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  • War and Foreign Policy, American-Style
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski (bio)

The central question in world affairs today can be encapsulated in a parody of an old pacifist slogan: Can America make war while loving peace? The fact is that American power—including the presumption in special circumstances of its coercive application—provides the indispensable basis for global stability. The only real alternative to it is global anarchy.

The fundamental truth of the foregoing proposition—however offensive it may be to those who resent the prevailing international reality—can be easily tested. Just consider the likely consequences of a Congressional vote mandating the prompt withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Korea, the Persian Gulf, and Europe. Inevitably and almost immediately, a massive outbreak of violence around the world would follow. No similar scenario can even be envisioned in regard to any other existing power. Like it or not, America is—and will probably remain for a generation or so—the linchpin of global stability. 1

This reality places a premium on America’s capacity to use its current preponderance of power responsibly and strategically (while it still lasts) to promote the gradual sharing of global responsibilities with willing regional powers, preferably ones that share America’s democratic vocation. The effective pursuit of this task, however, requires an America that has the ability both to employ skillful diplomacy and to impose—if necessary—decisive dominance. And because America is a democracy, that ability must be sustained by the political culture from which America’s international conduct is derived. [End Page 172]

It is in this context that I turn to Tocqueville’s reflections on the American democracy’s capacity to wage war and to make peace. This observant Frenchman showed an extraordinary ability to grasp the novel character of the American experience and to anticipate its universal relevance to the emerging democratic age. Yet upon reading his observations with the recent Kosovo military operation still fresh in my mind and with the wars in Vietnam and Korea registered in my memory, I am also struck by his curious mixture of brilliantly enduring insights and dogmatic misjudgments.

Tocqueville’s comments on the character and role of the military in a democracy were especially skewed. Never fearful of sweeping generalizations, he placed particular emphasis on what he perceived to be the basic contradiction between the central values of a democratic society and the imperatives of a martial spirit. In a democracy, he asserted, “military ambition is indulged only when no other is possible. Hence arises a circle of cause and consequence from which it is difficult to escape: the best part of the nation shuns the military profession because that profession is not honored, and the profession is not honored because the best part of the nation has ceased to follow it” (II, 267).

That observation, most applicable in recent times to the antimilitary atmosphere that prevailed in America during the Vietnam War and perhaps also the interlude between the two World Wars, led him to the far-reaching conclusion that democratic armies “are constantly drawn to war and revolutions” as a means of accelerating the social advancement of their officer corps. He minced no words: “A restless and turbulent spirit is an evil inherent in the very constitution of democratic armies and beyond hope of cure” (II, 269). While suspicious of the personal ambitions of the officer caste, he reserved his most scathing comments for the noncommissioned officers (NCOs), perceiving them to be congenital enemies of the democratic constitutional order, “bent on war, on war always and at any cost; but if war be denied them, then they desire revolutions” (II, 274). Lest readers conclude that his observations were derived from his encounters with the American military and hence applicable particularly to America, Tocqueville added categorically: “It would be an error to suppose that these various characteristics of officers, non-commissioned officers, and men belong to any particular time or country; they will always occur at all times and among all democratic nations” (II, 274).

The American experience, in fact, collides with Tocqueville’s generalizations. The U.S. military—whether in times of universal military service or when staffed primarily by professional...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 172-178
Launched on MUSE
2000-01-01
Open Access
No
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