Looking Back: The Perspective of Dr. Harald Malmgren

By Robbin Laird

We are publishing a collection of essays by Dr. Harald Malmgren which he has published for us over the years.

He ws born July 13, 1935 and we are publishing the book to honor him in his 89th year.

The preliminary title of the book is: Assessing Global Change: Strategic Perspectives of Dr. Harald Malmgren.

To provide an overview of the perspective and approach of Harald Malmgren, I am talking with him along with his daughter Pippa Malmgren this year about how he has looked at the global change which he has seen and been engaged in during his professional life, the nature of his professional career which provided an opportunity to assess a world in change and finally, his view of the future and the way ahead.

This is the second of these interviews. The first addressed NATO and the defense of Europe in 1964 versus 2024 and was based on a discussion launched by his 1964 Orbis article on the subject.

For the second interview, we sat down in February 2024 to begin the discussion and joining us was his daughter Pippa Malmgren. We discussed together how one might conceptualize the evolving U.S. approach over time.

The core question we addressed was simply, how would you characterize the epochs seen in your lifetime through which the United States leadership defined the American strategic focus in global affairs?

We started with when Harald his Washington career as an aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara where he was assigned to a variety of urgent tasks, such as assisting interaction with military leaders regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis and assisting in formulation of an anti-ballistic missile defense system.

At the end of 1964 he was assigned to serve as “right hand man” to Christian Herter, President Kennedy’s Special Representative for Trade Negotiations, in the Executive Office of the President. Herter had previously served as Eisenhower’s last Secretary of State. Harald’s task to assist in reworking trade relationships with Europe and Asia in a fresh start to Americas strategies toward the world.

This is what Harald told us:

When Kennedy became President, he focused on a new start in America’s relations in the world. I was initially sent to the Pentagon and worked for McNamara. The main focus was upon the competition with the Soviets and force re-design to have more effective deterrence.

The focus was upon deterrence, which meant how to talk with the Soviets while you compete with them. The Cuban missile crisis clearly demonstrated the need to do both.

And in the aftermath of the crisis, during both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, there was growing interest in the possibility of anti-missile defense systems, and I worked on those as well and in the process produced a paper which dealt with the cost of the offensive-defensive nuclear missile competition, and what role an ABM system could play in that competition.

Pippa Malmgren has highlighted her father’s role in this aspect of deterrence in a posting she made in 2023.

My father, Amb Harald Malmgren, led the first study on Anti-Ballistic Missiles for the Joint Chiefs under President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (later popularized as Star Wars by President Ronald Reagan).

When he began his study, his task was to determine what it would cost to build an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system that could counter an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) from the Soviet Union before it reached American airspace.

The question was this: would an ABM system alter how the Soviets calculated the cost of Mutual Assured Destruction?

In other words, could it make it too expensive for the Soviets to keep up?

Drawing on the ideas of his academic mentor, Tom Schelling — who later won the Nobel Prize for his idea of game theory — Harald concluded that for each dollar spent on a hypothetical ABM system, it would cost the adversary roughly seven dollars to penetrate it.

The 1960s through the 1980s were focused on the competition between Moscow and Washington conceived of in global terms and beyond terrestrial if one included space. It was about deterrence; it was about global engagement to head off communist gains which were seen as undercutting American and Western interests.

There was something clearly understood as Western interests in terms of a political and economic capitalist world which was confronting a cohesive force of global communism.

As Harald noted:

This was from the beginning of the post-World War II administrations. The Marshall plan, the building of the European Union and NATO were all launched with the idea of holding off communism and allowing the space for Western ideas to rebuild and prevail.

But with leaders like Dean Rusk, who was the Secretary of State for both Kennedy and Johnson, Administrations became refocused on Vietnam as a critical point of confrontation in this global competition.

I pointed out that with this optic, it became very difficult to look at the recent experience of the French and Indochina and to draw lessons from that experience. If the focus was upon global communism, then analyses focused on local factors and historical realities simply got in the way of the analysis. I further added that this proclivity of American policy makers certainly has persisted into our times as well.

Harald focused on Dean Rusk who was a key force in enhancing the global communism competition narrative.

The story of Dean Rusk has never been adequately told. Dean Rusk was the President of the Ford Foundation. Kennedy asked his circle of advisors for a fresh face for his foreign policy team who was not involved in the Dulles era.

And they came back with Dean Rusk as their recommendation. But the reality was that he was the hardest of hardliners, and not really a break from the Dulles brothers. So, when Vietnam came along as challenge, he fit into the East-West competition narrative.

For Harald, the period from his initial engagement in the Eisenhower Administration until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, was one of significant continuity with regard to Washington’s perspective. It was about global competition with the Soviet Union.

But it was also a period in which leaders were attuned to crisis management and negotiation as part of the competition. Talking with your adversaries and having networks of relationships was a key part of the competition as well.

A zero-sum competition between two global nuclear powers is not the best of ideas.

For Harald:

As America entered the 1990s, there were no clear guideposts for defining a new American role in the world. But we were stuck with the Kissinger-Nixon approach to making some kind of partnership with China to counter the Soviet Union. But what kind of partnership in this new period of the 1990s made sense?

And here the United States began to frame the second phase of strategic development which could be labelled globalization.

The assumption was that globalization with a state like China would lead to global prosperity and peace. Presidents Clinton and Obama assumed that globalization carried with it an automatic commitment to being part of the “rules-based order” that the United States had the lead in creating after World War II.

As Harald put it:

When Clinton became President, there was a great push from industry to open the Chinese market and to position American industry onto Chinese soil. There was not a lot of thinking about the strategic consequences of such an effort.

Pippa Malmgren added a key point.

We assumed that everyone knew how capitalism worked or they would work along lines compatible with our broad interests. But what Putin and the Chinese leaders ended up doing was leading an organized crime gang in charge of a state.

In effect, strategy was reduced to shaping tactics for either accelerating globalization or dealing with the barriers to such acceleration. Fire fights came up like Bosnia, but they did not disrupt the dominant narrative of the enhanced growth path for Westernization via globalization.

But then some folks flew some airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Apparently, everyone was not playing by Western rules.

This began then the third period of the strategic focus of American policies, the need the need to protect the homeland against diverse forces who hated the West. This was a diverse group, and there was no clear focus on where to go to end the threats but go you must.

But there was no clear way effectively to connect domestic and foreign policy in relation to an opaque domestic and global threat. Indeed, a strategic focus for policy began its descent into obscurity. You did not need strategic thinkers because you did need to have a strategy.

Harald sees a straight line in many ways from George W. Bush to Trump in which the focus was on a protectionist America facing the disruptive global and domestic forces to our way of life. In many ways, the Biden Administration has created an explosive cocktail of claimed domestic threats to our way of life (MAGA Republicans) with “terrorists” or Putinists.

But this now leaves us in a strategic vacuum.

As Harald put it:

We face a presidential election in 2024 with no big themes being debated. Journalists have to comb through tweets to find the differences.

If there is a theme inherent in the election it might be something like isolationism versus open borders, whatever that means. There are only short-term fixes to make Congress workable.

But there are no discussions of major strategic issues such as framing a new economic growth model, as an example.

This fourth and current period can be characterized by Washington in a strategic vacuum with Washington losing its global leadership role significantly.

So how do we extricate ourselves from where we find ourselves?

NATO and the Defense of Europe: 1964 versus 2024