Kontesting Kissinger

By Julian Lindley-French

“For all its propensity to violence, Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium. Its historical role should not be downgraded”.

Henry Kissinger, “How to avoid another world war”

December 28th. Over the Christmas excess I read and re-read Henry Kissinger’s essay “How to avoid another world war”. His core thesis is that Russia must be maintained for the sake of global equilibrium because there are so many unknown unknowns that will come at us all in the years ahead.  I am in full agreement about the unknown unknowns and I am trying to know some of those unknowns now.  What I do not understand is Kissinger’s implication that we need to maintain THIS radically, revisionist, wrecker-ball Russia because if not the worsening disequilibrium in the international system will only get worse. That begs a question Kissinger fails to answer: how can an over-armed failing state the very ethos of which is the exploitation and undermining of the rules-based system be convinced to become a pillar of said system?

This paradox is apparent in the opening paragraphs of the essay when Kissinger likens today’s situation to that of pre-World War One Europe.  The paradox is that the period pre-1917 was the last time that Russia made any pretence to be a paragon of a rules-based order.  Kissinger’s argument about the causes of World War One also reveal the conceits of an American Realist of his era. Kissinger cites Christopher Clark’s seductive but essentially wrong argument that World War One was caused by all the Great Powers sleepwalking into war. Kissinger describes World War One as “cultural suicide”, but surely its consequences were more strategic and political than cultural.

Kissinger must be aware of Fritz Fischer’s powerful early 1960s book “World Power or Decline”.  Fischer clearly lays the blame for World War One at the feet of the agrarian Prussian Juncker elite in the then eastern Germany and its de facto alliance with an emerging industrialist class in western Germany.  The very creation of the German Empire on January 1, 1871 was the power equivalent of dropping a very large stone in a relatively small pool – it caused waves as the French found to their profound cost during the Franco-Prussian War of the same year. One man who understood this was Otto von Bismarck who skilfully managed Prusso-Germany’s external relations until he was unceremoniously dumped in 1890 by the unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Thereafter, Wilhelmine Germany dragged Europe into war by first militarising itself and then threatening the rest of Europe with hard-boiled nationalism.  In the early 1900s Britain and France were imperfect democracies, but then so was the United States. They did not want or choose war as they both knew the consequences of industrial warfare having studied the American Civil War from 1861-1865. What was France expected to do faced with the 1904 Schlieffen Plan, of which they were aware, and a rapidly expanding Imperial German Army?  What were the British expected to do when the Imperial German Navy began to arm itself with Dreadnoughts and Super-Dreadnoughts all of which had only the range to fight a major naval battle in the North Sea against the Royal Navy.  In 1916 that battle took place and the German High Seas Fleet lost because Britain was prepared.


What Kissinger completely misses in his essay is the changing dynamic within Germany that drove the Prussian elite to trigger war. The very power they relied upon for Germany’s external weight threatened the Prusso-German Constitution from within. The growth of industrial Germany also saw the growth of organised labour, and most notably the SPD, which began to challenge the power of the agrarian Juncker aristocracy. World War One was a desperate gambit by the Prussian aristocracy to preserve their domestic power. Nothing more, nothing less. On August 3rd, 1914 Britain warned Imperial Germany that if it invaded Belgium it would force Britain to respond under the terms of the 1839 Belgian Neutrality Act, a cornerstone of the then European rules-based order.  On August 4th, Berlin ignored London’s ultimatum and invaded. As for ignorance about the slaughter to come Kissinger is just plain wrong.  During the evening of August 4th Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, said “the lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes’.  One only has to listen to Germanophile Edward Elgar’s sad “I Sospiri” (the sighs) to feel the foreboding.

Kissinger’s other conceit is to imply the US saved Europe from itself.  First, World War One was ‘won’ by French sacrifice, the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany and the technological and tactical advances of British Imperial Forces on land and in the air.  That is not to downplay the often naïve bravery of the American Doughboys but they were not the decisive factor.  What WAS decisive was the force and wealth the US could add to the Allied side, albeit at an immense strategy price for Britain and France. When America entered the war on April 6th 1917, it was not simply because of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare or the discovery by British Naval Intelligence of the so-called Zimmerman Telegram and the farcical plan to get Mexico to declare war on the US.  It was also about hard-headed American power and the rise of the US to global supremacy. 

By 1917, the combatants were exhausted and on the Allied side increasingly dependent on American munitions and money to continue the war.  However, contrary to Kissinger’s assertion neither President Woodrow Wilson nor his aide Colonel Edward House made serious efforts to bring about peace. The US Secretary of State Robert Lansing secretly encouraged the Allies to make peace demands Washington knew Berlin would never accept just at the moment the German military leadership of Hindenburg and Ludendorff had secured victory over Romania.  This ensured any hope that German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg might have had of purposeful American engagement to end the war was dashed. Consequently, the Germans made proposal that they too knew the Allies would never accept, including the permanent annexation of Belgium and the territories they held in northern France. Why? First, America has never granted Allies money and weapons.  For example, Lend-Lease during World War Two was precisely what its names suggest – loans and leasing.  The last payment made by the UK to finally bring Lend-Lease to a close was in December 2006. Second, Wilson’s December 1916 demand that all parties to the conflict state their war aims prior to any American peace bid was far more to do with American domestic opinion and getting America into the war, not ending it, so that when negotiations did finally begin the Allies would be in a position of overwhelming strength with the Americans primus inter pares.

