A Review of Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy
President Bush's willingness to act unilaterally and to use the language of "good" and "evil" in the war against terrorism has invited criticism both at home and abroad. This criticism stems from the idea that unilateral action and moralistic language produce a superiority or "exceptionalism" unproductive to foreign relations. Indeed, the issue of American exceptionalism raises the deepest questions about how we think about American foreign policy. While many books have addressed this issue, Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy, with all its flaws, still provides a useful basis to help think through today's problems.
What makes the book of particular interest is its central purpose. It is Kissinger's last intellectual will and testament. He knows that he is unlikely again to conduct foreign policy in any official capacity. He therefore offers his mature reflections on the art of diplomacy to his successors, going beyond a mere defense of his own time in office. What specifically preoccupies Kissinger is whether it is possible to conduct statecraft intelligently in a democracy, and specifically, in the American democracy. His conclusions are decidedly pessimistic. We come to an opposite conclusion, based on much the same evidence that he assembles to make his case. But Kissinger's book offers one of the best means in recent years to think through seriously the future of American foreign policy.
Kissinger's argument is based on a comparison between the intellectual and historical roots of two great diplomatic traditions, the European and American, and what this comparison teaches us about their relative strengths and weaknesses.
The European Tradition. The European, or realist (realpolitik) diplomatic tradition emerged in the 17th century from the final collapse of the medieval aspirations to universality most recently embodied in the Holy Roman Empire. In Kissinger's words: "With the concept of unity collapsing, the emerging states of Europe needed some principle to justify their heresy and to regulate their relations. They found it in their concepts of raison d'etat and the balance of power. Each depended on the other. Raison d'etat asserted that the well being of the state justified whatever means were employed to further it; the national interest supplanted the medieval notion of a universal morality. The balance of power replaced the nostalgia for universal monarchy with the consolation that each state, in pursuing its own selfish interests, would somehow contribute to the safety and progress of the others."
Much of Diplomacy is devoted to an entertaining and informative (if necessarily selective) account of the history of European diplomacy from the 17th century onward. Kissinger orders his narrative around such skilled practitioners of realpolitik as Cardinal de Richelieu, William of Orange, Frederick the Great, William Pitt the Younger, Metternich, Castlereagh, and Bismarck. Kissinger is clearly attracted to the intellectual challenge of the game of diplomacy: a few men at the summit, effectively isolated from the hurly-burly of domestic politics, playing a game of strategic chess with all Europe as the board. Morality is not the issue in diplomacy any more than it is in chess.
To be sure, Kissinger is not an unqualified admirer of the European tradition. Its principal nemesis is overextension: the temptation, even in the hands of master players, to ignore the limits imposed by the need to seek security in equilibrium, to go too far in relying on power (which is inherently difficult to assess). This dangerous tendency in realpolitik led to the tragedy of the First World War. Kissinger believes that the solution lies in seeking "an agreement on common values. The balance of power inhibits the capacity to overthrow the international order; agreement on shared values inhibits the desire to overthrow the international order. Power without legitimacy tempts tests of strength; legitimacy without power tempts empty posturing." These shared values should not however be confused with morality as it is understood in domestic politics, but rather in a mutual recognition of rules and limits among sophisticated members of an international community.
The American Tradition. The American diplomatic tradition, as Kissinger sees it, is a rejection of the ancient reason of state in favor of a new, more modern standard of international relations. This standard, in Jefferson's words, is that there should be "but one system of ethics for men and for nations." The objectives of foreign policy may be properly understood only as a means to the end of protecting and promoting individual freedom and well-being. No end of foreign policy can be morally autonomous. America's destiny was to lead the world from the old to the new; its leadership would flow the fact that it could reject the amorality of European diplomacy as a consequence of its republic form of government, the benign circumstances attending its development, and the innate virtue of its citizenry. America, in short, is an exceptional nation with an exceptional mission, a country for which the traditional verities of the balance of power do not apply.
