Year XXIX, 1987, Number 3, Page 202
Reflections on American Raison d’Etat and Euro-American Relationships
In a recent volume of essays and speeches, Henry Kissinger discusses the great options of American foreign policy from the standpoint of an outsider observing the government mechanism which involves the policymaker. It is a standpoint, says the former Secretary of State in his Preface, which is particularly useful when examining the structural long-term characteristics of international problems. Those who are in a position to take daily decisions do not have time for deep analyses: “Experience has taught the new outsider that the problems of which the policymaker is aware are the most urgent, not necessarily the most important” (p. IX). Indeed, the collection of Kissinger’s essays provides significant food for thought on the nature of international politics, from the privileged standpoint of a superpower, in a phase in which the achievements of science and increasingly tighter economic interdependence impose worldwide solutions to problems affecting the whole of mankind.
The guidelines for the interpretation of contemporary political facts, adopted by Kissinger, are defined with great precision in the course of his essays. They correspond to American raison d’état, i.e. the role that the USA has to play vis-à-vis other world powers to maintain or increase its power. The rather special situation facing the United States is described as follows: “It is that the 1980s are a period in which the United States has to conduct foreign policy as other nations have had to conduct foreign policy throughout their history. In the 1950s the United States represented some 52 percent of the world’s Gross National Product. Under these circumstances, our foreign policy was really a problem of identifying issues and overwhelming them with resources. Our allies were largely dependent on us and our adversaries needed primarily to be convinced that we meant business on whatever issue concerned us most. Every decade since then, the percentage of the world’s total Gross National Product which the United States represents has declined by some 10 percent. Now the United States represents some 21 or 22 per cent of the world’s Gross National Product. It still makes us the single largest economic unit, but it imposes on us necessities against which our historical tradition has rebelled. We now, for the first time in our history, face a situation in which if the whole rest of the world were to fall under hostile domination we would be clearly outmatched. Our policy from now on must be more like that pursued by Britain toward the continent of Europe through several centuries. It was a principle of British policy that a Europe united under the rule of a single dominant power would be in a position to outmatch and endanger Great Britain; therefore, Britain made itself the balancer of the European equilibrium, a role it fulfilled by acting soberly, rather unemotionally, based on a careful assessment of the balance of power. With respect to the rest of the world, the United States is today in an analogous position. Maintaining the equilibrium is no longer a favour we do for other nations. It is an imperative of our survival” (pp. 79-80).
The pursuit of world power equilibria thus represents the polar star of US foreign policy. And Kissinger, with great lucidity, attempts to apply this principle to the main international issues. The former Secretary of State believes himself to be a realist: it makes no sense to fight sword in hand either for great ideals, or to maintain a system now destined to be eliminated by the train of events. It is worthwhile only pursuing those policies which achieve the crucial objective of reinforcing American influence in the world. However, this classic precept of foreign policy no longer seems effective in today’s world. The reader cannot help escaping the conclusion here and there that there are obvious difficulties: maintaining a bipolar equilibrium in the long run creates more difficulties than it solves in the short run. For example, as regards the Middle East — perhaps the most complex question in which the American administration is inevitably involved with enormous risks — Kissinger recognizes that “Egypt — and, if we are honest with ourselves, the dominant trend within our own Department of State — seeks to nudge the talks in the direction of a Palestinian entity, the inevitable chrysalis of a Palestinian state” (p. 54). But a little later on he admits that “the creation of another radical state with irredentist aims toward both Jordan and Israel is irreconcilable with the stability of the Middle East” (p. 98). This is a classic case of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds: America is trying to get on with all the parties (and, above all, with the powerful Jewish lobby in USA) with the result that local tensions are merely aggravated.
Even more strident is the contradiction inherent in American foreign policy vis-à-vis the Third World. “It is clear that a world of progress and peace requires that more than one hundred new and developing nations be made part of the international system; no international order can survive unless they feel a stake in it” (p. 20). In this respect Kissinger is very well aware that it is impossible for these peoples to take part in the world system — which for the time being is restricted to rich countries — without any effective development aid policy, so much so that he puts forward proposals for a new US Marshall Plan for Latin America. But, in the final instance, it is politics as the art of the possible which holds sway: “In a period of austerity in the industrialized world, official aid budgets are not going to be substantially increased. Developing countries will have to adjust to the reality that foreign private investment is the most promising source of development capital” (p. 72). However, very realistically, Kissinger himself recognizes that this type of policy in the long term can only provoke a growing Third World indebtedness on the financial market and that the fears of a new and very dramatic crisis in the international economy, whose dimensions could be even greater than those of 1929, are far from unfounded. The world is on the edge of an abyss and major reforms — says Kissinger — are required both in the system of trade (nation-states are increasingly tempted by protectionism) and in the international monetary system (it is dangerous to insist on the policy of floating exchange rates). The construction of a new international economic system is thus the order of the day. The initiative can only come, from the USA. “Only America can lead the world to rapid economic recovery” (p. 137), Kissinger asserts with great confidence. But the reader is left with the legitimate doubt of wondering — assuming America is really capable of promoting world recovery — how come the US government (precisely when Kissinger was in power) chose to adopt a system of floating exchange rates rather than strengthen the Bretton Woods system.
