The National Interest and the Human Interest: An Analysis of U.S. Foreign Policy

The National Interest and the Human Interest: An Analysis of U.S. Foreign Policy

by Robert C. Johansen

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In an effort to determine the extent to which the United States contributes to the creation of a preferred system of world order, Robert Johansen considers the country's performance against a framework of four major global values: peace, economic wellbeing, social justice, and ecological balance.

Originally published in 1980.

The Princeton Legacy Library


In an effort to determine the extent to which the United States contributes to the creation of a preferred system of world order, Robert Johansen considers the country's performance against a framework of four major global values: peace, economic wellbeing, social justice, and ecological balance.

Originally published in 1980.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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The National Interest and the Human Interest

An Analysis of U.S. Foreign Policy

By Robert C. Johansen


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07618-8


The Elusiveness of A Humane World Community


We live on a planet possessing the potential for peace and fulfillment for all, but societies have been distressingly unsuccessful in achieving these conditions for most of the human race. Why? This book begins to answer this fundamental question by examining two others: What has been the United States role in helping to achieve a secure and humane existence for all people? In pursuit of this goal, what should be the content of U.S. foreign policy now and during the remainder of this century?

In addressing these questions, my purpose is to examine recent U.S. foreign policy in order to clarify its impact on insuring the survival and well-being of U.S. citizens and the entire human race. Does the past conduct of U.S. foreign policy justify confidence that it can meet the unprecedented challenges of the 1980s? This analysis assesses the influence of U.S. policies on the prospects for realizing widely shared humanitarian values and for transforming the international system into one with an improved capacity to implement those values.

The present chapter will (1) illustrate the unprecedented foreign policy problems that will confront political leaders in the last quarter of the twentieth century; (2) explain why the complexity and worldwide dimensions of these problems demonstrate a pressing need for different normative standards for policy making than have been used historically; (3) describe the guidelines which seem essential to insure human survival and to facilitate the realization of other important values, such as the promotion of human rights and the abolition of worldwide poverty; and (4) explain the analytic approach employed in this study.

The Challenge to Humanity's Future

Global Problems in a National Context

Why should scholars, politicians, and ordinary citizens reassess the goals of U.S. foreign policy at this time? The answer is rooted in considerations of both prudence and morality. First of all, some fundamental policy adjustments will be required to satisfy the basic drive for security and survival in the future. Second, the fulfillment of our most cherished humanitarian values can be greatly facilitated by some modifications in the present national approach to policy decisions.


In the first instance, unprecedented problems that are global in scope increasingly exceed the capacity of traditional diplomatic practices and institutions to resolve. In general, our perception of foreign policy problems and opportunities has failed to stay abreast of rapidly changing world realities. This has meant that many policies have been growing increasingly unrealistic in the sense that they simply cannot achieve the ends sought. To oversimplify only slightly, the political leadership and attentive public apply essentially nineteenth-century diplomatic ideas to the solution of twenty-first-century problems, the technical and social origins of which are in the present. Nineteenth-century diplomatic ideas encourage (1) the continued emphasis on serving the national interest defined largely in terms of military power and sovereign control over a carefully defined piece of territory and segment of humanity; and (2) the assumption that the present system of competing national sovereignties either cannot or should not be fundamentally changed, and that it both can and will respond adequately to the foreseeable problems of national security, widespread poverty and resource shortages, severe ecological damage, and pervasive denial of human rights. Under the influence of old diplomatic habits and strong vested interests in the political and economic system inherited from the past, officials continue diplomacy as usual to confront newly emerging twenty-first century problems. For example, traditional diplomatic ideas and institutions persist even though their inadequacy is obvious for averting misuse of nuclear technology, the consequences of which cannot be confined to a carefully defined piece of territory, layer of the atmosphere, or segment of humanity. Traditional uses of military power and sovereign control, however sincerely and faithfully practiced, are impotent in the face of irresponsible behavior by a relatively small number of people who could affect millions of others in many countries for decades, centuries, or millennia to come.

