Toward a Democratic Foreign Policy

Washington, DC | November 23, 1975

We cannot buy or force the respect of other nations. We can only earn it. We can show we understand their problems while working on our own. We can recall that nations are collections of people, not markers on an international game board, and that the measuring stick for our actions must therefore be the effect on people’s lives within the United States and abroad.

Editor's note: the following is one of several position statements Sargent Shriver wrote as part of his 1976 Presidential campaign platform. 


Some years ago, Kurt Vonnegut, the distinguished writer, shared with me an impression of the cold war. The CIA and KGB, he said, are like two giant wrestlers grappling with each other in endless, intimate combat The wrestlers sweat profusely. Their sweat is mixed; neither can tell whose is whose. The wrestlers grip each other. Their grips leave a common imprint. Consciousness – and identity – blur. The fight is not just its own justification; it is the wrestlers’ reason for being.

Perhaps Vonnegut’s fantasy is exaggerated. Yet it expresses an intensity of insight only true artists obtain. And who can be certain that it didn’t happen that way – after the Vietnam nightmare, after Watergate, after CIA and FBI revelations?

It wasn’t always that way. Two hundred years ago, the American Revolution captured the imagination of all men who opposed injustice and tyranny. One hundred years ago, millions of the victims of European oppression found a haven within our shores. The history of the 35 million refugees who came here in the century after 1820 is the history of America itself.

A generation ago, our country stood for freedom from fascism and our sons died for this belief in the fight against Hitler. Under Roosevelt, we championed an end to colonialism. And we can recall how, twelve years ago, people openly wept in foreign streets at the assassination of an American President who had become their friend.

Now, as we near our Bicentennial year, we seem to have turned our backs on our heritage. No longer a symbol for people everywhere who seek progressive change, we are acting more like international Tories – redcoats – that the descendants of the men who fired the shot heard ‘round the world.

Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man: “What Archimedes said of the mechanical powers may be applied to reason and liberty: Had we… a place to stand upon, we might raise the world. The Revolution in America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics… She made a stand, not for herself only, but for the world.”

Today, fearing change of any kind, our government supports dictators and regimes indifferent to the plight of their peoples. We do not share the values of these regimes. Americans love freedom; we are working for racial equality in our society; we preserved our democracy against the assaults of the Nixon Administration. But when our arms and aid go to reactionary tyrants abroad, when we move toward closer relations with the governments in Southern Africa, when the CIA helps “destabilize” foreign governments whose internal policies challenge the status quo, is it any wonder that many foreigners, once our friends, now conclude that our values have changed?

We must have a foreign policy that represents what is best in us and in our history. We must be what we say we are. A democratic foreign policy must reflect these values – faith in the people, willingness to sponsor change, and a commitment to openness and constitutional procedure. For America, there can be no other choice.

Democracy itself is a high risk undertaking. It means faith in having people freely decide what is best for themselves. Other forms of government may offer – or appear to offer – greater security, just as they provide the certainty of one voice speaking a single policy. But, as John Adams once suggested, those who would exchange liberty for security deserve neither. We rejected the royalist alternative two hundred years ago. One year ago, we reaffirmed that historic choice by rejecting a President who sought to take our rights. In so doing, we relearned the practical virtues of openness to all voices.

For years, we fought in Vietnam against rising opposition at home; the opponents were scorned at first, and then berated; but they were right and finally we ended our involvement in a war that was wrong. More important still, we have come to understand that foreign and domestic policy are indivisible rather than separate. Richard Nixon taught us that lesson by shattering the illusion that we could be Tories abroad but free men and women at home.

There is no security in seeking to enforce a status quo which does not meet the hopes and aspirations of the vast majority of mankind. In 1815, the Congress in Vienna initiated a brilliant diplomacy; political bargains by skillful negotiators preserved the old order. But the last century of continental peace was a long season of human suffering. The workers produced, but other profited. The people aspired, but others ruled. The tactics were brilliant, but the strategy barren. The world order, constructed to resist change, reaped the whirlwind – two World Wars, the Russian and other revolutions.