For Kissinger, the American tradition points in two opposite and equally unfortunate directions. The first response is the withdrawal of America from international affairs, so as to perfect its own democratic institutions and serve as a beacon for the rest of humanity. The second, more recent response is to engage in crusades for democracy around the world, as a means by which the old international system can be transformed into a global international order based on democracy, free commerce, and international law. "Thus the two approaches, the isolationist and the missionary, so contradictory on the surface, reflected a common underlying faith: that the United States possessed the world's best system of government, and that the rest of mankind could attain peace and prosperity by abandoning traditional diplomacy and adopting America's reverence for international law and democracy." In such a world, peace would be the natural outcome of relations among peoples and nations, rather than the result of an artificial, unstable, and unjust balance of power. To the extent that there are outlaws from the world community, collective security the application of international moral and, if necessary, military force would be applied to halt aggression.
For most of its history, the United States chose the first course, isolationism. During the second half of this century, the international realities were such that the second American path, that of crusading internationalism, dominated. Woodrow Wilson is of course the exemplar par excellence of American internationalism. For Wilson, America's role in the world was justified not by the need to sustain the balance of power, but the obligation to spread its principles throughout the world. These principles held that peace depends on the spread of democracy, that states should be judged by the same ethical standards as individuals, and that the national interest consists of adhering to a universal system of law. Although Wilson could not persuade his countrymen to support the great project to democratize the world, the League of Nations, his idealism lived on. According to Kissinger, "it is above all to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency, and continues to march to this day."
Kissinger admits that the United States succeeded in the Cold War, but he argues that American policy even since the Second World War has been excessively moralistic and insufficiently attuned to the realities of international relations. To be sure, American power was such that Washington could aspire to make the world conform, at least in part, to its vision of international relations. But as a result, America's Cold War success was much more costly than it could have been. The tragedy of Vietnam, rather than the triumph of the fall of the Berlin Wall, dominates Kissinger's reflections on American policy during the Cold War.
The moral of the story for Kissinger is that America must mend her ways. As the bipolarity of the U.S.-Soviet conflict passes, a new set of international relations is emerging one in which nations, contrary to American expectations, are pursuing self-interest more frequently than high-minded principle. There is more evidence of competition than cooperation exactly as the European diplomatic model would predict. Further, the decline of American power precludes the United States from dominating the world (just as our interdependence with that world precludes withdrawal). Other countries have grown into great power status, and their interests must be taken into account. Order in this new world must be based on some concept of equilibrium, a balance of power an idea with which the United States has never felt comfortable. To succeed in the future, to become comfortable with the balance of power, Kissinger implies that we must abandon our exceptionalism and become an ordinary country. To Kissinger, this does not mean abandoning American values, but rather facing the challenge of reaching our goals in stages, each of which is an amalgam of American values and geopolitical necessities.
To judge the wisdom of Kissinger's advice for the future in effect, that we move toward the European, and away from the American, diplomatic tradition we are entitled to the observation that the latter seems to have been remarkably successful by the standards which Kissinger himself would set. After all, the United States has emerged victorious and prosperous from the great wars and crises of the 20th century. What other great nation can make such a claim? Perhaps we were lucky, or perhaps others following a more "realistic" course were simply unlucky. Perhaps we could have done better. But the fact of our apparent success suggests either that there is something to the American style of diplomacy after all or that Kissinger has fundamentally misunderstood what the United States has been about in the world.
Kissinger's own absorbing historical narrative, read somewhat differently, provides much evidence of what useful lessons we might learn from over 200 years of American diplomacy. He begins with praise of the Founders: "In the early years of the Republic, American foreign policy was in fact a sophisticated reflection of the American national interest which was, simply, to fortify the new nation's independence. Since no European country was capable of posing an actual threat so long as it had to contend with rivals, the Founding Fathers showed themselves quite willing to manipulate the despised balance of power when it suited their needs; indeed they could be extraordinarily sophisticated at maneuvering between France and Great Britain not only to preserve America's independence but to enlarge her frontiers." Or, in the formulation of the great historian of American foreign policy, Samuel Flagg Bemis, America constantly took advantage of Europe's distresses.
Kissinger's observation is quite accurate as far as it goes. But we would note that the aim of the Founders was not simply limited to achieving and securing independence. This was an essential means to a still higher end: the creation of popular government based on the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence. That was what independence truly meant. Americans saw themselves as an exceptional people, engaged in an exceptional task as Alexander Hamilton put it, to determine whether governments could be founded on the basis of reflection and choice, or would always be condemned to result from accident and force. Accident and force, of course, were characteristic of the European political order, both domestic and international. The American rejection of that order our search for independence was part and parcel of the creation of a new order, based on fundamentally different principles, whose success here might eventually serve to enlighten the rest of mankind. Some Americans, such as Jefferson, believed that this democratic enlightenment could lead to a transformation of international relations such that the balance of power with its attendant wars and injustices would no longer be the basis of those relations. But this was never the heart of the American experiment, nor did the success of that experiment depend upon such a transformation.
