Abdel-Moneim Said
Friday 19 Jun 2020

The realist school of international relations has once again expressed its tenets in vocal adherents amid the Covid-19 crisis. But perhaps we need something more

My story with Henry Kissinger is that of a student who, in the winter of 1982, was nearing completion of his Master’s thesis on “The US and the Crisis of the October 1973 War.” Kissinger was the central figure in the US administration during that crisis since President Richard Nixon was preoccupied with the Watergate scandal at the time. In keeping with the diligence my task required, I read all his famous writings, including The White House Years. But not only did I follow all his published works, I took advantage of the Freedom of Information Act to access unpublished writings.

In early 1982, Time magazine featured excerpts from his soon to be published Years of Upheaval in which the Middle East conflict figured prominently. I knew I needed that book, but I was also in a hurry to complete my studies and return to Egypt. So, I wrote to Kissinger’s office to ask for a copy. They wrote back to tell me that the book was still at the printer, but that they would send me a copy once it was off the press. And so, they did, for free. I had hoped it would shed some light on some points that were still the subject of dispute between me and the professor who was supervising my thesis.

In fact, the book ultimately sharpened the disagreement, as often happens, but we reached some mutually satisfactory compromises. As for Kissinger, he remained a central figure in US political history and diplomacy. He had a lasting influence on students whom he taught directly at Harvard and on those whom he tutored indirectly through his wealth of writings on international relations. Although Kissinger is now 96 years old, he remains one of the foremost individuals whose views and advice Americans solicit in times of crisis and at historic junctures when the US looks at the world and tries to determine how it fits in.

Often it is not so much Kissinger, personally, who is sought out but rather the realist school in international relations of which he is a major exponent. There are many others. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Harvard professor Graham Allison posited the “Thucydides Trap” in relation to US-Chinese relations. The theory holds that the cause of the Peloponnesian War was the growth of Athenian power which alarmed Sparta to the degree that it sought recourse to arms to keep the balance of power in its favour. The balance of power is a central concept in the realist political school which asserted itself again in World War II. The name of the arch political pragmatist Machiavelli has surfaced on more than one occasion during the current coronavirus crisis and its political repercussions. It was certainly no coincidence that Barry Gewen, in The New York Times of 9 May, paid tribute to “The Book That Shaped Foreign Policy for a Generation” and “has more to say”. The book in question was Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations which appeared in 1948 and which “bears returning to today for the lessons it offers a contemporary America struggling once again to clarify its stance towards a volatile world”. Kissinger, himself, once acknowledged the “profound intellectual debt” he owed Morgenthau.

“Welcome Back to Kissinger’s World,” reads the title of an article by Michael Hirsh in Foreign Policy of 7 June. He writes: “Neoconservatism has died, and liberal internationalism is discredited. Perhaps it’s time to return to the ideas of one of the last century’s greatest realists.” 

As Hirsh and others have noted, Kissinger brought a crucial element to the concept of the balance of power. He took it beyond military equations to the attainment of political equilibrium — a complex process, especially in the nuclear era when a precisely calibrated nuclear parity ensures that states can advance their interests while averting the descent into all out destructive war. Like other affiliates of this school, Kissinger arrived at this idea through an exhaustive study of history, which he began with his doctorate dissertation on the Napoleonic wars and their consequences in the 19th century. The thesis was developed into his seminal A World Restored, in which he argues that British diplomacy and policy succeeded in preserving European peace for nearly a whole century from Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. 

My intent here is not to explain the realist school of international relations and its various subsidiaries. This is not an academic space. Nevertheless, a realistic approach to the current Covid-19 crisis needs to take into account the rising power of China, on the one hand, and on the other the shape of the world under globalisation, the chains production and the technological advances, and the relative decline in US power, all of which have become more pronounced during the crisis. The crisis has thrown into relief more than this. But the vibrant intellectual activity on strategic thought in many US think tanks and research centres had to prioritise how the US should respond to its current dilemma. 

Naturally, one finds a tendency to blame everything on the current US President Donald Trump, who has steered his country away from its traditional allies and who has bared his teeth at China while placating Russia to the extent of announcing plans to invite Russia to re-join the G7. But Trump’s foreign policy approach has been to recoil into a kind of “dormancy” or “entrenchment”, distancing the US from intractable global problems the solutions for which are not to be found either in the Middle East or in Europe. 

One also finds an idealist trend among the writings that are emerging from the US right now. It stresses the need for multilateral diplomacy to promote and enhance international cooperation in the face of a pandemic that threatens all humankind as well as other dangers that threatened collective international security, such as global warming. 

Most recently, the realistic approach from Thucydides to Kissinger has been advanced in the writings of Graham Allison who advocates a global diplomacy that aims to divvy up spheres of influence between the US and China, with shares reserved for Europe and Russia. Others, meanwhile, try to forge a separate path between the various schools. Foremost among these is Joseph Nye who, in Power and Interdependence (1977), holds that interdependence has approached a level that would forestall war and even make it impossible, as is the case in Canadian-US relations and French-German relations since the establishment of the EU. Nevertheless, an interdependent relationship does not preclude an internal dynamic governed by balance of power equations. As we know, the factors in these equations extend beyond hard military and economic power to include sources of soft power, which the US possesses also in large quantities, from the English language to the arts, and even culinary diversity in which the US excels.

The appeal to Kissinger is an appeal to apply a body of thought at a critical moment in world history. Kissinger himself wrote an article in which he largely echoed Nye’s outlook in his call for international cooperation. But perhaps what is required, today, are novel efforts to weave through and beyond the various levels of analysis. After all, globalisation, power, mutual dependency and major planetary threats all intersect and seem to call for new thinking in tune with the times and modern technologies.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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