In This Review

Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century
Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century
By Henry A. Kissinger
Simon & Schuster, 2001, 320 pp.

In the 1890s the young George Bernard Shaw earned his living as a music and theater critic. Convinced that he could do as well as the dramatists whose work he was reviewing, he turned his hand to writing plays, and the rest is literary history. The career of Shaw's fellow Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger followed a similar trajectory. During most of the 1950s and 1960s he was an academic who produced, in a series of books and articles, a sustained critique of American foreign policy. Then, in 1969, he got the chance to conduct that foreign policy himself, and the rest is diplomatic history.

Whereas writing plays can be a lifetime's occupation, however, conducting American foreign policy cannot. And so, twenty-five years after he left government and in the wake of three monumental volumes of memoirs of his time in office, Kissinger has returned to his first career. Does America Need a Foreign Policy? is an assessment of, and a set of prescriptions for, the foreign policy of the United States in the wake of the Cold War.

During his first tour of duty as a critic, almost everything Kissinger wrote addressed the great global conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The present volume, written for a more complicated era, consists of essays on six different subjects: relations between the United States and Europe, U.S. policy in the western hemisphere, the American role in Asia, the turbulent politics of the Middle East, the promises and perils of globalization, and the effort to put considerations of justice rather than the search for peace at the heart of Washington's approach to the rest of the world. Disparate though these subjects are, the author's views on them share a common feature.

George Bernard Shaw was a radical. In his writings and his public activities he attacked what he saw as the archaic customs and arbitrary restrictions that obstructed progress, impeded human happiness, and generally made things worse than they could and should have been. Henry Kissinger, by contrast, is a conservative who believes that not only could things be better, they could also be worse. The presiding theme of the chapters of this book is the conservative's awareness of the fallibility of human design and the recurrence, in human affairs, of unintended and unwanted consequences.

The book has both a message and a mood -- both words and music -- and the music is the stately, subdued sound of the viola and the cello, not the triumphant blare of the brass or the soaring creations of the clarinet or the saxophone. The musical analogue of Does America Need a Foreign Policy? is a Bach cello suite, not a John Philip Sousa march or a Charlie Parker improvisation. The book's message is a version of the conservative wisdom: beware the dogmatic application of doctrines or principles -- no matter how well intentioned -- to the messy realities of international affairs. For the United States after the Cold War, a country with immense international power and no shortage of doctrines or people eager to implement them, this is a message worth heeding.


The book's most important essay concerns the post-Cold War effort to make American foreign policy an instrument of justice in the world, and in particular the Clinton administration's signature policy for this purpose: humanitarian intervention -- the use of force against a sovereign state to stop its government from mistreating its citizens. Kissinger sympathizes with the impulse that motivated this policy and understands its deep roots in the American experience. But he notes that the implementation of the policy, if anything, set back the cause it was intended to advance.

The Clinton administration's practice of humanitarian intervention was wildly inconsistent. It launched two military campaigns against Serbia while ignoring more widespread slaughter in Africa, justifying the Russian assault on Chechnya, and warmly welcoming to the United States the second-ranking military official of perhaps the worst human-rights violator on the planet -- the communist government of North Korea. The policy therefore lacked both clarity and predictability, necessary conditions for sustaining public support in the United States. By going to war against Serbia over Kosovo without the sanction of the United Nations and against the objections of a number of prominent countries such as Russia, China, and India, moreover, the Clinton administration deprived humanitarian intervention of what any global doctrine requires: international legitimacy.

In fact, U.S. policy in the Balkans in the 1990s bears out the wisdom of Kissinger's message. In Bosnia and Kosovo the Clinton administration spurned peace, which would have involved separating the warring national groups, in favor of justice, which it defined as the peaceful coexistence of these groups in a single, united, multiethnic political jurisdiction. Although central to the public life of the United States, a country populated mainly by people who immigrated as individuals and voluntarily assumed American nationality, the principle of multiethnicity is inapplicable in the Balkans, where nations that had lived on the same territories for centuries were brought together involuntarily in new, independent countries by political decisions in which they did not participate.

Thus none of the groups in Bosnia or Kosovo accepted the principle that the Clinton administration sought to impose on them, and for this reason the administration failed to impose it. In both places these groups are still kept apart by NATO garrisons, the departure of which could lead to renewed fighting. The failures have been costly: in lives lost that might have been saved had the administration not ruled out partition, which might have ended the fighting sooner; in moral principles compromised when the United States tolerated, in both Bosnia and Kosovo, the kind of ethnic cleansing of Serbs that it had condemned as criminal when practiced by Serbs; and in the political and military investments necessary to keep American and European troops in the Balkans indefinitely.

