Does a Bear Sit in the Woods?

Or is it only our obsessive fear of the Soviets?

President Ronald Reagan showed photos of Cuban missile sites and called Russia 'The Evil Empire' at a press conference in Washington, DC on March 23rd, 1983. Credit: Penelope Breese/Liaison/Getty


ONE QUESTION THAT Ronald Reagan's great electoral landslide seems to have settled beyond dispute is this: Is there a bear in the woods? There is. At least the American people believe there is a bear. At least they wish to be well armed to protect themselves against the bear –– if there is a bear. The Gipper's charming campaign commercial, which whimsically conveyed the core of our Cold War fears, will now be translated into tangible political action. American taxpayers, if the defense secretary prevails, will throw another $40 billion at the bear, bringing next year's military budget to $334 billion, approximately double what it was four years ago.

The U.S.A. will continue to deploy thousands of new nuclear weapons, all aimed at this fearsome enemy. When the task is completed, America will have more than 14,000 strategic nuclear bombs ready to launch, not counting another 16,000 tactical nukes stationed on ships and tanks. Then America will begin putting its weapons in space.

Meanwhile, our agents will continue to search for the bear's traces in many distant lands, from the jungles of Nicaragua to the riot-torn cities of Chile and the Philippines. If we find him there, we will shoot at him.

Of course, this all sounds daffy –– a great and energetic nation obsessed by a crudely simple image of distant danger. But the Cold War rivalry between this country and the Soviet Union has always operated on emotional punch, not reason. America's defense and foreign policies are as rational as a witch doctor's incantations before a primitive tribe. We try to ward off evil spirits with the burnt offerings of our money or by raising new totems to the war gods, totems called nuclear missiles.

Americans are so brainwashed with fear of Russia that it might seem futile in the present climate to focus on rational alternatives to the Cold War. Yet earnest, able people are doing that, trying to construct a new foreign policy that matches reality. One challenging set of answers –– at least a first step toward reason –– is being published by a small New York foundation, the World Policy Institute, in its new quarterly, The World Policy Journal, and in an ongoing blueprint for new policies called the Security Project. "Our job," Archibald L. Gillies, the institute's president, explained to me, "is to show that we can have a different set of policies that hang together and really address world realities, that don't give away the store and that will work better than the national-security policies we have now."

In the Security Project, Gillies and his colleagues propose three fundamental perspectives that ought to displace America's obsessive fear of the Russians:

First, the economic forces that threaten American prosperity have to be viewed as complex global problems in which everything is interconnected, from the horrendous federal deficits to the loss of American industrial jobs, from the Third World debt that threatens the U.S. banking system to our bloated defense budgets, from oil shortages to hunger. If there is a bear in the woods, this is it. Because the world is now one marketplace, both for products and for labor, we can't solve the problems of Detroit without also dealing with the problems of Brazil. This is not sappy do-good sentiment –– it's calculated self-interest. Brazil's middle class buys the durable goods that America makes; if Brazil is going down the tubes, so are a lot of American jobs. Our economy will grow faster if theirs does.

Second, the U.S. has to stabilize its relations with the Soviets, offering both sides the immediate economic reward of shrinking defense budgets and new trade. The Russians need what we have to sell, mainly modern high tech, and if we don't sell it to them, Japan and Western Europe will.

Third, America needs to adopt a noninterventionist policy toward Third World countries. Of course, if you believe that every revolutionary struggle or change of governments is a Commie plot run by Moscow and designed ultimately to threaten us, then the idea of reducing our military strength worldwide sounds like lunacy. But the realities of Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, Chile and the Philippines, to name a few, do not match that simple-minded fear. Our national security would not be affected in the least if, for instance, democracy were restored to Chile or even if a Marxist government took over. As of now, we have about 550,000 troops overseas, many of them stationed in tripwire positions like the one in South Korea, where Americans would not really wish to fight a war if one started. This is dangerous. It also puts us in permanent conflict with the natural aspirations of impoverished peoples for economic and political justice.

Gillies is surprisingly optimistic about selling these ideas to Americans, notwithstanding the recent election returns, because he and his colleagues see the competing economic and political realities closing in on the Cold War dogma. The danger, he concedes, is that Americans might pull back from the world into a "Fortress America" mentality that would be repressive and self-destructive.

