Peter Tarnoff Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Making Foreign Policy in a Democracy: Conversation with Peter Tarnoff, former Undersecretary of State and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations; 10/13/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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U.S. Foreign Policy after the Cold War

In what ways did American foreign policy change during the period of your career? You go back to the beginning of the Kennedy administration through the Clinton administration; are there changes on some of these matters with regard to the enduring features of U.S. foreign policy, or do they pretty much remain the same?

No, I think there were two. There were many course corrections, but I think there were two very pronounced changes. The first was in and around the Vietnam War and the Watergate experience where, for the first time in our history, the primacy of the executive branch in general, and the president in particular, came under very close scrutiny with regard to leadership of the country in foreign affairs and defense matters. And it culminated, of course, in the growing pressures which led to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the subsequent overthrow of the noncommunist regime in the South. And that was, as you know, the first time in our history that there had been a very broad-based, popular challenge to the president's leadership in foreign and defense matters. And that, of course, had its own consequences.

The second substantial change occurred after the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the evaporation of the Cold War. And here there were many effects, but to me the most dramatic in terms of the making of American foreign policy was that it was no longer possible to have a coalition of thought. Not always a consensus on policy, but a coalition of thought that was fairly stable in this country and outside with regard to where the priorities were. And that's why there emerged shortly afterwards a debate in the country about whether or not there could be a successor to the late-1940s doctrine created by George Kennan of the so-called containment theory, where the prime responsibility of the United States would be to contain the expansionism of the Soviet Union and its surrogates. There was no longer a simple way to define America's interests in the world and therefore on issue after issue, case by case, domestically and internationally, we would have to decide what our interests were and assemble a coalition, which sometimes had very different members depending on the issue, in ways that simply weren't necessary during the Cold War.

A lot of times in the literature on foreign policy, invidious comparisons are made with the architects, between what the architects of the post - Cold War world were able to do in comparison with the present muddling through that we witness. Let's talk a little further about the differences. The "wise men," as they were called, had experienced the failure of the aftermath of World War I, and that propelled them to come up with a vision for the world. In the recent period after the end of the Cold War, were we too obsessed with Vietnam and the lessons of that experience?

Let me answer the question in two ways. The first part of my answer will refer to what I think represents a fair response from, at this moment, the only surviving member of the original "wise men," and that is George Kennan, who came to Washington to meet several of us early 1993, after the Clinton administration took office. We talked to him about just that issue. Was the immediate post - World War II period one of great strategic vision, and are we, all of us -- including people who were just coming back into government -- unable to muster the vision and the courage to have this kind of broad strategic sweep?

And in his own understated philosophical way, he told us not to worry about it. That the period immediately after the Second World War was one where there emerged a quite real challenge to American and Western interests, both security and economic, and it was easier at that time to mobilize support around essentially a defensive idea. He recognized, as we all do, that you simply did not have that kind of challenge [anymore].

There were some people even at the time, and I was not one of them but I will mention them anyway, who developed a certain nostalgia for the Cold War, because matters were simple. It was possible to get more of a commitment from our own Congress and country and from our friends and allies than turned out to be the case after the Cold War had evaporated. And we can go into the comparatives as well. I have no nostalgia at all for the Cold War period, but I think that it was in some respects more cosmically threatening because you faced at least the chance of the destruction of the planet in a way you don't now; but simpler in terms of the way we organize ourselves and defend American interests overseas [today].

So, I think the muddling through, and I don't want to be defensive about it, having been in government myself, is probably necessary as long as there is a free and open debate in this country, as I think is happening, over where we should be or whether we should be involved; and, if so, how much should we be willing to do; and how much do we require others participate in terms of troops on the ground, political influence, moral suasion, and obviously economic assistance. How much do we want to do? And [we] make those decisions as these cases present themselves or as the government or the Congress decide that there's an interest out there that America should take advantage of.

But I understand that there is a certain feeling, a doctrine, as it emerged fifty years ago, [that] made it simpler to define priorities and marshal resources than is the case now.

Now, because we're conducting foreign policy in a democracy, the public discussion, the public debate is very important. In his article on the enlargement of NATO, Mark Danner retells the story of Vandenberg's and the Senate leaders' meeting with President Truman prior to the Truman Doctrine speech, and Vandenberg, to paraphrase Danner, told the president to scare the American people. So are you suggesting that in this environment if you still wanted to do that, it's harder to do, but another way of saying it is that the discussion is now so complex that you have to draw on different support from different groups, that it becomes very difficult to mobilize public opinion on particular issues.

Well, if I understand the point that Mark Danner was making, what Vandenberg was saying is that there is an overriding threat to American well-being and the interests of many of our friends overseas, and the way to get the American people to react is to be very stark about it and explain what will happen if we don't do something. Despite the real threats and dangers, including in the security field, which now exist, there is nothing that big and that broad that is out there now. So, therefore, when we think about our policy towards the so-called rogue states, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, just to mention three, there can be legitimate differences of opinion with regard to tactics. I think that most people would hope that sooner rather than later the governments of these states would become part of an international movement towards cooperation and reconciliation with neighbors. But how you get there from here tends to be quite complicated.

I don't think that the average person, by the way, is incapable of understanding it. I think a good deal of the so-called mystique about foreign policy was perpetrated by people who wanted to keep the debate as closed as possible, and I may even have been of that persuasion myself when I was in government, at least some years ago. But the factors that you might apply to one case will not necessarily apply to another, and the levers that we have will not apply universally. And even in the two or three cases that I mentioned, we will have both domestic and, more importantly, international supporters who will line up with us on some of these cases and issues and oppose us on others. So that's the nature of the complication, the fact that you don't have a stable domestic support group and you don't have a constant coalition in favor of what you're doing internationally.

Why do our current political leaders seem to be less self-confident in taking their case about particular issues to the American public? It's almost as if they shy away from a public debate. Is it maybe that the government is not clear about what it wants to do in a particular issue?

I'm not sure. I was, as you indicated, part of the first Clinton administration, so I may not be the best person to be objective on that issue. But with regard to the major strategic and foreign policy choices that we made during that period, including the enlargement of NATO, I think that we were very clear about what we wanted. Now it is true that in certain cases, and I'm thinking of Bosnia and Haiti in particular, after we became involved, the situation changed, and what we thought at the beginning of our policy, let's say, towards Haiti -- which was essentially to bring international political and economic pressure to bear on the junta which had overthrown the democratically elected government -- was not working. And therefore after a year the president brought together his senior advisors and said, we still want a change there, but the sanctions policy is not working, we have to now begin to think of intervention. And of course we were very close to an actual intervention in Haiti. And the situation evolved in Bosnia and ultimately in Kosovo that way as well.

But there really was an open debate about all of these issues. I testified enough before Congress and appeared enough on television in defense of administration policies on all of these issues to know that the matter was very, very openly discussed. In all of these cases there remained, even after the intervention, considerable unhappiness in certain quarters of political and public opinion in this country. But I would defend the proposition that the issues were well aired, even if there remained sometimes a very significant minority of people who were unhappy with policy choices.

Next page: Intervention

Related link: interview with Mark Danner.

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