The legacy of Henry Kissinger’s ‘Diplomacy’

‘Diplomacy’ is one of the most influential works of Henry Kissinger, the famed policy advisor and historian who served as American Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977.

In terms of genres, the book falls under history as it critically analyzes centuries worth of course of actions in terms of politics in an attempt to develop an understanding of the 21st century’s international system’s structural framework. The major focus of the book, in short, revolves around the decision makers and in turn those who practice the art of diplomacy i.e. diplomats and statesman. 

The US Holding Reigns of the World

To begin with, Kissinger sees the United States of America as holding the reigns of the world, essentially, pertaining to the power it has acquisitioned; however, while they have emerged successful and on top of the world (mostly, due to their isolationist policy), their policy inclinations (free trade, rule of law, and democracy) being rather ideal and their aspirations to spread and implement the aforementioned policy ideations across the globe could lead to the superpower’s downfall. This is primarily, according to Kissinger, due to the fact the USA will have to face competition from other superpowers. 

The US is facing a tough competition from other superpowers of the world
The US today is facing a tough competition from other superpowers

Dissimilar Ideas of Two Presidents

He then draws from the examples of American presidents (Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt) when analyzing the contrasting American foreign policy directions. The fact that both presidents emerge from the same system and yet purport such dissimilar ideas is rather interesting; the former believed in the upholding of universal rights and a system of law and commerce that is transparent whereas the latter was a staunch believer of the idea that America should base its foreign policy wholly and solely on its national interests. 

President Woodrow Wilson believed in the upholding of universal rights and a system of law
President Woodrow Wilson believed in the upholding of universal rights and a system of law

A System of Balance of Power

Kissinger further postulates that the prevalent international setting reflects, to some extent, the situation of 17th century when the prevalent order that was rather rigid yet based on universal, moral values was brushed to the sidelines by a more inclusive system of balance of power. 

According to Kissinger, there exists a similar element of transition in the 21st century where superpowers across the globe could collaborate to find some form of middle ground i.e. stability in the form of balance of power i.e. a system of status quo characterized with intricate yet complex alliances. 

The UN provides a platform to the world to maintain a balance of power
The UN provides a platform to the world to maintain a balance of power

This intricate system of balance of power and thereby complex alliances and its implications can be understood with the example of the Concert of Europe after which a period emerged where peace prevailed. This was mostly because of the flexibility in the relationship of the five superpowers of the time where they could switch teams, essentially, at will depending upon context and circumstance. 

The Soviets vs the Capitalists

Once these five were reduced to two dominant powers, arms race and thus security dilemma was inevitable between blocs of alliances which then led to war. Additionally, Kissinger posits Wilsonian notions’ incompatibility with realism and further analyzes how communist ideations fit the basic postulates of realism. 

President George Bush and President  Mikhail Gorbachev in the final days of the Soviet-Capitalist tussle
President George Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev in the final days of the Soviet-Capitalist tussle

For instance, while the western powers were stuck amidst the differences of actors good and bad, the soviets viewed them all as bad and found it relatively easier to sift through relations (or lack thereof) with the capitalist bloc; whereas, the capitalist bloc in itself was divided in terms of ideologies and found it rather difficult to maneuver relations due to the system of alliances and attachments of varying natures thus generated. 

How the Cold War Could Have Been Prevented

The author also looks into the ‘what if’ aspect of it all in terms of the idea that had Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill come to different conclusions, could the cold war have been prevented. 

Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War
Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War

He then takes into account the differences that initially divided the west that led to the soviets gaining the might they did; Kissinger wonders if it would have been the same had Churchill and Roosevelt come together sooner, the soviet hold on eastern Europe could have been contained and thus, cold war avoided, essentially. 

Despite being skeptical of American idealist viewpoint, however, Kissinger still hands the crown of initiating the cold war entirely to Stalin. The world finding itself divided largely between two blocs (the Capitalist and the Communist bloc) reflects the situation of Europe in the 20th century which was also, essentially divided into two wings of alliances, the years prior to World War I. 

Yet, while the European alliance blocs were characterized each with equally strong states that were interdependent in terms of self-defense, the blocs during cold war each had one dominant power with enough rationality to avert the threat of war. 

