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UCI Libraries - The Quest for Peace Interviews: Eugene V. Rostow Interview Transcript

 

Defining the Problem

A World Of Clear And Present Danger

Eugene V. Rostow, 1985

Eugene V. Rostow is professor of law at Yale University. Previous positions he has held include Dean of the Yale Law School, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and Chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger. Among his books are Planning for Freedom: The Sovereign Prerogative; Law, Power, and the Pursuit of Peace; Peace in the Balance; and The Ideal in Law. Today he shares some of his central views on the Quest for Peace.

Whiteley: Professor Rostow, in thinking about the problem of achieving peace in a nuclear age, your thinking immediately goes to the problem of international anarchy and aggression. What do you have in mind?

Rostow: Well, Dr. Whiteley, what I have in mind is that the problem of achieving peace in international society is exactly the same as the problem that our forefathers faced when they made the Constitution of the United States. That to bring domestic order and peace and tranquillity, as they said in the Constitution, to the thirteen colonies here; scattered colonies on the Atlantic coast which became a nation, and then a mighty nation.

Whiteley: That was based on a framework of law.

Rostow: That was based on a framework of law, agreed. But the framework was what they created, and the state system - we must think of the state system within which all of us have to live - in exactly analogous terms, that is, it's a community of nations very different in their internal social lives and their cultures. Some Christians, some Protestants, some Catholics, some Muhammadans, some etc. Very diverse nations and national cultures, but they have to live in a world community. And that world community, to function at all, has to have some minimal rules of world public order. Now you can say that those rules are achieved by agreement, or I prefer to think, they come of necessity: the necessities of cooperation and of peaceful coexistence within the international community.

Whiteley: In a dangerous world that framework obviously is not working.

Rostow: That's correct.

Whiteley: The League of Nations was set up in part to achieve that; the United Nations was set up in part to continue the hope for that. What hasn't worked?

Rostow: Well, I think we should go back one step further. Behind the League of Nations and the United Nations was the first modern state system that was set up in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a period of more than 20 years of violent fighting all over the world, and then revulsion against that. The statesmen of the main nations of the world at that time met in Vienna and initiated a series of habits, of consultation and restraint, and coordination in the interest of the general peace that constituted the background of the League of Nations and the United Nations. That system worked remarkably well for a century; it worked until 1914. It collapsed in 1914, it was recreated, as you say through the League, the League again collapsed in 1939, largely because the world had changed. It was no longer centered on Europe and could no longer be controlled from Europe and by the European nations. And the European nations, after the experience of the first war, simply lacked, not only the power, but the will to undertake the job of leading the orchestra. So in 1945, when the world picked itself up from World War II, the United States joined to help to found the new United Nations, in the hope that this time, with American participation and Soviet participation, the United Nations would have the power and the will to do what the Congress of Vienna and its successors have done for 100 years.

Whiteley: One of the hopes within the United Nations was that the Security Council would be just that; a vehicle of security for the world. What has not worked?

Rostow: Well, what's worked is that the Soviet Union went its own way, and decided to undertake a course of expansion of its own power, an expansion fueled by aggression, in violation of the rules of the Charter. And the only way that practice of aggression has been contained and restrained is by the violent collective efforts of the United States and its partners, both in the Pacific basin and in the Atlantic basin, to hold back, and if necessary to defeat; but preferably to deter Soviet or Soviet-backed aggression. Now that process is still going on.

Whiteley: You've indicated that American policy must be based, prudently, on the record of Soviet behavior since World War II. What specifically do you consider that record to be?

Rostow: Well, it's a record of a continuous expansion backed by aggression. And now, ultimately backed by the sanction of a formidable threatening menace of nuclear power. That's the ultimate sanction behind the Soviet program of aggression. It's not designed to produce a nuclear war; the Soviet Union doesn't want a nuclear war any more than we do. But it believes that the threat, the plausible threat of nuclear war, will keep the United States neutral. And what the Soviet Union is doing is exactly what the Kaiser of Germany did before 1914. He built a huge navy, not in order to fight the British Navy, but in order to persuade Britain to remain neutral in the event of a war on the continent. Of course that plan failed.

Whiteley: So you see Soviet military build-up intended to do exactly the same thing.

Rostow: Exactly the same thing, but with much more subtlety than the Kaiser used. They use a combination of political - that is, they build their weapons and especially their nuclear weapons, in order to achieve a certain political effect, especially on us, and on the Europeans, and on the Japanese. Their goal is, from their point of view, a very sensible one. That is to intimidate the great industrial democracies and persuade them to cooperate with the Soviet Union; in other words to achieve victory without war. So it's a costless enterprise as far as the Soviet Union is concerned. If they fail, they fail, but it isn't the same as if they lost a big war.