We face today this same choice between short term stability and future security. We can use our awesome power to maintain a status quo favorable to our immediate interests. Or, drawing upon our heritage, we can face the revolutionary reality of our time – and respond to it creatively. I choose the second of course.

The Role of Fear


To approach the future, we must first examine the past. And painful as it is, that means recalling Vietnam. It was not merely a tactical error, the wrong war fought on unfavorable terrain. What can we learn from it about our general approach? What drove us into so terrible an error?

There were many reasons, of course, and more than enough blame for each of us. But a major motive, I think, can be captured in one word: fear. Fear that a Communist victory anywhere would mean Communist victories everywhere; fear of looking weak, despite our incredible strength; fear of events running out of American control, in Vietnam or elsewhere; fear, for many years, of the domestic and political consequences of seeming “soft on Communism”. Because of those fears, we are unable – or unwilling – to do what common sense – and democratic values – command us to do – until the price became so high that we could no longer sustain an irrational involvement.

Fear twists reality today. As the war in Vietnam finally came to an end, the fear-mongers in the Administration tried to buy a few more months of war by overstating the consequences of an inevitable defeat. After the war was over, those same fear-mongers began wringing their hands over a weakened American position in the world – a position they helped to create. In the Mayaguez affair they reacted like a bull in a china shop. The result of this bungled operation was fifty American dead, as many more wounded, innocent civilians bombed, an ally antagonized – all to rescue the forty crewmen who had already been released! Scarcely a demonstration of prudence and competence. Hardly an event of which our leaders should be proud.

During this season of votes on the military budget, we are again besieged by those who wish to play on our fears with cries of how the military balance is shifting against us. It is said that even paranoids have enemies, and the fear-mongers are right when they say that there are grave threats in the world. But let us not overstate them – or understate our own strength. These displays of self-deprecation damage us in the eyes of others, make us seem less strong than we are, undercut our diplomatic negotiating positions, and insult the high caliber and competence of those who serve in our Armed Services. In the end, the cry of weakness could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Common Existence


Liberated from unreasoning fear, we will be able to distinguish between what is in our national interest and what is not. Our national interest lies not in the short-term concerns of fortress existence but in the long-term requirements of common existence.

A century ago, Kierkegaard wrote: “The individual no longer belongs to his God, to himself, his beloved, to his art, or his science…” Now no nation belongs to any one God or science, or solely to its citizens or ideology. By circumstance we belong to a still separated but seamless world. We have no right or way of dominion. And we have no means of isolation. Others have nuclear power or potential; other nations are more than equal in some resources and raw materials; other states can poison the air, fish out the oceans, overpopulate the planet, or release unnatural and uncontrollable bacteria. In such a world, the shaping of a common existence is the precondition of a secure existence – and perhaps of any existence at all.

Guided by the imperatives of national interest and common existence, we should re-examine our world-wide commitments – not as part of a rush to break our current obligations but to sort out realistically those we wish to reaffirm from those we wish to modify.

I believe that such a review, made in detail and in consultation with our friends abroad, would lead us to the conclusion that our treaty commitments to NATO allies, to our fundamental to our own security. In addition, our traditional commitment to the survival of Israel is a moral obligation from which we must not turn, while we seek to improve relations with the Arab states and to encourage a just settlement in the area.

But some of our security ties abroad are outmoded and unnecessary, even dangerous. For example, we should stop placing barriers in the way of the nations in Southeast Asia seeking to establish better relations with China. Instead of clinging to the outmoded SEATO alliance, let us welcome the actions of such countries as Thailand and the Philippines in their moves to normalize their associations with the Chinese. How can we seek closer relations with Peking but not support others in doing so as well?

