A Complex Place

A Dangerous Place by Daniel Patrick Moynihan with Suzanne Weaver Little, Brown & Co., 297 pp., $12.50

SENATOR Moynihan does not just relate intrigues in this, his record of his controversial stint as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He launches a rhetorical broadside. It is the same argument he made in the 1975 Commentary article, "The U.S. in Opposition," that vaulted him into the U.N. post; and he is writing here, not just to defend his performance at the U.N., but to reassert the principles upon which it was based. His appeal, then and now, is for a tough-minded confrontation--sleeves up, American style--between American liberalism, a force Moynihan sees as more and more timid, and the principles of "totalitarianism," in whatever forms, ideas or language they might appear. Being a Moynihan journal, this volume is naturally laced with witty anecdotes, erudite citations and dapperly scattered bon mots. But above all, Moynihan says in his preface, he has written to restate his political argument. In part, at least, A Dangerous Place asks to be considered as a liberal internationalist manifesto.

There are several fundamental assumptions upon which Moynihan bases his rallying cry. The first is theoretical. It is that "ideology" plays just as pivotal a role in shaping political phenomena in modern international politics as economic relations or "national interest," perhaps a greater one. "Minds matter," as Moynihan puts it. "Up to a point, men choose what will motivate them and what they will recognize as motivating them." The second is that the American liberal establishment--guilt-ridden over Vietnam, frustrated by the failures of the Great Society--has lost the nerve to engage in this global battle of values. The third is that the Soviet Union is still the principal carrier of totalitarian disease, and that, as a result of the default of the American liberal elite, it has now gained the upper hand. To Moynihan the challenge is that clear-cut, and all the more so because he imposes upon it an essentially aristocratic grid. The real duel is not people to people or belief-system to belief-system; it is elite to elite, with the masses on both sides serving alternately as spectators and pawns.

On our side, Moynihan contends, a certain mindset has gained sway since the Second World War that bears responsibility for our loss of ground. It has involved the elevation of what he defines as "high politics"--arms and strategy--and the demotion of "low politics"--questions of political and cultural values and institutions. "A kind of male/female principle took hold," he argues.


High politics were security politics: weapons, war, and rumors of war. Important matters. By contrast, low politics, concerned with "social, humanitarian and cultural affairs," had suffered the ultimate indignity of not being regarded as politics at all by those who mattered...The huge irony, of course, is that just as the United Nations was being written off, its "social humanitarian, and cultural" committee came to be of enormous moment to its new members, now categorized as the Third World. At issue was nothing less than the legitimacy of Western political systems and democratic beliefs that the U.N. embodied... This new strength was increasingly deployed on behalf of totalitarian principles and practice wholly at variance with its original purpose. The American inability to perceive this was based on more than historical confusion. The fundamental problem was a diminishment of liberal conviction, a decline possibly in energy, which brought about almost an aversion to ideological struggle.

Moynihan explains that as U.N. Ambassador, he was attempting to throw down a challenge to the liberal establishment (he never defines what that now means for him) to take low politics seriously--and to the Third World to recognize liberalism's capacity to fight back. In Moynihan's view, it was necessary to denounce each assault on democracy, no matter how indirect or symbolic, for implicit in each assault on our system was a campaign to extinguish democracy as an idea.


There is an irony here, though, that provides the key to Moynihan's view of world politics. Moynihan continues to use the language of "containment," while even condemning its narrow militarist focus. It is the vocabulary of the Cold War warmed up again: totalitarianism is "advancing," the liberal elites are shrinking from "retaliation," the West has begun to sink into "irreversible patterns of appeasement." This is not to detract from the importance of Moynihan's initial premise: ideology has come to assume a higher profile in international relations, and the Soviets and the Chinese have certainly been better at addressing developing nations on this plane than the U.S. Nor is it to assume that Moynihan necessarily overestimates Soviet designs, although it seems increasingly evident that Moscow is no better at managing its leverage over clients than we've been. But it is to question his approach. If a primary objective of U.S. foreign policy is going to be to communicate our values and beliefs, is Moynihan's "oppositionist" style the appropriate means?

THE PROBLEM is that Moynihan fails to make some crucial distinctions, and also to face some undeniable realities. To begin with, he never stipulates his exact criteria for those states he classes as totalitarian: he himself admits, for example, that there are states with formal constitutional rights that systematically ignore them, as well as despotic regimes that welcome large margins of economic liberalism. He also fails to point out that states are more than just receptacles of ideas. They have also become brokers of power, based on their natural resources and geopolitical positioning. This means that the U.S. cannot hope to continue dominating them, or to threaten them, indefinitely; it must also learn to bargain and cooperate with them. Another problem is that the state apparatus and the people of these nations are not synonomous. Presumably the point of a foreign policy with ideological content is to foster an appreciation of the Western conception of individual rights and democratic instruments among the latter. Yet this implies selecting means geared toward reaching the peoples of these countries--not just toward embarrassing their leaders.