Whiteley: You feel that the Soviet Union is willing to take every opportunity for expansion unless confronted with an unacceptable risk.

Rostow: That's exactly right.

Whiteley: Where does that urge for expansion come from?

Rostow: Well, historically first the Soviet-run Russia, the Imperial Russia, has been dominated by that view for many centuries, and it has been accelerated by the fact that the present regime in Russia, the Soviet regime, has accepted the doctrine of Marxism, which prophesied that the whole world will become socialists, and they don't believe in allowing the forces of history just to work themselves out, they want to help them along. So that, as one English historian has said, I think very well, the Soviet Union is still in the imperial mood of the 17th and 18th Centuries, which the nations of the West have long since given up with relief.

Whiteley: Given the view that you have of Soviet expansionism, based on a reading of history since World War II, one of the things you've commented upon is that American national security policy must take account of that as a first criteria. What response must the United States make in the face of world anarchy and this level of aggression?

...the basic national security interest in the United States, and of every other country interested in peace, is in the viability and vitality of a state system governed by the agreed rules against aggression, which for our generation, are codified in the United Nations Charter.

Rostow:Well, I think the basic national interest, the basic national security interest in the United States, and of every other country interested in peace, is in the viability and vitality of a state system governed by the agreed rules against aggression, which for our generation, are codified in the United Nations Charter. Now beyond that level of discourse, beyond that level of abstraction, you have the foundation of any successful state system of peace which is not a Roman foundation of conquest under a single power, but for us, a notion of a state system which is an association of free and sovereign states bound together by their common commitment to a code of law. Now, that is the key issue in my judgment, but that means that you can expect such behavior from fallible human beings only if there is a "balance of power". And a "balance of power" is the oldest phrase that's been used in history to describe the relationship among states, and it's the key idea in any notion of peace, domestic or international. After all our constitutional system is a system of "balance of power", separation of powers, federalism, the division of authority between the national government and the state governments; within each government, a division between the legislative, the executive, and the judicial.

Now if you apply the notion of the "balance of power" to international society, which is now a worldwide society, the security of the United States requires very much more than the capacity to throw off invasions of Long Island or Puget Sound.

And we apply the same rules to the organization of society. We have a banking system, for example, which is decentralized as compared to the banking system of any other country because we fear a concentration of the money power. And so we have the antitrust laws, we fear a monopoly in industry or commerce, so that we understand the notion of the "balance of power" very well, better than most other people. Now if you apply the notion of the "balance of power" to international society, which is now a worldwide society, the security of the United States requires very much more than the capacity to throw off invasions of Long Island or Puget Sound. We are exactly in the position that Britain was in for three centuries, when Britain had to fight off first the Spanish attempt at achieving hegemony, and the French for a century or more, and then the German attempt, and we ourselves have fought two wars in order to prevent Germany from conquering Russia.

And we've now been engaged with NATO in a very elaborate and expensive system of defense in Europe to prevent Russia from conquering Germany and Western Europe - and for the same reason. Any nation which conquered the whole of the Eurasian land-mass would have so much power as to be able to threaten or dominate us. Thomas Jefferson saw that very vividly. He was, you'll remember, a very strong Francophile and enthusiast for the French Revolution, but when Napoleon marched toward Moscow, Thomas Jefferson became afraid, and he said if Napoleon succeeds in this venture, he'll have so much power that he could spare some to come and attack us. This is an instinctive understanding which all people have always manifest. You found it described as well in Thucydides as in modern times. And it is a necessity if you're interested in peace. The Soviet Union is struggling along year after year, both in the Pacific area and the Atlantic area, in Africa now, and even in the Caribbean, in order to gain a dominant position in the world which would, they think, force the United States to withdraw to the Western Hemisphere and leave them to control the Eurasian land-mass, and force China and Japan and the African nations to accept their leadership.

Whiteley: Given your view that the freedom in the world is not served by one nation, particularly one that does not value individual liberties achieving that kind of power, what are the implications for what the United States should do?

