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American Foreign Policy: Agendas Old and New (On the Occasion of His 25th Anniversary with the Council on Foreign Relations)

Speaker: Alton Frye, Presidential Senior Fellow Emeritus
November 24, 1997
Council on Foreign Relations


Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

The artist John Constable once said that every time he painted a portrait, he lost a friend. Giving a speech on controversial issues carries a similar risk.

That is the risk one accepts in the role of agent provocateur for an anniversary evening. I come to the role mindful of Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition to Henry Stimson. When Stimson ran for governor of New York, Roosevelt told him, “Darn it, Harry, a speech is a poster, not an etching.” One opinionated poster coming up.

American foreign policy faces a new agenda of increasing complexity. But that agenda has descended upon us before we have disposed of key challenges on the old agenda. Trade-offs and fault lines criss-cross both agendas and defy ready resolution. In such a confused and overlapping pattern of policy problems, it is all the more essential to get our priorities right. This evening I want to comment on four priorities: the future of NATO; the continuing nuclear menace; the impending conjunction of energy and security risks in Asia; and the global environmental conundrum.

The context in which we address these agendas has changed. The image of a triumphal America as the sole superpower is dangerously misleading. Even more mischievous is the myth of the unipolar world. Those notions obscure the relevant reality: deference for American leadership is waning. If others admire our prosperity, they also envy it. If they welcome our leadership in peacekeeping, they also fear its potential for excess. If they want us out front on difficult issues, they definitely do not want us on top.

In this fluid geostrategic environment the maintenance of a vigorous (and more versatile(NATO is a mission linking the old and new agendas.

The habit of cooperation serves to dampen conflict among members of the alliance itself. Bosnia demonstrates that it would be historically reckless to assume that the peace of Europe is now permanently assured. Far better to elicit restraint among states than to enforce it. Working together in NATO contributes substantially to shaping intentions in a way that makes less necessary resort to NATO’s military capabilities.

Moreover, the alliance is an essential instrument in history’s most far-reaching experiment in the regulation of weaponry and armed forces. NATO’s collaborative channels offer invaluable support for the surveillance regime we must have to make the era of arms control work. They facilitate the sharing of intelligence not only on force postures in Europe but also on the permanent danger of proliferation. In short NATO plays a critical role in achieving defense transparency(and in giving early warning of attempts to evade it.

Perhaps most important, NATO provides the base on which to build flexible coalitions for addressing crises in other areas. If military force is required elsewhere, we are likely to need partners. NATO need not act as an alliance, but it makes it infinitely more practical for those allies who choose to do so to work together out of area. Surely all have drawn that lesson from the Gulf War.

In weighing the possibility of collective action against the need for decisive action, it would not be prudent for the United States to forswear unilateral options. But it would be foolhardy to ignore the advantages of mutual support NATO makes possible.

All that is the backdrop to the decisions now pending on NATO enlargement. As Secretaries William Perry, Warren Christopher, and other former officials wrote in a report presented at a fall 1997 conference cosponsored by Stanford and Harvard, the debate over inviting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic has “revealed that there is no consensus on the wisdom of the path taken so far by the alliance and spearheaded by the Clinton administration. . . . [A]dding new members is not the only, or even the most important, adaptation of NATO to the post-Cold War environment.”

At the Council on Foreign Relations, differences of opinion over NATO enlargement have been, to put it mildly, pronounced. Apart from concern that open-ended enlargement will weaken alliance cohesion, we need to weigh the options of those opposed to enlargement, namely the Russians. The negotiation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act is a promising step toward reassuring Moscow, but it leaves open many questions.

  • Will enlargement encourage Russia to beef up its military presence in Kaliningrad, including nuclear weapons?
  • Will Russia at some point increase pressure on Ukraine by manipulating the flow of energy supplies?
  • Will the demoralized, depleted Russian military shift even further to reliance on nuclear escalation(to a doctrine of what, in their situation, might fairly be called “inflexible response”?
  • How will enlargement affect Russia’s active diplomacy with China and its feedback into the Middle East and Central Asia?
  • And will enlargement help or impede progress with Russia in the most crucial task of managing the nuclear build-down?

There are those who say Russia is too weak and too dependent on international economic access to risk sharp responses. That strikes me as shortsighted. Nations, like individuals, are quite capable of storing grievances for later retribution. The touchstones of history are not only Munich and Vietnam, but Versailles and countless other roots of revanchism. One should be wary of injecting into the politics of any country a sense that it is a victim. On that perception demagogues thrive. The next megalomaniac who rides resentment to power may not be an artist from Austria but an outcast from Odessa.