The greatest difficulties and contradictions emerge, however, as regards security policy. US security depends on two basic factors: ties with the USSR and Western Europe, the main ally of the United States. Kissinger lucidly recognizes the stalemate situation in which the US finds itself: “Once the Soviet Union acquired the capacity to threaten the United States with direct nuclear retaliation, the American pledge to launch an all-out nuclear war on behalf of Europe was bound increasingly to lose its credibility and public acceptance — and so would NATO’s defense strategy. For that strategy now rested on the threat to initiate mutual suicide… The legacy we are left with is a precarious combination of a reliance on nuclear defense, trends toward nuclear stalemate, growing nuclear pacifism, and continued deficiencies in conventional forces. If the democracies are reluctant to resort to nuclear weapons, and if they continue to evade the necessity of building up their conventional forces, then the Western Alliance is left with no defense policy at all, and we are risking the collapse of the military balance that has made possible thirty-five years of Western security, prosperity, and democracy. We will in effect have disarmed ourselves unilaterally while sitting on the most destructive stockpile of weapons that the world has seen” (pp. 65-66).
It is at this point that the reader begins to have serious doubts on the value of the polar star that Kissinger identifies as the reliable guide for the uncertain US policymaker. Kissinger claims he is convinced of the superiority of the USA, unless substantial changes take place in international equilibria, vis-à-vis the USSR. For example, as regards the economy, he argues that “the dilemma of Communism is that it seems impossible to run a modem economy by a system of total planning; yet it may not be possible to maintain a Communist state without a system of total planning” (p.67). This contradiction is sufficient to maintain the distances between the two economic systems: the USSR is destined to chase after the US eternally. But in the military field, the reader cannot help noticing that there are no good grounds for boasting of a sure US superiority. Even supposing the armaments available to the two superpowers were reduced by half, enough of them would be left over to guarantee mutual destruction (as Kissinger admits on page 184). It is not thus through the search for military and technological superiority that the United States will be able to guarantee their security (the SDI project does not change the substance of the dilemma).
The basic problem, which Kissinger discusses at greatest length in his essays, is the relationship with European allies. Europe will be the decisive area for the West’s future. NATO is in crisis. An alliance between unequal parties cannot survive without problems. Kissinger remarks that “in the long run, consultation works only when those being consulted have a capacity for independent action” (p. 205). Europeans do not, however, want to take on independent responsibilities on the matter of defence. For this reason, one of the main political proposals in the book relates to a NATO reform plan, in which Kissinger invites the European allies to shoulder the responsibilities of sustaining the burden of conventional defence in Europe. This will make it possible to carry out a gradual withdrawal of American troops in Europe or their use, while maintaining Europe as a base, in other regions of the world (the Middle East, Africa, etc.). Only vis-à-vis a politically united Europe conscious of its world responsibilities will it be possible to improve ties between the allies on both sides of the Atlantic. “In the field of defense, increased European responsibility and unity would promote closer co-operation with the United States” observes Kissinger (p. 207).
As regards the problem of a United Europe the United States have in the past looked on this favourably and continue to do so. As Kissinger points out, “Federalism, of course, was a hallowed American principle. Shortly after the Philadelphia Convention, Benjamin Franklin was urging on the French the attractions of a federal Europe. A similar evangelism, in a more practical form, shone through the Marshall Plan”. Americans have not always been aware of the fact that greater European independence would have generated grounds for conflict with the USA. They deluded themselves into believing that Europe would be able to share the goals of US foreign policy entirely and would not attempt to follow others on their own behalf. “That cannot be so”. Despite these illusions, Kissinger concludes that “our original judgement was correct: European unity, strength, and self-confidence are essential for the future of the West. It is beyond the psychological resources of the United States — not only the physical — to be the sole or even the principal center of initiative and responsibility in the non-Communist world” (pp. 13-14).
