Primacy or World Order

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

With the winning of World War II, a fundamentally new era of American foreign policy began. The United States was thrust upon an immense and foreign stage and given the power to act as the guardian of world peace. Out of both ideological zeal and economic calculation, American leaders accepted this new opportunity, transformed it into a responsibility, and sought to identify American primacy with prosperity and stability. This quest for primacy, though modified by détente, Vietnam, and Kissinger’s “realism,” has remained basically unchanged during the last thirty years. But new conditions and deeper understanding now require a change in the fundamental goal, the basic premise, of our foreign affairs. We must develop a policy for world order.

The thesis of Stanley Hoffmann’s most recent and most profound book on international relations must be stated briefly at the outset of discussion, for the book is complex and almost inpenetrable. General compliments and comparisons are inappropriate when analyzing Primacy or World Order, because its author seeks to go beyond the pale of other analyses of policy. The book is more appropriately described as unusual—and this is not surprising, for Hoffmann is one of the most unusual authorities writing today on foreign affairs. A native of Vienna, a refugee in Vichy, France, and later a student there, a scholar who first achieved recognition in analyzing domestic politics, and a simultaneous participant in several intellectual traditions, Hoffmann seems to delight in merging contradictory qualities in a cauldron of energy. He combines, for example, an imperturbable objectivity with a passionate feeling for the urgency of his solutions. He is able to perform the unusual trick of considering controversial subjects—Vietnam, Nixon, nuclear deterrence and others—without entering the fray of dispute; and in so doing he reminds the reader that the controversial points rarely revolve around the central lessons of an event.

In similar fashion, Hoffmann mixes simplicity of purpose (as in stating the theme of the book in a four-word title) with complexity of means. His technique is similar to that of the sculptor who tries to create something simple and natural through a process of overwhelming precision. Analysis, history, or wrong-headed thinking is carefully identified and chipped off, bit by meticulous bit, revealing the author’s truth below. And like the artist, Hoffmann seems to be seeking expression of something more than what is openly expressed. Although this leads him to sacrifice more than a little clarity, it also provides the truly important insights of the book. Particularly in the book’s final sections, one senses that what is being offered is not a new argument, but a new way of looking at the realm of argument.

Hoffmann’s process works its way through three dimensions of foreign policy; its course in Washington since World War II, the structure and problems of present international relations, and the special dilemmas involved in any particular solution to these problems. Thus, the book in turn considers the past, present, and future; and Hoffmann successively assumes the role of historian, political scientist, and moralist.

The first part is the easiest to read, for it follows a fairly common academic pattern of demonstrating how many diverse events can be fitted together into theoretical unity. In this case, the historian shows the reader the persistence of “primacy” in the goals of American leaders from Truman to Ford. Hoffmann does not attempt to show that some policies (such as the Marshall Plan for rebuilding postwar Europe) were enlightened, while others (such as the Vietnam War) were misconceived, but rather that all of them sprang from the same assumptions. Even when American purposes were very benevolent—strengthening other nations at America’s expense—they still reflected a distinctive American universalism, a belief that America’s interests were the same as the world’s interests. This, in turn, had two sides: the good and the necessary. The “good” policies of the United States—those partly or wholly motivated by a sense of responsibility or idealism—tended to assume that the desirable path for any other nation lay in imitation of this nation. Hence, for example, came the systematic reproduction of American institutions in the Philippines, even to the extent that Congress supplied the Filipinos...

(The entire section is 1814 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Book World. August 6, 1978, p. F1.

Booklist. LXXV, September 15, 1978, p. 135.

Commentary. LXVI, November, 1978, p. 93.

Nation. CCXXVII, November 4, 1978, p. 480.

New Republic. CLXXIX, May, 1978, p. 824.