aThe Ukraine crisis has hit an immovable diplomatic hurdle. President Putin has reportedly retired to a tightly controlled echo chamber that filters out the truth about what is happening on the Ukrainian front. He has signaled that Russia will only ease up on the bombing if Ukraine accepts a reduction in its sovereignty. Ukraine, on the other hand, has stopped the Russian military, but at a phenomenal humanitarian and material cost. Analysts estimate that rebuilding Ukraine’s economy could cost up to $500 billion. The rest of the world is in a bind. Most agree that Russia has violated international law, but they cannot give up their oil and gas. As EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell Fontelles said: “Since the start of the war we (Russia) have given 35 billion euros compared to 1 billion euros we gave to Ukraine to arm itself”. Besides, everyone knows that Russia cannot be militarily returned to the status quo before the Ukrainian invasion. Because it is a nuclear power.
So what to do? Is there a way to remove this diplomatic hurdle?
I don’t have the answer to that, but I want to share the thoughts that went through my head as I read Ambassador Martin Indyk’s excellent book, Masters of the Game – Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. Indyk has twice served as US Ambassador to Israel and also as Special Envoy to the Middle East. His book is a detailed analysis of Kissinger’s efforts to end the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War in October 1973.
What struck me, and therefore this article, were the nuggets of learning of contemporary relevance contained in the interstices of Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy half a century ago. I wondered what if Kissinger was 30 years younger? He will be 99 years old this month. Could he have managed to solve the mystery of Ukraine? Less academically, is there a leader anywhere who has the intellectual heft, strategic insight, psychological intuition, and Machiavellian nous to don the mantle of Kissinger?
I will be criticized for playing an academic parlor game. Conditions today are very different from 50 years ago. But with the probability of a nuclear swap increasing, this is a game worth playing.
Indyk writes that Kissinger’s strategic approach to conflict resolution was derived from Immanuel Kant’s essay Eternal Peace. Kissinger gleaned from this essay the message that “the basic dilemma of our time is that when the quest for peace becomes the sole goal of politics, the fear of war becomes a weapon in the hands of the most unscrupulous… it leads to moral disarmament. ” . (Indyk credits this quote to Kissinger. All other citations in this article are from the book.)
According to Indyk, Kissinger did not consider peace an “attainable or even desirable goal”. And that since “conflicts between states would in time lead to the exhaustion of their strength, (peace processes) should be designed in such a way that they buy sufficient time for the onset of exhaustion”. As such, they should proceed “step-by-step,” “cautious,” and “skeptical,” gathering “nuances toward a long-term strategy.” The aim should be to “establish a stable order” on the basis of a “generally accepted set of rules”.
Kissinger followed this gradualist playbook to bring about an American-brokered end to the Yom Kippur conflict. He formulated a face-saving formula which, on the one hand, persuaded the Egyptian military to give in without giving up all their gains, and on the other hand “punished” Israel enough, but not to weaken his ability to negotiate from a position of strength. Indyk concluded that Kissinger was master of the game when “diplomacy is the art of taking political leaders to places they are reluctant to go”.
Could a younger Kissinger get the same results in Ukraine today? I guess not. The conditions are very different. In 1973 Kissinger was helped by a combination of factors that no longer exist today. America was the dominant power and poised to play the role of global policeman. It had an impact and Kissinger took full advantage of that. Second, the timing was right. The US and the Soviet Union had detente on their agenda and the US was in talks with China. Third, despite his fondness for the “diplomatic lie,” Kissinger was a trusted mediator. Finally, in President Sadat of Egypt, Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and even President Hafez Assad of Syria, Kissinger dealt with leaders equal in cunning and intellect who appreciated the consequential costs of an extension knew conflict. His success was “as much a product of the ingenuity or risk-taking of those interlocutors as of his brilliance”.
Today none of these conditions exist. The US remains the most powerful military power in the world, but it doesn’t have the clout it had six decades ago. More relevantly, it has redefined its role in the global arena. In addition, the US and China are opponents. The words relaxation and trust are not part of their diplomatic lexicon. Even more worrying is that all parties view the world through markedly different lenses.
On the face of it, the idea that the Kissingerian cloak can be donned today with comparable effect is indeed academic. But to paraphrase Edmund Burke, the biggest mistake one can make is “not doing anything” just because there is “so little” to do. With that in mind, I share one final thought – doesn’t our Secretary of State have the qualities to wear that mantle? His intellect is undisputed. He was ambassador to China and the USA; He speaks Russian and is married to a Japanese man. If our prime minister agreed to an Indian-led peacekeeping initiative and used his personal connections to that end, our foreign minister might not be best qualified to play the “multilevel chess game” (with suitably contemporary rules) of Kissinger five decades ago played to break Ukraine’s diplomatic impasse?
The author is chairman of the Center for Social and Economic Progress