Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Henry Kissinger was Right (About WWII, Anyway)

I know, I know.

Dr. K is not only one the most important diplomats in American history, he is also an incredibly divisive figure. Opinions of him range from praise for beginning the end of the Cold War to wanting him convicted as a war criminal.

As a historian, though, many of his assessments were well-considered and show a deep understanding of motivation and geopolitics in the past.

I may talk about his ideas about the Congress of Vienna at a later date, but in preparing my lecture for the end of World War II and the coming of the Cold War, I re-read part of his 1994 book Diplomacy. There is much to recommend his reading of the situation immediately after the Second World War, especially from the standpoint of the three Allied leaders (Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin).

First, I think he reads the diplomatic geneaology of FDR exactly right. He argues that FDR's vision of the world after WWII emerged from American exceptionalism, Wilsonian idealism and a unique understanding of the American psyche.

Great, what the hell does all that mean? Well, American exceptionalism is the idea that America is unique and has a singular role to play on the world stage. The US is special and has a special destiny because of its history and its ideas.

This is complimented by Wilsonian idealism, the vision of world politics that came from former President Woodrow Wilson at the close of the First World War. Wilson believed in the spread of democracy and national self-determination and that America had the central role to play in this.

Lastly, FDR understood the American proclivity to think in terms of universal ideas rather than the calculus of reward and punishment that seemed to govern diplomacy in years gone by.

I think this is right because it explains his actions in the waning months of the war. He believed Churchill and Britain could hold off the USSR while helping to rebuild Europe without American assistance. This belief is, knowing that Britain was economically destroyed and politically vulnerable, only explained by a deep ideological commitment to a certain vision of the world.

This was also helped by the fact that while FDR often distrusted Churchill's motives (especially where the British Empire was concerned), he believed Churchill's rhetoric that Britain was up to the task. This, incidentally, says as much about Churchill as it does about FDR.

Secondly, I think Kissinger was right in his assessment of Stalin as a blend of communist ideology and traditional Russian notions of statecraft. Stalin, according to Kissinger, distrusted fascism as much as he did capitalism. He hoped to use his alliances with Nazi Germany and then with the US and Great Britain to further territorial aims that could have come out of the old Russian imperial playbook.

Russia, for hundreds of years, has been concerned with gaining buffer territory along its vast borders. This, coupled with the centuries-old notion that Russia has to constantly allay its own feelings of inferiority, explains Stalin's policies during and after the war.

I think this is right, although I have a different take on the ideology bit and how it relates. While Stalin pursued communist policies at home, he had realized at least since the 1920's that the USSR must consolidate its position against possible rivals. This was a central factor in the disagreement between Stalin and Leon Trotsky.

So, in a way, I believe that Stalin saw communism and the Soviet system as means to an end, a way of establishing total control on a domestic level so that he could pursue fairly traditional foreign policy aims.

Expanding on Kissinger's arguments, I had to ask myself about why FDR and Churchill believed Stalin's overtures toward democracy and restraint. Also, why was it that Churchill portrayed Britain and its empire as equal to the task of rebuilding Europe and holding off the USSR when they were clearly in economic distress and the cracks in the empire were growing ever larger?

To the first question, I say that FDR believed Stalin because of his notions of international relations. If the postwar order was to look like a Wilsonian notion of perpetual peace based on harmony, FDR had to think that Stalin would be a willing participant in keeping the global peace after the war. Ideology stood in the way of reality and FDR really didn't plan for the eventuality (well, it's what happened) if Stalin didn't exactly play along.

To second, I say that Churchill knew exactly what he was doing. He was an ardent old imperialist, it's true. That's where the rhetoric comes from. He was not ignorant of the situation as it was, though. While Churchill believed that the Empire could be kept together (in one form or another), it was clear from the course of the war that Britain could no longer go it alone.

Churchill knew that Britain's only chance for survival was to cozy up to the US as much as possible so that the US would, in turn, see Britain as their main ally in Europe and also their main ally in forging the balance of power that would develop after the war. This balance of power was seen as natural by Churchill, but this is what FDR wanted to avoid.

So, it was basically Churchill's task to manuver between Stalin and FDR, usually giving into US demands while making it clear at every opportunity that Washington's strategic interests were also those of London. This was Churchill's great coup, and the birth of the so-called "special relationship," at least in any formal sense.

Why should we care about any of this? Well, it was in these notions of a postwar world that the world of the latter half of the twentieth century was born. The bipolar world of the US and its allies in NATO and elsewhere on one side and the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations on the other were born in the minds and actions of FDR, Churchill and Stalin and their governments in the waning months of World War II.

It was these critical views and opinions that set the stage for the rest of the "short" twentieth century (1914-1992), and also presented the international situation that would persist until this bipolar world crumbled to the ground and the world we live in now was born.

So, Kissinger got it right (at least here), and I think the history of the period and the subsequent years bear him out. To what extent does his reading of history reflect his own actions as a diplomat?

That is a question for another time and another long, rambling post. Stay tuned.

No comments: