Document created: 10 October 2003
Air University Review, July-August 1974

National Security in a Decade of Transition

Dr. Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr.

The foreign policy of the United States is shaped by many forces. They include the international environment, the military and nonmilitary capabilities available for the pursuit of national objectives, the nature of the threats posed by other states, the structure of the foreign policy decision-making machinery, and the capacity of the leaders to muster whatever level of public support may be necessary for the pursuit of foreign policy goals at any time.

U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s represents a response to such factors, but especially to perceived changes in the international environment as well as an altered U.S. domestic commitment to foreign affairs. The Nixon Doctrine is based on several assumptions which differentiate the present international system from that of the decade after World War II: Western Europe and Japan have become centers of strength economically but not militarily, and the Communist bloc has been fragmented by the deep rift between Moscow and Peking. As a result, there is a new fluidity in the diplomacy of all major powers in an increasingly heterogeneous and complex world. At the same time the military power of the Soviet Union has grown to such a level as to constitute a form of “parity” with the United States.1  The growth of Soviet military power enhances the need for the United States not only to contemplate qualitative improvements in its own defense capabilities—such as those proposed by Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, including the development of more accurate delivery capabilities at both the strategic and tactical levels as part of its overall research and development program—but also to encourage the strengthening of other centers of power outside the United States, including China, as a counterpoise to the Soviet Union.

It is impossible, of course, to speak now of a fully multipolar international system or even to assume that such a system would inevitably be less prone to international conflict than the bipolar world of the past generation. Militarily, we are likely to remain in a largely bipolar world for at least the next several years. The military capabilities of the United States and the Soviet Union vastly exceed those of other powers. But this condition may be modified by the latter 1970s, with the emergence of China as an increasingly powerful nuclear power. The eventual strengthening of European atomic capabilities and the growth of a significant Japanese defense force would also alter this condition.

Great imponderables prevent a definitive analysis of the military prospects for each of these powers. China is likely to face a leadership succession crisis and may even now be entering another phase of the cultural revolution that could alter her foreign policy and perhaps weaken her as a major power. The future of the Sino-Soviet relationship is uncertain, although there is not likely to be any marked improvement for at least the next several years. Western Europe is far from defense unity and shows few signs of developing either the political institutions or cohesiveness in policy essential to sustain centralized defense decision-making. The Japanese government and public alike remain divided about defense policy. Even if a broadly based domestic consensus existed and the Japanese Constitution (Article 9) were amended to permit major increases in defense spending, formidable technical problems would confront Japan in developing a strategic nuclear force capable of targeting major Soviet population centers west of the Urals. These caveats notwithstanding, however, the question remains unanswered, and unanswerable, as to whether it will prove possible to have economic and diplomatic multipolarity without eventual nuclear multipolarity. Will the major economic powers seek to acquire the most advanced military capabilities, especially if the United States appears no longer able, or willing, to underwrite their security?

In the world of the 1970s, two major triangular relationships have emerged. The first is politico-military and includes the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. The second, an economic triangle, comprises the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. These relationships, and their members, are asymmetrical and unstable. China is far weaker militarily and technologically than the United States or the Soviet Union. The economic strength of Western Europe and Japan is not matched by military strength, and Western Europe and Japan increasingly have become economic competitors of the United States. The 1973 Middle East crisis revealed deep divisions between the United States and its allies in Europe and Japan on foreign policy toward the Arab states and Israel, as well as the difficulties in achieving a harmonization of allied responses or the development of common policies to protect the interests of industrialized, energy-consuming nations faced with unified action by petroleum producers. The economic issues—including energy—separating the United States and its allies hold potential implications for their security relationships. One example is illustrative: a continued divergence of policy on economic and energy issues will make it more difficult to sustain support within the United States for defense commitments to Western Europe and Japan.

Yet only the United States, because of its technological-military-economic strength and its unique diplomatic position vis-à-vis both allies and adversaries, can operate fully within both the U.S.-Soviet-Chinese and the U.S.-West European-Japanese triangular relationships. In recent years the United States has enjoyed considerably greater success in its diplomacy with the Soviet Union and China than with Western Europe and Japan. While exploiting often to its own advantage the Sino-Soviet rift, the United States has had greater difficulty in its alliance relationships with Western Europe and Japan. It has proven far easier for the United States to negotiate with countries such as the Soviet Union and China, with whom we have relatively limited common interests, than with allies, such as Western Europe and Japan, with whom we face complex problems ranging from defense commitments to energy, trade, technology transfer, and the restructuring of the international monetary system. In contrast to the monolithic decision-making centers of Peking and Moscow, the United States must deal with a variety of national decision-making centers in Western Europe groping slowly for a “European” position in the cumbersome framework of the European Community; and with Europe and Japan the United States deals with governments responsible to electorates and legislatures and subject to a variety of domestic pressures that limit their freedom of action in foreign affairs.

The period ahead will be characterized by both collaboration and competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. While the Sino-Soviet conflict, together with Soviet trade and technology needs, gives leverage to the United States in its diplomacy with the Soviet Union, important areas of competition persist between the superpowers, as we have seen so vividly in the Middle East.

The Nixon Doctrine and the Brezhnev Doctrine symbolize contrasting and contending approaches to international relations. The Nixon Doctrine postulates an American identity of interest with the emergence of a more pluralistic international structure based on independent centers of power with which the United States can form “partnerships.” The Brezhnev Doctrine calls for Soviet intervention in Communist states in order to prevent change that threatens the rule of existing regimes or appears to jeopardize Soviet interests. The Soviet Union wishes to retard the emergence of the kind of multipolar, pluralistic world upon which the U.S. foreign policy of the Nixon Doctrine is premised. Instead, the Soviet Union prefers a series of weak states in Europe and Asia from which U.S. security guarantees will have been withdrawn. Moscow appears to be pursuing a European diplomacy aimed at the gradual detachment of key powers, such as the German Federal Republic, from Western security arrangements, as well as the dismantling of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Community and the eventual disengagement of the United States from Western Europe. In Asia, the Soviet Union has embarked on a diplomatic effort designed eventually to strengthen Moscow’s links with Japan. Ironically, the effect of the 1973 Middle East crisis has been to strain U.S. relations with Western Europe and Japan even more than to enhance the Soviet position with Egypt and other Arab states. The greatest Soviet gains may have been in Europe and Japan rather than in the Middle East itself, for the United States, not the Soviet Union, emerged as the power most able to bring about a disengagement of opposing military forces and prepare for a possible settlement.

If the fundamental premise of the Nixon Doctrine is correct—namely, that a more pluralistic world consisting of additional centers of power in Europe and Asia serves U.S. interests more than those of the Soviet Union—the task of U.S. national security planning is both to encourage the emergence of such a “structure for peace” and to operate effectively within an existing system in which power has yet to become diffused, except in the economic sector and in diplomacy. As Dr. Kissinger wrote in 1969: “In the years ahead, the most profound challenge to American policy will be philosophical: to develop some concept of order in a world which is bipolar militarily but multipolar politically.”2 However desirable it might be to lessen the defense burdens that the United States has borne for more than a generation—and they should be reduced wherever possible and feasible—the gap between the strength of the United States and other power centers such as Europe and Japan remains vast.

Despite the problems facing the United States in the aftermath of the Middle East war and the use by the Arab states of the “oil weapon,” the American economy will probably be affected far less adversely than the economies of Europe and Japan. Even if they are able to minimize the adverse economic effects of higher oil prices and the reduced flow of petroleum, both Europe and Japan will remain highly vulnerable to diplomatic blackmail by oil-producer states so long as they are heavily dependent upon Middle East oil. Not only is their economic strength not matched by military capabilities but the economies of Western Europe and Japan face a period of uncertainty as a result of the Arab oil embargo and domestic inflation. Yet it was largely based upon their economic strength that these states gained a status as power centers in the early 1970s and as potential future military-political actors in the world envisaged beyond this decade. The future strength of Western Europe and Japan will depend, of course, on the availability of energy imports but also on the extent to which new forms of energy can be developed either from technological innovation or the exploitation of offshore oil, such as the North Sea in the case of Western Europe, and the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea in the case of Japan.

The basic national security issue facing the United States in the mid-1970s will be to maintain the military strength necessary to serve as a counterpoise to growing Soviet power. In this respect, the United States must possess adequate “bargaining chips” to induce the Soviet Union to enter strategic arms control agreements that limit Soviet weapons programs. We must incorporate into our defense establishment capabilities based on the most advanced technologies. The United States must maintain a defense establishment that is capable of deterring the Soviet Union at both the strategic level and the regional level and, if deterrence fails, of then enabling allies to defend themselves.

The 1973 Middle East crisis is instructive of the intimate relationship between diplomacy and military powerbetween the “negotiation” and “strength” principles of the Nixon Doctrine. Just after the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Syria and Egypt, both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a series of diplomatic ploys backed by their respective defense capabilities. The Soviet Union resupplied its Arab client states with military equipment and, in an apparent effort to limit U.S. action, hinted at the possibility of airlifting Soviet forces to the Middle East. The United States responded by declaring a full alert of its strategic forces. In addition, the United States deployed a carrier task force to the western Indian Ocean and expanded the capabilities of the Sixth Fleet. The United States initiated a massive airlift of military supplies to Israel in an effort to replace weapons destroyed in the intense fighting on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai. It was the military capabilities of the United States—ranging from strategic nuclear forces, airlift, naval units, and material for “limited war” to the replenishment of Israeli equipment—that provided the “cutting edge” of U.S. diplomacy designed to achieve a cease-fire and create conditions for a political settlement.

In the present era, security is dependent not only on military capabilities but also on the economic strength of the United States and other nations. Economically, the United States faces the formidable task working with other states to reshape the economic structure to satisfy needs of the mid-1970s and beyond. After a generation of unprecedented growth in world trade and prosperity, we have entered a period of uncertainty about future economic relationships. World economic prospects for the future are clouded by the revival of protectionist trade policies, a decline in international liquidity, and recession in industrially advanced nations and in the less developed countries, aggravated by the rising cost of petroleum. The need for collaborative solutions to major economic issues, especially among the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, has been heightened by the Middle East crisis. None of the important economic issues now facing the world community can be solved on a strictly national basis. Yet there is little evidence of a will to embark on bold multilateral initiatives. Secretary of State Kissinger’s proposal of December 1973 for a trilateral approach to the solution of the energy crisis, followed by President Nixon’s invitation to a meeting of oil-consumer nations and the Washington Energy Conference itself in February, did not lead to a fully unified response, although the communiqué issued at the end of the conference called for creation of an international energy coordinating group.

The task facing the United States in designing a “structure for peace” is fraught with great complexity, for in the past there has been no direct and positive relationship between peace and a multipolar international structure. Depending upon the divergence or convergence of interests among its members, a world with several major powers could be more prone to conflict than one based upon two superpowers. Therefore, it will be essential for the United States to retain its military commitment to Europe and Japan, since neither will be prepared or able to assume the principal role in its defense for at least the remainder of this decade. But in return for a reaffirmation of U.S. defense commitments, the United States should seek from its allies a greater level of commitment, tangibly expressed, than in the past. The United States should not be more eager than the ally to provide for that country’s defense.

In the Middle East, the United States should continue to support Israel as necessary to secure a balance of power between Israel and the Arab states and should encourage both sides to achieve a more permanent regional settlement in whose preservation all parties will have a stake.

The United States should make an effort to exclude Latin America and Africa from U.S-Soviet political competition. The growing strength of Brazil will give that rising power a role of unprecedented importance in Latin America. While the United States will be drawn increasingly toward a partnership with Brazil, U.S. diplomacy will face a challenge resulting from rising antipathy among the governments of Spanish-speaking Latin America toward Brazil’s newfound status.

Of central importance to the United States in its foreign policy, of course, will be the Soviet-American relationship. The persistence of the Sino-Soviet conflict will confer upon the United States, as it has in recent years, considerable leverage in dealing with both Moscow and Peking. The Soviet need for Western technology and trade will serve to strengthen the U.S. position. But the United States should continue to seek, wherever possible, to maximize diplomatic “linkages” between the various issues in the relationship with the Soviet Union. This means a more adequate understanding of the effects of our trade and technology transfer policy upon our negotiating position in, for example, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Stated differently, the United States should avoid a situation in which trade and technology transfers—for example, in computers and electronics—enable the Soviet Union to remedy its own deficiencies and thereby strengthen its strategic forces, the effect of which is to render more difficult and complex the achievement of U.S.-Soviet strategic arms control agreements.

At the Moscow Summit Conference of June 1972, President Nixon and Secretary Brezhnev signed a Declaration of Principles, declaring that efforts by either superpower “to obtain unilateral advantage at the expense of the other, directly or indirectly” are inconsistent with the strengthening of “peaceful relations” between them. The joint declaration stressed the need for the United States and the Soviet Union to avoid nuclear war either through direct conflict or as a result of escalation of third-party conflict.

The Middle East conflict sorely tested the principles set forth in the joint declaration. The Soviet Union introduced into the Middle East weapons of unprecedented quantity and quality, which were used by Syrian and Egyptian forces in the Yom Kippur war. Crucial to the future of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, especially in light of the Middle East crisis, is the extent to which the United States can discourage the Soviet Union from seeking unilateral advantage in regional conflicts. In short, the task facing the United States is to link its overall security relationship with the Soviet Union to specific regional and other issues facing Washington and Moscow. Superpower strategic relationships must not jeopardize, or be isolated from, regional problems. Stability in superpower strategic relationships is incompatible with regional conflict aided and abetted by one of the superpowers.

Here the United States faces an especially difficult problem in its relations with the Soviet Union. Moscow has shown little inclination to eschew policies designed to enhance the Soviet position where the possibility exists for gaining “unilateral advantage.” This bespeaks an even more fundamental problem in Soviet-American relations: the extent to which the United States and the Soviet Union share similar, or even compatible, visions of a future global “structure for peace.” Is the current phase of U.S.-Soviet relations the beginning of a longer-range trend toward the creation of a more stable international order, or but a passing phase in the Soviet effort to achieve a pre-eminent position in world affairs? Upon the answers to such questions will depend the success or failure of much of U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead, as well as the capacity of the United States to build a new “structure for peace” in whose preservation all nations have a stake.

Foreign Policy Research Institute


1. For an analysis of the major assumptions about the international environment upon which U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s is based, see President Richard Nixon. U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970s: Building for Peace (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 25,1971
pp. 4-5.

2. Henry A. Kissinger, American Foreign Policy: Three Essays (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969), p. 79.


Dr. Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr. (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) is Director, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; Associate Professor of International Politics, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; and Editor of Orbis. He has been Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania; Visiting Lecturer, Foreign Service Institute, Department of State; and George C. Marshall Professor, College of Europe, Bruges, Belgium. Dr. Pfaltzgraff’s writings have been widely published in professional journals and books.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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