Kissinger & Foreign Policy
To the Editor:
Walter Laqueur’s article, “Kissinger and the Politics of Détente” [December 1973], raises a number of interesting questions with respect both to the nature of foreign policy and to the particular choices facing American statecraft. Despite the title of his article, Mr. Laqueur has great difficulty in distinguishing between Henry Kissinger and Richard M. Nixon as the authors of various aspects of American foreign policy. I shall not attempt to do so, for Richard M. Nixon, even more than most previous American Presidents, considers himself an expert in this area. Any cursory effort by me to disentangle personal stands of American foreign policy would raise far more questions than it would answer.
I agree with Mr. Laqueur that the Washington press has bought an image of American foreign policy that badly misrepresents both its successes and failures. Paradoxically, I believe that the Nixon/ Kissinger policy has been both more successful than Mr. Laqueur gives it credit for and also more awkward and self-defeating than he acknowledges.
Despite Mr. Laqueur’s conservative stance on American policy, he shares with many of his liberal adversaries the illusion that the great changes in the contours of world politics that have occurred during the Nixon administration were “in the cards.” He believes that any American government eventually would have got out of Vietnam, strengthened détente with the Soviet Union, achieved a rapprochement with China, and reached a SALT agreement, although perhaps a better one a few years later. Although the policies Mr. Laqueur would advocate to reach these “inevitable” end positions would differ from those that Abram Chayes, for instance, would have advocated as Senator McGovern’s foreign-policy adviser, he essentially agrees with Chayes that we would have got them anyway.
It is difficult to argue a negative. I certainly would not wish to be put in the position of arguing that alternative policies could not possibly have produced the current state of affairs. The world is a very complicated place and is capable of producing many surprises despite the best assessments of which men are capable. However, I believe that the policies of the Nixon/Kissinger team facilitated developments that most Americans support and that well might not have occurred in their absence, and that further development can still be frustrated by inappropriate policies.
Although I doubt that any serious leadership faction in the Soviet Politburo wishes to return to the extreme conditions of the cold war, Brezhnev’s policy of cooperation with the United States is under severe attack from a strong faction led by Suslov and Ponomarev. Despite the favorable aspects of SALT I for the Soviet Union, Brezhnev’s signature upon the two agreements, although he holds no official Russian governmental position, was necessary to protect the agreements from Secretariat attack.
It is difficult to get information from inside China, but there apparently was some strong opposition to its realignment with the United States, despite the threat from the Soviet Union. If the United States had not pursued a reasonably firm policy in Vietnam, I believe that the value of the United States to China, with respect to direct reassurance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and its ability to serve as a counterweight against efforts by the Soviet Union to forge a cordon sanitaire around China in Southeast Asia, would have been severely damaged.
There is some reason to believe that the firmness of the American position also facilitated Soviet accommodation with the United States by providing the moderates in the Politburo with one strong argument for accommodation—the resilience and the determination of the United States would make it a dangerous enemy—to reinforce other motivations such as the need for economic assistance and the desire to quiet things in the West while facing the Chinese “menace” in the East. Even here, we can see how this last motivation would have been greatly diminished if China had not seen the United States as a worthy source of assistance. It was not an accident that both China and the Soviet Union were motivated to assist the United States in bringing the Vietnamese war to a close in a way that did not produce a catastrophic debacle for American policy. If one can argue, as I believe is reasonable, that world conditions prepared the way for the successes of the Nixon/ Kissinger team, they knew how to make use of these conditions and did so with considerable skill.
By the standard of Bismarck, which Mr. Laqueur cites, my evaluation tends to support the administration. By comparison with the two previous administrations, it also scores high grades. How, therefore, can I say that its record is even worse than Mr. Laqueur suggests? The answer to this lies in its style, and I will first refer to more particular aspects of style.
The Nixon/Kissinger team is given to a personalistic, heavy-handed diplomacy. It does not make use sufficiently well of the resources existing within the American government; nor does it collaborate well with its allies. It badly misuses the techniques of diplomacy. In late 1971, the placing of two warships in the Indian Ocean during the India-Pakistani dispute was an exercise in ridiculousness. A great power must not provide the world with a demonstration of its ineffectiveness, and the two rationales produced by the administration for this effort did not make sense.
The first rationale was that this move was required to prevent the Indians from moving against West Pakistan. If they had queried the Russians, they would have understood that the Russians had given this matter considerable thought with respect to their own interests and that Russian support for the Indian venture was predicated upon three considerations: 1) it would be over in a few days; 2) there were 1,200 miles between East and West Pakistan; 3) the particular nature of the provocation. If they had learned this, they would have known precisely when Russian policy would change in the United Nations. Moreover, as Soviet experts themselves point out, if the United States had discounted this information, there were more effective ways in which it could offer warning. The second rationale for this policy was to manifest a parallel line with the Chinese. The problem with this argument is that there were better ways of doing this. A diplomatic mission could have been sent to Peking for a joint statement. Other political and military actions were possible that would have shown some degree of support for China, if this were considered necessary. It is difficult to see how a manifestly unsuccessful action would serve as a buttress for policy. Surely Chou is too sophisticated to be impressed with this performance, except as a sign of a desire to please China.
