REASON Interview: Earl C. Ravenal


Joining the list of prestigious speakers at the 1976 national convention of the Libertarian Party was Dr. Earl C. Ravenal Though unknown to most of the attendees before the convention, his hard-hitting speech on a noninterventionist foreign policy soon made his name widely known. Indeed in the past year and a half, one can scarcely find a libertarian foreign policy document that does not at least mention Ravenal's name or ideas.

What distinguishes Ravenal from many academic critics of American foreign policies is his hands-on experience. From 1967 to 1969 he served as Director of the Asian Division (Systems Analysis) in the Office of Secretary of Defense. Upon leaving government service Ravenal entered academia. He is presently teaching American foreign policy at both the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. His articles on foreign policy issues have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and other journals as well as in magazines such as Harper's and REASON.

After his initial appearance in 1976 Ravenal was invited back to address the 1977 national convention of the Libertarian Party in San Francisco. There he was interviewed by REASON editors Manuel Klausner, Tibor Machan, and Robert Poole. Of particular concern in the interview was the question of reconciling the goal of cutting back US overseas intervention with the realities of present-day international power relationships.

REASON: You will probably find that the questions we ask are very broad, partly because we don't know enough of the facts. Like about the Soviet Union—is it really a threat?

RAVENAL: Nobody, it seems to me, is giving a completely satisfactory factual answer to that question—although I'm not satisfied that there's no threat emanating from the Soviet Union. I'm not satisfied at all. I think that what we're going to have to get down to is a hypothetical question—if there is a threat, what to do about it? And on this hypothetical question, a person who claims rather modestly not to know or not to have much expertise in that area is being too modest. That's why I maintain that individual citizens are certainly as capable as anyone else of making basic policy decisions.

REASON: There have been a lot of claims to the effect that US foreign policy—for example, establishing bases throughout the world—has been mistaken because it presupposes that the Soviet Union is an aggressive, internationalists power, where in fact we are dealing with Mother Russia in some different rhetorical garb. How would you evaluate the Russian military threat to the United States?

RAVENAL: I don't think that all this revisionism that we've seen in the last 15 years about the nonexistence of the Soviet threat—historically, since World War II, and by implication, at the present time—holds much water. I'm not essentially a revisionist, as a lot of colleagues of mine who happen to be out on the left somewhere generally are. I think the Soviets really were up to something in the late forties, and they probably are up to something now. And it's not simply a new manifestation of a traditional Russian defensive instinct. Communism has tended to make the Soviet Union a global revisionist power—it's not satisfied with the status quo, not only within its own region but also in a general sense.

But the question is always a so-what question. Of course, the first part is, what are the Soviets capable of doing no matter what their utopian objectives might be? And second, even if they are capable of doing certain things, how does that affect us and what can we do about these things? As to the first question, since the mid-sixties—and that puts it very late; some people would say late fifties—they can reach us directly with some very destructive weapons. Actually, even as late as the early sixties they didn't have all that many of them. So a lot of the expressions of the Soviet menace were premature, and that gave a bad name to those who were crying wolf. But that does not mean that of necessity there is not a rather serious theoretical challenge to our strategic situation now just because many observers—hawkish observers—were a bit hysterical about this 10 or 15 years ago. That's what's wrong with the debate, for instance, in some journals such as Foreign Policy. Over the last couple of years there's been a lot on the question of the arms race—who started it and whether we overreacted or underreacted and all that sort of thing. Those questions don't interest me that much; they have no necessary relationship to the present situation. The fact that we might have underestimated the Soviet missile buildup in the early sixties or the fact that we in some era might have overestimated Soviet capability by making linear projections.…

REASON: What is the methodology for this kind of compilation, anyway? That's sort of a basic question that should be brought out.

RAVENAL: Well, that is tricky. What appears to be a single aggregate figure just represents a way of synthesizing a very complex judgment. And the farther out you go, the more you're depending on the validity of a simple linear projection. There is a question of intentions and capabilities. What isn't well enough realized is the fact that although in the short run intentions are limited by capabilities, in the longer run capabilities are limited by intentions. The forces that they want to maintain and the ways in which they would like to deploy them, even though they are not capable of doing that now, become much more important, because they will set themselves the task of building toward those levels. They're restrained by only two things—the potential of their economic system and the degree to which their citizens within their political structure will put up with the misallocation of their own resources to defense requirements as opposed to consumer and investment needs.

