PERSPECTIVE ON ‘THE VISION THING’ : Stay the Benign, Unruffled Course : Rhetoric and grand posturing have their moments. But democracy’s finest hour is not one of them.

<i> John Mueller is a professor of political science at the University of Rochester and the author of "Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War" (Basic Books, 1989). </i>

There are times in the course of international affairs when resounding rhetoric and grand ideas are called for. This isn’t one of them.

George Bush is constantly being criticized because he has greeted recent momentous changes in Europe and elsewhere with bland rhetoric, and because he projects no exalted sense of “vision” in international policy. Indeed, if Winston Churchill had met the German challenge during the Battle of Britain with Bush’s oratorical flair, England might well have toppled gratefully into ignominious surrender. But rhetoric and grand posturing could make a difference in that case. Today, during democratic capitalism’s finest hour, the best policy is one of benign, unruffled watchfulness.

Overall, the trends in foreign affairs are highly favorable: The enemy is evaporating; the Cold War is becoming history; war is declining in likelihood; democracy and capitalism are all the rage, and the American portion of the international economy moves along, on the whole, in quite tolerable shape. It may make sense to cheer these congenial trends on, and it might be useful to give some thought about what one might do if any of them began to show serious signs of reversing. But when history is so clearly on one’s side, substantial efforts to influence or direct might only prove mischievous and counterproductive.

This would not be true if we really knew what caused these trends or if we had a good idea about how they could be shaped. But for the most part, we don’t.


Despite some occasional setbacks, democracy has been on the upswing for 200 years now. The United States has been able to accelerate this trend in a few peculiar cases--as when it forcefully demanded that the defeated states of World War II adopt democratic procedures. But America has mainly encouraged the trend by example, not by artificial manipulation. It once spent decades on end running around Latin America preaching the democratic gospel, only to see country after country revert to dictatorship. Democracy seems now to have become an idea whose time has come in Latin America. But manipulation by Washington deserves little credit for the fashion.

Something similar could be said for the increasing attractiveness of capitalism around the world--the North American, Japanese and West European example has been much more impres sive than tangible efforts to make the idea catch on.

Bush is most often urged to come up with a new, dynamic vision to replace the policy of containment that is now becoming obviated by success. But there never was anything terribly dynamic about containment. Mostly, it involved patiently holding the line until communism reached a state of self-destruction. This has now come about--not because we have been particularly good at holding the line but because the containment theorists were essentially correct in their conclusion that communism was inherently unstable and irrational.

That is, communism is collapsing not so much because of anything we did but because the theologians in Moscow were building on fundamentally unsound ideas when they decided to adopt a vicious and unproductive economic and social system, to vastly over-build on defense and to grasp to their bosom a set of colonies that became draining economic and political liabilities. Western policy was not designed to force them to make those profound errors--indeed, if the Communists had taken our advice, they never would have done such stupid things. When containing did become dynamic and manipulative, it led us into the Korean and Vietnam wars. It does not seem that either venture speeded communism’s inevitable collapse very much (though the earlier war did save South Korea from communism). Thus, it makes more sense to argue that the Cold War was lost by the misguided policies of the East, not that it was won by the ingenious policies of the West.

In the 1980s the United States tried to come up with dramatic and dynamic strategies to deal with terrorism. Presidential candidates vied about who could best “put an end” to the problem. The importance of the terrorist threat may well have been exaggerated (in the last decade more Americans have been killed by lightning than by terrorism) but the most effective policies have been ones that relied on quiet, routine police work, rather than on grand schemes or dramatic gestures.

In particular, the hostage-taking fad seems now to be winding down. In large measure this is happening because, after years of hysteria that fed the egos of the kidnapers (while ruining the presidency of Jimmy Carter and almost ruining that of Ronald Reagan), we have finally decided that the best approach is to wait patiently for the petty international criminals holding the hostages to grow tired of their childish games.

And, as many people have pointed out, the drug problem is more likely to be eased (it will never be reduced to “zero” as Bush pointlessly implied in one of his rare lapses into rhetoric) by mundane policies of education and treatment than by mobilizing aircraft carriers or interdicting commerce in South American jungles.

In general, grand schemes and cosmic tinkering can be harmful because they tend to distract attention from the dull, mundane policies that are most likely to help--and which can easily be reversed if they are found not to work.

If a boulder is cascading down a hill, little needs to be done to enhance its progress. It is a sensible policy, if a rather unexciting one, to stand back and let gravity take its course. Similarly, American foreign policy should be principally devoted to avoiding zealous devices that merely complicate, and could potentially divert, history’s remarkably congenial progress.