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Does America Need a Foreign Policy? by Henry Kissinger

Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century
by Henry Kissinger
Simon & Schuster. 318 pp. $30.00

America bestrides the world like a colossus. In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, American garrisons and fleets betoken a power far more absolute than that of the Romans or the British in their time. Such power has consequences. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, other peoples with other traditions are adopting America’s free-market economy, its language, and its popular culture. As once people took on the religion of those stronger than themselves, now, in homage, many claim to be democratic, flimsy as the grounds of the claim may be.

One hundred years from now, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? is likely to be read as a summation of where America stood at this moment when its power appeared unchallenged and its future brilliant. The question posed by the title is rhetorical; it ought really to be, Haw Are We To Use Our Power? The author, Henry Kissinger, is a lifelong student of the nature of power and the consequent purposes and practices of statecraft, and as Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford he was able to test his ideas in the real world of politics. In many ways this is a masterful work, displaying a grasp of the entire world’s geopolitics and written with admirable clarity. But it also has its peculiarities.



Throughout history, power has proved an empty shell in the absence of the will to exercise it. Previous empires have had their Caesars and Disraelis to extol and extend power, in their view bringing civilization, peace, and law by means of legionaries and redcoats. But there have also been plenty of critics to warn that there are inbuilt limits to what power can achieve, and that power over others carries with it the inherent risks of backlash and revolt. “The Captains and the Kings depart,” in Kipling’s melancholy words.

Kissinger is such a critic. By the 19th century, he instructs us, the world order had laid out the foundation of a stability that lasted more or less successfully until 1914. According to its precepts, each nation had its legitimate interests, and the best mechanism for mediating among those interests, and thus for keeping the peace, was a balance of forces; any single power with pretensions to supremacy would be confronted by a defensive coalition of other powers. Successive British prime ministers operated this mechanism, along with the Metternichs and Bismarcks and some of the Russian czars. They were statesmen—the highest term of praise in Kissinger’s vocabulary—earning his approval as wise, cautious, restrained.

Some American Presidents have also understood this time-honored mechanism of power politics, and have acted accordingly—Theodore Roosevelt, for one. And after all, Kissinger reminds us, it was a coalition of allies that defeated Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and restored the world balance of power. But all along there was also an alternative American tradition, one rooted in the New World idealism of the founding fathers. This alternative found its modern embodiment in Woodrow Wilson, who after World War I declared that America was under a moral imperative to encourage self-determination and democracy for all peoples.

In Kissinger’s vocabulary, Wilsonianism is the highest term of disapprobation, and his unqualified disdain for this doctrine resonates in the adjectives he applies to it: “messianic,” “missionary,” even “optimistic.” Wilsonian idealism might be valid if American values were universal, but to Kissinger, universal values are themselves a chimera. In practice, American values, democracy included, have proved irrelevant in many countries that have a history and culture of their own, and trying to impose them in order to cure ancient ills generally introduces far more destructive contemporary ills.

Worse, moral imperatives inject a self-righteous humbug into international relations. In Wilsonian logic, enemies are not simply people defending their own national interest; they are immoral, and therefore fit to be destroyed unconditionally. What begins as morality can thus end in warmongering and imperialism by another name.

Kissinger’s many adversaries on the Left have accused him of adventurism and even of criminal conduct in office. What his prolific writings, and in particular this book, actually disclose is a deep temperamental fear that the possession of power leads inexorably to the use of force, and the no less deep conviction that the true purpose of power is to anticipate and head off crises that might otherwise end in violence. Like a pedestrian at a particularly complex and dangerous intersection, he is on the look-out for accidents from every direction.

The most serious of the several possible “accidents” Kissinger now foresees has to do with the emergence of a unified Europe, which he rightly calls “one of the most revolutionary events of our time.” For years, the United States has advocated this very end, in the belief that a unified Europe will naturally share American values and interests. But in reality the European system of nation states is giving way to an institutionalized structure that, though nominally democratic, has been shaped in opposition to the U.S. The creation of a European defense force, the erosion of NATO and the Atlantic alliance, irrational resistance to the American proposal to build a nuclear missile shield, head-on disputes over trade and environmental issues—all these provide evidence that the bloc of Western democratic states is not coming together but splintering, much as did the former Communist bloc.

In Russia, a former KGB officer now rules who understands the national interest and the balance of forces all too well. After the collapse of Communism, American policy concentrated on domestic reform in Moscow, identifying reform mainly with the person of Boris Yeltsin. This in Kissinger’s view was dangerous sentimentality. America is in no position to introduce genuine democratic reforms in Russia—not in the government, not in the economy, and not in the legal system. Vladimir Putin’s Russia already shows signs of wanting to reproduce cold-war tensions, and one of Kissinger’s preoccupations is that it will be attracted into an alliance or coalition with the new German-led Europe.

