On the Death of Kissinger: The End of the Era of 'Political Realism'
Yesterday, on November 29, 2023, former U.S. Secretary of State, renowned diplomat, political scientist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger died at the age of one hundred. His life was very long and eventful. Having been involved in such historical events as the end of the Vietnam War, he had long been out of active politics, but continued to influence it in the form of comments, publications, and interviews that he gave almost until the end of his life.
In the 1970s, Kissinger was one of the most influential foreign policy strategists in the United States. In 1973-1977, he served as Secretary of State of the United States. At that time, he became one of the "architects" of mitigating the military and political confrontation between the Soviet Union and China with the United States and Western countries.
In terms of his views, Kissinger has always been called a representative of the "political realism" movement, a concept of international relations based on the priority of nation-states, which are rational and selfish actors and constantly compete with each other. Realism views states as rational long-term entities that act through high-level diplomacy. Kissinger's "realism" was constantly manifested in his foreign policy actions, and was, after all, a constant object of criticism.
Kissinger's Model of Foreign Policy
Shortly before his death, Kissinger gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper Maariv, where he talked about his role in the Yom Kippur War, which took place 50 years ago in the Middle East between Israel and a coalition of Arab states. The logic of Kissinger's actions is quite revealing in terms of not only his actions, but also the approaches that the United States has demonstrated over the decades.
Thus, according to Kissinger, the United States then planned to use Egypt's offensive as a lever to resolve the situation in the Middle East, and most of all, they were concerned that Israel would not "go too far" in its offensive. At the same time, Washington was not interested in a victory for Egypt and Syria, as this would be a victory for the USSR.
The United States was strongly opposed to providing Israel with weapons using its own airplanes, so it demanded that Israel send its own transportation for the weapons. In addition, Kissinger made it clear to the Israeli leadership that active support from the United States would begin only after they demonstrated their own ability to deter Arab forces.
When the question of a ceasefire arose, the United States did not want to raise this issue until the Israeli army went on the offensive, as they wanted to end the war as a "triumph" of American weapons over Soviet ones. In addition, the United States refused to submit a resolution to end the war to the United Nations, so it was initiated by the United Kingdom and Australia.
These are just a few of the moments in Kissinger's US policy that fully resonate with Washington's foreign policy model in the current realities. This is not surprising, as Kissinger remains an authority and role model for modern American diplomats. Although Kissinger himself was a Jew, which he constantly emphasized, and Israel has long been an important partner of the United States, even in the line of behavior towards Israel, elements of the Kissinger foreign policy remained: to prevent escalation at all costs, to prevent either side from winning a decisive victory or a decisive defeat, to officially distance oneself from the conflict as far as possible, and to view the conflict as a means of putting pressure on both sides.
Kissinger and Ukraine
At the time of Ukraine's independence, Kissinger was already out of active politics, but he continued to be a respected scholar, who, in particular, was the author of numerous scientific works, including the classic Diplomacy. Characteristically, there were almost no references to Ukraine in it. The fact that in 1991 the United States opposed the collapse of the USSR and that Russia has a special attitude toward Ukraine as the "cradle of Orthodoxy" is significant.
This reflects the typical attitude of his generation of Western diplomats to Ukraine as something inseparable from Russia, and therefore not very important, since it is Russia that will remain a constant in the system of international relations. Therefore, in 2008, Kissinger opposed Ukraine's accession to NATO, and after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, he condemned the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by Western countries.
Understandably, this provoked condemnation and criticism from Ukrainians, but it was not simply a pro-Russian position. For the "realist" Kissinger, international politics was a sphere of competition between great powers, including Russia, which would not disappear tomorrow. Therefore, one should not be at odds with it, but rather try to engage it in a system of relations that would eventually force Russia to act rationally. And on the basis of this rationality, we can try to build a balance. And Kissinger's policy, as noted above, is always about balance, not about someone winning over someone else.
But his position still evolved, and at the end of his life he was forced to "notice" Ukraine. In fact, just as many Western politicians and scholars did after February 24, 2022. Initially, he "advised" the Ukrainian leadership to think about resolving the conflict with Russia on the basis of territorial concessions. But in the end, he was forced to admit that the security architecture in Europe of the future is impossible without Ukraine's membership in NATO. Although here, too, he followed his usual path of finding a balance, proposing the following path for Ukraine's accession to NATO: first, the unoccupied part joins, which means stopping the war, and then Ukraine's membership in the North Atlantic Alliance itself makes any military action on the part of both Ukraine and Russia impossible. Thus, he remained himself to the last.
But Kissinger's figure is still significant because it shows the evolution of the Western establishment's attitudes over the past decades: from a firm belief that Ukraine is a "zone of Russian interest" to the realization that without Ukraine, security in Europe and the world is simply impossible.