I do not favor abrogation of our security treaty with South Korea. The effect on Japan of such a shock would be grave. But we should redeploy now and eventually withdraw our ground forces from South Korea in support of that treaty – as even South Korean President Park has suggested we can. In Korea – as in too many other places – we have tactical nuclear weapons in dangerously exposed positions and in excessive numbers. Nuclear weapons have no place on the Korean mainland. They should be pulled out at once. Nuclear weapons are needed in that theater only to deter large scale aggression by the Russians or Chinese. Re-deployment on ships or on forward US bases outside of Korea is quite adequate for this purpose – and much safer for all concerned. Our ground forces in Korea should be removed at once from exposed positions along the DMZ scale fighting started by either side. South Korea’s army by itself is larger than that of North Korea and should need no ground support from us. American tactical air support, however, must be assured to provide stability on that peninsula. But, at the same time, let us make more emphatic our disapproval of President Park’s repressive domestic policies.

The Administration’s defense budget politics neither serve our national interest nor promote common existence. They lead us into unwise adventures by making it harder to distinguish between real threats and unreal snares – witnesses, as an example, the current effort of the Administration to turn the Indian Ocean into an area of big power competition by building a US base on Diego Garcia. Instead of trying to outrace the Russians, we should seek an agreement with them that neither power should acquire any military base in or along the shores of that ocean. Such a measure would satisfy the desires of every nation around the Indian Ocean. The fact that the funding for the Diego Garcia base was appropriated but deferred by Congress – a decision I applaud – makes the achievement of such an agreement all the more important. We have the time, we should not waste it.

It is the American people who are forced to pay for the fears that have been foisted upon the:

  • $24 billion for a fleet of B-1 bombers;
  • $18 billion for 10 Trident submarines;
  • $1.2 billion for a single nuclear powered cruiser which President Ford has personally been trying to load on the Defense establishment

None of these expenditures will add measurably to our national security. And I oppose them. But our national security is served by prudent arrangement to reduce the danger of nuclear war. Here, more starkly than anywhere else, the requirements of national interest and common existence are joined. In fashioning such arrangements, we must realistically appraise our military strength as well as the limitations of military strength. Certainly we must maintain absolutely secure nuclear retaliatory forces – but we have these now. No one – certainly not the Soviet leadership – is in doubt of our capacity to destroy the Soviet Union should we be attacked, or to respond at a variety of force levels against a variety of targets, if that alternative were more appropriate. Nothing requires us to have a first strike capability.

We also need strong conventional forces that can meet any real contingency that threatens us or the security of our allies. We must not have to rely on the nuclear option at the early stages of conventional force conflicts. We have these conventional forces, although we won’t for long if we continue to buy more gold-plating than guns and waste the expensive manpower of the volunteer Army as if it were a conscript force.

I am not fearful that we have lost our power. I am confident that we can be as strong as we have to be, and at a price we can afford.

But let me tell you what should scare us: 

