News reports indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to negotiate an end to the Ukraine war. Kyiv officials have proposed a UN mediated “peace summit,” which Russia appears to have rejected. Now in his 99th year, Henry Kissinger, writing in the UK Spectator, suggests that the road to peace starts by learning the lessons of the First World War, a conflict that “Europe’s leaders sleepwalked … into [and] which none of them would have entered had they foreseen the world at war’s end in 1918.” Kissinger references a recent book by former U.S. diplomat Philip Zelikow titled The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917.
Zelikow writes about what he calls the “lost peace” of August 1916 to January 1917, when Europe’s leaders and America’s President Woodrow Wilson missed opportunities for peace. Zelikow places most of the blame on Wilson, who, Kissinger notes, delayed efforts at mediation until after the November presidential election despite learning from his emissary Edward House that “peace based on the modified status quo ante was within reach.” But by November 1916, the disastrous British offensive at the Somme and Germany’s struggle with France over Verdun added millions more to the butcher’s bill of that terrible war and dashed hopes for a negotiated peace.
The military situation in Ukraine may be ripe to induce the diplomats of Russia and Ukraine to negotiate peace.
In his book, Zelikow noted that German diplomats were willing to abandon Belgium and most of France (including portions of Alsace-Lorraine) and accept Wilson as mediator to negotiate peace without victory. French and British diplomats were also open to such a resolution. The generals on both sides, however, kept planning more lethal and futile offensives. Wilson’s decision to delay mediation efforts until after the election undermined the diplomats’ plans for a negotiated peace and, in Kissinger’s words, the “Great War went on for two more years and claimed millions more victims, irretrievably damaging Europe’s established equilibrium.” The war resulted in the breakup of four empires and produced a structure of peace, writes Kissinger, that “proved far more fragile than the structure it replaced.”
Kissinger writes that the military situation in Ukraine may be ripe to induce the diplomats of Russia and Ukraine to negotiate peace. “[T]he time is approaching,” he explains, “to build on the strategic changes which have already been accomplished and to integrate them into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation.” Winter, he believes, will impose “a pause on large-scale military operations there.” He applauds Ukraine and its leaders for stymieing Russian offensives and repeats his earlier recommendation of a “ceasefire line along the borders existing where the war started on February 24.” Crimea, he suggests, could be “the subject of a negotiation after a ceasefire.” And Ukraine, he says, should be “link[ed]” to NATO. He even suggests the possibility of internationally supervised referendums for disputed territory in Ukraine. “The goal of a peace process would be … to confirm the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, especially for Central and Eastern Europe,” and he suggests that Russia should eventually have a place in that new structure of peace.
Kissinger insists that Russia should not be “rendered impotent by the war.” Russia’s role in contributing to the “global equilibrium and to the balance of power” should not be “degraded,” he writes. There is a hint here of reviving Kissinger’s (and Nixon’s) triangular diplomacy with Russia and China. Peace requires efforts to produce security and reconciliation where possible, Kissinger explains. “If we cannot achieve both,” he continues, “we will not be able to reach either.” Successful diplomacy requires “vision” and “courage.”
Zelikow, taking the long view of history, writes that “the failure to end the Great War in 1916-1917 was much more than a human tragedy…. It became a turning point in world history.” It led to the rise of communism and later Nazism, the two ideologies that made the 20th century the bloodiest in human history. George Kennan was right: the Great War was the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century. Kissinger is hopeful that today’s diplomats will not miss this opportunity for peace by continuing a conflict that could lead to nuclear escalation and become the seminal catastrophe of the 21st century.