Kissinger’s lessons for today’s policymakers

Henry Kissinger’s prescription for global woes remains the same – more realism, less idealism.

Kissinger is not wicked, but a realist par excellence, writes Oskanian [AP]

As US President Barack Obama was outlining his strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), I was finishing reading Henry Kissinger’s new book “World Order”.     

It’s a Kissinger book. It’s insightful and to the point. He takes a grand view of how we got here. He is dispassionate about understanding and explaining the foreign policy decisions that have been taken and that continue to miss the mark of the all-important equilibrium among great powers. This has been the focus of his writings and speeches for four decades, beginning with his first book, “A World Restored”, describing such efforts in the 19th century.

The bear knows seven songs and they are all about honey – I don’t know if that’s an Armenian saying or a Russian one, but it’s true for Kissinger as well. All of his songs are about understanding Europe’s path to a balance of power and the ways to apply the lessons of those experiences to contemporary conflicts. It is remarkable how consistent he has remained over the decades.

Kissinger’s fascination with this period lies in his hope to find insights on the exercise of power by statesmen such as Castlereagh and Metternich for the development of an international structure that contributed to peace in the century between the Congress of Vienna and the outbreak of World War I.

Fundamental problem

“The most fundamental problem of politics,” wrote Kissinger, “is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness”.

This is how Kissinger summed up the essence of the “idealism versus realism” debate in his earliest work – his dissertation.

Obama is an idealist, a righteous man. Kissinger is not wicked, but a realist par excellence. His early academic convictions and on-the-job experience as national security adviser to President Richard Nixon and later secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford, makes him the quintessential realist and the exemplary practitioner of balance of power plays in our time.

At the infancy of the Syrian conflict three years ago, when Obama rushed to declare that Bashar al-Assad must go, Kissinger was quick to call the pronouncement premature and a mistake for not knowing who will fill the vacuum created by Assad’s departure.

At 91, his “World Order” may be his last appeal for pragmatism and realism in the face of an increasingly interdependent world with a disintegrating world order.

Today, that realism is more than necessary in the Middle East where the nation-state system is shattered by those who, under the guise of religion, wish to take and wield power in ways that are incongruous with a 21st century world. This dangerous chaos is at least partly the outcome of strategically uncertain, albeit morally laudable, US policy in the larger Middle East.

Kissinger looks at the world, in whole or in parts, from the perspective of a desirable balance of power and the US role in securing it. This policy tool provides the anchor for his realism and allows him to see world events not purely from the point of view of ideology, but rather from a more pragmatic, result-driven perspective.

When in 1973 it became clear that the Vietnam War is not winnable, Kissinger looked for a graceful way out. He forged a detente with the Soviet Union and an opening to China, and then played off both to create a triangular balance of power that preserved US influence after its retreat from Vietnam.

More recently, when the US Senate ratified NATO’s expansion to Eastern Europe in May 1998, Kissinger knowingly wrote: “Russia is bound to have a special concern for security around its vast periphery and the West needs to be careful not to extend its integrated military system too close to Russia’s borders.”

And at the infancy of the Syrian conflict three years ago, when Obama rushed to declare that Bashar al-Assad must go, Kissinger was quick to call the pronouncement premature and a mistake for not knowing who will fill the vacuum created by Assad’s departure.

Obama lacks this mastery. Obama’s equivalent move to Kissinger’s Vietnam balance of power play could be the triangulation between Shia Iran, the Sunni-dominant Gulf region and, Syria and Iraq. This requires a transcending of previously drawn lines and an ability to artfully skew the line between ideology and values.

Broad reconciliation

First, a broader region-wide process of Sunni-Shia reconciliation must begin and it must involve Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. For the common good, this requires understanding and compromise from all involved on issues from territorial disputes, nuclear proliferation and support to different group on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide.

Second, the West and Iran must redouble their efforts to overcome the last hurdles to reach a sustainable deal on Iran’s nuclear issue. Iran has consistently said that it wants to develop uranium enrichment technology for industrial use. Everyone agrees that Iran has the right to do so. The Iranians have also said that they will continue to honour their commitments and open their doors to observation as members of the non-proliferation community. The West must be more respectful of Iran’s current industrial aims if it wants Iranian cooperation. That cooperation is critical not just to eliminate ISIL’s threat, but for crucial longer term peace and stability in the region.

Third, just as an inclusive government in Baghdad is necessary so is a stable government in Damascus. The United States must recognise that its half-hearted support of the moderate opposition has been a failure and has made things worse for everyone, except ISIL. To train and arm the illusive Syrian moderate opposition to fight ISIL in Syria is too little and is a recipe for prolonging the Syrian civil war by continuing to breed extremist groups. The Syrian conflict and its possible resolution need to be framed differently and need to transcend Assad’s person.

An opening to China, too, seemed unreal. But it happened and it worked. It was not a policy driven by morals, yet did no evil, was pragmatic and despite the earlier policy errors, brought stability to an unstable part of the world.

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.