Letter from India: Local and global speculation about Henry Kissinger
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Is there any escape from geopolitics? The answer is resoundingly ‘no’ as I discovered yesterday when I picked up the local newspaper, The Times of India, Kochi (Kerala State) on what was intended to be a carefree getaway holiday. I was brought straight back into global relations with an article entitled ‘From Russia with Love’ by Indian political observer Swagato Ganguly. The subtitle left me no squirm room: “A rapprochement between Putin and Trump could transform the world in 2017.”
The author set this particular transformation within the broader context of a possible return to the ‘Westphalian principle of sovereignty, which bars intervention in another state’s domestic affairs…’
And it is made concrete and directed to the newspaper’s Indian audience when the author goes on to ask: ‘What If Trump were to repeat Nixon’s rapprochement in reverse? President Nixon’s handshake with Chairman Mao in 1972 may have decisively tilted the Cold War in America’s favour, as it broke the Chinese away from the Soviet bloc. Today China, rather than Russia is America’s principal strategic rival.’
The author concludes his examination of the global reorientation that would follow by noting how this would work to India’s benefit given that ‘’India would like to count both the US and Russia as its allies.’’
That closing remark tends to contradict the logic of this week’s major domestic news in India: the successful launch of a 3-stage solid-fuel and nuclear-capable intercontinental missile with 5000 kilometer range, meaning coverage of all of Russia and China, and not merely its neighbor and acknowledged adversary, Pakistan. But the question of whether any nation values its allies above its own sovereign defense capability is one we can deal with on another day.
I call attention to this featured Indian international affairs prognosis, because it is based on Henry Kissinger’s identification of the Peace of Westphalia principles as the key to Realpolitik and on implementation of his signature strategy from the past even if Henry is not mentioned once. That strategy was to ensure that Washington was closer to Beijing and to Moscow than either of the two was to one another. This last element is surely what has attracted Americans, Germans, Russians and pundits of other countries to Kissinger’s reappearance on the political scene in recent days.
The question of Henry Kissinger’s possible designation as foreign policy advisor to President Donald Trump and specifically as intermediary between Trump and Vladimir Putin for normalization of relations arose ever since Kissinger gave a series of interviews to the German newspaper Bild and other media in the days before Christmas.
In the less serious media outlets we hear about Kissinger’s special rapport with Vladimir Vladimirovich with whom, we are told, he has met often. These same gossips tell us that in Moscow his expertise and experience are held in high regard.
All of these glib statements are deeply flawed. They are more appropriate to society pages or People magazine than to serious discussion of where Henry Kissinger can and should fit into the evolving foreign policy team that President-elect Trump is assembling, and to what that foreign policy should reasonably resemble in these times. They ignore the record of Henry Kissinger’s policy recommendations on Russia in the decades since the end of the Cold War, which are not so flattering, and place him squarely among those responsible for getting us into the confrontation with Russia that reached its climax under Barack Obama. They also ignore how the times and the challenges we face today are so very different from the late 1960s, early 1970s when Kissinger and Nixon made their very important changes to the architecture of international relations.
However, before going into the details of the negatives, I am obliged to call out the very real positives in Henry Kissinger’s figuring among the advisors to Trump. We have heard about how former stars in the Republican firmament from the Reagan and Bush administrations (Senior and Junior) have come out to endorse the nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, meaning ultimately the foreign policy reorientation outlined by Donald Trump. Kissinger brings an aura of still greater intellectual rigor to the Trump camp, and that is all to the good. After all, Henry Kissinger is America’s best-known thinker and practitioner of the Realist School of international affairs, meaning a foreign policy based on national interest. That is a more accurate and less aggressive packaging than the “America First” slogan which Donald Trump used during his electoral campaign, though the intent of both terms is identical.
Even a severe critic of Kissinger from among his former colleagues at Harvard who opposed his policies in the Vietnam War, Professor Ernest May, wrote of him in letters published in The New York Times in 1994 at the end of a public spat over the merits of Kissinger’s latest book: “Mr. Kissinger’s scholarly credentials and public stature give his name on the title page the quality of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
At the same time, beginning in the 1990s Henry Kissinger has modified his message of realism so as to reach an accommodation with the dominant American school of idealism, or values-based foreign policy. This mixed message resulted from Kissinger’s defending himself from the ridicule of the triumphant Neoconservatives, who criticized his détente policies of the 1970s for seeking merely to manage relations with the Soviet Union when the overthrow of the Evil Empire was entirely possible, as later events had seemingly proven, through the uncompromising promotion of democracy such as practiced by Ronald Reagan.
