The See-saw and the
or the Inbuilt Dynamic towards Mistakes in Foreign Policy - From AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN
POLICY - TOWARDS A REASSESSMENT Edited by Claire Clark - 1973
People are unkind to Dr Henry Kissinger. They accuse him of reviving 'out-dated'
balance-of-power concepts. Some, the so-called Kennedy liberals in particular, add
that he has weakened the US alliance with traditional friends such as Japan and Europe.
What they mean, it seems, is that the world was a much happier place when we were
back in the good old days of East-West confrontation. What they don't realize is
that it was precisely this twoBloc alliance thinking which has underlain almost all
the outrages of post-war diplomacy, including many the anti-Kissinger liberals claim
Like him or not, the fact is Kissinger has at least brought us out of the dangerous
bi-polar balance. In its place we have the multi-polar balance which for all its
faults is a great improvement on the past. Let me explain:
Imagine two fat men sitting at each end of a see-saw and just able to balance each
other. To keep the balance they must strain every muscle and nerve; the moment the
one fat man gains a weight advantage the see-saw will swing down in his favour leaving
the other fat man stranded high and dry waiting to be picked off. One way to save
the situation is to get fatter oneself. The other way is to find friends ('allies')
who can be perched on one's own side of the see-saw. Some of the 'allies' may be
offensive, obstreperous or niiniscule but that doesn't matter; they are still weight-units
in the power balance.
Fortunately, and despite constant swayings and froings, the balance is somehow maintained.
But wait. . . . one of the 'allies' decides he wants to move to the middle of the
see-saw, or even to the other side: a new government has come to power, or the old
government is just tired of old alliances. Can it be allowed? Of course not. The
slightest shift in weight from one side of the fulcrum will upset the balance. Even
worse is the psychological effect. If one 'ally' moves others may want to do the
same. If one 'friendly government' falls it may encourage others to fall, like dominoes.
Any hint of change must be nipped in the bud . . . forcefully, so others don't get
the same idea.
This is what Hungary and Czechoslovakia were about. This is what Vietnam and Korea,
Greece, Malaya, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and the Congo were about. The fat
men at either side of the see-saw simply could not afford the slightest loss of territory
or influence which might shift the balance of power against themselves. Bad luck
for the Vietnamese, the Hungarians and all the others, but that's the way the see-saw
teeters. Or to use the contemporary jargon, that's how we stop the dominoes falling.
Then along came the three-power balance and the world started to be a much safer
place to live in. Actually the change came a long time ago, back in August 1958 to
be precise. It has taken more than ten years, and Dr Kissinger, for the West to realize
this. When the Russians offered the Chinese less than full nuclear assurances to
balance the threatened US nuclear retaliation during the 1958 offshoreislands crisis,
the basis for the Sino-Soviet alliance collapsed. Overnight we moved from a two-power
bloc world. The Chinese nuclear test of 1964 confirmed it as a three-power world.
A lot of things change in a triangular balance. If one man looks like getting too
fat, or gaining too many allies, the other two powers can simply move a little closer
to each other to keep the balance. No longer does the world have to see every squabble
turned into a cockpit for global power struggles. Bangladesh, for example. In the
bad old days we would have had the Americans identifying the Pakistani army as a
force for democracy and progress which had to be backed against Indian communist
infiltrators. This time they were able to accept the slight loss of global influence
involved. They compensated by simply moving, or threatening to move, a little closer
to the Chinese. True, Peking went into a bout of ideological fantasizing, but it
too eventually accepted the change.
When we move into a four-power or five-power balance the scope for fantasies and
brinkmanship falls even more rapidly. The Russians are polite to the Japanese to
keep them from getting too close to the Chinese. But if the previously anti-Peking
Japanese do not move to China they will be badly left behind by the Americans who
are seekmg to pressure the Russians into concessions. Meanwhile the Chinese are urging
the Americans not to move too quickly out of Europe and Asia since this will leave
the way open for the Russians. It may be devious, but it is at least more realistic
than the ideological fantasies of the past.
Mathematics can show how the world has changed. In a two-power balance there is only
one relationship for the diplomats to fret and ponder over. This becomes three in
a three-power balance, six in a four-power balance and ten when there are five powers.
