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How to Fix America's Foreign Policy

What Obama should learn from Kissinger's new book

Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

World Order by Henry Kissinger (Penguin)

Henry Kissinger’s new book should be read as a salvo in the ongoing foreign policy struggle for Barack Obama’s soul. It is a book of many parts, but the final third portrays the United States since the cold war as an “ambivalent superpower” oscillating between the “realism” of Theodore Roosevelt and the “idealism” of Woodrow Wilson—a deft and deceptive manipulation of history. In a book in which Kissinger repeatedly praises the craft and subtle strategies of statesmen through the ages, from Richelieu to Metternich, it is impossible to believe that the master statesman himself does not have a more immediate goal in mind than another disquisition on how the world is to order itself. 

Kissinger begins World Order with an apparent conversion. After a lifetime steeped in the theory and practice of power politics, he begins by making an argument about justice and legitimacy. He defines world order as “the concept held by a region or civilization about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world.” Any successful world order rests on a “balance between legitimacy and power,” the legitimacy of “a set of commonly accepted rules that defines the limits of permissible action,” and a “balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down.” Power is necessary, but it is not sufficient. 

This dual concept of world order provides the framework for the most interesting and original parts of the book. The twin pillars of power and legitimacy allow Kissinger to examine multiple civilizations and to distill their distinct concepts of world order. Europe before the European Union is the easy one, as it is the source of the Westphalian world order that Kissinger reveres, which “remains the scaffolding of international order such as it now exists.” The various treaties that ultimately ended the Thirty Years War and became known as the Peace of Westphalia established “the concept of state sovereignty” and the equality of all states capable of participating in a “pluralistic international order,” regardless of the nature of their domestic arrangements. Kissinger places great faith in the Westphalian embrace of “multiplicity,” allowing a system based on a sovereign state to draw “a variety of multiple societies ... into a common search for order.” 

Next up is what Kissinger calls the Islamic world order, in which Islam itself becomes a “religion, a multiethnic superstate, and a new world order.” Modern Middle Eastern states must continually contend with the dictates of a universalist religion in which the realm of the faithful is a house of peace, governed by the Caliphate. Iran shares this expansionist view. Kissinger draws a persuasive parallel between the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and those of Ayatollah Khomeini, both seeking the creation of a new Islamic world order based on the overthrow of “all the governments in the Muslim world” and their replacement by an Islamic government. The contest with the satanic United States is thus not a conflict between two nations but “a contest over the nature of world order.” 

Then on to Asia. Asian world orders include Japan (a hierarchy topped by the Japanese Emperor, who as Son of Heaven mediated between heaven and Earth), India (“an alliance system with the conqueror at the center”), and of course China, which merits its own chapter. The ancient Chinese vision of world order imagined China as “the sole sovereign government of the world,” sitting at the top of a universal hierarchy in which the Emperor ruled “All Under Heaven.” Kissinger describes Mao’s vision of Chinese communism as a renewal of this ancient vision, with China’s unique and now revolutionary moral authority again swaying “All Under Heaven.” Modern China, by contrast, is asserting itself much more as a traditional great power in a Westphalian order, albeit one that insists on sovereign impermeability. 

Kissinger’s erudition allows him to move easily from leader to leader, country to country, civilization to civilization, weaving together history, culture, religion, and politics. Experts in each region and culture will undoubtedly object to many liberties and over-simplifications, but lay readers will feel briefly as if they hold the world in their hands. 

But Kissinger’s purpose is prescription as much as description, which brings him around to the United States. It is here that his history tells us more about the man than about the events and the intellectual trends that he recounts. It is clear from the outset, for instance, that this American born in the Old World, with its wars and its intrigues, still after many decades cannot avoid shaking his head at the naiveté of his adopted country. He opens his discussion of “The United States and Its Concept of Order” with an acknowledgment that “the openness of American culture and its democratic principles made the United States a model and a refuge for millions.” His next sentence, however, left me shaking my head. “At the same time,” Kissinger writes, “the conviction that American principles are universal has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.” Kissinger seems never to have read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the Déclaration des droits de l’homme. In 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt famously chaired a committee representing every civilization that Kissinger surveys; the document that they created is not an adaptation of American principles to the world, but a statement of the universal principles that Jefferson and other Enlightenment philosophers and leaders adopted as their own. 

