In his long and distinguished career, Henry Kissinger made many decisions that history may judge harshly. But oversimplifying and exaggerating complex geopolitics was not one of them. Kissinger possessed an instinctive aversion to the trap of conceptual binarism in foreign policy. Unfortunately, the messianic and exceptionalist impulses that often guided American diplomacy produced more failed entanglements than achievements. Kissinger’s realist wisdom would serve American leaders well as they navigate the rough waters of the current transition from unipolar to multipolar world order.
The history of binarism in American foreign policy began with Woodrow Wilson’s reinterpretation of the Great War as one between “democracies” and “autocracies.” Although none of the belligerents thought in such terms as the guns of August began to fire, Wilson re-imagined the conflict to convince the U.S. Congress to declare war on the Central Powers. Kissinger argued that this proposition “verging on an article of faith for many American analysts—would be difficult to demonstrate from historical experience” because “most governments in Europe (including Britain, France, and Germany) were governed by essentially democratic institutions,” and their parliaments voted enthusiastically for war. Nonetheless, Wilsonianism in its original form embraced an exemplarist, not a missionary, ideal, especially after World War I during interwar isolationism.
It took the Second World War to turn the “us” versus “them” paradigm into a program of geopolitical action. Harry Truman turned Wilson’s exemplarist idealism into missionary policy. However, the Manichaean view of international affairs quickly became a trap that pulled the United States into unresolvable conflicts that grew not out of ideological differences but rather complex historical legacies. The Korean War, for example, started as a civil war over questions of collaborationism and land reform. Successful at mobilizing the American public, Truman’s Manichaeism became a conceptual straight jacket. From now on, Washington would interpret geopolitical competition in terms of good and evil.
Henry Kissinger realized the setbacks this brought to American geopolitical achievements when he published his programmatic article “Reflections on American Diplomacy” in the October 1956 issue of Foreign Affairs. Evaluating the first decade of the Cold War, Kissinger argued that it had evolved from “an effort to build defensive barriers into a contest for the allegiance of humanity,” a contest the United States was losing. U.S. foreign policy had become too reactive and lacked strategic vision. “The paradoxical result is that we empiricists, appear to the world as rigid, unimaginative and even somewhat cynical, while the dogmatic Bolsheviks exhibit flexibility, daring and subtlety.” Because Soviet diplomacy pursued unlimited and open objectives, “the international debate is carried on almost entirely in the categories and at the pace established by the Soviets.” Moscow’s “flexible tactics and inflexible purpose” led to ideological and geopolitical victories across the globe. In other words, loosening the moralizing ideology would help the United States achieve its goals more efficiently and faster. For Kissinger, the mastery of diplomacy resided “in grasping the nuances of possibilities.” In the absence of “tragic experience” in its foreign policy, Kissinger argued, Washington is unused to operating in conditions that permit “only a choice among evils” and aims to achieve peace through a decisive event instead of maintaining it as “the expression of certain conditions and power relationships.” Kissinger saw the Metternichian, post-Napoleonic era as the gold standard of the art of diplomacy, with its emphasis on dialogue over moralizing and a commitment to transactional diplomacy as the guarantee of a successful balance of power equilibrium.
Once he became National Security Advisor to the equally innovative and daring Richard Nixon, Kissinger tested his flexible realism with China. Both men understood that the binarist assumption that all communists were evil shackled the Washington bureaucracy, which would no doubt oppose any opening with Mao’s regime. The obsession with secrecy and covert domestic operations that would bring down Nixon’s presidency emerged from the radical nature of its approach to diplomacy, which had to be born in hiding. Kissinger and Nixon abandoned the assumption of an international red monolith and took advantage of rifts between the competing leaders of the communist world—the USSR and China. Distrusting the Washington bureaucracy, Kissinger and Nixon set up a back-door channel around the State Department.
