Dr. Kissinger Makes War on Clinton’s Foreign Policy

Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Towards a Diplomacy for the 21st Century , by Henry Kissinger. Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $30.

When former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sat down with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright soon after she took over the State Department, the two hit it off well. He gave her sound advice about doing what she thought was right, regardless of the inevitable criticism. Before he left, though, he did politely warn her about his prominent role as a critic. He said that he would be writing a 1,000-word column on American foreign policy every week, and that “I agree with Madeleine Albright” is only five words.

Mr. Kissinger’s new book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? , is relatively short by his standards–fewer than 300 pages, compared to his tomes The White House Years , Years of Upheaval and his most recent, Years of Renewal . But he does manage to pack in what is probably the most intense criticism of President Clinton’s foreign policy yet published. I searched in vain for one area of policy during Mr. Clinton’s eight years that Mr. Kissinger could support or praise.

Here’s a sample of how he sees Mr. Clinton’s accomplishments: The 1994 landmark accord that stopped North Korea from developing dozens of bombs’ worth of nuclear material was the result of flawed diplomacy. The President’s heavy involvement in Middle East peacemaking is a primary cause of the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of the worst violence in decades. The administration should never have squandered our prestige and power responding to ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo. China’s military intimidation of Taiwan in 1996 was a direct result of Clinton’s decision to provide the Taiwanese president a transit visa to the United States. On Iraq, the administration made a bad situation worse because it used limited instead of massive air strikes. In Indonesia, crude economic pressure by the United States and the global financial institutions was a major contributor to the economic collapse and destabilization of this strategic ally. There is one partial compliment: Mr. Clinton was right to advocate a free-trade area for Latin America; he was just too weak to implement it.

Some of these criticisms may have merit. But they can’t all be right.

For instance, the agreement with North Korea has worked. The nightmare scenario of Pyongyang reprocessing enough fuel to build a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons–which appeared very real indeed a few years ago–has been forestalled. The accord is verified by on-site inspections, and the South Koreans and the Japanese are paying most of the cost. The only real alternative was to initiate war on the Korean peninsula to destroy the North’s reactors. Would Mr. Kissinger really have chosen that course?

The new book is sweeping in scope. It aims to analyze the challenges America faces in every key region of the world, and then orients those challenges in the context of our domestic politics.

At the outset, Mr. Kissinger understandably tries to position himself in the center of the political spectrum. On the left, there are those mushy Wilsonians who turn foreign policy into “social work” and who “act as if America has the appropriate democratic solution for every other society regardless of cultural and historical differences.” On the right, there are those who think “the solution to the world’s ills is American hegemony–the imposition of American solutions on the world’s trouble spots by the unabashed affirmation of its preeminence.”

If you can barely distinguish between these two groups, there is a reason. Mr. Kissinger’s analysis of the complexities of American politics has never been as impressive as his understanding of the rest of the world. The reality is that in today’s politics, the real divide is not between right and left, it’s between the activists in the Democratic and Republican parties who want to extend American principles of democracy and human rights around the world, and the minimalists in both parties who have a narrow view of America’s proper role in confronting the world’s problems.

To my surprise, Mr. Kissinger says he advocates an American foreign policy that is a mix of idealism and realism, in which our ideals are pursued with care and due regard for the history, culture and complexity of the regions of the worlds. And in two places, he lives up to this standard. In the section on Africa, he makes it clear that he would have used American military power to stop the genocide in Rwanda and the mass murder in Sierra Leone. These horrors, he says, could have been stopped at an acceptable price. And in his excellent discussion of how the economics of globalization, left unchecked, can devastate the middle and lower classes, Mr. Kissinger rightly urges policy-makers to think through the political and social costs of harsh fiscal conditions imposed by international financial institutions.

But these two sections seem divorced from the rest of the book. For his examination of Europe, Asia and the Middle East place him much closer to the minimalist camp, in which the goal is to protect America’s position in the world by pursuing a complex diplomacy aimed at maintaining the current balance of power. Indeed, whether he is talking about democratic Latin America, modern-day Asia, regional rivalries in the Middle East or post-Communist Europe, his analysis always seems to start by comparing a particular region’s problems to the Treaty of Westphalia, the Thirty Years War or the Concert of Europe.

There are lessons to be learned for today’s world from the heyday of balance-of-power diplomacy in the 18th and 19th centuries. But Mr. Kissinger doesn’t give enough attention to the differences. The realities of democracy and the Information Age mean that unelected diplomats can no longer decide the fate of the world by drawing maps and making treaty commitments over dinner in European castles. With the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, the task of creating a European continent where every country is ruled by democratically elected governments is now complete (with the exception of Belarus). But there is little mention of how we can best secure that historic accomplishment and prevent disillusionment in the new democracies of the East.

New cross-border threats from international crime, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change have altered the whole concept of national security. And the implications of globalization on foreign policy-making are still being absorbed. It’s a shame that Mr. Kissinger doesn’t really address how these new factors have changed the rules of the foreign-policy game.

Does America Need a Foreign Policy? is at its best when Mr. Kissinger summarizes each region’s diplomatic history and examines the motivations of key European and Asian leaders. For example, his analysis of decision-making in Japan on foreign policy is especially trenchant.

The frustration comes in his actual prescriptions. Too often, the book reads like his weekly columns: brilliant historical analysis, an examination of the complexity of a particular problem, followed by a scathing critique of current policy-makers. But when it comes time for the Kissinger plan to be unveiled, it’s generally a series of guidelines or principles that are unobjectionable but ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps his goal is to leave the reader with a sense that if only Henry Kissinger were still in charge, America could find its way through this mess.

In other words, Mr. Kissinger is a masterful critic. I wonder whether he will keep it up during a Republican administration. For the book’s treatment of Russia and China is fundamentally at odds with the new administration. The main theme of the Russia section is to call for treating Moscow with respect and ensuring that it has a seat at the table of international decision-making–something top Bush officials have said is a mistake. And on China, there is a direct attack on the entire logic of those in the Pentagon and the White House who advocate a policy of containing the growing threat from Beijing.

Remember: “I agree with the Bush administration” is only six words.

James P. Rubin, Assistant Secretary of State from 1997 to 2000, now teaches American foreign policy at the London School of Economics.