41. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Analysis of changes in international politics since World War II and their implications for our basic assumptions about U.S. foreign policy

In your meeting with the NSC Staff on October 2 you expressed the view that many basic aspects of international politics have changed during the past two decades, and you suggested that we ought to have an analysis of the implications of these changes for the underlying premises of U.S. foreign policy.

One of the first studies the Staff undertook was a comprehensive review of major trends in international politics. Part of that rather long review was a summary of these trends in the context of the postwar evolution of American foreign policy and the current mood of reassessment. I have attached this document (Tab A).

The document is one individual’s interpretation of a momentous period in U.S. foreign policy, not a consensus of the Staff. But its overview of current trends is based on all the relevant official studies, documents, and analyses and on systematic discussions within the intelligence community. It indicates the emergence of an increasingly complex and pluralistic international environment and suggests some of the implications of this phenomenon for the basic pattern of U.S. policy, but it does not purport to recommend American responses.

Tab A


In a meeting with the NSC Staff on October 2 the President suggested that, in view of basic changes in international politics over the last twenty years, it would be useful to have a reassessment of the governing assumptions underlying American foreign policy. The pages that follow may serve this purpose.

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There are three parts to this analysis. The first two parts assess the current questioning of American foreign policy in the light of basic changes—and some continuities—in the international environment and in America’s position in the world. The third section spells out the most important trends in international politics over the next one to five years. In this context it suggests on pages 17-19 ways in which the dominant rationale of U.S. foreign policy during much of the cold war must be modified.

This analysis is a personal interpretation, but it is based on a thorough examination of the voluminous answers to NSSM-92 and all the relevant documents in the intelligence community.


Americans are questioning major features of the policy that has dominated the U.S. position in the world since the beginning of the cold war. Their questioning arises not only from disaffection with the war in Vietnam but also from a sense that familiar perceptions of the world do not fit a changing reality.

American foreign policy throughout most of the years since World War II could be summed up, with only a little exaggeration, as containment—that is, the prevention of communist expansion. Although the implementation of containment changed greatly during this period, the objective dominated American policy.

The threat of communist expansion has not disappeared, nor has the U.S. ceased being concerned about it. But the patterns of conflict and alignment, of power and political activity, among nations have changed in so many ways—and the communist world has changed so greatly—that containment no longer adequately describes the organizing concept of American foreign policy.

This change has not occurred suddenly. It is the result of a process that is in some respects at least a decade old. But its impact on American policy is sharpened now by a national mood of reappraisal—reappraisal of America’s foreign interests and of how it should use its power to support them; reappraisal of familiar assumptions about international realities, of the proper extent of American involvement in the world, and of the relative weight that ought to be given to internal rather than external concerns.

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This mood of reappraisal has been precipitated by the costs and frustrations of the war in Vietnam, but it goes deeper than the reaction to the war and will outlast the war. In Congress, for example, it extends to a loss of confidence in the wisdom of the Executive Branch to define the requirements of American military security. On the campuses it is manifested in efforts to exclude military training and research. But underlying a broad spectrum of dissatisfaction with American foreign policy is an ill-defined feeling that the United States has become involved in world affairs to an extent that exceeds the imperatives of its vital interests, the efficacy of its power, and its equitable share of the burdens of international order. In short, there is a widespread feeling that the nation is “over-committed” and that the familiar rationale of American involvement—containment, falling dominoes, the Munich analogy—no longer fits the facts as it seemed to fit them in a simpler period of East-West confrontation.

At the moment this feeling reflects a mood of doubt and frustration, not a set of hardened convictions. It is “limitationist” rather than “isolationist”. It does not spring from the traditional isolationist disposition to remain aloof from the world or the isolationist premise that the U.S. ought to confine the exercise of its material and economic—and especially its military—power to the protection of the United States alone. The commitments the limitationists are prepared to accept would have struck the so-called neo-isolationists of the late 1940’s as the product of extravagant interventionism. On the other hand, now that the U.S. has become a global power, the impact of limitationism upon the position of the U.S. in the world could be no less significant than the impact of isolationism before World War II.


