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The Real Deal

By: Francis Sempa
June 19, 2019

his year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. With the exception of his superb three-volume memoirs of his service as national security adviser and secretary of state to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982), and Years of Renewal (1999)—Diplomacy is Kissinger’s best book. It reflects his skills as a talented academic historian along with the knowledge, insights, and experience he gained as a foreign policy practitioner.

The book’s timing was propitious. In 1994, the world was transitioning from the bipolar struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union to something different. Like Sir Halford Mackinder’s post-World War I book, Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), Kissinger’s Diplomacy was meant to serve as a geopolitical guide to Western statesmen in the aftermath of a great global struggle.

In the book, he envisions the post-Cold War world as a struggle for power among “several states of comparable strength,” with the new world order based on “some concept of equilibrium.” “In the post-Cold War world,” he predicts, “[t]he relative military power of the United States will gradually decline.” The lack of a single threat to U.S. predominance “will produce domestic pressure to shift resources from defense to other priorities.” Countries that “nestled” under the U.S. security blanket “will feel compelled to assume greater responsibility for their own security.” This will lead to the emergence of a new international system based on equilibrium, he believes, one that would resemble “the European state system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

For Kissinger, the post-Cold War world includes six major powers: the U.S., China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and India. History, he opines, provides the best guide for statesmen to navigate the perilous times ahead. “[T]he rise and fall of previous world orders based on many states—from the Peace of Westphalia to our time—is the only experience on which one can draw in trying to understand the challenges facing contemporary statesmen.” He cautions, however, that “[t]he study of history offers no manual of instructions that can be applied automatically; history teaches by analogy, shedding light on the likely consequences of comparable situations.”

In the book’s first chapter, Kissinger, who taught at Harvard before advising presidents, explains the difference between the perspectives of academics and statesmen:

Intellectuals analyze the operations of international systems; statesmen build them. And there is a vast difference between the perspective of an analyst and that of a statesman. The analyst can choose which problem he wishes to study, whereas the statesman’s problems are imposed on him. The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion; the overwhelming challenge to the statesman is the pressure of time. The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable. The analyst has available to him all the facts; he will be judged on his intellectual power. The statesman must act on assessments that cannot be proved at the time he is making them; he will be judged by history on the basis of how wisely he managed the inevitable change and above all, how well he preserves the peace.

Kissinger identifies two persistent philosophies in America’s approach to the world: Rooseveltian (Theodore, not FDR) and Wilsonian. He describes Theodore Roosevelt as “the first American president to insist that it was America’s duty to make its influence felt globally, and to relate to the world in terms of a concept of national interest.” America’s security, T.R. understood, depends on the global balance of power.

Although Kissinger clearly identifies with Roosevelt’s global realism, he also understands that Woodrow Wilson’s global “moralism” has great appeal to American elites, especially those intellectuals and analysts who often influence U.S. foreign policy. The Wilsonian approach to the world seeks to spread American values and institutions throughout the world. As Kissinger describes them, Roosevelt was “the warrior statesman; Wilson was the prophet-priest. Statesman, even warriors, focus on the world in which they live; to prophets, the ‘real’ world is the one they want to bring into being.”

For Kissinger, Wilsonian moralism has had at least two negative impacts on American foreign policy. First, it has resulted in the United States intervening in international disputes in which no concrete national interests were at stake. Second, it has sometimes resulted in America sacrificing national interests on the altar of high-sounding universal ideals. Too often, idealism has trumped realism with unintended but disastrous consequences. Kissinger’s Diplomacy, like Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality, was intended to persuade democratic statesmen, as Mackinder put it, to “adjust…ideals of freedom to [the] lasting realities of our earthly home.”

Diplomacy goes on to analyze the statesmanship of Kissinger’s diplomatic heroes: Cardinal Richelieu, King William III, William Pitt, Metternich, Talleyrand, Castlereagh, Palmerston, Bismarck, and Disraeli. All were foreign policy realists who acted to establish a European equilibrium that was favorable to their country’s interests.

Kissinger calls France’s Cardinal Richelieu the “father of the modern state system.” His polestar or directing principle was raison d’ etat, which Kissinger explains, “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.” Richelieu put France’s interests ahead of the Church and other Catholic powers. His diplomacy laid the foundation for France’s growth and expansion under Louis XIV. The threat of French hegemony in turn led England’s William III to form and support coalitions of lesser European powers to reestablish continental equilibrium. Henceforth, Kissinger explains, Great Britain’s foreign policy would have as its overriding goal the geopolitical pluralism of Europe. It effectively assumed the role of the “holder” of the European balance of power.

