Even before the events of September 11, the world was by no means an unexciting place. Slobodan Milosevic was stirring up trouble in Eastern Europe. The European Union, meanwhile, was seeking to establish a military force independent of NATO’s command structure. The Middle East was as volatile as ever, and India and Pakistan decided to toss nuclear weapons into an already explosive situation. China seemed set to become the next superpower; Africa, on the other hand, beset by poverty, civil strife, and HIV, seemed set to be wiped out. It was a world that demanded careful examination by a watchful observer. In his book Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, Nobel laureate, and America’s most prominent diplomat, sets out to examine them.
What is chilling about Kissinger’s analysis is its single-minded focus on “American interest,” to the exclusion of possible humanitarian concerns. The book seems to address what is expedient rather than what is right; the policies it suggests are motivated by political rather than ethical concerns. Kissinger writes, “So long as the post-Cold War generation of national leaders is embarrassed to elaborate an unapologetic concept of enlightened national interest, it will achieve progressive paralysis, not moral elevation.” America, in his view, must pursue its own political agenda, even if the global community is in some way harmed by it. Kissinger does seek to temper the harshness of this position—he writes of attempting to reconcile expediency with virtue where possible—but in the final analysis it seems painfully obvious that Kissinger is a diplomat rather than a moralist. He even expresses a certain contempt for figures who “recoiled from the concept of national interest and distrusted the use of power unless it could be presented as being in the service of some ‘unselfish cause’—that is, reflecting no specific American national interest.” (He cites Bill Clinton as the main example.) This, to Kissinger, is unacceptable: America has a position to defend and strengthen in the international system and it must do so regardless of the costs. Practical politics is the order of the day; idealism cannot be allowed to run unchecked.
This outlook is an important one, for it represents a classic stance in an age-old debate: How closely should morals and politics be linked? In adopting the position he does, Kissinger takes part in a debate that has occupied the luminaries of political science, from Aristotle and Machiavelli to the Cold War proponents of realpolitik such as George Kennan. And the position Kissinger adopts is significant because of his undisputable pre-eminence in the political world. It is the position of a man who served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under the Nixon administration; it is the position of a man who prevented a nuclear attack on Vietnam. It is the position of a man who, in spite of bitter hostility, publicly defended the Cold War, and who also received the Nobel Peace Prize. This position, in all its paradoxes, in many ways shaped the twentieth century, and it is a position by which future generations will remember us. Given such stakes, one wishes that Kissinger’s answer had been slightly different. It disturbs us to think of a complete divorce between politics and morality.
This is not to detract from Kissinger’s work. His book is brilliantly argued and superbly organised. It begins with a look at America’s dominance in the global arena, the behaviour of the international system, and the questions America must answer in order to frame an effective diplomacy. The next chapter examines relations with Europe, demonstrating that the latent tension between Europe and the U.S is greater than is commonly supposed, and suggesting how the two parties could work to overcome these problems.
But when Kissinger proceeds to examine the Western Hemisphere, his analysis, while logical and well-reasoned, fails to deliver: with a longer view of history, we can safely assert that his optimistic depiction of the economic potential of Southern and Latin American states is short-sighted, if not plain wrong. But Kissinger makes up for lost ground in his observations on Asia. His scrutiny of relations with Japan, China, and Korea is telling and insightful. We are shown the suspicion with which Japan views China’s economic progress; we are given a fascinating account of China’s intransigence on the Taiwan issue- and we are shown, most importantly, how and why America must work to prevent the dominance of any one power in the Asian Region. Kissinger also displays a powerful grasp of Middle Eastern politics. His precis of the Israel-Palestine conflict is informed by close personal interaction with the main players, and his insight into the local conditions in Iraq and Iran is remarkable.
Unfortunately, he does not address Africa with the same depth. He does present detailed portrayals of the causes and the possible implications of both the HIV crisis and ethnic tension and makes a powerful argument for a co-ordinated movement to aid African nations. But the meticulous attention to detail which characterises Kissinger’s treatment of other topics seems to be lacking here; once again, it seems, the Dark Continent has been slighted. Apart from this lapse, however, the work is comprehensive and intelligently structured; the author has identified and discussed virtually every area that could possibly bear on American national interests.
One expects a diplomat of Kissinger’s stature and experience to provide a compelling analysis and he fulfils these expectations. The author deftly perceives the subtlest trends. Since the initial publication of the book in mid-2001, we can see that the author charted with remarkable prescience the direction in which global affairs seem to be moving. He can at times be almost visionary, describing situations that might take a quarter of a century develop, yet always maintaining his realism. And he can do all this while animated by a deep and powerful sense of history. He remarks at one point that history and philosophy are the two disciplines a statesman must study. Indeed, it is the historical perspective he provides that is one of the most rewarding aspects of the book. One cannot but begin to appreciate why China’s diplomatic outlook is so fundamentally different from that of the U.S when confronted with lines like these: “When an American is asked to date a historical event, he refers to a specific day on the calendar; when a Chinese describes an event, he places it within a dynasty. And of the fourteen imperial dynasties, ten have each lasted longer than the entire history of the United States.”
Objections might be raised to any text on political thought, and Kissinger’s is no exception. One could argue that he blames Israel far too little for its role in the Middle East conflict, and the Palestinians far too much. One could argue that he ignores a number of the problems associated with globalisation, or that his defence of the Vietnam War is unsound, or that his analyses ignore indigenous conditions.
But this would be to simply reiterate arguments Kissinger has heard before—arguments that do not factor into his political theories, except insofar as they demand refutation. His concern here is not to give an overview of the debates that mark our era; he is aiming instead at articulating a single position on the issues at hand—his own. And no matter how deeply this position might trouble us, it is impossible to deny that he has done a masterful job of presenting it.