Kissinger's Wisdom . . . and Advice

September 1, 2001 Topics: Grand StrategyGreat PowersSecurity Regions: Americas Tags: Spies

Kissinger's Wisdom . . . and Advice

Mini Teaser: An eminent realist reacts to a pre-eminent's vision for 21st-century geopolitics.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

Henry A. Kissinger, Does America Need A Foreign Policy?: Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 318 pp., $30.

When Henry Kissinger asks Does America Need A Foreign Policy?, the question is obviously rhetorical. For a global superpower like the United States, the answer is certainly "yes." But Kissinger has a reason for choosing such a title for his newest book. He means to imply that the United States has not had a coherent and effective foreign policy since the Cold War ended, and that it needs one badly as it enters the 21st century. And it will surprise no one to discover that Kissinger thinks he knows what that foreign policy should be.

It behooves us to pay careful attention to Kissinger's views on foreign policy; few are better qualified to write on the subject. Not only was Kissinger, as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history (1969-1977), but he is also a deeply learned man who has written extensively and intelligently about international politics for nearly five decades. Indeed, never has there been a statesman with Henry Kissinger's credentials as a scholar, or a scholar with his credentials as a statesman.

Does America Need A Foreign Policy? is a tour d'horizon in which Kissinger analyzes U.S. interests in five regions of the world-Europe, the Western Hemisphere, Asia, the Middle East and Africa-and offers policy prescriptions for each area. Kissinger also devotes separate chapters to globalization and human rights. The most important parts of the book, however, deal with U.S. policy toward Europe and Asia. These two regions, which contain other great powers and in which the United States still maintains a large military presence, are of the greatest strategic importance to America. Hence, Kissinger's emphasis on them is understandable.

Kissinger's prescription is a simple one: the United States must strive to preserve the core alliances it created and directed during the Cold War. Regarding Europe, he wants to see a formidable NATO united around a clear strategic purpose, and he therefore advocates maximally harmonious transatlantic relations. In Asia, he recommends maintaining close relations between the United States and Japan. In essence, Kissinger is bent on preserving the Cold War order in Asia and Europe, even though its original raison d'être-the U.S.-Soviet rivalry-disappeared more than a decade ago.

Given these goals, it is hardly surprising that Kissinger is distressed by the growing signs that America's diplomatic position is eroding. He is especially disturbed by the situation in Europe, where he sees abundant evidence that the United States and its NATO allies are headed for a messy divorce.

Kissinger is well aware that U.S.-European relations have been plagued by disputes since NATO's inception in 1949. One might even say he wrote the book on this subject 36 years ago, under the apt title, The Troubled Partnership. But the current tensions are much more serious, as revealed by the willingness of European leaders to criticize U.S. policy in ways that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. Thus, Kissinger is dismayed that French President Jacques Chirac, speaking as the representative of the European Union, stood alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2000 and "attacked the Clinton administration's plan to explore revision of the ABM Treaty." He also finds the EU's recent move to challenge the Bush Administration's hardline policy on North Korea even more egregious. Europeans have become so hostile to America, Kissinger notes, that their identity is now defined largely in terms of an "almost congenital opposition to the United States."

According to Kissinger, these tendencies have been exacerbated by errors on the American side. He accuses U.S. policymakers, especially from the Clinton Administration, of exhibiting "overbearing triumphalism", and being guilty of either "self-indulgence or self-righteousness" when dealing with other states. His distaste for the Clinton team even leads him to a certain sympathy for the anti-American views of French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. Kissinger cannot bring himself to blame Védrine and others for being irritated when American leaders convey their belief that "the United States was chosen by providence as the 'indispensable nation' and that it must remain dominant for the sake of humankind."

Kissinger also warns that friction within the Alliance has been accompanied by a loss of strategic purpose. Instead of focusing on its traditional strategic mission of protecting its members from an external threat, NATO has become a "mini-United Nations" and a "multilateral mishmash", primarily concerned with "a plethora of multilateral collective security enterprises of vague purpose." NATO may remain in name well into the 21st century, but given its present trajectory, Kissinger doubts that it can remain a serious military alliance for much longer.

