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  • That Was Then, This Is Now: Toward a New NSC-68
  • Ted Galen Carpenter (bio)

Two documents stand out as especially important for an understanding of U.S. policy during the Cold War. The first is George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” and his subsequent “X” article in Foreign Affairs, which articulated the need to contain Soviet power. The second is NSC-68, which made the case for both escalating and institutionalizing the containment policy and constituted a detailed blueprint that would guide U.S. strategy for the next four decades. NSC-68 arguably had the greater impact.

In retrospect, it is striking how much NSC-68 was a conceptual creature of the early Cold War era. True, some passages in the document insisted that the United States probably would have pursued one of the two major policy prescriptions, “attempting to develop a healthy international community, even if there were no Soviet threat.” 1 There were also occasional references to the importance of supporting the ideals of the United Nations. Nevertheless, the overwhelming bulk of the document, and virtually all of the important substantive proposals, dealt with the urgent need to more vigorously contain Soviet power. Containment was the core premise of NSC-68.

Moreover, the authors explicitly justified a more robust containment policy on the grounds that the Soviet Union was not merely another expansionist great power in a traditional multipolar [End Page 72] international system. To the contrary, NSC-68 asserted that both the malignant nature of Soviet power and the extreme bipolarity of the post-World War II international system were unprecedented phenomena.

For several centuries it had proved impossible for any one nation to gain such preponderant strength that a coalition of other nations could not in time face it with greater strength. The international scene was marked by recurring periods of violence and war, but a system of sovereign and independent states was maintained, over which no state was able to achieve hegemony.

Two complex sets of factors have now basically altered this historical distribution of power. First, the defeat of Germany and Japan and the decline of the British and French Empires have interacted with the development of the United States and the Soviet Union in such a way that power has increasingly gravitated to these two centers. Second, the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, that seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” 2

In order to comprehend fully the rationale embodied in NSC-68, it is imperative to appreciate both unprecedented strategic components particular to the early Cold War era. In other words, NSC-68 was created to address a very specific set of conditions in the international system. Whatever the validity or effectiveness of this strategy may have been for a starkly bipolar, Cold War setting, there is no reason to believe that such a blueprint would be appropriate for a setting in which bipolarity and totalitarian expansionism are no longer the dominant considerations.

An appropriate security strategy for the United States should be based on an assessment of current and prospective conditions in the international system, an appreciation of America’s exceptionally secure geostrategic position within that system, and an unemotional calculation of the most cost-effective and risk-averse methods of protecting the republic’s vital interests. The United States has unparalleled military capabilities, a markedly superior economy, and a lack of powerful, hostile neighboring states. Because of the vast changes that have occurred in the international system since 1950, especially since the end of the Cold War, the United States has the opportunity to exploit its unique geostrategic advantages in ways that would have been difficult during the atypical era of Cold War bipolarity. Specifically, Washington can be far more selective in its political and military commitments since there is no looming hegemonic threat. The United States can play the role of balancer of last resort rather than intervenor of first resort. [End Page 73]

Despite the vastly altered strategic environment, however, post-Cold War U.S. policymakers have reflexively sought to preserve the principal features of NSC-68, namely high...

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