The Case for Pragmatism

William G Hyland. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 1, 1992.


Last year should have been a time to reflect on the profound changes brought by the end of the Cold War. Instead it turned out to be the year of America’s first war since Vietnam. No sooner had the country begun to absorb that amazing victory than events in the Soviet Union turned 1991 into the year that witnessed the end of the personal reign of Mikhail Gorbachev and, indeed, the end of the U.S.S.R. itself. Finally, the nation paused to pay its respects at Pearl Harbor, on the 50th anniversary of the day that would “live in infamy.”

December 7, 1941, was the opening battle of the Second World War for the United States. But Pearl Harbor also marked the closing of one historical period and the opening of another. America finally ended its self-imposed isolation from world affairs on that day, and for the next 50 years was to be deeply involved in the global struggle against fascism and then against communism.

That period has ended. It was an odd twist of fate that on the very day America marked the 50th anniversary of Congress’ declaration of war against Japan, the leaders of three former Soviet republics gathered in Brest to proclaim the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was World War II and the destruction of Japan and Germany that opened the way to the aggressive advances of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites and to the Cold War itself. Now that war also has definitively ended. With that dramatic proclamation on December 8, 1991, America was freed from the threats and fears that had driven its foreign and domestic policies for half a century.

It is rare in history that a country can craft a wholly new foreign policy. But within the constraints inevitably imposed by geography and history, the United States now has that very opportunity. Thus it turns out that what only last spring seemed like a shrewd political slogan—a new world order—is quite appropriate. What America is involved in will indeed be quite different, if not completely new. The arena will still be global in scope. But what constitutes “order” and how to achieve it are already focal points of debate.


Is America turning isolationist? The quick answer is no.

It should not be surprising, however, that such a question arises. The end of the Cold War has liberated the debate about foreign policy; ideas that would have been anathema only five years ago have to be entertained (for instance, withdrawing from the Philippines). There is also America’s traditional bias against foreign “entanglements.” Economic troubles are easy to blame on foreign countries, especially with a political campaign on the horizon. After decades of internationalism, there is nostalgia for a more “normal” foreign policy. Even some of the old isolationist slogans have been revived.

But times have changed. The isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s reflected a determination to avoid being dragged into another European war. Even then, America was not truly isolated. Washington sponsored the naval disarmament conference of 1921-22 and was actively involved in European affairs through the Dawes and Young reparation plans, and even took the lead in condemning Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1932. The America First Committee was not formed until 1940, as a movement opposed to joining the war on Britain’s side; it earned a reputation as antisemitic and pro-German, and disbanded four days after Pearl Harbor.

Those days are long gone. The United States is deeply entangled by the world’s economy, by global technology, by international politics and institutions, and by half a dozen security alliances. It would probably take at least a decade of dedicated efforts by both the Congress and the president to extricate the United States from the world enough even to approximate the isolation of the 1930s. The result would be a global crisis of unimaginable proportions in a world of a dozen or more nuclear powers.

If isolationism is not a serious option, however, this does not mean that there will be only marginal adjustments to the basic policies of the Cold War era. The neo-isolationist critique provokes some genuine questions about policy: What is the rationale for a multibillion-dollar foreign aid program Why are large American forces stationed abroad? What is an adequate defense posture? What are “fair” trading practices? Posing such questions, long thought settled in the Cold War, suggests that there will be, and ought to be, genuine debate over the conduct of post-Cold War policy.

Unfortunately that debate has been disappointing and risks degenerating into sloganeering. For example, it is legitimate to urge a shift in priorities to domestic policy. Such a proposal should not have been contentious. With the end of the Cold War, foreign policy automatically became less important and less urgent. Yet as one observer put it: “We have all grown so jaded by the constant proclamations of new eras and new beginnings that we seem to have trouble recognizing the real thing when it finally arrives.”

Such skepticism is well founded. In an election year, promises of a peace dividend are especially suspicious. The great budget battle of 1990 drew a sharp line to protect defense spending. Even the president reflected the lingering concern that somehow threats would continue; he claimed that “the challenges of this world are as daunting as Stalin’s army was menacing forty years ago.”