REASON: Is there a very serious question involving the fact that their decision making throughout the entire industrial, agricultural, civil, legal structure is centralized, whereas we have people in the Pentagon, but they are still in some sense accountable to civilians who are then in some sense accountable to the grass roots? Is there a serious policy problem that arises in estimating what they will do and how we can react?

RAVENAL: Well, several kinds of problems arise from that. There's a lively debate that goes on about the extent to which the Soviet system is pluralistic or monolithic within itself as a political system, as a decision-making system. There are two schools of thought, with many shades in between. One is the simple totalitarian explanation, which would credit them with rather immense powers of resolving disputes. That is, disputes are resolved and buried, and they proceed univocally along a certain policy line. And the other theory is that the Russian system is really functionally very much like ours, even though the political forms differ—they have interest groups, they have to resolve disputes constantly within the Politburo and other organs of their government; there are hard liners and soft liners. The consequences for American policy differ considerably. In the first case we batten down the hatches, and in the second case we do something quite different—we try to play on the internal divisions within the Russian political system and sometimes have to make strategic concessions precisely in order to favor the cause of those whom we consider soft liners. The first school of thought thinks that the latter is capricious to the point of being self-destructive, not only because there really aren't any soft liners within the Russian politburo but because, of course, by playing this game with us they can extract all sorts of concessions.

REASON: How do you believe on this?

RAVENAL: Well, I'm not a Soviet expert, and I don't mind saying that because even Soviet experts don't know. They've made serious mistakes and really don't know as much as they might think they do. I don't tend to accept entirely the hard line-soft line thesis. Obviously it has a measure of sense, but I think it isn't that bad a functional presumption on the part of the American defense decision-making system to take the Russian system as if it were a little more monolithic. In other words, this is a working hypothesis. Lacking enough confidence in these very serious matters, we probably do have to give a wider berth to our estimates of Russian intentions. That's what it really gets back to.

REASON: What's your prescription, then, for American military policy? Your assessment of the Russian military capability?

RAVENAL: Well, I don't think that any single prescription grows inevitably out of any single analysis. I could buy a certain fraction of the hawkish estimate of the situation without beginning to buy their prescription for what we ought to do about it. I'm not sure that anything the Russians are doing yet gives us cause to reverse our gears and go into a program of urgent mobilization, which is really what people like General Haig and Admiral Zumwalt and Henry Jackson and to a limited extent Sam Nunn and others would like to see us do.

REASON: It has always been a puzzle to me whether a system like theirs, over a large territory, could have the kind of longevity that they have exhibited without some kind of almost deliberate whipping the people up into the war-act mentality. And if this is so, then it would seem to lend some plausibility to the hawkish kind of predictions or anticipations.

RAVENAL: Certainly they're capable of mobilizing their population—the sentiments and the resources of their population—to an extent that surpasses ours, but they can't perform miracles. They can certainly mobilize their population to defend against palpable threats, but that's, of course, not what we're talking about. Whether they would be able to invent through their propaganda a cover story that would not only pacify but mobilize their country in the event of a Russian gratuitous and premeditated invasion of NATO Western Europe is quite another story.

REASON: While we're talking about the Soviet threat, what about first-strike capability and intentions? You mentioned in your talk this morning that the United States government had not over the last 30 years renounced the first use of nuclear weapons. Do you think there's any strategic advantage to doing that, given that the Soviet Union has not done it?

RAVENAL: Well, many people think that there is. There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought on nuclear weapons. One school feels that such weapons have war fighting utility, and these people are generally the same ones who feel that the Russians are using their nuclear force in a war-fighting mode—to win, not to deter, wars. The other thesis is that neither side really intends to use nuclear weapons except as a deterrent which implies, of course, second use of nuclear weapons. Now, the one thing that breaches that neat distinction is the notion of extended deterrence, and that is what I was getting at this morning—using the deterrent not only to shield yourself—to shield yourself against nuclear attack—but to do two other things: one, to shield your allies, not just yourselves, and two, to shield them against nonnuclear aggression. You're taking the same deterrent and getting much more mileage, or hoping to get much more mileage, out of it.

