It was a scene that will endure in the history books: with the Statue of Liberty in the background, a smiling Mikhail Gorbachev stood on Governor's Island alongside the President and President-Elect of the United States. Earlier that day, December 7, in an historic address before he United Nations General Assembly, Gorbachev announced a unilateral reduction of 10% of the Soviet armed forces, and a withdrawal of 5,000 tanks and six tank divisions from Eastern Europe. Furthermore, he promised that the remaining forces in Eastern Europe would be re-deployed in a clearly defensive posture.1
Despite these bold initiatives, and the warmth, hope and good will of the preceding Washington and Moscow summit meetings, when President Reagan's final budget was released in early January, 1989, it showed yet another increase in military spending. Asked about this apparent inconsistency, retiring Secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci, observed that the apparent "improvement" in relations between the superpowers occurred because of, rather than despite, the recent military build-up.2 Surely, he argued, the Soviets would not have made these concessions, but for our military readiness. Accordingly, we were well advised to continue our arms build-up. Carlucci reflected the position of President Bush who, during the election campaign, contended that "where we have seen flexibility [on the part of the Soviets], it has come because the price of aggression was too high..."3
This is an argument often heard from prominent members of Congress, and from members of both the retiring and incoming Administrations.
Recall that, in the early days of the Reagan administration, it was effectively argued that, due to the Soviet military
build-up during the Carter Administration, there was an urgent need for an radical increase in our military budgets. It seems, we were told, that President Carter's restraint in military budgeting and deployment was not reciprocated by the Soviets. In brief, said the critics, when we armed, they armed; and when we cut back, they armed. "You just can't trust those Russians."
And yet today, apparently innocent of historical memory and without an iota of a sense of irony, we have reversed that sequence. When they build, we build; and when they cut, we continue to build.
Now that Gorbachev has taken the initiative of reducing his forces in Eastern Europe, should we respond in kind? "No," says Les Aspin, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee: "the proper response ... would be not to reduce our defense budget -- not to match with a unilateral cut of our own."4
And is it possible that Gorbachev is moved primarily by a simple concern that a nuclear armed world is inherently a dangerous and therefore undesirable world? General Scowcroft, President Bush's new National Security Advisor, is skeptical. Suspecting darker motives, Scowcroft suggests instead that Gorbachev's peace proposal
represents a recognition on his part that he badly needs a period of stability, if not improvement in the relationship, so that he can face the awesome problem he has at home of trying to restructure that economy. That's his basic objective. I think also he is interested in making trouble within the western alliance, and ... believes that the best way to do it is a peace offensive, rather than to bluster the way some of his predecessors have.5
Finally, President Bush's first choice for Secretary of Defense, John Tower, appears unready to give Gorbachev the benefit of his doubts. For at his Senate confirmation hearing on January 25, 1988, Mr. Tower warned:
We must not luxuriate in wishful thinking. And in spite of the progressive moves of Mr. Gorbachev, in spite of the very intense, and I am afraid, all-too effective public diplomacy campaign of his, there is still a formidable threat that confronts the United States and the free world. That threat has not diminished yet, through the era of
perestroika and glasnost.6
In the face of an apparent massive military build-up by our adversary (as alleged in the early years of the Reagan administration), a reciprocating build-up on our part might have the merit of plausibility. But what, in the face of a stream of dramatic positive concessions and initiatives by the Soviet leader, could justify a continuing expansion of our defense budget? The burden of that $300 billion slice of our national treasury is compounded by our unprecedented budget deficits, the drain of talented scientists and engineers from our civilian economy to military research and development, a neglect of our public schools and universities (the seed-beds of our future technological, economic and cultural human resources), all of which is leading to a decline of our human capital and our global competitiveness. In short, it seems that our preparations to meet an ever-receding military threat are rendering us incapable of addressing an ever-growing economic peril.
Aside from these domestic perils, has the Soviet leader in fact given us reason to reconsider our continuing arms build-up? To better contemplate this question, I propose a brief exercise in historic recollection and imagination. Recall the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev era -- and before that, back to the Stalin regime. Try to imagine what it was like, early in the Reagan administration, to
think and feel like Ronald Reagan, and his supporters.
