Thank You, Peter Rodman
He helped us understand Cold War history, while downplaying his own role in it.


Mario Loyola

Peter W. Rodman was a national treasure, and his death — at such a tender age, and with so much wit and wisdom left to contribute — makes us all poorer.

Peter’s history of the Cold War, More Precious than Peace (1994) is a seminal resource. The focus of the book is the Soviet-American conflict in the third world — where that conflict took its greatest human toll, and posed the gravest moral, intellectual, and political challenges to the United States. It was a conflict that posed incredibly painful dilemmas for Americans — often forcing us to choose between our moral aspirations and our most vital strategic interests. Those dilemmas were fertile ground for painful and divisive domestic debate. But Rodman focused, at once passionately and dispassionately, on how to resolve the irresolvable.

The title of Rodman’s book is a reference to Woodrow Wilson’s April 1917 address to Congress asking for a declaration of war on Germany, a speech laden with obvious echoes of Abraham Lincoln: “But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight . . . for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the right and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right. . . . ”

It is typical of Rodman that his book is far more interested in history than in his own role in shaping it. Rodman was often instrumental in the policymaking he describes: During the 1970s, he was Henry Kissinger’s star disciple and aide; during the 1980s, he had pivotal roles in the Reagan administration, at the State Department, and on the National Security Council staff; and most recently, he served us as Assistance Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, where he was a principal architect of the international security cooperation programs that have been so essential to the success of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy.

Peter Rodman had little interest in celebrity, though. His presence in his own book is characteristically subtle and quiet: he involves himself in the story only where it will prove beneficial to the reader’s understanding of what happened — and what might happen next. Written in 1994, the book is incredibly prescient:

The United States needs always to be willing to settle differences and coexist peacefully if that should be Iran’s course. But the very concept of coexisting peacefully, alas, is much more the West’s concept than Iran’s. At the present juncture it is essential first to interpose countervailing power — just as the West did to the Soviet Union — to contain Iran’s ambitions pending some ultimate erosion of its revolutionary élan. That means bolstering our regional allies, punishing terrorism, blocking Iran’s access to military useful advanced technologies, and maintaining a strong U.S. deterrent presence in the Gulf and in the Middle East. . . .

For while Islamic leaders may be willing to seek power through parliamentary means, their program is an all-embracing social, political, and cultural mobilization that — as exemplified by Iran — is the negation of the constitutionalism that is the essence of democracy as we know it. Limitation of the power of government; respect for individual civil and political (including women’s) rights; the alternation of parties in office — such features tend to be absent from revolutionary Islamic doctrine and practice. The key question is not how a movement comes into power but what it can be expected to do with that power once it has attained it. The West need not be so relativist about the meaning of democracy as to concede away its fundamental elements. In the end, the issue for the West may be less the question of how it should conduct foreign policy than of whether it believes in itself.