William Pfaff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The End of the Cold War in Europe: Conversation with William Pfaff, columnist, International Herald Tribune, May 7, 1990, by Harry Kreisler

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Foreign Policy Ideas

These themes about American foreign policy and Central Europe come back in Barbarian Sentiments, which is subtitled, "How the American Century Ends." Let's talk a little about that book in the context of the events of '89, the revolution of '89, which occurred after the book. You wrote in Barbarian Sentiments that"America's problem is how to free itself from exhausted ideas." What did you mean by that?

The intellectual basis of postwar American foreign policy goes back to the fifties. Our intervention in the Third World, for good or for ill, was connected to the theory of how the development of the Third World was going to take place, and was also a development of the fifties, linked to decolonization at that period -- the vastly oversimplified schemes of economic takeoff, the cultural reductionism that prevailed, and the assumption that everybody was destined to become like the United States, it was just a matter of time. All of that goes back to the fifties.

When ideas, even if they're wrong ideas, are first born, they nonetheless may make policy. Policy often is based on an erroneous series of assumptions. But the strange thing in the United States is that twenty years later, nobody seriously defended these theories of economic development, nobody seriously defended many of the ideas which are operational in American foreign policy, and yet the policy kept on being made on them. It's really very strange.

Why do you think that was? Was it that they were tied to the American myth about itself?

I think this is true. They all connect in some way with our sense of our own destiny in the twentieth century. Also, in some measure, it's intellectual laziness. We have had the assumption since the war, connected with the fact that we entered the war as the most powerful country, that we also had all the answers. Even in the university there was not much interest in hearing what anybody else thought. It was we who were debating the fate of the world and we who were making the decisions that were going to settle everything. We were polite to [other nations], we'd invite them in to hear what we had decided, but there was no real dialogue with the other members of what I'd like to call the community of democratic nations of the free world. It was still that we were in charge. It was connected to the limited horizons in which we functioned.

Finally, there was bureaucratic inertia. Bureaucracies get invested in certain courses of action and it's mighty difficult to deflect them. [It led] finally, and one must say this particularly in view of the what's happened in the last ten years or so, [to] the impoverishment of the political debate in the United States, where no one has anything of the faintest intelligence to say in the national political debate. Everything is reduced to puerile slogans.

Does this description of our behavior also apply to our reaction to the events of 1989? I refer now to all of the revolutions in Eastern Europe that took everyone by surprise. Are you satisfied with America's perception of what these events mean?

We have been running behind, or trotting behind, or sprinting behind, the course of events, never quite catching up. Just a year ago now, you remember, people were criticizing Washington for its nostalgia for the Cold War, which was a valid criticism. Washington was very uneasy about seeing the the Soviet system break up, because this produced all kinds of novelties. Even now you hear people implicitly deploring, or warning against, the rise of nationalisms and "new Sarajevos" in Eastern Europe. This is all very unsettling, what has happened.

Certainly I have the feeling, living in Paris and traveling in Europe, that the United States is simply not in the debate. People are interested in hearing what Washington has to say, but what Washington has to say is usually a thoughtful comment on something that happened last month, that everybody has forgotten about, and which has been left behind by the course of events.

On the other hand it must be said that at least we haven't been doing positive damage. The Bush - Baker combination have conducted themselves with prudence and restraint. Nothing we've done has been destructive, even if we have not been in the forefront of events. But perhaps that's just as well. What's going on in Eastern Europe is not really for us to ... it's happening to Europe. It's the Europeans who have to settle the terms on which the continent is going to be remade. We have a constructive role to play, but that there's nothing particularly wrong with our staying on the edges and seeing what things happen, and saying, "How can we help? How can we be useful?" This is, by and large, what we've been doing.

I believe you wrote recently that the United States has to move from a role of leadership to one of partnership. Explain that.

That was provoked in particular by the notion that has been floated of turning NATO into the directorate of the Western cooperative institutions. I heard the American ambassador to NATO, William Howard Taft, was putting this out last fall, suggesting that among these institutions of Western cooperation that NATO would coordinate could be included the European Community. Now this doesn't seem to me a notion that's going to fly. That column was written in reaction to this discussion, because I think the message of putting NATO in charge of the Western cooperation is that we stay in charge, because we're primas alta pies in NATO.

We have to recognize that we are decreasingly the major force in the Western community, and particularly with the restoration of Germany in Central Europe, we are moved, to some extent, even further toward the periphery. NATO certainly continues to have a role, but the time has come for NATO to have a European commander. The time has come, as I said, that we yield gracefully. As I say, we conducted ourselves honorably in these matters for the last forty years, we can congratulate ourselves that the world is a better place for what we did in NATO, in Western Europe, in standing up to the Soviet Union, but now it's a new world and it's time to back off a bit.

We have problems at home that have been grossly neglected as a consequence of our saving the world. Saving the world has not been an unmixed blessing for us, and it's time we put a little attention toward saving parts of our own population and society that are in jeopardy. In a way, [I'm advocating] the old American instinct toward isolation, which has been whipsawing with our messianism, and in some ways has fed and narrowed our sense of global messianism, an externalization of our isolation by unilateral actions.

So that the impulse to transform the world ...

Transform the world, to take it over, whether it likes it or not, so it fits our preconception. It would be useful for us to back off from that. We have to do it, [because] others are not that interested in having us remain in charge.

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