Henry Kissinger’s Lessons for Our Crisis of Legitimacy - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Henry Kissinger’s Lessons for Our Crisis of Legitimacy
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Henry Kissinger appears before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Washington, D.C., February 8, 1984 (mark reinstein/Shutterstock)

This July, Henry Kissinger’s new book Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy will be released. The book analyzes the statesmanship of Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, France’s Charles de Gaulle, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, and America’s 35th president, Richard Nixon, for whom Kissinger served as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. All of these leaders, Kissinger writes, looked to history and intuited future international trends to “set objectives and lay down a strategy.”

In his nearly 70 years of public life as a Harvard professor, government official, and author, Henry Kissinger’s worldview has remained remarkably consistent in the face of a world full of change. This is most evident when you compare one of his first books, A World Restored (1957), with his magnum opus, Diplomacy (1994), and one of his recent books, World Order (2014). Niall Ferguson’s “idealist,” as he titled a biography about Kissinger, is nowhere present in those books. Instead, it is Kissinger as tragedian and realist, whose worldview is grounded in history and geopolitics.

As biographer Ferguson explains, Henry Kissinger’s early life was surrounded by tragedy. He grew up in a middle-class Orthodox but assimilated Jewish family in the 1920s in Furth, Germany, a small town in Bavaria near Nuremberg. The Weimar Republic was a fragile political system that soon gave way to a totalitarian regime that targeted Jews for persecution and later annihilation. Kissinger and his immediate family fled Germany in August 1938, but up to 30 members of his extended family were murdered by the Nazis as part of the Final Solution.

And then there was the Second World War — of which the Holocaust was a part — which was perhaps history’s greatest tragedy as tens of millions were slaughtered on battlefields, in cities, on islands, in the air, at sea, and in gulags and concentration camps, culminating in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs. Kissinger served in the U.S. Army in the 84th Infantry Division, where he participated in piercing the Siegfried Line, survived the Battle of the Bulge, and ultimately crossed the Rhine River. Death and tragedy were all around him. As a member of a counterintelligence unit, Kissinger helped interrogate captured German soldiers, and his work earned him the Bronze Star. After the war, his counterintelligence work focused on the communist threat in Europe, including a stint teaching at the European Theater Intelligence School in Oberammergau, Germany.

These experiences undoubtedly shaped Kissinger. Surely, the goal of any prudent statesman and strategist should be to prevent a recurrence of great power war, to strive for balance and stability in the world, to accept imperfection in order to avoid greater tragedy, and to sacrifice ideals at the altar of geopolitical realities.

Hitler’s attempt to dominate Europe, after all, was not unlike Napoleon’s quest for hegemony in the early 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars upset the global balance of power in a manner similar to World War II. And the most significant geopolitical consequence of the Second World War was the potential threat of a new Eurasian hegemon in the form of the Soviet Union. The study of the creation of the structure of peace in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars — which prevented the outbreak of total war for nearly a century — would, therefore, be beneficial to the statesmen of the post–World War II world in preventing another global conflagration. At least Kissinger thought so.

A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace was Kissinger’s favorable appraisal of the structure of peace established by Europe’s diplomats, especially Austria’s Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, between 1812 and 1822. The dominant theme of the book is the quest for stability, balance, and “legitimacy.” In the book’s introduction, Kissinger defines “legitimacy” as “an acceptance of the framework of international order by all major powers.” He makes clear his belief that a “legitimate” order does not mean a “just” order or a perfectly balanced order, for there is no such thing in international politics. And, he writes, “a legitimate order does not make conflict impossible, but it limits its scope.” Kissinger understands that the utopian dream of a world without conflicts and wars is a pleasant mirage, and the statesmen who can limit wars and resolve conflicts are the most effective peacemakers.

The “peace” established by Metternich and Castlereagh and their counterparts at the congresses of Vienna, Troppau, Laibach, and Aix-la-Chapelle sought to promote geopolitical equilibrium and to ward off revolution. They generally succeeded in achieving the first goal until the unification of Germany in 1871 upset the European balance of power. And even then, thanks to Otto von Bismarck’s brilliant diplomacy and commitment to restraint, a general European “peace” continued to exist until 1914. The goal of preventing revolution was less successful, but the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 were at least contained and did not lead to the kind of global turmoil produced by the French Revolution.

Kissinger understands that the utopian dream of a world without conflicts and wars is a pleasant mirage, and the statesmen who can limit wars and resolve conflicts are the most effective peacemakers.

Kissinger also noted that the diplomatic approaches of Metternich and Castlereagh were shaped by geography. Metternich’s Austria was located in the center of Europe, confronted by nearby great powers. He had a “continental” outlook on Austria’s security and Europe’s stability. Castlereagh, on the other hand, represented a country that was situated offshore of Europe, with an “insular” outlook on the security of Great Britain and its empire. From Britain’s perspective, the geopolitical pluralism of Europe was essential to its security — that was the key lesson of the Napoleonic Wars. It was the American historian Alfred Thayer Mahan who memorably wrote that it was Britain’s “storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, [that] stood between [France] and the domination of the world.”

In the concluding chapter of A World Restored, Kissinger reflects on the nature of statesmanship and the necessity to promote order, stability, and balance to preserve peace and limit the scope of wars. In conducting foreign policy, moral claims that “involve a quest for absolutes” should be avoided, for they are inevitably based on “a denial of nuance, a rejection of history.” No world order, he writes, “is safe without physical safeguards against aggression.” European “legitimacy” in the age of Metternich and Castlereagh was based on a “balance of forces” and “unsentimental” combinations. “The test of a statesman,” Kissinger concluded, “is his ability to recognize the real relationship of forces and to make this knowledge serve his ends.” A statesman must distinguish between the attainable and the desirable and favor the former. World order rests on “self-limitation” and the “reconciliation of different versions of legitimacy.” Universal principles are the very antithesis of balance, stability, and legitimacy.

Kissinger’s A World Restored and his more famous book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) made him much in demand in Washington, D.C. He had become the chief foreign policy adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, who had presidential ambitions. Kissinger did consulting work for both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the early to mid-1960s. In fact, some observers attributed the Kennedy nuclear policy of “flexible response” to Kissinger’s arguments in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.

Kissinger reportedly provided advice to both the Humphrey and Nixon campaigns in 1968. Nixon chose him to be National Security Adviser in 1969. More important, Nixon made Kissinger, instead of Secretary of State William Rogers, his chief foreign policy adviser. Nixon and Kissinger shared a distrust of the State Department’s bureaucracy and wanted to run foreign policy from the White House. Together, Nixon and Kissinger formulated and implemented a “realist” foreign policy that eschewed moral posturing and focused on the attainable instead of the desirable. The result was a gradual end to the Vietnam War, which was tearing our society apart; detente with the Soviet Union; the opening to China; and shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, which set Egypt and Israel on the path to peace and reduced Soviet influence in the region. Nixon’s triangular diplomacy — implemented through Kissinger — brilliantly exploited the growing Sino-Soviet rift, and to accomplish that Nixon and Kissinger constructed a de facto alliance with a Chinese communist regime that was one of history’s greatest mass killers. But that alliance helped win the Cold War.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kissinger wrote Diplomacy (1994), a tour de force of historical and geopolitical analysis. There, he analyzes the statesmanship of France’s Cardinal Richelieu and Talleyrand, Britain’s Castlereagh, Pitt, Palmerston and Disraeli, Austria’s Metternich, and Prussia’s Bismarck, among others. Then he ventures into the 20th century and focuses on U.S. statesmen, including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who, he believed, represented the two main strands of American foreign policy: realism (Roosevelt) and liberal internationalism (Wilson). Those two impulses, he wrote, affected American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Kissinger largely sides with realism, though he understands that Wilsonian idealism can impose practical limitations on the conduct of foreign policy. Statesmen to be effective must always pay attention to the demands of domestic politics and opinion, especially in a democracy.

The message of Diplomacy is fully consistent with A World Restored. The “balance of power,” he writes, “requires constant tending,” and, invoking the great British geopolitical thinker Sir Halford Mackinder, Kissinger stated that U.S. security can only be maintained by preventing the “domination by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principal spheres — Europe or Asia.” And he cautioned America’s leaders to remember the wise counsel of John Quincy Adams and avoid going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, unless those monsters threatened U.S. security interests.

Those words of caution were ignored in the hubris of America’s victory in the Cold War. In the 21st century, the United States waged a global war on terror for 20 years and combined it with a Wilsonian crusade to spread democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout that region of the world. America was savoring its “unipolar moment” by trying to remake parts of the world in its own image. And while we were distracted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the two most powerful Eurasian countries — China and Russia — grew closer. By the year 2014, China’s booming economy and rising military power were transforming the post–Cold War world. (READ MORE from Francis P. Sempa: Is Unrestricted Warfare the New Chinese Art of War?)

That same year, Kissinger’s book World Order was released. More than 50 years after A World Restored and 20 years after Diplomacy, Kissinger’s worldview remained remarkably consistent. We were not at the “end of history,” after all. The post–Cold War order was being challenged by a rising power that did not share U.S. or Western values or their global outlook. The much-invoked “international community,” he wrote, “has no clear or agreed set of goals, methods, or limits.” Globalization did not end the Westphalian system of nation-states. China’s preferred world order would be vastly different from America’s. And world order still depended, as Kissinger wrote in 1957, on a balance of power and legitimacy.

Kissinger’s new book Leadership will explore many of these same themes. The leaders he writes about in his new book all dealt with problems of stability, balance of power, and legitimacy. The challenge of statesmanship, he wrote in 1957, is to reconstruct an international system where all the world’s major powers agree to its legitimacy. The goals today are, as ever, stability, balance, and peace. But as Kissinger wrote in the introduction to A World Restored, “the attainment of peace is not as easy as the desire for it.” Statesmen should above all look to history, not because (as is often said) history repeats itself, but because “history teaches by analogy.” We have much to learn from those prudent statesmen of the past who dealt with similar problems of power, balance, and legitimacy. Henry Kissinger was one of them.

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