- According to Kissinger, continued U.S. activism and intervention in world affairs is essential. The punch line of each chapter dealing with the various regions, whether Asia, Europe, the Middle East, is that continued U.S. guidance is necessary everywhere, because the local boys cannot manage on their own
- Although Kissinger has a reputation of being a voracious reader and possessing great curiosity, where Russia is concerned he clearly has not read a page or reconsidered his views in the past 65 years
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
In 2010, when I published Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations, I was concerned that a goodly number of the thinkers were well advanced in years and might not last very long. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Noam Chomsky were all in their 80s, and others among my chosen 10 thinkers were not far behind. From my selfish perspective, the early demise of any would cut both their and my book’s relevance and drawing power.
As it turned out, only two of my great thinkers have died. Sam Huntington passed away before my book appeared. And the second, Stanley Hoffmann, left us just two weeks ago. The other eight are alive and well, and one, in particular, Henry Kissinger, has been going from strength to strength. In the past 5 years he has produced two new major books which have attracted considerable attention, especially in the general public: On China, in 2012, and World Order late last year. Both were written in his characteristically elegant style with display of encyclopedic knowledge that was gathered both from his life experience and from his voracious readings over the years.
Since the onset of the confrontation with Russia over Crimea and the Donbas in the spring of 2014, op eds by Henry Kissinger have been published from time to time in The New York Times and other mainstream media. These lightning bolts from on high plead the cause of moderation in America’s highly polarized, often vitriolic discussion of Russia-related matters. Kissinger has very reasonably proposed that the crisis be resolved by introducing neutral status and federal structure in Ukraine, thereby allaying Russia’s key concerns in the region.
Most recently an interview with Kissinger appeared in the 30th anniversary issue of The National Interest. His message that the U.S. was wrongheaded in pursuing regime change in Russia was both important and timely. One of the first comments posted on the TNI site expressed sincere regret that the still brilliant Kissinger is not our sitting Secretary of State.
Such readers have either very short memories or only have done partial if any spadework into the past. Had they done so, they would recognize that Kissinger is a highly contradictory figure. The notion that he has spent the latter part of his life atoning for the errors of the first part remains pertinent. He was as much a source of the woes we see today on the international scene, including with respect to Russia, as he is now a voice of gravitas and peacemaking. As I mentioned in Great Post-Cold War Thinkers, Kissinger played an important role in 1993-94 in the camp lobbying against inclusion of Russia even in the very sketchy security arrangements of the Partnership for Peace, not to mention its inclusion in NATO which he vehemently rejected. In this essay I will continue the exploration of his writings that I began in 2010, directing primary attention to the very latest book, World Order.
As I do so, I cast a sideways glance at an article about Kissinger in the latest, September-October 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Niall Ferguson’s “The Meaning of Kissinger. A Realist Reconsidered” highlights the astonishing profundity of his subject’s thinking about political philosophy from a very early age. And it draws into focus his ambivalence, his attachment to Idealist notions even as he earned his public reputation as a leading exponent of Realism, drawn to the founders of the school and to its greatest practitioner at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Prince Klemens von Metternich, who figured large in his doctoral dissertation. Ferguson’s forthcoming book Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist will, no doubt, be of great interest. However, there is also much to learn from Kissinger’s shifts of emphasis on this very philosophical divide from 1994 to 2015, as I explore below by juxtaposing the master’s Diplomacy with World Order.
* * * *
The choice of ‘world order’ for his new work shows that Dr. Kissinger is definitely with it, finely attuned to the Zeitgeist. Ever since the onset of the confrontation with Russia that has taken on features of a New Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment has been in a state of confusion. It is said that the rules of the post-Cold War period have been overturned, that there is only international disorder as a result of Russia’s violation of international borders and annexation of Crimea. Add to this the unforeseen and seemingly unstoppable Islamic State, which in the name of Islamic fundamentalism challenges ideologically everything we hold dear. Into this forum looking for a road map, looking for a sage, Henry Kissinger has stepped boldly with a 420 page volume that addresses all the loose ends.
You don’t produce a work like World Order in a couple of years starting from nothing even when you have a team of research assistants and generous colleagues to help you along. As is usual in the trade, Kissinger has taken material from his earlier works to provide the main stock of the book, pulling out from this material new insights directed at current issues. His last major opus, Diplomacy , was itself built on the structure of Kissinger’s Ph.D. thesis A World Restored, with the issues of Realism and Idealism, the Westphalian structure and balance of power. It was also obviously built on lecture courses which Kissinger had delivered during his “first life” as a university professor.
In the first third of Diplomacy, Kissinger provided readers with a sophisticated explanation of the origins of Realpolitik and how it was practiced in Europe over the centuries. He described the historical context, the broader philosophical thinking in Europe, and the preconditions for ‘balance of power’ and raison d’etat, or national interest, keeping the peace rather than upsetting it as the prevailing American political science establishment believed and believes. .
Kissinger set for himself the task of demonstrating that from Wilson onward the Idealist school caused one foreign policy disaster after another through the course of the 20th century. It is what turned the Versailles Treaty into a 20 year armistice and nothing more. Wilson’s insistence on self-determination over the sullen skepticism of West European diplomats resulted in the creation a number of small states which themselves were no more ethnically homogeneous than the Habsburg empire which they replaced, and which were unable to stand up to Germany, while they were in the way of Germans and Russians when they squared off in Round Two.
Kissinger’s revisionism was directed next at the origins of the Cold War, namely the inability of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, given his Idealist mindset on the conduct of foreign relations, to accept the good advice of his Realist ally, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and strike a deal with Stalin over what the map of postwar Europe would look like. The proposal was made by Churchill in 1942 and Kissinger assures us that if pursued at the time it could well have resulted in Stalin’s settling for the restoration of the USSR’s 1941 borders, meaning a democratic Eastern Europe.
Kissinger contends that as late as 1946, while the U.S. held an overwhelming strategic advantage over Russia as the only nuclear power, the Americans could quite possibly have reached agreement with Stalin on the Finlandization of Eastern Europe if they listened to the urgings of Churchill at that time. Instead President Truman and his team were already looking in other directors for solutions. By 1947 this led to the adoption of the ‘containment policy’ drafted by George Kennan.
Time and again over the next 50 years of the 20th century, Americans’ failure to see conflicts in terms of national interests at odds and their invoking grand and righteous principles when commencing military action hindered the definition of war objectives and so prolonged fighting needlessly. Poor decisions were taken on where to make a stand against what was mistakenly perceived to be a centrally directed worldwide Communist threat.
When Kissinger dusted off ‘balance of power’ politics to show its merits and when he marshaled vast material showing the failures of Wilsonian idealism in practice, these were not an end in themselves. It was his overriding purpose to bring to the reader’s attention the relevance of geopolitical strategy and especially ‘balance of power’ calculations to today’s needs.
Kissinger stated this plainly in the very first chapter of Diplomacy and returned to it in the final chapter of specific recommendations on a U.S. foreign policy country by country. He argued that the recent liberation of Eastern Europe from Communist domination, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, created conditions markedly different from those which predominated during the forty years of the Cold War, conditions much less amenable to management by an ideologically driven, oversimplified American approach to international affairs.
In the new world order taking shape, power would be more diffuse and ‘almost every situation is a special case.’ Under these circumstances, American foreign policy would have to be more subtle, attuned to the challenges and opportunities of a multipolar world which resembles more the Europe of the 19th century than the bipolar world of the recent past. And in this new-old world, the practices of balance of power typically spurned by American politicians of the day as they had been in much of the past century since Woodrow Wilson could make a very positive contribution.
Kissinger’s predictions for the 21st century were crystal clear. Several quotations are especially worthy of note:
“The absence of both an overriding ideological or strategic threat frees nations to pursue foreign policies based increasingly on their immediate national interest. In an international system characterized by perhaps five or six major powers and a multiplicity of smaller states, order will have to emerge much as it did in past centuries from a reconciliation and balancing of competing national interests.”
“Given the complexity of the new international system, can Wilsonian concepts like ‘enlarging democracy’ serve as the principal guides to American foreign policy and as replacement for the Cold war strategy of containment?”
“Despite America’s historic aversion to the balance of power, these lessons are relevant to post-Cold War American foreign policy….. One can hope that something akin to the Metternich system evolves, in which a balance of power is reinforced by a shared sense of values.”
