A little over a century ago, armed only with spears and passion, a force of Africans inflicted on the British army one of the worst defeats in its history. When the news finally reached London, there was shock and confusion, and the government eventually fell. "Who are these Zulus," Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli asked in stately ignorance, "that they bring down a dynasty?"
There has been some of the same air of stunned puzzlement, of omen, in the U.S. reaction last week to the spectacle of hundreds of thousands in the streets of China demanding democracy. Like the ever-growing popular ferment in the Soviet Union over the past several months, this apparently sudden, elemental force in world politics, this shaking of dynasties, is not something Washington was prepared for.
On the surface, it is true enough, the crusading students in Beijing or Shanghai, the angry citizens in Moscow or Armenia or the Baltic states, represent a historic surge of freedom that America should welcome. The barriers we have so long deplored are coming down even sooner than hoped. Yet behind the seeming vindication is a palpable sense of unease and the exposure of a profound flaw in our own capacity to deal with a revolutionary world at the end of the century.
To begin with, our official amazement at developments in China and the Soviet Union shows all too clearly how little we have really understood these old and feared adversaries, on whom we have spent--and continue to spend--so many billions in intelligence and research. In both countries, as in Eastern Europe, recent events have been far less a sudden spasm than the culmination of a lengthy, almost evolutionary process.
While the U.S. government--and through its prism much of the press--continued to view the communist states in the caricatures of the 1950s, there grew in each a roiling, dynamic inner politics, the politics that, not so mysteriously, spawned Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his legion of middle-aged reformers in the Kremlin, the politics that put not only rebellious students in Tian An Men Square, but Chinese diplomats, journalists and army officers alongside them, and that moved the beleaguered Beijing leadership to visit young hunger-strikers in the hospital, according to one account, "like anxious parents."
That we did not recognize that long-time cracking of the monolith, did not peer beyond our preconceptions, has now paralyzed our own response to what may well be the international turning point of the era. Much as it blindly refused to appreciate the great Sino-Soviet schism more than two decades ago, and launched the Vietnam War in part on its tragic heedlessness, Washington has obviously been struck a bit dumb by both perestroika and the Chinese uprising. After months of transparent change in the communist world, and further months of a labored policy review, the Bush Administration has come forth with the mouse of more waiting for Gorbachev.
Not that the myopia is partisan. There is more than a little parallel between these past months and the Jimmy Carter Administration's stout obliviousness to the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979. We have been, in the end, no better at forecasting tyranny than democratic tumult, at shedding misconceptions about clients than about rivals, at anticipating dark-eyed priests in Tehran than reformers in Moscow or Beijing.
It is an unusually vivid illustration of one of the chronic, underlying weaknesses of our foreign policy: how much we are hostage to the Washington sociology of knowledge in a vast, ingrown bureaucracy and Establishment, where there is considerable vested interest--careers, political fortunes, lucrative contracts and consultancies--in yesterday's orthodoxy, yesterday's experts. Typically, policy planning has been and remains one of the least influential bureaus of the State Department; no assignment, no function is deemed less relevant to the diplomacy of the 1980s, save perhaps the recruitment of new Foreign Service officers.
A U.S. government stolidly looking on in Cold War stereotypes, clinging to that political mythology at home as well as abroad, has simply been unready for a world in which sweeping and fundamental internal changes, phenomena deep within societies, have become the genuine stuff of world politics, and thus the essential intelligence of a foreign policy.
Meanwhile, of course, the price for the United States is not only in watching events in two great nations and regions sweep past us, in a forfeiture of vision and initiative to Gorbachev and whatever regime emerges in Beijing. There is also that other premonitory rumbling our foreign ministry hears only faintly, if at all--in the Middle East, Central America, Mexico.
President Bush and his colleagues would do well to ponder Disraeli's question--who indeed are these people, and exactly whose dynasties do they threaten to bring down?