A Compassionate View of Power

Raymond Aron, THE GREAT DEBATE: Theories of Nuclear Strategy, 265 pp. Doubleday, $4.95.

Supporters of President Johnson's foreign policy have recently levelled two charges at dissenters more "liberal" than they. First, the Johnsonites say no good distinction can be made between liberal and conservative foreign policies, but only between realistic and tenderminded policies. Was Kennedy's action during the Cuban missile crisis, they ask, "liberal" or "conservative?" Second, they suggest that the reason so-called liberals generally favor the tenderminded policies is that they shrink from the use of power. Hence, the argument goes, their complaints are unrealistic, since the U.S. must maintain its international position if it is to safeguard internal democracy.

This name-calling of "realistic" and "tenderminded" does not clarify things much. Each of us is convinced that within his own vision of the mechanics of world affairs lies that ideal combination of compassion and realism in the face of decisions of power. The first problem is to discover what the United States is actually doing. Then theoretically you can endorse one of three foreign policy alternatives: using power as the Administration is doing; ceasing to exert pressure on the internal affairs of other nations; or continuing to exert pressure but in a different direction.

A book on nuclear strategies may seem peripheral to the political debates of today. It was back in 1961-2 that nuclear disarmament was the problem to which one was committed. Now the demonstrations are about civil rights and American policy toward the revolutions in underdeveloped countries. Yet America's policy toward these revolutions is to an astounding degree, as Raymond Aron suggests in The Great Debate, a result of the relationship between the American thermonuclear force and the Soviet one. Aron outlines with incredible brilliance the whole theory of power (the McNamara Doctrine) behind American foreign policy.

Who is Raymond Aron? Stanley Hoffmann, professor of Government, has published a description in the Nation that merits quotation:

Professionally, he is both a professor at the Sorbonne and a columnist for Le Figaro; Intellectually, he has pursued a triple career as a philosopher, a social scientist, and a citizen... Aron's work is a relentless Interrogation of contemporary society in all its forms: what are its main features, how does it differ from its own past, where is it going, or rather what kind of choices are open? His sociology is essentially historical; he is not interested in the abstract system-building of "grand theory" divorced from history, and since he considers concepts useful only as long as they help one understand concrete societies, he has felt little need to innovate and has freely resorted to the concepts developed by past students of history...

All of Aron's work is a patient and insistent debunking of utopias: any sociology that smuggles answers into the way it poses questions, and philosophy of history that sees patterns where there are none, ideologies which sacrifice men today to a vision of the future, or statecraft that promises more than it can deliver, all come under Aron's pitiless onslaught. The purpose of such demolition is not to clear the way for a pure and total science of society. Aron sees society as far too complex and changing to allow for any general theory valid for all times and places; he conceives of science as a quest, not a set of laws, and tries to define the different logics of behavior which operate different sectors of reality (economics, International relations, etc....) Aron recognizes that the relations between sectors are the most difficult to account for; he states that science in human affairs cannot predict or guarantee the solution of conflicts.

Hoffmann's introduction is modest. Aron is not only a columnist; he is the best of the West's myriad political commentators. Reading him, one cannot help feeling he has achieved the optimum mix of compassion and realism. The Great Debate is an example of neutral analysis in the service of compassion. Aron analyzes the nuclear apocalypse before which much of Harvard shudders as millenial Christians before the imminent Judgment, and he deals with it in a calm, utterly convincing way.

The Argument

The argument of the book, already tightly packed, cannot easily be reproduced in a few paragraphs. It starts with a sketch of the scientific revolution that produced the hydrogen bomb and the ballistic missile, and then the arms race. Was the source of the arms race the deep mutual suspicion that H. Stuart Hughes stressed in An Approach to Peace? (If this is the case, an American policy of unilateral disarmament intiatives to dispell suspicion would evidently be sound). No, Aron attributes the cold war "permanent alert" to the frank realization on both sides that there will be no interval, such as Britain had in World War II, to reactivate defense industries when the stratagems of peace had failed. Each side realizes it may have to fight with what it has at any given moment. The mobilizations that do take place are not so much for war as for diplomacy: they are signals to the enemy of how high a price one is prepared to pay.

