Perspectives on the Road to Peace

The Conflict Between Peace and Power

Norman Cousins, 1984

Norman Cousins is an adjunct professor of medical humanities in the UCLA School of Medicine. For over 35 years he was editor of the Saturday Review. The recipient of honorary degrees from over fifty colleges and universities, Mr. Cousins is the author of In Place of Folly and The Pathology of Power. Today he shares some of his central insights into the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Mr. Cousins, you've written that power creates a language of its own. What are you trying to share with your fellow citizens?

Cousins: That in the attempt to achieve security we have fashioned actually a form of insecurity, perhaps several forms of insecurity, that the very mechanisms we create to protect ourselves actually become inverted. You recall that Lord Acton wrote that power corrupts - absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think we've seen the truth of that in our time; I think to that we can also add, as you said, that power creates a language of its own, but also power tends to drive intelligence underground. And power is a theology that knows no other gods. And I think what I'm trying to say is that power can be a disease. This is not to say that power is not necessary, but what it is to say is that the forms we create of power largely determine whether power will fulfill its purpose.

Whiteley: You've indicated the tendency of power in the United States to vitiate the very institutions of a democracy. Where does that analysis take you?

Cousins: I don't think that this is peculiar to the United States; I think this is something that's always existed in history, and in the context of the modern world, which is to say in the context of weapons of absolute destruction. It makes it all more necessary for us to understand what our security really requires.

Whiteley: In reflecting back on the decision to drop the atomic bomb, you've drawn some important lessons about the use of power and secrecy to undercut decision-making. What's your analysis?

Cousins: Well, there's a disposition to believe that deceit by government applies only to the existing situation. Unfortunately and tragically, this has been going on for some time. And in 1945 President Truman told the American people that the decision to drop the atomic bomb was necessitated by the need to avoid an invasion that would have cost hundreds of thousands perhaps of American lives. And understandably, many millions of Americans were deeply relieved; they had sons on troop ships on the way to Japan, and they knew what the cost of an invasion would be. What the American people were not told was that the President's own military advisors had informed him that an invasion was not necessary to defeat Japan, that the outer approaches - the outer defenses to Japan had already been broken, and that Japan was ready to sue for peace, wanting only assurance that it could retain the institution of the Emperor.

Whiteley: A second illustration for you of the pathology of power was the decision in 1961 to begin to use military force in Indochina. What lessons do you draw from that?

Cousins: Well, that was a sequence of events consisting of many factors, but we can identify some of them. At the time the governments of Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, felt that unless North Vietnam, the movement north in Vietnam were crushed that they would be under pressure themselves. And they expressed the view to the United States that only the determination of the United States to stand behind the Philippines, Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Thailand and Japan, that just an indication of that would be enough - that all we would have to do would be to wave the flag in the area and that the opposition would collapse. We did that and then we had to go beyond that. Then we were told that all we would have to do is to show some Americans in uniform as trainers, perhaps, and advisors - military advisors - and that would be enough to cause North Vietnam to withdraw. When that didn't suffice we were told that just token forces would be enough. And so it went. At each point along the way it was more a matter of national pride, national macho, than a genuine situation affecting American security.

Whiteley: You've drawn a number of lessons for the democracy for the study of power, and one is the conflict between peace and power. What is that conflict? How should people think about those issues?

Cousins: It's perhaps the most complicated subject in geopolitical history. One thing we do know is that disarmament by itself will not produce peace, therefore, the notion that the best way to deal with the problems of an arms race is just to do away with the arms unilaterally, there's no assurance of peace. Getting rid of power by itself can be dangerous, unless you replace the power with something that's workable, that can keep the peace. As matters now stand, the world is in a prime condition of anarchy. We don't have codified enforceable relationships among the nations. Each nation will decide for itself, or insist on deciding for itself, what the basis of its security is to be; no way of verifying that, of course, since each country claims complete omniscience in that particular matter. And the result is that each country looks to the same factors for security which can only achieve at the next nation's expense. The world today outside the major nations is a power vacuum. Therefore, the United States and the Soviet Union are very nervous about what happens in the rest of the world, and each is going to try to batten down all the hatches.

The United States has its own security zone, the Soviet Union claims its own security zone, but it's obvious that we're not going to agree with the Soviet Union's definition of what its own security zone has to be, anymore than they're going to agree with ours. And so security becomes overlapping and competitive, and this creates the mirror images. Therefore, you come to a point where a balance of power is involved and where nations which are the - exceed two, one of the two major powers, or are grafted onto one of the two major powers, or dominated by one of the two major powers, will be regarded as a genuine threat to the security of the other. We've got our own situation in Central America, the Soviet Union has its situation in Eastern Europe, and in Middle Asia and South Asia. And so long as I say the world is in this dominant condition of anarchy, each of the parts becomes volatile in terms of the security considerations of the major countries. What I'm trying to suggest is that we really live in a very primitive condition of human history, and that despite all the pertinences, despite the great advances in warfare, the thinking itself behind these weapons goes all the way back to where it was, where it always has been in fact, in the dealings among nations.

Whiteley: How do you provide for the common security with this current pathology of power?

Cousins: Well, fortunately we're not without some guide, or some advice. It seems to me that the lessons of history were contemplated and scrutinized very carefully by the young men who came together in Philadelphia in 1787 to found the United States, and their study of history persuaded them that only as you create organized, enforceable, and enduring relationships among the parts, can you expect to have a viable whole. They, of course, were concerned with creating a viable whole out of the states on the east coast of America at that time. It's difficult for us to realize it, but at that particular time we're talking more about nations on the east coast of the United States than we are about states as we know them today. The thirteen colonies were all independent - each of them was independent. They came together to fight a war for independence, but they fought that war as allies, as coordinated allies, rather than as a single nation. But the end of the war, marked by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, did not produce peace on the east coast of the United States among the thirteen colonies or nations; quite the contrary. The moment the common thread was removed, then they discovered that their individual ambitions that the states had that the other states had to guard against, you had natural points of competition and insecurity. New York and New Jersey claimed rights to tax ships coming into the harbor, Connecticut and Massachusetts had border disputes, as New Jersey did with Pennsylvania, there was shooting on the border. Connecticut could not agree that its claims in the west, the Miami/Ohio territory for example, would not agree to have those claims contested by other states, and so you had a condition in which the right of each state to define its security for itself ran into conflict with the claimed right, similar claimed right, of other states. And so we had a period from 1783 to 1787 of disintegration among the American states, precisely because the relationship to one another was not defined and codified in a way that was binding.

Whiteley: The rules, law was so important for the thirteen colonies to make a transition to common security. What role do you see the rule-of-law having in creating a more peaceful world?

Cousins: The attempt to create a rule-of-law today among the nations of the world, of course, is much more difficult than it was for the states on the east coast of the United States in 1787. But the principles that went into the making of the United States are worth pondering today. Those principles gain in strength in direct proportion to the differences among the states. There's a tendency today to say that the differences among the nations is so great that it would be impossible to accommodate these nations within a single design. But as Madison and Hamilton said, the greater the differences of states within a geographic unit, the greater the need to construct workable and enforceable relationships. So the question for us is not so much what are the differences, but what is the geography, what are the imperatives created by geography?

The United States and the Soviet Union are much closer together in terms of access and proximity than Georgia was to Maine in 1787. We're only 15 minutes apart. We have to recall that in Washington's time it took more than a week to get from New York to Philadelphia. Now you can have a satellite fly around the world in 15 minutes. So the entire world has been transformed into a potential single battlefield, but our thinking, meanwhile, is back - way back hundreds of years ago - where we still think in terms of nations as the ultimate form of organization, and the nation is inadequate to protect human life on this planet. I can think of nothing more important that's happened in our time than the fact that the nation as a form of workable organization has become obsolete. I can think of nothing more significant than the fact that the basic forms of protection which the nation was originally designed to create are no longer possible.

Each nation, in the act of trying to protect itself, tends today to get closer to the nuclear fuses. So something must be created beyond the nation which will not destroy the essential functions of the nation. I think that sovereignty is very important, but there is such a thing as workable sovereignty and unworkable sovereignty. Where I think of workable sovereignty, I think of the sovereignty that has to do with traditions, institutions, values. In the United States that would have to do with American freedoms, and our way of life. In the Soviet Union it would take an entirely different form. But both these forms are in jeopardy because we don't have a single form which can accommodate the differences of both, and I think that Madison and Hamilton, the American founding fathers, would tell us that the only way to achieve security for the United States, to protect our freedoms, is to create a layer of sovereignty which does not interfere with domestic sovereignty, but which has to do with a security arrangement which is binding on all the nations. Therefore, the attempt to create such a workable security organization becomes the dominant challenge of our times, and I'm not convinced that it can't be done.

Whiteley: You've quoted Thomas Jefferson that the ultimate safety and security must come from the people themselves. What do you mean?