Opinion polls, however, suggest that a change in the direction of priorities is what the public wants. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, polls showed that the chief concerns of the American people, by a large margin, were domestic. These views merely confirm what has been a long-term trend of the post-Vietnam period. Since the late 1960s foreign policy issues have receded as the most important concerns of the public.

How to strike a balance between domestic and foreign policy requirements was therefore a serious issue. It was trivialized, however, by the charge that President Bush was spending too much time on foreign affairs. One Democratic candidate for president has said: “Our president has devoted his time and energy to foreign concerns and ignored dire problems at home. As a result, we’re drifting in the longest economic slump since World War II.”‘ It did not help much when the new White House chief of staff, Samuel Skinner, seemed to confirm the charge against the president by announcing that “the baton has been passed” from foreign to domestic policy.

It is quite misleading to frame the issue as a choice between domestic and foreign concerns. The two are traditionally distinct but are not easily fungible, and it is not a question of either/or. This initial phase of the debate, however, has created the impression that some form of isolationism was behind the proposals to shift resources to the domestic account. The president could hardly pass up a chance to attack the new isolationists for their “stubborn fantasy that we can live as an isolated island surrounded by a changing and developing world.” Proposals for “disengagement” were interpreted as a call for a “retreat.” Fears over isolationism were fueled by the success of Harris Wofford’s senatorial campaign in Pennsylvania featuring a protectionist tone, and given a further boost by the colorful candidacy of Patrick Buchanan. Perhaps most bizarre was the adoption of “America First” as one of the slogans of Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder’s short-lived presidential campaign.

It ought to be obvious that this country cannot afford to abdicate its interests to the decisions of others. Fortunately no serious observer or candidate is proposing to go that far. Many of the issues raised in Buchanan’s campaign and elsewhere, however, are not frivolous, and some impact has already been made by the revival of nationalistic rhetoric. His call for a “new nationalism” strikes a responsive chord with segments of the public. Attacking foreign aid is a hoary shibboleth, but in a recession, it exploits deep-seated popular resentments.

Even the so-called realists have defined the concept of the national interest in more circumspect terms than heretofore: “more discriminating in purpose, less cataclysmic in its strategy and, above all, more regional in design.” A wariness of new commitments is also more evident. When Buchanan proposes to reexamine “all the institutions of the Cold War,” from alliances to the stationing of permanent American armies abroad to the issue of foreign aid, he is in the company of many major figures in both parties. Indeed, Buchanan aside, a reversal of historical positions may even be in the making: the Democrats are sounding like Harding and the mainstream Republicans are sounding like Wilson—and both parties are sounding a little like Smoot and Hawley.

Fortunately the choice is not between isolationism and internationalism, or nationalism and globalism. There will always be a reservoir of isolationist sentiment in the United States; it is pan of our heritage. This inclination was bound to reappear as foreign threats receded. What is new is that these isolationist overtones are heard from both the left and right. There has also always been a strong Wilsonian strain in American policy. The new dimension is that, with the Soviet Union on the sidelines, the United States is free to intervene on behalf of human rights or democratic freedoms. Moreover the United Nations, in disrepute during the Cold War, has been resuscitated by the vigorous role of the Security Council in the gulf crisis.

Thus there is probably a better chance that a new internationalism may be in the offing than a return to some variant of isolationism; indeed, many observers argue that the real debate is between two categories of international realists. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, for example, writes:

The isolationism versus internationalism debate is in reality the debate among the various types of internationalism; that which aims frankly to serve the national interest, as conventionally conceived (to protect its territory, wealth and access to necessary goods; to defend its nationals); that which aims to preserve and defend democracy; and a brand of ‘disinterested globalism’ which looks at the world and asks what needs to be done—with little explicit concern for the national interest.


There is a missing element in this debate: an understanding that the current historical period is transitional. This time the cliche is true: this is a new era, but we are only in the opening phases. It is fruitless to search for a politically correct concept of the national interest to justify American foreign policy. Debating in these categories is itself an intellectual hangover from the Cold War.