A brief survey of the recent history of American foreign policy indicates the extent to which both the realities and the American perception of the realities have changed. These changes are the background in terms of which the significance of current international trends for American policy should be assessed.

The Europe-Centered Bipolar Order

From the United States standpoint the cold war was at the outset dominated by a military confrontation and a political and ideological contest with the Soviet Union in Europe, although this contest had antecedents in Iran and Greece. This confrontation became the basis for the organization of most of Europe into two military alliances, each under the preponderance of a superpower. It froze the division of Germany and Europe and thereby intensified the contest between the [Page 126] two superpowers and their allies. At the same time, however, the management of the military balance of Europe by two extra-European superpowers also dampened intra-European power politics in both Eastern and Western Europe—politics which had repeatedly been the source of international turmoil and war—and thereby created a new kind of international order.

The bipolar order was stabilized by the consolidation of American deterrence in Europe and by the growth of nuclear inhibitions on both sides. Moreover, in the atmosphere of superpower détente following the Berlin and Cuban missile crises the danger of East-West armed conflict in Europe came to seem negligible, notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia rekindled concern about the unpredictability of Soviet military action and about the prospect of East European conflict spilling over into West Germany.

The Spread of the Cold War to the Third World

Beginning with the Korean War, the bipolar contest, having become relatively stable in Europe, spread to Asia and then, in various muted and indirect ways, to the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean. In spreading to the so-called Third World, this contest also became more diffuse and complicated. For the restless, mostly unstable and poor new states of the crumbling colonial world were moved by a variety of concerns having little or nothing to do with the cold war between the superpowers. Their dominant concerns, next to the achievement of full independence, were national unity, national status, modernization, and the pursuit of local state rivalries.

Nonetheless, in the mid-1950’s it seemed as though the Third World might become the decisive arena of the cold war. Following the Korean War the U.S. sought to extend containment to Asia and the Middle East by means of a network of alliances and declarations intended to bolster deterrence, by economic aid and military assistance agreements intended to foster friendly stable states, and in the 1960’s by more pointed appeals to nationalism and neutralism intended to identify the U.S. with the rising aspirations of the “developing” world.

Similarly, Soviet and Communist Chinese leaders switched from reviling nonaligned states to embracing them as collaborators against the remnants of imperialism. The Soviet Union launched its own selective program of economic and military assistance to gain influence and, possibly, control in areas of Western vulnerability. When the strategy of peaceful coexistence and appeals to bourgeois nationalism failed to pay satisfactory dividends, the international communist parties endorsed, in 1960, a more militant strategy of supporting “wars of national liberation”.

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Contrary to the popular view in Western countries, however, Soviet leaders were staunchly opposed to Peking’s active pursuit of this course at the risk of involving the Soviet Union in war. They were not averse to supporting subversion where the USSR could control the subverters at a minimum cost and risk, and they could not refuse assistance to the self-proclaimed socialist state of Castro’s Cuba; but they preferred to project their influence by establishing close relations with nationalist, anti-Western regimes.

The new regimes in the Third World capitalized upon the extension of the great-power contest to their domain in order to gain personal and national status and acquire material assistance. Colorful national leaders—Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, Nkrumah—dramatized their role in world politics, exalting nonalignment as a principle of international order and touting the struggle for the moral and intellectual allegiance of the modernizing nations as the essence of international politics.

The Intractability of the Third World

The emergence of politically independent and active states in the colonial areas has exerted a tremendous impact on international politics, but the Third World has not proved to be a decisive arena of great-power conflict. Nor does it fit any of the simplifying conceptions about the climactic role of the less developed countries, such as the polarization of world politics on a North-South or rich-poor axis or on the basis of a grand ideological competition for the organization of developing societies. The area is simply too heterogeneous, disorganized, and resistant to external control and influence to fit into any such single pattern of international politics. Accentuated subnational—communal, ethnic, and tribal—and inter-state conflicts have proved to be stronger determinants of policy than any common denominator among the new states, such as the desiraced the hard problems of internal unity, national security, and economic solvency. The mystique of nonalignment has been dissipated by growing divisions among Afro-Asian states, the discovery by India and others of a national security problem that may require limited alignment with one or both superpowers, and the death or political decline of the charismatic national leaders. dissipated by growing divisions among Afro-Asian states, the discovery by India and others of a national security problem that may require limited alignment with one or both superpowers, and the death or political decline of the charismatic national leaders.