This balance of power was shattered by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It took 25 years of almost constant warfare to defeat France, and Europe’s statesmen sought to avoid another such catastrophe. Kissinger’s chapter on the Concert of Europe revisits the topic of his first book, and doctoral thesis, A World Restored (1957). He doesn’t hide his admiration for Austria’s Klemens von Metternich, France’s Charles de Tallyrand, and England’s Viscount Castlereagh, and the structure of peace they constructed from the ashes of the Napoleonic Wars. He calls it the “Metternich system” and notes that it preserved the general peace of Europe until the mid-19th century. It was a system based on moderation, balance, and geographical realities rather than wishful thinking.

The Metternich system was replaced by Bismarckian Europe when Germany was unified in 1871. Kissinger praises Bismarck’s prudent statesmanship and “magnificent grasp of the nuances of power and its ramifications.” Germany’s first minister “subjected the European balance of power to…cold-blooded, relativistic analysis.” Bismarck amassed enormous power for Germany but acted with remarkable self-restraint to preserve peace and European stability.

The problem, however, which British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli recognized at the time, was that the European balance of power had been fundamentally destroyed. Germany was the central European colossus that centuries of diplomacy had forestalled. “Bismarck,” writes Kissinger, “sowed the seeds not only of his country’s achievements, but of its twentieth-century tragedies.” When he was forcibly retired by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, Germany—already the strongest land power in Europe—began to grow its navy and thereby pose a challenge to Britain’s command of the seas. “Thus began a vicious cycle,” Kissinger laments, “which culminated in confrontation.” Gradually, Europe divided into powerful alliances. “[T]he Great Powers managed to construct a diplomatic doomsday machine, though they were unaware of what they had done.” All that was needed to send Europe to war was a spark—Bismarck once remarked with uncanny foresight that the next big war would be started by “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” 

George F. Kennan rightly called the First World War the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century. In retrospect, it was the end of the old European order—an order based largely on monarchy, tradition, and religion. What replaced the old order, as Paul Johnson so brilliantly explained in Modern Times (1983), was a relativistic world increasingly susceptible to revolutionary secular ideologies and rule by gangster-statesmen. After World War I, the architects of the Versailles Treaty were torn between hope and fear. The European powers feared German power. The United States, led by President Wilson, promoted the hope of a new world order based on abstract ideals and maintained by a League of Nations. “Wilson was proposing a world order,” Kissinger notes, “in which resistance to aggression would be based on moral rather than geopolitical judgments.” This was a grave error that ultimately resulted in a second and even more destructive global conflict.

“The debacle of the Treaty of Versailles,” Kissinger argues, “was structural.” The peace that ended the Napoleonic Wars “had been buttressed by three pillars, each of which was indispensable: a peace of conciliation with France; a balance of power; and a shared sense of legitimacy.” Versailles had none of these pillars. What took their place was a Wilsonian version of collective security that was divorced from geopolitical realities. The interwar period featured arms control agreements, international arbitration of disputes, and agreements to outlaw war.

It is one of the tragedies of history that Wilsonianism had its greatest impact on international relations just as the future international aggressors were gaining power in Italy, Soviet Russia, Germany, and Japan. “Strategic or geopolitical analysis having become unfashionable, the nations talked about justice even while they strenuously disagreed about its definition,” Kissinger explains. A spate of treaties affirming general principles and appeals to the League followed—partly from conviction, partly from exhaustion, and partly from the desire to avoid painful geopolitical realities.” Meanwhile, the future aggressors aired their grievances, and armed.

The 1930s witnessed the era of democratic appeasement, but Kissinger criticizes these statesmen’s tendency to base policies on predictions of foreign intentions. Almost alone among the democratic statesmen, Winston Churchill unerringly focused his gaze on fundamental power factors. The appeasers, Kissinger reminds us, “were decent men earnestly seeking to implement the new dispensation contrived by Wilsonian idealism under the cloud of general disillusionment with traditional European diplomacy, and the pervasive sense of spiritual and physical exhaustion.”