For a sample of this world-view, consider President Reagan's address, on March 8, 1983, at the 41st annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelists in Disney World. It was on this occasion that Mr. Reagan characterized the Soviet Union as "an evil empire" and "the focus of evil in the World." It was then the policy of the United States, as it is now, to deter this "evil empire" from marching across Western Europe or from launching a massive and coordinated nuclear attack on the United States. Toward this end, we had tens of thousands of strategic nuclear warheads targeted on the Soviet Union. And they, reciprocally, had about as many targeted on us and our allies. Leonid Brezhnev was, at that time, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union.
Suppose, in early 1983, at the time of the "evil empire" speech, someone had asked the President and his advisors what sort of evidence might cause them to alter their opinion of the Soviet Union as the primary threat to world peace and freedom?
The question might be asked from a different perspective: Suppose a Soviet leader actually wanted to abolish the arms race, and to end all aggressive acts or intentions against us? To do any of this he would, of course, have to remain in office. Consistent with that necessity, what might the President of the United States expect him to do?
Would the following suffice?
The Soviet leader might release several hundred political dissidents, and install legal procedures that would promise the release of most of the remainder. Western observers (e.g., from the New York Times), would be invited to inspect prison camps in the Siberian Gulag.
He would introduce multi-candidate elections (albeit, at first, at low level public offices). Among the candidates would be such bonafide dissidents as Andrei Sakharov.
He would end the jamming of "The Voice of America," "Radio Liberty," and all other foreign broadcasts, and would encourage cultural exchanges to the point, even, of inviting defecting artists to perform in the Soviet Union.
Foreign publications such as Time an Newsweek would be available for sale to ordinary citizens, in the streets of Moscow, Leningrad and other major Soviet cities.
When significant events of international consequence occurred in the Soviet Union, the Soviet leader would display an unprecedented forthrightness and candor, and would invite international inspection.
In general, he would proclaim and practice a policy of "openness" (glasnost) with regard to public discussion and debate, and "restructuring" (perestroika) with regard to political and economic organization.
Concerning the arms race:
The Soviet leader would unilaterally suspend nuclear testing for a year and a half, despite continuing testing by the United States.
He would extend an invitation to United States scientists to set up seismological instruments near the Soviet test site to examine the feasibility of monitoring nuclear tests.
He would propose, then permit, inspection of strategic weapons facilities, radar sites, nuclear weapons tests, and Warsaw Pact maneuvers.
He would propose, and eventually sign, a treaty to eliminate medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
He would unilaterally reduce Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, and restructure the remaining forces into a defensive posture. In addition, he would reduce the manpower of his armed forces by 10%, and would begin destroying some of the stocks of nuclear weapons -- again, unilaterally.
Responding, at last, to years of international demand, he would agree to withdraw the Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
All this and more has been done or proposed in the intervening time by the new Soviet leader, Mr. Gorbachev. The results have been manifest: even Mr. Reagan's fabled animosities toward communism and the Soviet Union were sufficiently mollified to allow the Soviet and American leadership to agree to an Intermediate Nuclear Forces arms agreement.
Not all are convinced, however. We have noted above, the persisting suspicions of influential members of Congress, and of the new Administration. Such qualms and warnings have been routinely expressed with each significant step toward accommodation between the global rivals. For example, the Washington summit in December, 1987, proved to be too much for a few long-time conservative supporters of Mr. Reagan. At a press conference announcing "The Anti-Appeasement Alliance," these critics vowed to oppose the new INF treaty when it came before the Senate for ratification. Howard Phillips, a co-chairman of the Alliance, called the President "a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda." The other co-chair, Richard Vigeurie, characterized Mr. Reagan as "an apologist for Mikhail Gorbachev."7
After the Washington summit, suspicions about the Soviets persisted within the administration. Despite the new treaty, there were to be no significant cuts in the defense budget.