All of the protagonists—isolationist, internationalist or realist—are quick to prescribe policies but reluctant to analyze the new circumstances. The character and structure of world politics has already been radically altered. It will take years for the consequences to be absorbed. Take the situation inside the former Soviet Union: the turmoil there makes this a period of transition almost by definition. It will be a decade before European unity is completed, even in its narrowest terms. The U.S. defense posture is only in the preliminary stages of the restructuring that will follow the end of the Soviet threat. And the likelihood is that America will suffer large budget deficits for years. The strongest new force is nationalism. It is rising everywhere, manifesting itself as Islamic fundamentalism, as regionalism, as economic protectionism, in ethnic conflict and revolutionary upheavals.

This transitional phase may last a decade before the outlines of a new world order emerge, and when that happens it will probably be more by trial and error than by design. No overriding principle articulated in advance will be sufficient to handle the burgeoning diversity of the new international agenda. If the choices are only among various concepts of realism, the operational question still remains: For what objectives ought the United States use its still awesome power? No one is arguing that we should not use that power at all, but there is growing debate over both means and ends.

It may well be that no major decisions can be made until after the presidential election. These contests have never been conducive to an orderly discussion about foreign policy, nor are foreign policy matters likely to be the pivotal issues in this campaign (except perhaps for the endless reruns of the congressional debate and vote on the Gulf War). If the 1992 election is not likely to determine the direction of a new foreign policy, the winner will nevertheless have to deal with world that is already radically different from the campaign of 1988.


For some time it has been obvious that the bipolar division of international politics has ended. The immediate consequence is that many countries, areas and issues that might have seemed vital to American security in the contest with the Soviet Union have suddenly lost their attraction and urgency (the Horn of Africa is a prime example).

Some argue that the end of bipolarity means the emergence of unipolarity, that is, the dominance of the United States in reordering the world as it chooses, and in its own image. They cite the Gulf War as proof: only the United States could have organized the coalition and prosecuted the war. Others cite the Gulf War to reach an opposite conclusion: that the United States could organize the coalition only through the cooperation of a diverse collection of powers. The war, thus, inaugurated not American dominance but a new era of international cooperation.

While it is true that the United States remains the only genuine superpower, this is tempered by several factors:

  • The United States has emerged from the Cold War in a precarious economic position. Just how precarious is open to debate, but there seems to be a consensus that America has o put its own economic house in order.
  • The national mood is more xenophobic because of the recession; the Gulf War already led to demands that other countries bear their share of the burden of a new world order. For the first time in its history, America sought foreign aid to fight a war (a humiliation, but nevertheless consistent with American opinion). Moreover protectionism in trade has much greater support than at any time since the 1930s.
  • The breakdown in Cold War alignments has led to three geopolitical changes that overshadow all others for the United States: the emergence of Germany, the liberation of eastern Europe and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. Few changes of such importance have occurred so quickly in peacetime.
  • Power has devolved not only to the new economic giants, but to diverse areas and regions, as well as to new institutions. The gatherings of the Group of Seven industrialized nations are a more accurate reflection of contemporary power realities than, say, a NATO meeting or an East-West summit.

In sum and in paradox, the United States does not have anything approaching the freedom of action it enjoyed in the Cold War decades. In the Cold War, even though the lines were sharply drawn, the United States could choose to intervene or not, and much of the world deferred to Washington. Now the political lines are far less distinct, and allies that were almost totally dependent on Washington seek greater autonomy and, like the United States, are under domestic pressures to assert more nationalistic positions. Whereas anticommunism neutralized much dissent, even during the Vietnam War, the gulf crisis unleashed a ferocious political debate over the use of force.

The intricacies of the nuclear balance gave the president extraordinary powers. Even in the late 1980s the United States could pour billions into the Strategic Defense Initiative. That freedom for the chief executive ended in 1990 when the growing economic crisis forced the budget agreement to reduce the deficit. Finally, the United States cannot afford to support countries or ventures without regard to the economic consequences. The halcyon days of Marshall plans are long past.

All of this means that for some years the guiding force of American policy will not be ideology or high principles, but a far greater pragmatism. Policymakers will have toplacate nationalistic sentiment at home and satisfy several overlapping centers of power abroad. On occasion there will have to be compromises on issues such as free trade, the crusade for democracy, human rights and the rule of law—the very principles of the new world order. Much like the policy of containment, a prolonged pragmatism may be necessary to finally realize those laudable goals.