The current Middle Eastern crisis was also badly handled by the administration. Kissinger, with all the chips in his pocket, sold himself short in Moscow. The Russians had to save the Egyptian Third Army to preserve their influence with Sadat. Kissinger could have got the same quid pro quo—an agreement for direct negotiations—for a ceasefire that would have occurred thirty-six hours later, provided his coordination with the Israelis had been good enough to guarantee the safety of the Egyptian Third Army. The additional thirty-six hours would have provided the Israelis with a defensible position on the West Suez bank, which then could have been used for legitimate trading purposes.
Having “flubbed” this one, and having provided the Russians with a legitimate reason for interfering after the Israelis secured a defensible position for themselves subsequent to the cease-fire, the Kissinger/Nixon team overreacted to the “threatened” Russian intervention. Perhaps there was a faction in the Politburo that desired a direct Russian presence. Even if this were so, however, the main Soviet objective was saving the Egyptian Third Army. Far more modest moves—and a more modest public presentation of them—such as moving the Mediterranean fleet or putting a single airborne division on the alert, would have served the Nixon administration as well and would have given Brezhnev the only arguments he needed within the Politburo for the more moderate course that he probably preferred anyway.
The difficulty with a worldwide alert including the nuclear strategic force, even at a low level, is that it devalues the currency of diplomacy. It makes it more difficult to give appropriate signals during a real crisis. Beyond this, Nixon weakened Brezhnev’s position in defense of détente because he appeared to defeat humiliatingly a real Soviet intention to intervene, when Brezhnev’s real purpose was probably achieved. He will probably pay back the administration for that one at an appropriate time. Moreover, if the administration is so clumsy, it is also less useful and trustworthy as a collaborator.
I agree with Mr. Laqueur that the SALT agreement was not a particularly good one for the United States. On the other hand, his suggestion that we could have done better by continuing the arms race overlooks the fact that in the absence of this agreement, the administration would have been unlikely to win any Congressional votes on this issue. For its own internal political reasons, the United States needed SALT I. However, it is true, for reasons other than those that Mr. Laqueur gives, that the Nixon/Kissinger team mishandled SALT. Its Congressional coordination was poor. There were things that could have been done that would have strengthened its hand such as the ULLMS item that was taken out of the supplemental defense budget in early 1972 because of poor coordination with Senator Stennis. The Nixon/Kissinger team also undermined its SALT negotiators by reaching agreements behind their backs on the basis of a poorly-evaluated posture. The Nixon/ Kissinger team then were so eager to reach the agreements during Nixon’s Moscow visit that they were signed without adequate definitions of key terms.
This was another exercise in the kind of personalistic diplomacy that produced the shocks with respect to Japan. The seeming dislike of the Nixon/Kissinger team for the Japanese, and its seeming personal preference for the Chinese, probably interferes seriously with its conduct of diplomacy. It would go beyond the confines of this particular letter to indicate the extent to which relations with our European allies were also unnecessarily injured by the brusque personal diplomacy of the Nixon/ Kissinger team—a diplomacy not fully attuned to the information available in the bureaucracy. Although I am not an advocate of the bureaucracy’s determining policy, it could be used far better than it is being used.
Finally, and briefly, I wish to refer to what may be the most important failure of the Nixon/ Kissinger team, a failure that is reflected in Nixon’s conduct of domestic policy. It is impossible to conduct policy in a democracy unless the Presidency symbolizes the highest values for which the nation stands. In the absence of such a posture, cynicism and distrust become inevitable. The area of foreign policy is a particularly difficult one for people to understand.
Without the NATO alliance, the Russians might Finlandize Europe and seize effective control of the Eurasian heartland. Yet authoritarian Greece is the linchpin of the Mediterranean and an essential member of NATO. Détente with the Soviet Union and China is essential to avoid global catastrophe. Yet these are authoritarian nations. The United Nations is designed to represent most of mankind. Yet most of its members have tyrannous and despotic regimes.
The compromises that policies in these areas force upon our nation confuse the public with respect to our objectives abroad. It is important for our national leadership to be able to symbolize these values in such a way that the public has faith in the probity of national objectives, for if it does not, it will be unwilling to make sacrifices for them. If cynicism reigns supreme, the public will support only those measures most directly and visibly connected with narrow self-interests.
There are many ways in which the President can symbolize national values, depending upon the candor and greatness of spirit that he manifests. There are potential instruments of policy available to him, although these are highly arguable, such as a possible organization of democratic states, regardless of internal economic system, with a non-compulsory court of human rights and cooperative efforts in solving the energy and pollution problems.
The greatest failure of the Nixon/Kissinger team is in this area of national values. It conveys no vision of the future. It does not manifest greatness of spirit. And here I am not referring to false abstract moralisms that have been current in recent debate, but to a concern for the future of men both here and abroad that takes into account the particularities of their conditions of life and the hopes that all decent men would share for their common future.
Morton A. Kaplan
Center for Policy Study
The University of Chicago