Wilson's Ghost 

by Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight

(Copyright Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, 2001)

Excerpts by Joachim Gruber


The Imperatives: Moral and Multilateral

The conflicts of the past 100 years have two fundamental messages for us now, as we confront the first century of the new millennium, both of which are derived from the tragedy associated with the First World War and its aftermath, including the Second World War, the Cold War (including the Korean and Vietnam wars), and the brief post-Cold War era. These messages are best conveyed in the form of two "imperatives" that should shape U.S. foreign policy and defense policy in the 21st century. They are:

Establish as a major goal of US foreign policy, and indeed of foreign policies across the globe, the avoidance in this century of the carnage - 160 million dead - caused by conflict in the 20th century..

p32: Here is our outine of the [Immanuel] Kantian calculus for resolving moral dilemmas:

Recognize that the US must provide leadership to achieve the objective of reduced carnage but, in doing so, it will not apply its economic, political, or military power unilaterally, other than in the unlikely circumstances of a defense of the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Wilson, facing the immediate aftermath of the First World War, believed that acting on each of these imperatives was a necessary condition for preventing the world from sliding into ever greater catastrophies. The subsequent bloody history of the 20th century shows that Wilson was right to believe this.

... We hope to encourage a debate on these imperatives, and related measures - a debate that may lead to success where Wilson failed.


Were my colleagues and I guilty of what Reinhold Niebuhr called "the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole ... the total community of mankind"? No. We thought we were acting in the interest of mankind, but the cost in lives lost was far greater than we or others had predicted. What should we have done differently? I believe we should have elevated to the same level as other objectives our intention to keep human carnage to a minimum. Had we done so, we would have explored more fully other ways to achieve our goals. If we had, I now believe -and the available evidence strongly suggests- that we could have ended the war as early as 1962, and not later than 1967, without any significant loss in our strategic position worldwide. In that case, we might have "saved our soul", as Norman Thomas said, and protected our interests as well.

p 62

If the lessons of this Wilson's parable are not heeded, a Third World War could result sometime in the 21st century. Such an event may seem highly improbable at the moment and may remain so for some time. But we nevertheless discern an eerie resonance between Germany's feelings of betrayal in 1919 with those of Russia and China following the Cold War. Even more troubling, we also see similarities between the victors' enthusiasm for humiliating Germany in 1919 and the lack of empathy so far shown in the West - particularly by the United States - for the situation of the major communist "losers" in the half-century long Cold War. For these reasons, we believe, a Great Power conflict between Russia or China (or both) and the United States is not impossible and, in fact, the risk of such a conflict may rise over time, unless we act to lower that risk. In 1919, as the combatants in the First World War sat down to negotiate in Paris, the risk of another Great Power conflict was also low. By 1933, with the ascension of the Nazis to power, it may have been too late to prevent it. This, therefore, should be our objective: to prevent the 21st century from ever arriving at its figurative "1933".

The Imperatives for Preventing Great Power Conflict


The First Imperative: Deploy Realistic Empathy


White identified three critical mistakes in foreign policy making that prevent empathy from occurring:

  1. not seeing an opponent's longing for peace;
  2. not seeing an opponent's fear for being attacked;
  3. not seeing an opponent's understandable anger.


...if I had been a Vietnamese communist in January 1961, when the Kennedy administration came to office, I might well have believed, as I judge they did, that the United States' goal in Southeast Asia was to destroy the Hanoi government and its ally -the National Liberation Front - that the US was an implacable enemy whose goal, in some fashion, was victory over their country.

However, if I had been a Vietnamese communist and had held those views, I would have been totally mistaken. We in the Kennedy administration had no such intention; we had no such aims with respect to Vietnam. On the contrary, we [the US] believed [in Vietnam], our interests were being attacked all over the world by a highly organized, unified communist movement, led by Moscow and Beijing, of which we believed, and I now think incorrectly, that the government of Ho Chi Minh was a pawn.


I think it is a tragedy. We were not opposed to your [Vietnamese] independence. Ho Chi Minh was correct when he quoted our Declaration of Independence in his early statements, in 1945, when he formed this country. We believed those sentiments then (in 1776), and we believe them today. I know we don't always act in accordance with those beliefs, but those are our fundamental beliefs. I don't think you [Vietnamese] appealed to them. I don't think you understood them. And I am damn certain we didn't understand that that was your belief. So, I think it's a tragedy that we allowed that misunderstanding to exist and I hope we won't allow it to continue in the future.