Kissinger goes on to quote a famous passage from Jefferson: “It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind; that circumstances denied to others, but indulged to us, have imposed on us the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members.” Thus, in Kissinger’s view, does America’s folly begin. From this point on, his account of American history and ideology is sharply skewed. He wants to draw a straight line from Jefferson, whom he paints as an imperialist of liberty, to Wilson, who sought to replace the balance of power with a “community of power,” to post–World War II “idealists” who are determined to transform the rest of the world by liberating it, by force if necessary. On the other side of this dichotomy are the “realists,” a strain of American thought that Kissinger locates first in Theodore Roosevelt and carries through to himself. 

This schema simply doesn’t work, largely because Kissinger wants to equate holding the balance of power with keeping the peace and transforming nations with reckless war-making. Yet Theodore Roosevelt loved war. His charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American war defined him as both a man and a politician. Moreover, as Kissinger acknowledges, his Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine meant the United States “had the right to intervene preemptively in the domestic affairs of other Western Hemisphere nations to remedy flagrant cases of  ‘wrongdoing or impotence.’ ” 

On the other side, the “idealist” Jefferson was hardly an interventionist. He insisted that the United States be a beacon of liberty to the world, not an active transformer. When Obama referred in his first inaugural address to influencing other countries not only “by the example of our power but by the power of our example,” he was channeling Jefferson. Wilson was no warmonger, either. He did everything he could to keep the United States out of World War I. He did seek to be transformative, but in making the peace, not in prosecuting the war. The master grammarian and rhetorician did not say, as Kissinger writes, that the United States must “make the world safe for democracy.” He said, using the passive voice, that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” It was thus incumbent on the United States to join the fight and shape the outcome, but certainly not to invade other countries with the aim of transforming them. Moreover, Franklin Roosevelt served in Wilson’s administration and shared his ideals. He was plenty realistic about the operations of power—but he also gave us the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the United Nations.

Kissinger’s identification of realism with prudence and statecraft and idealism with moralism and risk-taking is an old trope among international relations scholars and foreign policy experts. He is following in the footsteps of George Kennan’s condemnation of Wilsonians as “legalist-moralists,” somehow committed to the belief that international relations could be run entirely on morality and law and willing to risk everything to run them this way. The value of this dichotomy is chiefly polemical—a frame that pits clear-eyed, hardheaded, pragmatic, and prudent “realists” against starry-eyed, woolly-headed, quixotic, and imprudent “idealists.” Who in foreign policy, or indeed in politics generally, wants to be called an “idealist”? In my experience, becoming a foreign policy professional was a lot like law school: it was about suppressing your natural empathetic and moral instincts and learning to think, or at least talk, like a rational profit-maximizer.

The key to Kissinger’s insistence on the realist-idealist frame comes in his account of the post-cold-war period, the period in which he was a major actor. “Since the end of World War II,” he argues,

in quest of its distinctively idealistic vision of world order, America has embarked on five wars in the name of expansive goals initially embraced with near-universal public support, which then turned into public discord, often on the brink of violence. In three of these wars, the Establishment consensus shifted abruptly to embrace a program of effectively unconditional unilateral withdrawal. Three times in two generations, the United States abandoned wars midstream as inadequately transformative or misconceived—in Vietnam as a result of congressional decisions, in Iraq and Afghanistan by choice of the President.

This story bears little relationship to the historical record. Lyndon Johnson justified Vietnam in terms of the domino theory: if we did not stop South Vietnam from falling, then it would produce a chain reaction, gradually turning the map of Southeast Asia and indeed the world red, thereby enhancing the power of our rival superpower. It was hardly a transformative quest to bring the light of democracy and capitalism to the Vietnamese people, who had never known it to begin with. Kissinger prolonged the war on the grounds that American credibility with other nations would be irretrievably damaged if we simply pulled out.