For each extra power the number of relationships goes up in strict arithmetical progression.
Each relationship is potentially as complex as the old two-power relationship. Eventually
the cold-war strategists must wither on the vine: they simply won't have time or
energy to plot against all the potential targets available.
Defusing the cold-war ideologists is even more important. When only two powers confront
each other, each can easily identify the other as the enemy. God, or history, Lenin,
Mao, or right, is always firmly on one's own side. Evil lies with the other man.
If he is not evil why is he sitting on the other end of the see-saw?
But in a three-power world? Man's inventiveness has never got as far as a trilogy
of opposed supernatural powers. And what happens in a four- or five-power balance?
Did you ever hear of a pentagon of Gods?
The multi-power balance simply cannot fit the mould of ideology/ theology (they are
both the same thing).
The results of this change cannot be exaggerated. Let's go back to our two-power
world, and imagine a large distorting lens called ideology is placed at the fulcrum
of the see-saw. Each man can only see the other man through this lens and it makes
him look much fatter than he really is. The natural response is even more urgent
attempts to increase one's own efforts and weight to keep the balance. The other
man sees this, also through the distorting lens, and responds just as frantically.
Severe indigestion from growing military spending is one predictable result; the
ever more savage destruction of small nations which threaten the power balance is
To give you some idea of how this distortion works in practice, let me talk about
Australian foreign policy. Contrary to popular opinion, post-I949 Canberra pursued
a highly independent foreign policy. (The tendency to assume that one's opponent
is a lackey of the forces of darkness is not the monopoly of the right-wing.) The
people who made the policy were intelligent, well-educated and in many cases dedicated
men. They saw their role as the protection of the Australian national interest. That
interest they saw in the same theological/ideological two-power balance terms as
most policy-makers around the globe. On that basis they devised certain policies
and the execution of those policies was brilliant. The premises, however, were less
The enemy, it seemed natural to assume, was that amorphous unknown called the Sino-Soviet
bloc. Then came the Sino-Soviet split. The enemy became the less known and more proximate
China, with Russia as a sub-enemy.
Starting from the assumption that Peking threatened Australia via its North Vietnamese
'puppets' Canberra set out to embroil the Americans in Asia as a buffer to the 'expansionist'
Chinese. The Australian policy-makers realized long ago the reluctance of the Americans
to be involved in an Asian land war; their reading of Australia's security interest
demanded such involvement. In exchange for a small commitment of Australian troops
to Vietnam (and minimal military commitments elsewhere in Asia which have received
less publicity), they not only encouraged the US into Vietnam but even extracted
a formal promise that the US would stay in Vietnam to the end. By any standard this
was a brilliant piece of diplomacy, particularly as the government (assisted by the
Australian left) managed to preserve the image of meek submission to the US ally-an
image highly popular with the Australian electorate at the time.
The only problem, as I said before, was the premise. No one ever bothered to look
at the pro-communist Vietnamese to see whether in fact they were the craven puppets
of the Chinese. Not a single Australian diplomat in Vietnam could speak Vietnamese.
After all, we knew China was the enemy and that it must therefore have made North
Vietnam its puppet. As for the assessment of China this too was spared the strain
of factual confrontation. The record of Canberra's anti-China hysteria is still available
for anyone who cares to read the Hansards of the early and mid-sixties. Today, thanks
to Dr Kissinger and President Nixon's Peking visit, even the most conservative of
the politician/policy makers would hesitate to repeat such nonsense.
But while we celebrate the weakening of ideology let's be realistic about the new
set-up. A world in which four or five powers manoeuvre for balance against each other
is a great improvement on one where two powers try to club each other to death. But
it is still only one brief remove from the diplomatic stone-age; the merry-go-round
has replaced the see-saw. If individuals in a society behaved the same way we would
still call them paranoic, even though they had found a more sophisticated way to
contain their fears. The goal must be a world where nations have the sense and tolerance
to live with each other peacefully without constant fear and questioning of each
other's motives. That is what our domestic societies are about. It should not require
too much effort to transfer it to the international level.