Another complexity is that democratic forms, wherever they have taken hold, have rested upon very specific historical and cultural antecedents. Unique circumstances have provided for the evolution of parliamentary democracy and the liberal conception of rights in the industrial societies of the West, while postcolonial history has shown that other cultural bodies do not always receive these forms well when transplantation is forced. By the same token, it should be realized that the current phase of Third World grandstanding against Western imperialism is also a reaction to individual histories of economic exploitation and political tampering at the hands of liberal internationalism. There is also the historical reality that state socialism has been a structural imperative in many countries. Moynihan never pauses to discuss these sorts of complexities, however; to him, the world must be seen in sharp contrasts, in terms of "us" and "them." Yet if the U.S. hopes to better promote the cause of liberal ideas in the future, it must learn to better understand these histories and experiences, in all their specificity. It is hardly likely that Moynihan, or an entire revitalized liberal elite, will be able to browbeat nations into democratic evolution.

The third problem is that, though important, "ideology" is not the only stake involved. Much of U.S. development theory has proved woefully wrong in assuming that political change will follow neatly on the heels of economic modernization; nonetheless, it is still accepted that the contest over political systems in the future will be largely informed by the outcomes of "hard politics," or economic relations. In the "group of 77," the OAU and the United Nations, Third World leaders may test Moynihan's patience with denunciations of Western imperialism, interventionism, exploitationism and hegemonism. But at the same time, they have almost all come to accept, and begin to conform to, the realities of interdependence--in their dealings with Western-supported world banking organizations, with Western-based multinationals, and in bilateral deals with democratic powers. Since setting foreign policy is always a matter of allocating energies, isn't it wiser to take more advantage of what we have to offer (or withhold) economically, rather than further the widening gap between reality and rhetoric with more traffic in slogans?

MOYNIHAN is familiar enough with this line of criticism. Thus in speaking of developing nations, he concedes that "it is time we commenced to treat them as equals, a respect to which they are entitled." Accenting the positive, he calls "for the United States deliberately and consistently to bring its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which promise the largest degree of personal and national liberty." But it seems that for Moynihan, treating other nations as equals generally means telling them they are inferiors. Bringing influence to bear on behalf of virtuous regimes means spending one's time dressing down regimes that are less perfect. In the end, what this reflects is not only a hatred of totalitarian principles, but a personal contempt for the cultures that embrace them, and perhaps for the peoples of developing nations in general. Thus this sort of remark on a trip Moynihan took to Peking:

The vast portraits of Marx and Engels, along with Stalin and Mao, in Tien an Men square somehow confirmed the conviction that it was absurd to let these people, or their like, seize the political initiative from us. When Americans take to sandals and posting up posters to Hindu divines, it is understood that adolescence is in a difficult phase. But what in the name of God were these half-acre portraits of hirsute German bourgeois doing in the main square of a Mongol capital. Were these people grown-ups here?...Why not, then, explain to their parents that Marx was a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, and is someone intimately known to us. To us. Not them.

There are two functions this sort of chauvinistic breast-beating must serve. It is clearly cathartic: It makes the apostle of the American system feel 100 percent secure that he is in the right place, fighting the right fight. It must also account for much of Moynihan's popularity--this propensity for seeing the world in simple black and white--since Tocqueville himself observed that democracies love generalities, and have a hard time contemplating specifics. But it remains a mystery how Moynihan thinks it might ever win over what he should really be concerned about: the hearts and minds of the developing world.

Again, Moynihan does not want this to be just another set of political memoirs. Yet it is filled with deft and often merciless insights into many of his political adversaries. The most biting remarks are saved for Henry Kissenger. Moynihan finds it in himself to finish by calling him "a good friend," but through the book he provides some of the most acid elucidation of Kissinger's manipulative tactics yet to appear in print. Indeed, if there is one quality that pervades this volume, it is a relish in going on the defensive, something Moynihan readily admits. A good third of the book is occupied, for example, in citing seemingly every bit of criticism extant of Moynihan's U.N. performance--from The New York Times to Pravda to the European press--and with countering each charge in turn.

THIS SOMEWHAT paranoid view of the world is not irrelevant to what is wrong with the Moynihan school of thought about international politics. By now, after we've witnessed some of the missteps and inconsistencies of the Carter administration's human rights policies, it should be evident that the attempt to translate values into policy must involve a careful process. It should mean distinguishing between values, deciding which ones we want to emphasize, and then examining how each might be rendered concrete in ways that promise lasting effects. This, in turn, requires a sensitivity to other peoples, and the specificity of their experiences, apart from the political concepts they espouse at this moment. Moynihan leaves you with the sense, though, that he is not really interested in understanding other nations, or the complex and delicate relationship between culture, history, and political beliefs. He seems more interested, both personally and politically, in creating his own world of devils and traitors--the better, it seems, to dignify his personal crusades.

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