Finally—as events in Greece, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, Guatemala, the Congo, Laos, and Indonesia show—the capacity of local communist parties to subvert or gain control of unstable states by “wars [Page 128] of national liberation” or any other means has proved to be quite limited. This is true even when such parties are supported by an adjacent communist power, especially if the target states receive external assist-ance. South Vietnam now seems to be an exception, due to a combination of unique circumstances: the sophisticated use of modern military power by North Vietnam, the organizational genius of Ho Chi Minh in developing an extensive Viet Cong infrastructure, and his ability to exploit nationalist sentiment in the war against the French. Cuba is an equally unique case of the leader of a non-communist revolution seeking Soviet assistance by appealing for membership in the communist camp.

The Loosening of Alliances

While the superpowers were growing aware of the complexity, intractability, and hazards of over-involvement in the Third World they were also becoming increasingly concerned with the cohesion of their alliances.

In NATO the growing capacity of the USSR to inflict nuclear devastation on the U.S. cast doubt on the credibility of America’s nuclear protection. But the European allies were caught between the logic of a strategy of flexible response, which by 1967 prevailed on paper, and the political reality of budgetary restrictions on defense, which prevented conventional force improvements to support the strategy in practice.

President De Gaulle asserted France’s independence by pulling her out of NATO’s Organization and opposing American efforts to reduce allied dependence on a strategy of nuclear deterrence. Other allies were also growing restive under American preponderance, but they regarded American forces in Europe as indispensable to their security and showed few signs of being ready to supplant American preponderance with tangible efforts of their own.

At the same time, the U.S. was under steady domestic pressure to reduce its forces in Europe substantially. This prospect accentuated allied doubts about the reliability of American protection, but reinforced their own domestic pressures for reduction of defense efforts.

Now, in an atmosphere of détente, which persists despite the Czechoslovakian crisis, the appeal of East-West relations is more compelling than collective defense needs, and in the smaller countries concessions to the latter can be gained only through active deference to the former. Yet U.S. accommodations with the USSR, although welcomed in general as a contribution to détente, tend to arouse suspicion—especially in the FRG that the U.S. seeks a condominium with the USSR at the expense of allied interests. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been especially provocative in this respect, since it requires the FRG to sign a pledge of self-abnegation to appease special Soviet interests and fears.

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Nonetheless, after twenty years the North Atlantic Alliance still serves its essential security function and still seems indispensable to its members.SEATO and CENTO (in which the U.S. is not formally a member) have increasingly shown their lack of cohesion, but the U.S. never conceived of them as being much more than means of conveying America’s deterrent to the rimlands of Eurasia. America’s other alliances and security commitments in Asia have served not only as deterrents against direct aggression and, indirectly, as obstacles to subversion but also (in the cases of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) as constraints upon the military policies and actions of allies.

The Soviet Union has encountered far more serious trouble than the U.S. from the loosening of its alliances. Since 1957 the growing split in the Sino-Soviet alliance has been a galling factor in every major Soviet policy and action throughout the world. In recent years the deterioration of this split into hostility has begun to alter fundamentally the structure of world power by establishing an incipient tripolarity at the center of international politics.

At the same time, “contradictions” in the Warsaw Pact threaten the maintenance of political and ideological control over the remaining members of the “socialist commonwealth”. As long as Soviet leaders believe that the security of the Warsaw Treaty Organization depends on the political and ideological conformity of bloc members, they will have to rely heavily on armed control and threat of suppression. They will have to do this while trying to preserve an atmosphere of détente without permitting Western (and especially German) economic, political, and cultural penetration to “subvert” Eastern Europe. And at the same time they will be under steady pressure from their clients to subsidize their inefficient economics. The Soviets would face these dilemmas in their most acute form if liberal and nationalist forces were to threaten secure communist control of the GDR.

