Morocco’s New Africa Policy? The African Union, Algeria, and Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

This past Sunday, Morocco made a surprise move by sending a delegation to the African Union (AU)—the transnational union charged with encouraging African nations’ solidarity and the politico-economic integration of the full continent. Leaving the organization over 30 years ago, it has been the only non-member nation in Africa. King Mohammed VI of Morocco, in his official request to be reinstated in a letter to the AU chairperson affirmed, “The time has come for Morocco to find its organic place within the African Union.” Ahead of this request the small North African kingdom is also attempting a measured rapprochement with its regional rival, Algeria. The results remain to be seen, and should be watched.


Morocco left the AU in protest in 1984 after the supranational body recognized the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD, as it is known by its French acronym). RASD controls part of the Western Sahara east of the disputed region’s dividing wall (the berm). Morocco has laid claim to the Western Sahara since 1975, while RASD (with Algeria’s backing) aims to end the Morocco presence (which many call an occupation) in the disputed region. Morocco would like to rejoin the AU on the condition that the RASD’s membership is suspended.

As a supporter of the RASD, and a champion of the Saharawi cause on the African stage, it took Algeria a few days to conjure a response. Yesterday morning, Algeria’s Minister for Maghreb Affairs, the AU and the Arab League, Abdelkader Messahel stated emphatically: “A nation can not apply for membership in the AU with conditions […] of the suspension of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.” Algeria has long been a behemoth in the AU, particularly in the area of military and security cooperation, and has had a good deal of de facto veto power. It has had an outsized role in security across the Sahel (as well as being an economic giant) and most recently played an important brokering role in the Malian conflict.

This rapprochement moreover comes at an interesting time, where Morocco’s relations with the EU have been recently strained due to some member states’ reticence to trade with Morocco in goods originating from the disputed Western Sahara. In turn, Morocco’s diplomatic hardball has not produced the more pro-Morocco approach to that territory that it had hoped on the part of the European body. However, these gestures to the AU should certainly not be seen as a “pivot” away from the EU, for Morocco will always rely on good relations with its allies across the Mediterranean. Instead, it is another instance of Morocco playing all of its potential cards and working every possible ally.

And after decades on the African periphery, Morocco’s request is far from sudden. Mohammed VI has made engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa more of a priority during his reign, unlike his father who focused heavily on the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli peace process. Morocco has been striving for clout for years, as Algeria has traditionally been the major power in North and West Africa. The kingdom has long been trying to gain a foothold particularly in the Sahel through highly publicized imam-trainings, the expansion of banks, resource extraction, etc. In Mali for instance, Morocco is one of its biggest African investors (through expansion of its Attijariwafa Bank and Maroc Telecom), and is rapidly developing portfolios in agriculture, mines, and energy.

This gradual boost in diplomatic engagement with African countries has underscored religious-cultural links (emphasizing their common Maliki school, as well as the Sufi networks, both of which are held up by the kingdom as not only a regionally binding force but a counterweight to extremism), and bolstered economic ties. These overtures are in part to prove its counter-terror mettle to Western interests (this week it has sent a delegation to an anti-ISIS meeting in Washington), but also as a bid to win over African countries on the question of the Western Sahara. The AU’s policy toward the territory has long been steered by ideals enshrined in its charter regarding the full and complete decolonization of those African territories under external occupation. Sahelian countries in particular have long sympathized with the plight of the Saharawis and their tiny nation. Morocco meanwhile maintains that the Western Sahara constituted an integral part of Greater Morocco prior to its division by colonial powers. Despite making this case for years, the kingdom has realized it will not make any further headway with this crowd if it persisted with its “chaise vide” policy of abstaining from the union.

These soft efforts upon which Morocco embarked while absent from the AU may have worked. In support of Morocco’s bid to rejoin, 28 of the 54—just over half—African member states have requested RASD’s suspension from the AU in order to revisit the issue under newer circumstances (Some key signatories include Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cape Verde, Comoros, Congo, Ivory coast, Djibouti, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Liberia.)


A significant hurdle for Morocco is that the AU’s most powerful members remain steadfast —at least officially—against change in status of the Western Sahara. Morocco’s perennial adversary on the issue, Algeria, has been at the forefront of this opposition. Nonetheless, a recent Moroccan initiative to improve relations appears to be making headway, conveniently timed just ahead of Morocco’s potential return to the AU.

In a bilateral context, Morocco’s Delegate to the Foreign Affairs Minister, Nasser Bourita met with Algerian PM Abdelmalek Sellal. Meanwhile, Yassine Mansouri, the head of the intelligence apparatus, the General Directorate of Studies and Documentation (DGED), convened with Major General Othman Tartag, the head of Algeria’s intelligence agency, the Security Services Department (DSS; formerly DRS). Adding gravitas to the event, Mansouri is one of the members of the king’s innermost circle and childhood classmate. While the content of their talks remain undisclosed, it is no coincidence the meeting with Algeria occurred just before Morocco’s plans unfurled. Indeed while Morocco is slowly improving its standing, it wouldn’t wish to further antagonize one of the AU’s most powerful players in the process.

Algerian government sources say the talks focused on security matters, and the threat of ISIS to Africa, as well as convenient alliances between extremist groups and smugglers. This past Sunday, Algeria announced that it had reached an agreement with Morocco to engage in better security cooperation, counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing.

Algerian authorities alerted Morocco that many Moroccans made it to Libya by crossing Algerian land, and were sent back home on flights. Therefore beyond its aspirations to the AU, Morocco is rightly concerned about the return of its nearly 3,000 nationals who have become ISIS combatants (primarily in Syria and Libya) and hopes to cooperate with battle-tested Algeria on security and intelligence exchanges, and tap into their military expertise.