The institute's Security Project has outlined what is actually a modest proposal for a gradual reduction of the American military –– changes like shrinking seventeen army divisions down to eleven, reducing strategic nukes to about 6000, settling for six aircraft carriers instead of fourteen. One of the designers, a defense expert named Gordon Adams from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, argues that in this cutback the Pentagon would not lose any of its basic capabilities: deterring Soviet nuclear attack, keeping open the world's sea lanes, defending the continental United States, even intervening militarily with the marines. But the savings would be extraordinary – as much as $470 billion over the next five years, plus another $1 trillion accumulated in savings during the following five years.

"Just imagine," Gillies said, "what would happen if we had $1.5 trillion to use in the next ten years on all the other problems that face us: deficit reduction, refinancing world debt, rebuilding our basic industries and cities, financing high-tech industries, retraining workers. It would change the whole nature of the debate on every other problem."

If these dollar savings sound like pie in the sky, they are really quite conservative estimates. The defense budget proposed by the Security Project follows the same projections for military spending that the government itself was using in the Nixon-Ford administrations before the Cold War was reborn in the last years of the Carter presidency. The money aside, Gillies makes this crucial point: "If we take these steps, our security will increase, even vis-à-vis the Soviets. That's the starting point. It's in our interest. We'll be safer."


THE MOST DRAMATIC EXAMPLE OF HOW POST-COLD War thinking would increase our national security, even as it improved our economic prospects, is in Europe. Americans seem unaware of the fact that at least $133 billion of our annual defense budget goes to defending Europe –– picking up the tab for Germany, France, Britain and the other countries even as we compete with them for world trade. There is something wrong in that equation, but a decade of efforts by American presidents to persuade our NATO allies to spend more on defense has produced almost no change. They know a good thing when they see it.

In military terms, the Reagan administration keeps adding to both the nuclear and conventional forces positioned in Europe, mostly in Germany, as though we were still supposed to believe that the Red Army is poised to sweep across the German plain and drive for the English Channel. Almost nobody in Europe takes such a scenario seriously any longer, even among defense strategists. Indeed, the U.S. military presence is as endangering as the Soviet threat it is designed to counter. You can't fire off many tactical nukes without obliterating West Germany, not to mention our ten divisions stationed there.

Sherle R. Schwenninger, editor of The World Policy Journal, offers an alternative: "If we define the problem in central Europe not as a Soviet attack across the German plain but as the potential for conflict by accident as Soviet power erodes in Eastern Europe, you don't want a military posture that will seem like a provocation. You want a defensive posture that is serious enough to be convincing –– meaning it would incur a very heavy cost to the invader –– but does not add to the military tensions in Eastern Europe. If the Soviets have more normal relations with the U.S., the pressures for change in Eastern Europe are less likely to produce Soviet paranoia about its legitimacy and global image as a superpower."

In tangible terms, this means pulling troops and weapons back from the front line in central Europe, "the fault line of potential global conflict," as Schwenninger calls it. The idea in different forms is seriously discussed in Europe, if not in America, not just by peacenik orators but by governments. In the Balkans, the governments of Albania, Yugoslavia, Romania and Greece (itself a member of NATO) have proposed that the two superpowers honor their countries as a nuclear-free zone where no nukes could be stationed. In the north, Sweden, Finland and Norway are discussing a similar posture. Even in central Europe, a less dramatic proposal is gaining support –– the creation of a nuclear-free corridor, 100 miles wide, across Germany.

The economic benefits for America are obvious: a huge easing of our defense burden, presumably phased in over many years, as we gradually bring home the ten divisions now permanently deployed there (the Security Project envisions withdrawing only two of those divisions in the next five years). This would be done, as Gillies argues, step by step, watching both the Soviet response and the concerns of Western European politicians as they at last take responsibility for their own national defense.


AMERICA ALSO NEEDS TO REVIVE THE PROMISING ECONOMIC initiatives that Richard Nixon undertook a decade ago when he encouraged U.S. trade with the Soviets. Because of its population decline, the Soviet Union expects labor shortages in the future, which means it is desperate to rebuild its industrial facilities with high-tech automation. Our allies in Japan and Western Europe are already developing this vast market; they're delighted that Cold War hysteria in the U.S. keeps American businesses from competing with them.

