The debate we need to have
Henri A. Kissinger, 8 April 2008 (International Herald Tribune)
The long-predicted American debate about national security policy has yet to occur.
Essentially tactical issues have overwhelmed the most important challenge a new administration will confront: how to distill a new international order from three simultaneous revolutions occurring around the globe.
These are a) the transformation of the traditional state system of Europe; b) the radical Islamist challenge to historic notions of sovereignty; and c) the drift of the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Conventional wisdom holds that disenchantment with President George W. Bush’s alleged unilateralism is at the heart of European-American disagreements.
But it will become apparent soon after the change of administrations that the principal difference between the two sides of the Atlantic is that America is still a traditional nation-state whose people respond to calls for sacrifices on behalf of a much wider definition of the national interest than Europe’s.
The nations of Europe, having been drained by two World Wars, have agreed to transfer significant aspects of their sovereignties to the European Union. Political loyalties associated with the nation-state have proved not to be automatically transferable, however. Europe is in a transition between its past, which it is seeking to overcome, and a future that it has not yet reached.
In the process, the nature of the European state has been transformed. With the nation no longer defining itself by a distinct future and with the cohesion of the European Union as yet untested, the capacity of most European governments to ask their people for sacrifices has diminished dramatically.
The disagreement over the use of NATO forces in Afghanistan is a case in point. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the North Atlantic Council, acting without any request by the United States, invoked Article 5 of the NATO Treaty calling for mutual assistance. But when NATO set about to assume military responsibilities, domestic constraints obliged many allies to limit the number of troops and to constrict the missions for which lives could be risked.
As a result, the Atlantic Alliance is in the process of evolving a two-tiered system – an alliance à la carte whose capability for common action does not match its general obligations.
Over time, one of two adaptations must take place: either a redefinition of the general obligations or a formal elaboration of a two-tiered system in which political obligations and military capabilities are harmonized. This might be accomplished by assigning out-of-area projects to a European reaction force, which would then create an ad hoc alliance of the willing.
While the traditional role of the state in Europe is diminished by the choice of its governments, the declining role of the state in the Middle East is inherent in the way they were founded.
The successor states of the Ottoman Empire were established by the victorious powers at the end of the First World War. Unlike the European states, their borders did not reflect ethnic principles or linguistic distinctiveness but the balances achieved by the European powers in their contests outside the region.
Today it is radical Islam that threatens the already brittle state structure via a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran as the basis of a universal political organization. Radical Islam rejects claims to national sovereignty based on secular state models, and its reach extends to wherever significant populations profess the Muslim faith.
Since neither the international system nor the internal structure of existing states has legitimacy in Islamist eyes, its ideology leaves little room for Western notions of negotiation or of equilibrium in a region of vital interest to the security and well-being of the industrial states.
That struggle is endemic; we do not have the option of withdrawal from it. We can retreat from any one place like Iraq but only to be obliged to resist from new positions, probably more disadvantageously. Even advocates of unilateral withdrawal speak of retaining residual forces to prevent a resurgence of Al Qaeda or radicalism.
These transformations take place against the backdrop of a third trend, a shift in the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Paradoxically, this redistribution of power is to a part of the world where the nation still possesses the characteristics of traditional European states. The major states of Asia – China, Japan, India and, in time, possibly Indonesia – view each other the way participants in the European balance of power did, as inherent competitors even when they occasionally participate in cooperative ventures.
In the past, such shifts in the structure of power generally led to war, as happened in the case of the emergence of Germany in the late 19th century. Today the rise of China is assigned that role in much alarmist commentary.
True, the Sino-American relationship will inevitably contain classical geopolitical and competitive elements. These must not be neglected. But there are countervailing elements. Economic and financial globalization, environmental and energy imperatives, and the destructive power of modern weapons impose a major effort at global cooperation – especially between the United States and China.
An adversarial relationship would leave both countries in the position of Europe after the two World Wars through self-destructive conflict with each other, while other societies achieved the pre-eminence they sought.
No previous generation has had to deal with different revolutions occurring simultaneously in separate parts of the world. The quest for a single, all-inclusive remedy is chimerical.
In Europe, the civil society is congruent with the political structure of states but not – at least yet – with the political structure of the European Union.
In the Middle East, civil society is being shaped by transnational forces at odds with the internal structure of many states.
In the Atlantic area, the challenge is how to evolve institutions that bring the willingness to sacrifice for the future into balance with the requirements of international order.
In the Islamic world, the jihadists are prepared to sacrifice all notions of civil society to the pursuit of an apocalyptic utopia.
In Asia, in terms of classical diplomacy, two kinds of adjustments will define 21st-century diplomacy: the relationship between the great Asian powers, China, India, Japan and possibly Indonesia, and how America and China deal with each other.
In a world in which the sole superpower is a proponent of the prerogatives of the traditional nation-state, in which Europe is stuck in a halfway status, in which the Middle East does not fit the nation-state model and faces a religiously motivated revolution, and in which the nation-states of South and East Asia still practice the balance of power, what is the nature of the international order that can accommodate these different perspectives?
Are existing international organizations adequate for this purpose? If not, which changes would be desirable? What goals can America set realistically for itself and the world community? Can we make the transformation of major countries a condition for reliable progress, or need we concentrate on a less crusading purpose?
What objectives must be sought in concert, and what are the extreme circumstances that would justify unilateral action? What is the style of leadership most likely to achieve these aims?
This is the kind of debate we need, not slogans driven by focus groups for daily headlines.
Henry A. Kissinger heads the consulting firm Kissinger & Associates. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.