, as they take it over, are terribly sober and responsible people. This all can see on television. So, of course, is Brzezinski as he seeks to revive a professionally suitable sense of doom.

Since foreign policy offers no opportunity for improvement, one is now forced to be serious and constructive. In consequence, I’ve worked out a plan that will relieve all of the tensions of present-day international relations.

No one will be in doubt as to what such a plan should do:

1) Great power rivalry must be eliminated; it is quite dangerous.

2) Ideological conflict must be turned into peaceful indifference.

3) There must be no cause for quarrels over international boundaries.

4) Armies and navies must be curtailed.

5) Political ambition must be reduced. 6) To the greatest extent possible all countries must have a good ethnic mix. As President Carter once said, or greatly wished he had, there is no case for ethnic purity.

The plan I have developed accomplishes all of these things. It invites, as world government does not, the support of all who affirm that small is beautiful. The plan is associated with one of the deathless names in the field of strongly innovative international action, that of Bismarck—Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota. To coin an old phrase (as Samuel Goldwyn once said), I believe the hour has struck. The time has come for the North Dakota Plan.

In the North Dakota Plan the map is the message. Every needed reform in international relations can be achieved if national boundaries are simply redrawn so that all countries are the shape and size of North Dakota.

All boundaries would then follow the lines of latitude and longitude. These are known or can be discovered without difficulty; accordingly, there could no longer be any boundary disputes.

One exception to the strict rectangular form is permitted. That is where, as in the case of the eastern boundary of North Dakota, the new national territory impinges on water. Then it accepts the natural boundary but stops rigidly at the high-water mark. This is vital, for it keeps the Plan from being a device by which countries own any ocean.

Also, the eastern boundary of North Dakota is the Red River. This makes the North Dakota Plan attractive to the Soviets, and to the Chinese and those others whom, at this writing, we do not recognize.

Under the North Dakota Plan great power rivalry disappears. This, as competent logicians will agree, is the plausible consequence of there no longer being any great powers.

The arms problem is largely solved. Few countries will have a seacoast. None will have an ocean. That eliminates navies. In any case, one does not readily think of North Dakota as a naval power.

Other weapons involve a slightly more serious problem. But that is taken care of by what the cognoscenti call the Nitze doctrine. Working with the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation, and therefore getting wholly reliable advice, the Committee on the Present Danger has calculated that a mere seven Minuteman missiles and ten cruise missiles in each of the new states will keep every one of them completely safe from nuclear attack.

In the interests of an equal start, it will be necessary to dismantle the antiballistic missiles now installed in the actual state of North Dakota. But they were to be phased out anyway, as an economy measure. Indeed, not very long ago legislators from North Dakota proposed, as a compromise, that the sites be manned only during working hours. This apparently reflected the belief that the Soviet Union, the workers’ fatherland, would be no less firmly committed than the United States to the eight-hour day and the forty-hour week.

In many if not most of the new countries, ideological differences will be irrelevant. Few will worry over whether the several Dakotas that occupy northern Siberia, the central Sahara, most of Australia, Greenland, and the Gobi Desert are capitalist or communist, although I have to admit that a certain number of Americans may. Henry Jackson will question the reference in the Plan to the Red River.

The North Dakota Plan will reduce political ambition and associated tension. This it will accomplish in the only possible way, which is by satisfying ambition. Any person who wishes to become a president, a prime minister, or, reflecting a more affluent modern ambition, a shah, an emir, or a sheik, can move to one of the completely unpopulated Dakotas of the world and set himself up there as a chief of state. It is well known that many of the more ambitious breed of modern politician can overcome the apathy they arouse in no other way. The plan will be especially attractive to Howard Baker.

The person whose ambition has been thus satisfied can then go on state visits to the heads of the populated nations, and here, drawing on my own observations in India, where there was a state visit nearly every week, I wish to make a truly serious point. It concerns the reason state visits are made. It is not to discuss business. That can almost never be risked, for serious conversation between great men can easily lead to uninformed agreement. State visits are made because the visitor is greeted with a combination of pageantry, food, alcohol, and affection that he knows he will never receive or deserve at home.

The boundaries established by the North Dakota Plan will unite French and Germans, Arabs and Jews, Indians and Pakistanis, and keep the Scotch, as properly we are called, from trading the high road to England, which Dr. Johnson rightly identified as one of the noblest prospects ever seen by one of our race, for a mess of North Sea oil. All international tension will be turned into harmless local hatred. But internal tensions will also be reduced. In the successor nations of the United States there will be fewer conservatives to hate liberals, fewer whites to fear the blacks, fewer Georgians to arouse sympathy and sustain condescension.

The key to reduced tensions, national and international, is the borders—borders that cut straight through every animosity, however cherished. These borders give us the slogan, the letters that, inscribed on our banners, mark the end to international relations and thus to all resulting sorrow. The letters are reminiscent, lovable, and yet different—KIA. “Keep It Arbitrary.”

I come to one final point. The question has been asked in the United States in these last weeks if the North Dakota Plan will not impair national sovereignty. On this we have the assurance of Ronald Reagan, former and future presidential candidate and one of my very own colleagues as a founding pillar of Americans for Democratic Action. Sovereignty, Governor Reagan has pointed out, is a good thing. The Panama Canal treaties were opposed as a bad thing. They will diminish the most fragile form of sovereignty, which is sovereignty we never had. But the North Dakota Plan, in contrast, enormously enhances the number of sovereign states. There will, by long division, be 27 in Western Europe, 120 in North America, 123 in the USSR, and 85 in Antarctica alone. Thus will the sum total of sovereignty in the world be increased. No good American can be against that. □