The shape of the 21st century will also critically depend, he thinks, on a resolution of the tensions in the Sino-American relationship. If China tries to impose its will on Taiwan, or if it seeks to dominate Asia, it may have to be resisted by force. So terrible a calamity would this be that Kissinger recommends a policy of patience as China evolves; that way, in the event of conflict, America will at least be free of blame. “What is the point,” he asks, “of a confrontational strategy conducted for its own sake?”

Other nations with interests likely to prove challenging are Japan, India, and Brazil. As for the Middle East, turmoil there is a certainty. In some twenty pages Kissinger gives a marvelously cogent account of the Oslo peace process and the mistaken assumptions on all sides that led to its failure. Nationhood and the state, he writes, still count less than religion in the eyes of most Muslims. Israelis are rejected by their neighbors because they are Jews, and there is nothing they can do about it but arm themselves. Elsewhere in the Middle East, a balanced approach to either Iraq or Iran is, for the moment, not feasible.

Finally, Kissinger tackles globalization, a bag into which all sorts of Wilsonian scraps have been crammed, weakening nation states for no good purpose and muddling every balance of power. Consensus is required if there is to be world order, but Kissinger sees an unbridgeable divide between haves and have-nots, between Internetters and techno-zeros. Putting his trust in statesmen rather than jurists, he is deeply suspicious of one-size-fits-all policies like “human-rights” campaigns and of bodies like the International Criminal Court. In general, missionary or messianic efforts are the butt here of his sometimes quite deadly humor, as when he writes that unilateral gestures to ease Iranian hostility represent “the application of ‘politically correct’ psychiatric theory to politics,” or that the bombing of Kosovo, conducted out of range of Serbian anti-aircraft batteries, suggested that “Western democracies confined their risk-taking on behalf of morality to specific altitudes.”



Touring the world and its troubles as if following a manual, Kissinger generates a profusion of specific ideas and policies. To deal with Russia, there should be consultative mechanisms within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. An international conference, including Russia, must be convened to settle Bosnia and Kosovo. To strengthen the Atlantic alliance, a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) is needed. A program of cooperative control should be set up to deal with drugs. As for globalization, “An international sense of social responsibility must be fostered” and the United States must help “identify the problems and design forums to deal with them.” Progress must be made with respect to Iran’s acquisition of missiles and nuclear weapons, with “a trusted representative” undertaking secret explorations in Tehran of reciprocal measures to improve relations. Africa needs a global program for AIDS. Eight principles must be borne in mind in formulating policy toward Asia. Nine principles guide a possible new approach to resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute. If humanitarian intervention in other peoples’ quarrels is to become a priority, four conditions must be met.

Time and again, at the end of these passages of analysis and prescription, each with its emphatic sprinkling of “musts” and “shoulds” and “needs,” Kissinger calls for vision and leadership. But vision for what, and leadership toward which ends and in what forms, remains very unclear. There is nothing to indicate what positive achievements Kissinger envisages for America, or what shape he would hope the world might be in a century hence. Vision and leadership in this view seem prophylactic, code words for accommodating the demands of other people.

But even on the assumption that convincing others to adopt democracy, or opposing totalitarianism in the name of human rights, is so much Wilsonian absurdity, is it enough just to seek a modus vivendi with those whose values are opposed to America’s? The future envisaged here will belong to bureaucrats and diplomats traveling in phalanxes from one conference to the next. This in itself supposes a world in which rationality takes primacy over ambition and there is a disposition on everybody’s part to reach agreement, plus plenty of time in which to do so. It speaks well for Kissinger’s humaneness that this is his remedy for danger, but the realization of his proliferating “musts” and “shoulds” and “needs” will depend on more than fine speeches alone.

To be blunt, are those overseas garrisons and fleets merely decorative? If not, is their ultimate role to strike a balance of forces, or to pursue the national interest regardless? Peculiarly, Kissinger omits any discussion of crises in which the preemptive use of force may be the last remaining option. Such appeared to be the case in Bosnia, and perhaps in Kosovo, too. And what if the Saudi royal family should be overthrown? What is to be done in the event that Iran and Iraq, or India and Pakistan, are seen to be preparing a nuclear strike? What if Russia moves against the Baltic states or Ukraine? Or if a rogue state or terrorist group is known to be targeting the United States?

A hundred years from now, readers may well be astonished that at the height of America’s power, one of its most distinguished and hard-headed statesmen was recommending a posture whose inadvertent effect would be to undermine the will to use force when the national interest demanded it, and thus hasten another set of captains and kings on their path to oblivion.


About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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