Michael Ignatieff has written that to refrain from the deployment of empathy in situations such as those described above is fundamentally immoral. To act uninformed by empathy, to refuse to occupy as fully as possible the mindset of an actual or potential adversary, is to submit to what he calls "autism", the behavior of those who are "so locked into their own myths ... that they can't listen, can't hear, can't learn from anybody outside themselves". In these instances, according to Ignatieff, "What is denied is the possibility of empathy: that human understanding is capable of penetrating the bell jar of separate identities. But social peace anywhere depends for its survival on just this epistemological act of faith: when it comes to political understanding, diffence is always minor, comprehension is always possible."

But when empathy is embraced it is possible, as the example of Kennedy and [Tommy] Thompson demosntrates, to construct a peaceful solution even when all the momentum of history, politics, and military alerting schedules seem to be forcing the parties involved to calamitous hostilities. This option is fully available now to anyone in the United States, and the West generally, who seeks to find common cause with the Russians and Chinese.


The Second Imperative: Anticipate Inadvertent Conflict

Anticipate that any military confrontation between the United States and either Russia or China may occur inadvertently. Inadvertent conflict is not "accidental" conflict. Rather, it is conflict that occurs due to the unintended consequences of action taken by many actors, over an extended period, at the outset of which none of the actors will have anticipated a crisis leading to heightened risk of war between two or more of them.

p 74

It must be kept in mind that no one saw this [catastrophic WWI] coming. A disaster on this scale was thought to be merely the stuff of sciences fiction. That is the first reason for Wilson's emphasisi on inadvertence and multilateral thinking. Something had to be done, and quickly - something that might prevent it from ever happening again. The League of Nations, which was virtually Wilson's conception alone, was based on a revolutionary thought: that the affairs of nations might be decided within a multilateral organization of openness and transparency. 


[mutually assured destruction:] The Russians and the Chinese, in other words, had to become our collaborators, and we had to become their, in pursuit of our mutual survival. We had to trust each other - no easy task for either side then or now.


[Richard] Neustadt and [Graham] Allison observe that "no event demonstrates more clearly than the [Cuban] missile crisis that with respect to nuclear war there is an awesome crack between unlikelihood and impossibility". This is an absolutely critical point about focusing on inadvertent conflict: Probabilities concerning conflict, based on threat assessment, are no longer necessarily decisive; the missile crisis proved that the most dangerous kind of Great Power conflict might result from actions neither side intended to be threatening, but that were perceived as threatening.


Each, Russia and China  may be said to be, relative to the position of the U.S.and the west, deeply inferior, hardly in a position to risk war with the us.

what is not adequately appreciated, especcially in the us, is the potential significance of the reaction in Russia and China  to what both perceive as post-cold war U.S.unilateralism, america appearing as a "rogue superpower". ... this U.S.arrogance is not only irritating, it is also dangerous because it threatens a number of interests Russia and China  consider vital. U.S.arrogance in their view is displayed most ominously in its betrayal of both russian and chinese on pivotal and contentious issues, betrayals that demonstrate a U.S.disregard for international committments. in russian and chinese eyes america appears to believe that as the world's only remaining super-power it need not adhere to accepted norms of international behavior among great powers.


the lists of russian and chinese grievances are long and their resentment is, in some cases strong - leaving open the question of whether it is justified. our purpose here is ... to penetrate as deeply as we can ... into the russian and chinese mindsets that harbor this substantial resentment toward the us. we are convinced that the resentment is real and growing.


each issue could become a "flashpoint" in which the current testy relationships explode into a dangerous crisis. indeed each has recently come close to doing so. ... we believe Russia and China  see the U.S.and to a lesser extent the other western powers as pushing them into a corner over these issues, raising the risk not only of regional confrontation but also of a military clash that would not be in the interest of any of the countries involved. such a clash would almost certainly be a disaster for all sides.

john steinbrunner: a "conceptual shift from deterrence to reassurance" as a function of  which the "core security relationship" of the U.S.with Russia and with China  will be "redesigned". 

This is the absolutely central proposition, the beginning of wisdom for preventing great power conflict in the 21st century: if Russia feels severely threatened by nato expansion on its western border, ...then the U.S.and its allies ... should feel similarly threatened. ... if great powers go to war in the 21st century, whole nations are likely to disappear. this is why we emphasize the primacy of comprehending the russian and chinese views, rather than arguing with them or lecturing them. an ounce of empathy and anticipation of inadvertent paths to conflict will be worth a pound of disputation, and a ton of traditional "deterrence".