Iraq was a horribly and tragically misconceived war, but the public justification, whatever the White House may have wanted, was to stop Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons—a justification that Kissinger is quite willing to accept when it comes to attacking Iran today. Kissinger traces George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” to the 2002 National Security Strategy, but according to Bush’s own White House archives, it was announced in his second Inaugural address, a post-hoc rationale for the war when it became clear that no dire weapons were to be found. Indeed, this country would never have supported a war “to make Iraq safe for democracy.” Afghanistan was a completely defensive war; surely Kissinger would have advised any president to topple the Taliban and thereby wipe out Al Qaeda’s headquarters. The subsequent debates about how far to go in nation-building efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan were not conducted in terms of how “transformative” the United States should be from a moral point of view, but rather how best to counter an insurgency and how to end a war with any degree of success in terms of our initial aims.

These are not just academic disputes. Beyond the polemics and endless “isms” is a distinction that does make a difference. It is the difference between power-based foreign policy and values-based foreign policy. Should the United States assume that our interests boil down to maximizing our relative power in the world? Or should we assume that unlike many other nations, and certainly unlike the “old Europe” that our Founders disdained, we have often, although by no means always, sought power to advance purposes shaped by the universal values that we proclaimed at our founding and that every president has reaffirmed since?

For Kissinger and his fellow realists, the argument for power is grounded in both morality and truth. The moral case was made most memorably by Machiavelli, who explained that a prince cannot follow the moral code expected in relations among individuals because his ultimate moral duty is to his subjects. If immoral actions among states result in the survival and prosperity of his kingdom, then he has done his duty. The best way to assure those outcomes is to amass as much power as possible and balance the power of others. Kissinger duly trots out this argument early on in World Order, and is positively delighted when he discovers an ancient Indian philosopher making exactly the same case. The argument from truth rests on the supposed deep and eternal truth of human nature: in Thucydides’s words, that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Kissinger continually cautions against the folly of going soft in a world of hardened dictators. 

This is not the place to rehearse the psychological experiments, now backed up by neuroscience, that demonstrate that human beings are equally likely to put themselves and others first, depending on the circumstance. But the argument for a values-based foreign policy assumes that power itself flows from professing and practicing values that appeal to humankind as a whole. Betraying those values saps and twists the human spirit in ugly ways. Standing up for values of course allows for self-defense in all cases, and certainly argues for amassing enough power to resist and deter the aggression or coercion of other states. 

A values-based foreign policy can be perfectly pragmatic and prudent. It makes no sense, ever, to engage in an activity in which the costs clearly outweigh the benefits. Believing in values—and in the value of values—is not an invitation to martyrdom or vainglorious campaigns in the name of principle. A leader’s first obligation is to her people. But why on earth should that mean that her overriding goal should be to maximize her nation’s power relative to other nations? If her nation professes universal values—say, a commitment to “our common security and common humanity”—and she reiterates that commitment as the national creed, then she is bound to ensure that the gap between word and deed does not grow so great as to render her nation a hollow husk, empty of meaning and purpose. 

Such conviction, of course, would make Kissinger’s game of thrones much harder to play. He reserves his highest praise, over and over again, for the “statesman.” He devotes several admiring pages to the career of Cardinal Richelieu, who cunningly practiced his craft from 1624 to 1642, describing him as the first statesman who “commandeered the incipient [French] state as an instrument of high policy.” 

Kissinger believes in the “great man” theory of history. He invariably describes true statesmen as “wise,” “skillful,” “deft,” “flexible,” “subtle,” always ready to exploit ambiguity and fluidity when advancing their nation’s interest and ordering world affairs. They must be prepared to be misunderstood in their own times. Bringing new worlds into being “at the outer edge of the possible” is heroic, lonely work, requiring “character and courage.” It is into this pantheon that Kissinger would invite Obama. 