These steps are smart and pragmatic moves that seem to reverse the previously emotional tenor of relations between the neighbors. The trip to Algeria gives the Moroccan efforts a veneer of friendship and goodwill, and the outreach to the AU could position Morocco to better promote its interests on the continent’s stage, countervailing the traditional South African-Algerian-Nigerian control of the union—an axis which supports RASD’s claims to the Western Sahara. It thus remains to be seen whether the triumvirate will be able to curb support for the measure to meet Morocco’s conditionality of RASD’s suspension from the AU.

Thus in spite of a possible thaw in relations, acrimony and suspicions linger. Algerians are framing the olive branch as Morocco’s diplomatic defeat as illustrated in its coverage in the normally ideologically diverse Algerian press. Even diplomat Abdelaziz Rahabi has told the Algerian press that Morocco’s return to the AU “would be a victory for the Saharawi cause” because it would be “an indirect recognition of the RASD and the Western Sahara as a state” according to the diplomat. However, as stated above, Morocco has in fact urged the AU to rethink its position on the Western Sahara, a “pre-condition” that Algeria has vocally denounced. If Morocco’s bid is successful, Algeria may well respond by seeking membership in CEN-SAD (Community of Sahel-Saharan States), the trade-focused AU sub-body de facto headed by Morocco which it does not presently participate.


Both Algeria and Morocco provide important strategic benefits to the U.S. on various fronts, and therefore it should continue its policy of dual engagement. Algeria is a strong, tested counterterror partner whereas the fruits of Morocco’s high-publicized “soft” counter-terrorism efforts are yet to be seen. At the same time, however, Morocco expresses willingness and openness to cooperation and fosters engagement with the U.S. that goes beyond military partnership—as evidenced by extensive educational and cultural exchanges. Algeria, on the other hand, appears stuck in a cold-war state of mind with more of a “you need us more than we need you” attitude toward the United States and West generally. (Indeed the North African giant is soul-searching regarding its long-held foreign policy values of non-intervention, which has bordered on bunker state behavior.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. has long taken a backseat on the Western Sahara, tacitly backing Morocco’s claims, while also nodding to Algeria and RASD’s objections about self-determination and human rights. Events are still unfolding, and what will result is still a moving target. Nevertheless, it will benefit policymakers to remain apprised of developments on this front, for it will influence how the U.S. engages Algeria and Morocco bilaterally, as well as the AU and Sahel.


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President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

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Iran Before and After 1979: How Did We Get Here from There?

Thirty-six years ago on February 11, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy came to an end and with it the commencement of an era of disorder throughout the Middle East. Just previously characterized by President Jimmy Carter as an “island of stability,” the political Shi’a clerics’ rapid confiscation of the state apparatus under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini dramatically shifted Iran’s foreign policy by  frequently supplanting national interests with sectarian ones. Khomeinism blended Third Worldism (anti-US), pan-Islamism (political Islam), and Shi’a-tinged liberation theology while also occasionally appealing to Persian historical greatness. That radical shift persists to this day. The consequences of this deviation from a more rational, national interest based, approach to policy formulation reverberate throughout the region today, particularly in the Levant and Mesopotamia. This reversal upended what had been a mutually beneficial de facto strategic alliance between Iran, Israel and the US that helped to maintain a balance of power in the region. Today’s relations among the three states could not be more different from the pre-1979 era as there is very little hope for democracy and secularism in today’s Iran.

How Did We Get Here?
In the wake of the events marking that wintery day of 1979, the trilateral Iran-Israel-USA alliance gave way to counter-natural realignments with unforeseeable consequences. Indeed, a cascade of incremental regional disintegration was to follow. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rent asunder the generally amiable relations between the countries since the signing of a friendship treaty in 1921. To the south, the House of Saud-led Arab Sunni sheikhdoms engaged in an ongoing battle against the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose supreme leader overtly challenged the former’s religious legitimacy.[1] From this struggle for the leadership mantle of Islam, a particular brand of Islamic extremism developed and became militarized, thus giving rise to the forces of al-Qaeda and ISIS decades later. On Iran’s west, Saddam Hussein assumed Iraq’s presidency in a brutal bloodbath, turning his military on what he perceived as a vulnerable Persia in the following year. Lacking allies in an increasingly unstable and threatening Middle East, post-revolutionary Iran took its friends where it could find them, targeting Shi’ite co-religionists in Damascus and southern Lebanon in need of oil and financing. And as Hezbollah (and eventually even Sunni Hamas) opened up smoldering fronts on Israel’s borders, that country’s political leadership gradually shifted from kibbutz-minded labor Zionism towards one increasingly religious.

While these events and the regional realignments they produced are varied in their underlying causes, they are in many ways direct consequences of Iran’s revolution.  Taking into account the exceptional degree of regional instability borne of policies beholden to the ideological precepts of the Vilayat-e Faqih, it remains highly unlikely that a greater peace will come to the Middle East while the present regime’s concept of the Islamic Republic of Iran persists. This is not to say that Iran’s current leadership behaves irrationally: if rational is the systematic pursuit of a set objective, then that leadership has consistently been rational from the onset in 1979. However, its calculus is based first and foremost in the survival of the revolutionary regime with a focus on sectarian concerns, and the relegation of genuine national interests to a distant second. For evidence, one needs to look no further than the milestones of this leadership’s record of the last 36 years.