None of this will be very heroic. No trumpets will call forth divisions under a banner of pragmatism and prudence. There is, moreover, the obvious danger that the means will devour the ends; steady doses of pragmatism and prudence could dilute the final goals that are sought in their name. But the trend toward greater pragmatism is already evident.

Consider, for example, Washington’s steadfast refusal to intervene in Yugoslavia. One may well as what happened to defending independence and resisting aggression, the principles of Operation Desert Storm. Was it difficult to distinguish between Serbia’s aggression and Saddam Hussein’s? Do not Slovenia and Croatia have a much better claim to independence and recognition than such synthetic states as Kazakhstan and Kirghizia?

Consider Haiti. Surely this was a prime case for vigorous American intervention to restore democracy; do not the long-suffering Haitians deserve U.S. support at least as much as the Kuwaitis?

Obviously no one is beating the drums for intervention because no vital interest is threatened. In Yugoslavia the enemy is not only Serbian aggression but rampant nationalism. In Haiti it has not been so easy to differentiate among the democrats and the dictators. (The same might be said of once-Soviet Georgia.)

The same sense of prudence also governs the debate about aid to the former Soviet Union. A strong case can be made that it is in the American interest to aid Russia. The mayor of Boston, however, defined the context for this issue much better than his fellow Bostonians at Harvard when he suggested that for every dollar sent to the old U.S.S.R., one dollar should also be sent to American cities.

The world of the 1990s will resemble nothing in America’s previous experience. The United States will be required to conduct a foreign policy for which there is almost no historical precedent, and to do so with limited resources in an increasingly competitive world in which the threat that held together the various American alliances will have vanished.

To examine what this means at an operational rather than a theoretical level, Europe is the proper place to begin, if only because it is America’s oldest and deepest commitment.

Well before the Japanese attack in 1941, the United States made a fateful decision that shaped its foreign policies for the next five decades. Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that, if America entered the war, priority would be given to defeating Germany first. Since 1941, therefore, the United States has been, first of all, a European power: as the opponent of fascism and then the expansion of the Soviet Union in Europe, specifically in Berlin; as the promoter of the unity of western Europe, including the revival and rearmament of Germany and, far more tentatively, as the liberator of Eastern Europe. The United States became the linchpin in a system of European security arrangements resting on an “entangling” treaty commitment to defend its Atlantic allies and, to this end, deployed a large contingent of American troops, supported by a panoply of American nuclear weapons.

The American alliance with Europe has achieved each of its basic aims: Europe is unified, eastern Europe is liberated and the military threat of the U.S.S.R. has ended.

The United States will remain a European power for the foreseeable future. On neither side of the Atlantic is there any sentiment favoring a break. Nevertheless, American influence is declining (and German influence is rising). American involvement in Europe will be thinner and weaker. A selective disengagement by both sides of the Atlantic has already begun. In Washington, at least, there is a sense that the Europeans are moving too far toward a stronger regionalism that will be reflected in more protectionist trade policies, in greater independence of foreign policy (particularly toward eastern Europe) and in the creation of a new defense unit within the European Community (EC). Indeed some American observers claim that the greatest danger is increasing American irrelevance as Europe reshapes its own identity.

On the other hand, Europe is securely democratic, by and large prosperous, built on a functioning free-market system and, if its frequent assurances can be believed, dedicated to a free and open trading system. The most important remaining challenge is how to embrace the new states of eastern Europe. Strengthening western Europe may exclude eastern Europe; if this were to happen, then that area is likely to be dominated by Germany, or it could even become a source of friction between Germany and Russia.

Permitting a new, invisible iron curtain to divide Europe is recipe for major trouble. But this may already be happening for three reasons: European fears over massive emigration from east to west; limits on the resources available to help the east; and the determination of key countries to deepen the EC before broadening it. American interests in eastern Europe have largely been satisfied with the collapse of the communist regimes, but the United States should try to facilitate a rapprochement between eastern and western Europe, even at the expense of diluting the EC and NATO.

The United States will also have to provide political and psychological reassurances that Germany will not disrupt the European balance. Fortunately, the Bonn of the 1990s is not the Weimar of the 1920s. Unified Germany is embedded in a structure of alliances and institutions; its democracy has deeper roots, and its external ambitions and grievances have been satisfied. There is no “stab in the back” legend or any case for irredentism. Thus there is no reason for the United States to maintain large troop units in Germany as a pseudo-occupation force.