The common-sense solution to this situation –– American business plunging full steam into the Soviet marketplace –– may not be as remote as it sounds. The Commerce Department recently reopened trade talks with the Soviets, focusing on some of the same projects abandoned in the mid-1970s when détente collapsed. American companies have the best technology in the world for mineral extraction and production –– coal, oil, natural gas – and the Russians want to buy it.

Right-wingers in Washington are already denouncing this initiative as the work of "tradeniks." These Cold Warriors would like to cut off the Commies completely, even refusing to sell them American grain. But if one thinks about it, it is in our self-interest to help Russia develop its resources. For the next twenty-five years or so, the threat of energy shortages will continue to hang over the world's prosperity, including ours, at least until alternative technologies are developed and operating. The Soviet Union has the world's largest untapped oil fields, which, when developed for greater production, are bound to reduce the pressures on world oil markets. As our own domestic sources decline, it makes sense for us to burn Russian oil first and save our own precious reserves.


AMERICAN SELF-INTEREST IN THE THIRD WORLD IS more complicated, but it follows from the same clear-eyed pragmatism: what is good for them may also be good for us. In case after case, if we set aside the overheated fears of Soviet empire building, Americans would discover that our fortunes are closely bound to the future of those struggling nations. Today, we depend on them less as sources of raw materials and more as markets that will buy our exports.

Yet the dominant Cold War strategy ignores the economic issues and repeatedly puts us at odds with Third World political aspirations, whether reformist or revolutionary. Reagan's UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, once argued that if the U.S. did not support dictators like Somoza in Nicaragua, "our enemies will have observed that American support provides no security against the forward march of history." Why should Americans want to thwart the "forward march of history," anyway, since we are a forward-looking people ourselves? If we were less insecure about the Soviet Union and more confident of the benefits of democratic capitalism, we would know that history is on our side.

Jerry W. Sanders, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, has called this crusade to contain Soviet influence around the globe a form of isolationism, "ideopolitical isolationism." The phrase is awkward, but if you glance around the world, it sounds right. The Cold War theology compels the U.S. government to make common cause with the apartheid government of South Africa or the brutal repression of Pinochet in Chile or the murderous regime of Marcos in the Philippines. In each case, we are indeed isolating ourselves, not just from the future generations of those countries, but from our moral values. Common sense argues that we should normalize relations with smaller nations like Vietnam and Cuba, not to embrace their ideologies but simply to open an adult dialogue with them. They need us –– the benefits of trading in our markets –– more than we need them.

The crucial point about these economic problems is that in the past Americans have not thought about them as foreign-policy issues. Yet finding solutions to these problems will have more impact on our real security than all of the tiresome debates over how many new weapons to buy. That, perhaps, is how our fear of the Soviet Union hurts us most of all – it spooks an entire nation into ignoring its real perils.


THIS SET OF COLD WAR ALTERNATIVES HAS, OF COURSE, one major drawback. None of the above ideas has a prayer of being seriously considered in the Washington of today. This year, Congress will doubtless trim a few billion from Weinberger's defense budget, and, if people are not deceived by Reagan's sudden enthusiasm for arms control, Congress may even kill the wasteful MX missile system. Those worthy fights will go on in the trenches, but none will challenge the deeper premises of the Cold War or embrace the solutions raised by new thinkers like the folks at the World Policy Institute.

In the 1984 campaign, we got some glimpses of original thinking in Senator Gary Hart's opposition to military intervention in the Middle East and Central America. We saw a clearer outline in many of the imaginative policy positions voiced by Jesse Jackson. But in the campaign foggery, these ideas were no match for the orthodox fears generated by the Cold War, and the candidates lost. Still, they have one thing going for them: in the real world, these ideas make sense.

Arch Gillies is an optimist, anyway. Now he is scouting the country for a few bold men and women who might run for Congress in 1986 and who will have the nerve to articulate some of these ideas –– to challenge our obsession with the Soviets head-on. "I really think it's possible," he said. "If you could find ten or fifteen people in key races who were willing to say something quite different, as different from the orthodoxy as what Reagan and conservatives were saying twenty years ago, and if some of them actually won, it would be like a lightning bolt through the system. People would say, 'My God, they got elected on that platform?'"

Ever the optimist myself, I hope he can find that kind of courage among future candidates. In the meantime, as Gillies says, "the only way to begin is to start saying these things."