If the Soviet Union could accept liberalizing tendencies in Eastern Europe without feeling that its external security or its domestic tranquillity were threatened, it might strengthen the cohesion of its bloc by letting it evolve from an empire into a contractual alliance. But there is no assurance that Soviet leadership, foresight, or tolerance of diversity will be equal to this task. Meanwhile, Soviet burdens of empire are the more burdensome because, simultaneously, the Soviet economy (especially in the agricultural sector) is lagging in the face of rising consumer demands.

U.S.-Soviet Relations: Limited Adversaries

In some respects the U.S. and the USSR find themselves in comparable positions in the world, although for different reasons and in different [Page 130] ways. In military power, geographical reach, and the global scope of their interests, the discrepancy between them and the second-rank powers is greater than ever. Both have experienced a momentous expansion of powers and commitments. The United States attained its global position in pursuit of containment and a liberal conception of world order; the Soviet Union, in pursuit of an imperial status keyed to an ideological vision. In pursuit of their different aims both were sucked into the power vacuums of the world by the dynamics of their competition and the desire of others to turn it to their own advantage. Both have experienced concomitant frustrations and constraints—domestic and external—upon their ability to manage the environment within which they must exert their power and protect their commitments.

Now, having consolidated a limited core of common interests in minimizing the risks of armed conflict stemming from direct confrontation or the actions of other states, they nevertheless remain cautious adversaries on a broad spectrum of issues in an increasing portion of the world. In every important international development the relations of the superpowers are an important and often determining element. The vital interests of the U.S. can be affected far more seriously by the actions of the USSR, and vice-versa, than by the actions of any other state. The structure of military power in the world is no less dominated by the superpowers than at the outset of the cold war. The military balance between them is no less consequential for the security or insecurity of others.

Consequently, more than twenty years after World War II, despite all the diffusion of political activity, U.S.-Soviet relations continue to dominate the center stage of international politics. But their relations are the product of a substantially different mix of animosity and accommodation than in earlier periods of cold-war confrontation. Neither an unqualified adversary nor a partner in condominium, the Soviet Union seeks an international environment in which it can cope with its allies, its clients, and its internal problems—which implies a reduction of international tension and a stabilization of relations with the United States. But it also continues its efforts to overcome American strategic military superiority; to expand its air, land, and sea capacity for overseas intervention; and to eliminate American influence and enhance its own in areas like the Middle East where the stakes seem worth the costs and risks.

Having achieved a position of virtual parity with the U.S. in the capacity to inflict unacceptable nuclear retaliatory damage, the Kremlin is in a position either to consolidate détente through arms limitations with the U.S. or to try to exploit a position of strategic strength it lacked during most of the cold war. Conceivably, it could try both courses of action. But even if a bolder leadership should pursue a more aggressive [Page 131] foreign policy, the pattern of U.S.-Soviet relations would not return to the relatively simple confrontation that appeared to exist at the height of the cold war.

Vietnam in Perspective

Changes in the principal pattern of conflict facing the U.S. were already altering American policies and policy concerns in 1965 when the U.S. greatly expanded its direct involvement in the war in Vietnam. A more complicated mixture of containment and détente was already developing in U.S.-Soviet relations. The period of expanding American commitments had ended years before. What the agonies of Vietnam have done is to accelerate and accentuate a revision of some familiar aspects of containment which would probably have changed anyway, although more gradually and moderately.

America’s assistance to South Vietnam against communist insurgency was initiated as a perfectly consistent application of the policy enunciated in the Truman Doctrine of helping independent governments resist communist incursions. The expansion of America’s involvement after 1965 did not lead to any different rationale. Nevertheless, the costs and frustrations that followed, and their domestic repercussions, have called that rationale into question. In contrast, the adversities of the Korean War led only to a more intensive application of containment to Asia.

How far-reaching the current revision of America’s policy and role will become depends not only upon the popular sentiment of “no more Vietnams” but on a number of other factors. Not the least of these is the government’s and the nation’s assessment of the nature of the international environment and especially of the nature of the communist threat to vital American interests.


