The former US Secretary of State argues that the west is struggling to advance its causesby Bronwen Maddox / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
“I’m very concerned about how the Ukrainian situation is evolving because I think it has some of the attributes of the July 1914 situation,” says Henry Kissinger, staring out through the drizzle at the landscaped grounds of his Connecticut farmhouse home. “Everybody’s country is doing things that are perfectly reasonable within their framework, and [they] don’t find the strength or the vision to do what should be done.”
He adds: “I have urged since the beginning of the crisis a diplomatic effort based on the recognition that what is at stake is the future of international order.”
That is the theme of Kissinger’s latest book, called simply World Order. We have met to discuss it at his house high in the Connecticut hills, a place he describes as two and a half hours from New York City (where he goes a couple of times a week for work), but is easily four. A mile up an unpaved road, a large sign reads “Please Stop;” a security guard emerges from a house in a clearing to deliver the same message. The drive finally opens out onto a vision of parkland, a small lake on each side of a low, white clapboard farmhouse, surrounded by neatly converted farm buildings.
Kissinger, now 91, had heart surgery just three weeks earlier, although he seems unaffected by it. Smiling and burly, he has a quality priceless in world affairs that photographers recognise well; no matter where pictured, even in cable-knit sweater and slacks on his lawn, he always looks exactly like Henry Kissinger. The house is humming with preparations for his book launch and with extended family life; he has two children and five grandchildren, some of whom are about to visit (and Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, is due for lunch the next day, his staff say); their black labrador, Abigail, is running around.
For all the informal tone, and a wit and charm that is much commented on (and of which he is clearly aware), he approaches an interview with a conviction that the course of history can turn on individual words and a desire to control the stagecraft worthy of arms negotiations. There seemed at one point the risk of losing much of the 90-minute conversation in talks about talks.
The book, his most wide-ranging for years, brings together the main themes that he has pursued throughout his career as Harvard academic and presidential advisor, and projects them against current events. As National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State to presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he came to be almost more identified with US foreign policy from 1969 to 1976 than they did. Indeed, Kissinger would fit right into in the dramatic tradition, stretching from the classics through Shakespeare to Yes, Minister, of the servant who is cleverer than the master.
The place he occupies in the American national imagination is inseparable from the story of his background; he is both a survivor of modern Europe’s darkest years and a prototype of the American dream. The son of a schoolteacher, he fled Bavaria with his German Jewish family in 1938 and arrived in New York, aged 15. He worked at a shaving brush factory during the day to support his high school studies at night, before being drafted into the US army in 1943. Winning a place at Harvard University, he stayed for almost a decade and a half, until he found his place in the world of high-stakes geopolitics which has been his life ever since. “I have been a professor and I have been a policymaker,” he says, “and as a professor you think in terms of truth or absolutes. As a policymaker you’re always faced with contingent decisions… in a limited period of time…[and] you get only one guess.”
He has been America’s most controversial Secretary of State, whose reputation is synonymous to many with the doctrine of realpolitik—the pursuit of pragmatic goals in foreign policy above moral or ideological ones. To his supporters, he helped bring about, by intelligence and force of personality, détente with the Soviet Union; he orchestrated Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 which ended 20 years of icy relations with the People’s Republic; and negotiated the 1973 Paris Peace Accords which gave America an exit from the Vietnam War, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (jointly, with Le Duc Tho, who refused to accept it).
To his critics, he helped extend the Vietnam War by four years and took the conflict into Cambodia with calamitous consequences for that country’s population; he backed the military ruler of Pakistan in 1971 despite the massacres that accompanied the birth of Bangladesh; and conspired to overthrow the elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
Despite the years that have passed since he was in office, he retains a remarkable stature in national life and international relations, bolstered by books which are a running commentary on how to solve the world’s problems. Compared to the weight of American Foreign Policy (1969) and The White House Years (1979), recent books have been narrower in focus, such as the querulous Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (2001); critics were not kind, either, about the commercial interests that they claimed to discern behind the arguments of On China (2011) (his firm, Kissinger Associates, does a lot of work there).