By way of example, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the savage dismantling of the country’s military chain of command, as it immediately followed the `79 Revolution, with Saddam’s armies offensive as its direct consequence. Similarly, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the post-`79 destruction of the nation’s civil society, coupled with the executions and exile of its entrepreneurs and academics, which further placed Iran on a downward trajectory that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps only accelerated for the sake of its religious ideology with corollary financial benefits. On current display is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s intransigence over the nuclear issue, despite those debilitating sanctions presently levied against his country: since the so-called “revolution of the disinherited” and over the past 30 years, the number of people living in shanty towns in Iran has been multiplied by seventeen.[2]

The regime’s combined efforts to control any and all spaces for dissent culminate in a turn from a pluralistic reading of the country’s history to one that is strictly dogmatic in its Shia mania: a realistic reading of this country’s millennia-long journey shows that reducing Iran’s history, culture and identity to Islam, reducing Islam to Shiism and Shiism to Khomeinism is an academic nonsense. As a result, there is little hope of a reliable relationship with a “partner” committed to a culture of sectarianism despite today’s common concerns, be they geopolitical, geoeconomic, or environmental.

Consider this state of affairs with the regional policies of pre-revolutionary Iran. With Reza Shah’s drive to modernize and reform in the 1920s, Persia simultaneously embarked on a policy of good relations with its neighbors in order to better concentrate efforts on its internal development. This conciliatory, non-interventionist approach was consistently reaffirmed from the 1937 Sa’dabad Pact through the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO; 1955) to the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD; 1964), the latter comprising Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan. Significantly, Mohammad Reza Shah’s Iran further maintained its regional balance through its reliance on US and Israeli military and economic aid, designed to contain Soviet ambitions from the north and increasingly radical governments in Arab states, such as Egypt and Iraq. Combined, these alignments coincided with an unprecedented period of stability throughout the Northern Tier states, with resultant socio-economic benefits for Iran, prospering under the protective umbrella of the country’s well-equipped and trained armed forces.

Once a Successful Alliance

The former functionality of the Iran-Israel-US alliance was noteworthy in its pragmatic aspects: 

  • US and Iranian concerns of Soviet expansion into the Middle East, with Iran securely straddling a region bridging the Asia Minor to the Indian Ocean.
  • The multitude of US business interests entrenched in Iran, especially in its petroleum and arms industries.
  • Iran’s pivotal position in Israel’s “alliance of the periphery”, firmly coupled with US protective concerns for both countries.
  • The non-Arab cultural, linguistic, and historic Judeo and Persian national identities distinct in an otherwise predominantly Sunni-Arab region.
  • Common energy interests as Iran became the near-exclusive oil provider of Israel, as well as those in commerce, the military, and intelligence.

In an ideal future world, one might imagine Iran and Israel moving towards a new balance in their regional relationships given these common geographic, demographic, and economic interests, as well as certain civilizational considerations, that had brought them together in the past.

For the forseeable future, however, the Periphery Doctrine is no more and will never be the same as it once was. The reasons are several. The greatest, of course, was the paradigm shift of 1979 and the resulting challenge Khomeini made to the rival Riyadh, one that could not advance without taking the Arab side in the Palestinian Question, thus fundamentally putting it at odds with Israel. In stark contrast to decades of a cooperative relationship in military and economic spheres, Turkish-Israeli relations under Recip Tayyip Erdogan have sunk to new lows and will unlikely rebound without either a change of government in Ankara or a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran’s younger generations have shown a greater degree of concern and sympathy for Israel’s Arab citizens. Israel’s relations with Ethiopia during the era of the periphery alliance fluctuated, and although now improved, it may shift again. Finally, taking into account the post-Cold War Central Asia and the Caucasus (as well as what may be history’s first independent Kurdish state), a new group of states or nations that may constitute reliable peripheral allies have has expanded (e.g. Israeli-Azerbaijani security and trade relations).[3]


This is not to advocate for the resumption of Iran’s pre-Revolutionary status quo ante under an authoritarian ruler, who was quite far from being a liberal democrat. Indeed, his regime and the current are untenable due to the extraordinary amount of authority resting in the hands of a single individual, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader. If a system of governance is to be defined as the tangible and intangible relations of interdependent, rational elements whose raison d’être is the sustainability of the whole, the durability of a structure based predominantly in the power of one is limited. The lesson here is that whether the Pahlavism[4] of yesteryear or the current U.S. administration’s tacit acceptance of Iranian hegemony in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, placing long-term bets on oppressive Iranian regimes has borne and will continue to bear out poorly.

As noted, Khomeini’s victory in the wake of Iran’s revolution presaged an unforeseen era of strife reverberating throughout the Middle East over three decades later. Recognizing their limits, some counterfactuals are worth considering: Would the Red Army have invaded Iran’s neighboring Afghanistan had the strong military and intelligence Iran-Israel-US ties persisted? Would Saddam’s Baathist Iraq have dared to attack Iran, had the command structure of the Iranian armed forces not been devastated by Khomeini and his “religious intellectuals”? Would Saddam Hussein have sent his armies to Kuwait, had Iran remained strong and influential? Could a non-revolutionary Iran have played a potentially constructive role as a bridge between Jews and Arabs?

The tragic reverberations from the ‘79 Revolution actually represent an anomaly, a disruption of aligned interests. Before 1979 the convergence of interests between these states went deeper than Cold War politics. At one point in history, by reason of geopolitics, economy, security, culture, and energy, Iranian and Israeli concerns were in line and enjoyed attendant US engagement. Is it possible for such an arrangement to be realized once again? Not in the near future, but if it is to become an eventual possibility it could only be done through the establishment of a democratic and secular government in Tehran.  In the weeks and months ahead, many variables could radically change the entire Iranian equation: from the radicalizing internal antagonisms in the run up to the next Majlis elections in June 2016, to the medical condition of the Supreme Leader and the foreseeable major crisis that his succession would inevitably unleash. Free and fair elections represent the most viable political strategy over this period and beyond: The Islamic Republic is a signatory of the Paris 1994 inter-parliamentary declaration that defines the criteria for such elections. Wouldn’t a freely elected law-making assembly in Tehran be the West’s best Iranian partner in trust-building measures so badly needed to solve the nuclear and regional crises?


[1] Fuller, Graham. The Center of the Universe – The Geopolitics of Iran. Westview Press, 1991, p. 105.

[2] Radio Farda, March 13, 2015,

[3] Shaffer, Brenda, “Azerbaijan’s Cooperation with Israel Goes Beyond Iran Tensions,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 16, 2013,

[4] Bill, James. The Eagle and the Lion – The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. Yale Press, 1988, pp. 374-378. 

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Do sanctions on Russia create more problems than they solve?

The sanctions on Russia seem to be working. The sanctions, coupled with large victories by pro-Western parties in 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary elections, may contribute to a sense that matters are heading in the right direction for the U.S.

Why then did Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov say that the sanctions will fail? Partly, of course, he’s saving face. But he has a point. Politically, Putin is the strongest man in Russia. While the Russian oligarchs have immense power, they’re still not as strong as Putin. And even though Russian billionaires are steadily losing money, the reality is that Putin’s inner circle can probably weather the crisis, cossetted as they are by his influence. They’re wagering that the sanctions coalition and public approval for it will fracture before their fortunes decline.

So if the oligarchs can’t put enough pressure on Putin to leave Ukraine, what does that mean for Russia? The effects of economic sanctions are passed off to local consumers. The Russian ruble is at its lowest value since 1998. Its central bank has spent almost all of its cash reserves to keep the ruble afloat and may soon  raise interest rates, further damaging an economy that’s been going nowhere for a while. Inflation is on the rise. Capital flight reached $151.1 billion by the end of 2014. The Russian economy hasn’t looked any healthier in 2015.

In a fully functioning democracy, the people, feeling the economic pressure, would move to replace their leaders with ones more willing to deal with the West. Good luck in Russia. First, in Russia elections are not meaningful. There is no alternation of power. Second, Putin possesses an extraordinary ability to transmit a siege mentality through his control of the Russian media, which presents a unified image of the spiteful and jealous West as perpetrators of great injustices against a Russia that is simply assuming its rightful place. Nothing illustrates this better than how differently the downing of flight MH17 is perceived in Russia from the rest of the world. Because of his almost total control of the media, Putin can use the existence of the sanctions to distract from their effects, rallying the people against the “oppressive” West.

Another problem with the sanctions is that they are an attempt to force Putin to assume a position he cannot accept: that of Russia as a secondary nation. Although his speech in March 2014 in which he defended Russia’s involvement in Crimea was mainly a public-relations stunt designed to justify Russia’s actions, it demonstrated a worldview that is incompatible with the West. Through a flawed interpretation of history, Putin sincerely believes that Russia, after feasting at the main banquet, has been asked back to the children’s table.

Sanctions are a blunt weapon, whose effects are often hard to measure or to translate into political gains. However, there is no real alternative. Harsher sanctions could be imposed, but there is only so much to sanction, and cooperating with some of the European nations, whose economies are closer tied to Russia, has been difficult. Also, while isolating Russia economically and politically is the goal, Russia still has a role to play internationally. Sanctioning Putin directly would hamper attempts to work with him, further fuel his narrative of Russia as victim, and also could push him to take drastic action. The more options are taken away from a cornered man, the more likely it is that he will act irrationally. The only other option, military action, is out of the question.

So where does this leave us? The sanctions may have some significant negative side effects for long term U.S.-Russian relations, but they are also the only feasible way for the United States to defend its interests. Doing nothing would have a detrimental, trend-setting effect. Isolating Putin completely would probably create even greater problems. In the end, the United States must do two things. First, the West should try to do more to help Ukraine economically, to give it more stability. Of course, the internal stability of Ukraine depends very much on Ukraine. Ukraine is not the fifty-first state. It’s not even a member of the EU or NATO. Still, the U.S. can attach strings to its aid, such as necessitating anti-corruption measures, making use of the surge in pro-Western feeling in Western Ukraine. Second, the United States must continue to support NGOs in Russia and work to counteract Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric by introducing media of its own into Russia. Provoking the ire of the Russian people against Putin would be a huge coup for the West.

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research assistant intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. 

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Open Letters, Closed Minds, and the Making of US Foreign Policy

Friends and colleagues have asked me several times today for my opinion on the open letter to the Iranian government signed by forty-seven Republican members of the Senate, also known as the “Tom Cotton Letter.”

Since both the letter and the reactions to it have raised significant questions about the conduct and direction of American foreign policy, I think it is worth presenting a brief analysis, to help advance the conversation.

‪1. The best face to put on the letter is that Senator Cotton (R-AR) and his colleagues are expressing their concerns about what they consider a dangerous direction in American diplomacy, and their skepticism about any likely deal with Iran. That is of course very much within the rights of any member of congress (indeed, any American citizen). We are under no compulsion to agree with everything the President does, no matter what his more enthusiastic supporters may be implying on Facebook and elsewhere these days. I am also worried about how this deal is shaping up, and think we should be having a serious and public discussion of our policy vis-à-vis Iran.