Cousins: He recognized that even good men, in situations of power, are trapped by that power and indeed victimized by it. And that the very forces that are created to achieve security can sometimes create a situation of power which is not in the best interest of the nation or its people. An attempt was made at Philadelphia in 1787 to create or structure government in such a way as to reduce this particular danger. I think the danger was reduced, but was not eliminated. And what Jefferson said, therefore, was that if you can't depend on people in government to maintain and respect the institutions of that government, you've got to find some way of making it possible for the people to do it themselves. And by people, of course, he was thinking of that apparatus by which public opinion becomes manifest, as we've seen many times in the past ten or fifteen years, that where there is a very clear and present abuse of trust, the combination of press and public opinion creates a vital force which can interact with institutions of government, such as Congress, to protect the ultimate values of that society. And therefore, Jefferson and the other founding fathers were trying to think through the problem in depth which is to say how do you create the kind of structure which will enable it to survive even though parts of that structure may crumble under the pressure of events.

Whiteley: A source of hope for you is that the human mind can think of things freshly, that people can change.

Cousins: I think that is true. It's important to have the kind of government in which people can do something for the first time, and this is the unique opportunity I think that Americans have. We do have a form of government which enables us, if we wish it to happen, in which we can exercise that ultimate power, and there's no power I think that's safe in this world except if there's a greater power beyond it; namely, as Jefferson said, the ultimate power of the American people.

Whiteley: You posed a question rhetorically, are we smart enough to survive. What's your answer?

Cousins: We will see. (laughter)

Whiteley: As you've thought about the pursuit of peace you've said we're not addressing the impossible.

Cousins: That's right. I don't think that the challenge before us is a cosmic one, I don't think we're called upon to perform universal miracles such as scooping out the seas, or leveling the mountains, or raising the plains. I think that what we're called upon to do is something that's well within human capability: the problem is man made and therefore is within the reach of humans to solve.

Whiteley: You've drawn attention to the capability of people to move in their directions - in the directions of their expectations. What should our expectations for peace be?

Cousins: One of the basic laws of life is that human beings - and this applies not just to nations, but to individuals - that human beings move in the directions of their expectations. What we want is the direction which we tend to go. I think that if we want to keep our society free, if we want to have peace, we'll move in the direction of world law. We will recognize that we have to create global institutions to meet what are clearly global problems, that we can recognize we all belong to the human species. The human species today is in danger, and therefore the solution, if there is to be a solution, must be a profoundly human one, rather than a national one.

Whiteley: In writing that the power of free choice in a society is a positive source of hope, what choices should we be making?

Cousins: The choice that we have before us, as has been said many times, is to be totally vigilant, totally confident, confident in our ultimate power. I think that peace with freedom has to be the magnificent obsession of the American people if the 21st Century is to be what we'd like it to be.

Whiteley: You've drawn attention to the fact that a real issue for us is how do you use the institutions of a free people to create a framework of power and law that will preserve the very peace and freedom that we seek. Where do we begin on that problem?

Cousins: Everything begins with words. Words reflect beliefs, words reflect wishes. If our aim as a nation is to be in accord with the aims that were set for it in 1787, now that we're approaching our bicentennial year, then I think that we will make it the fundamental objective, and the underlying principle of our foreign policy and of our relationship with the rest of the world, to lead the way towards a structure of workable law among nations. Specifically, I think that we should announce it as our basic aim to upgrade the United Nations, to attempt to eliminate the weaknesses, which as we have seen, prevent the U.N. from becoming a world arbiter as we hoped it would be, and to use the - to take the U.N. as the beginning of a framework of enforceable and just relations among nations. I see no other way for us to keep our freedoms or for other countries to hold onto their institutions. What we're trying to do is to create a structure in which plurality is not only possible, but deeply valuable.

Whiteley: You've written a theme that's recurrent in your writings, indeed, is that justice on a world scale is possible through the world rule-of-law. Where do we begin?

Cousins: Well, the ultimate aim has to be justice; organization by itself is just a form. If that form could lead to injustice, therefore, we have a dual aim. One is to give the world a certain form in order to get the world out of its present anarchy. But we also have to invest that form with a certain substance, with a certain spirit, which is to say to create a situation of justice in the world. Not only justice in the relations among nations, but justice with respect to human beings. After all, if we want to make sense of our time on earth, we have to recognize we want to make this planet not only safe, but fit for human habitation.

Whiteley: In closing, I'd like to bring you back to the theme that we began on; namely, the proper role of power and its juxtaposition to the attainment of peace. What should your fellow citizens keep in mind?

Cousins: That power has to be monitored very carefully, and that power is never more dangerous than when combined with secrecy. And that even the best men become victim to power because of all the agencies in government that are created by that power, in the open or undercover. So there's this constant need to keep the society that was created 200 years ago, to keep that society within certain operating principles and never to allow power to distort or subvert those principles. In recent months, we have seen that the arbitrary use of power has actually subverted those principles. And the American people are asserting their ultimate power in trying to correct that. We can therefore take a genuine measure of satisfaction in knowing that the system, as it was created and conceived by the American founding fathers, is still the most workable political system in the world.

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