The Second World War in Europe began with the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which the dictators divided up eastern and central Europe. Had those two powers remained allies there was little the United States or Britain could have done to liberate western Europe. The Nazi-Soviet alliance presented the world with Mackinder’s nightmare of a hostile and mostly unified Eurasian continent. Fortunately, Hitler disregarded the advice of the German geopoliticians and attacked Soviet Russia in June 1941. He made his second-greatest blunder when he declared war against the United States after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Kissinger notes that Churchill and Stalin fought the war first for survival and then to gain postwar advantages in the traditional European way. Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a Wilsonian who fought the war to establish a peace based on collective security that would promote universal values and prevent the outbreak of another global war. FDR’s utopian vision had no more success than Wilson’s, and the end of the war saw the Soviet Union replace Germany as the principal global threat.

As Kissinger observes, “the war ended with a geopolitical vacuum.” The European balance of power was not restored, nor could it be without the addition of American power. The two world wars had resulted in what Hajo Holborn called “the political collapse of Europe.” A bipolar world emerged from the ashes of World War II. Europe was now one of the principal battlegrounds in the Cold War.

The United States had replaced Great Britain as the holder of the European balance of power, but that role had expanded to all of Eurasia. Kissinger repeats the geopolitical analogy made by Nicholas Spykman during the war: just as Britain had been the island or insular power situated offshore of the European continent opposing whichever land power that threatened European hegemony, the United States was the island or insular power situated offshore of the Eurasian landmass opposing whichever land power that threatened Eurasian hegemony. Containment naturally flowed from that fundamental geopolitical reality.

Kissinger devotes 14 chapters of Diplomacy to the major events of the Cold War, including events that occurred during the Nixon and Ford administrations in which he played a significant role. His judgments and assessments are astute, fair-minded, and enlightening. Even when he is critical of U.S. policymakers and statesmen, he never fails to point out the political and informational constraints and limitations under which they operated.

The most relevant chapter in Diplomacy to our 21st-century world discusses President Nixon’s triangular diplomacy with the Soviet Union and China. Kissinger views Nixon (and likely himself) as a modern day Richelieu, Metternich, Bismarck, Palmerston, or Disraeli. Like those European statesmen Kissinger so admires, Nixon exhibited “powerful analytical skills and extraordinary geopolitical intuition.” He “counted on a balance of power to produce stability,” and sought to establish a “global equilibrium.” He eschewed Wilsonian idealism and practiced geopolitical realism.

Nixon’s greatest foreign policy success was the opening to China, which succeeded in exploiting a growing Sino-Soviet rift. It was a diplomatic masterstroke that ensured the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia. It was part of a larger conception that positioned the United States as “closer to both communist giants than either was to the other.” Like Palmerston, Nixon and Kissinger understood that a great power has no permanent allies or eternal enemies, only permanent interests.

Kissinger’s Diplomacy is weakest when it analyzes the end of the Cold War. As he does in the third volume of his memoirs, Kissinger here contends that the Reagan Administration’s approach to the Soviet Union built upon the Nixon-Ford policies of the 1970s. This is, at best, an overstatement and, at worst, a distortion of both the Nixon-Ford policies and Reagan’s. Ronald Reagan certainly continued the Nixon-Ford China policy—so, too, had President Jimmy Carter—but Reagan clearly broke with the policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Declassified national security documents show unmistakably that his goal was victory in the Cold War and he and his advisers formulated and implemented policies that undermined the Soviet economy and weakened Soviet control of its satellite empire in eastern and central Europe. Neither Nixon nor Ford sought victory. Even had they wanted to, domestic political constraints would have prohibited the offensive policies that Reagan later adopted.

Kissinger concludes Diplomacy predicting an ascendant China and the emergence of a multipolar world equilibrium. He cautions, however, that “the balance of power requires constant tending.” “The domination by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principal spheres—Europe or Asia—remains a good definition of strategic danger for America.” Invoking John Quincy Adams, he warns, however, that America cannot and should not attempt to right all of the world’s wrongs.

In the end, Kissinger writes, while America must not abandon the ideals that make it great, it must not “jeopardize that greatness by fostering illusions about the extent of its reach.” The United States does not have a limitless capacity to impose its will on other nations, nor should it try to do so. Who knows how many misguided policies could have been avoided and how much needless bloodshed could have been spared had our leaders grasped the historical lessons of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy.