Vincent Davis is director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.
Hierarchies of status and authority have always existed in social systems. These pecking orders are inherent in all societies, and are established by pecking. In the international social system, nations peck on each other.
Superpowers have typically emerged after the pecking process has eliminated other possible contenders. World War I was one such process of elimination with the United States and Britain remaining as the two logical superpower contenders. At least, President Wilson thought so soon after Armistice Day when he directed US military leaders to plan on Britain as America's most likely new enemy. Wilson had feared that the German fleet interned at Scapa Flow would be added to the Royal British Navy, although his anxieties were later eased when those formidable ships were scuttled.
The point is that, while the US and Britain probably were closer in terms of shared values and heritage than any other two nations on earth, this common ideological stance did not prevent the US from viewing Britain as the most likely new threat. Superpowers resemble rogue elephants in the forest -- they regard each other warily simply because they are the only animals capable of doing great harm to one another, notwithstanding all other considerations.
In like manner, the US and the Soviet Union emerged from World War II as the two valid superpower contenders, and started pecking on each other. Ideological quarrels aggravated what was certain to be a major rivalry in any event, but those differences were not the main issue. Yet great confusion has existed among Americans for several decades as to whether their enemy was "communism" or the USSR.
Navy Secretary Forrestral made an early contribution to this confusion during 1945-46 when he distributed within the Truman cabinet and elsewhere (including the Pope as one recipient) a paper prepared by a small "braintrust" on Forrestal's staff. Any presumptive superpower emerging victorious from a big war will characteristically look around and ask itself: are there any potential new enemies on the horizon? That's what Wilson sid when he pinpointed Britain in late 1918.But, when Forrestal did it in 1945-46, he identified the USSR and then defined it in terms of communism.
This thing called communism was definitely America's big scare in the 1950s. "Red" China had joined this threat complex, and it was assumed: (1) all communists are centrally directed; (2) all communist are the same; (3) once a communist, always a communist. We defined the "communist bloc" as a huge unbreakable chunk of granite about to start a gloval avalanche which would destroy us -- unless we could check it.
Secretary of State Dulles early in his tenure operated with the axiom: if you're not clearly with us, you're against us -- and tantamount to being communist if not in fact so. Dulles at the end of his term had gained enough wisdom to reverse the formulation: if you're not clearly against us, maybe you could be with us. But the confusion remained.
Columbia University professor Zbigniew Brzezinski believed that the communist glue was strong enough to hold the pieces together regardless of other factors. Accordingly, he wrote in the April 1961 issue of Foreign Affairs that no such thing as a "Sino-Soviet split" could ever occur, while most knowledgeable specialists were agreeing that it had in fact occured. Secretary of state Dean Rusk near the end of his term uttered the central truth: communism exists in as many different variations as there are countries in which it is found. Now we understand that there are important differences even within such countries.
The most powerful "ism" in the world today and for at least 100 years has been nationalism. Communism almost everywhere -- including the USSR -- is subordinated to nationalism and national interests as nationally defined. Any definition of national interests, however, is always in flux, as national and international circumstances shift. Communism as such was never the enemy. We now have a combined intelligence operation with -- think of it! -- one of the two communist giants. China, to spy on the other one. Similarly, the USSR will do business with any country which can help it pursue its national interests, and it operates 84 capitalist profit-seeking companies worldwide.
America's dominant adversary is and has been the USSR, not because it is communist, but because it is the other superpower, armed to the teeth, willing to use aggression, operating a totalitarian system with traditional Russian values wholly contrary to the individualist values of the West. We can get along with a variety of leftist governments as long as they are independently and nonaggressively nationalistic -- not just China, but Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania, and others. Yet a Reagan administration critic advises studying Marxism- Leninism before believing that the USSR is masterminding world terrorism, and the administration itself sees communism as the enemy south of the border.
The sooner we focus on nations rather than idelogies, the sooner we can clarify precisely who and what is the real threat to the US.