  • It should scare us when the Administration – and even some Democrats – advocate a doctrine of “thinkable” nuclear war, in which each side would supposedly only strike the other’s forces. Until the Ford-Schlesinger reversal, our policy had been the absolute deterrence of nuclear war. Now we are contemplating limited nuclear wars and procuring new weapons to fight them more efficiently without any knowledge of how to keep them limited. Nuclear war is not an instrument of policy; it threatens world destruction. The new “counterforce” strategy suggests using a nuclear option in a wide range of situations; less essential than survival. Yet new data pried out of the Pentagon by Senator Symington’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee confirms that even a “little” atomic war would leave tens of millions of human beings a lot dead. The very concept of a “limited” strategic war is profoundly flawed. Of course one should try to limit any nuclear conflict, but it surely would be folly to gamble that a limited nuclear exchange would not lead to all-out nuclear war. To act on the conceit that we could contain such escalation would surpass any blunder in the history of human blundering. The danger lies not merely in qualitative changes in our strategic forces; it lies as well in changes in the quality of our strategic thinking. If both countries start thinking that a nuclear attack is thinkable, the thought may father the deed.
  • It should scare us that our leaders have done so little to curb the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the past seven years non-proliferation has been the step-child of our security policy – given lip service but sacrificed to every other political brainchild. But for the outrage of Congress, the Nixon-Kissinger team would have poured nuclear aid into the already-explosive Middle East. Now Ford appears on the verge of repeating the process with Egyptian President Sadat. West Germany supplies Brazil with a complete nuclear fuel cycle, while Ford and Kissinger look the other way. Worst acceptable at home encourages nations around the world to acquire their own A-bombs. If we make a nuclear first strike a conceivable exercise of national policy, how can we expect South Korea, Brazil, Libya, and the PLO not to get into the act? Does India’s possession of nuclear bombs make the world safe? We can’t wait for the rest of the world to exercise restraint in their nuclear export policies. We must be the leader, not the laggard, and take concrete steps to cut the clear risk that nuclear weapons materials may fall into irresponsible hands. One essential step is to make it standard procedure not to provide nuclear aid to any country that is not either a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or, at the very least, has not agreed to accept international safeguards on all of its nuclear programs. Another is to work for centralized and internationally-controlled reprocessing of nuclear reactor residue.
  • It should scare us that arms control negotiations spur the development of more and more arms. Arms control efforts cannot rely merely on arms control agreements, if recent experience with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and SALT are any guide. Bargaining chips are piled on bargaining chips and higher levels of armaments are ratified. Pushing for lower ceilings will not suffice. We must seek to establish de facto patterns of mutual restraint as well. Long-range strategic cruise missiles would be a good place to start. After all, they were developed only in the aftermath of SALT I as a purported bargaining chip for SALT II. We should halt tests and stop development of this brand new class of weapon and ask the Soviet Union to match our forbearance, rather than prod them into starting a program they have ignored so far. Should they refuse to match our restraint, we would still have ample time for testing and development, since our technology in this field far surpasses theirs. The moment to stop is now. Once our tests are completed and the missiles deployed, we will have opened Pandora’s box.
  • And it should scare us that we are pouring our vast quantities of sophisticated modern weapons into every corner of the globe – with little thought to future dangers and no serious effort to restrain the world arms trade. Some of our newest weapons will actually reach the forces of Iran at the same time as they are given to our troops. Our arms merchants sold almost ten billion dollars of weapons last year. I take little pride in knowing that the U.S. is the world’s leader in arms sales.

National interest and common existence required us to make détente with the Soviet Union, but neither justifies the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger version of détente which brings us symbolism without substance, summits without clear agendas, agreements without real meaning, spectacles without real accomplishment.

The Administration’s handling of détente is also twisted by a kind of fear – fear that failure to produce accords will lose for the Administration the domestic political advantages détente has bestowed. At times that fear has led us to extraordinary lengths, most deplorably in the refusal to receive Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the White House. The Administration seems to misunderstand the fact that détente is not a matter of ignoring our principles, or keeping silent about issues of moral and practical concern to us, out of fear that we will offend the Soviet leadership. That’s too high a price.

Let me emphasize that I support the concept of détente. But I believe the Administration’s management of détente is giving it a bad name.

How then can we do better?

First, we need to return to the concept of bargaining hard for our own interests in every specific deal. This will not destroy détente. On the contrary, the Soviets understand and respect through bargaining. In any case, unfavorable agreements made for the sake of atmospherics only jeopardize the long run chances for a better relationship. The Threshold Test Ban Treat was a step backward from the previous U.S. support for a comprehensive ban – which could be adequately verified.

Second, in the key area of the strategic arms control talks, we should insist on agreements that really limit, and we should not accept – much less advocate – pacts that seem designed chiefly to preserve every program wanted by either side’s military leaders. The genuinely significant ABM Treaty indicates that such bargains can be reached. Vladivostok was a pallid effort by comparison.