In sum, America can afford to disengage from the detailed management of the alliance, because in Europe there is still a solid coalition of friendly powers, favorably disposed toward the United States. “Let Europe be Europe” would not be a bad policy, provided it applies from the Atlantic to the Urals.


Letting Russia be Russia, however, cannot be a sound policy. The United States cannot disengage very far from dealing with the new governments, because several of those entities in some form or other are still nuclear powers. This fact alone will involve the United States intimately in the formulation and conduct of policies of the larger new republics.

The most difficult aspect for Americans is to recognize that on most issues we are on the sidelines. What is happening in Russia is not a struggle over market economics, as many in the West believe, but the lay of historical forces that have been at work for more than four centuries.

It is naive to expect that what will emerge in this Eurasian land mass will be a collection of democratic, market-oriented and benign states. The new Commonwealth in Minsk is worthy of Potemkin. Most of the new republics are weak, have little basis for legitimate statehood, and some may not even survive. What is critical is the Future of Russia and Ukraine, the only two states of any real consequence for the United States.

One can hope that Russia will break with its history and firmly implant the roots of democracy. But more likely is the eventual revival of an autocratic state, probably well armed and potentially hostile toward its neighbors.

The question is whether Russian dominance will be reasserted by force of arms or whether some condominium or accommodation will be reached between Ukraine and Russia. In any case, it is naive to believe that the successor states, including Ukraine, will give up all of their nuclear weapons to a well-armed Russia. It is also foolish to believe that out of chaos and crisis will come a well-ordered market. Russia is not Poland. Economic reform cannot be imposed by Russia on other independent republics. Whatever economic order emerges will be a hybrid, probably with a strong, centrally controlled state sector.

It may be years, if not decades, before Russia will know its fate. If there were ever a case for prudence and pragmatism, Russia is it. Pragmatism translates into restraint in rushing aid for this or that economic scheme or for this or that political leader, including Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Most of the money will be wasted, as it already has been. Long-term technical assistance makes sense, but only if it is clearly recognized that the payoff may not be evident for years, if ever. And it is doubtful that American opinion will sustain a long-term program in a period of economic difficulties at home.

Quarrels inside the former Soviet territory are almost certain to continue and perhaps worsen. They will have to be dealt with carefully in Washington. There will be a natural tendency to support Russia because it is the most powerful center. Moreover it is convenient to have a central point to deal with on various foreign policy issues. It is really not up to the United States, however, to be the arbiter between Russia and, say, Ukraine or the five Central Asian nations, or to become the champion of the new Commonwealth.

On the other hand it is not axiomatic that the new Russian state will be antagonistic toward the United States. Washington may well have more in common with Moscow than with Tokyo or Beijing. It is in the American interest, however, that the western republics of the old U.S.S.R. be firmly tied to the European political and security system. A new pan-European organization may be necessary for this purpose.


The case for pragmatism is also strong in Asia. America fought three wars in Asia, but fifty years after Pearl Harbor, and almost twenty years since Vietnam, America still cannot define its proper role there. The problems are the same as they have been for almost a century—our uneasy relations with Japan and China. Usually, we have managed to have good relations with one or the other, and recently with both.(9) But currently our relations with both are in danger of deteriorating.

After World War II the situation in Asia remained dangerous and uncertain well into the 1970s. In this turmoil, to ally with Japan—a truly revolutionary change—became the bedrock of American security policy in Asia. As a result Japan has peacefully achieved its World War II aim of preeminence in Asia—except for a free hand in China. But the price has been to antagonize its principal protector, the United States. The alliance between Japan and the United States is turning sour, given the end of the Cold War, the growth of nationalism on both sides and the reality of their economic parity.

For the first time the disintegration of that alliance now appears possible, though not yet likely. Whereas the American alliance with Europe has deeper cultural and historical roots, the alliance with Japan has been more superficial and dictated by expediency on both sides. This poses major long-term uncertainty for American policy, perhaps of the most far-reaching and potentially dangerous sort. America does not need Japan, but neither does Japan need America (except perhaps against China). Nevertheless both sides should have an interest in putting this relationship on a new basis that can withstand the pressures and temptations of economic nationalism. It is difficult to believe that such an important relationship will founder on a trade deficit. Unfortunately, racism on both sides may prove to be the decisive factor. It already aggravates legitimate debates over trade and economics.