This section summarizes the most important trends in international politics that will affect America’s position in the world in the next five years.

A. The Diffusion of Politics

Many of the salient characteristics of the present period of international politics spring from the diffusion of independent political activity among and within states following the decline of the cold war, the loosening of cold-war alliances, and the assertion of national and subnational loyalties in the wake of colonial dissolution.
In the Third World this diffusion of politics is marked by the consolidation of distinct national feelings, especially in opposition to foreign [Page 132] interference or dependence on foreign powers; by the assertion of national policies locally, regionally, and in international bodies; by the growing heterogeneity of interests and alignments among states; and by centrifugal tendencies toward communal, ethnic, tribal and other subnational loyalties. These tendencies toward the diffusion of politics are not accompanied by any significant consolidations of power among LDC’s, although there have been some advances in economic and political cooperation among Asian states.
Among the developed countries diffusion of politics is marked by centrifugal tendencies within the alliances of the superpowers, and particularly by the assertion on the part of second-rank states of independence from the superpowers in policies and national will. But diffusion does not yet take the form of the emergence of significant new centers of military power, destruction of alliances (with the very large exception of the Sino-Soviet alliance), major realignments, or the consolidation of new groupings among the second rank states.
The diffusion of politics in the Third World provides the USSR with new opportunities to extend its influence on a government-to-government basis, as conflicting states and factions within states seek external support and as nationalist sentiments are mobilized against the manifestations of American power. But it also constrains Soviet as well as U.S. influence from going as far as interference or dominance.
The diffusion of power within the superpowers’ European alliances confronts the U.S. with difficulties in eliciting defense contributions commensurate with stated military requirements and the concomitant accentuation of pressures to withdraw American forces. It confronts the USSR with the more severe problem of maintaining political conformity within a quasi-imperial structure against a steady tide of national self-assertion.
The Sino-Soviet alliance has deteriorated into deep rivalry and hostility. This is creating a tripolar relationship in which (a) the U.S., USSR, and the PRC each have an interest in preventing the other two from cooperating, (b) the Soviets have parallel interests with the U.S. in containing China, but (c) the U.S. ability to achieve closer relations with China or to exploit Moscow’s fear of a U.S.-Chinese rapprochement will be quite limited unless some substantial U.S.-PRC conflicts of interest are ameliorated—which is only a distant prospect.

B. The U.S.-USSR Military Balance

The growth of Soviet nuclear power tends to diminish the credibility of America’s nuclear protection, but it has not been incompatible with the maintenance of an adequate American deterrent against Soviet military action or with the stabilization of the U.S.-USSR military balance [Page 133] based on mutual deterrence between the superpowers. Indeed, it has been accompanied by a growing mutual recognition of the need to avoid war, which has become the solid basis of détente.
The consolidation of a situation of virtual parity in second-strike capabilities does, however, accentuate the political problems the U.S. has in retaining the confidence of its allies. And the efforts of the superpowers to stabilize the military environment, especially when directed against the spread of nuclear capabilities to other states, foster suspicion that the superpowers may pursue their common interests at the expense of friends and allies.
The consolidation of strategic parity also provides the USSR with the military basis for claiming general equality with the U.S. as a global power. But whether it exploits this situation to America’s disadvantage depends on opportunities unrelated to the strategic military balance.
The USSR will be better able than in the past to capitalize on new opportunities for projecting its influence and limiting America’s influence in the Third World by virtue of the increase of its (a) naval power, especially in the Mediterranean, and of its (b) overseas amphibious and air lift forces, in both of which the U.S. held a virtual monopoly.