Thus, the updated Kissinger line has been that universal moral principles serve as the ultimate objective of foreign policy, but realism must guide the day-to-day management of international affairs. Lest this seem to be a neat division between tactics and strategy, the two become confused in Henry’s public stance given that he always has placed primary emphasis on achieving a ‘balance of power’ in the international community, which alone can keep the peace and safeguard the vital interests of all parties. Thus, it would be fair to say that Kissinger is a realist who at times uses idealist vocabulary to meet the expectations of and to motivate the general public, which is unmoved by considerations of balance of power and realism.
Finally, in speaking of the gravitas which Kissinger may bring to the Trump team, he is correctly perceived as a champion of the art of diplomacy, which is another word for compromise and deal-making. It is precisely diplomacy which has been sorely lacking in the US Government over the past 8 years, while ideology has held sway at State and in the White House.
The most severe negative one can say about Kissinger and Russia goes back to the fateful year 1994. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin had made an important visit to Warsaw during which he withdrew all Russian objections to Poland’s joining NATO. The clearly understood quid pro quo which the Kremlin expected for this major concession to US and Polish wishes was that Russia be named next in line for membership in the club. Indeed, during 1994 the Clinton Administration was weighing that very possibility. At this point, in Congressional testimony, Henry Kissinger delivered strong objections and played a significant role in the defeat of Russia’s candidacy.
We get a fairly good idea of Kissinger’s reasoning back then in the passages relating to American policy on Russia in the last chapter of his 1994 master work Diplomacy. A realistic approach to Russia meant America had to look at the respective foreign policy interests and national traditions, and to pay less attention to domestic Russian politics and the personalities of its leaders. Said Kissinger, this meant taking into account Russia’s long tradition of expansionism, as evidenced by military bases in the former Soviet republics and interventionism in their ‘near abroad.’ And as if to drive a stake through the heart of unnecessary chumminess with Moscow, Kissinger reminded his readers that Russia had always stood apart from the Western world. It had no democratic traditions or familiarity with modern market economics. In his words, it did not partake of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Age of Discovery.
Indeed, Kissinger’s thinking about Russian history is so clear one might imagine he knows what he is talking about. The question is of key importance because the Realist School is built upon the assumption that one can accurately appraise the strengths of all players and that one has a solid knowledge of the history and traditions of the players. In this it distinguishes itself from idealism, with its focus on universal values and disinterest in regional knowledge.
From Kissinger’s own academic career made in studying European diplomacy in the 19th century, Russia should have been on his plate, given that the country was one of the three decisive players in the first half of the century (Holy Alliance) and one of the 5 or 6 decisive players in the second half of the century. However, that was manifestly not the case.
Kissinger is widely reputed to be a voracious reader. Yet, it is obvious that Russia has never and does not now figure among the topics he reads. In Diplomacy, for his analysis of Russia he relied on the very dated 19th century classics of Russian history like Vasily Kliuchevsky that he read in translation during his graduate student days at Harvard. Kliuychevsky is unquestionably a good starting point for students of Russian history. He was the father of the historiography that came down to Kissinger in the person of Michael Karpovich, the founder of Russian studies at Harvard. But his notion of Russia’s manifest destiny of borders moving out across the Eurasian land mass was part of an Liberal and anti-tsarist historiography. By today’s standards, reading Kliuchevsky has mainly curiosity value. To put the issue in terms which will be closer to an American reader, it is as if Kissinger were using de Toqueville as the key source for writing about contemporary America.
Among the main 20th century works on Russia cited in Kissinger are those by his comrade in realism, George Kennan. Notwithstanding Kennan’s generally high reputation in Washington, his choice of sources and interpretation of Russia is tendentious in ways that Kissinger was unable to judge, and that is why it is regrettable Kissinger did not read other sources.
Kissinger’s argument in Diplomacy for the separateness of Russian history may be no more than the conventional wisdom of his times. He speaks of Russia as a paradox, an obvious allusion to Winston Churchill’s witticism that Russia was ‘a riddle wrapped in an enigma.’ But then Churchill was not a serious scholar and Kissinger is assumed to be one. The notion of separateness is in fact misleading if not fallacious.