‪2. That being said, the form chosen is so inappropriate as to severely undermine any point the authors hoped to make. Writing a brief “open letter” to a foreign government that includes condescending and amateurish (and, may I add, passive-aggressive) references to Congress’s role in the treaty process serves no good purpose at all. It not only shows contempt for the Executive Branch’s responsibility for foreign affairs, it also insults the intelligence of the Iranians. On top of that, it also undermines our negotiating partners, who include many of our closest allies in the world. Loudly announcing that the President has no authority to make a deal is deeply destructive, and will not be much help to future presidents either, whatever party they represent. I do not pretend to be able to look into the souls of the authors, but it appears to me that they have allowed their contempt for the president and the process, and their desire to play to certain putative elements of their political base, to blind them to the deeply problematic elements of this course of action.  An open letter that reflects a closed mind is bad politics and worse policy.

‪3. I repeat, the problem is not that they disagree with the president, but rather in appealing to the Iranians in this way. I fail to see how it serves any purpose other than to make them appear petty and the United States government appear dysfunctional. If the looming agreement is so terrible, then a better agreement will take further negotiation. They cannot seriously expect this letter to improve the western negotiating position; if they just want to torpedo any possibility of continued talks with no sense of what should come next, they are being irresponsible in the extreme.

‪4. What could/should they have done instead? Give speeches in the Senate, write op-ed pieces for American newspapers, and give TV interviews expressing their concerns about the deal. Those are perfectly legitimate ways to participate in public debate. I made a joke yesterday to a colleague (Michael Schwarz of Ashland University) that I “was still smarting about the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions,” which criticized the Alien and Sedition Acts, and reflected Jeffersonian doubts about Federalist foreign policy. (Historians, I admit, joke about odd and obscure things sometimes.) The difference, however, is that Madison and Jefferson were within their rights to criticize government policy in print and debate. Of course one can always say “the enemy is listening,” but it does not hurt anyone for the world to see how vibrant and constructive political debate in a democracy can be.

5. With that in mind, any complaints about the negotiations and the possibilities of a deal with Iran should be adult enough to deal in specific concerns and possible solutions. What would a good deal look like from the perspective of these critics? If they have complaints about the President not including Congress in his plans, how about making that the meat of their argument? The letter as it stands merely says that an agreement without Congressional approval could be reversed by the next President, which is true but irrelevant to the policy question. A better piece would make a constructive argument for congressional participation in the discussions, and even go on record as to what the Congress would like to see in a final agreement. Not including such things makes the organizational complaints sound disingenuous. If Senator Cotton and his colleagues believe that no agreement is possible under any circumstances, they should have the courage to say it, and the common sense to say what implications that has for American foreign policy.

‪6. Finally, I am especially pained to see that many smart conservatives, in their rush to defend compatriots against criticism, are acting as though questions of form and method are unimportant, or simply saying “well the other guy did/does/will do it too.” It matters a great deal how a state manages its foreign policy. It matters a great deal that the leaders of a democratic state recognize the legitimacy of their colleagues, even if they happen to be from the other party. And it matters a great deal how well the institutions of a representative government relate to each other and to any policy debate, now and in the future. Everyone knows that, and for columnists and commentators to pretend otherwise is a further insult to our intelligence and does neither the spokespeople nor their cause any good.

‪7. The release of this letter is a new low in the management of serious foreign policy debate in this country. Somebody needs to stop this race to the bottom, or no one will be able to govern this country and manage its relations with the world at all.

‪This entire discussion reminds me of a favorite quote from Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons—which is a favorite play of mine, about one of my heroes, Thomas More. In it, More defends the need for formal legal procedures against the arguments of his fanatical son-in-law, Roper:

‪Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

‪More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

‪Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

‪More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

For the sake of our, and the world’s safety, American leaders need to respect each other and the foreign policy process, if we hope to develop a sensible foreign policy.

Related Post: Reflections on Granieri’s “Open Letters, Closed Minds, and the Making of US Foreign Policy,” by John R. Haines, Senior Fellow, FPRI, March 12, 2015

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The National Security Strategy of Strategic Patience and Persistence?

On Friday the Obama administration released its second, and likely last, National Security Strategy. Such strategies are produced in both classified and unclassified forms and have been required since the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (Goldwater-Nichols Act). They are supposed to be submitted annually along with the president’s annual budget. Like the Obama presidency, the Bush 43 administration also only produced two. By statute, USC 50, § 3043(b), they

…shall set forth the national security strategy of the United States and shall include a comprehensive description and discussion of the following:

(1) The worldwide interests, goals, and objectives of the United States that are vital to the national security of the United States.

(2) The foreign policy, worldwide commitments, and national defense capabilities of the United States necessary to deter aggression and to implement the national security strategy of the United States.

(3) The proposed short-term and long-term uses of the political, economic, military, and other elements of the national power of the United States to protect or promote the interests and achieve the goals and objectives referred to in paragraph (1).

(4) The adequacy of the capabilities of the United States to carry out the national security strategy of the United States, including an evaluation of the balance among the capabilities of all elements of the national power of the United States to support the implementation of the national security strategy.

(5) Such other information as may be necessary to help inform Congress on matters relating to the national security strategy of the United States.

Such strategies, while they help to elucidate a president’s vision of threats and opportunities vis-à-vis their foreign and defense policies, are also very aspirational.

President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy reiterates the 2010 vision that the United States’ enduring interests are:

*The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners;

*A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;

*Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and

*A rules-based international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

The top strategic risks are listed as:

*Catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure;

*Threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and our allies;

*Global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown;

*Proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction;

*Severe global infectious disease outbreaks;

*Climate change;

*Major energy market disruptions; and

*Significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime).

