Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has spoken out about the challenges facing today’s world order. It’s worth reading. He notes that globalization and technology change are driving a break up of the old world order. Kissinger contends that that the global environment is fundamentally different than it was in his heyday, and that efforts to get back the old order are doomed to fail. New political structures and ideas are required. I’ll blog more about his ideas soon, today I want to write about Kissinger’s general world view.
Kissinger earned his Ph.D. studying Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, who was in that role from 1809-48, also serving as Chancellor from 1821-48. Kissinger’s academic work was rooted in studying the world between 1814 – 1914, when there seemed to be order and stability in Europe – and he took those principles to ones that should work anywhere, taking into account local idiosyncratic conditions.
In any system there will be competition for power. That’s because resources are scarce, humans seem driven to compete, and humans are greedy. In the international system, with no real rule of law or enforcement, is an anarchy. In anarchy, brute force is the main principle, it’s survival of the fittest, domination by the strongest.
Luckily states can create stability despite anarchy through diplomacy, maintaining a balance of power, having leaders that recognize war ultimately is not in the best interest of any state, and stopping any “revolutionary” power hoping to alter the status quo. If states can agree to respect each other’s right to exist, agree that war should be a last option, and share some common goals, diplomacy should be able to solve any problem.
It won’t – Kissinger and realists argue that it takes “statesmanship” or the ability of leaders to understand that maintaining the status quo is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, and who can negotiate effectively, and then be willing to strike early and strong against those who would upend the system (like a Hitler). Realists admire how this seemed to work for 100 years, with only a few minor skirmishes intervening.
But there are flaws in Kissinger’s world view. Perhaps the reason there was no major European war for so long is because the Europeans were conquering the planet, imposing their standards across the globe, destroying indigenous cultures and taking whatever resources they could get their grubby hands on. Once the world was almost completely colonized the Europeans quickly turned on each other.
Moreover, such a system relied on common shared cultural values. The diplomats and leaders all spoke French had more in common with each other than the average citizens in their home states. In an era of globalization, that’s not likely to be replicated.
Finally the focus on power and order inherently means ignoring those without power. Kissinger’s most brilliant and successful policy was detente (a French word meaning a relaxation in tension), a policy that probably made a peaceful end of the Cold War possible. But in that policy we can see the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.
Kissinger, a brilliant academic was snatched up by Nixon when he became President in 1969. He started out as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and quickly became more powerful than the Secretary of State, William Rogers. He gained Nixon’s trust and crafted policy – and when Rogers left in 1973, Kissinger took on the role of Secretary of State.
He was relatively young, very charming, spoke with a distinct German accent, Jewish, and something of a playboy. He was known to cavort with a number of attractive women – I still remember a Mad Magazine set of song parodies that included “I wonder whose Kissinger now?”
He had a problem: The US was bogged down in a pointless war in Vietnam. The Soviets had achieved nuclear parity and communism was at its peak – the disease and decay that were already slowly destroying its sustainability were hid behind the iron curtain and streams of propaganda.
Kissinger decided the US had to change the Soviet Union to a status quo power the US could deal with. This include high level summits allowing Kissinger, Nixon and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev to meet and “practice statesmanship.” It included triangulation – opening to China. China and the USSR hated each other, so the US getting friendly with one pressured the other. It worked. It led Moscow to pressure Hanoi to end the Vietnam war so the US could extricate itself (“Peace with Honor” was Nixon’s slogan). And suddenly the Cold War didn’t seem quite as scary.
In exchange for recognizing the reality of Communist rule in East Europe, the Soviets allowed more trade, visits, and connections to the West. The agreed that systemic order was more important than the US-Soviet rivalry, and thus could be dealt with. Kissinger left office in January 1977.
But while detente was based on the notion the Soviets could be a status quo power, Kissinger knew there would be rivalries and conflicts. So he also worked out a mostly unwritten agreement that proxy wars in the Third World were allowable, and that neither side would allow a third world conflict to lead to nuclear war. Kissinger would say that yes, those wars could be bad, and sending arms and weapons to African or Asian proxies did mean there would be death and destruction. But given the nature of world affairs, it’s the lesser of two evils. It helps make sure the US and Soviets don’t blow each other up.
Detente’s success – the exchanges brought western ideas more quickly into the East bloc, the Soviets felt smug in their status as a recognized legitimate world power, and as the inevitable economic collapse began, there were enough links with the West to give Gorbachev time to make radical changes that could not be undone. Some people credit Reagan and Gorbachev with the peaceful end of the Cold War, but Nixon and Kissinger set the stage.
The failure? Proxy wars and disregard for the third world. Looking only at power politics rather than the broad array of global problems allowed many former colonies to decay into corrupt, brutal regimes. African states were very young in the sixties – a supportive US might have allowed a transition to viable political and economic systems. Instead the super powers simply used those states as powerless puppets in a geopolitical struggle.
In maintaining proxies, the US supported brutal dictators in world hot spots like the Mideast. This helped assure that dictators would be able to hold power, not allowing real opportunity to their people, and setting up the anger and frustration young Arabs experience today.
The problems today ranging from Ebola to ISIS to terrorism have their roots in that neglect of the third world. Kissinger’s policies were brilliant in dealing with short term geopolitical crises, but failed by creating conditions which would lead to problems that threaten the very nature of world order.