However, the timing and the ambition of this latest book are all too good, given the disarray of Ukraine, the Middle East, and indeed of Europe. Some of his central conceptions—of world order itself and the practice of diplomacy—seem to owe too much to the Cold War era, but his analysis of America’s predicament is nuanced, passionate and hard to surpass. His prescriptions for how the US should handle the trickiest challenges of diplomacy today—Ukraine, Iran, the Middle East-—and how it should continue at the same time to project its values are more sure-footed than those of the administrations of President Barack Obama or his predecessor.
Asked whether the world is getting more orderly, he says “No,” deploying that syllable emphatically into the air in his still unmistakeably German accent. “We are moving towards a world that is reordering itself and that may appear more ordered at some periods of time, but I see no sign that we are moving towards a world order in my definition of it—namely, a system which is accepted, which is internalised by the majority of the key participants.”
He goes on to say, drily, given the news from Ukraine, that “you cannot say that Russia considers itself part of a world order,” even though “it may have to accept some definitions of an ordered world.” He adds: “I don’t think you can say that China accepts the premises of the western world order… but it acquiesces in operation of parts of it. You certainly cannot say that the Middle East agrees to it,” although, as he argues in the book, Saudi Arabia accepts some of the principles of world order, and “even Iran participates.”
“So, the challenge is that the world has to be managed at any one point and there have to be some rules for settling problems. But in the sense of world order as a combination of legitimacy and balance of power, I don’t think that exists today.”
The notion of a balance of power underpinning world order is central to Kissinger’s thinking. For most of four centuries, he argues, that order has had a western cast, with its roots in the pluralism of the Peace of Westphalia, a set of agreements after the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, when the powers of Europe had fought each other to a standstill over rifts of politics, race and religion. This was not a celebration of different beliefs in the modern western liberal fashion, or even an ideology which sought to embrace liberal principles, as did the US constitution more than a century later. Rather, it was a pragmatic acknowledgement that countries would fare better if they accepted each other’s existence—and differences.
Is the notion of a Westphalian world order strong enough to bear the weight he puts on it? Many historians are suspicious of Kissinger’s epigrammatic style, where world events are picked up and deployed in argument like chess pieces. (The Second World War gets two paragraphs in World Order, to make the point that Europe threw away the international order it had so painfully constructed because its leaders “recoiled before the implications of acting on their foresight.” He is consistent in his disapproval of leaders whom he thinks fail to take tough decisions.) Stanley Hoffman, a Harvard colleague, wrote in a sharp critique of The White House Years that Kissinger was unable to describe what world order would look like if it ever appeared, but “ultimately, [that] is not surprising… religions are poor at describing paradise… and geopolitics is Kissinger’s religion.”
That criticism still holds good, in a sense. In this book, which is above all a paean to America’s role in underpinning world order, Kissinger moves too easily between “Westphalian order” and “western values.” Does he mean the active, idealistic promotion of liberal democracy and free markets, or a more pragmatic search for a rule-governed world, using if necessary allies who do not share those values? [See John Gray’s “The liberal delusion,” p38].
The answer often appears to be both. In a carefully-phrased text, there are many striking observations, but the most powerful chapters are on the US’s ambivalence as a superpower, its foreign policy a constant “contest between idealism and realism.” On one hand, as he puts it, “all 12 postwar presidents have passionately affirmed an exceptional role for America in the world. Each has treated it as axiomatic that the US was embarked on an unselfish quest for the resolution of conflicts and the equality of all nations, in which the ultimate benchmark for success would be world peace and universal harmony.” He is drily funny on John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 in noting that, “What in other countries would have been treated as a rhetorical flourish has, in American discourse, been presented as a specific blueprint for global action.” But the result of this idealistic ambition, he writes, is that “the US has risked extremes of overextension and disillusioned withdrawal.”
It is in the latter phase at the moment; Kissinger is no fan of Obama, and says of the Ukraine crisis: “I know that the American President has not had a serious conversation with
[Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin in months.”
But it is a caricature to portray Kissinger as Dr Realpolitik. This book is a passionate piece of advocacy for western values, in which he also appears to have internalised America’s ambivalence about this quest; his text sometimes appears to aim for perfect balance between idealism and realism, doling out one sentence to one side, one to the other. For instance, he writes:
“I advocate that the basic conduct of American foreign policy gives voice to the country’s fundamental idealism.” But he immediately adds: “That has to be within the margin of flexibility of diplomacy, and that includes interacting on a long-term basis with countries that do not share our values.”
Asked whether the west can continue successfully to promote its values, he is not entirely optimistic. “The verbal expression of western values is gaining but… there are many more societies that affirm a commitment to democracy than practice what the west would consider democracy.” Many “are, in fact, running a one-party system with periodic elections… Western democracy cannot function if the minority does not have a chance to become a majority.”
“And so… you can say yes, the west has greatly triumphed by having its basic premises affirmed in almost every part of the world—but its operation is not necessarily what the founders of democracy were imagining.”
He appears less interested in the question of whether the 2008 financial crisis has made the west’s case weaker. “Don’t you think that is in part the internal dilemma of western democracy?” he asks in turn. “To do difficult things a society has to be willing to sacrifice or accept limitations on itself in the name of its future,” a moral refrain that runs through the book. But “if the electoral process is run almost mechanically and if so much depends on every election then…the democratic process is driven by very short-term public relations concerns.”
He draws the same lessons from the financial crisis that he expects the Ukrainian crisis to yield: “That immediate short-term considerations, handled prudently and intelligently on their own terms, will lead to results which may be out of proportion or, in fact, irrelevant to the long-term issues.”
There isn’t much about economics in the book, a striking omission. Asked whether he is interested in economics as a way of explaining the world, he says crisply “That’s simply to do with my professional expertise. I read economic books. Larry Summers [the former US Treasury Secretary and former Harvard President] is a close friend of mine, I adore Larry” (he breaks off to tell an affectionate joke about suggesting to Summers how one might best negotiate with the Chinese). But “I don’t ascribe to myself any special competence in economic insight. I translate what I hear from highly intelligent people into political and philosophical propositions.”
I ask him whether he agrees, however, with the thesis put forward by Moisés Naím, a former Executive Director of the World Bank and Editor of Foreign Policy, in his book The End of Power last year—that power is moving away from governments and leaders towards the new media, companies and NGOs. “In a way it is true. But it’s also not true because the chief executives in the vast majority of cases may be very good in handling the assignments that they have but they have enormous difficulty in translating them into a political framework… The consequences of a system which loses its sense of direction is not something they can resolve, even though they operate within it.”
That is a fair point, and yet even a little diffusion of power away from leaders of countries is uncomfortable for the kind of diplomacy in which Kissinger has conducted his life, which turns on personal contact at the highest levels. Kissinger, who acknowledges that he is not at his most sure-footed in the digital world, is gloomy that what he sees as a constant search for approbation online will deprive leaders of the moral fibre to make lonely, tough, unpopular decisions.
I note that the US Congress had achieved what you might call a perfect balance of power, to the point where few of the President’s initiatives were surviving the Republican-Democrat deadlock. Is that good for the US? “No,” he says with emphasis, “it’s not good. It’s not that the balance of power would be bad. It’s the fact that there are fewer and fewer [in the House of Representatives and the Senate] who have an incentive to think in terms of the long-term interests of the US.
“When I came into government in the Nixon administration, I thought we were having a hell of a time. I did not believe that I would ever look [back] with nostalgia that we had [then] a Democratic Congress, a president you had trouble relating to, but still, there were five or six senators on whom you could count for a national problem. You could go to them and say ‘whatever you think about day to day political debates, the nation needs this.’ That didn’t mean they would automatically support you but it meant that you got a hearing, and if you could convince them, they would. I don’t see that today; I don’t see many Republicans, any Republicans, to whom the President could appeal on those grounds, or vice versa.”
