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Secretary of State John Kerry – rightly – caught lots of flak for whining about Vladimir Putin’s refusal to recognize that world politics is now conducted according to what have disparagingly come to be called “21st century rules”. As pointed out by his Republican and conservative critics in particular, the ideas that most of the world’s major powers actually do agree, are on the verge of agreeing, or should agree that armed conflict is now passé and counterproductive are hopelessly naïve.

All the more reason to be grateful for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s review of a new book by one of her most respected predecessors, Henry Kissinger. Her essay in the Washington Post on World Order (unwittingly, to be sure) shows that Mr. Kerry’s views and expectations (which by all accounts are shared by President Obama) are anything but unique to him, or even to liberal Democrats. They’ve long been a mainstay of mainstream, and official, American foreign policy thinking for decades. As a result, don’t expect U.S. actions in international affairs to be motivated any time soon by the pragmatic objective of promoting or securing specific, concrete interests for decades.

Aiming foreign policy at responding to specific problems or specific opportunities in specific places might seem the height of common sense. But as observed by the late political scientist Arnold Wolfers back in the 1960s, it’s only one conceivable approach to an international strategy. Another is the pursuit of what he called “milieu goals” – efforts to transform the entire international environment in advantageous ways – and as Wolfers noted, this objective has been unusually prominent not only in American thinking on international affairs, but in the English diplomatic tradition in which it originated.

The appeal of milieu goals is clear enough: Success could relieve a country of the need to both with foreign policy at all, since the world it faced presumably would become devoid of any significant threats. The problems with this strategy, however, should be even clearer: It’s much harder to transform and indeed pacify the entire world – or enough of it to count – than to deal with it challenge by challenge or opportunity by opportunity.

With world politics now filled with menacing non-state as well as state actors, and the U.S. economy conspicuously weak and saddled with debt, pursuing milieu goals looks like the height of dangerous folly. Even worse, it looks like needlessly dangerous folly, given America’s highly secure geopolitical position (protected from any major potential adversaries by two broad oceans) and its great potential for economic self-sufficiency.

Yet as Secretary Clinton’s review of Secretary Kissinger’s book shows, a figure usually considered the personification of European-style realism in international affairs – and even ruthlessness – is now as supportive of the milieu goals strategy as the allegedly more idealistic and more numerous Woodrow Wilson acolytes that have long dominated the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s ranks.

As Mrs. Clinton notes, Dr. Kissinger’s over-arching theme is how, in today’s still-dangerous and especially confusing world, America can duplicate and expand on its ostensible Cold War success in creating “an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance.”

More specifically, she writes, Although she and her predecessor “have often seen the world and some of our challenges quite differently, and advocated different responses now and in the past, what comes through clearly in this new book is a conviction that we, and President Obama, share: a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.”

Secretary Clinton recognizes how surprising this conclusion will sound given Secretary Kissinger’s realist reputation. She explains the seeming contradiction by contending that Dr. Kissinger understands “how much the world has changed since his time in office, especially the diffusion of power and the growing influence of forces beyond national governments.” Therefore, he has presumably learned that what once seemed like head-in-the-clouds thinking has its feet firmly on the ground.

But however convenient for Mrs. Clinton and her fellow Wilsonians, this poratrayal overlooks how Wilsonian Kissinger – and his supposedly equally realist boss, Richard Nixon – always were. However cold-blooded the means they often used, their foreign policy ends were always to create what Mr. Nixon called “a structure of peace in the world in which the weak are as safe as the strong–in which each respects the right of the other to live by a different system–in which those who would influence others will do so by the strength of their ideas, and not by the force of their arms.”

Nor was this mere boilerplate. In his second Inaugural Address, Mr. Nixon – accurately – depicted this goal as a continuation of America’s strategy since the end of World War II. “By continuing to revitalize our traditional friendships, and by our missions to Peking and to Moscow, we were able to establish the base for a new and more durable pattern of relationships among the nations of the world. Because of America’s bold initiatives, 1972 will be long remembered as the year of the greatest progress since the end of World War II toward a lasting peace in the world.”

Just as important, Mr. Nixon made clear that his purpose was to seek not simply “the flimsy peace which is merely an interlude between wars, but a peace which can endure for generations to come.” In other words, he was seeking lasting global transformation.

Messrs. Kissinger and Nixon were viewed as realists no doubt because they soft-pedaled talk of promoting human rights and democracy, and because, as implied above, they admitted more forthrightly than many of their predecessors in office that achieving noble goals would inevitably entail acting in decidedly ignoble ways from time to time.

But Kissinger’s reputation for realism also benefitted from his academic works, which focused on efforts to create international order in previous eras – especially the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. But what he never seemed to realize was that, promoting order was at least a conceivable objective when all the major international actors had so much in common with each other culturally. Even in his years in office, a stabilization of great power relationships could plausibly hope to have global consequences – although the increasing importance of developing countries with completely different cultures and historical experiences was a growing complication that Messrs Nixon and Kissinger never fully appreciated.

In Secretary Clinton’s view, the new importance on the world stage of “Nongovernmental organizations, businesses and individual citizens” simply means that American statesmen need to figure out ways of giving them ownership in global stability and prosperity as well as national governments. And according to her review, Mr. Kissinger now agrees.
Mrs. Clinton insists that “There really is no viable alternative.”

As I’ve long been writing, there had better be, if America is to avoid a future of bankruptcy, exhaustion, and defeat. More encouragingly, thanks to the nation’s unique combination of strengths and advantages, there is. All the United States and its people need are leaders perceptive enough to see this.