What is striking in Kissinger’s observations is the concern for problems which lead the US to look beyond their raison d’état, taken in the traditional sense of maintaining the existing world balance of power. The world is currently founded on Russian and American bipolarism, but the greatest contemporary problems have forced the two superpowers to seek solutions incompatible with maintaining the status quo. It is in fact a complete and utter nonsense, in terms of bipolar equilibrium, to encourage the process of European political unification and emancipation of the Third World. Such a policy, if pursued consistently, can only lead to polycentrism and, therefore, towards a redimensioning of the superpowers to a regional rank. In truth, the parallel suggested by Kissinger between the position of Great Britain vis-à-vis the European system of states and the United States’ current position is only accurate in part. The European system was an advanced international system while the size of the nation state was sufficient to guarantee the cultural, civil and economic development of European peoples. The national framework, however, proved to be an unbearable suprastructure already at the beginning of the century, when the growing interdependence of European economies forced the states of the old continent to desperately seek a “vital space” beyond the sacrosanct national boundaries.
Kissinger records this new fact in the contemporary age. “For the first time in history the world economy has become truly international… Not even the strong political differences between the Soviet bloc and West have proved an obstacle to these dominant trends” (p. 223). It follows that the main task of contemporary politics is “to resolve the discordance between the international economy and the political system based on the nation-state” (p. 225). From these correct premises, however, Kissinger does not draw the logical conclusion: it is no longer true that the United States can take on — alone — the leadership of a process that can lead to a solution of major contemporary problems. We can no longer repeat what happened in the immediate postwar period, with the Marshall Plan and analogous initiatives for the construction of a stable international economic system, in which the USA played a beneficial role for the entire world (including the USSR). Here lie the main difficulties in the current US foreign policy. The relative decline in US power vis-à-vis new centres (Europe, China, Japan, Third World) of the international politics encourages the US government to seek solutions increasingly based on the exercise of force, rather than on the consensus of the allies and the other peoples. But this generates a dangerous involuted spiral. US leadership has so far been based more on the consensus of the allies than on imperial logic. It is unthinkable that America will be able to maintain the unity of the western world with methods like those the USSR has used since the war with its satellites. The obstinate search for world leadership will alienate the US even more from its Atlantic partners.
A true turning point in American foreign policy can only come from the reversal of the current priorities (the interests of America, says Kissinger, are also the interests of the world). The interests of America and the entire Western world may be better pursued if the interests of all mankind are placed first on the list or, to be more empirical, if the US give absolute priority to the solution of the world’s major problems through co-operation — and not conflict — with the other centres of power in the world. Today it is possible to conceive policies that go beyond raison d’état, which represent the structure underpinning real international détente, the indispensable premise for the future (albeit the very distant future) world government. The guidelines to this new US policy might be the following.
1) Vis-à-vis the USSR, America ought to try to obtain real guarantees for its own security and that of the West aiming more at a democratic transformation of the Soviet regime than at improbable military and technological supremacy. The nuclear holocaust is a common threat to both Americans and Russians. An atomic war, world public opinion is convinced, could not have effects limited to a small region of the world. Today the danger of war takes on a new dimension in the awareness of peoples because a nuclear war would leave neither victors nor vanquished. Given the point to which nuclear technology has been perfected and the exploitation of spaces, it is really nonsensical to pursue security only in military terms. The only true guarantee of security for the USA consists in encouraging the process of democratization which, albeit with difficulty and with an unsteady pace, is now underway in the USSR after the XXVII Congress of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. Were this process to take root, the conditions would arise for a relaunch of a plan of collective guarantees similar to the 1947 Baruch Plan, when the USA, who then held a monopoly over the atomic bomb, generously offered the USSR the possibility of sharing control over the new technology. The tension generated by the Cold War did not make it possible to achieve appreciable results then, but a new “Baruch” plan would be quite different in a situation where world public opinion is increasingly concerned with science fiction-type projects about star wars and desires concrete steps towards peace (guaranteed by the world’s real power to monitor nuclear technology on a world scale and not just bilateral agreements).
Effective steps towards international détente could also take the shape of a greater, and possibly complete, liberalization of trade, technological and financial ties between East and West. The USA are stubborn in their policy of preventing greater ties between Eastern and Western European countries for reasons of military security. But does it make sense to continue this type of ostracism when the USA and the USSR are so powerful militarily to be able to destroy each other several times over? And is it legitimate to ask the Soviet regime to create more democracy and liberty within its borders when everything is done to block the introduction of the Soviet economy in the international market? Has the American government not always sustained that economic freedom in the past represented and still does represent a major premise for economic growth, development and democracy and finally lasting ties of friendship between peoples?