Would he now rewrite the US constitution? “The constitution was written by people from the upper-middle class and people comparable to the British upper class. So, it assumed that there was a commonality of values and of interests and that the disputes were within the same interpretation of the fundamental direction of the society. George Washington didn’t even think there should be political parties,” he said. “I think it is a really extraordinarily subtle and thoughtful system,” bestowing on it two of his favourite adjectives, and adding, in syntax that reflects his German origins, “one can from the Federalist Papers see that this is not an accident that it succeeded.”
“So we are in trouble,” he says, although he adds after a pause that he is still hopeful for America. “I don’t think our society as yet reflects the nature of our politics. [It] is on the whole a coherent and optimistic society.” Referring to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in August after a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager, he says: “The ethnic split in important respects is being addressed, if too slowly.”
Even if the US’s first black president has played a seminal role in that, Kissinger clearly has little time for Obama. “This presidency is really remarkable in the divisions it tends not only to operate within but to generate. It seems that their basic tactic is to identify the support bases for each policy and then announce that anything else is ‘the wrong side of history.’ When [they] step out, they are not really looking out for convincing, they are looking out for rallying. ”
None of this augurs well for the role he wants the US to play, where it “remains an indispensable part” of world order based on a balance of power. Yet Kissinger notes that “the future of Ukraine is being negotiated without the US… It means that nobody thinks we’re particularly necessary there, neither the Russians nor the Europeans nor the Ukrainians. At the same time it is widely described as a test of American principles and American credibility.”
His approach to that crisis reveals his belief both in personal negotiation and in alertness to the other side’s interests. “The west has defined the current issue as demonstrating to Russia that it must adhere to the western international system. And that’s OK, for the present. But for the long term, one has to think of Russia as a huge state… which will have one of two destinies. It will either continue as a strong national state or it may begin to disintegrate like Yugoslavia”—not an attractive outcome for the west, he suggests.
“The strategic question has this dilemma… If we put the strategic frontier of the west at the eastern frontier of Ukraine, we then establish it 200 miles from Stalingrad and 350 miles from Moscow in a territory that practically every Russian I know considers part of Russian patrimony. On the other hand, if Russia establishes its strategic border on the border of Poland, that’s intolerable for the tranquility of Europe.”
In negotiations, then, “there should be some recognition that in the Russian perception of history, Ukraine is not just another foreign country: it is where Russian culture began and where some of the key events in Russian history took place.” He suggests that “Crimea be given a special status within Ukraine safeguarding Russia’s security interests” and that “as a first step, Russia should stop its military pressures.” In return, “the west should be prepared to discuss a concept of order that takes account of Russian concerns and Ukraine’s right to independence.”
The best outcome is a Ukraine that is “a bridge between east and west” rather than a western “outpost”. He warns that, “If Ukraine is treated by either side as an outpost, a new Cold War is inevitable.”
Yet at the same time the west, he says firmly, “cannot acquiesce in a partition of Ukraine achieved by military pressure, or any territorial impairment not endorsed by a freely elected government. Ukraine is a sovereign country with recognised borders and it must be free to define its own path.”
This prescription, again, is an awkward hybrid of idealism and realism; there is a strong sense of trying to have it both ways. But Kissinger expounds on how it might be forged; he advocates “a serious discussion quietly” between Obama and Putin on “where we should go in the overall east-west relationship”. He adds: “It might not work.” Yet “I think Putin knows he overplayed his hand,” adding that Russia “needs to realise that what began as a dispute over competing trade agreements is now perceived as a fundamental challenge to peace”.
