Ethics & Public Policy Center

Foreword to "Decline of the West?"



[Foreword to Decline of the West?: George Kennan and His Critics.]

The century of peace preceding World War I can be attributed largely to a global balance of power made possible by the British Navy. Not only did Britannia rule the waves, but she imposed her will on distant peoples. Whatever may be said of British imperial motives or the consequences of British rule in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, in today’s world the old colonial system is morally obsolete.

The United States as the leading Western power after World War II inherited the mantle of British responsibility for maintaining the balance of power. To use current and somewhat more lofty words, we have an obligation to help build a world order that he’s safe for diversity and peaceful change. But the exercise of this responsibility is more difficult for Washington today than it was for London in the nineteenth century because, among other reasons, we are uncertain of our global role while our chief adversary—the Soviet union—confidently justifies the use of its power beyond its borders by a theory of revolutionary legitimacy.

Since the mid-1960s we Americans have been debating, if not agonizing over, the proper role of United States power and influence in the vast external realm.  The broad consensus that guided our foreign policy from the end of World War II to the middle of the Vietnam War was shattered by weariness with the burden of power, self-doubt about our moral claim to leadership, and diverging views on the nature and seriousness of the threat from the Soviet Union and other Communist states.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, we have been trying to establish a new foreign policy consensus—a common understanding of what we as a nation stand for, what our security requires, and what our responsibilities in a dangerous and unpredictable world should be. This difficult task is made more difficult because different people often draw widely differing conclusions from the same events and developments.

Several examples comes to mind:

The unwillingness of the U.S. Congress to underwrite funds to support the moderate forces in Angola in 1975 and President Carter’s 1977 “commencement” to withdraw American ground troops from Korea are seen by some Americans as signs of vacillation and even retrenchment in the face of Communist pressures. Others see these decisions as prudent measures that properly reflect a new moral and political assessment of U.S. power and interests.

The changing ratio of military power between the United States and the Soviet Union also evokes widely differing interpretations. All Western experts agree that Moscow is forging ahead of Washington in most areas of conventional and nuclear military might. According to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, U.S. military spending from 1967 through 1976 dropped from $120 to $86.7 billion in constant 1975 dollars. During the same period, Soviet military expenditures rose from $79.2 to $121 billion. Thus, in 1976, Moscow was spending almost 40 percent more for defense than Washington. The ratio has not changed significantly since.

Looking at these same facts, some Americans see an increasing threat to the United States and its allies, while others insist that Soviet designs against the West have moderated or that the United States and its NATO partners already have sufficient strategic and conventional arms to deter for blunt any Soviet assault.

The task of building a new foreign policy consensus is also made more difficult by the confusion of tongues among religious, academic, and political leaders.  Many observers at home and abroad have found it difficult to discover a consistent pattern in President Carter’s statements on U.S. foreign policy toward friend, foe, and neutral. This was strikingly true of the President’s May 22, 1977, Notre Dame University address in which he sought to “connect our actions overseas with our essential character as a nation.” Because of its significance this speech was analyzed in a symposium, Morality and Foreign Policy, published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The present collection is a further effort to stimulate reflection and debate on America’s role in the never-ending struggle for security with freedom. We do this by presenting and analyzing the evolving views of a distinguished diplomatist and scholar, George F. Kennan. Through four decades of service to this country and through his incisive writing, Mr. Kennan has become a major figure in foreign policy and academic circles. During the past year his utterances have become the center of a swirling controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.

To the bring the views of Kennan and his critics to a larger audience in a systematic form, I invited Martin F. Herz, a career U.S. Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Bulgaria, to assemble the best recent essay to available and prepare an introduction that would identify the chief points at issue. Ambassador Herz is well qualified for this task. He has served not only in Eastern, Central, and Western Europe, but in the Middle East and Far East as well. He is the author, among other works, of Beginnings of the Cold War (1968). Currently he is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Adjunct Professor of Diplomacy at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.

Ernest W. Lefever, Director
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Washington, D.C.
September 1978

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