Kissinger in Moscow: Looking to Bring Pragmatism into US-Russia Relations

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Paul Robinson 

Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Ottawa

The recent meeting between Vladimir Putin and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brings to mind Winston Churchill’s famous comment that ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.’ In other words, talking is always better than fighting. Churchill is currently very much in fashion in certain influential policy circles in the West, but not for this – quite the contrary. Because of his opposition to the 1930s policy of appeasement, Churchill has come to symbolize the idea that one should not even talk to one’s enemies, let alone make any concessions to them.

Successful foreign policy requires states to weigh evidence and rationally determine the costs and benefits of different solutions before deciding what to do. Instead of this, political leaders too often reason by analogy, and predominantly by recourse to a single fashionable one. At present the preferred analogy is the failure of appeasement to halt Nazi aggression. Whereas 25 years ago, the preferred foreign policy metaphor in America was ‘Vietnam quagmire’ – a metaphor which warned of the dangers of military intervention – now it is ‘Munich 1938’ – a metaphor which warns of the dangers of looking weak.

In the context of Russian-Western relations, this framing casts current tensions as a conflict between good (the West) and evil (Russia), the latter of which must not be appeased in any way. The Nazi analogy implies that negotiation is weakness, and invites aggression. Diplomacy is therefore discouraged, and in so far as it does take place, it is viewed not as a process to find mutually acceptable compromises, but rather as a mechanism for displaying ‘resolve’ and obtaining one-way concessions from the other party. Only if Russia is ‘isolated’ can it be persuaded to back down. Any form of ‘engagement’ is dangerous.

In a similar fashion, some in Russia consider negotiating with the West to be pointless. Western states, in particular the USA, are said by these Russian thinkers to be determined to crush any potential challengers to their hegemony. The argument goes that if Russia makes any concessions, more will simply be demanded. There is nothing, this narrative maintains, that Russia can offer the West to satisfy it. Russia, therefore, should not even try. Rather it should firmly pursue its own interests without consideration of what its Western ‘partners’ think.

These two extremes feed off one another, and make diplomacy if not impossible then certainly extremely difficult. In this context, Kissinger’s meeting with Putin is most welcome. On its own, it won’t change anything – the two men have known each other a long time and have met on numerous occasions. Still, their encounters provide a useful means by which the Russian leader can learn what American elites are thinking, and by which Washington can acquire a more accurate picture of Russian desires.

This is all for the good. International conflict is as often as not a product of misperception. One state takes measures to defend itself which are mistakenly viewed by another state as threatening. The latter then responds by taking measures of its own, which the first state then also views as threatening – a cycle of escalation which international relations experts call the ‘security dilemma’. Anything which promotes mutual understanding and breaks this cycle of misperception is highly desirable.

Unfortunately, we know nothing of the content of the Putin-Kissinger talks, beyond that the two engaged in ‘friendly dialogue’, but Kissinger also used his time in Russia to deliver a eulogy to the late Russian Foreign Minister Evgeny Primakov, and his speech on that occasion displayed a sound understanding of what is wrong in the Russian-American relationship and what needs to be done about it.

According to Kissinger, ‘the prevailing narrative’ in Russia and America, ‘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’. This is damaging to international security. Contemporary threats require ‘sustained cooperation between the United States and Russia, and other major powers. Therefore the elements of competition … must be constrained.’ Only if Russia and the West work together can problems such as the war in Syria be resolved. For this reason ,’Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States.’ Kissinger concluded: ‘I am here to argue for the possibility of a dialogue. This requires respect by both sides of the vital values and interest of the other.’ In particular, this means that ‘Ukraine needs to be embedded in the structure of European and international security architecture in such a way that it serves as a bridge between Russia and the West, rather than as an outpost of either.’

Unsurprisingly, Kissinger’s statements drew the wrath of neoconservative Putin-haters. Former world chess champion and current Russian opposition activist, Garry Kasparov, for instance, drew on the Hitler analogy to complain that, ‘According to Kissinger and other followers of his realpolitik, Putin should be courted and treated as a partner simply because Russia is more powerful than its victims. This sort of immoral pragmatism is itself a shield for the complacency and appeasement that lets dictators like Putin become so secure and confident that they can crush all opposition at home and then lash out abroad.’

This is entirely wrong. Pragmatism is not immoral at all; it lies at the very heart of morality. Aristotle noted that the supreme virtue is ‘practical wisdom’ (phrenosis). There are times when it pays to stand and fight, he said, but there are also times when it pays to run away. Practical wisdom is what tells us which is right. It is not always 1938. Our neighbours aren’t all Hitler. Negotiation is possible, and concessions are not always wrong.

Rigid adherence to values or ideology without consideration of the practical consequences is absurd and dangerous. As Kissinger says, a stable world order depends on states taking each other’s interests into consideration, and making compromises, however much they sometimes may not wish to. A stable world also depends upon powerful nations working together to solve common problems, rather than working at cross purposes to one another as has too often been the case. As pragmatists, Kissinger and Putin understand this. Talking is not a sign of weakness. It is what civilized nations do to settle their differences peacefully.

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