Rostow: The United States, first of all, should understand it. We're now in the position that Britain was in. See, for a long time our ideas about foreign policy were formed by the fact that we were a minor element in a world state system, which was controlled by and dominated by the leading nations of Europe. We were on the periphery of that system, as we'll say Sweden is now or Brazil even, while we were much smaller than Brazil. We have to get over thinking of ourselves in those terms. We have taken over the position of Britain, and unless we succeed, we shall be dominated. The matter was put best by the Vice Prime Minister of Singapore a couple of years ago, a brilliant fellow named Mr. Rajaratnam. He said unless the United States pursues its interests with the same tenacity and energy that the Soviet Union applies to the conduct of its foreign policy, we shall have to take pax sovieticus - peace run by the system of peace controlled by the Soviet Union. He said we don't want it, but if that's the only thing on the shelf, that's what we shall take. That's where we are.

Whiteley: In countering that, a first part is to deter contained Soviet expansionism. That's the purpose of our military forces and our system of alliances, to prevent that very expansionism. As part of deterrence, you've argued that arms control, trying by mutual agreement to restrict the forces of each side and maintain a "balance of power", is absolutely in the national interest of the United States.

Rostow: But I would say "good" arms control agreements are in the national interest if they help to stabilize the Soviet-American relation, if they help to reduce uncertainty and promote predictability. But "bad" arms control agreements can be absolutely suicidal if they prevent us from doing what's necessary in order to retain and solidify nuclear deterrence.

Whiteley: The history since World War II is one of technology outstripping ingenuity at arms control.

...we found that it was impossible to reach agreements that really satisfied the American desire to eliminate the threat of nuclear blackmail. Now what happened was that we reached an agreement in 1972, and President Nixon proclaimed that we had achieved detente and substituted "cooperation" for "confrontation" and all other phrases of that kind, but it turned out not to be true at all.

Rostow:Well, yes. There's another, very much so. The second, that I think which gave an impulse to the arms control movement and a certain energy behind it, was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. That showed so much uncertainty and so much anxiety about the nuclear weapon and about changes in the configuration of nuclear power that we felt, and I think the Russians probably agreed, that it would be useful to have agreed parameters about the size of forces, the structure of forces, so as to minimize the risk of accidental war. So we started on a course of arms control agreements on relatively minor aspects of the problem - the Test Ban Treaty, the Antarctic Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty. But when we got down to time to deal with the key questions, the questions that touched the nerve of Soviet policy directly, of the offensive weapons and the defensive weapons in 1972, we found that it was impossible to reach agreements that really satisfied the American desire to eliminate the threat of nuclear blackmail. Now what happened was that we reached an agreement in 1972, and President Nixon proclaimed that we had achieved detente and substituted "cooperation" for "confrontation" and all other phrases of that kind, but it turned out not to be true at all.

...by denying each side the capacity to defend its people, those people in the cities in which they live were hostages to the other side, so that in the event of too much conflict, they could be destroyed.

Whiteley:Well, let's take each of those 1972 treaties and ask your assessment of them. First, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Rostow: The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty concentrated, really focused on, making the doctrine of mutual assured destruction mandatory. That is, by denying each side the capacity to defend its people, those people in the cities in which they live were hostages to the other side, so that in the event of too much conflict, they could be destroyed. Well, that proved to be not only an unworkable, and I think a profoundly immoral idea, but it was obvious, and the Soviets soon discovered that we were not going to blow up Moscow if they invaded South Korea.

Whiteley: Let's move to the second part of those agreements. In the first, Strategic Arms Limitation, what is your assessment of that?

Rostow: Well, it turned out to be a tragedy because under that agreement, despite what we said about it, the Soviet Union was able to increase its ICBM force, its force of intercontinental ground-based ballistic missiles, from a position of approximate equality with the United States, to a position where today, in 1985, they have a lead of 3.5 to 1 over the United States. So that demonstrates conclusively, I think, that the interim agreement of 1972 about offensive weapons was, from our point-of-view, an absolute disaster.

We very foolishly allowed the Soviet Union to build up a commanding lead in the the category of ground-based ballistic missiles, which is the source of the political anxiety throughout the world, of the doubt about the American capacity to carry out its guarantees.

Whiteley:What's your assessment of the SALT II agreement?

Rostow: The SALT II agreement I thought was defective in the same sense in that it created limits for us, which made it impossible for us, make it impossible for us still, to try to close that gap. The gap is the most significant gap of all in the nuclear weapons field because, what it represents today is, the Soviet Union has an enormous lead over us in ground-based ballistic missiles. Now that doesn't mean they will accomplish a preemptive strike. They have no need to do it. It's the fear of their capacity to accomplish a preemptive strike. Well, that inhibits our foreign policy everywhere. Those two agreements really have produced the result which we now see, the crisis which we now see. We very foolishly allowed the Soviet Union to build up a commanding lead in the ground - the category of ground-based ballistic missiles, which is the source of the political anxiety throughout the world, of the doubt about the American capacity to carry out its guarantees.

