Here is an interesting essay from Anatole Lieven in the Boston Review about the nature of US power in the modern world. Lieven's review of a book about the Pentagon's influence on US foreign policy turns quickly into an essay upon that very influence and the way that it has formed and deformed policy over the last fifty years. Of particular note, is what might be called the irrationality assumption that he discerns- the assumption that all one's enemies from a secular dictator like Saddam Hussein to a communist atheist one like Kim Jong Il to a religious maniac like Osama Bin Laden to a sinister figure like Vladimir Putin are so irrational as to wish to destroy their own countries or regions in order to destroy the United States. This assumption in some cases- Bin Laden- may well be warrented- but in others- Putin would be the great example- is not so solid. An assumption of irrationality though fuels a logic which goes beyond mere detterence (to which a rational agent will respond by drawing back) but which ends at overwhelming military dominance of any other actor on the world stage- becoming a global Leviathan, something that requires emmense ammounts of military strength.
Lieven is right to reject a pacifist understanding of the world- war is neccessary and consequently armaments and defence ministries/industries are neccessary. Sometimes even intervention can be neccessary in order to forestall a coming threat- one could argue that allied intervention in 1936 when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland was a neccessary intervention. Lieven is also right to argue though that that thought should not mean that we accept any intervention on the global stage and we should be aware of presumptions about the opposite side. Robert McNamara in his recent film, the Fog of War, made precisely this point with relevance to Khrushchev and Castro- looking through their eyes US actions looked aggressive and it was the ability of Tommy Thompson to give President Kennedy the idea to give Khrushchev a way out that saved the world in Cuba. Likewise Hans Blix in his talk in Cambridge unfolded the perfectly reasonable Korean suspision that given that McArthur had been given license to use the bomb on Korea in the fifties, the US might again think of using the bomb on the Korean peninsular and the only way to stop that- Korea possessing the Bomb. Sometimes it pays to turn back especially to Cuba and remember the old line of Khrushchev,
We and you ought not pull on the ends of a rope in which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence.
Khrushchev in those words summed up the dilemmas of modern diplomacy- the actions of blind moles bumping into each other somehow have to be kept within confines which will preserve the human race. If both sides beleive though that the actions of the other inevitably are irrational, show no concern for the safety of humanity, then that provides a rationale to be irrational and to develop weapons which can destroy humanity. By assuming that the other will use them, one reaches a point where one would wish to use them first. This is not an argument neccessarily for disarmament, there are irrational foes out there, but it is an argument that we ought to be cautious about how we escalate- because our irrational actions provide the excuse for the other agent's paranoia which then provides our excuse for our paranoia- we tie the knots of war and keep pulling at opposite ends. Lieven offers us a realism derived from Niebuhr- I don't want to comment on that because I have yet to fully digest it- but the warning he delivers both against pacifism and against paranoia- is a warning we should listen to, or beware the consequences of tieing the knots of war so tight that it takes a Gordian knife to break them.