The book's most eloquent chapter concerns globalization. Kissinger recognizes the enormous benefits the spread of free markets has brought to the world. But he calls attention to the human costs of the social dislocation that the normal workings of the market create and to the hardships inflicted when market-created bubbles burst, as occurred in eastern Asia in the late 1990s. He is particularly unhappy with what he considers the International Monetary Fund's overzealous demands for policies of economic austerity in response to the Asian crises; the implementation of these policies in the afflicted countries endangered the political consensus in favor of liberal economic practices upon which free markets must rest.

In Asia and the Middle East, two important regions where peace, prosperity, and democracy are neither widely nor firmly established, Kissinger commends to American policymakers a quintessentially conservative aim: maintaining a balance of power. Although China would certainly be a more decent country if it adopted American political values and Japan perhaps a more prosperous one with American economic practices, and although every country of the Persian Gulf would undoubtedly be better off by embracing either or both, the United States does not have the power to bring about these results. Its first priority in both regions should therefore be to ensure that no local actor achieves the kind of military predominance that could threaten its neighbors and American interests. Those coming to Does America Need a Foreign Policy? in search of fresh approaches for a new era will find in these chapters a prescription for the oldest foreign policy of all.


In his essay on America and Europe, Kissinger takes up two issues with which the Bush administration will have to grapple. On one of them his position seems to violate his own conservative instincts. The issue is ballistic missile defense. He favors it. He favors it despite lacking settled views on just what kind of defenses should be deployed and what threats they should be designed to counter. "An early American commitment to a [missile defense] program," he writes, "is essential." "The decision of missile defense having been made," he goes on, "an open-minded study should seek to determine the most appropriate technology."

Asked his view of Western civilization, Mohandas Gandhi is said to have replied that he thought it would be a good idea. The same is surely true of missile defense. If the United States can deploy a defensive system that makes the country safer and better able to advance its interests in the world it should certainly do so. Whether this is possible, however, will depend on a range of technical and political considerations complicated and uncertain enough to preclude definitive judgment at present. In the spirit of conservatism, Kissinger warns elsewhere in the book that the single-minded pursuit of humanitarian intervention, or of a policy of containment toward China, risks alienating other countries and isolating the United States. Since every major country has expressed serious reservations about missile defense and several are adamantly opposed, the course he prefers on this issue would seem to run the same risks.

On another important issue Kissinger's recommendations are uncharacteristically incomplete. The question of how best to provide for security in Europe preoccupied American policymakers during the Cold War and is a subject on which he has written and spoken authoritatively for nearly half a century. The Clinton administration's major European initiative was the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Kissinger approves, but takes that administration to task for downplaying the most important reason for expansion: "to eliminate once and for all the strategic vacuum in Central Europe that in the twentieth century had tempted both German and Russian expansionism."

For history to repeat itself, some country would have to play the part of one of the two totalitarian powers. It is inconceivable that peaceful, democratic Germany would do so, which leaves postcommunist Russia as the only candidate. "NATO must be maintained," Kissinger believes, "as a hedge against a reimperializing Russia." But if Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were vulnerable to Russia without NATO membership, the former Soviet republics (now independent countries) of the Baltic region -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- are even more vulnerable. All of them share borders with Russia. Here Kissinger is cautious: "Given its historical experiences, Russia is bound to have a special concern for security around its vast periphery and ... the West needs to be careful not to extend its integrated military system too close to Russia's borders."

He therefore seems to endorse the logic but oppose the policy of including the Baltic countries in NATO. This is not an academic question. Nato is committed to expanding in 2002. The Clinton administration unequivocally promised the Baltic countries that they would not be left out. Russia has made known its adamant opposition to their inclusion. The issue is therefore destined to rise to the top of the American political agenda. When it does, it is to be hoped that Henry Kissinger will return to it and that, in doing so, he will bring to bear the historical perspective, the analytical lucidity, and the well-developed sense of the dangers of dogmatism that grace the pages of this valuable book.

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  • Michael Mandelbaum is Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming book From War to Markets: The World of the Twenty-first Century and How It Came To Be.
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