To the Non-Appeasement Alliance, and other unyielding skeptics, the Soviet reforms and proposals were "not enough." We were reminded that there are still political prisoners in the Soviet Union. Opposition parties are not permitted. The Soviet media are still controlled by the Party. The so-called "test moratorium" was nothing but a pause, following extensive tests. The "mutual inspection" proposals are devices to open our industries to industrial espionage. The unilateral cuts in the Warsaw pact forces, and in the Soviet military, are merely devised to weaken the NATO alliance. Furthermore, Gorbachev's military cutbacks have been forced upon him by a failing domestic economy, and he is simply trying to make a public relations virtue out of an economic necessity. As for the rest, say the critics, it is just so much propaganda, aimed at weakening our resolve. As George Will has repeatedly quipped: "Mr. Gorbachev is Khrushchev with a tailored suit and a thin wife."
Just what might it take to get such "hard line conservatives" to believe otherwise? Notwithstanding a stream of astonishing and courageous initiatives and concessions by the Soviet leader, the critics' complaints and warnings about "the perfidious Russians" are unabated. At length, one might begin to wonder if the conservatives' suspicions of Mr. Gorbachev are susceptible to
any imaginable refutation. This is a significant question, albeit a question that is rarely posed. This question is the focus of the remainder of this essay.
The Falsification Rule:
Critical philosophers have long acknowledged that for an assertion to be meaningful, it must have limits and boundaries. Thus, to assert one thing is, by implication, to deny something else. For example, to say that "mermaids do not exist," we must know what it would be like to encounter a mermaid (i.e., to "falsify" the assertion), even though we believe, all along, that there are none to encounter. Similarly, to meaningfully assert that all humans are less than twelve feet tall, we must know what such a non-existent human being would be like.
Claims which systematically disallow any imaginable refutation have been called, by Garrett Hardin, "leakproof hypotheses." A personal recollection might illustrate this.
As a child, I was brought up amongst religious fundamentalists. When told that the theory of evolution was false, I asked "but what about fossils?" Two contrary answers that I vividly recall were, "they were placed in the ground by the Lord to test our faith," and "they were put there by the Devil to confuse us and to lead us astray." In addition, I was told of "doubting Thomas" and reminded that the greater the temptation that is overcome by faith, the greater one's virtue and reward in heaven. ("Temptation," by this account, means "weight of evidence" and "logical warrant.") Against this array, Darwin didn't stand a chance! No imaginable argument or preponderance of evidence could stand up to the infinite power of the Lord to "test" or of the Devil to "deceive."
Students of philosophy are aware of numerous other "leakproof hypotheses": (1) "The world was created by an omnipotent deity, just fifteen minutes ago, complete with memories and records." (2) "Everything in the universe, including measuring devices within, is doubling in size every hour." (3) "All that exists are minds and their ideas." (4) "All voluntary acts are selfish, in that they are done because the agent desires to do them." Though many such sentences have the appearance of meaning they have been dismissed from science and philosophy, not because they are demonstrably false, but because they are disengaged from the world of our experience. Because such assertions are unaffected by contingencies and "surprises" in the world of our experience, they can not effectively guide our conduct.
When such "transcendental beliefs" are entertained during ritualistic or ceremonial occasions (such as "putting one's mind in the Sunday School Mode"), they may be relatively harmless. A belief in transubstantiation need not affect the way we cut our daily bread. But when these beliefs, detached from reality, also "detach" the believer from the actual world that they appear to describe, the results can be troublesome. And when the "believers" in question hold great political power or influence, these "transcendental beliefs" can have horrendous consequences as they disengage public policy from events in "the real world," and thus disable the capacity to adapt to changes and unique developments.
The following are four of the most prominent assumptions that serve to place defense policies beyond the reach of practical falsification:
"It's All Propaganda." Students of the history of philosophy will recognize this as a variant of "the deceiving devil hypothesis." It is the assumption that all Soviet policies, even domestic policies such as
glasnost and perestroika, are merely designed to fool the Western powers, and thus to cause us to lower our guard.