C. East-West Relations

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia has demonstrated the limits of the capacity of “bridge-building” to enhance the liberty or autonomy of members of the Warsaw Pact. Nonetheless, the attraction in the West of increased East-West communications is undiminished, and East European countries see such communications as a way of constraining Soviet dominance.
The slight prospects of a formal East-West settlement or security agreement are diminished by the added Soviet disinclination in the aftermath of the Czechoslovakian crisis to withdraw troops from the GDR. Nor are other conditions of a settlement that would be compatible with American interests—such as the emergence of Western guarantors that could supplant an American presence—any closer to realization. The prospects of a formal settlement are also diminished by the fact that every state except the FRG has come to look upon the status quo as de facto the most satisfactory settlement available and by the FRG’s tendency, in practice, to subordinate unification of the Germanies to bridge-building and the normalization of relations with the GDR.
The most substantive East-West relations will remain in the realm of U.S.-USSR accommodation or cooperation within a framework of selective competition—a realm of political relationships that is inadequately expressed in the word “détente”. In Europe the basis of détente [Page 134] will continue to be the Soviet desire to stabilize and consolidate the status quo and to moderate the arms competition with the U.S.
The strategic arms limitation talks will be the most consequential manifestation of détente. More than any previous arms control talks, SALT will impinge upon Soviet-American political relations, the central strategic balance in the world, and the interests of the NATO allies. The talks—whether they result in a comprehensive agreement or, more likely, a limited agreement, or no agreement at all—will not end the arms race or transform Soviet-American relations, but they will tend to accentuate all the interrelated issues of U. S.-USSR and U.S.-allied relations.

D. The Third World

Despite some impressive achievements of economic development, as in Asia, most LDC’s continue to suffer the well-known obstacles to development: population growth that exceeds food resources, lack of entrepreneurial skills, lack of the requisite political and administrative capacity, resistance of traditional elites to economic and social reform. Even among the states that are really “developing”, the disparity between their standard of living and that of the developed states is increasing.
The frequency and intensity of political violence and disorder have been increasing. The insurgencies do not seem likely to displace existing regimes in the next five years; but in some areas (especially Latin America) they reflect economic and social developments that may create genuine although not necessarily successful revolutions. At least they will radicalize political life.
The high frequency and intensity of internal conflict is accompanied by an accentuation of interstate conflicts among the LDC’s, but the political and military weakness of these states saves them, with a few exceptions, from organized warfare against each other.
The heterogeneity of interests and accentuation of conflicts among LDC’s, the instability and weakness of their governments, and the growth of internal conflict and violence makes them susceptible to external political access, penetration, and influence. That is, foreign governments can readily establish lines of communication, bargaining, and inducement with not only governments but also parties, factions, and individuals within the LDC’s; so that LDC’s must take into account the wishes of foreign donors, and donors can marginally affect the internal and external policies of recipients. On the other hand, apart from a few exceptional cases in which actual military occupation is feasible, the capacity of foreign governments to influence the LDC’s is limited far short of control—that is, far short of the capacity to subvert governments or to induce or compel them to follow courses of action solely in [Page 135] response to a foreign government. Control is impeded by the strength of nationalist resistance to external interference, the availability of alternative sources of support, the self-restraint of foreign governments seeking official and popular approval, the strength and diversity of internal loyalties, and the disorganization and weakness of political and administrative institutions.
One manifestation of the susceptibility of LDC’s to external influence has been the immense extension since 1950 of American involvement in the internal and external security of the LDC’s in pursuit of containment. Since 1955 this development has been accompanied by growing Soviet influence and involvement, especially in the Middle East. This influence is now spreading from India to other parts of Asia. Soviet influence, however, is due to government-to-government relations (particularly through Soviet military assistance) rather than to the influence of communist parties. Indeed, the resistance of LDC’s to foreign interference, the strength of subnational loyalties, and the emergence of new radical and revolutionary forces in some parts of the Third World (especially Latin America) have restricted the influence of communist parties; while the Sino-Soviet split, Soviet troubles in maintaining the cohesion of its “commonwealth” in Eastern Europe, and the effect of both of these developments in hastening the fragmentation of international communism have increased the independence of communist parties.
The capacity of the Soviet Union or Communist China to exploit internal conflicts so as to overthrow governments and establish political control is demonstrably limited. It is limited by the inherent obstacles to successful insurgency or revolutionary war, the limited capacity of the USSR or China to assist insurgencies except in adjacent countries, and, most important, the difficulty of controlling from the outside an insurgency or a victorious insurgent government. Although the prospects of successful insurgency may be increasing somewhat in Southeast Asia and Latin America, the Soviet or Chinese capacity to control insurgent movements or governments is, if anything, declining. This does not preclude LDC governments—revolutionary or otherwise—becoming economic and military dependents of the Soviet Union. But even then, as the cases of Egypt and Cuba illustrate, depend-ency is not the equivalent of subserviency.
As the USSR has succeeded in establishing access and influence in the Third World and as it has grown more apprehensive about Chinese competition, Soviet leaders have become more concerned with protecting their gains as opposed to simply stirring up trouble. They have also become more conscious of the limits and costs of their influence and of the hazards of becoming over-committed. Bitter experience with China and, to a lesser extent, Cuba has reinforced practical doubts [Page 136] about the value of translating into reality Lenin’s vision of communist governments replacing colonial or bourgeois nationalist regimes.
The extension of American and Soviet influence and involvement in the Third World has geographically expanded the contest and rivalry of the superpowers. Although it is not polarizing the international politics of the LDC’s along the tight ideological and political lines of the cold war, the extension of Soviet and American competition to areas in which they have not worked out a modus vivendi for avoiding direct clashes and in which there are many sources of local conflict over which they have limited influence raises the risk of these powers getting into armed encounters between themselves contrary to their intentions. The risk is highest in the Middle East.

