Time to Rethink Realpolitik: Henry Kissinger, Once Accused of War Crimes, Is Back and Working for the Obama Adminstration. Is This a Sign of American Desperation or Another Example of What Hillary Clinton Calls Smart Power?

By Byrnes, Sholto | New Statesman (1996), February 16, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Time to Rethink Realpolitik: Henry Kissinger, Once Accused of War Crimes, Is Back and Working for the Obama Adminstration. Is This a Sign of American Desperation or Another Example of What Hillary Clinton Calls Smart Power?


Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)


Henry Kissinger, in 1982, wrote: "Blessed are the people whose leaders can look destiny in the eye without flinching but also without attempting to play God." The former US secretary of state is an unlikely--and unfashionable--source of reassurance, but his injunction is one that the west would do well to follow in the Obama era.

The US National Intelligence Council predicted a bleak future in its most recent Global Trends Review. America's dominance will disappear by 2025, it said, and the EU will become a "hobbled giant", unable despite its economic strength to exert significant global influence. With the last superpower reduced to a "first among equals" as new giants rise in the east, the "unipolar world" will be "over". The report warns of nuclear proliferation, mass migration, environmental catastrophe. "The next 20 years," it says (just to make sure we've all got the point), "are fraught with risks." Confronted with these dangers and uncertainties, however, some western leaders are still overly tempted to "play God".

At the Munich Security Conference on 7 February, Kissinger was awarded the first Ewald von Kleist prize for his "contributions to global peace and international co-operation". At the same time reports emerged that President Barack Obama had sent the good doctor to conduct secret talks on nuclear weapons reduction with Moscow in December.

But the world leaders gathered in Munich also heard the first major address on the new administration's foreign policy. Although Vice-President Joe Biden spoke softly--"We'll engage. We'll listen. We'll consult"--he still carried a big stick, delivering warnings to Russia and Iran, and urging US allies to be more willing "to use force when all else fails". His remarks were consistent with Secretary of State Clinton's statement at last month's Senate confirmation hearings, when she denied reports of her country's imminent relegation to equal rank status with other world powers: "Some have argued that we have reached the end of the 'American moment' in world history. I disagree."

Hillary Clinton advocated the use of "smart power", combining "hard" military and economic with "soft" cultural and diplomatic tools. That may sound eminently reasonable, but let's note how the Bill Clinton-era diplomat Suzanne Nossel concluded the essay in which she popularised the term in 2004: "Now is the time ... to reassert an aggressive brand of liberal internationalism ... and fortify it through the determined, smart use of power."

Such talk of aggression is dangerously misplaced. The chaotic, uncertain world of today requires something starkly different. It is time, instead, for a new realpolitik.

In one sense, realpolitik never went away. Its cardinal principle of non-interference--that no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another--is one to which over half of humankind is theoretically signed up, through the 118 countries that belong to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The developing-world titans who founded it in 1961--Nasser, Nkrumah, Nehru, Tito and Sukarno--are long gone, and we in Britain may hear little of the NAM. But it goes far from unnoticed in the United States, not least because Cuba (under Raul Castro) holds the presidency of the organisation and Hugo Chavez emerged as the star of its last summit in 2006. It regularly votes as a bloc at the UN General Assembly, as do other caucuses of developing countries such as the Group of 77. In an interview late last year, Noam Chomsky dismissed suggestions that the NAM was a relic of the Cold War. "I think that it is a sign of the future," he said.

The more recently formed Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is another body of which we hear little. But perhaps we should pay more attention. Made up of Russia, China and four former Soviet central Asian republics, the SCO clearly states non-interference as a core principle in its charter--as does Asean, the ten-country Association of South-East Asian Nations, whose combined population is close to 600 million.

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Time to Rethink Realpolitik: Henry Kissinger, Once Accused of War Crimes, Is Back and Working for the Obama Adminstration. Is This a Sign of American Desperation or Another Example of What Hillary Clinton Calls Smart Power?
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