Politics & Policy

Thank You, Peter Rodman

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

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.

Rodman’s book recounts a tense diplomatic exchange he witnessed firsthand between Kissinger and the Soviets in the midst of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Soviets were trying to insinuate themselves into the post-conflict diplomacy, by advancing a statement of “principles,” but Kissinger accurately realized that there could be no peace until the Soviets were sidelined. So here Kissinger was in the all-too-rare position (for an American diplomat) of talking only to waste everyone’s time. Rodman recalls this passage in Kissinger’s White House Years:

The most serious obstacle to my delaying tactics came from my own staff. In order to waste as much time as possible in my meeting with Gromyko, I made Gromyko repeat some of his formulations over and over again so that I could “understand them better.” Peter Rodman, who was keeping the record for our side, obviously considered this an aspersion on his reliability, and kept interrupting me to hand me the precise text of Gromyko’s proposal, which he had written down verbatim the first time it had been put forward. My repeated elbows in his side would not deter Peter each time we came to a new “principle” on Gromyko’s list. I raised so much cain with him afterward over his excess of zeal that never again would either he or Winston Lord [Kissinger’s other aide] hand over a document to me in front of another delegation during a negotiation — even when I asked for it.

The passing of Peter Rodman must a sad one for his mentor, Henry Kissinger. About Kissinger, Peter wrote:

I must acknowledge my debt to Henry Kissinger. He was my teacher at Harvard College when I was an innocent nineteen-year-old senior. Little did I know then how far my tutoring at his hands would take me. The excitement of taking part in historic events in his company, the depth of understanding of the world that he embodied and (to the extent of the recipient’s capacity) imparted, and the example of conviction and moral courage he displayed in a period of prolonged national crisis — these are his gifts to me.

Peter Rodman, in his turn, has left many gifts for us, among which must be counted his recognition that American foreign policy is most successful when it achieves a reconciliation of the best tendencies of conservatives and liberals:

Often the liberals have been the conscience of the nation, as in their revulsion at rightist dictatorships and their support for diplomatic solutions. At other times, their allergy to considerations of power has led to monumental misjudgments, with both strategic and moral consequences, as in the U.S. abdication in Cambodia and Angola in 1975. Conservatives have had fewer illusions about the nature of our Cold War adversary, but they, too, have occasionally shied away from the Third World geopolitical contest and even more often from the inescapable task of shaping a positive political and diplomatic strategy. Left and Right have had in common a moral impulse that was classically American — the liberals in their inhibitions about the use of power and the conservatives in their aversion to legitimizing evil by a diplomatic dialogue with it.

Peter Rodman was an exemplary American diplomat. He appreciated the necessity of dialogue, but understood that negotiation needs leverage. He was the textbook example of that expression which is so lightly tossed about these days: “tough diplomacy.”

 

With any luck, Peter Rodman will continue to serve as a model for America’s leaders for decades to come. It remains to us to pick up the standard he carried so ably, and advance it proudly. That standard is more precious than peace. Meanwhile, we can only say, at the passing of this gifted and dedicated public servant, “Thank you, Peter Rodman.”

– Mario Loyola, a former consultant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, is now a foreign affairs advisor in the United States Senate.

 

 

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