2) Vis-à-vis Europe, America currently feels uneasiness as regards having to support the cost of European defence for allies who repay her with continual criticism. Kissinger is right: an alliance based on an unequal distribution of responsibilities does not stand up to the weathering of time. The radical solution to this state of affairs is the explicit US invitation to its allies in Europe to provide for their own defence. It would be a healthy shock to the Old Continent that now has a European Parliament elected by universal suffrage, but does not have the courage to take on the world responsibilities that ought to fall to a people who are just as rich as the USA and more numerous than the people of the USSR. Europe has all the resources needed to guarantee autonomous defence. But in this sense we need to recognize that there is no sense in implementing the half measures proposed by Kissinger. At the very most, NATO could be dissolved, with a dual advantage: the Eastern European countries would be invited to do the same with the Warsaw Pact and a factor of serious tension between the USA and the USSR would be eliminated (the desire to carve Europe up into spheres of influence). A Europe capable of autonomous defence (and hence possessing its own nuclear deterrent) would be a much more precious ally for America than European countries are today, integrated as they are in NATO, but utterly dependent on their Atlantic overlord as regards defence. True solidarity between Europe and the United States is based on a common culture, political regimes and the now very close economic integration. These factors will be decisive for joint future action by the USA and the European federation in world policy in defence of democracy.
3) Vis-à-vis the Third World, the United States ought to work to promote a new world Marshall Plan for the industrialization of underdeveloped countries, with long-term public credit granted to the poorest countries. All the major industrialized countries, in particular Western Europe, the USSR and Eastern European countries ought to participate in the implementation of this plan, whose basic objective is to end the world’s North-South divide. The structures of a new international monetary system and a new system of trade could be redefined within this very long-term project. The basic characteristic of the institutions of the “new world economic system” should be that all states who accept its inspiring principles should be allowed to join. They should also encourage, as far as it is possible, the formation of a free world market with monetary and credit institutions subjected to collective control. (For instance the development of instruments of payment of international trade as Special Drawing Rights vis-à-vis the use of national currencies as reserve currencies should be encouraged). It goes without saying that this great project of renewal of the world economy could use many of the agencies and institutions already created within the UN and would represent the backbone of a policy directed towards relaunching the UN as the main body for international co-operation. In the economic field, it will in actual fact be possible to proceed in the direction of strengthening international institutions with greater gradualness as compared with security and weapons. The experience of the European Community ought in this sense to be a significant model. A climate of intense co-operation — between the USA, the USSR, Europe and Japan — to defeat the dramatic problem of famine and underdevelopment can only make the process of détente irreversible between East and West.
This change in tendency in American foreign policy is inspired by political realism, if by this we mean the pursuance of a policy designed to translate the problems raised by the course of history into projects. From this standpoint, anyone who backs the conservation of a world in decline is not a good politician since he is destined in the long run to be defeated: and there can be no doubt that American foreign policy based on the search for supremacy is now condemned by history, because time will prove it to be contrary not only to the interests of the allies but also the Americans themselves. For this reason, Europeans have great responsibilities to bear. They must conclude, without further hesitation, the process of construction of the European federation, with their own government, own currency and own defence. The European federation — we should be clear on this point — will be able to become a new superpower and operate against US foreign policy. This falls within the logic of a world system based on power equilibria. There are, however, many causes as we have already stated that unite Europeans and Americans, so much so that it would not be at all inconceivable to place an economic and monetary union between Europe and America on history’s agenda, in the first phase, and to transform the Atlantic Alliance into a true Atlantic federation (with the possible inclusion of Japan), in the second phase. But this will be practically impossible as long as East-West tension continues. European peoples deeply feel the ties of history and culture that unite them on this side and the other side of the Iron Curtain. In addition, there is an increasingly deep-rooted conviction that the world is marching towards unity and that any policy aimed at maintaining the opposing blocks is now condemned by history.
For this reason it is virtually impossible that public opinion in Europe will rise in favour of the Atlantic federation as opposed to the Eastern Communist countries (think merely of the German problem). It is much more likely that Europeans will accept the objective of a federation of democracies if this means that the union of all peoples who accept a few basic principles of civil co-existence, above all political pluralism. But the Soviet Union should be cordially invited to join in such a project, possibly agreeing with all those forms of unity compatible with the degree of pluralism and democracy achieved within its borders. The participation, for example, in joint control bodies of the international economy is now both possible and necessary. In a nutshell, the Atlantic federation should only be one of the possible variants of the “partial world government” proposed by Einstein.
New fruitful ties between European and American federalists now seem possible. US federalists can operate in favour of a federation between democracies, as the first step towards world government, even through strong criticism of the power politics of their government, when it is manifested, and suggesting concrete alternative projects to overcome this. On this basis, solid joint action between federalists in the old and new continents, in the struggle to overcome the politics of power, may come about.