It will be difficult to accommodate such concerns in the debate soon to begin in the Senate. At this late stage, even skeptics of enlargement recognize the serious consequences of rejecting it. There is, however, one idea on which there is wide agreement. For some time Senator Sam Nunn has argued that NATO enlargement should be related to the planned enlargement of the European Union (EU). Former Secretary of State James Baker supports NATO enlargement but argues that “EU membership is just as important as membership in NATO for the countries involved.” The European Union plans to begin negotiations this year with six prime prospects, including the three NATO candidates. The constructive option now may be to link NATO enlargement to EU enlargement.

Of all the issues spanning the old and new agendas none is so grave as the lingering burden of massive nuclear deployments. The administration deserves much credit for the extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty and the conclusion of a Comprehensive Test Ban that may someday come into force. It has shown creative, persistent diplomacy in helping to arrange the consolidation of the Soviet nuclear inventory from four post-Soviet states into Russia. But in its basic dimensions, the nuclear danger remains: the scale of deployments and reserves is excessive; the risks of unauthorized access or use may be growing with the decay of Russian command and control; and the leakage of fissile materials and technology is a rising worry.

Good people have invested large talents in these problems but the results remain insufficient.

U.S.-Russian strategic restraints need fresh impetus and other nuclear powers must soon join in crucial multilateral measures. Presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin set the stage for de-MIRVing the land-based force. That opens the way for rapid movement toward stability at lower numbers, although the next phase must obviously control stored warheads as well as those associated with missiles and aircraft. There is, I believe, a budding consensus in American strategic circles to accelerate reductions.

START III negotiations should start now. Whatever final level is envisaged, there is growing support for various forms of de-alerting to avoid the anomalous hair trigger arrangements still prevailing. Along with Admiral Stansfield Turner and others, I favor the concept of strategic escrow to remove most warheads from delivery vehicles and place them under mutual surveillance. The inspection and verification challenges are serious, but success with procedures in Intermediate Nuclear Forces and the first Strategic Arms Reduction Talks provides assurance that we can meet them. And the separation of warheads from ballistic missiles would facilitate what is now a technically practical and strategically sound goal: eliminating prompt-attack, long-range missiles themselves.

Technology may also promise ways to render stored warheads inoperable prior to final dismantlement. Work at Los Alamos indicates that infusing hydrogen into the pits of warheads causes the plutonium to crumble. That technique may work better with American weapons than with Russian ones, but the nuclear labs are pursuing a variety of methods to achieve such results. If weapons can be neutralized, the military can retain custody of the nuclear materials for some time. The helpful relations between American and Russian military professionals, growing from the important work Admiral William Crowe began when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, make that a safer plan than rushing such materials out of weapons and into more diffuse channels in Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy.

These issues have slid too far down the list of American priorities. Many people mistakenly assume that, except for proliferation, the nuclear problem has gone away. Unless the United States and Russia focus on more dramatic breakthroughs, they are giving fickle fortune not merely hostages, but lethal companions.

To worry about future security challenges, look across the Pacific(and not merely to Korea and Taiwan. The primary trend toward cooperation in Asia could well be disrupted by the impending explosion in demand for energy. Indeed, that swelling demand has already distorted the region’s politics and economies, forcing heavy reliance on oil and gas, particularly from the Middle East. It is no secret(and no surprise(that energy-dependent countries in Asia and elsewhere are striving for special relations with Persian Gulf suppliers. The vulnerability of energy-starved importers tempts them to transfer not only money, but weapons and technology that could intensify conflicts and disrupt access to the very oil they seek.

China’s transition from energy exporter to importer is a dominant factor in this equation. The imminent depletion of Indonesia’s oil and gas production suggests that both the energy-haves and the energy have-nots could soon face severe shortages.

These trends are accompanied by substantial military modernization in the region. While other countries have curtailed their defense programs, East Asia sees an arms jog, if not an arms race. Capabilities may still be modest by U.S. standards, but the new profile of forces(longer-range aircraft, more advanced naval systems(reflects a latent consensus that future crises are likely to center on locations at sea.

In addition to protecting sea lanes from the Middle East, these evolving forces have implications for a number of disputes over seabed energy resources. In the South China Sea alone, as many as six different countries have overlapping claims. Without rehearsing the incidents that have already occurred, one worries that, if energy resources are found in the seas off East Asia, these disputes could turn violent.