Now, that is a very dangerous game. That game was invented almost at the birth of nuclear weapons, but it was given impetus by the thinking of John Foster Dulles in the 1950's. At that time the United States had a nuclear monopoly, at least a strategic intercontinental nuclear monopoly. Russia in some ways could threaten with a few bombs and a handful of antiquated weapons and very limited delivery vehicles. They could threaten Western Europe, and their strategy was, in essence, to hold Western Europe hostage for our behavior, but they could not reach the United States until roughly 1955, even with their long-range bombers. Of course, they leap-frogged over that by 1957. In the fall they put up Sputnik, and they began to build missiles, but even at the time of the accession of the Kennedy administration in the early 1960's, the Russians had—by one estimate that I heard just the other day from someone who was inside the system at that time—only four operational intercontinental ballistic missiles. And that's why Krushchev was trying to introduce missiles into Cuba. The Russians were so far behind that they wanted to deploy within the Western hemisphere, within the Caribbean, the intermediate- and medium-range missiles that they already did have in order to leap-frog over their disadvantage.

REASON: Did you assess the Russian move in Cuba, then, as something that they were doing to try to give them a more credible counterstrike capability, or was that an aggressive threat on their part?

RAVENAL: Well, I really think it was both. At a certain stage in the escalation of a crisis, what is a response becomes a provocation, what is a provocation can be used as a response. The Russians were clearly trying to do two things—one aggressive and one defensive. The defensive thing was to protect Cuba against what they knew, and what we now know ourselves, was a real threat from the United States. We were trying to topple the Castro regime, which had sought Russian protection. That you can consider defensive. The other reason Krushchev deployed the missiles was simply to even up the world's global strategic balance, so that, conceivably, they could perpetrate certain aggressive moves under that strategic power.

REASON: Doesn't it become important to go back and ask ourselves—especially when we talk about the question of right and wrong—who, at the very beginning, was aggressive, who showed the first aggressive signs? For example, when the Russians decided to move into Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1948, they toppled every opposite political party. They had mock elections, and they did this throughout the Eastern bloc. Was it legitimate for the United States to think of that as an aggressive act?

RAVENAL: Well, I would agree in many respects with the obvious interpretation that these were offensive and objectionable political and military actions, and I don't buy, as I said a minute ago, the revisionist case completely—to the effect that for some reason we prodded the Russians into this kind of egregious political behavior.

REASON: Libertarians are divided over what is the proper extent or scope of US defense policy. Have you thought about this? How about the "porcupine theory" of foreign policy, the idea that Switzerland is a good model for the United States?

RAVENAL: Well, I often mentally experiment with the question of how our country would comport itself if it lacked certain elements of power. Although that's a counter-factual question, it has a certain use because it forces us to ask ourselves whether we're behaving the way we are simply because we have the power. If that is the case, and if, further, that position is beginning to be eroded by a diffusion of power in the world, the procession of power to other countries, many of which are hostile to our aims—and not just hostile as some of the Communist countries are, but even hostile in the sense that certain capitalist countries are implicitly in competition with the United States for some of the same goods and resources in the world, influence, and other things—if that is the case, then it's not too early to start thinking of a different way of behaving in the world.

REASON: The libertarian position stems essentially from a belief in nonaggression—you can't use force against others as long as they don't aggress against you. So libertarians are opposed to taxation and conscription. That has very profound implications when you try to address this very difficult task of foreign policy and military capability from even a defensive standpoint. Do you favor conscription or taxation in any applications?

RAVENAL: This hinges on the question of what a political community consists of and whether a political community has any validity. It strikes me from reading some very interesting libertarian literature that people are beginning to send me, that libertarians have not given up on the notion of the political community. They call it, however, society, and they feel that certain organic, self-regulatory mechanisms that grow up within society and that are largely voluntary are quite legitimate. So the real question is not whether anything that an organization does or any powers that any organization arrogates to itself are ipso facto illegitimate just because it calls itself a government. The question is whether in many cases we're not dealing with an authentic expression of community, of social will, in the guise of governmental or State action. It strikes me that there is such a thing as a legitimate collective social-political expression and that there are certain areas of activity in which that kind of expression is likely to be more relevant. Now defense is certainly one of them. A second question is under what conditions of external and internal threat will we find these mechanisms, whether they're taxation or conscription, beginning to cut in—where a community through some of its social-political mechanisms decides, in some more or less legitimate way, to exact resources and effort and sacrifices from its members in order to accomplish some presumptively worthwhile objective? To me it's not a question of absolutes. It's a question of whether we see this phenomenon as appropriate or whether the exactions of the State are outside of those categories and therefore constitute illegitimate intrusions on the rights of individuals and families.

REASON: That's precisely the thing. Libertarians have answered that second question by saying that the primary political purpose of a community is to uphold liberty—preserving rights and so forth. Now if you have a different conception of what the political primaries are—say, stability or security—then you no longer find conscription and taxation such a dire oddity in a community. But if you take liberty as the primary political value, then these are really illegitimate.