Famously, Kissinger once asked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” Does he now feel there is an answer—in Angela Merkel? He evades that, saying only that “The Europeans have acted very well as a unit.” He is warm about Europe, up to a point. In the book, he writes that it has never really recovered from the catastrophe of the Second World War. While not opposed “to any particular Balkan country” joining the European Union, he recommends that the EU focus “on achieving more coherence in what it has” than expanding further.
In contrast to Ukraine, America is very much present in the Middle East. What does he think now of the 2003 Iraq invasion? “At the time, I thought it was a 55/45 kind of thing to do. It wasn’t something that I thought we must do. I thought it was necessary to make a demonstration in the Middle East of the consequences of challenging American security, and Iraq had broken its armistice agreement with the US in many ways that the UN had certified. And they were an ideological supporter of terrorism.”
Then, he says, “it became an occupation to bring about democracy. I disagreed. But I have also to say, in fairness, to carry out the logic of my position one would have had to accept an authoritarian government whose chief distinguishing feature would have been less brutality and a recognition of the power of the democracies, and which would therefore have been more restrained in international conduct. It would probably have improved the lot of the population but it would not have moved it rapidly to democracy.”
He acknowledges, however, that “I had not analysed carefully the divisions in Iraqi society.” He adds, in a judgement that even his admirers might find too lofty, never mind those struggling to survive the killing around Mosul, that “You can argue, if you take a long historic view, that the Iraq invasion unlocked the ferment which we now see, which in the long view may bring blessings.”
“Would I have done it? Would I have recommended the invasion if I had known how events would unfold? No. But I also must record a great affection and respect for [George W] Bush… Here’s somebody who, his major preparation was not reflection on history and [he] was thrown into an elemental crisis at the very beginning of his term. He behaved with dignity, courage and decency in a very difficult period, even though I disagreed with his administration on the political cast it gave to the invasion.”
Was the Bush administration’s belief that it could export democracy naive—and was enthusiasm about the 2011 Arab Spring the same? “When you have a country like Iraq, which was never a country before 1920, composed of Kurds, Sunni and Shia, and then you apply western concepts of democracy as immediately realisable, that is naive in some respects. But that naivety is shared by many highly educated people, and it has been replicated in the more recent approach to Libya.”
How, then, should the US treat the lack of democracy in, say, its close ally Saudi Arabia? Here, his answer comes from the manuals of realism; he is cool on the notion of urging democracy on countries such as the kingdom. “Theoretically, for teaching a course, the ideal is if you preserve order and try to move [the country] gradually towards democracy.” But given “the 500 other things you have to do any one day in the Oval Office or the Office of the Secretary of State, how much priority can you give to changing the domestic structure of a major country, particularly an ally in a volatile region? And what are the
consequences?” Probably not good for world order, at least in the short term, he suggests.
Yet he also argues that, “I, maybe partly because of my experience growing up in Nazi Germany, think we can be more active on human rights than on changing governmental structures.” To China or Saudi Arabia, the US “should do more privately than they think it prudent to say publicly… If there is a gross violation of human rights, we need to act on our convictions.” He adds that “I have spoken to Chinese leaders occasionally on human rights but I’ve always done it in private.”
One country that may offer more possibilities for US diplomacy is Iran. Even though its current leadership clearly rejects western notions of world order, it takes part in some of the institutions—it has not yet, at least, formally withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even if its breaches of the terms have provoked years of international sanctions. “Iran is a nation state, an empire and an ideology. They…need to face the choice of being one of those three.” But if Iran modernised “like the Asian Tigers,” he suggests, then it would be “logically a partner of the US—because we would have no competing national interests with Iran in the region.” He adds, “in a post-Ayatollah government” such an alliance “would be probable… If Iran reoriented itself as a major nation state and not as a vanguard of holy war, I could imagine strategically cooperating with Iran to create a Westphalian-type system in the region—not only imagine it, I would greatly welcome it.”
