By Walter Russell Mead
Feb. 5, 2018
When The Wall Street Journal asked me to become its Global View columnist, I immediately went for advice to the dominant figure in American foreign policy of the past 50 years: Henry Kissinger.
Asking Mr. Kissinger a question is a little like inquiring at the Oracle of Delphi: You never quite know what you are going to get. Some queries elicit long, learned analyses. Mr. Kissinger often deftly weaves together the motives of the leaders involved, the interests of the U.S., and the effect of American domestic politics on the range of available choices.
Some questions elicit a more lapidary response. In the aftermath of the Cold War, I once heard someone ask Mr. Kissinger what he saw as the most important trends in the world. I braced myself for an hour of sage but complex geopolitical monologue. Instead he replied with a single sentence, albeit one with more substance than most books published in the field: “You must never forget that the unification of Germany is more important than the development of the European Union, that the fall of the Soviet Union is more important than the unification of Germany, and that the rise of India and China is more important than the fall of the Soviet Union.”
My request for advice as a new columnist did not even merit a sentence; Mr. Kissinger had only a word for me. What a column on international affairs should seek to provide, he said, is “context.”
That short answer points to the heart of Mr. Kissinger’s worldview—and to the vast intellectual gap between him and most of the academics who study foreign affairs and the bureaucrats who carry it out. It has often been said, sometimes by Mr. Kissinger himself, that he is a “realist” while many of his critics are “idealists.” There is some truth there, and Mr. Kissinger’s most trenchant opponents attack what they characterize as his cynical willingness to achieve policy objectives through morally dubious or even reprehensible means. But the gap between Mr. Kissinger and the rest cuts deeper. He isn’t suspicious merely of rosy idealism; he is suspicious of those who think ideologically about foreign policy, reasoning down from first principles and lofty assumptions rather than grounding their analysis in the messiness and contradictions of the real world.
Unlike so many professors, policy makers and pundits on both the left and right, Mr. Kissinger does not believe the arc of history makes house calls. American values may one day prevail around the world, but no leader should base strategic calculations on a hope that Russia, China and Iran will turn into friendly liberal democracies in a relevant time frame. Nor would a wise policy maker assume that other powers share America’s interest in, for example, an end to the North Korean nuclear program—or any initiative aimed at making the international order more stable and secure.
Oddly, the “conservative” Mr. Kissinger takes diversity much more seriously than many of his liberal critics. Historical study and a lifetime of experience have taught Mr. Kissinger the folly of assuming that Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or Ayatollah Khamenei thinks like American leaders do or wants the same things. Each of these men and their supporters are grounded in cultural and historical imperatives that do not always mesh with ideas about Adam Smith, liberal order and win-win negotiating.
When Mr. Kissinger advises a columnist to focus on “context,” he is suggesting that there is value in helping readers to appreciate the kaleidoscopic variety and sometimes dizzying complexity of the forces at work on the international scene, and in explaining how those forces interact with American politics.
In 2018, this mission is more important than ever. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States and its Cold War allies sought to spread Western institutions around the world, but that effort has ground to a halt. Support for free trade, free movement of capital, free speech and free government is in retreat in many places, the U.S. not excepted. Geopolitical rivals are trying to roll back American power, and longtime allies like Turkey are moving away from the West. The end of history has ended, and the world is suddenly looking more Kissingerian.
It has never been more important to understand world events, and it has rarely been harder to do so. I look forward to the challenge of engaging with the Journal’s readers on the momentous geopolitical trends of our time, and I hope that this column can help, if only in a small way, prepare our country for the tests that lie ahead.
Appeared in the February 6, 2018, print edition - WSJ