Kissinger’s prescription for a policy vis-à-vis Russia after the Cold War assumed that ‘imperial expansionism’ was the country’s defining national tradition. But then the same was true of all the key world powers. He indulges in tired mystification of Russia drawing on the 19th century nationalist movement and writers such as Dostoevsky. Such smoke and mirrors writing would be seen as unduly psychological and irrelevant to foreign relations if someone served them up as a description of Germany. Thus, we read in Kissinger that: “The paradox of Russian history lies in the continuing ambivalence between messianic drive and a pervasive sense of insecurity. In its ultimate aberration, this ambivalence generated a fear that, unless the empire expanded, it would implode.”
It is rather sad to consider that one of the country’s great scholar-statesmen of the 20th century was taken in by mystical tripe when formulating and implementing the nation’s policies towards its nuclear adversary. This puts in question the validity of attention to history and local specifics which Kissinger says are distinguishing features of realism versus idealism with its universalistic over-simplifications.
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Henry Kissinger’s later writings offering foreign policy recommendations for the world at large and specific major countries in particular display the same wrong footing when dealing with Russia. His 2001 opus facetiously entitled Does America Need a Foreign Policy? is a case in point. Kissinger breaks the international community into regional groupings and Russia is placed among the ‘great powers of Asia.’
Once again Kissinger tells us that “Russia has always been sui generis – especially when compared with its European neighbors.” His highlighting the ‘mystical’ Russian Orthodox Church and autocracy suggests a trite approach to this complex nation. We hear again of Russia’s ‘creeping expansionism’ as a returning them of Russian history.
Kissinger rightfully faults American policy to Russia for excessive personalization of relations at the expense of sober reflections on respective interests and institutions to drive and implement any rapprochement. But then he falls prey to personalization himself. He characterizes the recently installed Russian President Vladimir Putin as a KGB operative whose secret police background presupposed a strong national commitment: “It leads to a foreign policy comparable to that during the tsarist centuries, grounding popular support in a sense of Russian mission and seeking to dominate neighbors where they cannot be subjugated.”
If this argumentation, this jumping to conclusions, were delivered by anyone other than Henry Kissinger, one might dismiss it offhandedly. What we have here is the soft underbelly of Realpolitik: realism can be only as useful as the expertise and judgment of its practitioner.
To be sure, in an Afterword written in 2002, that is, after the 9/11 attacks and Russia’s very substantial efforts to assist the developing US response to the Taliban by opening its military bases in its backyard, Central Asia, to US military forces, Kissinger changed his view of Vladimir Putin, comparing him now to tsarist Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov, who for the 25 years following the Crimean War worked to restore the nation’s position in international affairs, and largely succeeded. For Putin, this likeness is most flattering. But then Kissinger otherwise misjudges Putin’s character and interests. Kissinger saw the generous support to George Bush as evidence that Islamic fundamentalism was the ‘dominant concern’ of Russia. He missed entirely the possibility that this was a favor for which the hoped for reciprocation was full acceptance in the West, including NATO membership.
At the same time, Kissinger’s bark was more fearsome than his bite. In his specific remarks on how America should conduct its foreign policy towards Russia which followed, he urged continued readiness to assist the country with its transition to democracy and free markets, moderation and attentiveness to Russia’s voice in international forums. Note especially his comment on prospective NATO expansion to the Baltic States, which Kissinger believed in 2001 would be provocative, saying it would put NATO forces within 30 miles of St Petersburg, one of Russia’s largest population centers. He correctly foresaw that “Advancing the NATO integrated command this close to key centers of Russia might mortgage the possibilities of relating Russia to the emerging world order as a constructive member.”
It is curious that in his 2001 book Kissinger was unable to offer any serious incentives for Russia to behave nobly. He derided even the watered down affiliation of Russia with NATO in the NATO-Russia Council. He believed it gave the Russians too much say and was ‘not the wisest solution.’ Finally, he dropped all pretense at diplomatic niceties, telling his readers that “NATO is basically a military alliance, part of whose purpose is the protection of Europe against a reimperializing Russia. ..To couple NATO expansion with even partial Russian membership in NATO was, in a sense, merging two contradictory courses of action…[As] Russia becomes a de facto NATO member, NATO ceases to be an alliance, or becomes a vague collective security instrument.”
