Yesterday's Realism

Of course America needs a foreign policy! The title of Henry Kissinger's new
book suggests that it hasn't had one recently--a thesis supported by his many
criticisms of President Bill Clinton's diplomacy as well as by the statement,
early in the book, that "in the face of perhaps the most profound and widespread
upheavals the world has ever seen," the United States has "failed to develop
concepts relevant to the emerging realities." The problem with Does America
Need a Foreign Policy?,
however, is that the foreign policy Kissinger proposes
is flawed. It is so deeply rooted in the past of world politics and in his own
conservative conception of Realpolitik that it is only partly relevant to the
realities of today.

Kissinger has no peers as a geopolitical thinker. His skill in getting to the
heart of issues is particularly evident in his chapter on the Middle East.
Describing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he writes that negotiations have to
deal with both "the stuff of diplomacy"--territory and strategic issues--and "the
stuff of theology," which includes the "mandates of ideology, religion and
diplomacy." His ability to sum up a conundrum in an epigram, to paint a
country's or a continent's history in a few brushstrokes, to get at the essence
of a cultural style, is unmatched: "Japan's culture does not so much seek to
beguile foreigners--as does China's--as to surround them with its pervasive
distinctiveness so that they have no choice but to adjust to its requirements."
His brand of realism, like that advanced 50 years ago by University of Chicago
political scientist Hans Morgenthau, never forgets that it is the actors,
especially the major states, that shape the international system, rather than
the other way around. In this view, power is the indispensable coin of the realm
of world affairs, force is the most essential component of power, and a major
nation must be forever vigilant so that other nations do not dominate
strategically vital regions. A major power must also be forever prudent about
not throwing its might around and provoking a coalition of its rivals.

Thus, Kissinger's recommendations about China are sensible (and close to
Clinton's strategy!): "A policy that is perceived as having designated China as
the enemy primarily because its economy is growing and its ideology is
distasteful would end up isolating the United States." China's passion could
turn out to be nationalism, not communism; hence the need for a cautious American
policy toward Taiwan and one toward China that perceives the United States as "a
potential safety net" for the People's Republic. A confrontational strategy at a
time when China does not have the capacity to dominate Asia would be a grave
mistake. The motto for U.S. policy in Asia ought to be balancing, not bullying:
The latter could drive China and Russia together again.

Kissinger offers shrewd insights on many fronts. He warns that there is no
international consensus to leave nuclear weapons behind and that different
motives still push nations to want to acquire them. He notes that globalization
could be set back should a major recession develop in the United States. And he
offers observations about the growing gap between rich nations and poor ones (as
well as between the "globalized" and the "backward" sectors within countries).
He delivers a sharp critique of the International Monetary Fund's inability "to
apply political and social criteria" and warns of the danger of a "crisis of
legitimacy" for an international economic system that "creates new
vulnerabilities to political turmoil." His rather new emphasis on the need for a
dialogue with India (whose conduct during the Cold War he compares to that of the
United States at its inception) is welcome. So are--idealists should recognize
it--his observations about the difficulty of implanting "Western democratic
principles of political organization" in Africa and his reminder that "the
pursuit of moral ends in international affairs has a different context from that
in domestic politics." In diplomacy, Kissinger writes, "morality expresses itself
in the willingness to persevere through a series of steps, each of which is
inevitably incomplete in terms of the ultimate goal."

With so great a mastery of his subject, so deep an understanding of history,
and so convincing a belief that neither Wilsonian messianism nor the outright
championing of American hegemony--those two forms of what he calls the
"imposition of American solutions on the world's trouble spots"--can lead to
sensible policies, why is Kissinger's book ultimately disappointing? For two
reasons: its debatable geopolitical advice and its failure to come to terms with
all that isn't pure Realpolitik.