The first hint that Kissinger has an ulterior motive in his chapter describing the United States as the “ambivalent superpower” comes in its opening lines. He begins by announcing that “all twelve postwar presidents have passionately affirmed an exceptional role for America in the world.” He continues: “All presidents—though Barack Obama less so—have proclaimed the relevance of American principles to the entire world.” 

Really? The 2010 National Security Strategy, to date the only national security strategy produced by the Obama administration, set forth four “enduring” American interests. The first two—the security of the United States, its citizens, and its allies and partners and a strong and growing American economy in an “open international economic system”—were unremarkable. But the third interest was “respect for universal values at home and around the world.” And in the introductory letter to that strategy, a powerful and eloquent statement that Obama wrote himself, he proclaimed: “In all that we do, we will advocate for and advance the basic rights upon which our Nation was founded, and which peoples of every race and region have made their own.” 

Why, then, would Kissinger single out Obama? Perhaps because four years later, in Obama’s West Point speech last May describing his “vision of how the United States and our military should lead in the years to come,” the president had taken a distinctly Kissingerian turn. Much of the lofty rhetoric remained the same as in earlier years: he announced that he believed “in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being” and insisted that “our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity” was one of the critical elements of our global leadership. But the core of the speech, the part that made news, was his specification of the circumstances under which the United States was prepared to use force. And that part reads as if its author had an early copy of World Order.

Kissinger concludes the book with a short section titled “Where Do We Go from Here?” arguing that a “reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge of statesmanship in our time.” He turns once again to the statesman’s favorite tool for establishing world order: the balance of power. The actual balance of power must be accompanied by a “common recognition of the limits of accepted conduct”—the legitimacy component of world order. Here the United States has an “indispensable” role to play, but to do so it must answer four critical questions. 

In his West Point speech, Obama agreed on the central importance of trying to “strengthen and enforce international order.” He answered three of Kissinger’s questions explicitly and the fourth by a notable omission. Consider the following colloquy, which I have created by cutting and pasting from the two documents. 

Kissinger: “What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort?” 

Obama: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.” 

Kissinger: “What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance?”

Obama: “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake—when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us—then the threshold for military action must be higher.  In such circumstances, we should not go it alone.  Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”

Kissinger: “What should we not engage in, even if urged by a multilateral group or an alliance?” 

That last question is the one Obama answers by omission. Obama’s speeches during his first term, as well as his National Security Strategy, championed the principle of “responsibility to protect, endorsed by all members of the United Nations at their sixtieth anniversary in 2005.” As Obama’s own White House described it, the principle recognizes that the “primary responsibility for preventing genocide and mass atrocity rests with sovereign governments.” But when “those governments themselves commit genocide or mass atrocities,” or when they are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from outside forces committing such acts within their borders, “this responsibility passes to the broader international community.” That responsibility can be exercised by many means, including the use of force. 

Obama, together with other members of the Security Council, invoked the responsibility to protect as the basis for global intervention in the Libyan civil war to protect the people of Benghazi from what seemed like imminent annihilation. In the last two years of his first term, his White House created an inter-agency Atrocities Prevention Board, with the purported aim of intervening early, short of force, in situations in which governments were systematically violating their responsibility to protect. But the principle is completely absent from his West Point speech and subsequent elaborations of his new principles governing the use of force, and there have been several crises and emergencies in which Obama might have invoked it but did not. Even when allies such as the British, the French, and the Turks have urged us to act in Syria, to create a no-fly zone, or to strike Bashar al-Assad’s air force to prevent him from using chemical weapons and now barrel bombs on his own people, Obama has refused. 

Kissinger approves. He believes that the responsibility to protect should be avoided at all costs. In a piece in The Washington Post two years ago, he explained how a principle of humanitarian intervention run amok could destroy the our current world order by “eroding borders and merging international and civil wars.” 

