China, economics, Henry Kissinger, idealism, international order, interventionism, Iran deal, Jacob Heilbrunn, Obama, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, power, Putin, realism, Russia, strategy, The National Interest, Ukraine, World War II
When I was helping to edit FOREIGN POLICY magazine, I used to say that the only authors whose articles I would ever accept sight unseen were those by U.S. and other present and former heads of major national governments, and Henry Kissinger. I never had the pleasure and honor of working with this former Secretary of State and presidential national security advisor, and disagreed with him strongly on major issues then and now. But I still haven’t seen any reason to doubt that Kissinger boasts a combination of hands-on policy experience (in what a well known Chinese curse understatedly calls “interesting times”) and deep historical knowledge that’s been unique.
So I would strongly urge everyone interested in U.S. foreign policy or world affairs to read the interview with Kissinger just published in The National Interest. I was, to be sure, disappointed that Editor Jacob Heilbrunn didn’t ask his subject about the Iran deal – especially since Kissinger and one of his successors, George Shultz, wrote an op-ed in April highly critical of President Obama’s efforts to deny Tehran nuclear weapons, but not flatly dismissing the possibility that the president could conclude an acceptable agreement. Now we have a final deal. What does Kissinger think? Maybe he’s still holding his cards close to his vest, and ruled the topic out of bounds in advance?
In fact, the only headline issue on which Kissinger comments is Russia’s grab for more power in Ukraine and elsewhere along its European borders. If you think Vladimir Putin is the devil incarnate, or the second coming of Stalin, you need to learn about Kissinger’s notably evenhanded interpretation of how this crisis emerged – with which I broadly agree. His ideas for easing East-West tensions deserve much more attention, too.
Ultimately, however, what I found most interesting about the interview has to do with what I have always found most disappointing about Kissinger – his failure to help develop a distinctly American version of “realist” diplomatic thinking.
At the start of the interview, Kissinger does a good job of defining the debate between realists (supposedly like himself) and “idealists” that has shaped much of American foreign policy since the end of World War II: “The way the debate is conventionally presented pits a group that believes in power as the determining element of international politics against idealists who believe that the values of society are decisive.” As this statement suggests, he (correctly) views the dichotomy as “simplistic” and “artificial,” but does (also correctly) acknowledge that these terms can influence how leaders order their priorities and strike balances among competing objectives.
Yet however important these concepts to American strategists, as I’ve pointed out, even avowed realists like Kissinger have consistently overlooked the single most important ingredient for successfully pursuing this approach – understanding geography and its implications. In fact, wherever they’ve stood on the realist-idealist spectrum, U.S. leaders have for decades followed a strategy that’s almost willfully defined geography out of existence. Both Democrats and Republicans alike, during and after the Cold War, have carried out policies of military intervention, alliance building, and economic integration, that are much more appropriate for a small, highly vulnerable country than for a continent-spanning power protected by two wide oceans.
From a geopolitical perspective, even Kissinger’s well known preoccupation with creating and preserving “international order” is a sign of diplomatic hubris rather than a hallmark of prudence and pragmatism. Why, after all, would such a serious and knowledgeable student of the past believe that disorder, including widespread chaos, is a natural – much less achievable – goal for a world lacking consensus on fundamental values and norms of behavior? And as a result, why has Kissinger been so thoroughly convinced – along with so many other political friends and foes – that for a country with the advantages enjoyed by the United States, surviving and prospering amid this tumult is a much more feasible aim than bringing it to an end, or even significantly moderating it?
Finally, the National Interest interview also confirms another big weakness of both Kissinger’s version of realism and post-World War II foreign policy – a refusal to think seriously about economics. The word isn’t even mentioned. In principle, anyway, neglecting wealth and its creation was understandable for America for most of the Cold War. The United States was predominant, it had no challengers on this front, and the chief threats Americans faced seemed overwhelmingly military. Since the early 1970s, however – not so so coincidentally, when Kissinger was most prominent – keeping this spot blind has been inexcusable. For in this material world, from where does Kissinger think power in all of its tangible forms ultimately springs?
Still, with the exception of China policy (where his consulting business has compromised his analysis, in my view), I’m glad Kissinger remains active on policy issues and continues advising politicians. He may be 92, but he’s orders of magnitude wiser, deeper, and sharper than virtually anyone else in America’s foreign policy establishment.