To the first problem, then. Sometimes, Kissinger's acute perception of
possible threats becomes excessive. He feared a rapprochement between the Soviet
Union and the Federal Republic of Germany during much of the Cold War--it never
came--and he still fears a rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow. His view of
Russia is far less benign than his appreciation of China, and there is no attempt
here to map possibilities of cooperation with President Vladimir Putin's regime.
A Russia faced with huge external and internal challenges might need the United
States as "a geopolitical option" just as China does, yet Kissinger won't have
it. His endorsement of new antiballistic missile defenses is not based on a
serious discussion of the threat from rogue states, perhaps because he advocates
defenses that could stop "established non-rogue nuclear powers" as well. But if
this is so, the arguments against a relaunching of the race for offensive nuclear
weapons--and concerns about the unraveling of the whole tapestry of nuclear arms
control if the United States dumps the 1972 AntiBallistic Missile Treaty (which
was negotiated by Kissinger, who now minimizes its intrinsic importance)--ought
to have been addressed in greater detail and less dismissively. The larger issues
of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of terrorism are not
discussed at all.

At times the measures Kissinger proposes are unlikely to improve matters as
much as he supposes. Encouraging South Korea to avoid marginalization by taking
the lead in negotiations with North Korea is dubious advice, because the United
States cannot leave the nuclear issue entirely to the two Koreas. "Determined
purposefulness" to preserve the U.S. position in the Persian Gulf is not
obviously better than the "thrashing around" of the Clinton administration
toward Iraq. Leaving African security questions to the Africans--because there is
no strategic American security interest there--is a cop-out.

The idea of a new set of interim agreements between Israel and the
Palestinians--one that focuses only on territorial issues (other than Jerusalem)
and allows the United States to stop being a "broker in legal compromise" as it
was at Camp David--is, on paper, sensible. (Was it really different in the days
of Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy?) But the fact that such issues as the right of
return, the future of Jerusalem, and the ultimate fate of the settlements have
been raised will make it very difficult for the Palestinian negotiators to pour
them back into the bottle.

Some of the contradictions in Does America Need a Foreign Policy? are
bizarre. Kissinger criticizes the United States for failing to put enough force
behind its policies after the Korean cease-fire in 1951, after the beginning of
negotiations with North Vietnam in 1968, and at the end of the Gulf War in 1991.
In doing so, he mixes two cases--Korea and the Gulf--in which force was indeed
held back (though for very different reasons) with another, Vietnam, in which the
United States exercised little restraint in applying force (though it proved
singularly ineffective).

Kissinger wants to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (although not
to include the Baltic states) but argues that NATO should be seen as a military
alliance, not as an instrument of collective security. Though he worries that
NATO missions in other parts of the world threaten to dissolve the alliance "into
a multilateral mishmash," he nevertheless wants the NATO nations to go beyond a
mere "safety net" conception, to define common purposes, and to resolve together
a host of economic and geopolitical issues. Moreover, Kissinger seems unable to
conceive of this sprawling enterprise in terms of anything other than the
past--that is, as an unequal partnership in which the United States is the
dominant player. He therefore trains his heavy artillery on the notion of an
autonomous European military capacity and on the European Union's insistence on
reaching decisions without the participation of the United States. The European
force, he writes, "in practice would have to be integrated with NATO." How
attractive is this likely to be to the European Union? Would the EU like to be
encased in a transatlantic free trade area and an Atlantic steering group? We are
not very far from Kissinger's 1973 ideas for the "year of Europe"--but how
compatible are those ideas with his warnings against the costs and perils of

The other flaw of the book concerns those "emerging realties" that Kissinger
acknowledges at the outset. He is too intelligent to deny the existence of
important new aspects of international affairs: Private economic actors
(investors, multinational corporations, speculators) and private pressure groups
(economic, humanitarian, and social ones) act along with states; terrorists,
mercenaries, and mafiosi operate across borders; and foreign policies are
activated not only by the "realism" of state leaders but by the interests, ideas,
and passions of citizens and by inside forces mobilized by the revolution in
communications. The map of passions must be added to that of bases and resources.
But Kissinger's tendency is either to be blind to or deeply resentful of the
imperatives that must be heeded if one hopes to prevent these new forces from
breeding chaos. He retreats into long-established views of power politics among
sovereign states.