President Obama in his introduction to the strategy states that 

On all these fronts [from diplomacy to military strength to nonproliferation to the promotion of democracy and human rights], America leads from a position of strength. But, this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes. The United States will always defend our interests and uphold our commitments to allies and partners. But, we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities, and we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear. Moreover, we must recognize that a smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power. Indeed, in the long-term, our efforts to work with other countries to counter the ideology and root causes of violent extremism will be more important than our capacity to remove terrorists from the battlefield. 

The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence. They require us to take our responsibilities seriously and make the smart investments in the foundations of our national power. Therefore, I will continue to pursue a comprehensive agenda that draws on all elements of our national strength, that is attuned to the strategic risks and opportunities we face, and that is guided by the principles and priorities set out in this strategy. Moreover, I will continue to insist on budgets that safeguard our strength and work with the Congress to end sequestration, which undercuts our national security. 

According to the strategy the U.S. will lead with strength, by example, with capable partners, with all instruments of national power, and with a long-term perspective. But the document claims that five recent transitions are complicating current international politics:

First, power among states is more dynamic [particularly India’s potential, China’s rise, and Russian aggression]…

Second, power is shifting below and beyond the nation-state [e.g, the rise of mega-cities and non-state actors]….

Third, the increasing interdependence of the global economy and rapid pace of technological change are linking individuals, groups, and governments in unprecedented ways….

Fourth, a struggle for power is underway among and within many states of the Middle East and North Africa….

Fifth, the global energy market has changed dramatically…. [D]eveloping countries now consume more energy than developed ones, which is altering energy flows and changing consumer relationships.


While the document seems to make many good arguments about the challenges facing the United States and wisely accounts for the limits of American power, particularly in the realm of the use of military force, it is unclear whether “strategic patience and persistence” will always be effective or will simply put us further behind the eight ball. The leading from behind strategy which debuted in Libya, for instance, likely created as many problems as it solved as witnessed both by the chaos unleashed in Mali after Tauregs fighting in Libya brought arms back to the Sahel and by the current instabilities in Libya itself. The sanctions in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine–and its support for separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia–also have not severely impacted their behavior contra claims in the strategy.

In Syria, meanwhile, strategic patience has led to a worsening situation there, in Iraq, and–increasingly–in Lebanon. Clearly the situation is not one open to easy fixes and it is not at all clear that earlier support to opposition forces would have made the situation on the ground better today. But patient reaction certainly has not made the situation better either. The “coalition” of forces corralled to deal with the situation has been disjointed and the myriad interests of partners may be creating a policy that is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Finally, the current situation in Yemen appears to show the weakness of applying a doctrine of surgical strikes (by drones and special operations forces) to deal with a metastasizing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Rather than working to build effective Yemeni security forces we seem to have focused on building their strike forces that might be useful for conducting raids, but not so much for building effective security forces that can control territory and work at building legitimacy.

Undeniably, the United States faces myriad current and future challenges. As noted in the strategy, the tools of U.S. power are limited and cannot be applied everywhere. Even U.S. military power is still encumbered by a sequestration policy that impacts readiness and procurement. The administration is right to try to undo that policy, although it is unclear if the domestic political realities will allow that to happen. We must certainly come to grips with trying to use all elements of national power, to include the use of military force, to deal with the current and future strategic environment, both in terms of threats and opportunities. However, it must also be remembered that while patience may be a virtue, sometimes selective, thoughtful assertiveness across the elements of power may help us improve conditions on the ground and advance both the United States’ and its partners’ interests.

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Kissinger’s World Order

PDF Version


(Editor’s Note: The following remarks were delivered by Walter McDougall at an FPRI Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, October 13, 2014.)

Henry Kissinger’s latest book is a major event, if only for the obvious reason that it might be the swan song of the 91 year old scholar-statesman.  No American in the post-World War II, excepting perhaps George Kennan, Robert Strausz-Hupé, and John Lukacs, has lived such a long, reflective, prolific life of the mind with regard to foreign policy, and no one else whatsoever has also been such a constant participant in world affairs at the highest levels.   At this stage of life Kissinger has earned the honor and attention of old enemies as well as admirers.  He has outlived the Cold War and indeed his own century.

Most of you, I expect, have read some reviews of World Order, so I will just mention them briefly.  Hillary Clinton’s self-serving column in the Washington Post is so light-weight I had to wonder whether she had bothered to read the book.  Clinton claims that Kissinger’s analysis “largely fits with the broad strategy” of the Obama administration, assures us that Kissinger is a friend “who checked in with me regularly” during her time as Secretary of State, and applauds the book for endorsing indispensable American leadership.  This was a presidential campaign release, pure and simple. 

James Traub’s reflective review in the Wall Street Journal credits Kissinger for his lifelong “campaign to undermine the romantic pieties of left and right that have shaped so much of American foreign policy.”  He suggests Henry may “outlast many of the people who hate him and make others forget why they hated him in the first place.”  But Traub hints at a duality in the book that I also detected.  On the one hand Kissinger affirms the Westphalian international system – based on state sovereignty, non-intervention, and balance of power – that emerged from Europe’s wars of religion as “the most morally, intellectually, and even aesthetically pleasing” order.  It lasted from 1648 to 1914 – a pretty good record – and allowed statesmen pursuing limited ends to adjust and improvise because they understood the needs of the system and not just their own states.  The diplomacy that inspired, in Traub’s elegant phrase, was “a combination of fluid dynamics and jazz.”  But Kissinger also recognizes that since Woodrow Wilson U.S. presidents have been ideological universalists who treat foreign policy as a teleological struggle for justice rather than a prudent pursuit of contingent aims.  Hence, “the tragedy of Wilsonianism is that it bequeathed to the twentieth century’s decisive power an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.”  Perhaps Henry has given up hoping that Americans can ever learn, which may explain why he makes no criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and even has kind words for George W. Bush, despite the fact that he specifically warned in the 2001 book Does America Need a Foreign Policy? against democratic nation-building crusades.