Putin’s Monday offer this past few days of peace negotiations to find “acceptable solutions” must be seen in a similar light.  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed the cynicism of the ploy when he said later that, “Our proposals for the demilitarisation and denazification of the territories controlled by the [Ukrainian] regime, the elimination of threats to Russia’s security emanating from there, including our new lands, are well known to the enemy. The point is simple: Fulfil them for your own good. Otherwise, the issue will be decided by the Russian army.”


What is the relevance of World War One to today and the Kissinger essay? 

Firstly, because the Kissinger essay reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the causes of World War One and America’s role in it his subsequent analysis is at times flawed.

Secondly, too many so-called Realists fail to understand the problem of irrationality and personality in international relations, particularly when one man has been at the apex of immense power for too long. Both Putin and China’s Xi Jingping show signs of megalomania and belief in their own propaganda. Beijing has increased its military pressure on Taiwan in recent days. 

Thirdly, when aggressive revisionist powers seek to change the established order through violence there is no alternative for the collective democracies to contain that threat until it dissipates.  

Fourthly, when new technology threatens to tip the balance of power decidedly and rapidly in favour of autocrats, democracies need to act decisively.  That is exactly what the British did in 1906 with the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought and it is exactly what the Alliance and its Partners now need to do to forge a dominant concept for the use in deterrence of Putin and his ilk.

Fifthly, there is little option but to form blocs of some kind or another when the values and interests of the Great Powers become increasingly opposed. That is particularly the case when revisionist Realpolitik powers such as China and Russia seek to tear down a rules-based order.  They must first be confronted with power and only when they have acknowledged that power can the rules and the structure it bequeaths be discussed. Why? It is because such a strategy is the only peaceful way back to equilibrium in the international system. Anything else is appeasement.

Kontesting Kissinger

Kissinger is right.  There will come a time when Russia comes to its senses but that time is not now.  He is also right that no-one should seek the dismemberment of Russia, although Beijing poses a much greater threat to Russia in that regard than any Western power, whatever Putin’s propaganda says.  However, Kissinger is simply wrong to believe that Putin’s Russia or any Russia like it can ever be a partner in preserving global equilibrium when it is so determined to destroy it. It is the only way Putin and his cronies can see a way to preserve their power and wealth having failed to prepare Russian society for the twenty-first century, in much the same way Kaiser Wilhelm and his Juncker aristo-cronies refused to face up to societal change in the twentieth century.

I have long been an admirer of Henry Kissinger the academic, even if I remain less admiring of Henry Kissinger the policy-maker back in the 1970s. Together with Richard Nixon they took valueless interests to an extreme and as such were distinctly un-American.  Kissinger has made profound errors of judgement over the years (as have we all). His call for a protracted stalemate during the 1980-88 Iran‐Iraq War to sustain American influence and his suggestion in 2012 that in “10 years, there will be no more Israel” were just plain wrong. In August of this year he said of the Ukraine War that, “We are at the edge of war with Russia and China on issues which we partly created, without any concept of how this is going to end or what it’s supposed to lead to.” He has also suggested that Ukraine should relinquish its claim to Crimea and grant self-government autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.  This is because he is profoundly concerned about power disequilibrium between China, Russia, and the United States and it is that disequilibrium that could trigger a Third World War. This is the crux of my disagreement with Kissinger.  Russia may have a lot of nuclear weapons but it is a small, poor state in a big large country with an exaggerated sense of its own power and influence. How on earth can a stable ‘equilibrium’ ever be fashioned with such a state?  

In other words, serious negotiations over Ukraine can only begin when Russia acknowledges its errors and its failure and Moscow is convinced of both Western unity and power. Which brings me to perhaps the greatest paradox of the Kissinger essay: the role of the United States.  Kissinger himself might be the master of balance of power geopolitics but he fails to recognise that American Realism has never been for purely Realist.  The use of American power has always had an element of the idealism of the Founding Fathers imbued within it.  It is what I call Liberal Realism – a hard-headed understanding of power and its application in pursuit of a liberal democratic outcome.  The essay effectively invites Americans to abandon that tradition which is precisely what China and Russia would want because it would replace the liberal rules-based order with the bad old-fashioned anarchy of Machtpolitik, the very stuff of autocratic and fascist ‘order’.

As for the disequilibrium of geopolitics it is Moscow that has taken a wrecking ball to global equilibrium and because of that it is Russia, not the West or anybody else, that is downgrading Russia’s historical role.

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