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Having participated actively in keeping Russia out of the security architecture of Europe, Kissinger became alarmed in the course of the new millennium by the consequences of such exclusion as Russia and the US-led West came into growing mutual recriminations and confrontation.
From this point on, Henry Kissinger began to play a clearly constructive role in the midst of each successive crisis in relations that threatened war. The first case was in 2008-09 when bilateral relations hit bottom during and after the Russian-Georgian War. The second has come in 2013 to present, when in the context of the developments in and around Ukraine, Russia and the US became actively engaged in what is a proxy war, entailing as well economic and information wars.
In 2008, Kissinger worked in tandem with other major US statesmen, the ‘wise men,’ to provide the candidates in the US presidential election of that year, and ultimately the Obama Administration with sage advice on how to reduce tensions and return to normal relations with Russia. Many of their points underlay the ‘reset’ program that was rolled out in early 2009 by President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Henry Kissinger was also a participant in the preparations for the first summit meeting in London on April 1, 2009 between Presidents Medvedev and Bush.
Regrettably, the policy recommendations of Kissinger and the other wise men in 2008-2009 were much too cautious and amounted to softening the rhetoric towards Russia without addressing the substantive concerns of Moscow about international security and equal treatment. The single issue of substance was arms reduction and it in isolation proved insufficient to establish normal and durable relations.
Following the Russian move to annex or re-unite (depending on one’s point of view) with Crimea and the outbreak of anti-Kiev insurgency in the Donbas, Kissinger, like his Democratic Party counterpart Zbigniew Brzezinski sensed the growing dangers and in op-ed essays in The New York Times and other mainstream media urged the Obama Administration to examine solutions to the impasse which would reposition Ukraine as a bridge between East and West rather than a Western outpost on Russia’s border. This advice, of course, fell on deaf ears in Washington. As mainstream media became progressively less open to foreign policy views that differed with the Administration’s, even Henry Kissinger was no longer given space on op-ed pages. Official dismissal of his current value was shown by the fact that for the first 7 years of Obama’s tenure, Kissinger was not once invited to the White House for consultations.
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Finally, there is the question of the extent to which Kissinger’s experience re-orienting relations between Russia, China and the USA is relevant to the challenges we face today.
Today relations with Russia must be improved in and of themselves, without reference to greater global strategies for the obvious reason that during 2016 we have drawn too close to a hot war, meaning the possibility of nuclear exchange. I have in mind the close proximity of our and Russian forces in Syria, the limited and the uncontrollable nature of our respective proxies in Ukraine, all in a context of sharply curtailed communications between Russia and the USA due to our attempts to punish the Kremlin.
On the other task named by our Indian pundit, pulling Russia away from China’s embrace so as to better face up to the Kingdom of Heaven, I think the goal is unachievable and reveals a lack of comprehension of the fundamental laws of attraction. The situation in 1969 was of two countries, China and the Soviet Union joined and also divided by a shared ideology. China was mortally afraid of Soviet nuclear attack justified by clashes at their immense shared border in Asia. These were the cards which Nixon and Kissinger picked up and played masterfully.
Today Russia and China have been driven into one another’s arms by the shared threat of US encirclement and economic warfare. However, their strategic partnership and close cooperation in international forums like the UN Security Council and the G-20 are supported by ever closer and more significant economic and technical cooperation. Russia is fast becoming a major energy supplier to China through shared infrastructure investments worth tens of billions of dollars. This factor is a critical protection for China against the US and its allies using choke-points in the transport of hydrocarbons to China from the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Chinese market is an invaluable protection for the Russian energy producers against the efforts of the Baltic States, of Poland to choke off or frustrate its energy sales to the EU. From these foundations, the economic and technical cooperation between the two is moving in all directions with close facilitation from the leadership of both countries.
By contrast, the United States has very little prospect for large-scale expansion of trade volume with Russia once it removes the sanctions and capital once again can flow freely into Russian markets. The common attraction is primarily on the geopolitical level, to avoid stepping on one another’s toes.
In conclusion, it is inconceivable that Russia under any president, not only under Vladimir Putin, will drop its Chinese ties for the sake of a flirtation with Washington. What we can and should seek during the Trump years is normal and constructive relations in the United Nations and the other international institutions for resolution of regional conflicts that threaten the world order.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016
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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.