In the New York Times reviewer John Micklethwaite chides Henry for this “needless craving not to upset the Lillipiutian leaders he still seeks to influence.”  He also complains, unfairly in my judgment, that much of Kissinger’s latest work repeats material from earlier books such as A World Restored, Diplomacy, and On China.  But he also names this a “book that every member of Congress should be locked in a room with” because its purpose is no less than to suggest the preconditions for the first true world order.  Today we live in a world in which “the international community” is constantly invoked, but no agreed upon goals, methods, or limits bind the players, many of whom are not states at all.  “Chaos threatens side by side with unprecedented interdependence.  Hence the need to build an order.”  But could American diplomats ever prove capable of playing the roles of balancer, integrator, and mediator that a world order requires?  If so, says Kissinger, America must overcome two deep character flaws: a conceit that foreign policy is “an optional activity” and a heritage of idealism that might have built a great nation at home but is lousy at guiding diplomacy abroad.

The most perceptive reviewer, in my opinion, is Walter Isaacson, Kissinger’s biographer back in 1992.  He explains his subject’s Weltanschauung, World View, in terms of his status as a refugee from Nazi Germany, but even more as a Central European who knew the danger of “foreign policy that is overly guided by moral impulses and crusading ideals.”  As a student at Harvard the precocious Kissinger concluded from studying the era of the French Revolution that the limitation of self-righteousness was just as critical as resistance to evil.  During the Nixon and Ford administrations, says Isaacson, Kissinger was “able to manipulate the levers of this system with a mastery that would have mesmerized Metternich,” but brought down on himself the contempt of moral idealists, neoconservatives, and old right anti-communists.  Kissinger now realizes that Americans, yes, are incurable idealists, but also knows cannot be effective unless their aspirations are “paired with an unsentimental analysis of underlying factors.”  According to Isaacson that “yes, but” approach pervades the whole book, and expresses the wisdom and humility so becoming in elderly sages.

Finally, Kissinger’s self-review appeared in the form of an op-ed summarizing the operational conclusions he reached in his book.  The search for world order has long been defined in western, even European, concepts of the sovereign nation-state, non-interference in the internal affairs of others, and inherently competitive relations among states subject to the constraints imposed by the balance of power.  Those concepts appeared to become universal through what my own mentor William H. McNeill called “The Rise of the West”: the Age of Exploration, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and especially the Age of Imperialism followed by Decolonization, which extended the European nation-state system to the rest of the world.  But at the same time an American conception of world order purported to transcend the balance of power through the spread of democracy, peace, and free enterprise – presumably the heart’s desire of all peoples.

When Communism amazingly collapsed those “ideas that conquered the world,” in Michael Mandelbaum’s phrase, seemed the only ideological concepts left standing and therefore the ones sure to become universal.  But according to Kissinger three contradictions have exposed that “end of history” scenario as illusory.   First, the nation-state itself has come under severe pressure.  In Europe states have been transcended by transnational “soft power” bureaucracies.  In much of the Middle East and Africa states have simply failed or dissolved.  In South and East Asia states are threatened the old-fashioned way – by the prospect of a hegemony – and therefore by arms races, crises, and quite possibly war.  Second, the world’s disunited political structure is in severe conflict with its globalized economic structure that in turn generates severe and diverse political reactions on all continents.  Third, no mechanism exists for the Great Powers to cooperate and to agree on rules and norms even if their governments wanted to.  The UN, NATO, ASEAN, GATT, and G-8 don’t fulfill this function because they are too public, too political, and too episodic.  What the world needs is a steering committee of responsible powers akin to the 19th century Concert of Europe.

But no longer is it even the 20th century, let alone the 19th, and not even America, let alone Europe, bestrides the whole world.  Our moment in history is unique in that other, non-Western and especially Asian societies have assimilated western technology and economics and emerged as potential peer competitors.  In particular, the United States now confronts, for the first time in its history, an authentic China: a coherent, confident, Confucian China that knows it is the Middle Kingdom and is bidding to become a regional hegemon to which all other states all other states are tributary.  Likewise, during the life span of the United States, no serious Islamic jihad had arisen before the 1970s.  Whereas today Muslim terrorist movements and regimes aspiring to a universal caliphate have become pandemic, while Iran, of course, asserts its own Persian and Shi’ite concept of legitimate world order.  India, Russia, and Japan also nurture historic notions of legitimacy and order that are unique to themselves.  Kissinger only makes one brief reference in an end-note to Samuel Huntington, but the world he describes sounds an awful lot like a Clash of Civilizations.

