Bret Stephens Misreads Henry Kissinger

May 16, 2013 Topic: The Presidency Region: United States Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Bret Stephens Misreads Henry Kissinger

The American eminence gris is best not invoked in defense of neoconservatism.

There is a curious paradox in criticisms of President Obama from the right. On the one hand it complains that he is vastly expanding the range and reach of government domestically. On the other hand it complains that he is not expanding the range and reach of government enough in foreign affairs.

A good case of the latter impulse comes in a lively recent column by Bret Stephens, a leading neoconservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal and winner of a Pulitzer prize. Stephens raises what he calls the "Kissinger question," which, as he defines it, is whether or not America needs a foreign policy at all, the title of a book that Kissinger published a few months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In Stephens' view, America, under Obama, does not. It has what amounts to a series of tactical moves designed to obscure the fact that Obama is, at bottom, uninterested in foreign affairs. Stephens goes on to suggest that this presidential disposition is widely shared. Even Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass comes in for a drubbing—he, of all people, Stephens warns, has suggested in a pithy new book that foreign policy, given the battered state of the American economy and the dubious outcomes of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should begin at home.

As Stephens sees it,

These are the sorts of views—isolationist is the only real word for them—that crowd my inbox every week, and they're not a fringe. A growing number of Americans, conservatives too, have concluded that the lesson of the past decade is that, since the U.S. can't do it all, the wisest, most moral, and most self-interested course is to do nothing.

Not being privy to the contents of the items that fill up his inbox each week, I can't really comment on who is writing to Stephens. But his contention that a wave of isolationism is sweeping across the country seems as overwrought as the old neocon conviction that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of building nuclear weapons that he was preparing to hand over to Al Qaeda. Like the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka, who also invoked the isolationist bogeyman in a recent column, he makes it a little too easy for himself by bifurcating the debate over foreign affairs into neoconservatives (globalists) and the everyone else (ostriches).

To accomplish this task, Stephens does violence to the subtle thought of Henry Kissinger. He alludes to a book by Kissinger called Does America Need A Foreign Policy? to contend that it anticipated the kind of neoisolationism that Obama would propound as president. The only problem is that it doesn't. Remaining cautious about intervening directly in the Syrian civil war, as Obama has plainly indicated he intends to do, hardly is tantamount to the dreaded word of isolationism. It has more in common, in fact, with traditional Republican realist tenets propounded by presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. If Obama was really an isolationist, would he be pivoting to Asia? Would he be beefing up military cooperation with Israel, a country he recently visited? And so on.

Nevertheless, there is something to Stephens' complaint. While it is too much to brand it isolationism, there is clearly an upsurge in caution about intervention abroad, an impulse that seems both logical and inevitable and one that the neocons themselves helped create by championing a war in Iraq that boomeranged. Is it any wonder that Americans, confronted with the anfractuosities of societies riven by tribal and ethnic feuds, have developed an aversion to the notion that American forces can safely be inserted to set wrong aright?

But this disposition, in my view, is far closer to Kissingerian realpolitik than neoconservatism. Kissinger never argued for hegemony, as have the neocons. Instead, his entire foreign policy was based on the idea of an equilibrium of the great powers, analogous to the one that emerged at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and, more or less, kept the peace in Europe for much of the nineteenth century, and, it could be argued, only truly went under in August 1914, when the houses of Europe engaged in what amounted to a mutual suicide pact. The quest by a leader to topple world order is bound to provoke a countervailing coalition and invariably leads to destruction and chaos, whether it is Napoleon or Hitler.

What Kissinger was calling, indeed has always called, is to avoid what the political scientist D.W. Brogan termed the illusion of omnipotence. An equilibrium rather than hegemony has always been, and remains, the soundest basis for peace and prosperity, particularly revelant at a moment when China is a rising power and the grim realities of international rivalries have not subsided, despite the ebullient prognostications of the proponents of globalization. The extent to which Obama is carrying out an overdue realignment of American foreign policy can be debated. But to dub it isolationism and to invoke 1939, as does Stephens, is not merely unhelpful, but also quite misleading.

Images: Left: Veni Markovski, CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: Dr. Ghulam Nabi Kazi, CC BY-SA 3.0.