Henry Kissinger‘s renascent role in US-Russian diplomacy
Remarkably, 93-year old Henry Kissinger is still making judicious and fruitful public and private interventions in Russia-US relations. It seems his moment may have come again to make a difference as an East-West peace-broker, as he did in the Nixon-Brezhnev years ( for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1973).
It is a story worth telling, because Kissinger’s views on East-West relations are based in his superb knowledge of European diplomatic history since the Congress of Vienna in 1814. Kissinger knows Russia has always been an important part of that history, and if treated with respect has a positive role to play.
Following his retirement from active US government public life in the early 1990s, Kissinger went on writing books, working out of his eponymous Institute, affiliated to the Wilson Center in Washington. He looked on with dismay as US-Russian relations began to deteriorate in around 2008, and especially after the violent overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014. He continued to visit Moscow and kept personal lines open to Putin. The Kremlin respected his insights and his past role in Cold War detente.
Starting in 2015, he began writing regularly in the well-regarded US Republican conservative realist journal The National Interest. His articles were reproduced on quality Russian websites like www.rt.com and www.rbth.com .
In an interview in 2015 with National Interest Editor Jacob Heilbrunn, Kissinger called for a realist re-balancing between power, as the determining element in international politics, and idealist Western values. He said this balance had been lost under all post-Cold War US administrations.
While Putin was focussed on running the Sochi Winter Olympics, the West had precipitated the Ukraine crisis in winter 2014. That crisis was the product of a clumsily over-ambitious EU diplomacy and US policy inattention. (I am not so sure of the latter: I think Kissinger was being diplomatic here, hoping to influence the Obama team: he became franker in late 2016).
Kissinger urged the US to help solve the Ukraine impasse. The US had to recognise that the relationship between Russia and Ukraine would always be special. It could not be limited to a relationship of two sovereign states, not with the border so close to Moscow and Stalingrad. The West needed to ‘at least examine the possibility of some cooperation between the West and Russia in a militarily non-aligned Ukraine.’
In February 2016 Kissinger visited Moscow as VIP guest to deliver the Primakov Lecture. He mourned the fact that East-West relations were now the worst they had been since the end of the Cold War. Mutual trust had been dissipated. Confrontation had replaced cooperation. There had been a failure of Western statesmanship in the post-Cold War years. There was mounting demonisation of the other side’s leaders.
This very important speech – full of wisdom and rich insights – was fully reported in Moscow but virtually ignored in Washington where Kissinger was dismissed by Clinton’s young neo-cold warriors as an old Cold War fossil.
Now the wheel of history has turned again. The liberal hawk ascendancy in Washington, represented by figures like Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Victoria Nuland and Michael McFaul, is in ruins. Donald Trump is moving instinctively towards a more generous view of his scope for cooperation with Putin’s Russia. Finally, it is Kissinger’s opportunity again to play a positive policy role as a peacebroker. Both Putin and Trump respect his insights, and why should they not? His track record on pursuing realism-based East-West detente is impeccable.
Kissinger admits in his 2015 interview that he was pursuing detente as part of US strategy to win the Cold War and break Soviet communism. I do not think that it is his objective now to break Putin’s post-communist Russia. He sees Russia as a legitimate major player in the new world balance of power, and he wants to help restore Moscow-Washington understanding. This could be his finest hour.
In recent days, the Western foreign policy establishment house journals have been busy. Niall Ferguson in Foreign Policy on 23 December offered advice to Trump – which Trump is unlikely to read, let alone follow. The prestigious EU-based journal Politico published a similar article on 24 December (updated 30 December 2016) by Nahal Toosi and Isaac Arnsdorf.
Both essays contain grudging admissions that yes, maybe Kissinger makes some good points about Putin’s Russia. Both essays tie themselves in knots trying to maintain something of the until-recently set-in-concrete Washington liberal hawk condemnatory consensus on Putin, while paying lip service at least to the more flexible thinking of the Trump transition team, intellectually backed by Kissinger.
This process has far to go. There is still a lot of anti-Russian sentiment in the Republican Party and the final US policy balance cannot be predicted. Obama’s last-moment effort to poison the well of US-Russian relations by expelling 35 diplomats and introducing harsh new sanctions was deftly countered by Putin’s brilliantly magnanimous response not to respond reciprocally but instead to await better times under Trump.
In February, the Rex Tillerson nomination hearings will be an important test of will and strength.
But there is no doubt that Kissinger is in Trump’s and Putin’s corner on these issues. Some of his policy thinking is already becoming clearer, through he will keep much of it under wraps. Kissinger has spoken recently of the historic opportunity of this moment of political transition. He proposed a Ukraine conflict resolution deal by which Crimea’s incorporation into Russia be recognised de facto by the West, and both sides guarantee the rest of Ukraine’s indivisibility and territorial integrity, possibly with some form of demilitarisation of Ukraine.
On the peace deal emerging in Syria now, Kissinger would argue that the US should get on board this deal, not seek to discredit it.
Kissinger would advocate a return to a regular and mutually respectful US-Russian arms control and nuclear safety dialogue, and an end to the constant vituperation and demonisation of Putin that became Washington’s leitmotif, both before and especially during the bitter election campaign of 2016.
None of this would present problems for Putin or the Russian state. It will require some time to digest in Washington. So 2017 will be an interesting year. There will be relapses, and deliberate efforts by malevolent elements in Washington and NATO to disrupt an East-West detente redux. But I am optimistic that the overall trend for 2017 will be positive.
Viva Henry! Long life to you! Can he win the Nobel Peace Prize twice? Maybe.
Tony Kevin‘s latest book Return to Moscow, a literary-historical travel memoir, published by University of Western Australia Press, will be launched with John McCarthy AO at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Glover Cottages, 124 Kent Street, Millers Point, Sydney 2000 at 5.30 pm on Tuesday 14 February. Enquiries to [email protected]