In other words, the Westphalian order remains as an excellent model – or at least the only model – of an international order in which five or more Great Powers limited conflict among themselves and cooperated for goals of mutual interest.  Why can’t such an order be established today?  Perhaps it can.  But the only region with experience in that system is relatively impotent Europe, while the Great and Emerging Powers today are all bearers of non-Westphalian universalist ideologies.  The classical Indian model of foreign policy, though muted today, is rigidly hierarchical.  Its great classic, written by the prime minister Kautilya from the fourth century BCE, is the Arthashastra which Kissinger says is like Machiavelli and Clausewitz rolled into one.  The Chinese model, associated with Sun Tzu and Taoism, takes for granted that the Chinese Imperial Dynasty is the sole source of legitimacy and peace under heaven.  Hence it made no room for foreign policy at all, just relations with barbarian representatives to be administered by the Ministries of Rituals and Border Affairs.  (But China, unlike Islamic and Christian civilizations, was not a missionary society.)  The Islamic caliphate, in its most tolerable form, would probably look like the Ottoman Empire that terrorized Christendom for centuries.

Last but not least, the United States itself is no bridge, but rather a hurdle, on the road to a world order because of its code of human rights and humanitarian intervention.  Kissinger’s implication is that there is just no way a world order can be created so long as Americans insist on principles they are no longer strong enough to impose but are unwilling to renounce.  Kissinger understands that “America would not be true to itself if it abandoned this essential idealism….  But to be effective, these aspirational aspects of policy must be paired with an unsentimental analysis of underlying factors, including the cultural and geopolitical configurations of other regions and the dedication and resourcefulness of adversaries….”  In other words, “the realities of the mentalities of the localities,” to quote FPRI’s own Yoda, James Kurth.

What Kissinger has in mind is a building-blocks approach that treats the construction of world order as a work in progress.  The initial need is to encourage what he calls regional or international orders on the basis of shared civilizational values and interests.  That implicitly concedes to the Chinese, Indians, and moderate Muslims some recognized spheres of influence, and thus would require some serious readjustments by other powers.  But Kissinger does not imagine them as amounting to unilateral U.S. withdrawal.  On the contrary, he imagines the U.S. playing offshore balancer in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific regions.

Once a rough division of the world into regional orders has been achieved, then the leaders of those orders will be able to work toward the first world order, a 21st century Westphalian system based on respect for each other’s singular characteristics but adherence to the same set of privileges, responsibilities, and rules.

Nobody said it would be easy.  Kissinger is doing no more than trying to imagine what a world order might look like and how the nations might get from here to there.  He understands especially the cognitive barrier born of the cardinal distinction between Western and non-Western thought.  The West is committed to the notion that reality is external to the observer and knowledge defined by measurement and classification.  Non-Western civilizations are committed to the notion that reality is internal to the observer and defined by convictions whether psychological, philosophical, or religious.  It remains to be seen whether Westerners are correct in their assumption that non-Westerners will alter their cultural perceptions on the strength of science, technology, and prosperity.  But it is hard to imagine the emergence of world order without some kind of world convergence.

In private conversation I once mentioned to Kurth that Kissinger had crossed the Atlantic from Central Europe to America in 1938 – just as power was beginning to shift decisively to the New World – and then crossed the Pacific as Nixon’s emissary to China in 1971 – just as power was beginning to shift to the Asia-Pacific.  “Exactly!” Kurth cried, but he added his personal belief that the second transition had been far more of an education than the first.  Kurth had been a student of Kissinger’s at Harvard where everyone took for granted what they saw as a superiority complex.  Certainly Kissinger did not act as if he’d ever needed a mentor.  But then he went to China – and met Chou Enlai, I interjected?  “Exactly!” cried Kurth again, and surmised that in Chou Kissinger encountered someone from whom he could learn a great deal.  He might also have found a kindred spirit, because Central Europe and the Middle Kingdom are geopolitical cousins compared to which the United States is provincial and solipsistic.

My intuition tells me that the last task Henry Kissinger has set for himself is to persuade American elites to permit – yes, permit – the reconciliation of the American and Chinese world views through the mechanism of world order based on a European world view.  Thus would his life come full circle and the world realize the ancient wisdom he quotes at the end of book: “the unity of things lies beneath the surface; it depends upon a balanced reaction between opposites.”  

That sounds a lot like Yin and Yang.

I first met Dr. Kissinger in 1990 when Penn sponsored, as part of its 250th anniversary celebration, a televised panel on the world after the Cold War, emceed by Ted Koppel.  As the new star on Penn’s IR faculty I was asked to introduce the panel and I could not help but applaud the incredible events of 1989 and our escape from a dangerous conflict that had lasted my entire lifetime.  Americans and Russians alike, I said, should be dancing in the streets.  Dr. Kissinger listened and then issued a gentle rebuke to the effect that history always moves on, new challenges always await, and no victory is final.

Just this week I came across in my research an article Kissinger had written in Foreign Affairs that made the same point back in 1956.  He quoted Metternich to the effect that “Policy is like a play in many acts which unfolds inevitably once the curtain is raised. To declare that the play will not go on is an absurdity.  The play will go on either by means of the actors or by means of the spectators who mount the stage….”  But Americans were incapable, he said, of understanding the contingency of all things.  “Our feeling of guilt with respect to power has caused us to transform all wars into crusades, and then to apply our power in the most absolute terms….  Both major political parties maintain that they work for a lasting peace, even if they differ about the best means of attaining it.  Both make statements which imply that on a certain magic day, perhaps after a four-power conference, ‘peace will break out.’  No idea could be more dangerous.”

At 91 Kissinger is still an apostle of order.  But the owl of Minerva does not always wait until dusk, because Kissinger had already understood at age 33 that history never comes to an end.  Today, he would probably be the first to admit – indeed, to insist – that even if a world order could be designed according to some amalgam of Western and Chinese wisdom, that order would not last very long.  It was Kissinger, after all, who instructed us back in the 1970s that the most to which statesmen can aspire is to fashion a generation of peace. 

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