Monday, February 4, 2008

Today's Quote: Perceptions

From Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis:

NSC-68's endorsement of perimeter defense suggests several major departures in underlying assumptions from Kennan. One of these had to do with the nature of effective power in international affairs. Kennan had taken the view that only industrial-military power could bring about significant changes in world politics, and that as long as it was kept in rough balance, international stability (though not necessarily all exposed positions) could be preserved. But Kennan himself had been forced to acknowledge, by 1949, that things were not that simple. Insecurity could manifest itself in psychological as well as physical terms, as the Western Europeans' demands for American military protection had shown. And psychological insecurity could as easily develop from the distant sound of falling dominoes as from the rattling of sabers next door. This was the major unresolved dilemma in Kennan's thinking--how could this self-confidence upon which his strategy depended survive the making of distinctions between peripheral and vital interests? As far as the authors of NSC-68 were concerned, it could not.

From their perspective, changes in the balance of power could occur not only as the result of economic maneuvers or military action, but from intimidation, humiliation, or even loss of credibility. The Soviet Union, Nitze reminded his colleagues, made no distinction between military and other forms of aggression ; it was guided "by simple consideration of weakening the world power position of the US." NSC-68 added that "[s]ince everything that gives us or others respect for our institutions is a suitable object for attack, it also fits the Kremlin's design that where, with impunity, we can be insulted and made to suffer indignity the opportunity shall not be missed." The Soviet Union was out "to demonstrate to the free world that force and the will to use it are on the side of the Kremlin [and] that those who lack it are decadent and doomed."

The implications were startling. World order, and with it American security, had come to depend as much on perceptions of the balance of power as on what that balance actually was. And the perceptions involved were not just those of statesmen customarily charged with making policy; they also reflected mass opinion, foreign as well as domestic, informed as well as uninformed, rational as well as irrational. Before such an audience even the appearance of a shift in power relationships could have unnerving consequences. Judgments based on such traditional criteria as geography, economic capacity, or military potential now had to be balanced against considerations of image, prestige, and credibility. The effect was vastly to increase the number and variety of interests deemed relevant to national security, and to blur the distinctions between them.

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