MOSCOW BLOG: Kissinger goes where others won't dare to in embracing multipolar world

MOSCOW BLOG: Kissinger goes where others won't dare to in embracing multipolar world
Veteran Cold War warrior Henry Kissinger. / Via Creative Commons
By Ben Aris in Moscow February 23, 2016

The new ceasefire deal for Syria agreed by Russia and the US on February 23 seems to reflect a de facto recognition of Moscow's strengthening hand in shaping the outcome of this conflict and more besides.

Ahead of the scheduled implementation of the truce at midnight on February 26, it's worth looking at recent appraisal by the preeminent US diplomat and Cold War warrior par excellence Henry Kissinger, who went where others dare not in an article published in National Interest on February 4.

Kissinger suggested that the world has become multipolar and it is a mistake to ignore the interests of the burgeoning emerging markets – Russia's in particular. "The danger today is less a return to military confrontation [between Russia and the US] than the consolidation of a self-fulfilling prophecy in both countries. The long-term interests of both countries call for a world that transforms the contemporary turbulence and flux into a new equilibrium, which is increasingly multipolar and globalized," Kissinger wrote in the article.

The idea of a "multipolar" world has been the centrepiece of President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy since he took office in 2000, but commentators have poured scorn on the idea whenever Putin brings it up as whining or meaningless rhetoric. Russia has rejected the US right to appoint itself the "steward of this globe", as top US diplomat Victoria Nuland confessed that the US sees itself at an investment conference in Kyiv last year.

Putin has not claimed that Russia has any special right to dictate to other countries, not even in its own backyard that includes Ukraine, but he also insists that Russia has a national interest in decisions a country like Ukraine makes and these must be considered. Despite the talk of the Kremlin's drive to "recreate the Soviet Union", Russia is insisting instead that the interests of the large countries of the world – not just its own but those of all the emerging markets, especially the BRICS nations - are taken into consideration. Putin has been explicit on several occasions that the proper body to organise and balance these interest is the United Nations, the most recent being Putin's speech to the UN general assembly in September 2015.

"Russia is confident of the United Nations' enormous potential, which should help us avoid a new confrontation and embrace a strategy of cooperation. Hand in hand with other nations, we will consistently work to strengthen the UN's central, coordinating role. I am convinced that by working together, we will make the world stable and safe, and provide an enabling environment for the development of all nations and peoples," Putin said in concluding that speech.

Where's the statesmanship?

But the UN has not been able to fulfill this role and Russia is as guilty of blocking its effectiveness as the US – the lack of statesmanship Kissinger was referring to.

Former secretary of state Kissinger described the deterioration of international relations, warning that the world is entering a dangerous phase. "The nature of the turmoil is in itself unprecedented," said Kissinger, who was on the political front line for most of the Cold War.

"[International relations] are probably the worst they have been since before the end of the Cold War. Mutual trust has been dissipated on both sides. Confrontation has replaced cooperation. Regrettably, the momentum of global upheaval has outstripped the capacities of statesmanship," Kissinger said in what is a damning condemnation of all the world's political leaders. "The prevailing narrative in each country places full blame on the other side, and in each country there is a tendency to demonize, if not the other country, then its leaders."

Ad hominem attacks are not the hallmark of statesmanship. BBC documentaries that rehash old rumours of presidential corruption without presenting any new evidence or commissions that accuse a sitting head of state of "probably" ordering murders are not classy. For their part, the demonstrable lies that Russian media outlets like Sputnik dish up don't make things any better.

But it is Kissinger's multipolar remark that should shock the most. Washington has taken a hard line and in insisting on its goals of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to take one example, is refusing to compromise. As Washington has clearly lost the initiative in Syria, what Kissinger is suggesting is that not only has the US been outfoxed by a wily Putin, it should, on principle, listen to what the Russians have to say as Moscow has long standing interests and friendships in Syria and its point of view needs to be respected.

"Perhaps most important has been a fundamental gap in historical conception. For the United States, the end of the Cold War seemed like a vindication of its traditional faith in inevitable democratic revolution. It visualized the expansion of an international system governed by essentially legal rules. But Russia's historical experience is more complicated. To a country across which foreign armies have marched for centuries from both East and West, security will always need to have a geopolitical, as well as a legal, foundation," said Kissinger.

The grand old statesman goes on to pose a philosophical problem: How does the United States work together with a country that has explicitly rejected the US value system based on individual freedoms and adopted a statist version of capitalism in its place? This is another version of the quesion posed over the Syrian conflict by German statesman Otto von Bismarck's observation that in his day the secret to good politics was, "make a good treaty with Russia". The question facing the West today is does this rule still apply? Should the West appease Russia to end the strife in Ukraine and Syria? Is it in everyone's best interests to acknowledge Russia's growing power and go back to the Bismarck position. Or is the world really a unipolar affair and the US should stick to its guns? 

Kissenger goes on to say many commentators see the US and Russia entering a new Cold War, but that is to misunderstand the situation. "The danger today is less a return to military confrontation than the consolidation of a self-fulfilling prophecy in both countries," wrote the ex-US foreign policy chief. "In the 1960s and 1970s, I perceived international relations as an essentially adversarial relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union ... The world has changed dramatically since then. In particular, in the emerging multipolar order, Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States."

Now that is not an opinion you hear often from a US politician. But then Kissinger is a statesman, not just a politician.