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  • Perspective on U.S. Foreign Policy Today
  • Paul H. Nitze (bio)

In the years since the end of the Cold War, I have often been asked, “Do we need a ‘new’ NSC-68?” The question is perhaps not quite the right one, although raised for the right reasons. If what is intended is to ask whether it is time to re-examine the fundamental assumptions of American foreign and security policy just as we did in the late 1940s, then the question is a good one and comparison between eras appropriate. Now, as then, the United States finds itself in an extraordinary position of power and influence as the existing international system and structure has been upended and we again grope for a new means to ensure international stability. Framed in these terms, yes, we do need to review the objectives of foreign policy.

What is misleading about the question of a “new” NSC-68 is that it implies the document was just such a comprehensive strategic review of foreign and security basics, undertaken with the intent of recommending a new policy, containment, and, in turn, formal American commitment to engagement abroad. In truth, the document was not part of the formulation of a new policy; it was a blueprint or strategy (not necessarily the only one, either) for the implementation of an existing policy. The distinction reveals an important difference between then and now. In the three years preceding NSC-68, President Truman had already made crucial political decisions regarding the direction of foreign policy. Most far-reaching of these was his determination to pick up an exhausted [End Page 1] Britain’s mantle as a global, balancing power. Thus those who drafted NSC-68 mapped out an approach toward goals already set. These goals reflected a courageous and, even at the time, controversial decision on the part of Truman to commit the United States to a leading, interventionist role in peacetime world affairs for the first time in its history. In contrast, in the post-Cold War era, the political leadership of the United States, currently the Clinton administration, either has not made up its mind as to what kind of active role, if any, the United States should take, a decision necessary to set the direction and goals of a new national strategy, or our leadership has determined that the country should undertake a less active role than in the past, a choice which dispenses with the need for a grand strategy.

One parallel between the situation in the late 1940s and today is the nature of the international challenge before us and the debate over how to meet it. Even without a Soviet threat to give it urgency, the underlying issue for the United States and the world during the 1940s would have remained the same: what sort of international system and structures would replace those destroyed by two world wars? Moreover, the logical policy questions for the United States were the same with or without the Soviet Union: what world did we want to see and what role were we willing to play both to bring it about and to maintain it? The issues today are similar, even if in the Truman years the alternatives were starker and clearer. We understood then that if the United States did not assert its leadership and set the international agenda on its (and the West’s) terms, then the Soviet Union would seek a system based on its own goals and a hostile ideology. In the 1990s, we have the luxury of a few years of peace and the absence of any serious ideological struggle. The next most influential powers are at once our political allies and our rivals, sharing our basic values, while still pursuing their individual economic and political interests. In short, the world is very much on our terms; at the least, we are in a unique position to influence its future as we choose. The question is whether we will actively embrace the new challenges and opportunities, or passively allow events to take their own, unpredictable course.

The national debate at the time of NSC-68 and into the 1950s was over whether the...

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