History was not lost on President George W. Bush ’68 when he addressed an audience Tuesday morning at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Speaking of the school’s namesake, Bush said, “[Nitze] encouraged our nation to continue … its noble and essential role as freedom’s defender. He was the principal author of NSC-68, the strategic blueprint for America’s victory in the Cold War.”
Whether NSC-68, the National Security Council’s response to Harry Truman’s presidential directive in early 1950, led America to Cold War victory is a highly debatable question, one best left to Cold War historians. But Bush’s affection for Nitze, one of our country’s great Cold warriors, and NSC-68 should come as no surprise.
NSC-68, approved in late 1950, defined the Cold War as a confrontation between the Soviet Union — the “slave state” — and the United States, the “free state.” Such Manichean language has reemerged since 9/11, perhaps most famously in Israeli author Natan Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy.” The book, predictably a Bush favorite, reproduces the bipolar world view codified in NSC-68 for the 21st century. In a not-so-subtle twist, Sharansky evokes NSC-68 with his opposing “free societies” and “fear societies.”
“While discussions on the appropriate boundaries of various freedoms may make for interesting policy debates within democratic societies, they fail to make a crucial distinction between societies that are based on freedom and those that are based on fear,” he writes.
It is no coincidence that Bush’s rhetoric echoes Sharansky’s writings and the message of NSC-68. In his address on Tuesday, the president described the War on Terror as “an ideological struggle with an enemy that despises freedom and pursues totalitarian aims. As in the Cold War, our adversary is dismissive of free peoples, claiming that men and women who live in liberty are weak and decadent — and they lack the resolve to defend our way of life.”
But reproducing the confrontational and dualistic rhetoric of NSC-68 carries dangerous consequences for the United States. Such language limits our diplomatic flexibility and, like NSC-68, is overly dependent on military power to achieve objectives.
While our nation’s leader was addressing an audience at Johns Hopkins, Francis Fukuyama, one of that institution’s intellectual leaders, was here at Yale discussing his new book, “America at the Crossroads,” before a Yale Globalization Center audience.
In his new book, Fukuyama criticizes many of his former neo-conservative colleagues. Referring to the Bush administration’s half-baked Cold War comparisons, he writes, “The rhetoric about World War IV and the global war on terrorism should cease. … Conceiving the larger struggle [the War on Terror] as a global war comparable to the world wars or the Cold War vastly overstates the scope of the problem, suggesting that we are taking on a large part of the Arab and Muslim worlds.”
The administration’s reliance on bipolar and absolutist rhetoric has manifested itself in the alienation of allies, a reliance on hard power and the neglect of soft power. While military power in Iraq successfully removed Saddam Hussein from power, the difficult reconstruction has revealed the inadequacy of its counterpart.
Bush said at Johns Hopkins, “Like the Cold War, America is once again answering history’s call with confidence — and like the Cold War, freedom will prevail.”
But whether or not freedom and democracy prevail, as they did in the Cold War, will not depend on American military might alone.
When NSC-68 circulated throughout the government in 1950, William Schaub, a mid-level NSC official, offered a fierce critique. He condemned the militarism of NSC-68 and its neglect of the war for “men’s minds.” He blasted the division of the world between free and slave states, writing, “While it is true that the USSR and its satellites constitute something called a slave world, it is not true that the U.S. and its friends constitute a free world. Are the Indo-Chinese free? Can the peoples of the Philippines be said to be free under the corrupt Quirino government?”
As the United States continues to rely on authoritarian allies in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Bush administration should take Schaub’s and Fukuyama’s messages to heart. The War on Terror is not the Cold War, no matter how much President Bush wishes it were. Are there applicable lessons from the Cold War? Absolutely. But based on Bush’s speech Tuesday, it appears he is still figuring some of them out.
Sean Singer is a senior in Berkeley College. He is a research assistant at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.