Whiteley: Do you consider that superiority in ground forces offset by the other two components of our national security, the submarine-based forces or the air-launch forces?

Rostow: No, they're not offset, because the submarine-based forces are less accurate - less accurate than the ground-based forces so far, and likely to remain so for some time, and there are many defenses against the airborne forces. Now that may change with the introduction of cruise missiles, but it hasn't changed yet, so that at the moment, the Soviet Union has the capacity to knock out a very large part of our nuclear arsenal with a quarter or a third of its ground-based ballistic missiles, keeping the rest in reserve so as to deter any response at all from the United States.

Whiteley: Is defense possible in a nuclear age?

Rostow: Yes, of course it is. Now it's not possible in the sense, I suppose, of a hundred percent effective defense, although it's much too soon to say. What is possible however, certainly possible, is the defenses that will substantially cut that fraction I was talking about that I said was the heart of the Soviet program. So that instead of being able to knock us out with a quarter or a third of their force, it would require 80 or 90% of their force, and if we reach that point, then I think the tremendous fear would disappear. The fear of the cloud, a fear about Soviet nuclear power, which is one of the main obstacles to an effective foreign policy in the West.

Whiteley: Given the fact that in your view, the record of history is clear, the Russians can't be trusted, nor should we trust the national security to trust. Must we? Is it possible to craft agreements where trust is not the issue, but verification is?

Rostow: Absolutely. Absolutely. Now in 1972 it was quite easy, because by any measure, we had clear retaliatory capacity at that point, and we could make agreements made like the 1972 agreements in which the unit of account was fundamentally the launcher. The submarines, the ballistic-missile launcher, the plane, all of which were big enough to be photographed from satellites. And satellite photography made those agreements possible and fairly plausible, together with electronic surveillance, which is extraordinary stuff of course. Now, with the Soviets making the weapons that are very small and mobile, and we're moving in that direction too, clear verification may not be possible. Now that may not be a tragedy either, because if you have weapons that are retaliatory weapons, not really terribly accurate weapons, and not very powerful weapons, it may be possible to have a nuclear stalemate which will relieve mankind of the fear of nuclear war.

Nuclear equation, and the control of these weapons, and the new weapons that keep pouring out of the laboratories all the time transforming the situation, is beginning to create a situation very much like that that Nobel anticipated when he invented dynamite, almost a hundred years ago now. Nobel, you remember, when he invented dynamite thought that dynamite was such a terrible weapon that it would force the nations to make peace - they had no alternative. Well of course it didn't work out that way. Dynamite simply made war worse, and then there were weapons far more terrible than dynamite. But the nuclear weapon may be terrible enough to force the nations to make peace.

Whiteley: Well this returns to a theme that is pervasive in your writing and speaking: hope for a world "rule-of-law." Given a greater stability that may come from the balance of technology and weaponry that you've envisaged, what are the next steps to promoting a "rule-of-law" rather than aggression and anarchy?

Rostow: Well the first step, clearly I think, is to restore the energy and self-confidence of coalitions - regional coalitions in the various threatened regions of the world.

Whiteley: Given the achievement of some regional alliances as a first step, what happens then?

Rostow: Well, then I think you have to rely simply on time and reason to persuade the Soviet Union that it has no alternative but peace, and that peace is an infinitely better course for the welfare of the people of the Soviet Union than war. After all, the essence of history is change. We've seen in our own lifetimes, Germany and Japan give up the dream of militarism, and turn most emphatically to making progress through economic development and social development. And it's an inspiring example, and I'm sure it has a great deal of meaning for the Russians. But now the changes in Chinese policy are extremely dramatic and very important in themselves, and I'm sure again that they have an influence on the Soviet leadership. A Southeast Asian leader of great brilliance commented recently, what the Chinese are demonstrating is that capitalism is the final stage of socialism. And I think there's a tremendous truth in it and all the world knows it. So we may see changes that we can't now anticipate. We can't build policy in the expectation that those changes are inevitable, or will certainly come. On the other hand, we don't have to be hopeless and pessimistic about the future. If we pursue the course that's essential, there's a reasonably good chance - a good chance, I would say - that we shall prevail in the end. In any event we don't have any alternative, do we?

Whiteley: Professor Rostow, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.