A stark reality faces all inhabitants of the earth: through consequences resulting from major war or ecological imbalance, widespread suffering for millions of people and even eventual extinction of the human species are possibilities. Such statements have become commonplace, and thus they have lost their ring of urgency. Yet predicaments mount while time slips away, making remedial action more difficult and perhaps less likely. Even without major war or ecological collapse, existing political institutions prevent a billion of the world's people from having sufficient food, often resulting in permanent mental or physical disability, even though adequate nutrition is technically feasible. In brief, the decentralized structure of world power and authority, distributed among many sovereign states, perpetuates a relatively anarchic international system in which the danger of war, the shortage of food and other resources, and the presence of persistent ecological hazards threaten the survival of many people, if not, in the long run, of all human civilization. The survival question will not be examined in detail here, but a few brief comments about the political impact of nuclear technology and ecological hazards will illustrate the need to consider an alternative approach to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Subsequent chapters will substantiate this argument in greater detail.

The existence of nuclear weapons without their use in warfare since 1945 has produced a perhaps unjustified confidence that weapons of mass destruction will never be used. Yet, many dangers remain inherent in a strategy of nuclear deterrence. Although the United States is the most powerful nation on earth, it has no effective defense against a nuclear attack. The government can only hope to deter an attack. Yet as nuclear weapons technology spreads to additional countries, the likelihood that such weapons will be used in war increases. A well-known group of strategic experts in a Harvard-M.I.T. Arms Control Seminar have predicted that nuclear weapons will be used in combat before the end of the century — most likely by middle-range powers. Other experts have calculated that the probability of a general nuclear war is increasing. The danger of nuclear war will grow further as tactical nuclear weapons become smaller, lighter, "cleaner," and more mobile, because they will be more easily purchased, transported, and viewed as similar to conventional explosives. Although any single national government may believe that its security is increased if it accumulates more and more advanced weapons, for world society as a whole both the likelihood and the potential destructiveness of future wars are increased by the growth of military equipment and the spread of militarism around the world.

With the dispersal of command and control required by submarine-launched missiles and tactical battlefield weapons, an excessively eager team of officers or a miscommunicated signal could initiate the use of nuclear weapons. While the probabilities for accidental war are no doubt low, the impossibility of eliminating the danger of accidents completely is a rather unsatisfactory condition given the awesome consequences of a mistake.

Nuclear war could also begin through miscalculation by some officials about the anticipated actions of another government. Since deterrence is based on the ability of government X to make government Y believe that X will use nuclear weapons in the face of certain provocations, the only way to insure the credibility of one's posture is to use nuclear weapons occasionally. If the threat to use nuclear weapons is only a bluff by X, then Y could rationally proceed to ignore the threat. Thus the leadership in Y could miscalculate the seriousness of X, and precipitate war.

Furthermore, given the absence of dependable screening procedures in selecting government officials, an emotionally unstable person may, in some country, at some time in the future, exercise decisive power in a government equipped with nuclear weapons. Similarly, political leaders who assume office with normal emotional maturity may, when under political pressure, emotional stress, or fatigue, make decisions with some degree of diminished rationality. President John F. Kennedy deliberately raised the risk of nuclear war to odds he estimated as "even," because he did not like having Soviet missiles ninety miles away in Cuba, even though nuclear missiles could exist legally as close as twelve miles away, in submarines cruising just outside United States territorial waters.

Although there was no apparent security need to risk nuclear war, U.S. officials executed policies that, by their own admission, brought nuclear war frightfully closer: "Not one of us at any time believed that any of the choices before us could bring anything but either prolonged danger or fighting, very possibly leading to the kind of deepening commitment of prestige and power from which neither side could withdraw without resort to nuclear weapons." A key participant in the decisions, Robert Kennedy, reported that, while they hoped to avoid war, "the expectation was a military confrontation." During the discussions, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed U.S. officials that the FBI had received information that Soviet personnel in New York were preparing to destroy all sensitive documents in the belief that the United States would "probably be taking military action against Cuba or Soviet ships, and this would mean war." Robert Kennedy summed up his own and President Kennedy's feelings: "There was the realization that the Soviet Union and Cuba apparently were preparing to do battle. And there was the feeling that the noose was tightening on all of us, on Americans, on mankind, and that the bridges to escape were crumbling."