RAVENAL: Yes, I think that's a challenging statement. The kind of thing that I was implying—of course, this still remains a more or less off-the-top-of-the-head answer to your question—is that there are circumstances of tangible threat and general threat that probably do justify taxation, some kind of taxation, and, in the most extreme cases, even conscription. But judgments of the severity of cases should not be arrived at lightly. But there are cases, it seems to me, where we find examples of the phenomenon that economists call public goods; and if enough people within a State agree to provide security for themselves and defend the borders of their community against palpable threats, then, whether or not people go along with this effort voluntarily, they are defended—they can't help but be defended.

REASON: There are some libertarian solutions to this problem that are being advanced, but obviously we can't go into them now. While we still have some time we ought to talk about a few other pressing problems, such as specific weapon systems and issues like that. For example, what was your view of the B-1?

RAVENAL: I've always opposed the B-1. It was a useless, although what I would call benign, weapon system; it was not destabilizing, simply a waste of money. There are other weapon systems which are expensive and not benign because they are destabilizing. They make our strategic situation worse in terms of the probability of our survival. I think that the Mark 12A warhead, for instance, is a very potent, explosive force. It could be fitted onto the present Minuteman and later, in some conceivable follow-on system, put onto the MX. The more potent we make the Minuteman as a potential first-strike weapon of our own, the more we invite in certain situations of crisis a preemptive Soviet attack upon our own land-based missiles—in short, on our own soil.

REASON: It gets to be a real problem for libertarians, I think, in some of these weapons trade-offs, because weapons such as the Mark 12A warhead that are much more accurate and can be much more precisely targeted are those that can be more readily used against exclusively military targets. In other words, it is used in a "counterforce" strategy as opposed to a "countervalue" strategy, which libertarians consider far more immoral or less moral as a means of defense—holding up innocent populations for hostage, so to speak, as opposed to just being able to destroy military targets. It would seem from what you are saying that those precise, modern, high-technology weapons which are counterforce weapons are precisely what analysts such as yourself would consider destabilizing and dangerous.

RAVENAL: No. So far, I follow your argument implicitly, and I agree that countervalue weapons are anathema. But there's one point at which I diverge, and that is the implication that any accurate weapon system is necessarily a counterforce weapon and can only be used that way in the primary sense of the word "counterforce," that is, countersilo, counter-missile. There are other uses for accuracy as such. I oppose accuracy combined with high yields because that can mean only one thing—attacking silos, which means counterforce. But accuracy can also be used to acquire a greater degree of discrimination between civilian populations and co-located or partially co-located military installations, and this might become, in some situations a useful capability for us to have built into our force structure. It's a more moral, rather than a less moral, position to be able to make such finer discriminations.

REASON: Why do you consider the Mark 12A destabilizing?

RAVENAL: Because of its accuracy combined with its high yield.

REASON: What do you think about the values, pro and con, of the current cruise missiles and the neutron bomb?

RAVENAL: Well, those are very separate questions having literally nothing to do with each other. Cruise missiles themselves can be differentiated into roughly two types. One is the long-range sea- or land-based cruise missile. The presence of such missiles at various points in Western Europe could provoke the Russians to make certain kinds of responses. So I consider that sort destabilizing and also unproductive in the attempt to arrive with the Russians at certain relatively stable regimes in Europe. On the other hand, the other kind—the medium-range, air-launched cruise missile—I consider to be useful. It's a different weapon and is obviously a second-strike weapon; it relies on a platform, which is in itself very slow, to carry it anywhere near its launching point outside the perimeter of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it's useful in obviating, as Carter seems to see the wisdom of, the development and production of penetrating bombers like the B-1. So the air-launched cruise missile in my mind makes sense even though it complicates the problem of verification. But the ground-launched cruise missile does not make any sense.

Now on the issue of the neutron bomb you have an entirely different, although no less tangled, situation. The neutron, first of all, is a tactical weapon; it's a theater weapon. It's designed for use primarily against units of an attacking army. It's an antipersonnel weapon that, as everyone knows, is designed to leave a hard structure still standing except in the immediate area of the blast. I'm ambivalent about the neutron bomb. First of all, it doesn't affect in the slightest the strategic balance, because it is obviously a countermilitary weapon to be used on the battlefield. Although it's a vicious weapon because it's antipersonnel, it's benign for precisely the same reason, because it limits the area of damage and preserves the lives of civilians who might be located in nearby towns or areas. You almost come out with neutrality when you weigh these two considerations—its limited and somewhat more controllable radius as opposed to the fact that it's a specific antipersonnel weapon.