They then forced China and the USSR to outbid each other for U.S. favors while Washington caught up to the Europeans who were already implementing détente. Treating the USSR as a post-revolutionary state that put national interests above ideology, Nixon and Kissinger decided to bring the Soviets into the American-managed world order while letting them keep their hegemony in Eastern Europe. This was a realist version of containment. As Kissinger put it, “Statesmanship needs to be judged by the management of ambiguities, not absolutes.” The diplomatic gamble involved three interlocking parts: the United States helped China balance against the USSR; Washington “derecognized” Taiwan; and China ceased to support the North Vietnamese. Nixon’s resulting February 1972 visit to Beijing shocked Moscow, which felt completely outmaneuvered.
Without losing a beat, Nixon then courted the Soviets. Predictably, the opening to China invigorated Moscow’s commitment to the strategic arms limitations talks. After the Soviets signed SALT I, the U.S. Congress gave Nixon a hero’s welcome for initiating the era of mutual restraint. His victory in the 1972 election with the fourth-largest popular vote margin in U.S. history demonstrated the political advantages of the conceptual break with binarism. Washington had better relations with Moscow and Beijing than with each other. And that gave it the top spot in the geopolitical triangle. Oppositely, the Ukraine crisis of today has reversed the power dynamic that Nixon and Kissinger created, and Washington seems bent on encouraging and deepening Sino-Russian cooperation.
Kissinger remained a realist even when Gorbachev embraced idealistic notions of international relations. Kissinger visited Moscow in January 1989 and suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union cooperate in managing the transformation of Central Europe. Still, Gorbachev dismissed this idea out of hand because he did not believe in spheres of influence. But as perestroika created economic hardships, the Soviet population lost interest in Gorbachev’s foreign policy achievements and his pluralistic and inclusive vision for a new, post-Cold War world order. Europeans had theorized ad nauseam about the transition from capitalism to communism, but nobody considered how to move in the opposite direction. As Henry Kissinger put it at one of the CIA’s briefings in late 1989, “If you were setting out to destroy the Soviet Union, would you do it any differently?”
Kissinger was always more attuned to the Chinese worldview—wisely assertive and self-confidently restrained when necessary. In On China, he dwelled on Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1989 instructions to his successors. One twenty-four-character piece of advice read: “Observe carefully; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” A twelve-character policy explanation followed: “Enemy troops are outside the walls. They are stronger than we. We should be mainly on the defensive.” This was Confucian wisdom, not communist bluster.
The United States inherited the world after the Soviet Union dismantled itself in late 1991. But the unipolar decades intoxicated the Washington foreign policy elite to such a degree that American diplomacy ignored the chance to embrace the pragmatic flexibility and conceptual suppleness that Kissinger had always encouraged. When diplomacy as an exalted moral spectacle failed, the United States resorted to threats, sanctions, regime change, and invasion. Lately, it has also reverted to its default binarism in dividing the world into good democracies and bad autocracies, friends and enemies.
Since 2014, the Ukraine crisis has catalyzed and concentrated all the problems in U.S. foreign policy, and the result is that the United States is not only losing its hegemonic geopolitical status but mismanaging its geopolitical decline. The weaponization of Western economic and financial structures and tools has catalyzed the de-dollarization of the global economy. China’s recent mediation of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement manifests a tectonic geopolitical shift—the regionalization of Eurasian security without American participation. Will Israel also begin to look at Beijing when charting its policies?
Moreover, it may also be the first sign of a new Sino-centric economic recalibration, with China no longer a challenger to the U.S. but a successor managing a diverse root system of interdependent sovereign states mitigating vulnerabilities while maximizing the benefits of global trade through overlapping geoeconomic blocks. This will have to combine the recognition of other states’ vital national security interests with the conceptual flexibility to see diplomacy as a compromise, not a process of winning arguments. As Kissinger put it in World Order, “The genius of the Westphalian system and the reason it spread across the world was that its provisions were procedural, not substantive.” The recent BRICS expansion to twice its original size is the bellwether of the world moving on from the binarist “with us or against us” policy. The era of great power-balancing is back, and only non-binarist realism can help the United States manage the decline of its hegemony rather than catalyze its implosion.