Third, we should seek in our negotiating to get the Soviets to play a more responsible role in the world in recognition of our common existence on a small globe. We must always bear in mind the need for broader cooperation in areas as diverse as food and nuclear energy, economics and the environment. For it is to such problems that we much now give priority. In the recent negotiations on wheat sales, for example, we should have used the opportunity to press for Soviet participation in a world crop information and food reserve system.

The New Challenge


So far I have dwelt on security commitments, the Soviet Union, military policy, arms control. But there are new challenges to man, to men and women everywhere. Our lives, yours and mine no less that the lives of farmers in Bangladesh or tin miners in Bolivia, are challenged and changed by global transformations – in world recession and inflation, in food and fuel distribution, in environmental decay and population growth.

After Vietnam, some would have us believe we have no contributions to make on such issues. This is a new form of fear, and I reject it. After the Arab oil boycott, our President cried for energy independence – yet presented no workable program to achieve it, because there can be none. Our forefathers made a declaration of independence. Ours must be a declaration of interdependence.

The United States has become deeply enmeshed in the world economy. The share of trade in our economy has doubled in a decade, and is almost as high as in Japan and the Common Market. One out of five jobs in our manufacturing industries depends on exports, as does one-third of our farm production. One-third of the profits of our corporations comes from abroad, and one-quarter of their investments is in other countries. We depend on imports not only for oil, but for nine of the thirteen most important industrial raw materials. Hence international economic relationships must be a central focus on the foreign policy of the United States.

There is urgent need for the world to move its economic relationship and institutions into the third phase of the postwar period. The first phase, which lasted until the late 1950s, was dominated by the United States and based on a set of rules and institutions – the IMF for money, the GATT for trade, the World Bank for foreign aid – created by the United States at the end of the Second World War. The second phase, which began about 1960, sought to accommodate rebuilt Europe and Japan – making their currencies convertible, creating the OECD to handle relations among them, negotiating trade liberalization through the Kennedy Round, creating soft-loan development institutions through which the broadened set of donors could aid the developing countries.

Now we must enter the third postwar period by integrating the Third World of rapidly developing countries into the international economic order. The confrontation between the old rich North and the nouveau riche South is perhaps the most explosive issue of international politics today. Developing countries possess most or many of the commodities which are essential to our livelihoods. They are the sides for billions of dollars of our foreign investments. They are our most rapidly growing markets and competitors in world trade.

And they are demanding – often excessively, often shrilly, but seldom without cause – a “new international economic order” which provides them with a fairer deal and a greater voice.

In dealing with these economic issues, the Administration again has reacted primarily from fear: fear of economic blackmail, fear of political confrontation over economic issues, fear of change itself. The Secretary of State was finally driven, in September, to a shift in position – we would negotiate with other nations on those economic issues which most concern them. But why is there so little effort by the Administration now to gain in the Congress the necessary votes on measures that would give substance to his rhetoric? The Congress should give substance to Kissinger’s rhetoric, even if the Administration does not press the matter. For example, appropriations to support international agricultural development, regional banks and the International Development association should be made, and soon.

The reason the Administration does so little is that fear is an insufficient motive. Until indifference to the plight of hundreds of millions of the poor abroad – and at home – is replaced by genuine concern, we shall see more of this grudging, half-hearted response to growing global, and human problems. 

A better way is available. Our Agency for International Development is concerned increasingly with programs directed at the poorest people in the developing countries, especially in the rural areas – programs of service and instruction similar to those we launched in the Peace Corps. The building of great projects – dams and superhighways – is being supported by the international development banks, while AID assists with population problems, food production, and education. I support this approach because it puts our resources where they are most needed and where we have a special ability to help. Our challenge is to ensure that the benefits of our aid get to the people most in need. The foreign aid authorization bill recently passed by the House and Senate is a good step in this direction. It should be implemented by positive action.

