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A strong America

National strength is a theme being sounded by all the candidates, largely in a military context. Although we feel strength is more than military, the nation indeed faces the need to update its defenses in light of the Soviet Union's growing military might and ability to project this power for political ends. US conventional forces have weaknesses requiring attention. Vigorous efforts must be made to improve the quality of the armed forces, and, given the increased need to protect vital oil supplies and sea lanes, the US must have the capability of moving men and equipment quickly to potential trouble spots. Some steps have been taken under the Carter administration but more needs to be done. This burden, moreover, can no longer be shouldered primarily by the United States. The NATO countries and Japan -- today powerful economic blocs in their own right -- must assume more responsibility for the free world's defense.

America's strategic nuclear forces, which are in rough balance with those of the Soviet Union, are in basically sound shape but also have some vulnerabilities. We doubt that the MX missile which President Carter has given the go-ahead on, and Ronald Reagan has supported in a different form, is the answer to what is expected to be a potential Soviet threat to the US land-based ICBMs in the mid- 1980s. The MX would provide the US in effect with a first-strike capability and therefore could give the Russians reason to develop their own mobile intercontinental-missile system. The arms race would then spiral. This destabilizing outcome would be all the more likely if the Soviet Union and the US failed to put into effect the SALT II treaty, without which the Russians would be free to deploy as many nuclear warheads as they wanted.

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It is significant that Mr. Reagan, responding to concern that he would lead the US into a nuclear arms race and even war, has moved toward the moderate center on the key issue of arms control. He has wisely backed away from the concept of US "nuclear superiority" to acceptance of "essential equivalence." He still says he would abandon the SALT II pact, but his aides say he would retain the "good" elements in it while going on to negotiate SALT III. Inasmuch as Jimmy Carter also would press on to the next round of SALT, it is clear that nuclear arms control will be a mandate of either a Republican or a Democratic administration.

We continue to believe that ratification of SALT II is immensely important. Throwing away six years of negotiation by Republican and Democratic presidents would be an unfortunate setback for arms control policy, which requires steadiness and continuity rather than swings from one administration to another. We appreciate that it is not the kind of "arms reduction" agreement which Carter and Reagan ideally would like. But it is a hard-negotiated first step, a point of departure from which the superpowers can go on to work out more meaningful arms limitation. It does not put the US strategic posture in jeopardy for it allows the US to go ahead even with systems such as the MX. And it makes verification of each other's arsenals easier. Mr. Reagan, if he gets into office, could well find this to be so and shift his position even more, as he has pragmatically done in other areas in the past.

Strength lies not only in military power, however. If unaccompanied by political, economic, and moral progress, in the end it will count for nought. The events in Poland point up, for instance, the often-underestimated weaknesses within the Warsaw Pact bloc, and the immense advantage of having allies that share the nation's goals and values. It is extremely important that the strains which have developed between the US and its West European and Japanese partners be repaired -- and mutual confidence restored. The Europeans may sometimes seem hypocritical in urging on the US a "strong" leadership which they themselves then resist following. But they cannot be faulted for wanting consistency and constancy in US foreign policy -- not the kind of diplomatic zig-zagging seen, for instance, in President Carter's reversal of US insistence on developing neutron bombs for the European theater or in the repudiation of a US vote in the United Nations.

In this connection, we welcome Mr. Reagan's promise to conduct a bipartisan foreign policy but are mystified, then, by his views on some issues. It is regrettable, for instance, that so crucial a matter as the Arab- Israeli conflict becomes hostage to political opportunism in an election year. While Mr. Carter seems imprudently to promise Israel open-ended financial aid, Mr. Reagan gives vitually unqualified support to Israel as a "strategic asset," seeming not to be aware of the growing strategic importance to the US of the Arab states -- not merely because of their oil wealth but because of their desire to resist Soviet expansion. Without abandoning sensitivity to Israel's acute security problems, the US must continue to pursue a just resolution of the problem of providing a homeland for the Palestinians.

It is hard to see how Mr. Reagan's assertion that Israel has a legal right to establish settlements in the occupied West Bank would serve that goal. As US administrations have consistently maintained, Israel's settlement policy violates the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibiting an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. And it is certainly incompatible with the spirit of UN Resolution 242 , agreed to by all parties (including Israel), calling for Israeli withdrawal from territories seized in the 1967 war and serving as the framework for a negotiated peace settlement.

Even while bolstering ties with friends, the US must not stop seeking to improve relations with political and military adversaries. It is unrealistic to think that Moscow will modify its ambitions and policies to accommodate Washington. The march into Afghanistan was a sobering reminder that the Russians will act forcefully when they deem it in their national interest. But, besides maintaining a military balance, it is necessary to provide economic and other positive incentives for peaceful competition and cooperation -- and not later hedge them about with conditions (like demands for Jewish and dissident emigration) that back the Russians against a wall and remove their stake in moderate behavior. A mature approach will be one, moreover, that avoids overestimating Soviet strengths as much as underestimating them.

Certainly more than a militarized approach is also needed to deal with the rise of nationalism in the third world. The political and economic aspirations of peoples everywhere are growing. The dangers which spring from such global problems as poverty and illiteracy cannot be met with military power. They demand moral and spiritual responses that result in intelligent political and economic action.

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President Carter began his presidency with a ringing promise of US support for political, economic, and social rights, but he has let the North-South dialogue and other global efforts take a back seat to preoccupation with the East-West competition. Mr. Reagan, for his part, leaves the impression of viewing the world largely as an arena for rivalry with the Russians. Yet the Soviet Union, no less than the US, finds it is unable to control events in third-world countries, and it is likely that the superpower which will ultimately exert the most influence is the one which genuinely helps nations out of their despair. This means resisting a tendency to see the poor nations primarily in the context of East-West confrontation instead of their pursuit of economic and political justice.

Mankind has been amply warned about ignoring population and resource trends. The US government's Global 2000 report states that, if these trends continue unchecked, the world by the turn of the century will be "more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption," and hundreds of millions of desperately poor will be even worse off. This is no call to alarm. But it does raise a question the candidates ought to be asking and answering: Will present levels of aid giving and investment by the US and other industrialized nations -- and the oil-rich developing nations -- suffice to turn the situation around?

Clearly not. Yet clearly, too, America must invigorate its economy if it is to help meet the challenge. Who is not aware today of the many signs of economic weakness -- the decline of the dollar, the massive trade deficits, the loss of the nation's once-commanding technological lead? These, surely, are the areas in which America must again prove itself strong, through a single-minded pursuit of energy conservation and development and a rejuvenation of its industry. This in turn will require political will and self-sacrifice, summoning up that traditional spirit of innovation and creativity which fed America's unparalleled growth in the past.

At the very heart of a nation's strength, moreover, is its moral and spiritual fiber. It is a serious question whether the US can long exert a positive influence in the world, or even defend others and itself militarily, if it lets moral decay set in and grow. There are warning signs aplenty of apathy to the intense materialism of the times. If Americans are successfully to meet the many economic and other challenges before them, they will need to address this fundamental problem -- and to recommit themselves to those profound religious precepts which have long set standards for the people and enabled the nation to be an example for others.

Next: A sound America