Today's date:
Spring 1986

Borrow Any Amount, Bear Any Burden

Nathan Gardels, Editor

When President John F. Kennedy stood on the Capitol steps in 1961 and declared that the US would "pay any price, bear any burden" to defend liberty from communism, the world was a different place. American economic dominance was unchallenged. Middle-class programs like Medicare were not yet in place. Japan was making toys, Fidel Castro was making revolution and Khrushchev was pounding the table about the Soviet Union's future economic superiority.

A quarter of a century changes a lot of things.

Economically, American dominance now faces tough competitors in a world capitalist market. The middle-class his come to expect the full entitlements of prosperity from government. We are encumbered with debts and deficits of unprecedented levels, from banks and farms to the budget and trade.

In the Third World, revolutionary wars of independence have peaked and the new nations are paralyzed by economic realities. Having done so poorly at home, the Soviet model has little attraction abroad. The Soviet Union remains industrially underdeveloped while Western technology advances in leaps and bounds. Nationalism has so splintered the communist monolith that China and the Soviet Union have their own cold war and even the Sandinistas and Salvadoran guerillas can't get along. Islamic fundamentalism, the new revolutionary faith, is as virulently anti-Soviet as it is anti-American.

We are approaching a time when the communism vs. democracy debate which so predominantly shaped the postwar outlook of the United States will no longer define the essential conflicts in the world. Continuing to interpret events through this fading prism distorts our perception of threats, interests, national security and balance of power. A strategy for the future should be founded on the trend of history, not the dated assumptions of Cold Warriors.

Caught between the images of 1961 and the very different times to come, the President and Congress are trapped in a deadlock. There is no more of a consensus for further cuts in social programs than there is for sustaining the rapid military buildup of the past five years. The only consensus is that taxes can't be raised. Yet, the Administration's priorities of a trillion dollar Strategic Defense Initiative and worldwide "roll back" of Marxist influence are promoted as if resources were unlimited. With $200 billion of red ink on the books this year alone, JFK's pledge to "pay any price, bear any burden" has become a policy of "borrow any amount, bear any burden."

There is, of course, no question that the military power of the Soviet Union must be vigilantly checked. But, as George Kennan insists, the menacing ideological dimension of an "inescapably militant" fanatic faith "possessed by a world wide revolutionary movement" which so worried the architects of post-war strategy, is no longer a reality of our time. Rather, as Professor Gaddis persuasively argues, the US-Soviet conflict today is not unlike the classic great power rivalries between England and France in the 18th Century or England and Russia in the 19th Century.

An outlook defined by the changing character of the US-Soviet antagonism and a newly emerging set of conflicts in the world calls for a departure from Cold War dogma.

Such an orientation, as Kennan argues, requires containing nuclear proliferation and the arms race itself as much as it means containing the Soviets. It must also mean a heightened focus on America's economic challenges - a trade strategy to deal with allied competition and a dedicated effort to dose the growing gap between the great blocs of rich and poor nations.

Least understood but perhaps of most the cultural revolt spreading across the Third World deserves serious attention. As both Ryszard Kapuscinski and Regis Debray warn, the issues of that revolt which first burst onto the scene in Iran - religion vs. technology and tradition vs. modernity - are likely to be paramount global conflicts as we move into the 21st Century. The interests of two separately developing civilizations in one interdependent world will be difficult to reconcile.

In moving toward the future, the nature of the new challenges demand policies which check Soviet power placing ever greater claims on resources needed for investment in economic strength. As Senator Hart phrases his concern, "While defending the front door against the Soviets, we risk losing our prosperity through the back door of economic competition with our allies."

Nixon and Kissinger addressed the issue of limited resources in formulating detente during the 1970s. They understood that we could lessen the number of threats we must fear and the global military might we must pay for if we strengthened the independence of other power centers such as China. An international order where the balance of power is checked by diverse centers of influence is far more compatible with our interests than with those of the Soviets who fear diversity.

A commitment to nuclear arms reduction before the implementation of the Strategic Defense Initiative would avoid another arms spiral that will assuredly create greater deficits and more insecurity. The great danger of the SDI is that it will unravel the necessary precondition for arms reduction the mutual confidence created by rough parity in offensive technologies.

It is not difficult to find a consensus at home for resisting direct aggression or clear threats to our national security. Aid to the Afghanistan rebels against the occupying Soviet army is an act in support of freedom that has bi-partisan endorsement. Aiding the demise of the white South African regime or authoritarian oligarchs in Haiti or the Philippines is welcomed by all partisans of liberty. And, indeed, if the Sandinistas were to place nuclear missiles in Nicaragua which could strike the continental US, or if they invaded their neighbors, direct action would be widely applauded.

Such situations, however, are not the same as a doctrine aimed at bringing democracy to places like Angola or Nicaragua. As Ryszard Kapuscinski reports from his long experience in the Third World, democracy can't be exported to historical societies just beyond the age of colonialism. It can't be restored where it never existed. As both Carlos Fuentes and Professor Lowenthal argue, the democratic mentality cannot be imposed through the barrel of a gun. Force of arms can do many things, but it can't create democratic institutions of lasting legitimacy.

It would seem wiser to bolster homegrown democratic tendencies in places of vital importance. Resolving the debt crisis in the populous and industrialized countries of Brazil and Argentina where democracy is struggling to take hold would do much more for building a free world than another four decades of re-fighting the Cold War in the remote bush of Africa or Central America.

The sooner our national strategy catches up with the changes of the last quarter century, the more secure America's future and the future of democracy will be.

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