E. The Locus of International Concern

A local war or a major change in the configuration of power or alignment would probably affect American interests more seriously in Europe or the Middle East than in other parts of the world. The establishment of a communist government even in a small state would be as serious a reversal, in American eyes, in Latin America as in either of these two areas because of our special historical relationship to the Western Hemisphere. In reality, however, the area in which changes basically affecting American policy over the next ten years are most likely to take place is Asia, since international politics in Asia are in flux and since the interests of several powerful states converge in the area. If the U.S. is to have any deliberate influence on these changes, it will have to demonstrate its continuing engagement in Asian affairs—but in a selective and unobtrusive manner acceptable to an increasingly self-assertive group of Asian states, as well as to American limitationist opinion.

F. The Devolution of Power

It is logical for those who believe that America’s interests continue to be affected by international developments throughout the world to look beyond the diffusion of political activity to the devolution of power; that is, to the emergence of self-reliant regional and subregional groupings that would significantly relieve the U.S. of the burden of maintaining a modicum of order and stability in the world. At present, however, there are few signs that such groupings are emerging. Indeed, powerful trends toward the fragmentation of power lead in the opposite direction.

Unless the U.S. can convince those it protects that it is going to reduce its support, they are not likely to become more self-reliant, but a precipitate U.S. withdrawal would be more likely to lead allies to seek [Page 137] security in neutralism, accommodation with the Soviet Union or China, or national nuclear self-reliance than to induce them to undertake creative efforts of self-defense.

In any case, if the U.S. seriously seeks to encourage the emergence of indigenous guardians of regional security, it will also have to face the prospect of new and expanded centers of nuclear power in Western Europe and Japan.

In the next five years or so, however, progress toward regional self-reliance will fall far short of “hard” military collaboration (as distinct from staff discussions, agreement on strategic guidelines, etc.) or the emergence of new centers of nuclear power capable of supplementing American nuclear power. But bilateral security exchanges between Asian countries are possible.

G. Principal Policy Concerns

These trends create an international environment in which America’s policy concerns will arise principally from:

the management of détente and a stable military balance with the Soviet Union in a manner consistent with the restraint of hostile Soviet moves or adventurism and the maintenance of allied strength and cohesion;
the encouragement of Western European allies, Japan, and Southeast Asian countries gradually to assume in the next decade a larger share of responsibility for their own security and the stability of their regions, short of a significant devolution of power from the U.S. to regional security groupings;
the conduct of a geographically expanding, though diversified and limited, contest with the Soviet Union for influence in the Third World while acting on parallel interests in the moderation of local conflicts and the containment of China;
the gradual improvement of relations with Communist China while continuing to maintain the strength of American deterrence against direct Chinese military aggression and nuclear blackmail;
the problems of maintaining access and influence in the Third World, although the LDC’s under radical nationalist regimes will be intractable, if not hostile, to American influence; and a number of them will be torn by subnational as well as interstate and transnational conflicts;
the support of vital American commitments in the Third World while minimizing the risk of involvement in local conflicts, especially when they entail the risk of an armed confrontation with the Soviet Union or China;
the termination of the war in Vietnam and the establishment of a postwar American position in Asia that can encourage indigenous internal and external security efforts at a reduced scale of American involvement;
the further development of international surveillance and management of the monetary system, exchange rates, and correction of balance-of-payments disequilibria among the developed countries;
the development of national and international regulations for the orderly technological development and use of man’s total environment, from ocean space to outer space.