The irony—and the enduring tragedy—of Kissinger’s insistence on upholding the Westphalian norm of absolute sovereignty is that the responsibility to protect is actually an heir to the Peace of Westphalia. In an unguarded moment, Kissinger acknowledges that the real point of the set of treaties that ended the Thirty Years War in Europe, a cataclysm that killed fully one-third of Europe’s population, was to create a system that would better protect the people of Europe from “forced expulsion and conversions and general war consuming civilian populations.” Moreover, while “the right of each signatory to choose its own domestic structure and religious orientation” was affirmed, “novel clauses ensured that minority sects could practice their faith in peace and be free from the prospect of forced conversion.” 

In other words, the ultimate aim of the Westphalian world order was not to ensure the sovereign equality of states as an end in itself, but as the best means at the time to accomplish the end of protecting the subjects of those states—the people. The grand purpose of the Charter of the United Nations, as Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out crisply to Soviet Ambassador Andrey Vyshinsky when he proposed sending World War II refugees back to Soviet-occupied territories, was similarly intended to safeguard the rights of people, not governments. In an age in which the single greatest threat of the use of force against innocent civilians usually comes not from a foreign government but from their own, the responsibility to protect is an essential corollary to the Westphalian commandments. It amends the very idea of absolute sovereignty, holding states accountable at least for mass murder.

This debate illustrates the deepest divide between Kissinger and twenty-first-century theorists of world order, which is not between realism and idealism or even between power and values. It is about the much more fundamental question of what we see when we envision the abstraction we call “world order” or “the international system.” Kissinger and virtually all traditional foreign policy experts, regardless of whether they follow Wilson or Roosevelt, see a world of states. Eleanor Roosevelt, and certainly Franklin too, at least some of the time, together with countless human rights activists, development experts, social entrepreneurs, climatologists, many business leaders, and technologists, also see a world of people. This difference is fundamental and repercussive. 

From the statist perspective, foreign policy is essentially a high-stakes game, an eternal competition among allies and adversaries according to agreed rules. The theoretical basis for inter-state bargaining is game theory; the allusions in foreign policy to competitors, play, stakes, boards, and strategy are omnipresent; the games most frequently invoked are chess and poker. This is a top-down perspective from which peace can be engineered through manipulations of power.

The game requires continual assumptions about the motivations of other players, which is exactly what game theory teaches would-be statesmen to probe and counter. The starting point is not based in empirical observation, but rather in a set of imposed assumptions about what states want. For leaders who must protect their peoples, the worst-case view of the world is often the sensible view of the world, one that will always have its place. Simply surveying the current global horizon reveals Russia invading Ukraine, Iran seeking a nuclear weapon, and China making trouble with its neighbors over boundaries in the East and South China Seas. 

I thus fully accept the continuing necessity of states and of their centrality in international affairs. But if statism is necessary, it is radically insufficient. It misses much of what drives global events, and it misses the policies and actions that could help to prevent and resolve them. Consider the words that never appear in Kissinger’s four-hundred-page discussion of world order. They include: climate change, pandemics, poverty, illiteracy, global criminal networks, energy, genocide, atrocities, and women (which he manages to avoid even in a lengthy discussion of Saudi Arabia’s problems and in his account of Taliban rule). 

Humanism in foreign policy starts with human beings and with the realities of their lives, what they experience and what they expect and want. It is a bottom-up view that is unavoidably messy and complex. It simply cannot be reduced to a set of elegant abstractions, a vision of global politics as a grand game of chess, which is why so many statesmen would simply prefer to ignore it. It is, however, descriptive of reality, which is to say it foresees and predicts the tragedies that nature, terrorists, refugees denied their homeland for generations, ungoverned spaces, kleptocracy, illiteracy, poverty, and the proliferation of big and small arms will visit upon us. Development and democratization is simply realism with a longer time frame. 