The Worst Case Assumption. The threshold test ban treaty is a case in point. By making all the "worst possible" assumptions about the geological features of the Semipalitinsk nuclear test site, about the theory of seismic wave propagation, and about Soviet "tamping" techniques, it is possible to interpret the relevant seismic data as "evidence" of occasional Soviet cheating. Never mind that virtually no seismologists agree.
The Double Standard. Standards for judging our leaders' words and behavior are very broad, open, generous and forgiving, while just the opposite standards apply to Soviet words and behavior. "They" sponsor "terrorists," while we sponsor "freedom-fighters."
The Next Move is the Last.8 Virtually every new step in the Arms Race has been initiated by the United States, and then reciprocated by the Soviet Union. (The hydrogen bomb, submarine launched missiles, the cruise missile, etc.) Each time, it was confidently believed that the Soviets would "cave in," and thus that the new strategic advantage to "our side" would be enduring. Each time our expectations have been disappointed. Since the "next move" is, by definition, always future-oriented, past experience does not refute. "Next time it will be different."
By a strict adherence to the falsification rule, the assertion, "The Soviet Union is an incorrigible threat to world peace and freedom," is perhaps meaningful. We might be able to imagine circumstances that could change the minds and policies of the most determined critics of the Soviets. (After all, even Ronald Reagan eventually budged and agreed to a treaty with "The Evil Empire.") But what about the qualms, noted earlier, of Former Senator Tower, and of the "Anti-Appeasement Alliance?" Is there any
imaginable initiative from Moscow that might change the attitudes of these uncompromising anti-Soviets? Perhaps a statement of "unconditional surrender," coupled with the public scrapping of Soviet arms and a plea to "please come over and rule us" might convince them. (Even then, one can imagine some die-hard conservatives saying: "Watch out, it's a trick!").
If the persistent suspicion of Soviet motives is subject to falsification only by "conceivable"
(logically possible), but practically improbable events, does this mean that the falsification rule is of little use to critics of current defense policies and budgets? Perhaps so. However, a "falsification rule" might prove to be a sharp critical tool if the requirement of "logical possibility" (of refuting data) is relaxed to include the looser requirement of "practical possibility." Thus a conceivable, if highly improbable, writ of unconditional surrender from the Soviets might be an unnecessarily restrictive test of the practical significance of the claim that the Soviets are "implacable enemies of freedom and peace." Instead, we might ask the "hard liners": "What might Mr. Gorbachev do,
consistent with keeping his office (or even his life), that would convince you that the Soviet Union is significantly less of a threat to world peace and freedom?" From our hypothetical position of early 1983, what he has done in his four years in power is, to say the least, astonishing. (Reflect for a moment: Could
you, at the time, have believed that such a sequence of events would unfold?) And yet, despite these astonishing developments, and despite all the smiles at the Summits and the photo opportunity on Governor's Island, the consumption of our national treasure by the defense establishment continues unabated.
Perhaps, then, it is time to ask the hard-line critics: "Granted, Gorbachev is not exactly following our script. Still, what would he have to do,
consistent with remaining in office (which is prerequisite to his doing anything), that would convince you that the Soviet Union is significantly less of a threat to freedom and peace than you have supposed, and thus worthy of a renewed attempt at disarmament, accommodation and even friendship?" I suspect that if this question were candidly addressed and answered by these critics (a futile expectation, I fear), we might find that what they require of the Soviets is inconsistent with the national honor and practical politics of the Soviet Union, its leaders and its people, and thus practically impossible to attain.
Tactical Implications for Peacemakers, and Activist Philosophers: If we are to "give peace a chance," our policies, and their supporting ideologies and world-views, must be open and appropriately responsive to changes among the great powers, and elsewhere in the world. They must also be responsive to scientific fact, and to logical coherence and cogency. Philosophers are particularly well-equipped to assess public policy against these requirements.
