Kissinger is dead wrong about the Russian war against Ukraine
Henry Kissinger would have made a great early 19th-century Austrian diplomat. Like his hero, Count Metternich, Kissinger could have been the architect of complex security schemes that promised to bring stability and peace to Europe by balancing great powers.
Alas, like Metternich, Kissinger would have ignored the far greater complexities brought about by external and internal change and been driven out of office by the revolutions of 1848.
Kissinger’s recent speech at the World Economic Forum nicely illustrates just how out of touch he is with today’s realities—on the international arena, in Russia, and of course in Ukraine.
Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.”
This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine. Nationalism has become a universally accepted aspiration, norm, and practice. Meanwhile, countries change, as every undergraduate knows. They become stronger and weaker, more and less stable, more and less prosperous. Some of these changes are the product of policy; many if not most are not. Policymakers, like scholars, are very poor predictors. They usually get things wrong; unintended consequences abound; and “stuff happens” for reasons that few of us understand.
Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future. The claim is completely at odds with history. Thanks to nationalism, empires are a thing of the past. Meanwhile, great powers come and go: that’s the historical norm. True, Imperial Russia was an essential part of Eurasia for several centuries, as was the USSR for several decades. But that is no reason to conclude that the Russian Federation must remain part of Europe or its great-power alignments. In fact, today’s Russia could disappear as easily as the Roman, Habsburg, Ottoman, and Spanish empires disappeared.
Kissinger’s inability to recognize that Russia could be as transitory as scores of other great powers bespeaks an inability to break out of the Metternichean worldview and admit that change is central to the world order. Worse, it bespeaks an embarrassingly bad misreading of Russia’s stability. By embarking on the catastrophic war with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has accelerated and unleashed social, political, and economic forces within Russia that threaten to end his rule, bring about regime change, result in systemic chaos, and lead to Russia’s disintegration or collapse. Kissinger should know that the revolutions of 1848 in Europe were the prelude to Germany’s emergence as a great power and to the Habsburg Empire’s decline as a great power.
Kissinger’s views of Ukraine are no less outdated. To state, as he did in Davos, that “the ideal outcome would be if Ukraine could become situated as a neutral kind of state, as a bridge between Russia and Europe,” is to demonstrate that he has no idea of what has transpired in Ukraine since Putin’s armies attacked on February 24. Russia has engaged in unconcealed genocide, and Putin and his minions have made no secret of their desire to destroy Ukraine as a nation and as a state. Ukrainians know that the only alternative to extermination is victory. Just what negotiations with Russia could possibly concern in such circumstances is unclear. And just what neutrality might mean for Ukraine, when its adversary desires its death, is even more unclear.
Kissinger misses the boat entirely when he then proclaims: “Movement towards negotiations on peace need to begin [in] the next two months or so. The outcome [of the crisis] should be outlined by them before it creates upheaval and tensions that will be even harder to overcome, particularly in the relationships of Russia towards Europe and of Ukraine towards Europe.” But upheaval and tensions in Russia already began on February 24, with Putin’s poorly planned invasion. Movement toward negotiations on peace should have been initiated before the genocidal war launched by Putin. Alternatively, it could be initiated after Putin’s defeat and Russia’s abandonment of genocide—preferably in the next two months or so.
Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere. This may lead to Cold War-like diplomatic distances, which will set us back decades. We should strive for long-term peace.” But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? Were Russia to be reduced to a middle power, were it to lose territory to nationalist movements, were it to become beholden to Beijing, Russia would be far less able to generate aggression and instability in Eurasia. And what’s so bad about a cold war? It’s infinitely preferable to a hot war, which will become a European reality if Ukraine loses. Moreover, the Cold War Kissinger knows so well was a time of great-power peace.
Like Metternich, Kissinger doesn’t understand the world he lives in. Metternich thought he could bottle up nationalist and democratic aspirations; he was wrong. Kissinger seems to believe that he can do the same with respect to Ukraine; he is also wrong. The age of empires and great-power condominiums has passed.