Kissinger does not believe that foreign policy is about people except in the most abstract sense. When he defines American exceptionalism, for instance, he points out that each American president “has treated it as axiomatic that the United States was embarked on an unselfish quest for the resolution of conflicts and the equality of all nations.” But the Declaration of Independence says nothing about the equality of states. It is the equality of all men—now properly all human beings—that is the American creed. So foreign policy must be about states and people. That is the balance that must be struck: not a balance of power between states, but a balance between state-centric and human-centric considerations. Advancing American interests in a world of both states and people means that our security now depends as much on what the people of a particular country think and perceive as on what their government does. Their diplomats and ministers may understand that sometimes we do not mean what we say. But their people are rarely so forgiving. 

That complicated proposition makes the job of presidents and their secretaries of state harder than ever. Consider only one example. When Iranian youth rose up for democracy in the Green Movement in June 2009, Obama had been busy trying to extend his hand to Iran’s mullahs to implement a strategy of engagement, as he had promised to do in his inaugural address. In Kissinger’s state-centric world, Obama’s path was clear: he should ignore the throngs of young people in the streets and continue addressing the government. But when a young woman was shot and her peers used Twitter to beam her image around the world, the balance of American values tipped toward the protesters, resulting in the renewed freeze of a relationship that had just begun to thaw even a tiny bit. In the long run, certainly, American interests require us to win the support of the Iranian people more than the support of the Iranian regime. 

Integrating the two perspectives requires a balance of principle as a well as a balance of power, both subject to a pragmatic calculation of costs and benefits. Yet even when American lives may be at stake, that calculation can and should tip toward American action. President Clinton carried out a very successful foreign policy with respect to the global balance of power. But as he has acknowledged, the failure to intervene in Rwanda will be a lasting stain on his presidency—not because the United States should intervene wherever people are dying in large numbers, but because the benefit of our action in Rwanda would have been enormous at a very small cost. So little on our part would have done so much. The British, by contrast, sent just two hundred Marines to Sierra Leone and managed to stop the fighting; our air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo did succeed in stopping the killing and the ethnic cleansing, no matter how imperfect the resulting peace. Just last year, the French sent five thousand troops to Mali and reclaimed large portions of the country from Al Qaeda forces together with other Islamist groups who were laying waste to cities and terrifying the population. 

In the years to come, when the carnage in Syria is finally over and reporters are allowed back in to count the true numbers of civilians starved, shot, tortured, mutilated, gassed, and bombed with barrels of nails, and to witness the destruction of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, we will hang our heads in shame at the betrayal of everything we say we stand for. We could have stopped it. Could we have constructed a viable Syrian state? Probably not. But could we have protected millions of Syrians? Turkey first called for the creation of safe zones in November 2011, long before isil or Jabhat Al Nusra even existed. Today, when we have decided that our own necks are at stake, we have quickly found it possible to use drones and aircraft to bomb isil installations. We could have used them years ago, and could still today, to create and to police a large safe zone on the Turkish border—if our aim is indeed to protect the people, as Obama says over and over, because of “our common security and common humanity.”

Kissinger writes of world order as the concept of just arrangements and the distribution of power held by an individual civilization and “thought to be applicable to the entire world.” He defines “international order” as “the practical application of these concepts to a substantial part of the globe—large enough to affect the global balance of power.” But these are orders that are imagined and implemented by states. The twenty-first century will require a global order, which will need to be acceptable not only to states but also to the vast majority of the world’s people. 

From the perspective of individual human beings, the calculation of costs and benefits—whether the good we might do outweighs the harm, whether the benefit outweighs the cost—must be reckoned in many ways. In dollars and lives, certainly—but also in the intangibles of integrity versus hypocrisy, national identity versus uniformity. Kissinger would regard the invocation of those values as distinctively and regrettably American. But what he does not seem to understand is the way in which a sense of overriding purpose can be as essential to human existence as breathing. 

As a nation, we lose that purpose at our peril. A balance of power may be perfectly consistent with all kinds of evils, and those evils, if we do nothing to impede or end them, will cost us the support of—and even earn the hatred of—many peoples in many places. Henry Kissinger’s rejection of moral considerations in foreign policy has been the default position of statesmen for centuries. But ignoring what happens to people in a world increasingly shaped by people will no longer work. The day of the pure statesman is done.