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Even in his advanced age Henry Kissinger remains hugely influential, and the remnant of the realist school in Washington’s foreign policy establishment looks upon him as its part-guru, part-patriarch. His recent pronouncements are somewhat disappointing, however, and they reflect the confused state of the realist camp after many years of the neoconservative-neoliberal duopoly’s dominance. As seems clear from a long interview with Dr. Kissinger in the September-October issue The National Interest, they lack the consistency of the leading “offensive realist,” John Mersheimer, or the philosophical coherence of Kenneth Waltz.
In his own estimation Kissinger remains an unapologetic realist in his approach to world affairs: “you have to start with an assessment of the elements that are relevant to the situation.” The values are included, but a balance in the ranking of priorities is needed, contrary to the missionary zeal which is the Duopoly’s hallmark. As an example of realist pragmatism Kissinger cites détente as a strategy which successfully softened up the Soviet Union. By 1980, the Soviet Union was already well on the way to defeat.” The détente period was an indispensable prelude to the combative Reagan years.
Other two pivotal events of the Nixon era were the opening to China and reducing the Soviet role in the Middle East. Today’s China “inherently presents a fundamental challenge to American strategy,” Kissinger says, but the U.S. now faces a much subtler dilemma: “The Soviet problem was largely strategic. This is a cultural issue: Can two civilizations that do not, at least as yet, think alike come to a coexistence formula that produces world order?” It is neither in Russia’s nor China’s nature to seek a strategic rapprochement, but it is happening “partly because we’ve given them no choice.”
On Ukraine, in Kissinger’s view, it is possible to solve the impasse in a way conducive to international order. This requires recognition that the relationship between Ukraine and Russia “cannot be put into a simple formula of applying principles that worked in Western Europe, not that close to Stalingrad and Moscow.” He finds it inconceivable that Putin intended to start a military crisis only days after the Sochi Olympics. In the ensuing crisis “there was no significant political discussion with Russia or the EU of what was in the making.” Each side acted “sort of rationally” based on its misconception of the other. In Moscow this looked as if the West was exploiting an opportune moment to move Ukraine out of the Russian orbit. “Then Putin started acting like a Russian czar – like Nicholas I over a century ago. I am not excusing the tactics, only setting them in context.” It should have been determined at an early stage whether Russian concerns can be reconciled with Western necessities. As for the future, a “nonmilitary grouping” may be needed on the territory between Russia and the existing frontiers of NATO, which would entail “cooperation between the West and Russia in a militarily nonaligned Ukraine.”
In Kissinger’s view the Ukraine crisis is turning into a tragedy because the long-range interests of global order have been discarded: “When you read now that Muslim units are fighting on behalf of Ukraine, then the sense of proportion has been lost . . . It means that breaking Russia has become an objective; the long-range purpose should be to integrate it.” The consequences could be dire, but the trouble with America’s wars since 1945 has been the failure of strategy: “We should not engage in international conflicts if, at the beginning, we cannot describe an end, and if we’re not willing to sustain the effort needed to achieve that end.” Americans don’t learn from experience, however, because they are “an ahistorical people.”
Kissinger’s analysis is on the whole correct. His and Nixon’s strategy was a traditional balance-of-power response to the Soviet challenge. In resisting that challenge America was not guided by Wilsonian principles but by a neo-Bismarckian calculus. As Kissinger wrote in his book Global Order last year, vast regions of the world acquiesced in the Western concept of order since 1991.
The trouble is that “a coexistence formula that produces world order” which he now advocates requires recognition that the U.S.-promoted concept of “order” after the end of the Cold War has turned into a form of global chaos. The relentless expansion of NATO and the quest for its “new role,” the promotion of color-coded revolutions, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and the fanning of the war in Syria have had invariably disastrous consequences for the countries concerned, for regional and global stability, and for the rationally articulated interests of the United States. The current disaster in the Middle East is not due to some spontaneous process which unfolded independently of the will of the promoters of “the Western concept of order.” It happened decisively (albeit not exclusively) due to their proactive acts. The rise of the Islamic State would not have been possible without the Iraq war and the Western meddling in Syria. Libya would not have been the failed state it is today without NATO’s 2011 intervention.
On the whole, Kissinger’s recommendations for the resolution of the crisis in Ukraine are rational, and his warning about the perils of seeking Russia’s breakup is timely. His diagnosis of America’s historical amnesia is accurate, and it needs to be overcome in order to devise – in particular – a coherent strategy of managing American-Chinese relations. The problem is whether Kissinger’s vision can be translated into realistic policy guidelines short of a tectonic shift in Washington’s bipartisan collective thinking, which is not on the horizon. No less importantly, Kissinger would need to address the phenomenon of Western civilizational weakness – as manifested in its demographic crisis and ongoing immigrant invasion, which are both geopolitical and cultural threats of the highest order – before postulating a vision of “world order” based on panregional coexistence.
It is unfortunate that he does neither. Kissinger is too deeply steeped in the realities of the 20th century to provide a clear vision for the many challenges we face in the 21st. His central notion of “Order” harks nostalgically to an even earlier, more polished age; it is incompatible with the chaos, brutality and cultural and civilizational collapse, which characterize the one we live in.
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