Accordingly, when a politician, statesman or candidate claims that "we must keep our guard up against the nefarious and perfidious Russians," we are entitled to ask "unless and until --
what?" "Please describe the condition of the world which will allow us to back down from this deadly confrontation." Or again, we might raise this challenge: "You are asking us to pay $300 billion each year, or about $1,200 per capita, for something called 'national defense.' Please tell us, just what are the objectives of this expenditure? How might we know that we have accomplished these objectives, so that we might reduce or even eliminate this drain on the public treasury?" Then we might ask, "How do we distinguish between genuine peace offers from the Soviets, and 'mere propaganda'?" Finally, "Are you asking for a
coup d'etat in the Soviet Union, or will 'evolution' to a more benign condition suffice? If the former, how can we realistically ask for and expect cooperation from and accommodation with the present regime? If an 'evolution,' how are we prepared to assist it -- or, for that matter, simply to recognize it?"
Complementary questions should also be addressed "to the left": "Suppose we follow your suggestion, and attempt to foster reciprocation, communication and trust between the United States and the Soviet Union. At what imaginable point of betrayal and deceit by the other side do we abandon the noble experiment, and dry our nuclear powder once again?" In short, we ask both sides: "Just what is the cash-value and the payoff of your policies and proposals? How do they engage with our practical problems? What imaginable circumstances in the real world of great power conflict are implied, and excluded, by the ideology and world view upon which your policies are based? Just what defines 'success' (or 'victory'), and what identifies 'failure.' How, in short, are you prepared to recognize whether your policies are working or not?"
The Stakes: Throughout eight years of Mr. Reagan's regime of government by public relations -- of leader as national pastor and Master of Ceremonies -- these questions were not answered, and eventually were less often asked by a delinquent press. The public seemed not to care. Mr. Bush's challenge will be to re-establish commerce between policy and evidence by asking such questions as these. Otherwise, with no realistic concept of falsifiability (which is to say, of "failure'), there will be no accountability, and little hope of intelligent accommodation with, much less control of, significant events and circumstances in the real world.
In short, throughout four decades of confrontation between the superpowers, the significance of the falsifiability rule in public affairs has been made vividly clear -- through its disregard. We have paid, and will continue to pay, the price of a refusal to be instructed by events and open to change. As the late physicist Richard Feynman remarked at the close of his sharp dissent to the Challenger Report: ". . . reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature can not be fooled."
The alternative to public and official sensitivity to the falsification rule is dreadful to contemplate. Blinded by self-serving and self-righteous ideology and propaganda, we will continue to refuse to recognize and seize upon opportunities for peace. We will fail, because the ideology denies,
a priori, the possibility of such opportunities. Avenues to peace will be denied, because they constitute a falsification of the ideology of "the evil empire, unalterably opposed to freedom and peace" -- an ideology devised to admit of no falsification. Accordingly, through a persistent quest of "peace through strength," our military-industrial-technological establishment will continue to consume our national resources and treasure until, at last, it either breaks our economy or is found to fail when the missiles arrive. Unconstrained by the falsifiability rule, we will travel down that road to destruction, undeterred by the challenge of practical experience, logical cogency, or scientific and technological fact.
Fortunately, the "practical falsifiability rule" is quite simple, clear, and appealing to common sense. No prior training in logic is required to catch the point of the challenge: "What would it take to convince you that your claim is false?" The logical bite of that challenge can be grasped and appreciated, even by an ordinary Congressman. Thus this is a rule that can and should be put to good use by those who are trying to disengage foreign and defense policies from fantasy, and to re-engage these policies with the real and dangerous world of imperfect knowledge, fallible humans, and nuclear weapons.
1. New York Times, December 8, 1988.
2. "This Week with David Brinkley,"
ABC Television, January 15, 1989.
3. "Differing Views of America's Global
Role," Andrew Rosenthal, New York Times, November 2, 1988.
4. "This Week with David Brinkley,"
ABC Television, December 11, 1988
5. "This Week with David Brinkley,"
ABC Television, January 22, 1989.
6. Transcribed from a tape of Tower's
testimony, "Morning Edition," National Public Radio (KVCR, San
Bernardino), January 26, 1989. Mr. Tower was subsequently rejected for reasons
unrelated to his adherence to the position, stated above.
7. Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1987.
8. John Holdren, "The Dynamics of the
Nuclear Arms Race: History, Status, Prospects," Cohen and Lee, eds.,
Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and
Allenheld, 1986), p. 43.