[in the wake of nato expansion and kosovo] for Russia kosovo is about the management of post-cold war security problems, including the kinds of ethnic and territorial conflicts that threaten its own borders and territory. ...following russian maneuvers in june 1999 that simulated a nato attack on Russia in the kaliningrad oblast region, using only conventional forces, "Russia was able to defend itself only by using nuclear weapons". this lead russian president vladimir putin to endorse in 2000 what he calls russia's "new concept of security" - renouncing its stated policy of "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons and relying increasingly on early use of such weapons if Russia should be attacked, presumably by nato forces. ... celeste wallander draws the bottom line. "for Russia the lesson of kosovo is that power matters", including both nuclear power and conventional power. ...


george kennan: treating the new Russia more or less as the soviet union was treated - giving the russians the impression that they are being encircled and "contained" once again by the military might of a technologically superior west "can only have suicidal significance".


... do they [U.S.and western observers] express concern that these differences indicate big trouble for great power relations on the horizon of the 21st century? most do not. we judge typical U.S.approaches to the problem to be both insensitive and unimaginative. empathy for the russians and the chinese is virtually nonexistent. there appears to be little recognition of potential inadvertent paths to conflict with these great powers and the steps necessary to prevent it.  we believe that the approaches and assessments in the U.S.and the west generally regarding great power conflict have become part of the problem, rather than part of any realistic solution.


michael howard (distinguishefd british historian): "it is hard to deny that war is inherent in the very nature of the state. ... so long as the international community consists of sovereign states, war between them remains a possibility, of which all governments have to take reasonable account." 

this is the world of the realists, a world in which the great powers dominate and in which war is integrated to that domination. need it be so? or might war - especially great power war- be relegated, perhaps like slavery, to a cruel and primitive past? 


we reject [the realists'] entire analysis. ... they are blind to the lessons of the wilsonian parable, especially the danger of trying to intimidate, humiliate, or coerce a nation whose self-image is that of a great power [like germany after wwi] . ...[ this] creates enemies where there need not be enemies. it leads to missed opportunities for sustainable peace that may never come again. it leads to self-fulfilling prophecies of great-power conflict that the realists mistake for naturally  occurring phenomena. needless to say, it is utterly devoid of empathy for modes of human history and existence different from the western liberal norm of its proponents. and while it shows cleverness in articulating scenarios of great power conflict, all such dangers derive from irreconcilably hostile threats, rather than from inadvertent paths in which a multilateral cast of characters, including the U.S.and the west, contribute unwittingly to the evolving danger.

p114, 115

Self-Determination: Wilson's Dream, Our Nightmare

Herbert Hoover: "When the president [Wilson] arrived, the delegations of 27 nations of the Allied and Associated Powers had been approved to sit at the peace table.The delegations of 7 nations who had declared themselves self-governing peoples, not yet "recognized", and 7 little nations neutral in  the war came there to peer into the windows, anxious for their future ... The issue at Versailles was the rough job of making peace among 400 million people in Europe living cheek to jowl amod economic desperation, ancient and rival traditions of power and violent forces of hate and revenge. ... In the blood of many delegations at Versailles were the genes of a thousand years of hate anf distrust, bred of religious and racial persecution and domination by other races. The impelling passion for vengeance of past wrongs rose with every hour of the day."

As Hoover put it delicately, regarding these eruptions in Paris of passion for vengeance: "As a historian, Mr. Wilson was no doubt familiar with their age-old background, but he did not seem to realize their dynamics."

Thus it was that the passions of decades and centuries became unlocked by the collaps of empires in the wake of the First World War. Emboldenen by Wilson's declarations of universal self-determination, and seeking to take advantage of the moment, new states were proclaimed daily, sometime4s hourly, by the various delegations.Armenia alone was "represented" by no fewer the 47 delegations, each suspicious of the others, each burning with hatred for the Turks who had ruled them, and each fearful of the Russians, who were already moving in to the fill the void left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.


The Moral Corollary: Confront "Moral Blind Alleys"

Face squarely the fact that many instances of communal killing will present those who would intervene withe xcruciating moral dilemmas involving conflicts between our wish to do something now to stop the killing, on the one hand, and, on the other, our ability to do so at acceptable cost and the risk of exacerbating the situation and thus inadvertently becoming accomplices to a tragedy in progress. .... in extreme cases of communal killing we may be driven by our feeling of horror and common humanity to believe we can stop it, when in fact we cannot. In these cases, we encounter a "moral blind alley", from which there may be no completely acceptable escape.


Version: 4.1.2018

Address of this page


Joachim Gruber