Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Carcass of Dead Politics



May 25, 1998

The decision last month to expand NATO was described by the Washington Post as the most significant action taken by the Senate this session. If so, it also is the most regrettable.

Even at a prima facie level, the case is flawed. NATO was designed specifically to meet the Soviet threat, and it performed its job well in very specific circumstances. Today, the security context is, by every measure, different. The Soviet threat and the bipolar world are gone and a different Russia is emerging. Yalta died when the Soviet Union did; Western Europe is stable, prosperous, and democratic; Central Europe is evolving from years of Nazi and Stalinist domination; and the traditional Westphalian state system is in the midst of fundamental change. Indeed, the international system appears to be undergoing realignment of tectonic proportions.

And yet, the United States continues to do what former British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury described in 1877 as "clinging to the carcass of dead policies." NATO, as the rhetorical linchpin of U.S. foreign and security policy, is our primary contemporary carcass. We are committing enormous resources and pride of place to an anachronism as outmoded as were London's Eastern policies in the late 19th century that so concerned Salisbury. The whole process is undergirded by a mantra—such as using NATO to build a "Europe whole and free"—that is meaningless, but is designed to shut off debate with the ring of sanctity.

NATO's relevance has been declining ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91, for example, vital American (and European) economic interests—access to oil—arguably were at stake. Although the crisis seemingly provided NATO with an ideal opportunity to demonstrate a vigorous out-of-area capability, the organization's cumbersome machinery, archaic procedures, and tangle of different national interests relegated it to little more than a "truck stop."

The end of the Cold War provides us with a unique opportunity to reexamine our national priorities. It is one of those rare moments in history—similar to the end of World War II—to question the old paradigms, to examine whether something new would better serve America's public welfare and national interest. Why, for example, should we continue to concentrate so many precious resources propping up a security apparatus in Europe when our primary challenges and opportunities there are economic? If we remain content to reaffirm the status quo and refuse to do the hard work of questioning basic assumptions and charting a new course, we will miss a golden opportunity.

It is also time to end the bifurcation between domestic and foreign policy. During the simple days of the Cold War we knew who our enemy was and had a broad consensus on how to deal with him. But the distinction is now artificial. The question of what the world is becoming, of who we are and where we should be going as a society, can no longer be answered by such neat compartmentalization. Would the billions of dollars so easily and quietly available for Bosnia, for example, be better spent here at home on mass transit, education, and inner city rehabilitation?

In new circumstances we must clarify our interests—both foreign and domestic—and determine what resources are needed to pursue them. We need to think creatively about how government and society should be organized to promote justice and secure peace today. We still have time for such debate, but given the recommitment to the status quo inherent in the NATO decision, the window will not remain open for long.

—Steven A. Meyer, Ph.D., Center Associate
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”