Democratic Values and Foreign Policy

George Kennan once wrote that, “A political society does not live to conduct foreign policy… it conducts foreign policy in order to live.” In earlier years, our foreign policy was our shield, our servant. Now, our society and citizens seem to be viewed by our government as an instrument of our foreign policy. Once, our foreign policy strictly served our democratic system. Now, it threatens to subvert it, while the whole world watches. 

Throughout the world, coups and political convulsions are often believed – fairly or not – to be the work of the CIA. Such is the decline in confidence in the United States, that almost any unpopular event abroad is blamed on us. The fact is that there has been fire where others saw smoke – perhaps not often but often enough to do us terrible harm. For example, it is clear that CIA agents did play a crucial role in the events leading to the overthrow and death of President Allende of Chile. And we have learned of CIA plots to assassinate foreign leaders. Such self-defeating outrages must be stopped. At a minimum, legislation should be passed outlawing assassination or its consideration by the CIA or any other government agency. The controls over the intelligence community must be tightened and its efforts redirected back to its original mission – the collection and objective analysis of foreign intelligence. The politicization of the CIA by Ford’s nomination of George Bush, the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, to be Director of Central Intelligence, is especially insensitive in light of Nixon’s attempt to use the CIA for political purposes. A respected American without political aspirations and with a proven record of wisdom and management should have this responsible post.

We have repeatedly been lied to by government officials. In the name of a false national security, the personal security and liberties of our citizens have been invaded by the FBI, the CIA and military intelligence. They were acting, apparently, on the perverted principle that one may have to destroy democracy in order to save it.

I believe that the American people can know, and must know, the truth about our foreign policies. Indeed, we must have that truth from our government, or our system cannot survive. One place to begin would be an effort to require Administration witnesses to tell the truth to Congress. Too often, Congressional committee let evasions and untruths go unchallenged. Unless the Congress takes action against Administration witnesses who misstate the facts, how can future witnesses fear the consequences of behaving the same way? If the Congress is serious about making our constitutional processes work, it must be serious about insisting on the facts. With knowledge comes responsibility. The Congress should no longer fear to accept it.

The last ten years, and Watergate with its progeny, have taught us that public officials who subvert our democratic values know no water’s edge. Nor can we wall off immoral policies abroad from moral commitments at home.

There may be no more flagrant violation of human rights than in the systems of racial repression in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Yet, in recent years, it has been American policy to communicate and cooperate more closely with the regimes that run these systems. We cannot effectively intervene to right the wrongs of Southern Africa. But we can avoid making the situation worse and we can and must observe international law on the issue. For example, with regard to Southern Rhodesia, another effort should be made in the Congress to repeal the so-called Byrd Amendment, and allow the United States once again to observe the United Nations’ sanctions program for which we voted and which we are legal bound to observe. And our government should no longer allow tax credits to American business for the taxes they pay to South Africa on their operations in Namibia. The United States, like the United Nations, believes South African Rule over Namibia to be illegal. It is this hypocrisy, at best, to maintain this de facto recognition of South African authority over this territory. 


The Nixon-Kissinger-Ford school of foreign policy would have us believe that taking a stand for our values, for our belief in human progress, would be “idealistic”. And they seem to equate idealism with weakness. I say that they have forgotten what most American still know: our international strength lies not only in our arms but in our hearts. We cannot buy or force the respect of other nations. We can only earn it. We can show we understand their problems while working on our own. We can recall that nations are collections of people, not markers on an international game board, and that the measuring stick for our actions must therefore be the effect on people’s lives within the United States and abroad. And we can welcome change if it serves people’s needs, remembering the change that served our needs two hundred years before.

The world would like to like us again, and will, if we dare to act once more the values that we traditional cherish. Only in such a world can we find release from the fears that have driven us and find true security.

We first must recognize in our foreign policies that we are part of a world of people, not just governments. Albert Camus once proclaimed this faith:

“Some will say that this hope lies in a nation; others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever-threatening truth that each and every man on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all.”