Consider his discussion of globalization. He has little to say about how to
deal with "the mismatch between the world's political and economic systems." He
notes that "politics divide the world into national units" and understands that
for the sake of economic growth political leaders "cannot survive as advocates
of near permanent austerity." But he does not stress the fact that globalization
in its present form is an American construction whose economic and cultural
manifestations are largely American, and that they therefore expose the United
States to formidable resentments that it is in the nation's interest to deflect.
And precisely because he is not among those who see globalization as a force for
individual emancipation, political accommodation, democracy, and peace, he needs
to tell us how the disruptions it entails will be handled in a world in which a
few rich individuals can destroy currencies, excessive or ill-considered loans
can destroy economies, and the loss or erosion of states' sovereignty makes it
more difficult for them to prevent or handle crises. One way to address such
instability would be to have effective global institutions--the World Trade
Organization is a beginning--that can regulate and define norms for world trade,
provide "firebreaks" for the international financial system, and impose a
modicum of discipline on short-term or speculative investments. In the old order
before 1914, the need for international institutions capable of managing the
world economy was not an issue. Kissinger sees the problem but cannot adequately
face the solution: better agencies for global governance now that governance can
be left neither to a hegemon that is part of the problem nor to the anarchy of
shrinking states.

Kissinger is wise enough to recognize that "two world wars and the
insufficient scale of the European nation-state in the face of global challenges
have made the nineteenth-century balance of power irrelevant" in Europe, but he
fails to underline the originality of the European Union and acknowledge its
pioneering qualities: All he sees is a complicated process that excludes the
United States from European decision making. The members of the European Union
have understood that the EU supplements their power, strengthens their influence,
and allows them to recover at the union level much of what they have lost at the
national one. The United States has lost far less sovereignty than most other
states, and it is wealthier and mightier than all others. Nevertheless, it can't
control the global economy by itself. It needs strong institutions both to help
it try to do so and to avoid becoming the single target of all the world's
discontents. Yet Kissinger has never shown much sympathy for international
institutions, which he finds either incompetent or too resistant to American
pre-eminence. (It's worth remembering that Morgenthau, a realist, thought that
the predicament of a nuclear world would require a world government.)

Beyond economic globalization, there is political globalization, which
involves a widespread movement for human rights. Here Kissinger's attitude is a
mix of skepticism and hostility. It is not the idea of human rights that
Kissinger denigrates--he expresses his support for it many times--but it is the
attempt to go beyond the mere aspiration that turns him into a defender of the
Westphalian principles of sovereignty and nonintervention. (The Peace of
Westphalia, recall, ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648 and led to the rise of
the system of nation-states.) In one of his many striking insights, Kissinger
points out that by removing religious issues from the subjects of contention and
"carnage" in world affairs, the Westphalian principle of noninterference in the
domestic affairs of other states was "the human rights slogan of the day."
Westphalia, he states correctly, "dealt with the problem of peace and left
justice to the domestic institutions." But the twentieth-century horrors that
resulted from the practices of totalitarian regimes and from the clashes of
ethnic groups within states have led to a demand for new principles that justify
collective interference to protect people from murderous enterprises such as
"ethnic cleansing" and genocide. This is a major aspect of the erosion of the
border between what is inside and what is outside the state, and between domestic
and foreign policy. It is not true, as Kissinger asserts, that contemporary human
rights activists believe that "peace flows automatically from justice." They know
that protecting human rights abroad leads to turmoil, just as the exercise of
collective security against interstate aggression breeds violence. But they also
know that the gravest violations of rights require, in Kissinger's words, "some
kind of supranational authority, entitled to use force to make its writ run," and
this he deems unacceptable. Why?