China is also a major uncertainty. It has been buffeted by the Cold War more than any other Asian country except Vietnam. During the Second World War, China was accorded great power status by both Roosevelt and Stalin. By 1950 China was at war with the United States, almost a pariah; a decade later it was virtually isolated, having broken with the Soviet Union. By the 1980s it had clearly returned to the ranks of the great powers. Indeed its vote in the Security Council was critical to the prosecution of the war against Saddam Hussein.

With the end of communism in the Soviet Union, however, China is far less valuable as an ally to the United States (except perhaps against Japan). On the other hand, the United States offers no protection for China against an infection of glasnost from Russia. The geopolitical arguments that favored close relations between Washington and Beijing are losing their force. In an era of democratization and liberalization, China remains an anomaly. Finally, it faces a change in its top leadership that is likely to have a profound impact. No one seems confident of any prediction about China’s future after the reign of the Long Marchers comes to its inevitable end.

Every so often it has seemed as if the United States were on the brink of a new era in Asia or the Pacific that would finally bring an end to the Eurocentrism in American foreign policy. This was a favorite theme during the Reagan years. But that seems less and less likely. The grim prospect is that both China and Japan are potential antagonists of the United States, though not enemies. Even that extreme case cannot be excluded, if Washington does not resist humiliating these proud nations with self-righteous demands for free trade with Toyko and human rights in Beijing. Can we legitimately expect the leaders in either of these countries to overturn their social and economic orders to placate foreigners? In any case, to antagonize both Japan and China would be a grave geopolitical mistake.


The other area most affected by the end of the Cold War is the Middle East. Here, too, pragmatism rather than principle is beginning to govern the conduct of the parties involved in the conflict, as well as the United States, the only outside power of any consequence in this area.

Washington is gradually weakening its dose identification with Israel, conciliating the Arabs and trying to entice the Palestinians into some sort of settlement. Apparently President Bush and Secretary Baker concluded that victory in the Gulf War created a great strategic opening for Arab-Israeli peace. It neutralized a principal enemy of Israel, Iraq. It revealed the impotence of the Soviet Union as a patron of the radical Arabs, exposed the dependence of the moderate Arabs on Washington and, finally, demonstrated that the United States could defend its interests in the area by force if necessary.

But all of this also meant an adjustment, if not a historic shift, from unqualified support for Israel to a more even-handed policy. This has already been painful and controversial. It will have to pay dividends at the peace table if it is to be sustained. In Europe and Asia the future will be determined by regional and local forces, with or without the United States, but in the Middle East a stalemate is likely to continue, or change very slowly, without some occasional forays of aggressive American diplomacy.

The great danger is that Israel, for the first time in several decades, may become the object of a contentious domestic debate, especially in Congress; the further danger is that beneath the veneer of support for Israel lies a virulent antisemitism. It is beginning to break through in the debate over Israeli settlements. If this aspect does grow stronger, ten Israel will instinctively strengthen its resistance at the peace table, and a vicious circle will accelerate. Even in an era of pragmatism, the United States (and western Europe) owes a moral debt to the people of Israel.


Looking back over the past fifty years, America has been both lucky and wise. As a young and powerful nation it has enjoyed a rather large margin for error, even as late as 1941. In the face of various challenges, disasters, setbacks and gains both at home and abroad, the United States has proved an amazingly resilient country. Its reward is not only to have survived the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust but to have prevailed in the struggle for freedom. This is no small accomplishment. In this light, the current debate somehow does not seem all that important.

But, as we are being reminded almost every day, history does not end. The real difference between now and 1941 is that the greatest challenges are within our shores, not beyond them. Choices between domestic and foreign priorities are always difficult, but the facts of today reveal the current vulnerabilities of the American position to be much greater at home than abroad. If the United States wants a new world order that reflects traditional American values and principles, then he first place to achieve the goal is in this country. “Put America first” is a dangerous old slogan, but in light of this decade’s realities it is not altogether wrong.