Skip to content

The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kissinger

April 2, 2012

Henry Kissinger recently put out some commentary in the Washington Post on the uprisings in the Arab world, arguing for – you guessed it – a continued role for U.S. national interests in guiding responses towards revolutionary activity. While the piece markets itself as a critique of humanitarian intervention, it’s not simply about military intervention, but the broader spectrum of economic, political, and social interventions by foreign governments aimed at changing a regime or its character:

For more than half a century, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been guided by several core security objectives: preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon; ensuring the free flow of energy resources, still vital to the operation of the world economy; and attempting to broker a durable peace between Israel and its neighbors, including a settlement with the Palestinian Arabs. In the past decade, Iran has emerged as the principal challenge to all three. A process that ends with regional governments either too weak or too anti-Western in their orientation to lend support to these outcomes, and in which U.S. partnerships are no longer welcomed, must evoke U.S. strategic concerns — regardless of the electoral mechanisms by which these governments come to power. Within the framework of these general limits, U.S. policy has significant scope for creativity in promoting humanitarian and democratic values.

The United States should be prepared to deal with democratically elected Islamist governments. But it is also free to pursue a standard principle of traditional foreign policy — to condition its stance on the alignment of its interests with the actions of the government in question.

A year ago I had similar thoughts about the need for balance between and within U.S. geopolitical interests and humanitarian considerations within the region. While I have my disagreements with the relative emphases that Kissinger places on Iran (our own allies’ intransigence and recklessness often plays a problematic role too)  or the importance of forging Arab-Israeli peace (it is only useful as a means to the other policy goals of protecting lines of communication and impeding the activity of perterbateurs to the balance of power), he reminds us of a vital point. The overturning of autocracy is a means to these other policy end states, not the end in and of itself. 

In theory, democracy is a long-term option worth short-term risks. But casually asserting that strategic considerations can be eschewed for some distant long-term payoff is problematic. The time scale from the overthrow of an authoritarian government to that of a consolidated, diplomatically reliable and strategically useful is not one that can be usefully predicted or used to build policy around. The evolution of such a state is not the mere product of the exertion of U.S. willpower and the patience of U.S. policymakers.

As Kissinger rightly notes, it’s what a government does and is capable of doing, rather than what it supposedly stands for, which makes it a useful U.S. partner. A free Libya is hardly capable of supporting U.S. interests because it has a divided and weak government. Real power in Libya remains, to put it nicely, very decentralized, and the capabilities for the government in Tripoli to control its own country remains in doubt. Some commentators have pointed to polls suggesting Libyan sympathies for authoritarianism as proof of the intervention’s failure. This statistic, regardless of what it tells us about how democratic or undemocratic Libya’s population is after intervention, isn’t relevant until somebody in Libya is capable of instituting one man rule, which no potential aspirant would currently be able to do anyway, if he or she did exist.

Political power is a necessary prerequisite of useful cooperation – a weak government that is incapable of fighting terrorism within its borders, let alone projecting power or preventing encroachment by rival states could very well be an improvement to a corrupt or violent tyranny as a humanitarian matter – but it is not automatically an improvement for national interests, even in the long-term. As Kissinger mentions, the tools and ideologies necessary to impose unity on a state are likely to be at best indifferent to the advancement of U.S. interests, and perhaps outright hostile to them. The priority of domestic leadership will be to maintain control of their distributional coalitions and survive. This may take a democratic form. In some cases, it may bring about a democracy saddled with a powerful – and often malignant – deep state of security services and allied institutions. In other cases it may bring about a democracy with a strong ideological opposition to U.S. foreign policy interests. It also may lead to a weak state or yet another iteration of authoritarianism.

Realistic foreign policy recognizes shifts and power, and that the U.S. cannot control history. Holding onto old partners simply because they had some past use is ill-advised, but so too is assuming that the opponents the of an authoritarian regime, however morally worthy, will automatically be a better bargain for the United States in the long-term, let alone worth the cost of supporting them. In most cases, the U.S. would be better served – for strategic reasons – retrenching its entanglement with governments which cannot preserve themselves. But for the same reason it ought restrain its support, involvement, or dependency on new regimes which cannot effectively consolidate power. Nor should it assume that gratitude is a useful currency in international affairs.

The American founders, in practice, exercised little loyalty to the French government. Ideologically, despite the sympathies for the French Revolution, the U.S. was actually on worse terms with the new French governments than their monarchical predecessor which had supported the American revolt against Britain. The United States was not a particularly useful ally to France, it was not very capable or interested in exercising a significant check on British influence in the region (instead, during the Jay Treaty, it settled affairs with Britain as best possible). It was not even willing to pay back its debts to France, because it felt those debts were owed to the regime, not the country and people. American relations with France vacillated in tune with shifts in American domestic politics and the actions of France’s rivals in the Americas. Nor did the Americans necessarily feel any kind of great ideological affinity towards the French. Describing one scholar’s view, Ido Oren wrote:

In various subtle ways, the derogatory language of the essay reappears in [his] later writings. Throughout his more mature scholarship, references to the French polity are laced with terms like “intoxicated,” “poisonous,” “mechanical,” “unstable,” and “impetuous.”(79) The view of the French political system as dissonant with French national character, of France as a democracy in form only, and of French administration as inferior to Prussia’s is a virtual constant in Wilson’s “philosophy of politics.” Unlike current social scientists who tend to single Germany out as an aberrant case of political development, [he] rather considered France the “abnormal” case. In his political theory Germany was in the proper place in its natural trajectory of political development; “impetuous” France was not.

Later, that scholar, Woodrow Wilson, would deploy American troops into France to help defeat Germany. America’s value as an ally had not come about because of some prophetic French faith in the long-term – indeed, Britain, its old foe, was in the 20th century quicker to leap to France’s aid – but because so-called short term geopolitical consideration and unforeseeable ideological developments played out how they did in the intervening period between Saratoga and Belleau Wood. 1917 and 1944 were not proof of strategic wisdom in 1778, and similarly, the longer one extends their timescale for the expected payoff of a policy of democracy promotion, the more likely that factors exogenous to the initial provision of aid, support, and good diplomatic relations will decide the course of another state’s foreign policy.

In the Cold War’s long term, the U.S. succeeded because democracy promotion was not always antithetical to the goals of denying political power and resources to the USSR, not because the U.S. consistently made the supposedly wise choice of supporting electoral systems at every term. This policy sometimes, where convenient and sensible for U.S. policymakers, resulted in the support of democratic institutions, often along an anti-democratic security service or deep state along with them to prevent subversion. In some cases, the United States found those security services to be more reliable partners than the electoral system and the leaders they brought to power, and was willing to support their abrogation. In other cases, the U.S. was willing to support virtually group with an ideology or interests opposed to the USSR or its supposed local communist affiliates.

Of course, there is doubtless the criticism that these Cold War vintage relationships with undemocratic or authoritarian states resulted in the situation the U.S. faces now. This is partially true, but considering the enormous increase in U.S. security since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is difficult to fault U.S. policymakers for failing to craft a policy that would contribute to the defeat of an unquestionable geopolitical arch nemesis at the expense of suffering some threats of far lower magnitude decades down the road.

The future strategic environment will be shaped by actors with the capacity to control and the flexibility to adapt to what they cannot. Preserving U.S. power and flexibility mandates the continued primacy of such “short-term” thinking as maintaining balances of power, preserving access to lines of communication and resources, cooperating or at least tolerating governments that cannot be removed without significant cost and risk, and generally retrenching our dependence, wherever possible, on unreliable, unfriendly, or incapacitated and weak regimes, whether they are authoritarian or democratic, Islamist or secularist in orientation. The best way to balance the demands of the so-called short and long terms would be for the U.S. to stay humble, even as the world’s strongest and most secure great power, about its ability to shape historical destiny with reliability or predictability.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2012 5:28 am

    Like you, I thought Kissinger’s piece made some important points about the flaws in a rigid version of the “right side of history” approach to U.S. policy-making in response to the Arab Awakening. One of the things that troubled me in his essay, though, was the conflation of Islamist and anti-Western. Why do so many Americans assume that Islamists are rigidly and permanently anti-American, as if they couldn’t decide, once in power, to adopt the same kind of flexible approach to foreign-policy-making that Kissinger prescribes for the U.S. government?

  2. April 2, 2012 9:55 am

    Preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon? Obviously Israel isn’t popular, but c’mon Henry. It’s a hegemon, and yet we’re maintaining our national interests? By supporting a Likudnik government that calls the West Bank biblical names? Listen to “hell or high water” supporters of Israel. Do they sound like realists?

    I must admit that applying global realism to the Middle East/North Africa region is one of my IR pet peeves. It is very true that more regional leaders have been motivated by clear eyed “national” interest than the West understands, but MENA isn’t Europe, or even East Asia.

    Realism isn’t the best guide to how to act there. The popular uprisings only underscore that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: