From Kissinger to Trump

A brief history of international relations

More than a mere difference of rhetoric sets the US National Defense Strategy of 2008 apart from the updated 2018 version. The Republicans were in control and power at the time of publication of both documents, though the second Bush administration would give way to the Obama presidency a few months following the publication of the first. They came against the backdrop of shifting geopolitical concerns: the 2008 brief in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2018 brief in the aftermath of the ascendancy of China.

It’s not a little significant that the second document devotes less attention than the first to the threat of Islamic extremism. Significant, also, is the point that the 2008 brief lists down two countries as rogue-states (Iran and North Korea), while the 2018 brief adds two more (China and Russia). There you have the main difference: the first emphasises cooperation with allies and competitors, the second recognises the competitors among its enemies. In that sense it’s a more fundamentalist version of George W. Bush coalition of the willing and his bellicose “if you’re not with us you’re with them” jingoism.

The US has been grappling with how best it can advance its interests in the world, and throughout much of the 20th century, particularly during the Cold War, the issue boiled down to the debate between the realists and the idealists. Since the end of the Cold War this debate has been girded by another: between the neoconservatives and the neoliberals. Foreign policy wise, especially as far as countries like Sri Lanka are concerned, there’s very little difference between these groups: both believe in the furtherance of American interests abroad, even if their tactics diverge. US foreign policy, in other words, differs at the level of theory at home but remains roughly the same in terms of achievement of objectives abroad.

Is there a point, then, in differentiating between these schools of thought, be they idealist, realist, neoconservative, or neoliberal? I think so, for one cardinal reason.

The cardinal reason is that theory may be grey (as Goethe saw it), but more often than not it is a guide to action (as Marx and Engels saw it). How can we begin to understand a particular administration without understanding the justifications it puts out for interventions in other parts of the world? Policy documents matter because they are adhered to, whether in the breach or the observance. Any student of US foreign policy will tell you that US presidents have resorted to doctrines and communiqués to validate their actions overseas. It is more than intellectual laziness to shrug off US administrations as being one and the same. At a fundamental level, to be sure, no difference exists, but fighting one’s way through into the fog, one finds the little details that help distinguish policies from each other.

Take the 2008 and the 2018 National Defense Strategies. Both are premised on the need to preserve America’s interests. But where the 2008 brief lays down five short objectives, the 2018 brief lays down 11 long ones. The first emphasises states as the fundamental unit of the international order (“even though the role of non-state actors in world affairs has increased”), while the second document shifts the emphasis slightly to non-state players. Both view the prevalence of one over another as beneficial to their interests: indeed, the emergence of non-state actors over states is welcomed in the 2018 brief, since “multilateral organizations, non-governmental organizations, corporations, and strategic influencers provide opportunities for collaboration and partnership.” Even if the overarching objective — “Defend the Homeland” in the first brief and “Defend the homeland from attack” in the second — has not altered, US perception of shifting geopolitical realities can, and will, change.

Kissinger was arguably the first American political theorist to underline the need for foreign policy to respond to such changing geopolitical realities. The foremost exponent of realism in international relations of the 20th century, he believed that strategy should be planned and implemented “on the basis of the other side’s capabilities and not merely a calculation of its intentions.” Where the US was going wrong in the Cold War, he opined, was its inability to distinguish between a legitimate order — a rules-based one — and a revolutionary order — one in which countries refuse to accept “either the arrangements of the settlement or the domestic structure of other states.” It all boiled down to power: “relations cannot be conducted without an awareness of power relationships.” Overemphasis on theory, Kissinger added, “can lead to a loss of touch with reality”, and reality can change as much abroad as at home.

The shift from idealism to realism transpired in the interwar period. As Europe was to realise to its cost, the Treaty of Versailles, with its assumption that states would cooperate with each other to prop up order and preserve peace, squeezed the middle-classes of Germany and Italy to such an extent that the inevitable outcome had to be fascism on one hand and isolationism on the other. The predominance of idealism in international relations thus ended up producing a backlash against it, as events in the Sudetenland were to prove.

Who were the idealists in America? Woodrow Wilson, mainly. Historians remain divided on whether the Wilsonian League of Nations, which the US never joined, did more to provoke rather than prevent the resumption of war. His insistence on unanimity, even in the face of opposition from Congress, tends to paint him in an unflattering light today. Yet it can also be argued that Wilson’s uncompromising intransigence gave the impetus for his successors to take up the cause of an alliance-driven world order as and when the situation demanded it. In that sense his successor was Franklin Roosevelt, an irony given that the ultimate realist US president prior to World War I had been Roosevelt’s uncle, Theodore.

