Idealism Without Illusions: U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1990s
By George Weigel.
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Eerdmans 253 pages, $16.99
George Weigel’s Idealism Without Illusions is must reading for every American-public official or private citizen, teacher or student-concerned about America’s role in the post-Cold War world.
Perhaps not since Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic post-World War II analyses has so valuable an attempt been made to provide an ethically and historically based framework to guide us through a period of shaking foundations, perplexing dilemmas, and new responsibilities. Weigel’s eminently readable book jogs our memory, our conscience, and our courage to act in uncertain circumstances. It breaks through the idealist/realist impasse in its idealistic insistence on the moral foundations of policy and in its determination accurately to reflect reality. Weigel rediscovers historical truths, avoids the temptations of messianism and cynicism, and critically surveys global developments and foreign policy options as America redefines her national purpose abroad.
For Weigel, history has been shaped, rather than ended, by the Cold War, making that struggle’s lessons of continuing importance even in its aftermath. History and international conflicts continue; the past is prologue as we strive to master our future.
It is refreshing that in this time of a new anti-anti-Communist revisionism, Weigel cuts through a good deal of misinformation. He exposes revisionists who during the Cold War tended to appease the Communist despots and who now tend to deny both that the Communist ideology and the Soviet empire were terribly different from our own or that the Western democracies “won” the Cold War. Weigel exposes the revisionists’ continuing failure of moral imagination and unashamedly addresses the spiritual roots of the Cold War struggle.
He understands that politics, even international politics, is, or should be, an extension of ethics, with the classic goals of “justice, freedom, order, the general welfare, and peace.” Spiritual values and noble ideals matter and so does power-moral and military alike.
Weigel understands Marxism, particularly Marxism-Leninism, as an innately anti-humanitarian and anti-political heresy. Like the closely related heresy of national socialism, communism preaches a worldly millennium without God or God’s messiah, a “modern Moloch” with a false perfectionist vision forcibly imposed by elites through totalitarian dogmas, parties, and programs. Weigel understands that this heresy and the Soviet Leviathan did not collapse of their own weight but had to be contested and defeated, and that behind the Iron Curtain the Cold War battle was one of principled radical rebellion by spiritually anchored Christian and Jewish opponents. The dissidents stressed God-given conscience, ethics, creativity, and individual freedom as the defining social qualities-not parties, economics, or raw power. And they insistently demanded the protection of inalienable human rights and the establishment of democracy (though not always democratic capitalism) as indispensable to the fullest realization of individual and social potential.
Weigel has studied the rebels well. He illuminates the spiritual mainsprings of their “No,” their pilgrimage, and their victory. Their motivation was not, as revisionists often suggest, primarily commercial or materialistic. Nor did they share the popular illusions about “convergence” or “detente” as likely means of bridging the unbridgeable ethical chasm between the Communist regimes and their opponents.
Weigel’s prophetic rebels include the extraordinary Polish Pope, John Paul II, “who lit the flame that ignited the Polish Revolution . . . (by preaching) the final revolution.” They include also Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel, “who recognized that the fault line in Communist countries did not run only between ‘us’ and ‘them’ . . . (but) through every person” and who preached that each individual should combat “the culture of the lie” by “living in the truth.” Weigel invokes as well the members of Poland’s Solidarity, the Sakharovs and Orlovs of Russia, and the marvelous host of artists, priests, pastors, and others throughout Eastern Europe, not a few of whom became martyrs. On their side in America were men like Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who linked rights and trade, and Ronald Reagan, who enthusiastically and without war embarked on a successful rollback of communist ideologies, weapons, and walls.
In addition to identifying the beliefs and individuals of the resistance, Weigel points to the varied international efforts, military and nonmilitary, that deterred Communist conquests abroad and sought to protect and expand the freedom revolution behind the Iron Curtain.
The first indispensable international means was the institutional recognition and leverage provided through such programs as Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe as well as through the human rights “watch” groups, such as Charter 77, that were spawned, publicized, and protected by the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Subjected to international standards and exposed by relentless publicity, the Communist states could no longer be Stalin’s “engineers of souls”; nor could they any longer pretend that their system was morally superior or even close to morally equivalent to Western democratic systems. Weigel notes that Ronald Reagan’s freedom doctrine, stepping up broadcasts into the Soviet empire and providing diplomatic and military support to freedom fighters in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, helped shift the balance by demonstrating that it was possible to reverse the Soviet imperium’s gains and its reactionary Brezhnev Doctrine.
The second indispensable international effort in defeating communism, according to Weigel, was the West’s policy of containment, both “hardware and hardball,” especially in the 1980s. He recognizes that “it is the regime, not the weapons” that are to be judged good or bad, and that military strength can serve positive purposes. NATO, for example, established and maintained lines that Moscow dared not cross militarily.
Weigel emphasizes two controversial steps of military deterrence undertaken by Ronald Reagan that greatly raised the cost of the Soviet empire and helped to break Moscow’s will to maintain the Yalta imperial system. First was the 1983 implementation of NATO’s earlier double-track decision (i.e., match Russia, or both go to zero) to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Second was the decision that same year to launch the Strategic Defense Initiative as a means of countering Moscow’s enormous investment-and lead-in offensive nuclear arms, as a lever for achieving a deep and verifiable strategic arms reduction treaty (Reagan’s proposed START), and as an ethical alternative to nuclear deterrence based on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).
