The statements made by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger at the McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum on global issues on 30 April have not received adequate international media attention. Years ago, Kissinger’s statements stirred media hype all over the world, even decades after he had left the political sphere.
Perhaps this is because Kissinger is over 97 years of age and no longer has the same influence on or presence in intellectual and political circles. In fact his vision is impressive, reflecting a unique continuity in his philosophical and perceptual formation that calls for attention and analysis.
The prominent academic and diplomat described China as the biggest threat to the US and the world at large due to its enormous economic, military and technological capabilities. China is different from the former Soviet Union, which enjoyed military power only, and did not acquire China’s economic and technological powers.
Kissinger also said that nuclear technological advancements and artificial intelligence increase the dangers of the end of the world. He concluded by calling on the US to remain firm in its principles and to demand that China should respect those principles while maintaining continuous dialogue and establishing areas for cooperation with Beijing.
So Kissinger does not want the US to plunge into a new cold war similar to the one between the American and Soviet giants. He wants the conflict to be controlled so that no red lines are crossed.
Perhaps few people will remember the intellectual basis on which Kissinger built his vision of how to manage the conflict with the Soviets. The key to that vision was, simply, security and stability. Kissinger distinguishes between two international systems: a revolutionary or a radical system, and a legitimate, legal one. In the first system what prevails are violence, the tendency for confrontation and wars, tension and insecurity, while the tendency for peace and justice prevails in the second one, and resorting to violence is only a means to correct and ward off aggression and defend oneself.
In his writings, Kissinger asserts that a state of balance in international affairs is the alternative to state power at home. A political philosopher, he tried to apply his intellectual and academic vision while occupying executive positions as a national security adviser and later secretary of state. Psychopolitical analysts broke down this vision about the concept of harmony, which becomes very interesting applied to his latest vision.
His concept of harmony is made up of three elements: dependence, joint adaptation and abstinence – meaning the exercise of self-control. Kissinger saw that the Soviets had quantitative military superiority and his country had qualitative military superiority, and that by creating interdependence represented by the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks/Treaty (SALT 1 and SALT 2) and stopping unilateral actions, this would lead to balance and restore stability. Balance and stability are two of the keywords for Kissinger.
Some criticised Kissinger’s negotiating performance with the Soviets on the premise that he abandoned his academic calls for defending institutionalisation. When he practised negotiation and political work he resorted to back channels, which then became an influential and dangerous trend in difficult negotiation processes. Back channels bypass the decision-makers and puts decisions in the hands of senior negotiators, completing the resolution of difficult issues in negotiation outside the formal negotiation framework. This is what Kissinger did in the SALT agreements and in some stages of the Vietnam negotiations.
Kissinger resorted to this approach as a result of his lack of confidence in the escalation process. He feared that if his vision failed escalation would not be contained, and he worried about the lack of stability and security. This is the key to interpreting Kissinger’s desire to avoid escalation with China, and not as some observers suggested his disapproval of abandoning the approach he started with opening up on China.
The issue is not only a matter of political philosophy, it is not a matter of theorising in a world replete with events and developments. Kissinger’s vision is an extension of the theories of international balance that began in the 19th century, and his greatest concern is to achieve balance and avoid risk. This is the core of conservative thought, which fears the instability and transformations surrounding radical thought. During his tenure, US policy shifted from containment to harmony, which was a step towards the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of the US in the Cold War.
Hence, we understand why Kissinger is annoyed by unbridled policies that may perpetuate instability and disruption in international affairs. The veteran politician has also identified a more difficult problem, which is that China now is more powerful than the Soviet Union then, and that the latter collapsed due to its economic fragility. China, meanwhile, is almost as strong as the US on the economic and artificial intelligence fronts. Therefore, confrontation will be much more difficult and may cause instability and uncontrolled violence all around the world, which has already begun to manifest, even before the cold war, in the spread of chaos and conflict on a global scale, something that is causing Kissinger anxiety.
Kissinger did not discuss another aspect of the difficulty of this confrontation, which is the economic interdependence between China and the West, in particular between China and the US, and the economic consequences to which the two sides and the world will be exposed, if the measures of hostility and caution increase between them. This is an unprecedented situation; history has never witnessed a clash between two great powers with such intertwined economic interests.
The former US secretary of state is known for his passion for history, particularly international conflict in the 19th century, in which instability, power shifts and parties’ attempts to find alternative solutions resulted in multiple wars that culminated in World War I. The latter resulted in the emergence of Nazism, fascism and the flare-up of World War II.
Therefore, for Kissinger, the conservative intellectual, the risks of escalation against China may have uncalculated consequences.
Regardless of how favourable Kissinger’s approach is compared to Donald Trump’s or that of the Biden administration, which tends towards escalation, it is still awe-inspiring to lend an attentive ear to the wisdom of a seasoned politician and academic who still has a unique intellectual and cognitive orientation on issues of international affairs and the interests of his country over a very long period of time.
*The writer is former assistant minister of foreign affairs, and professor of political science.
The English version of the article is published according to an agreement with the Independent Arabia website.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly