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Lessons from Kissinger

Lessons from Kissinger

Even at the age of 93, Henry Kissinger has much to say about the future of United States foreign policy.  While he is regarded as a controversial figure in the field of International Relations, there are lessons to be learned from someone with such experience as him. 

Few figures have commanded as much influence over modern U.S. foreign policy as Henry Kissinger. Few figures are as controversial. Because the U.S. now finds itself at a foreign policy crossroads with the ascent of President-Elect Donald Trump, I thought The Atlantic's recent interview with Kissinger could contain insight for navigating the uncertain future of U.S. foreign relations.  Regardless of your views of Mr. Kissinger’s controversial politics, there is no doubt that he is one of the preeminent architects of post-war U.S. foreign policy. I delved right into both the magazine cut of the interview and the full bulk of it directly on The Atlantic’s website. The thing that stood out the most to me was the repeated references to the differences in vision of foreign policy between the United States and China.

A remark noting the Americans as object-oriented versus the Chinese vision-oriented foreign policy caught my eye. To paraphrase, Americans have a fundamental belief that the existence of peace is the natural state of world affairs, and a threat to peace is an aberration. Once removed, the natural state returns. To the Chinese, however, a much broader view of policy is taken. The world is naturally divisive and threats lie around the corner; to eliminate one is not enough, and a stronger vision must encapsulate and guide a country in the direction desired.

The stratification of American thinking is nothing new. There exists an almost unhealthy obsession with breaking down each subject into smaller and more distinct subsections without regard to the interconnectedness of knowledge. While expert knowledge and specialization is important, removing a subject from its context in a larger narrative removes much of the power it holds. A larger consequence of this stratification comes in play with the subject of history.

Kissinger mentions, “he laments that history is not taught consecutively, and that historical incidents are often decontextualized beyond recognition.” This, I believe, is a major hurdle that historians and policy experts alike face when trying to appeal to the mass population of the United States. When history is taken out of context, it lends an erroneous assumption that the events themselves happened within a vacuum.  This removes shades of nuance from the event and reinforces the belief that these were self-contained hurdles to be handled individually.  

This self-segregating behavior, viewed as the mark of expert knowledge, in fact hinders the ability of an individual to accurately assess the situation within the context of the time. Instead, the biases of the observer seem to play a larger role in the contextualization of events rather than the biases of the actors in play. I feel that this is a mark against the American approach to historical education.  It is not enough to simply understand “American History” or “European History” without the understanding that these two fields are inherently intertwined. It is  impossible to derive any meaning out of either of them with such hyper-categorization.  

One of the most fascinating elements I discovered when writing my undergraduate thesis on the unification of Germany in the 1870s were passive mentions of the U.S. While of course I knew that both the U.S. and Germany existed in the 1870s, the simple realization that they had interacted during that time period was, embarrassingly, shockingly new. In my historical studies, the U.S. and Germany were two separate entities whose interactions were reduced to the two world wars. In large part, I think this is because of the decontextualization of history in American education.  The linkages exist, as much as they do in today’s world. This form of education has hampered America’s ability to create long lasting and comprehensive foreign policy plans.  

Since the conclusion of World War II, the United States’ place in global order has historically been a generally shared vision between both political parties.  There has been a tendency to be reactive, but for the most part while concrete plans were not in place, the perception that America’s place in the world is that of exemplary liberalism and democracy has gone unchallenged between the two parties. Much of this reaction can be attributed to political expedience, to have solid plans is to have a concrete element for opposition to attack. While education plays a part, a fair share of the blame for lack of concrete plans can be attributed to the rapidity of change between policies and administrations. This is not the worst thing, as it introduces new perspectives to challenges that present themselves. For the first time, however, the United States’ position as leader of the free world is in peril as President-Elect Trump threatens to upend the post-war global order.

What will his presidency look like? What will be the effects? Nothing can be said for certain, and if there is any lesson that should have been learned as a result from this election, it is to be wary of taking things for granted. What it does represent is a radical shift from a vision of shared--albeit shaky--prosperity held by America and China. Instead, a more antagonistic relationship is already rearing its head as Trump takes unprecedented steps to engage with Taiwan, in direct opposition of the United States’ own One-China Policy.

Does this represent a departure from the trend in American policy decisions that Kissinger sees? Not necessarily. While Trump looks to embrace a long-term ideology that China is the greatest threat to the United States, this ideology is still predicated on the image that China’s economic decisions are an aberration to be overcome.  It harkens back to height of the Cold War, when the largest existential threat was not the USSR, but rather the personification of the communism, the ideological converse of the United States. This posturing with China seems to be a way of setting up a similar paradigm, while aligning the US with Russia in much the same way as the U.S. aligned with Europe during the Cold War.

While the difficulties of comparing the stances of Russia in 2017 and Europe in the twentieth century are deeper than I seek to delve into in this article, the greater point remains. By building up China as America’s next existential threat, the Trump administration continues to fall in line with the object-oriented foreign policy of the United States. The U.S. will continue to suffer in the long-term in any sort of rivalry with China as a result.  The lack of long-term vision within the executive branch inspires other elements--namely intelligence services--within the administration to seek their own comprehensive strategy. If the plans of the president and his administration start to deviate, the operational strength of U.S. foreign policy stands to be greatly reduced.

If the United States is to continue to hold itself in the auspices of global order, our approach to foreign policy must adapt and match our soon to be greatest rival. Peace cannot be taken for granted and conflict cannot be considered an aberration. Rather, peace is the intersection of successful force and agreed order, the preservation of which requires endless work and vision of the future. Reactionary policy causes chaos; a unified vision for the order of Middle East politics could have potentially prevented the quagmire that embroils the post-9/11 world. Moving forward, the United States must continue to contextualize and understand the moving parts in the system, not the simple borders which constrain our knowledge.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or the views of Arbitror itself.

Photo: "Kissinger" by Brandon (CC BY-NC 2.0) for Flickr. Use of this photo is not endorsement from its creator.

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