Yet cooperation “should not be purchased at the cost of our fundamental interests, including our position on nuclear proliferation,” he says. He finds it hard to see an outcome of the current talks which reduces the number of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges to a level supporting only a civil nuclear programme, not the potential weapons capability that the EU and US believe Tehran has in mind. “It doesn’t lend itself to the Nixon visit to China type of thing. You can’t go and shake hands with [Chairman] Mao [Zedong] and come out with a Shanghai Communiqué.”
He rejects firmly the argument that progress in the Palestinian-Israel deadlock would significantly help the region’s
prospects for peace. In any case, he says, “I don’t see it happening unless there are major Arab states that cannot only accept it but advocate it…I talk to [Secretary of State John] Kerry [who instigated the nine-month talks that ended in March], I talk to Martin Indyk [who resigned as US special envoy to the Middle East in June], Martin is an old friend, Kerry is a friend. I thought he [Kerry] had no chance of success… But I respect him for trying.
The best approach for now “would be some interim agreement which gives the West Bank sovereign attributes and leaves some of the more controversial and deep questions to another negotiation.” Those later talks “could be influenced by the success of the West Bank negotiation and by a period of relative normalcy between the two sides.”
He is not the first to observe, as he puts it, that “the weird thing about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation is most negotiations involve the borders…In this one, everybody knows what it will look like.” But while broadly true, that overstates the point. In World Order, Kissinger does not mention—at all—Israel’s West Bank settlements, illegal under international law (although Israel disputes this), and constantly expanding onto land earmarked for a Palestinian state. “No,” he says, acknowledging the omission, adding unsatisfactorily that it is “because I talk only about the relationship to international order. It’s generally accepted [in a deal] that the settlements should be able to stay under Arab rule, or vacate, or be part of a territorial swap.”
When I put to him that the settlements have provoked intense European criticism at both public and government level, he says: “Yes, but the Europeans have inadequate compassion for the tragedy of the Israeli situation… When you’re living in a world of hundreds of millions of people who have more or less the views I have described [in his chapter on Islam] about the religious aspect of international order, any concession takes on a kind of existential significance.
“I do not believe that Israel’s security is primarily a question of administering more territory [for instance, the West Bank] but any territorial concession has to be weighed against the possibility, or even the probability, that it will become a base for groups that proclaim the abolishment of Israel as a fundamental obligation.”
He adds that, “I’m bound to be influenced by my own life and I’ve never made any secret of that.” Does he think America’s support for Israel will ever change, for example, as its Hispanic population rises? “Yes, yes, I do. But over a very long period of time and to my great sadness. I think Israel is in a tragic position, agreement or no agreement. It’s a nightmare for Israel.”
What should we make now of Kissinger’s theories and prescriptions? Some of his views feel dated. Top of that list is putting quite so much weight on personal contact to shape the course of diplomacy and history, drawing deeply on the exhilaration of the years when that approach worked best. Undoubtedly, many disputes can be resolved only that way, yet the internet and globalisation may undermine leaders’ ability to secure a deal. A second is the notion of the balance of power itself, which now seems like a metaphor from mechanics that no longer fits, if it ever really did. “In theory,” he writes, the “balance of power should be quite calculable; in practice, it has proved extremely difficult to harmonise a country’s calculations with those of other states.” Indeed, you might say.
However, his prescriptions for US policy in Ukraine, Iran and the Middle East are subtle and engaged in a way that the Obama administration has not generally been. Kissinger has a gift for putting words to the competing passions in American foreign policy, if only because he seems to share both impulses himself.
That brings us to the central question that he throws at the US itself: is all the effort of its foreign policy amounting to more than the defence of its interests, in one arena after another, or is the very idea of progress sentimental? The US is now confronted by the question, he writes, of whether “foreign policy [is] a story with a beginning and an end, in which final victories are possible?”
He is hardly cheerful that at this point, confronted by China, Russia, and versions of militant Islam, the west is succeeding in promoting its values and its version of world order. On the other hand, as this book makes resoundingly clear, he refuses to relinquish the belief that the proper goal of American foreign policy is to get closer to that destination.