Weigel reminds us that these crucial steps were opposed by Westerners who endorsed Moscow’s specious “arms race” arguments. The critics included the National and World Council of Churches, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and intellectuals like Paul Warnke, whose influential “apes on a treadmill” image of the superpowers bought into Moscow’s propaganda.
As an additional major contribution to the West’s victory in the Cold War, Weigel cites George Bush’s decision to take on Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. However, Weigel also notes with regret Bush’s precipitous halt to the conflict, which cost a decisive victory and contributed to Hussein’s survival, to the subsequent deaths of thousands of Kurds and Shiites, and to the legacy of a weakened multilateral approach to world crises.
Left unlearned, the lessons of challenge, resistance, and victory in the Cold War presage new decades of threats and struggles. A lively “Settling Accounts” section of Weigel’s analysis drives home important insights for the future by reminding us of the spurious arguments of individuals and institutions, noted above, that consistently undercut the West’s struggle against the evil empire. Still unrepentant today, they could not or would not understand the moral or military realities of the Communist tyrannies and the required Western responses. Nor did those on the right who emphasize only a Fortress America type of military power, or who hesitate to link economics and trade to human rights requirements.
Weigel suggests that the maintenance of such illusory perspectives will leave us unable to handle current problems such as weapons proliferation, ethnic cleansing, Islamic fundamentalism, and instability in the former Soviet republics. He walks us carefully through the comparable current variants of the Cold War’s foreign policy illusions. Although he does not describe today’s illusions in quite the following terms, they include America-first isolationism, blame-America-first revisionism, muddled lowest-common-denominator multilateralism, the end-of-history illusion, and the economics-is-everything school. Against these he counterposes his own elements of a sound policy framework.
Weigel indicates that there is much to worry about and much to work on in our foreign policy. Readers will worry with him about rogue states, rogue weapons, and random terrorism, about our “paper tiger” anti-proliferation efforts, and about the absence of a strategic defense system-a system he considers a “moral and strategic imperative.” We will worry about multilateralism’s “false unanimity of consensus,” and about the fact that as a “reluctant” superpower America is becoming an increasingly “modest” superpower. We will worry about the unserious nature of the current U.S. human rights policies in China, at the UN, and elsewhere. We will be concerned about increasing tribalization, about the form of reverse racism which suggests “that African countries are to be excused from observing the standards of civilized behavior that we expect from everybody else,” and about the possibility that UN trusteeships may be required in some cases of intractable conflict.
With Weigel, we need to worry about the fact that Islam is still “waiting for an Augustine” to distinguish the realm of God and the realm of man and to desacralize politics. Without that, we face the possibility of a new Cold War between Islam and the West. And we will have to acknowledge that we have squandered important post-Cold War opportunities when “we allowed our guilt over our imperial past to evade our responsibilities in defining the terms of the postimperial peace,” or that we have at times, as in the case of the former Yugoslavia, been “in the ridiculous position of supplicant before people who can’t even rouse themselves to restrain the neighborhood hoodlums.”
For all the book’s virtues, there are elements in Weigel’s analysis that are open to question. I disagree with his assessment that “Leninism is over and done with,” or that, because of U.S. power, “the world is unipolar,” or that (here he quotes someone else) “we are not facing mortal danger.” And I wish he had addressed current arms control fallacies based on unverifiable and unenforceable agreements with unreliable partners that could lead to unilateral U.S. disarmament. In my view, the communist Marxist-Leninist heresy is far from dead; also far from dead, for that matter, is its related meta-political heresy of fascism. At the same time, 30,000 nuclear weapons under uncertain control in Russia, as well as a growing global proliferation threat, do in fact place us, our allies, and our globe in mortal military danger.
I also believe Weigel was, at the time of his writing, unaware of the draconian cuts, mounting shortfalls, and continuing confusion in U.S. defense policies that will increasingly make us vulnerable to a wide range of threats. Our vulnerability then will lie not chiefly in our lack of understanding and willpower-as is the case now-but in a lack of actual military power should we muster the resolve to act.
There is for America another form of mortal danger, which one might perhaps call a mortal sin danger. Following our Cold War victory, we live in a situation of genuine possibility to buttress what is good in ourselves and in our world, and we have enormous moral and physical resources at our disposal. All the more reason that we cannot evade culpability for the casual shoulder shrug and the shameful decadence with which the United States and other Western powers have too often been blind Samaritans, waiting too long to act against the robbers of our neighbors’ lives. Our moral, political, and military power has been paralyzed as hundreds of thousands of our global neighbors have been left unprotected, to be murdered before CNN cameras in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Shiite and Kurdish areas of Iraq, in parts of the former Soviet Union. What boundless shame.
We need to lead the democratic nations in acting to end mass murders, enforce cease fires, preempt proliferation, bring international criminals to trial, and establish the grounds for negotiating peace and political settlements-even in situations where we cannot guarantee a painless effort or “assured victory.” We should heed George Weigel’s words: “If we do not take the prudent risks of leadership now, while we have the power to bend at least some events to our will, we are certain to get into even deeper trouble later.” Trouble indeed.
Sven F. Kraemer served on the National Security Council under four Presidents and ten NSC Advisors.