Henry Kissinger: Diplomacy in the Post-9/11 Era
By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR.
November 17, 2007; Page A11; Wall Street Journal
"Whoever the next president is, the new administration will be extremely disappointed if it believes that our relationships will mend because its leader has a different name . . . . Personal diplomacy and relationship-building, although important, are rarely the paramount drivers of global affairs. These are shaped importantly by the long-term national interest."
Thus spake Henry Kissinger when I sat down with him recently in New York. Though I'd met him once or twice over the years, I had never seen him in situ -- ensconced in his Park Avenue office. To be honest, I was expecting gilded furniture and sumptuous carpets -- the kind of quarters Clemens von Metternich, one of Mr. Kissinger's own diplomat heroes, had in Habsburg Vienna.
I was, therefore, a little surprised to be ushered into a functional space with nondescript appointments, including a 25-year-old Sony Trinitron placed as if to emphasize he doesn't watch much TV. The man who negotiated the United States out of Vietnam, took Nixon to China, and initiated détente with the Soviet Union, received me like the college professor he once had been -- surrounded by his books and mementos.
It is, of course, a rare opportunity to speak with one of history's makers and Mr. Kissinger remains one of the country's most prescient observers of world affairs. I began by asking him about the institutional atmosphere in Washington, the hothouse of American foreign policy. The capital is far more poisonous today than at any time in the recent past, I suggested -- including Mr. Kissinger's heyday during the Vietnam War, when the early Cold War-era comity between the political parties and the executive and legislative branches was already degrading.
Mr. Kissinger leaned forward to answer my questions with studied deliberation. In part, he felt that this was institutional. Congress has itself changed. The "tradition of long-serving senior politicians from both parties who were devoted to a truly national service has passed, or largely so." The entire system, especially as it has been transformed by the communications revolution, "is now much more driven by short-term political calculations, the need to keep powerful and vocal constituencies happy, and an eye on the next election." This effect, Mr. Kissinger posited, has been enhanced by the 24-hour news cycle -- "more information, and less content."
But Mr. Kissinger also dismissed the idea that there was ever some golden age for the domestic fundamentals of American foreign policy. With a wry smile, and a clearly bemused eye, he noted that the 1960s and '70s -- when he served as both national security adviser and secretary of state under two presidents (holding both jobs during Nixon's second term) -- were not "idyllic." "I thought," he said, "it was very rough."
The dominant theme of today's Washington battles is that most of America's current problems are self-inflicted wounds attributable to overly muscular and "unilateralist" Bush administration policies. Critics say that if only the U.S. were less eager to impose its will on other countries, whether in pursuit of traditional realpolitik goals or idealistic democracy-promotion, we would encounter a great deal less hostility. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of those critics and Mr. Kissinger's long-time intellectual sparring partner, puts it in his recent book, what much of the world wants from the U.S. is "respect" and recognition of its "dignity" defined as the ability to manage their own affairs as they see fit.
Mr. Kissinger agreed with the point that other nations will have to have scope to develop their own identities. But he pointed out that to have world order, "these identities need to be reconciled into some general consensus." An American strategy of benign neglect may, in any case, no longer be realistic in an age of increasing global integration when relatively small transnational networks or failed states can project power against democratic societies with devastating consequences.
Meanwhile, most of today's international actors, "including states, international organizations, and nongovernmental actors, are disenchanted with different aspects of the existing world order." Unfortunately, Mr. Kissinger noted, few of these actors are willing to play a constructive long-term role, preferring merely to challenge American policies when they involve risks.
So can our democracy effectively manage long-term foreign policy problems in a world of varied belief systems in which the U.S. is invariably urged, and sometimes required to deal with many imperfect, or even profoundly unsavory, regimes?
"You know," Mr. Kissinger reminded me in an accent as unique and recognizable in American history as Jack Kennedy's, "for somebody like me who, in his youth, lived in a dictatorship, the virtues of democracy don't have to be underlined." Of course, "the United States must operate in a democratic manner, and our foreign policy must reflect and properly balance both value and power considerations."
But, Mr. Kissinger noted, it is important to recall that the American Republic was not originally designed to sustain an ability to pursue a complex foreign policy. The Framers tended to assume that, once independent, the U.S. could operate reasonably well in relative isolation. These attitudes persist. As a result, Mr. Kissinger posits, Americans have little patience "for a long time of foreign tension."
Because of this, "presidents tend to present difficult cases, particularly those involving military engagements, to the American people in terms of a finite timeline. As a result, they often end up implying, or promising, achievements that may not be possible in the short term -- and that are by no means guaranteed over the long term."
Foreign policy, he emphasized, "is not something easily put on the clock." It must "not oscillate wildly between excesses of commitment and excesses of withdrawal."
I glanced over his window sills, crammed with photographs of Mr. Kissinger and the world's leaders, toward the Manhattan skyline and inquired about the vitality of some of the key international institutions, and especially the U.N. "The Security Council," he insisted, "must be reformed, since -- at the present time -- it does not represent the realities of the international community because major countries like India, Japan, Germany and Brazil are not included."
At the same time, he explained that this reform is unlikely, since it would either involve expansion of the veto-wielding permanent membership -- rendering the Security Council even less capable of decisive action -- or elimination of the veto.
"This would be unacceptable to the United States and the other four permanent members," particularly in a world where the Council's actions, whatever their merits, are imbued with a great deal of perceived legitimacy. "But some change is necessary. The Council itself is breaking down -- the interests of its permanent members are simply not sufficiently parallel on a number of issues to permit a unanimous decision and the Security Council can only reflect the attainable consensus. It cannot by itself create it."
This led to discussion of whether international institution building, accompanied by an all-out effort to restore the Cold War-era level of trans-Atlantic comity within NATO, would be a good investment for the U.S., and especially whether this should be a priority for the next administration. Mr. Kissinger was skeptical of the prospects for success.
He also emphasized some profound changes in today's geopolitical environment. He pointed out that the world we have known for 300 years now -- the "Westphalian" international system that arose after Europe's wars of religion and is based on the nation-state -- is "collapsing." This may be a much more profound shift than the move from dynastic to national motivations following the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna (about which Mr. Kissinger has written) and a more serious challenge to international stability than that posed by states such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The nation-state is weakening in Europe, he observed, and has met with mixed success in other parts of the world. "Only in Russia, the United States and Asia can it be found in its classic form."
Meanwhile, across the Middle East and southern Asia, although nationalism remains a powerful force, many cast themselves as a part of a greater Islamic community defined in opposition to the West. In Mr. Kissinger's view, a single formula will no longer adequately describe this international system.
This brought us inexorably back to America's most important relationship -- with most of the world's other democracies in Europe. Mr. Kissinger pointed out that, in the immediate post-war period, "Europe was far weaker than today, but still prepared -- with leaders like Adenauer, Schuman and Monnet, to conduct a real and assertive foreign policy -- even if under the American security blanket and with a modicum of trans-Atlantic discord."
But today, fundamental philosophical differences divide the U.S and Europe across a range of key foreign policy issues. Europeans and Americans, I suggested, disagree as to both means and ends -- especially the legitimacy of the pre-emptive use of force without an explicit blessing from the Security Council, as well as in their basic assessment of the gravity of the threats posed by transnational terror networks, which cannot be either bargained with or deterred.
The real difference, Mr. Kissinger interjected, lay in "what government[s] can ask of their people." It is because "European governments are not able any more to ask their people for great sacrifices," he argued, that they have so readily opted for a "soft power" approach to so many foreign policy issues. This will, of necessity, make it harder for Europe to reach a consensus with the U.S.
This is exactly what makes dealing effectively with growing threats so difficult. The question of how to deal with Iran and its nuclear ambitions naturally comes to mind. There is no doubt that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be an extremely destabilizing development and cannot be tolerated by the U.S. Mr. Kissinger's view is that the U.S. must make a serious effort with Iran. He said that negotiations could work in the right circumstances and if there was enough determination behind them. "What you mustn't do," he cautioned, "is to identify diplomacy with escalating [Western] concessions." Right now we are "sliding into a position that we neither negotiate enough nor put out enough red lines."
Mr. Kissinger added, however, that the use of force against Iran cannot be ruled out. Diplomacy not backed by the potential use of force is impotent. This was part of our problem in dealing with Iraq for many years.
When it comes to dealing with our European allies over the longer term, there will continue to be some fundamental disagreements. But "to the extent the problem is characterized by some of our allies as the management of American power, then it is important neither to be immobilized because of a fear of unilateral action, nor to attempt to create an international system based upon it."
Here, Mr. Kissinger suggested that a useful lesson can be taken from 19th century Britain -- act unilaterally when you must, but create a framework in which other powers are reassured by an "understanding of predictable" actions and an underlying agreement on objectives.
By the time I left Mr. Kissinger's office, I had a genuine feeling of unease about the future. But had I raised this with Mr. Kissinger, I suspect he would have simply said that this goes with the territory. Great states have great responsibilities. They must expect great challenges, and they must be prepared to meet them.
Mr. Rivkin, a lawyer based in Washington, served in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
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