This success was assuredly not foreordained. The ability of the American people to govern themselves wisely and justly remained to be demonstrated. Even more doubtful was the ability of a democratic nation to survive and prosper in a world of large, aggressive, and non-democratic powers. For the Founders, these two challenges were often inseparable. Recall that the Constitution was formulated in response to the weakness of the original American government under the Articles of Confederation. These weaknesses pointed on the one hand to domestic anarchy, as exemplified by Shay's rebellion, and to an inability to secure American interests with respect to foreign powers, as exemplified by Britain's continued occupation of the Northwest frontier posts in violation of the Peace of 1783.
The greatest danger facing the Founders was that these two threats would become one that foreign powers should begin to play upon domestic unrest to divide the Union and wreck the great democratic experiment. This was nearly the fate of the country in the 1790s, when the newly emerging political parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, seemed to be aligning with the British and French, respectively. Contrary to what Kissinger implies, the Founders by no means held monolithic views on the question of how to maneuver between the great powers of Europe. The foreign policy debates during the 1790s were just as bitter and dangerous, if not more so, than those that Kissinger experienced during the Vietnam war. And yet the American democracy survived, and prospered.
One obvious lesson is that debate within a democracy, rightly understood, is not necessarily harmful, as long as all parties remain committed to the principles of the American regime. One of those central principles is the sovereignty of the people, rightly understood. Jefferson's election in 1800 demonstrated that ballots, not bullets, were both legitimate and possible instruments with which to change power under a popular government. As Jefferson later put it in his Inaugural Address, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists" that is, we are all Americans, despite our differences, especially as we stand in relation to the forces of tyranny at home and abroad.
But debate and votes themselves do not give content to what a nation must do to survive and prosper. That requires statesmanship, represented by prudent action and sound speech. Four years prior to Jefferson's election, George Washington had decisively articulated the grounds for what the basis of American policy ought to be grounds on which all Americans, Federalists and Republicans, could agree, yet something much more than simply a compromise. The Farewell Address is known mainly for its foreign policy content, and specifically for its call for political isolation from the wars and quarrels of Europe. Thus, from a Kissingerian perspective, the Address might well be dismissed as an anachronistic and dangerous appeal to withdraw from the world. In his lengthy monograph, Kissinger himself devotes only passing (although favorable) attention to this seminal statement of American foreign policy.
The Farewell Address is one of those documents often cited yet infrequently read. It contains what we take to be the theme that dominates American foreign policy a theme that transcends particular manifestations of that policy, however characterized (isolationism, internationalism, or whatever). Washington argues that the United States' relations with the outside world should be thought of principally in terms of how they affect our domestic tranquility and happiness. To be sure, "we should observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct." Further, good conduct is also good policy over time. But the safety and happiness of the American people not those of other peoples, however much we wish them well; and not the aggregation of power to be used in the great game of international diplomacy must be the principal guideposts of our foreign policy.
It is from this foundation that Washington makes his famous, particular recommendation: "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible." Such political connections ran the risk of involving the United States in the all-too-frequent wars and quarrels of others. Such wars provided dangerous avenues for foreign ideas and influences to enter into, and corrupt, the republican virtue on which the newly-forming American regime under the Constitution depended. (Washington did acknowledge that temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies may be necessary.) He concludes that "with me, a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its most recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to the degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, command of its own fortunes."
For the most part, Washington's imperative to mind our own business, while we gained material and political (moral) strength to realize the promise of the revolution, so as to command our own fortunes served as the wise foundation for American domestic and foreign policy. When over a century later, the preservation of our material and moral strength required a more active American involvement in the world, American statesmen initially experienced considerable difficulties in applying Washington's great theme. This is the story of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, to which Kissinger next turns.
Kissinger is on solid ground with his criticism of the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson did indeed downplay or ignore the necessities of power, a characteristic that we can in fact trace back to such Founders as Jefferson and Madison. But we would argue that Wilson's central flaw was not his belief in American exceptionalism per se, but rather in (1) his conception of that exceptionalism, and (2) his inability to make prudent judgments and distinctions that took into account the particular circumstances in which American foreign policy operated.