Three New Elements

The new weapons have changed both war and politics, Aron says. In typically compact language he explains: Three radically new elements are instrumental in determining the three major concepts of strategic theory, concepts that suggest the three responses so far worked out to the triple challenge of monster weapons, permanent alert, and annihilation of entire nations without the need first to disarm them. The first is deterrence, symbolic of the effort to substitute the threat of force for its actual application; the second is stability, replacing the obsolets notion of balance of power and designating the theoretical situation in which no nation would be tempted to make use of its weapons; the third is arms control, including both the arms policy in advance of a crisis and the conduct of diplomacy and strategy during the crisis itself.

These three themes run through the entire work. The first, deterrence, is the main subject. The McNamara doctrine of deterrence replaced the Eisenhower strategy of unleashing nuclear holocaust if the enemy crossed a line drawn by John Foster Dulles with a strategy of graduated response. If, for example, the Soviet Union misreads American intentions as it did in Korea, the U.S. is now prepared to meet Russia with conventional weapons first instead of immediately blowing both civilizations off the map. If the Russians were still unconvinced, tactical nu- thermonuclear responses ranging from "counterforce" (against Soviet missiles) to "countercity" (self-evident) could be applied.

The merit of the McNamara doctrine, according to Aron, is that it reduces the immediate danger of "nuclear spasm," as American theorists refer to all-out war. But it does so at the cost of increasing the likelihood of conventional or guerrilla wars in which (since massive retaliation is not as imminent) firmness of intent may be tested. Thus Aron speaks of both Russia and the U.S. wielding conventional "swords" behind a nuclear "shield," as the U.S. did when it used the Navy to stop Russian ships during the Cuban missile crisis. The act was possible because of local American superiority in conventional weapons. Backing it up rather than supplanting it were the nuclear missiles.

Equally, in Vietnam (though this has happened since Aron wrote) one can see the logic of the McNamara Doctrine at work. While the guerrilla war is in large part a peasant revolt, it is also politically organized by the Vietnamese Communists, and supported by the Chinese, who do not believe in the firmness of American intentions in the face of an unpopular and seemingly impossible war. The McNamara Doctrine suggests that the enemy should be met with increasingly powerful conventional forces. Whether or not the Chinese are sufficiently directly involved in South Vietnam to make application of the doctrine relevant is another question. The point is to understand what is going on in the minds of Johnson's top advisers.

As the 1960's grow older, Aron points out, one element in nuclear strategy is changing fast. Both sides are burying their missiles in hardened silos, greatly increasing their ability to destroy the other side entirely even if the enemy struck first. This means that the value of a preemptive nuclear strike is going down and, consequently, that it is becoming less and less logical to actually employ thermonuclear weapons.

The greater the stability at the level of ultimate weapons, the more uncertain it becomes at the level of conventional ones. The more the gap between limited wars and conventional weapons on the one hand and nuclear arms on the other is stressed in both word and deed, the less reason there is to fear escalation. The less reason to fear escalation, the greater the probability of limited conflicts. Hence the tension among allies, some of whom are mainly worried about all-out war (the U.S.) while other worry just as much about limited ones (Europe). Hence, also, vacillations among pacifists, who wonder whether they now ought to be in favor of conventional wars as a way to prevent nuclear ones, or assume that peace is based on bilateral possession of invulnerable reprisal weapons, or work for total disarmament to build peace on foundations other than fear.

One can give only a taste of Aron's lucidity in a short review. Hopefully it is enough to make you read the entire book, particularly the central chapters on why McNamara's nuclear policy makes more sense than de Gaulle's. McNamara emerges from this book not a frightening war-monger but a man dedicated to precluding thermonuclear war as much as possible while carrying out Johnson's policy assignments. There is little more profitable reading in current political science