H. Beyond Containment

Clearly, the containment of communist influence and adventures is an important condition for the pursuit of these policy concerns, but it no longer serves as the dominant rationale for American policies, because:

the threat of the expansion of communist control is not sufficiently intense or clear cut;
the expansion of the control of one communist party or state does not necessarily increase the threat of the Soviet Union or China to American security;
conflicts within and among the LDC’s are diversified and fragmented, not polarized into a contest between communist and non-communist ideology and power; hence, disorder in the Third World is more apt to be localized, and threats of subversion or aggression are more readily decoupled from the central balance of power;
in so far as the U.S. is engaged in a contest with the USSR and Communist China in the Third World, it is a limited competition for influence in which the threat of communist take-over by peaceful or violent means is considerably less than was generally supposed to be the case in the early 1960’s;
the contest with the Soviet Union is qualified by a limited but crucial area of parallel interests arising from the concern of the superpowers to avoid armed clashes with each other and to moderate the arms race;
a number of problems that are only indirectly, if at all, connected with containment have become more pressing—including the problems of inter-allied relations, nuclear non-proliferation, the international monetary system, and the orderly use of man’s total environment.

Although in response to these trends the tasks of American policy have become more diverse and complex, they have not become less demanding. Coping with them still implies an active global foreign policy supported by American power and resources.

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Such a policy is not incompatible with a selective reduction of America’s scale of effort overseas or with the avoidance of burdensome new commitments. But as the familiar rationale of containment becomes less convincing, domestic opposition to “over-commitment” will tend to constrict the resource base of policy and inhibit the exercise of American power to an extent that may jeopardize a flexible global policy and even the support of existing commitments.

The prominent role that U.S. economic, diplomatic, and military power plays in the affairs of dozens of other states—whether it is actively used or not—refutes the frequent observations by contemporary analysts about the “impotence of power”. The impression of growing impotence that both of the superpowers convey, however, does have a real basis in changes that have occurred since the period in which the U.S. was establishing and extending containment: The increased fragmentation of power, the greater diffusion of political activity, and the more complicated patterns of international conflict and alignment that have emerged over the past decade have limited the capacity of the U.S. and the USSR to control the effects of their influence and have revealed the limits of their capacity to control the actions of other governments, except by direct military means. At the same time, the U.S. has discovered the great obstacles to using military power directly to achieve political ends.

It is also significant for American policy, however, that the U.S. exerts immense and growing influence in the world through a broad range of international activities conducted by nongovernmental individuals, enterprises, and organizations. While the direct influence of the U.S. Government over its international environment has been restricted in one way or another, the scope and reach of American commercial, technical, and cultural influence has continued to expand.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 252, Agency Files, NSC 1969-71. Secret. Sent for information. The memorandum was stamped and initialed by Alexander Butterfield to indicate that it was seen by the President. The attached study was drafted by Robert E. Osgood of the NSC Staff.
  2. In NSSM 9, January 23, 1969, Henry Kissinger, on President Nixon’s behalf, tasked the Departments of State, Defense, and the Treasury, as well as the CIA to undertake a sweeping review “to provide a current assessment of the political, economic and security situation and the major problems relevant to U.S. security interests and U.S. bilateral and multilateral relations.” Kissinger structured what he referred to as an “inventory” of the international situation by appending 52 pages of questions. (Ibid., Box 365, Subject Files, National Security Study Memoranda (NSSMs), nos 1-42)