Henry Kissinger, age 91, has just published his 17th book, World Order. The book lays out a case he has made many times before; an effective foreign policy should be guided by a realistic assessment of national interests and aim to preserve a stable balance of power. Idealism and morality must be promoted, but always tempered by the demands of realism–otherwise, idealism is likely to do more harm than good. In addition to this literary offering, we have the good fortune of hearing Kissinger provide interviews to the media, as newly published authors are wont to do. And here is where it gets interesting, because inevitably Kissinger is asked about our current dual foreign policy challenges: ISIS and Ukraine. His responses are subtle, highly analytical and creative. Moreover, they constitute a devastating critique of our current course.
Kissinger was quizzed last weekend by Fareed Zakaria on his CNN Sunday show, Fareed Zakaria GPS. Fareed began by asking Kissinger whether we were falling into a trap by responding so forcefully to the ISIS videos. Wasn’t this just what ISIS wanted us to do? No, said Kissinger, we had to respond. ISIS was trying to demonstrate that the US is impotent and that impression had to be countered. Kissinger went on to say, however, that we should keep in mind that ISIS consists of only about 20,000 fighters. Hardly a challenge that requires a quasi-declaration of war, the organization of a global coalition, training and equipping of a new army in Syria and the gravitational pull of American boots on the ground. We have seen that targeted strikes by American air power are quite effective at checking and punishing ISIS. But in this new war, almost everything we are undertaking will be complex, difficult and likely unsuccessful. Worse, our efforts will be counterproductive. We can already see our new policy is magnifying the Shia/Sunni rift. In previous interviews Kissinger has pointed out that our humanitarian interventions in Libya and Syria were counterproductive. We acted idealistically to bring down tyrants but left chaos in our wake. The new war on ISIS will likely mean more of the same. Kissinger, the realist, would have us be selective and measured in the use of our power. We should be prepared to tolerate the brutal regime in Syria, for example, if it helped maintain the Middle Eastern balance of power. Looking back on the chaos in Syria of the last three years and the rise of ISIS, it’s hard not to agree.
Next, Fareed asked Kissinger to comment on the situation in Ukraine. Fareed introduced the topic by noting that Kissinger had likely met with Vladimir Putin more than just about any American leader. How should we deal with him? Kissinger pointed out that Russia is a highly insecure country. They have has a struggling economy, a 3,000-mile border with China and are surrounded by antagonistic countries to the south and west. Moreover, Ukraine is not just a neighbor that Russia would like to control; Ukraine is a central part of the Russian patrimony and a focal point for much of Russian history. Psychologically, Putin and his compatriots need to be involved in Ukraine and need the West to acknowledge and respect their Ukrainian interests. Otherwise, notes Kissinger, Russians begin to feel that their country is unraveling. Again, our idealistic tendencies and our moral pronouncements and insults to Russia and its leader have been counterproductive. Kissinger, I believe, would have us work with Putin and stop personally abusing him. Our goal should be the preservation of a balance of power in Eastern Europe, an equation in which Russia must have a role. Almost by default, we seem to be heading in that direction at the current moment.
What can we take from these reflections? We know that our foreign policy has been skittish, unfocused and ineffective. We perceive ourselves to be less secure than at any time since just after 9/11. And the country is weary of war and the psychological strain that war imposes. It’s time for less military force and more diplomacy. When we are violently challenged, as we have been by ISIS, we will need to respond. If chaos is threatened, we may need to act. But our military actions should be swift, targeted and limited. No squabbling coalitions are required. Our diplomacy, in the Kissingerian mode, should be active and realistic, aiming always to maintain order -- with very limited use of military force. It’s high time for more brain in American foreign policy and less brawn.