Last weekend, the College hosted the second installment of the U.S. State Department Office of the Historian’s conference on “Foreign Relations of the United States.”
The conference, which was sponsored by the Stanley Kaplan program in American foreign policy, was part of a broader 150th anniversary celebration of the Foreign Relations series, a collection of the official documents that detail the history of U.S. foreign relations. The events focused on two recently published volumes, SALT I 1969-1972 and National Security Policy 1969-1972, which are both seminal works on U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War era.
“America is unique in the world in that we have a great commitment to publishing American foreign relations,” said James McAllister, professor of political science and an organizer of the conference. “I work on the Historical Advisory Committee, which advises the Office of the Historian, and we thought Williams would be a perfect place to highlight the work of the state department and bring together many leading scholars to talk about issues relating to arms control and national security policy during the Nixon administration.”
The week’s events featured keynote addresses from Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz – whose titles include security advisor in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under Nixon, deputy secretary of defense in the second Bush Administration and former president of the World Bank – and distinguished scholar Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown distinguished professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. “We thought that Paul Wolfowitz would be very helpful because he opposed most of these arms control initiatives in the 1970s,” McAllister said, regarding the selection of the keynote speakers. “Meanwhile, Jeremi Suri is very positive about Kissinger and arms control, so we had both sides represented.”
McAllister emphasized the benefit to the student body of bringing such a prestigious conference to the College. “It’s great for our students to see world-class scholars up close,” he said. “Oftentimes students only get to see one or two people who are involved in specific areas like American foreign policy or constitutional law. It’s great for students to see there’s a whole body of scholarship that we’re connected to and [that] we promote.”
In the interest of inviting student engagement, the weekend’s events began with an informal Q-and-A session with Wolfowitz for the students of the leadership studies class “U.S. Grand Strategy.” He imparted four pioneering moments in his career: working in the arms control agency to prevent nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, becoming an expert in East Asian policy at the state department, assuming responsibilities as the American ambassador in Indonesia and managing the crisis in the Philippines as assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
Given Wolfowitz’s focus on foreign policy in Asia, he offered particular insight on the emergence of China as a formidable power center. “It’s very important for the U.S. to stay engaged and be in the Pacific, because one of the things that can restrain China is that if they try to throw their weight around, everyone in the region can pressure them,” he said. Furthermore, Wolfowitz emphasized the influence of democracy in Chinese Taiwan and the democratization of Asia, South America and Central and Eastern Europe in inspiring nations attempting to throw off oppressive governments. “They live in a world where they know things can be different,” he said. “Democracy is not just an American thing.”
Later Friday evening, Wolfowitz delivered the opening keynote address at Mount Hope. Speaking to an audience of distinguished historians, Wolfowitz spoke about the three main difficulties that historians face: the problem of determining cause-and-effect relationships, the inability to explore “the road not taken” and the issue of “too-soon-to-tell” and divining when events have catalyzed a lasting change as opposed to a temporary moment of upheaval.
The speech addressed Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state and national security adviser. Wolfowitz posited that under Kissinger, negotiations with the Soviet Union were less about the details of arms reduction and more about simply engaging in negotiations with the Soviets. “Kissinger didn’t see an incentive to preemptively use nuclear weapons,” Wolfowitz said. “That led to an attitude that was somewhat cavalier about details.” According to Wolfowitz, one of the central legacies of the Cold War negotiations was that “politics in the end does trump technicalities of arms control, but it takes big politics to do it.”
Saturday’s events began with a panel titled “Deterrence in an Era of Parity.” Much of the commentary focused on technical issues, such as the effects of different attack options or weapons and the views of policymakers, especially of Kissinger and Nixon’s opinions on what constituted a credible threat. Although some panelists focused more on the details of weaponry and others emphasized the nature of the domestic or international politics, those two main issues cropped up in every speech and became the main discussion points in the Q-and-A section.
In the next panel, “Problems of Perceptions,” the issue of credibility appeared again, this time as a matter of how perception lends importance to the identity of those in possession of weaponry. Perception was also important in domestic politics, as policymakers’ opinions of one another affected negotiations. Several panelists explored Nixon and Kissinger’s distrust of the intelligence community. In this sense, the second panel provided a more detailed picture of the individuals positioned within and constrained by the ideas and assumptions of their times.
After a short lunch break, participants reconvened for a panel on “Compiler and Participant Perspectives on FRUS.” This panel focused on how historical fragments become usable sources. Ted Keefer and Erin Mahan, both from the office of the secretary of defense, discussed how compiler understandings of the history influenced the selection of roughly 400 documents from “tens of thousands,” as well as their organization and the use of footnotes to guide historians to further sources left out. Mahan described the process as “quasi-scholarly and quasi-archival.”
Beyond the exploration of a key moment in the history of American foreign policy, the conference offered the opportunity to understand how historical discussions form and evolve in academia. Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London noted that much information was already available in leaks, newspapers and secondary sources, which he argued were necessary to complete the picture of the era that primary sources give.
Further, the Q-and-A sessions that followed each panel shed light on the historical disagreements between experts. These sessions tended to feature a question, which was answered by a panelist, but the answer often led to a series of concurrences and objections from various participants – on and off the panel.
McAllister noted that these moments of intense debate held particular value for audience members, especially students. “What students can really gain from watching these panels is [to see] how people who have devoted their entire lives to studying these issues can absolutely disagree with one another,” he said. “The documents don’t speak for themselves … There’s not one view that is the right historical or theoretical interpretation of everything.”
To close the weekend’s events, Suri spoke to participants on the significance of SALT I as a possible turning point in Cold War relations. Suri began by noting, “I’ve generally treated SALT I as a historical disappointment, as less than monumental, a non-turning point.” However, after reading the recently published volumes, Suri concluded that SALT I noticeably shifted the Cold War system’s dynamics. “SALT I changed the international system in appreciable, but not revolutionary ways,” he said.
Suri outlined three main respects in which SALT I was instrumental in shifting the Cold War. The first was in learning to live with parity. “Parity is something American policymakers came to be comfortable with by 1972, and SALT I was a big part of that,” he said. Second, SALT I helped American policymakers to consider nuclear sufficiency, typically defined as having the capability to carry out a second strike, maintain deterrence, ensure the balance of power and protect against rogue states. “SALT enabled this acknowledgement,” Suri said.
“It was not a new doctrine, but it was a push in a new direction,” he continued. Finally, Suri indicated that SALT I was instrumental in building confidence in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Through SALT, there’s a sense that both sides are playing by certain rules,” he said.
Suri picked up on Wolfowitz’s conclusion that the tangible results of arms control negotiations were historically less important than the normalization of relations between the two nations. “Arms control negotiations probably weren’t about actual arms,” Suri said. “Arms wouldn’t actually be cut, but the process of getting people to work together, even though there wouldn’t be any material gains, would have tremendous value.”
Ultimately, the message that Suri, Wolfowitz and the weekend’s panelists delivered was that closely examining volumes like SALT I 1969-1972 and National Security Policy 1969-1972 can and should influence and guide how we cope with modern international disputes.