The new U.S.-Japanese Defense Guidelines help shore up stability, but they are not likely to ward off conflicts over energy resources under the seabed. Nor can the United States be the arbiter of such conflicts. It must, however, be alert to the ways in which these potential disputes affect security relations in Asia. Those relations are largely bilateral; military contacts are growing between Russia and China, Japan and Russia, Australia and Indonesia. Those contacts are often useful, but if islands are seized or submarine resources gobbled up, multibilateralism will not suffice. Indeed, relying on bilateral deals alone could produce the kind of pernicious effects Europe suffered in 1914. Interlocking commitments, some perhaps secret, could spread, rather than stifle war.

The problem calls for strengthened regional institutions to cope with the threat or use of force. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Asian Regional Forum and occasional discussions in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation are too frail to bear this load(and the load could surge rapidly within the next decade.

In strategic affairs, prediction is unreliable, but anticipation is indispensable. There is a plain multilateral imperative to foresee the risk of military conflict in Asian seas. That does not mean building a counterpart to NATO in Asia. It does mean contriving multinational mechanisms to locate, exploit and allocate energy resources found in the disputed marine areas. Those efforts need to start now, before major discoveries turn low-key disagreements into vital contests.

Burgeoning energy demand is, of course, bad news for the environment. It poses profound issues of science and of equity. The December 1997 Kyoto conference confirmed that states are very far from a settled view of how to address those issues. Yet the process of international consultation gives hope that the future is developing a constituency. We have begun a marathon relay in which this generation must pass stewardship of the earth to those who come after us.

Despite uncertainties about the scale and pace of global warming, it makes sense to guard against the worst outcomes. Every country faces hard political choices about what precautions are appropriate, what they will cost, and who will pay for them. For a planet of micro-governments facing macro-risks, the question is: Will politics permit what nature requires?

Not knowing the answer to that question, I venture two cautions.

  • Beware the myth of technological salvation. Innovative technology we must have, but the environmental challenges now looming will undoubtedly require changes in the behavior of human populations.
  • Unguided market mechanisms will not protect the global commons. The shift to sport utility vehicles as Americans’ wheels of choice is a warning that nations cannot steer environmental policy by consumer preferences alone. The art will be to devise environmental policies that are able to harness market incentives.

At the core of the debate two truths are juxtaposed. Developing countries say it is not fair for the United States and other rich nations to emit disproportionate volumes of pollutants. The United States and others say it is not fair to give developing countries a free ride on a global problem, not to mention a competitive advantage. Both views are valid.

A viable balance between these interests is not yet at hand but a sensible focus is. It is in Asia and other developing areas where greenhouse gas emissions, acid rain, and other pollutants will be growing exponentially. Containing these trends in advanced countries will be of little value unless newly industrializing states get with the program. The strategic objective should be to make sure the developing countries meet their needs with the cleanest technologies available(which means that wealthy countries will have to share the costs incurred by poor countries.

Thus, it makes sense to help China increase its capacity for nuclear power generation, subject, of course, to suitable safeguards. Otherwise, an economy that still fuels itself primarily by coal (70 percent in 1997) will spew intolerable amounts of dangerous emissions into the Asian atmosphere. Obviously, developing countries will have trouble affording modern technologies. Yet they have their own compelling reasons to try. For example, the World Bank estimates that China is already incurring hundreds of thousands of premature deaths from environmental causes, mainly urban air and water pollution. Projections suggest that such losses could soon be costing China the equivalent of up to 8 percent of its gross domestic product unless it alters course. With facts like these gaining prominence, a grand bargain between developed and developing countries could eventually be struck.

Shaping a coherent policy toward these and other international issues is a daunting task for the American political system, prone as it is to frequent discord. The founding fathers gave us a constitution that uses faction to control faction. They also gave us an enduring attitude toward government. Americans distrust power, but they disdain impotence. For our government to act vigorously in world affairs, the political branches must converge on policy. To make that convergence possible, leaders in both branches are duty-bound to overcome the mutual antagonism that has come to infect their relations.

When Lyndon Johnson first came to the House of Representatives, Speaker Sam Rayburn was his coach. “Lyndon,” he said, “You must understand that the Republicans are not our enemies; they are our opponents... It is the Senate that is the enemy.”

Rayburn and Johnson could joke like that because they understood that in fact neither house of Congress and neither branch of government can afford to treat another as an enemy. In a representative system, differences of principle are to be respected but, so far as possible, differences of opinion are to be balanced, compromised, harmonized. In foreign policy, above all, the president and Congress cannot evade that onerous task.

*Alton Frye is senior vice president and senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has served the Council in many roles, including president. As Washington director and, later, national director, he has led the Council’s membership and program development in the nation’s capital and elsewhere. A former member of the RAND Corporation, he has also served as a U.S. Senate staff director and has published widely on national security policy and legislative-executive relations in American foreign policy.