REASON: How controllable is that radius?

RAVENAL: I think we're talking about hundreds of yards rather than several miles. It's very difficult, it strikes me, to calculate precisely the effect of blast as opposed to radiation; this being a radiation rather than a blast weapon, it is, I think, inherently more controllable. Now the irony is that, precisely because it's likely to be more restrictive, discriminating, and controllable, it's opposed, because it appears to bridge the gap between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons in a way that had only been, let's say speculated on or hypothesized.

REASON: Let's get to SALT for a moment. What are your general thoughts on it? Some people say it's a giving away of all America has and it's a selling out to the Russians. Others say it's the best thing for peace and prosperity in the world.

RAVENAL: The process itself doesn't lead necessarily to either of those results. It depends on the type of agreement that's obtained and whether it's minimally verifiable or minimally enforceable. One has to be more specific about which proposals and which projected agreements we're talking about. I think you are implicitly referring to Vladivostok and what was projected there in November 1974, and hawks and doves have fallen out on that issue. But surprisingly, they agree on one thing—and that is that the Vladivostok agreements were very bad—but for very different reasons. The hawks were partially right and the doves were partially right. The hawks opposed those ceilings, those agreements, because they would allow the Soviets, within those agreements, to build a force which would still be sufficiently destructive to wipe out a large percentage of our strategic nuclear system. So that was the objection of the hawks—that Vladivostok contributed to and codified Soviet strategic superiority—that it was a giveaway, consequently, by Kissinger and President Ford. The doves opposed it on entirely different grounds, simply because the ceilings were so high on individual delivery vehicles and that any weight of delivery vehicle was considered as an integer of one, whether it was a B-52 or a Minuteman missile which has only one warhead—such that both sides would be able to build up to incredible levels of what the doves or arms controllers call overkill. I don't happen to subscribe to this overkill calculus because it's simplistic and it's circular; it depends on the target system that you intend to attack. So the argument, the simplistic argument of the doves, or the arms controllers, really doesn't reach the point.

REASON: Let's move from that question back to the moral issues. Other than dealing with modern weapons, how do you view the desirability of, say, training squads of assassins or teams of snipers who would go out to pick off somebody like Idi Amin or Adolf Hitler rather than using weapons of mass destruction and mass murder. The general question is, are covert operations at least theoretically more preferable on a moral basis than the kind of mass weapons system we have now?

RAVENAL: I don't think there's an ultimate answer on this. You can find cases—and if you can't find them, you can hypothesize them—where the most economical kind of attack, in terms of conserving human life, is precisely at the top of some political pyramid. Particularly if it can be demonstrated that a leader is imposing his decisions on his own populace and they're really not responsible for it, then it's much more moral, I suppose, on that theory, to attack the leader and spare the population. At the most abstract level of moral theory, it's hard to find any reason, particularly if you approach it in a sort of utilitarian spirit, for not doing it. It appears to be not only a legitimate, but also a mandatory, code of conduct, because utilitarianism not only permits but requires the action that produces the greatest good or the least harm. On the other hand, moving from rather abstract formulation, I think it's a very, very evil precedent to codify and enshrine in our practice to assassinate the leaders of foreign political systems because of some fantasy grievance we might have against them. Now in mentioning Hitler and Amin, you cite rather easy cases, cases that dispose you toward accepting the legitimacy of political assassination. I still entertain a presumption against it except, curiously, in times of full-scale combat. There's no prima facie reason, it seems to me, why one can't go after the commander-in-chief of someone else's armed forces just as well as the lowliest private. But in times of nonbelligerency, I think it should be ruled out as a matter of, let's say, an initial presumption.

REASON: In the Vietnam war, in Operation Phoenix, the CIA was training guerrilla warriors to knock off politicians in Vietnam. Here was a state of belligerency, though not a state of declared war.…

RAVENAL: In the Phoenix Operation, the legal fact of a formal declaration of war is immaterial, because there was a state of war existing by any substantive measure. The question is whether the targeted cadres were military or political. Now in Vietnam, you often had procedure on the grounds of grudge or suspicion, and that's the kind of thing you have to avoid. But if you can, for a moment, just sort of discount that factor, I think you're left with the fact that it might not be as illegitimate as many people thought to go after the political-military cadres of an opposing, although sort of covert, military organization. It's not an open-and-shut case against such things as the Phoenix Operation.

REASON: Well, our time is up. Thank you very much.