The last remark opened the way to Kissinger’s concession in Diplomacy to the Idealistic current in American political thinking. ‘These values,’ he tells us, “would have to be democratic”:
“It is reasonable for the United States to try to buttress equilibrium with moral consensus. To be true to itself, America must try to forge the widest possible moral consensus around a global commitment to democracy. But it dare not neglect the analysis of the balance of power.”
* * * *
In the twenty years since the publication of Diplomacy, Kissinger’s hopes for a new appreciation of Realism and balance of power by those responsible for setting American foreign policy were dashed. From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama, there has been an unbroken flow of Idealist, freedom-and universal values promoting policies and a steady ramping up of the ideological content at the expense of pragmatism and calculation of national interest. Rejection of Realism as an outdated and almost immoral concept reached such levels that for the first six years of Obama’s tenure the illustrious Henry Kissinger was for the first time in fifty years unable to arrange a meeting with a sitting President to share his insights.
The result is that in World Order, Kissinger makes his peace with the unavoidable, insuperable powers-that-be, hoping merely to trim their excesses by pledging allegiance to the conventional wisdom of American exceptionalism. While all of this may well be true to an Idealist streak in Kissinger’s personality that goes back to his earliest years as a grateful refugee from Nazi racial hatred and war on American shores, as Niall Ferguson would surely have us believe, it is overdone and grating.
What I am about to say comes from the last third of World Order, Kissinger’s examination of the American approach to the concept, which is exclusive of all other possible arrangements of world governance. This is the true meat of the book, the go-to part, notwithstanding the overarching idea set out in the very first pages that in the 21st century we have unprecedented global participation in governance and other regions of the world come to the table with their own historically evolved concepts of world orders. These other concepts and their evolution over centuries if not millennia are set out in his chapters on the European balance of power system, Islamism and the Middle East, and Asia, meaning in particular India and China, that constitute the first two-thirds of the book.
However interesting and informative these chapters may be, they are mostly irrelevant to the present day situation since, as Kissinger acknowledges, the Rest of the World largely works within the Westphalian system of balance of power and sovereign nation states that originated in Europe and was disseminated globally by the colonial rulers. Indeed, the only outstanding exceptions to this rule today, apart from the United States and now the EU (as I will explain below), are the Islamic fundamentalists, presently embodied by ISIL, and, from among traditional states, only Iran, which itself is equivocal on the matter today. They represent a negligible spot on the overall canvas. In a word, Kissinger’s attention to alternative concepts of world order which evolved outside Europe and the US is unbalanced and not a useful contribution to our understanding of international relations at the global level in the 21st century.
Hence, my argument that the book comes down to Kissinger’s new reading of the American experience.
This new reading means his kicking aside the revisionism that made Diplomacy so bracing. By way of example, let us consider his new-old take on the origins of the Cold War. Gone is the suggestion that it could have been averted by more pragmatic, interest-based policy under FDR and Truman, sparing Europe forty years of division and permanent existential threat. Instead we are told that if Truman had pursued negotiations with Stalin over the postwar order in Eastern Europe that could have damaged the alliance in Western Europe which was then being put together.
Indeed, in World Order there is no bad beer: all the 20th century American presidents and the 21st century presidents through George W. Bush, are splendid fellows, doing their best. The only distinction is that some deserve more space in the book than others.
It should come as no surprise that Richard Nixon is one who gets a good deal of positive mention here, with due appreciation of his standing as the American President with the best grasp of international affairs since Teddy Roosevelt. Had only the foolish scandal of Watergate not intervened, he might have left behind as his legacy a reinvented Realist school.
But the warmest remarks are reserved for George W. Bush, whose courage and leadership after 9/11 are effusively praised. Kissinger admits that he was among the supporters of the Iraq invasion, and only distances himself from the disaster which ensued and has shaped the global political landscape so negatively ever since by remarking how he believed at the time that the objectives of installing a democratic regime in Iraq were overblown and unattainable.
The message, the foreign policy advice of Kissinger that is the backbone of World Order, is that continued U.S. activism and intervention in world affairs is essential. The punch line of each chapter dealing with the various regions, whether Asia, Europe, the Middle East, is that continued US guidance is necessary everywhere, because the local boys cannot manage on their own.
