Rude awakenings in dreamland?

Does America Need a Foreign Policy?

February 1, 2002

Events have overtaken a Machiavellian Kissinger, writes Susan Carruthers.

Poor Henry. A year ago, on the cusp of a new presidency, an elder statesman's blueprint for US foreign policy in the 21st century must have struck Kissinger and his publisher as a timely (and lucrative) proposition. With Kissinger as the sagacious Machiavelli to George W. Bush's less guileful Prince, the provocatively titled Does America Need a Foreign Policy? would achieve hegemony over bestseller lists swollen by Christmas book-buyers. Little were they to know that shortly before the book hit the shelves, two planes would strike the Twin Towers, changing everything. In the wake of the attacks, Kissinger's rhetorical provocation underscored his failure of prognostication: a manifesto for the 21st century overtaken by events before the ink had dried.

Irrespective of those events, the title was already ill advised. It required Kissinger to frame his critique as an answer to straw persons who would insist on the superfluity of a US foreign policy - whether isolationists eager to shirk external responsibilities, or globalists for whom tending the economy has supplanted the manoeuvrings of realpolitik . The tone is duly querulous, pitted against imagined interlocutors as well as more corporeal Clintonites and cold warriors. But in the wake of September 11, when it is impossible to conceive of anyone's denying the need for a US foreign policy, this knowing air becomes doubly unfortunate.

Arranged largely on a region-by-region basis, Kissinger surveys the contemporary scene - offering advice for the conduct of the United States's 21st-century foreign relations drawn largely from the 19th-century Concert of Europe. Peppered with apercus on culturally inscrutable allies and adversaries, his prescriptions for the pursuit of the US's "national interest" follow a predictable recipe: a cocktail of free-trade arrangements and gung-ho globalisation; regional security organisations and missile defence.

Kissinger endorses the promotion of human rights and democracy because these quintessentially American values necessarily permeate the pursuit of foreign policy. But he is careful to distinguish his preference for orderly polities - with open markets and transparent legal systems - from the kind of messianic "do-gooding" that he sees in recent "humanitarian interventions". Where conditions are ripe, however, democratic institutions are hailed as the building blocks of stable systems that reject war as a mechanism for dispute settlement.

Taking the "democratic peace" as given, Kissinger plots each region's maturity on an evolutionary scale supplied by the development of the European states system. With war on the Pacific Rim unlikely but not inconceivable, "the international order of Asia... resembles that of 19th-century Europe more than that of the 21st-century North Atlantic". The emotionally driven religious wars of the Middle East give it the semblance of "Europe during the 17th century", while "tragic" Africa is a continent that must somehow be coaxed away from "outdated socialist models... taught at the London School of Economics".

Kissinger's watchword is balance: the sustenance of regional balances of power requiring equilibrium between "idealism" and "realism". To demonstrate his own even-handedness, he lambasts both the left and the right. He decries abandonment of the "national interest" as arbiter of US policy by the "protest generation" (encompassing Bill Clinton but not George W. Bush). Berating those chary of "self-interest", he denounces the "missionary" interventionism of the Clinton era, but is equally critical of ossified cold warriors whose propensity for bold assertions of US power lack Kissinger's own subtlety and finesse. He cautions against casting Beijing as the new Kremlin without appreciating the deft dangling of carrots required to permit China's integration in the global economy while effecting its domestic democratisation.

Kissinger's world is - at least for the US - essentially benign. Its greatest challenge lies in sustaining the tremendous gains of globalisation while containing the resentments of its losers (those malcontents unable to master modernisation, waiting to fan the flames of economic downturn). But Kissinger remains overwhelmingly concerned with traditional bilateral and multi-lateral relations between governments and intergovernmental organisations, blithely unmindful of transnational allegiances that confound these state-bound preoccupations. The emergent issues he fleetingly refers to - the environment, drugs - are barely novel. Preserved in Kissinger's aspic, the dangerously radical LSE appears a more menacing threat to international stability than phenomena that now absorb US attention and here merit barely a mention: "fundamentalism" and "terrorism".

No wonder that Kissinger's volume has been sidelined by Benjamin Barber's Jihad versus McWorld and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations . And amid the profusion of punditry, the eminence grise has been less visible than foreign policy pin-ups for the "protest generation" such as George Stephanopoulos. Can Metternich and Bismarck offer lessons for trouncing Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden? In Kissinger's hands, 19th-century analogues appear altogether insufficient to the task of interpreting "the first war of the 21st century". Kissinger's book will not assist US readers grappling with the question endlessly asked since September: "Why do they hate us?" It certainly contains no suggestion that US foreign policy might have something to do with the answer.

Susan Carruthers is senior lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Does America Need a Foreign Policy?: Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century

Author - Henry Kissinger
ISBN - 0 684 85567 4
Publisher - Simon and Schuster
Price - £20.00
Pages - 318

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