Where Wilson and the League of Nations, to which he put much laudable effort, failed was their patent inability to manage power relationships between nations. As E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau were to highlight in their writings, relations exist on the level of nations. Peace cannot be maintained on the basis of an assumption of unity. For such unity to prevail, power must be balanced. Hence the rude awakening which was World War II propelled the US to embrace realism as the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Realism in post-war America (and Western Europe) is typically identified with three political theorists: Kissinger, George Kennan, and Raymond Aron. Their conceptions of realpolitik differed somewhat from one another. Kissinger prided himself on being another Metternich, the 19th century Austrian diplomat who, via an amalgam of cynical power politics and deft negotiation, maintained peace in Europe against the Bonapartist threat by way of Concerts, Alliances, and intrigue. Kennan gained influence as the foremost exponent of containment, arguing that the Soviet threat could be countered through an anticommunist federation in Western Europe; this gradually put him on a collision course with the Truman administration. Aron saw politics as irreducible to morals, yet somehow comes off as more ethical minded than Kissinger or Kennan; the thesis that the state holds a monopoly over the use of force, he says, does not extend to relations between nations. Thus for Aron, unlike for Kissinger and to a lesser extent for Kennan, the ideal must be liberal democracy. In that sense he is more of a classical realist vis-à-vis Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau.

At any rate, idealism could not win because the War defeated one ideology and put to power another: the fall of fascism in the Western half of Europe was followed by the resurgence of Communism in the Eastern half. This was a situation palpably different to the status quo in much of the interwar period until the late 1920s. Conflicts could be defused, no matter how clumsily or ineffectually, through temporary alliances forged between one set of nations over another. Post-war America, on the other hand, had to face not just Soviet aggression, but the reality of decolonisation giving way to either Third World alliances with power blocs or the strengthening of Third World neutralism vis-à-vis the Non-Aligned Movement.

Historians and political theorists have not given the emphasis it deserves to the role of the Non-Aligned Movement in defusing tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Where they touched on nonalignment, US officials were almost always critical: John Foster Dulles called it immoral, to give one example. Kissinger was more dismissive than critical: he took it for granted that given the cultural gulf between the US and the Third World, alliances with the latter were simply not going to work. He identified, however, the basis of the Movement in the undercurrents of tension between the two power blocs: “Nehru’s neutrality is possible,” he crisply noted, “only as long as the United States remains strong.” Once US power went for a six, the Movement would sooner or later come tumbling down.

The point I’m trying to make here is that realpolitik as the cornerstone of US foreign policy could thrive because of the two divisions in the world order at the time: not just between free market capitalism and “godless” communism, but also between alignment and neutrality. The use of proxies from Third World states in the Cold War made it possible for the US (and the Soviets) to projects its dominance, while concurrently pre-empting escalation of war by way of provoking opposition from the nonaligned Third World.

Realism, in other words, could not have prevailed without Third World unity, which acted as a bulwark and a dedicated player in the cause of neutrality against interventions by the two superpowers. Kissinger’s claim that the “uncommitted nations” relied in their dealings with the new post-war world order on an “overestimation of the power of words”, and that this behoved them to Soviet antiwar propaganda, is reductionist and erroneous; in his assertion that they were incapable of grasping “the full impact of industrialism”, and with it the new order, he was betraying his Orientalist prejudices. No wonder Edward Said devoted space to Kissinger in the opening pages of his book on the subject.

It is not technically correct to say that realism ended with Kissinger, even if as the guiding principle of US foreign policy realpolitik faded away at the tail-end of the 1970s with the rise of neoliberalism and the 1990s with the rise of neoconservatism. But its end had to do with two historical eventualities: the shift from the Old to the New Right in the West, and the slow strangulation of Communism. As I have noted in my essays on the Non-Aligned Movement, with these transformations eroded neutralism’s relevance.

Noam Chomsky is largely right when he argues that the US privileges its interests no matter what the administration is (which is ironic given his cautious embracement of Biden-Harris over Trump-Pence at the US election). But this does not necessarily mean the realist-idealist disjuncture should be ignored altogether. Kissingerian pragmatism has eroded not because the US is the sole superpower, but because it is not: the world since 1995, according to Jessica Matthews (“What Foreign Policy for the US?”, New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015), has presented a conundrum for the formulation of US foreign policy because of five factors: the shift from diplomatic initiative to military power, globalisation, the 9/11 attacks, the growth of China, and Russia’s shift to the East.

It is with these points in mind that we ought to read policy documents from Washington. Taking them with a pinch of salt, with the understanding that there exists a difference only at the tactical and not the strategic level as far as foreign policy formulation between different administrations is concerned, we must nevertheless pay attention to the texts and contexts which colour the rhetoric of these documents.

It is curious that the egoistic ethos of the Trump administration and the analytical rigour of the Bush administration come through in the two strategy documents I outlined earlier: the 2008 policy document ends with a pledge that the Department of Defence “stands ready to fulfil its mission”, while the 2018 one reiterates that very same pledge through the personal assurance of its author, James Mattis. The one does not personalise, the other does nothing but personalise. Yet underlying both is a deeply Manichean view of the world. How the US projects this view through different windows and curtains is the challenge those involved in foreign policy, particularly in countries such as ours, must face and meet.

The writer can be reached at

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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