His purpose in saying this is to counter what he sees as the great drawback of American Idealism: mood swings between hyper-active and overambitious projects, such as the democracy-building project within Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and disillusionment, self-criticism for failing to implement its own values successfully, leading to withdrawal and isolationist thinking before the job is done, as has happened repeatedly, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In World Order, Kissinger argues more explicitly than in any earlier writings that both Realism and Idealism need one another. He does so semantically by transposing these terms into power and legitimacy respectively. Or as he puts it with typical elegance and the professor’s love of paradox: Balance of power removes from nations the capability of breaking the peace; shared values prevents them from wanting to do so.
However, elegance is no substitute for substance. And on a logical basis, Kissinger’s formula is wanting.
Idealism and its content of universal values are based on and justify precisely the ignorance of history and area studies that Kissinger otherwise deplores. Idealism and universal values overturn diplomacy, invoke isolation of alleged aggressors or violators of the current world order, and so perpetuate the very containment that was the essence of Cold War thinking. This is exactly the source of today’s economic sanctions imposed on Russia and the cutting of nearly all ties, without regard to who suffers most, Russia or we.
It is hard to imagine how Idealism can continue to dominate Western policy making without ending in nuclear war. It surely needs Realism if we are to survive. However, the inverse does not hold. Realism can function quite well without Idealism.
Let us now look at three major shortcomings of World Order that arise from Kissinger’s failure to do his homework. These concern the European Union, Russia and China.
The sections of World Order dealing with Europe largely serve to explain how the Westphalia system originated and developed. However, in looking at the contemporary EU, Kissinger gives us another of his paradoxes:
“The new structure [the European Union] represented in some sense a renunciation of Westphalia. Yet the EU can also be interpreted as Europe’s return to the Westphalia international state system that it created, stretched across the globe, this time as a regional not a national, power, as a unit in a new, global version of the Westphalian system.”*
Unfortunately, this summation is entirely inadequate. The EU’s renunciation of Westphalia is not merely an internal matter of its structure, with Member States ceding various attributes of sovereignty to a collective Union with its headquarters in Brussels. Nor is it a matter of the EU’s renouncing war and turning to soft power to deal with the outside world. The more pertinent fact is that the official foreign policy of the EU which was put in place early in the new millennium to guide its Common Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is a values-based policy that leads it to violate daily the underlying principle of Westphalia: nonintervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states outside its borders. The underlying mind-set is pure Wilsonian Idealism, with the postulate that only democratically governed countries are by their nature peaceful and that promotion of democracy is the key to international security. To quote from the European Council’s December 2003 paper entitled A secure Europe in a better world. European security strategy:
“The best protection for our security is a world of well-governed democratic states. Spreading good governance, supporting social and political reform, dealing with corruption and abuse of power, establishing the rule of law and protecting human rights are the best means of strengthening international order.”
(cited in Sven Biscop, Global and Operational: A New Strategy for EU Foreign and Security Policy, Brussels, 2015)
This policy of meddling was implemented in the Eastern Partnership program in 2009 to lure former Soviet republics from allegedly authoritarian and corrupt Russia’s sphere of influence. As practiced in Ukraine it led to confrontation with Russia and the onset of the New Cold War, to which Europe was a more direct and responsible actor than the USA.
Returning to Kissinger’s book, all of this means that the EU is joined at the hip with Washington not only because of treaty obligations of its NATO members (power) but by shared values (legitimacy). The question which Kissinger poses at the end of his analysis chapter - whither Europe? is rhetorical, not genuine as he suggests. The EU is not a free agent in the line-up of six potential great global powers that Kissinger lists.
But then neither Russia or China are free agents. De facto they have an alliance as strong as Kissinger and Nixon once forged in the 1970s, overturning the world order of the day. Kissinger’s failure to deal with this astounding new reality of global politics is an incomprehensible lapse for someone who knows the issues from the inside.
Like World Order, Kissinger’s On China had a great deal of ballast. The introductory chapters on Chinese history from its emergence two millennia ago as a state contains nothing one could not find in other primers. The last third, covering the period following his departure from government service, relies on his periodic visits to China as an observer and meetings with past and present officials, but looks more to the public record. The meat is the middle third in which he recounts his 8-year experience as negotiator of Richard Nixon’s policy of rapprochement with China. Here we see the strategic context and perspective of both sides.
What drove both sides was concern over Soviet hegemony. On the Chinese side, this was ignited by the 1969 border conflicts with the USSR and concentration of a million Russian troops at the Chinese border. A possible Soviet attack was very much on the mind of the Chinese leadership. For the Americans, it was concern over Soviet expansion into the Horn of Africa, the use of Cuban proxies in Angola, and Soviet support for Vietnam.
The essence of the achievement by Nixon and Kissinger was to make Washington closer to both Moscow and Beijing than either was to the other. His account makes it clear that the Chinese did not favor a formal written alliance. They preferred to keep their options open. Their position was ‘you and we act in accordance with our reading of the strategic situation and the understood threat…’ De facto they pursued common defense and foreign policies with their informal ally.
And this is precisely what has happened now between Moscow and Beijing. The sides have been drawn together by common fear of the American hegemon who seeks world domination, and more specifically by the military threat of American directed encirclement.
Those in the West who discount the solidity of the Russian-Chinese relationship and are waiting for a treaty of military alliance are waiting in vain. Since China is the senior partner, Beijing is closer to both Moscow and Washington than they are to one another. However at the same time, Moscow is closer to Beijing than Beijing is to Washington.
This has been a cumulative development. It has not come about by any single event or the signing of any single document. Back in 2013, when Kissinger published On China, the course was already clear, yet he did not mention it. In 2015, it is unmistakable even to casual observers, and still Kissinger remains silent on the undoing of his major life’s accomplishment as a diplomat. There is a patent case here for intellectual dishonesty.
Lastly, there is the matter of Kissinger’s unsatisfactory text explaining Russia to his readers in World Order. Although Kissinger has a reputation of being a voracious reader and possessing great curiosity, where Russia is concerned he clearly has not read a page or reconsidered his views in the past 65 years, ever since he was a graduate student at Harvard.
What we get in World Order with respect to Russia is the same commonplaces that Kissinger served up in Diplomacy, coming from the same tendentious and outdated sources. We are told that Russian national character is savage under a veneer of European civilization. The country has historical foundations different from Europe, much of which can be attributed to the centuries of Mongol domination. The country missed the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Age of Discovery and modern market economics. It had no democratic tradition and always remained out of sync with Western Europe. Its tsars were absolute rulers, a law unto themselves and capricious in a way that had no parallel in the West. Tsarism was inherently weak and dependent on never-ending geographical expansion; if it stopped, it would implode.
For these generalizations, Kissinger quotes the Marquis de Custine, a widely cited French traveler of the first half of the 19th century. Without attribution, he is repeating notions he received from the professor of Russian history at Harvard in his day, Michael Karpovich, who was following the Vasily Kliuchevsky line through his teacher, Alexander Kizevetter. The problem with all of this is firstly the Liberal Opposition (Kadet) politics of the historians in question, about which Kissinger is blissfully ignorant and their lack of comparative perspective. They held sway for so long, well into the period when Kissinger was a graduate student, because the Revolution in Russia put paid to serious historical enquiry for 70 years, while Western scholars only got traction in the 1960s, if not later. Aside from George Kennan, whom he personally admired, it is not evident that Kissinger has read anything beyond the old masters.
Using the Marquis de Custine for insights into contemporary Russia is about as wise as depending on Alexis de Toqueville to understand industrial, not to mention post-industrial America. . The notion of Russia as out of sync with Europe loses its force when you consider the immediate neighbors and not what was going on in London or Paris. After all, the Habsburg Empire did away with serfdom only in the very last years of the 18th century by edict of Joseph I. For that matter, Russia ended serfdom in 1861, totally in sync with the abolition of slavery in the USA.
More to the point, since Kissinger’s objective is to set the framework for understanding Russian foreign policy, the notion of unending Russian expansionism is devoid of sense if not paired with America’s Manifest Destiny. Both were implemented by elemental movements of the population to frontier territories across the breadth of a continent by seekers of prosperity and freedom from government control as much as by wars of conquest
In his newly published book The End of Tsarist Russia, which I will be reviewing shortly, professor of history at the London School of Economics Dominic Lieven puts all of the anti-Russian generalizations that Kissinger continues to peddle in the context of the long tradition of disdain for Russia within the Anglophone world that had its origins in the 19th century competition between empire builders. Henry Kissinger could profit greatly from adding this one book to his reading list.
G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd.
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