The tension and anxiety accompanying such a crisis often lead to overreactions. Attorney general Kennedy reported that, for a brief time at least, nearly all advisers favored an air attack: "At first there was almost unanimous agreement that we had to attack early the next morning with bombers and fighters and destroy the SAM [surface to air missile] sites." During the brief time that the President was waiting for a Soviet response to the United States demand for withdrawal of Soviet missiles, Theodore Sorensen reported growing support among Presidential advisers for a direct air strike and invasion of Cuba: "The pressures for such a move ... were rapidly and irresistibly growing, strongly supported by a minority in our group and increasingly necessitated by a deterioration in the situation." During one day of long, almost continuous discussions in the White House, the crisis produced rising tempers and irritability among the small group of decision makers. "Pressure and fatigue, he [the President] later noted privately, might have broken the group's steady demeanor in another twenty-four or forty-eight hours."

Great exhilaration followed the "successful" U.S. testing of Soviet will. Sorensen reported the President "had, as Harold Macmillan would later say, earned his place in history by this one act alone. He had been engaged in a personal as well as national contest for world leadership and he had won." Contesting for the personal and national leadership of the world (or a region of the world) through military confrontation is a motivation that other leaders may have in the future and that can hardly avoid questions of human survival.

The possibilities for nuclear war or for terrorist use of nuclear technology are increased by the spread of fissionable materials to additional private organizations and governments. In addition to the six nuclear weapons countries, a score of other states have the resources and technical skills to produce nuclear weapons within one or two years. No existing international organization can prevent even a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty from deliberately diverting materials to weapons purposes. Moreover, the purchase of nuclear weapons and delivery systems could become a serious possibility. Even without nuclear weapons a determined group could inflict catastrophe on other states. A few pounds of plutonium distributed as a finely ground powder could devastate a city like New York with lethal radiation lasting for centuries. Such an act might even be committed by persons representing no nation-state against which the United States could retaliate. The destruction of civilian nuclear reactors also could cause the loss of thousands of lives. These conditions make deterrence ineffective because no one can genuinely be defended against a determined opponent.

It may bear repeating that major nuclear war would kill most of the urban populations of the antagonists. It would destroy most industry and commerce. Perhaps more than half of the populations in small towns and rural areas would die from fallout, depending on weather conditions, wind direction, and the height of detonations. Living standards and life expectancies would be substantially reduced for any persons remaining. Millions of cancer and leukemia deaths would occur outside the territories of the two antagonists. Untold numbers of genetic problems and birth deformities would await those still living. There would be dangerous effects on the atmosphere, the soil, and the water, as well as consequences presently unanticipated. As Herbert York, former director of defense research and engineering for the Department of Defense, has written:

If for any political, psychological or technical reasons deterrence should fail, the physical, biological and social consequences would be completely out of line with any reasonable view of the national objectives of the United States or Soviet Union. ... [T]here would be a substantial chance that the whole civilized world could go up in nuclear smoke. This is simply too frightful and too dangerous a way to live indefinitely; we must find some better form of international relationship than the current dependency on a strategy of mutual assured destruction.

Given the dangers of nuclear technology, a prudent foreign policy would convey a sense of urgency about establishing the new values and institutions that could make the prohibition of nuclear weapons a feasible, enforceable, compulsory, universal obligation.

Although less dramatic in its immediacy, pollution of the atmosphere and oceans also illustrates a long-range challenge to survival and to the quality of our lives — a challenge that again demonstrates the interconnection of every life on the planet. Although all earthly plant and animal life depends upon the air and the sea, no one exercises sovereignty over or protects vast expanses of the atmosphere and oceans. Nations now pollute them without much regard for long-range consequences to the planet or even for short-range effects outside their national jurisdiction. Yet all ecosystems are part of a delicate ecological balance; all have limits of deterioration beyond which they cannot recover. In many cases we do not know the planetary limits which, if surpassed, would endanger our species.

The consequences of depleting the amount of ozone in the stratosphere illustrate the problem. Without ozone protection, ultraviolet light would break down molecules on earth that are essential to life. Crops, bacteria, and micro-life in general would be affected. Ultraviolet light also causes skin cancer and genetic damage that can severely endanger both animal and plant life. In addition to protecting life from extraplanetary lethal radiation, ozone, by absorbing ultraviolet light, contributes substantially to heating the upper atmosphere surrounding the planet. The depletion of ozone could radically alter the climate of the earth, as well as eventually expose all forms of life to deadly radiation. Even a small drop in density would increase the incidence of birth defects and skin cancer.


Excerpted from The National Interest and the Human Interest by Robert C. Johansen. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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