The situation is not much better in Asia. Kissinger thinks that "Japanese-American political relations are on the verge of a sea change" due to Japan's growing reluctance to remain a ward of the United States. Japan is already shedding its pacifist veneer and is likely to acquire more formidable military forces and to take greater responsibility for its own defense. Because Americans are accustomed to dealing with a subservient Japan, this process is certain to strain relations between Tokyo and Washington.

Kissinger's explanation for these centrifugal tendencies is straightforward. The taproot of the problem is the collapse of the Soviet Union, which means that the United States and its allies no longer face a serious threat to their security. Consequently, they have no good reason to act according to the hard-nosed dictates of realpolitik. Instead, diplomacy has become the prisoner of misguided domestic political forces, which produce foreign policies that make little strategic sense.

Kissinger blames three groups of domestic actors in particular. The main culprits are the liberal or left-wing elites who believe that power is a dirty word and that the United States, to quote William Jennings Bryan, is "the supreme moral factor in the world's progress and the accepted arbiter of the world's disputes." Thus, liberal idealists advocate a foreign policy that concentrates on promoting human rights around the globe. Unfortunately, a foreign policy based on such blatant self-righteousness invariably generates profound resentment abroad in countries with different cultures and traditions and poisons relations with allies as well as adversaries.

Yet Kissinger is also critical of the right-wing neo-conservative elites who call for the United States to act unilaterally to establish a benevolent global hegemony or Pax Americana. Although he credits them with appreciating the importance of power, he correctly faults their failure to recognize that there are limits even to American power, and that, in any event, other states will not view American hegemony as benevolent. Wielding power unilaterally will encourage the other major powers to join together in a balancing coalition against the United States, "and force it into impositions that would eventually leave it isolated and drained." In short, Kissinger thinks that elites from the Left and the Right are pushing the United States to adopt unilateralist policies that will undermine multilateral institutions, like NATO, that he wants to preserve.

The third villain in this story is the American public. Kissinger emphasizes that the public's interest in foreign policy is at "an all-time low", as revealed by the scant attention that foreign policy issues received in the last three presidential elections. This worries him, because he understands that it is difficult to sustain an intelligent foreign policy without broad-based support in the body politic, a lesson he learned well during the Vietnam War and its debilitating aftermath.

Although Kissinger does not say so explicitly, he surely understands that this public apathy is a dangerous wild card. Elites from both ends of the political spectrum continue to support an activist foreign policy (albeit for different reasons), but the public at large is becoming less supportive of our world-girdling array of global commitments, and it is certainly not interested in global crusades. If the economy erodes and the costs of empire rise, public apathy today could quickly turn into a call to bring the troops home tomorrow.

Of course, given that the Soviet threat is gone and there is no similar sort of adversary in sight, these arguments imply that domestic politics will continue to distort the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and make it impossible for the United States to follow Kissinger's advice. Kissinger backs away from this pessimistic conclusion, however, and offers a single ray of hope. If a smart and clever statesman-a Bismarck or even a young Kissinger-is put in charge of U.S. diplomacy, and if that individual understands the dangers of unilateralist behavior, then the United States might be able to adopt the "ideological subtlety and long-range strategy" that Kissinger advocates.

To be fair, Kissinger recognizes that statesmen are always constrained by the broad structural forces that shape international politics. He drives this point home by quoting Bismarck's famous dictum that, "The best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get hold of the hem of His cloak, and walk with Him a few steps of the way." Nevertheless, Kissinger also believes that individuals can shape history in important ways, and that "great statesmen" can be a powerful force for good on the world stage. Personal diplomacy and leadership skills matter a lot in international politics; given the right circumstances, they might trump the malign structural forces that are currently leading U.S. foreign policy astray.

Essay Types: Book Review