For Wilson, the exceptional nature of the American regime properly rested on its correspondence with historical progress. The American Founders had captured the historical moment of the late eighteenth century with their articulation of the rights of men as spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, and with the role of limited government as envisioned by the Constitution. But time had moved on, and America must move with it, towards a more expansive notion of human rights and the role of government in American society. In Wilson's view, America was called to lead and guide this historical movement abroad as well as at home especially after the outbreak of the Great War, when the United States alone could take a disinterested perspective and lead the powers of Europe away from the reactionary, destructive balance of power system and toward a more just community of power. The key driver of this historical process, according to Wilson, was self-determination: the realization of national rights as a precursor to the full realization of human rights. Self-determination would remove the grounds for international conflict, which Wilson believed to stem from the struggle of peoples to free themselves from the autocratic, multinational empires of Europe.
Wilson's view of American exceptionalism differed greatly from that of the Founders, as expressed in Washington's Farewell Address. The Founders believed that the rights of man were fixed and immutable, not historically determined; and that government, although necessary to securing these rights, must be limited if it were itself not to become a threat to liberty. In terms of foreign policy, this meant, in the famous words of John Quincy Adams (which Kissinger quotes), "Wherever the standard of freedom of independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America's] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."
Circumstances since Adams' time have indeed compelled the United States to go abroad, to champion and vindicate its own freedom and independence. In such circumstances, the United States has sometimes found it prudent to slay monsters Hitler of course being the great example of this and thereby help secure the rights of others, as well as of ourselves. But when is it prudent to do so? And how can we distinguish between monsters and those who are justly seeking their liberty? The Founders, we submit, provided us with the grounds to make such prudent distinctions, even if (as occurred during the French Revolution) there may be legitimate grounds for political debate on the practical application of our principles. Wilson's historicism provides no such grounds; Hitler, after all, was elected democratically and claimed to be seeking to restore the legitimate rights of the German nation and people. Although Wilsonians might viscerally disagree with Hitler's characterization, they lack the principled grounds on which to lead a democratic opposition to him.
Kissinger is certainly correct in identifying Wilson's chief foreign policy protagonist, Theodore Roosevelt, as embodying a different and sounder approach to diplomacy. For Kissinger, the essence of this difference was in Roosevelt's embrace of European-style realpolitik. Roosevelt was indeed a believer in the balance of power, and in the use of military force if necessary to protect the national interest. He tried over his public career of several decades to bring the United States onto the world scene as an active and engaged great power. But Roosevelt, just as much as Wilson, was driven by a belief in American exceptionalism and by a belief in the superiority of democracy as a form of government. For our purposes, the critical difference between the two rested in the particular policies each espoused on behalf of American exceptionalism. We can see these differences most clearly in their respective approaches to the First World War.
From Wilson's standpoint, as Kissinger notes, the Great War was essentially a reflection of the profound failings of the European style of diplomacy, based on the pernicious notion of the balance of power. These failings and a reliance on force, in turn, were for Wilson endemic in non-democratic forms of government most obviously evidenced by Germany's autocratic militarism, but almost as much by the imperialism of Britain and France. Unlike the traditional American isolationists, such as William Jennings Bryan, Wilson believed that events in Europe could affect the United States; the world had become so interdependent economically and politically that it was impossible to believe that wars among the great powers of Eurasia would not eventually jeopardize the American democracy.
Wilson's solution was to stay out of the war if possible not because America had no stake in its outcome, but rather because the United States must remain above the fray, able to play a disinterested arbiter that could settle the war on terms fair to all. Above all, this settlement could not be based on the balance of power which was the cause of, not the solution to, insecurity in Europe. Rather, future security must be based on a community of power among democratic nations who would respond collectively in the face of a would-be aggressor, primarily by means of mobilizing the moral force of world opinion. Further, as we noted earlier, the underlying cause of war could be eliminated by applying what Wilson believed to be the central animating principle of democracy self-determination to the peoples of Europe.
Wilson's settlement, and American abstaining from the fighting, depended on neither side winning a decisive victory, which would reduce American influence and allow that side to impose its own self-interested peace. In 1917, when it appeared that Germany might indeed win the war outright, Wilson reluctantly decided that American intervention was necessary to prevent this outcome. But he entered the war on the side of Britain and France as an associate, not an allied, power, to preserve the American ability to negotiate a peace on Wilsonian terms, and not to become simply a tool of British or French diplomacy. This would ensure the freedom of the United States to fulfill its great historical mission of transforming politics abroad, as well as politics at home, to correspond with the progression of history toward democracy.
Theodore Roosevelt too favored American military intervention on behalf of the Allied Powers, much earlier than did Wilson, but for entirely different reasons. As Kissinger points out, Roosevelt believed a German victory would upset the balance of power in Europe, and that an arrogant Germany, without the constraints posed on it by Britain and France, would inevitably challenge the United States. "Do you not believe that if Germany won this war, smashed the English Fleet and destroyed the British Empire, with a year or two she would insist upon taking a dominant position in South and Central America?" Roosevelt was by no means indifferent to the spread of democracy in general, but he believed that this was best achieved through American support of particular democracies in the case of World War I, Britain and France. These democracies were threatened, in Roosevelt's view, by an autocratic, militaristic Germany; he decisively rejected Wilson's arguments that all the great European powers were somehow equally culpable.
On the whole, Roosevelt's diplomacy seems much more sensible, morally and practically, than does Wilson's. In thus favoring the position of Roosevelt, as does Kissinger, we should not neglect the problematic qualities of Roosevelt's own foreign policy. Roosevelt, after all, was himself something of an imperialist, and his conception of democracy was based much more on the qualities of the Anglo-Saxon race than on the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence. That said, in examining the diplomacy of the two, we can prudently distinguish between the immoderation of Wilson and the sounder sentiments of Roosevelt.
Kissinger argues that, in addition to Theodore Roosevelt, there was one American in this century who was a supreme practitioner of the European style of diplomacy: Richard Nixon. When Kissinger turns to assessing the Cold War, we are therefore led to expect that Richard Nixon will emerge as the most important character; and that the policies of Nixon's administration (in which Kissinger served as National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State) would be the standard against which all others are measured. We know those policies under the general rubric of detente; at first glance, detente would appear to have been aimed at accommodating a rising Soviet power in light of the (presumed) decline of the United States. How, then, does Kissinger explain the eventual defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the United States in the Cold War?
Kissinger's answer is perhaps the most interesting and surprising part of Diplomacy. To be sure, as he did most capably in his earlier memoirs, he claims that Nixon's policies were the best that could be accomplished under the circumstances of the early 1970s, when American society was torn over the war in Vietnam. Detente, by Kissinger's account, was never intended to appease Moscow, much less signal American surrender, but to preserve America's world role at a time when domestic pressures threatened a return to isolationism. The diplomacy of realism, as exemplified by the opening to communist China and the negotiation of arms control agreements, would provide the United States with the necessary flexibility to prevent Moscow from gaining a dominant position in the East-West conflict.
For our present purposes, we need not pass judgment on the accuracy of Kissinger's depiction of detente. Much more interesting is Kissinger's claim that the strategic logic underpinning detente was anticipated by Winston Churchill and finally brought to its culmination by Ronald Reagan two statesmen with whom it might seem Kissinger would have little affinity. For Kissinger, Churchill and Reagan properly understood that the United States was in a strong position with respect to the Soviet bloc; and that through astute diplomacy, backed by military strength, it was possible both to avoid war and also to negotiate agreements with Moscow that would be to the West's advantage. Although Nixon appreciated the strategic logic of Churchill and Reagan, according to Kissinger, he could not act fully on it initially because of the need to extricate America from Vietnam without tearing the country apart, and later because of the Watergate scandal.
The Churchill-Nixon-Reagan strategic approach to the Cold War (described in more detail below), as portrayed by Kissinger, differed markedly from that adopted by the founders of post-World War II American foreign policy, containment. As Kissinger sees it, the United States made numerous errors during the Cold War, the most important of which were related to the fallacies of the American diplomatic tradition. First, the Truman administration erred in ascribing Hitlerian pretensions and tactics to the Soviets, and in assigning an ideological dimension (democracy versus totalitarianism) to the emerging geopolitical rivalry between East and West. Stalin certainly wanted to increase Soviet power, but he was well aware of the limits of his position especially in relation to American nuclear monopoly and was in no position to aspire to global hegemony. Stalin was at heart a realist incredibly ruthless, to be sure, but a practitioner of traditional European-style diplomacy, with a sense of the limits of the possible, and certainly not a starry-eyed Marxist. According to Kissinger, Churchill fully understood this, and argued that the Soviet threat could have been dealt with through tough diplomacy that would have translated overall Western strength into long-term security.
But from Kissinger's perspective, the Americans wrongly believed that Stalin was motivated primarily by an ideological imperative for world conquest, and that any attempt at serious negotiations with the Soviets risked duplicating the sort of appeasement that took place at Munich in 1938. To be sure, if left unchecked, the USSR would become a threat to the balance of power, but Washington tended to exaggerate Soviet strengths and minimize their weaknesses. As a result of its short-sightedness, the Truman administration devised the policy of containment, designed to wait out the Soviets rather than employ diplomacy actively to American advantage. The Cold War became a war of attrition, not maneuver. And when Western public opinion, the fear of nuclear war, and growing Soviet strength finally forced Washington to the bargaining table in the 1960s and 1970s, Americans generally lacked the ability to make diplomacy work to its benefit.
According to Kissinger, the static policy of containment became even more inflexible because its Wilsonian character. American foreign policy was driven by the imperative to defend democracy against communism, rather than the realist imperative to balance Soviet power ("America waged the Cold War not as a conflict between two superpowers but as a moral struggle for democracy.") The Wilsonian imperative led the United States to try to inculcate the American way of life in places that lacked traditions or conditions suitable to democracy. At the same time, when its anti-communist crusade compelled Washington to support leaders who hardly met Wilsonian standards for defending human rights, such as Ferdinand Marcos or the Shah of Iran, it left itself open to domestic and international charges of hypocrisy. The American style of diplomacy thus lacked a sense of proportion or consistency. The Vietnam tragedy was the inevitable result, in Kissinger's view.
Faced with the strategic situation of the late 1960s, which included the need to liquidate America's involvement in Vietnam, Richard Nixon parted company from the founders of containment and chose a path reminiscent of Churchill (at least as Kissinger portrays Churchill). Nixon did not make the transformation of Soviet society a precondition to negotiations. Nixon believed that the process of negotiations and a long period of peaceful competition would accelerate the transformation of the Soviet system and strengthen the democracies. In Nixon's view, according to Kissinger, the longer the Soviet confrontation with the West was delayed, the more unmanageable would become the task of holding together the Soviet empire, especially since its political problems were compounded by economic stagnation. In other words, Nixon and his advisers believed that time was on the side of the United States, not the communist world.
We note, without comment, that most observers thought that Nixon and Kissinger based their policies on the opposite premise: that time was on the side of America's adversaries. But as Kissinger tells the story, at the end of the day, when circumstances more favorable than those available to Nixon and Kissinger occurred, an American statesman was finally able to bring the Cold War to a successful conclusion. "When all was said and done, a president with the shallowest academic background was able to develop a foreign policy of extraordinary consistency and relevance." This was, of course, Ronald Reagan, perhaps the most unlikely hero in Kissinger's pantheon. "Reagan might well have had only a few basic ideas, but these also happened to be the core foreign policy issues of his period." Reagan's genius lay in his "extraordinarily intuitive rapport with the wellsprings of American motivation. At the same time, he understood the essential brittleness of the Soviet system, a perception which ran contrary to most expert opinion, even in his own conservative camp."
To be sure, there is an important difference between Nixon and Reagan, which in some sense paralleled that between Roosevelt and Wilson. "Like Woodrow Wilson, Reagan understood that the American people, having marched through their history to the drumbeat of exceptionalism, would find their ultimate inspiration in historical ideals, not in geopolitical analysis. Like Roosevelt, Nixon had had a far better understanding of the workings of international relations; like Wilson, Reagan had a much surer grasp of the inner workings of the American soul."
According to Kissinger, the weakness in Reagan's position was that he, in typical American (Wilsonian) fashion, was convinced that communist intransigence was based on ignorance than on ill will, and more on misunderstanding than on purposeful hostility. Hence, in Reagan's view, the Cold War was likely to end with the conversion of the adversary. But this was conversion was to be achieved through confrontation rather than through creating a "favorable" atmosphere or granting unilateral concessions. Reagan was thus the first Cold War president to take the offensive both politically and geostrategically: this involved combating Soviet geopolitical pressure until the process of expansionism had been first arrested and then reversed; launching a rearmament program designed to stop the Soviet drive for strategic superiority, and then turn it into a strategic liability; and promoting human rights, which Reagan and his advisers invoked to try to undermined the Soviet system.
Kissinger praise of Reagan is by no means unqualified. He argues that Reagan's policies also set off negative trends in the Atlantic Alliance, and he doubts whether the president could have successfully managed to balance belligerent rhetoric, an arms buildup, and negotiations with the East had the Soviet challenge not collapsed. But collapse it did. Kissinger reflects that "it was a remarkable tribute to American cohesion that, a little more than five years after the debacle in Indochina, a determined president should again be contesting Soviet expansionism around the world, this time successfully."
American "cohesion" our unity and determination to see the thing through was in fact remarkable. It was not based to a first order on geostrategic analysis, as Kissinger rightly notes. As their starting point, Americans look foremost to the first principles of the regime human liberty and self-government, most fundamentally expressed in the Declaration of Independence. They further recognize that there are those in the world who deny the truth of those principles, and who are opposed to the survival and extension of freedom. Finally, Americans believe that action sometimes has to be taken to preserve their independence in what was often a hostile and violent world.
Perhaps this basic American understanding of the world, and of America's role in that world, is oversimplistic. Perhaps from time to time it did lead to excesses of one sort or another, to missed opportunities and to greater than necessary costs. But there is ample evidence that these profound, American sentiments, coupled with astute statesmanship, are more than a match for clever, European-style diplomacy. In the case of the Cold War, perhaps Kissinger is right in arguing that the issues between East and West could have been resolved without one side or the other renouncing its principles but in fact, the Cold War did end when this happened, exactly as Ronald Reagan (and, we would argue, Winston Churchill) believed.
Kissinger notes with amazement the sort of endeavors to which Americans, once roused, are capable. Just as amazing is the fact that Americans are capable of serious political debate, almost to the point of civil war or revolution, and yet they can still come together to meet great international (and domestic) challenges. This tells us that the conduct of successful foreign policy in the American democracy is not only possible, it is capable of overcoming mistakes that would demoralize and overwhelm others. And American diplomacy is capable even of greatness as long as its statesmen cultivate the proper sentiments and then trust the people.
We can look at the Vietnam War in this light. We need not here consider the political logic of fighting that war in the first place, or the correct military strategy to have pursued. (In Diplomacy, Kissinger makes a good prudential case that Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place, and he cites Churchill approvingly to the effect that they were other, better places to draw the line in Malaysia, for example.) More to the point is how Nixon and Kissinger, realist statesmen, chose to deal with that war and the domestic opposition it had generated once they were in power.
Kissinger begins with the observation that the Johnson administration "had had enough and not because public opinion had deserted them [after the Tet offensive in early 1968]. Polls showed that 61 percent of the American people considered themselves hawks, 23 percent doves, while 70 percent favored continuation of the bombing. The group that lost its nerve represented the very establishment figures who had backed intervention all along." Exactly right. American public opinion turned against the conduct of the war only when its leaders could not convincingly demonstrate that they had a strategy to win the war, or that the pursuance of the war would serve American interests. Even then, public opinion never favored a precipitate withdrawal from Vietnam and never failed to support military actions that were justified as necessary means to bring about an honorable settlement.
And yet Kissinger blames the America's moral righteousness as inhibiting a flexible diplomacy that might have brought about a better result. He confuses those parts of the peace movement which believed that the war symbolized American evil, with mainstream America: "American exceptionalism had sustained one of the great eras of American policy with its idealism, its innocence, and its dedication; now it turned relentless in demanding the same perfectionism of America's allies, and the absence of ambiguity in America's choices. Failing these, it envisaged only shame for America and doom for its ally." According to Kissinger, our intuitive impulse was to recoil from the world, to seek a surcease in America's original vision of itself as the unsullied pillar of virtue. "Perhaps a charismatic leader like Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan might have found a way to deal with this nostalgia. It proved beyond Richard Nixon's otherwise extraordinary talents." For Kissinger, successful statesmanship in a democracy can thus be reduced to charisma.