In part, he tells us, it is because recent cases of military intervention
"reflected no traditional notion of American national interest," since "their
outcome could in no way affect any historic definition of American security."
Kissinger seems to be arguing that the fact that such initiatives "were a
response to powerful domestic pressures to alleviate human suffering" made them
ipso facto suspect. He also rejects such military interventions because the
desire to limit risks and casualties for the intervenors reduced the efficacy of
the endeavors and because the intervenors, when they prevailed, were left with
almost insoluble problems of internal reconciliation and nation building.
Finally, Kissinger frowns on humanitarian military intervention because it is
"put forward as a universal prescription applicable to all situations without
reference to the historical or cultural context." But in many instances--such as
Rwanda--nothing was done, and in others--Chechnya--little can be done.

It is, of course, true that extending the notion of collective security from
external aggression to internal violations of rights is unlikely to be any more
universally applied than the UN charter's ban on aggression. But is this a reason
to scrap the prescription, as if the impossibility of arresting all criminals
justifies giving up on law and law enforcement?

The interventions that Kissinger trenchantly criticizes--especially those in
Bosnia and Kosovo--are open to challenge. To be sure, in Bosnia the intervenors
are stuck with an artificial, multi-ethnic new state in which the three ethnic
components live apart and two of them seek to reunite with their respective
brothers and sisters in Croatia and Serbia. As Kissinger says, the intervenors
gave preference to the principle of nonacquisition of territory by force over
that of self-determination (which Kissinger seems to support even though it has
proved to be a major destroyer of the sovereignty of states). But partition, his
preferred solution, would have rewarded Serb and Croat aggressions and would have
established a highly destructive precedent. Concerning Kosovo, Kissinger ignores
former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic's plans for ethnic cleansing (for
which he blames NATO). Kissinger's belief that "the desired outcome of an
autonomous Kosovo within Yugoslavia ... could have been achieved at less cost and
in a less convulsive fashion" seems very much like wishful thinking.

The post-Westphalian advances that humanitarian interventions represent have
been ad hoc and tentative, and they have raised more problems than they have
solved. But the problems they tried to address do need to be addressed. This
means, once again, strengthening the international and regional organizations
that give such interventions their legitimacy. That can be done by providing them
with standing forces and with a capacity to effect the nation-building tasks of
material administration and political reconstruction--in cooperation and
coordination with the often discordant nongovernmental organizations whose
participation in these tasks is indispensable. The alternative is a world of
chaos, with disintegrating pseudostates and ethnic, religious, and political
upheavals destroying even more genuine ones. Kissinger himself, having declared
Africa of no strategic interest for the United States, acknowledges that a
"limited military intervention" might have been a duty, and a success, in Rwanda.
He thinks that the violations committed there could have been "quickly brought
under control." But is this more evident than it was in some of the interventions
he criticizes?

Kissinger is rather silent on the possibilities that reformed and strengthened
collective institutions might offer--even though their members are states, which,
as a good Westphalian, he trusts more than he does jurists. He is virulently
incensed by the role lawyers have been playing in carrying out what he calls the
"unprecedented concept" of universal jurisdiction when it comes to human rights
violations. Whether it be nations authorizing domestic prosecutors to seek
extradition and trials of accused war criminals, or the setting up of
international criminal courts--so far, for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as the
controversial International Criminal Court (ICC), which the United States has
refused to accept--Kissinger is against such developments. He is not wrong in
proclaiming that "any universal system should contain procedures not only to
punish the wicked but to constrain the righteous." But his defense of Chilean
dictator Augusto Pinochet and the worst-case scenarios he conjures in the case of
the ICC are unconvincing. (Is the heat of those pages somehow an anticipation of
his recent misadventure at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where he refused to respond
after being summoned by a French court investigating a charge against Pinochet?)

