Henry Kissinger’s 1979 memoir, White House Years, is a trove of strategic and geopolitical wisdom. A brief anecdote from the book shines a coruscating light on the current effort of several former diplomats — including Richard Haas, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Professor Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University — to strike a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, absent Ukrainian participation.
During the Nixon administration’s first foreign visits in early 1969, Kissinger, a freshly minted national security advisor, traveled to Paris to meet Charles de Gaulle, Kissinger recalls in his book.
Kissinger’s prose overflowed with self-deprecation, perhaps a result of his ebullience and newness to the conduct of politics. Hence, he made a cardinal mistake: He answered De Gaulle, a man who cared little for the view of a foreign advisor in a diplomatic discussion, when De Gaulle asked which statesman Kissinger admired most. “Bismarck,” Kissinger replied, for his “moderation after victory.”
There can be moderation only after victory, of course.
And in regard to the current war between Russia and Ukraine, any other course of action will lead to continuous hostility or defeat for the West. The “diplomatic approach,” in fact, would be capitulation if not coupled with an unswerving commitment to a superior military position over Russia.
The Haass-Kupchan mission was, allegedly, an unauthorized demonstration of civilian grandiloquence: The White House claims to be aware of the talks. The two academics and former policymakers were disavowed by U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan despite briefing the National Security Council on their efforts. From their April article in Foreign Affairs, we know Haass and Kupchan’s prescription for conflict termination: a “frozen conflict” that defers issues of substance.
Yet the mission’s two architects, both former public servants, create an instructive case, with historical statecraft providing a relevant comparison.
Kissinger’s respect for Bismarck’s moderation is understandable; it was the German statesman’s greatest talent. He could grasp the inherent value in limiting one’s own power. Great powers often overestimate their abilities, simply because they are political actors directed by imperfect individuals who are refracted through bureaucratic organizations. Yet the rush of triumph often leads to immoderate behavior, just as a gambler ups the ante after a few good hands. Humans are wont to discount the possibility of failure and become drunk off the heady fumes of success — and it can be fatal.
Bismarck grasped the essential requirement for moderation: Unless a state establishes a universal empire, there will always be other actors with which it must negotiate, and there must always be consideration of the requirements for durable peace. Moderation after victory allows the victor to integrate the vanquished back into the system, as Bismarck did with Austria, transforming a long-standing rival into an essential ally. Bismarck’s mistake, according to Kissinger, was to allow the annexation of French territory, creating a long-term antagonism that only a statesman of his exceptional talents would be capable of managing indefinitely.
At first glance, the Haass-Kupchan mission appears in line with the above logic: Russia has been battered, with an estimated 50,000 men killed and 150,000 to 200,000 wounded, the loss of untold amounts of equipment, and access to Western markets. Moreover, in light of Prigozhin’s aborted putsch, Vladimir Putin himself may lack the fiber to rule the Russian state; at the very least, his continued power must be called into question.
Thus, the moderate choice, as Haass/Kupchan see it, would be diplomacy. So long as the West still sustains Kyiv, it makes little difference whether Russia holds Ukrainian territory. Korea and Cyprus have held, absent violence, for decades; why not Ukraine, too?
On its face, such logic is specious. The West is unlikely to arm Ukraine after a ceasefire both because of natural divisions in the Western camp and because Russia, certain to negotiate in poor faith, will use these divisions and its classic propaganda to undermine Ukraine’s links to its essential partners. A long, drawn-out diplomatic process inherently favors Russia, the only actor that need not consider alliance politics to the same degree.
Read the rest at The Messenger.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.