Without minimizing the magnitude of the task that Nixon and Kissinger faced, we would argue that what they lacked was a faith in America, not charisma. Along these lines, Kissinger reports that Nixon rejected an option that Kissinger personally favored in early 1969: to try to bring matters to a head rapidly through a combination of political and military measures, so as to affect Hanoi's calculations about the inevitability of its total victory and its ability to force a unilateral withdrawal by the United States. This proposed strategy consisted of three components: (1) a Congressional endorsement to pursue the war; (2) a major effort at negotiations in which America would make every concession possible short of colluding in a communist takeover; and (3) an altered military strategy which, within South Vietnam, would concentrate on defending heavily populated areas while at the same time trying to destroy Hanoi's supply routes by interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, clearing out the base areas in Cambodia, and mining the harbors of North Vietnam. Had these been pursued simultaneously and while the United States still had a large ground combat force in Vietnam, Kissinger argues, the impact might have proven decisive. Under this approach Nixon would have gone to Congress, outlined this strategy, and then asked for an endorsement, emphasizing that, in its absence, he would have no choice but to withdraw unilaterally.
According to Kissinger, Nixon rejected this advice on two grounds: first, he viewed it as an abdication of presidential responsibility; second he was convinced almost certainly correctly, Kissinger tells us that the Congress would evade making a clear-cut choice and give him, at best, some ambiguous endorsement hedged by so many conditions as to magnify the problem. The administration instead chose what became known as Vietnamization.
Without inquiring as to the particular wisdom of either option, we would argue that the decisive failure of Nixon's Vietnam policy was his unwillingness to take his case to the public. Instead, he adopted a policy of preemptive capitulation to the opponents of the war, coupled with occasional (and often secretive) military actions that did not seem to bear any relationship to his clear purpose of bringing about an American withdrawal. Perhaps Congress and the people would not have supported him in a more ambitious and straightforward course. But that was their right in a democracy. Nixon's presidential responsibility lay in articulating his best case and then allowing the country, through their elected representatives, to make an informed decision on the point, as George Bush would later do during the Persian Gulf crisis. One strongly suspects that Kissinger's respected American statesman of this century, Theodore Roosevelt, would have done so.
To be sure, Nixon and Kissinger found themselves in a difficult position over Vietnam, and armchair criticism is all too easy. Still, we would note the subsequent verdict of the American people. When events in the late 1970s pointed to a coming crisis with the Soviet Union, the public not only rejected the policies of those who had opposed the Vietnam War outright, they also refused to turn to those who had advocated detente with Moscow, and a settlement with Hanoi, on the basis of "realism." They turned to Ronald Reagan, a statesman who called first and foremost on what Kissinger would call the exceptionalism of the American people. And it is hard to argue that they erred in so doing.
None of this is to say that the American approach to diplomacy is without flaw. The Wilsonian proclivity, in domestic as well as foreign policy, is indeed an unfortunate and powerful force in the American body politic.
Kissinger argues that "Wilson's historic achievement lies in his recognition that Americans cannot sustain major international engagements that are not justified by their moral faith." The problem for Kissinger is that by turning foreign policy issues "into a struggle between good and evil, Americans have generally felt ill at ease with compromise as they have with partial or inconclusive outcomes." But compromise and inconclusive outcomes, as Kissinger notes, are the stuff of which international relations are made. In Kissinger's universe, the pursuit of moral absolutes instead leads to crusades or isolation. The fractious new international system that is emerging from the end of the Cold War, however, is one from which the United States can neither withdraw nor dominate. Unless we incorporate a healthy dose of European-style diplomacy, Kissinger concludes, we are bound to suffer great disappointments in the coming years.
In our view, a more correct reading of the diplomatic history is that the United States can base its foreign policy on the moral truths that underlie the regime what Kissinger calls exceptionalism without being Wilsonian. The American diplomatic tradition cannot simply be reduced to a weak internationalism or pacifistic isolationism, and it offers more much more than Diplomacy would admit. We have seen the possibility of the prudent application of fundamental principles in the cases of George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. We have also seen that the republic can survive, indeed profit from, the most serious debates about the direction of foreign policy. A democratic foreign policy is not a contradiction in terms; properly constructed, it can outwait and outwit the most serious of opponents. Perhaps this is because, as Bismarck (one of Kissinger's great heroes) once said, God looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America. But we also like to think that God helps those who help themselves.