US soldiers in the Vietnam War
US soldiers in the Vietnam War

While the seeds of discontent in the blocs had been present in the rift between the two blocs since the beginning, they were aggravated, in no particular order, by the unfolding of events such as the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis etc. where American involvement was a given in an attempt by the Americans to prevent communism from spreading. 

Advent of the Unipolar World Order

Despite America having faced a few setbacks (the Vietnam War), it was successful in ensuring the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thus to a very large extent, ensuring the fall of communism; the aforementioned led to the transition of the international system’s order from bipolarity to unipolarity. 

President Boris Yeltsin in the final days of the Soviet Union
President Boris Yeltsin in the final days of the Soviet Union

To say the least, the American containment policy appeared to have worked. As far as deliberations over the post-Cold-War period are concerned, it is understood that with the advent of the unipolar world order, and thus with the reigns of the world essentially in the hands of America(ns), it is only rational that they would invest their might in developing, perpetrating and spreading globally a different international order that upholds American values. 

This, Kissinger suggested, would not be in the favor of the US since by the 21st century, America wouldn’t exist in a vacuum or in a space of singularity (as far as its only superpower status is concerned) since the international system by then, Kissinger predicted, would be dominated also by superpowers such as China, Europe, Japan, and India

Kissinger’s Advice

He then compares the American notions of idealism, that he thinks will also prevail in the 21st century, with the notions of Wilson; it is ironic, he states, since Wilson’s idealism essentially paved way for Word War I. Kissinger is of the view, towards the end of the book, that if America is to be rigid in terms of its foreign policy directions in the face of a multipolar world order, it will only crumble due to overexertion. 

Lastly, the author suggest that American foreign policy formulators need to find middle ground, in essence, between the ideas of Wilson (those of universal values) and the ideas of Roosevelt (those of pursuing national interests) if America wants to maintain a respectable (read: most superior) position in the international community. 

He, in other words, suggested that the American decision makers need to employ a more realist outlook in any and all of their future courses of actions. 

Analysis – A Rightful Prediction of the Multipolar World Order

Henry Kissinger rightfully predicted the multipolar world order that would prevail in the 21st century, characterized with various superpowers that have given their adversary (the US) quite the competition. We see a stark silhouette of the alliance system of the five superpowers post the era of the Concert of Europe in the workings today of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), one of the sixth principal organs of the United Nations. 

Henry Kissinger rightfully predicted the multipolar world order
Henry Kissinger rightfully predicted the multipolar world order

While the UNSC was established in 1945, i.e. before cold war, its role becomes rather prominent in the post-Cold-War era since it was more or less paralyzed, rather stripped of its functions, during the cold war period due to the divide between the Americans and the Soviets. 

The UNSC has five permanent members (China, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, France, and Russia) with each having the vetoing power; these members, in theory, were charged with upholding notions of international security and thereby maintaining peace. 

In practice, however, the cold war era was littered with instability, insecurity and instances of trying to one up the adversary thereby essentially failing to uphold the postulated principles. Post-Cold war era, however, witnessed the UNSC sending about peace missions globally and investing largely in peacekeeping budgets. 

Permanent member of UNSC are charged with upholding notions of international security
Permanent member of UNSC are charged with upholding notions of international security

If we do look into that critically however, the UNSC has to some extent failed yet again if we are to take into account its lack of interest in the indirect ways America has carried out its will over the years, under the façade of upholding its values that directly negate and/or challenge everything the UN stands for. 

This gives rise to a number of questions:

1. Were American acts in, for instance, the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a real depiction of American universal values of rule of law? 

2. Whether America, keeping in view the aforementioned, deserves to hold the titles of a Beacon and/or a Crusader? 

3. Whether the UNSC/UN is incapable of ensuring what its charter suggests (i.e. peace, value of human life, etc.)? Since the role assigned to the UN in its charter directly states that it is one of upholding collective security and this thus authorizes the UNSC to look into any happening that threatens international peace and security and yet it has hardly responded to the American atrocities across the globe; the examples are endless with hardly any logical reasons. 

4. Or has America exploited the vetoing power to the ultimate degree possible? 

Answers of the aforementioned, to say the least, reflect of the outlook Henry Kissinger suggested that the American decision makers need to develop in any and all of their future courses of actions; i.e. a realist perspective.