Kissinger is right that there is a tension between the principle of universal
jurisdiction and the political need for reconciliation, but there can be no true
reconciliation without a degree of justice. He is wrong to think that the
advocates of universal jurisdiction believe that "if law replaced politics, peace
and justice would prevail." What they in fact believe is that law is necessary to
correct the excesses of politics and power. And Kissinger's own proposals for an
alternative to the ICC would leave the punishment of the authors of war crimes or
crimes against humanity in the hands of the UN Security Council--that is, in the
throes of politics, often untempered by norms.

Ultimately, Kissinger's case against the new drive for humanitarian
interventions dodges the problem that has plagued realists ever since Morgenthau
proclaimed the mantra that national interests are paramount. Is there a clearly
defined and delimited national interest? On security and survival, it is easy to
agree--but is everything that a government claims is in its security interest
really necessary? (Think antimissile defenses, or remember Kissinger's rival
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who predicted that the outcome of the Cold War might be
decided in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia!) Kissinger is clearly on the side of
John Quincy Adams (who said that America "does not go abroad, in search of
monsters to destroy... . She is the champion and vindicator only of her own"
freedom and independence) and of Theodore Roosevelt--not Woodrow Wilson. While
Wilson's hyperbolic statements rejecting a "standard of national selfishness" are
easy to dismiss, his belief that this age requires us also to think about "the
interest of mankind" is not so easily ignored.

Material interdependence; the speed with which political turmoil can be
transmitted, if only in the form of millions of refugees (a term not found in
the index of Kissinger's book); the "germ of a universal consciousness" detected
by Raymond Aron--all of these factors require broadening the concept of the
national interest so as to include considerations of world order, justice, and
humanity. It is not a matter of imposing them on others who are inevitably
suspicious of neocolonialism or all too ready to see it in all defenses of human
rights. But it is precisely a preponderant power such as the United States that
most needs norms to constrain the behavior of others, as well as a conception of
interest that goes beyond traditional strategic and geopolitical issues. Even
realists recognize the prevention of genocide as a legitimate international
interest that justifies intervention. The costs and risks of intervening are
high; letting thugs go on rampages is even riskier. The sad fact that military
intervention against the crimes of major powers (Russia in Chechnya, China in
Tibet) is not possible should not deter us from acting when it is, and from
seeking other forms of pressure or dissuasion when it is not. A concept of
stability or of order that covers up heinous domestic crimes is both immoral and
unrealistic in the emerging world society.

Paradoxically, the world is increasingly unified despite its political
fragmentation; and therefore justice as well as peace needs to be integrated into
the concept of the national interest--a concept that, beyond the often ambiguous
case of state survival and security, has always had a variable content. "Fate,"
writes Kissinger, "has propelled a nation convinced of the universal application
of a single set of maxims into a world characterized by a multiplicity of
historical evolutions requiring selective strategies." This makes the task of
diplomacy more difficult; it does not invalidate the maxims. Kissinger chooses to
see in the Vietnam War a fiasco resulting from American "values being implemented
too universally," from "too indiscriminating an identification of its strategic
interests with Wilsonian principles." (He did not say so at the time.) But for
every Wilsonian going overboard in Vietnam, there were Wilsonians who didn't. And
for every realist who defended the war in purely strategic and balance-of-power
terms, there were realists like Morgenthau and George Kennan who did not. What
Vietnam "proved" was a very Kissingerian point--the need to know some history.
But it also showed something that, on the whole, Wilsonians understand better
than realists do: that what happens within a country is often more decisive than
calculations of power balance. What a given statesman declares to be in the
national interest rests on assumptions about the nation's goals and status that
go way beyond the strictly geopolitical. The alphabet of realism is too short.
Today it is necessary to see the world scene as a contest between a global
political system that is struggling to organize itself and a state system that
fiercely clings to principles that are increasingly challenged. Reducing
international affairs to the latter is neither wise nor desirable.