31.05.23 Review

Realpolitik's creed: Henry Kissinger explains how to prevent World War III and what steps the US should take when it comes to Ukraine, Russia and China. His advice will not please everyone

Throughout its history, humanity has often made progress as a result of major conflicts and periods of instability. This was the case, for example, with the Thirty Years' War or World War II. But with advances in artificial intelligence and mutually assured destruction, world powers must do even more to prevent unmanageable conflicts. American diplomatic legend Henry Kissinger believes that the fate of humanity today depends on whether the United States and China can find a way to resolve their differences within the next decade. In his view, there is room for manoeuvre. The resolution of the current conflict in Europe would require Ukraine's admission to NATO and a new rapprochement between the West and Russia, which is likely to retain ‘at least Sevastopol’. At the same time, he does not see a Russian-Chinese alliance as reliable or long-lasting: there has always been a ‘natural mistrust’ between the two countries that is bound to rear its head in the future.

The world is once again entering an era of great power rivalry between the US and China, and the current balance of power looks something like it did prior to World War I, where neither side has much room for political concessions and any imbalance could spell disaster, Henry Kissinger has told The Economist in an eight-hour-long interview. The situation has been exacerbated by the rapid development of artificial intelligence technology, the use of which, for military purposes, could bring the world to the brink of destruction. Kissinger therefore believes that China and the US have no more than 5-10 years to resolve their relations through diplomacy. Otherwise events could become irreversible and unmanageable.

On 27 May, Henry Kissinger, a veteran of the American political scene, celebrated his 100th birthday. Richard Nixon's national security adviser, who later became Secretary of State, is known as a proponent of Realpolitik, which implies a focus on achievable goals in politics and international relations, even at the expense of those that are value-driven. Almost all of the important US foreign policy decisions in the first half of the 1970s are in one way or another connected with his name: détente in Soviet-American relations, the Vietnam armistice agreement (for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973), and US rapprochement with Beijing.

Kissinger is alarmed at the increasing competition between the US and China for technological and economic supremacy. Beijing and Washington have demonised each other, and convinced themselves that the other side poses a strategic, existential threat. The US fears China's ambitions for world domination, but, according to Kissinger, this fear has grown out of a misinterpretation of China's agenda, which ‘does not seek world domination in the Hitlerian sense’. The logic of Chinese foreign policy is fundamentally Confucian rather than Communist. China seeks recognition as an equal world power.

The issue of Taiwan remains a burning issue on today's agenda. Kissinger believes that neither side will fundamentally change its position on this issue, but realpolitik should be based on the principle of mutual restraint, and working together via a small group of advisers in direct contact with one another may prevent escalation.

An ‘all-or-nothing’ approach will never lead to acceptable results or have a positive impact on international stability, so the parties will have to consider each other's interests. In this regard, Kissinger highlights the particular problem of the US 'hawks' dominating the US trade agenda, as they lobby for an active containment approach to China that leaves it no room for development and no claim to equality. Kissinger also believes that hopes for Chinese democratisation are unrealistic: a collapse of the communist regime in the PRC could lead to a civil war that would escalate into ideological conflict and exacerbate global instability. The US has no interest in such a scenario. At the same time, he notes, the priority of domestic stability and the fear of protests and domestic political crises will deter the Chinese leadership from making adventurous foreign policy moves similar to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

The US will also have to engage with Beijing on issues related to resolving the instability in Europe created by Putin's ‘catastrophic mistake’. Kissinger only sees a lasting peace in Europe if two conditions are met. Firstly, the West must accept Ukraine into NATO. Secondly, Europe must embark on a new rapprochement with Russia to create a stable eastern border. In this part of the interview, Kissinger polemicises the notion that Ukraine’s admission to NATO is no longer as necessary as it once was as the Ukrainian army is strengthened and equipped with the latest weaponry. Ukraine's membership in NATO is necessary, he insists, as a deterrent: we have now armed Ukraine to the point that it will become the most armed country with the least experienced strategic leadership in Europe.

However, the diplomat believes that Russia is likely to retain some of the occupied Ukrainian territories, at least Sevastopol. China's involvement as Russia's ally and NATO adversary in any Russian-Ukrainian settlement certainly makes it difficult for the West to end Russian aggression with minimal compromise from Kyiv. Beijing has a vital interest in ensuring that Russia emerges from the war unscathed. Kissinger, however, expresses doubts about the strength of the Russian-Chinese alliance. Today they have been brought closer together by suspicion of the US and a desire to confront America, but in reality the long history of Russian-Chinese relations has been characterised by a mutual ‘instinctive distrust’. ‘I have never met a Chinese leader who has said anything good about Russia, just as I have never met a single Russian leader who has spoken sincerely about China,’ notes the patriarch of Realpolitik. This distrust is bound to show itself in the future, he believes.