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Power Shifts

Henry A. Kissinger Published online: 02 Dec 2011.

To cite this article: Henry A. Kissinger (2010): Power Shifts, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 52:6, 205-212


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Closing Argument

Power Shifts

Henry A. Kissinger


Thirty-four years ago, I had the honour of delivering the first Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture for the IISS. Alastair had been a friend, an occa- sional critic and a permanent inspiration. In 1976, I selected as a theme a quotation by Alastair, as follows: ‘Structural changes’, Alastair wrote,

are occurring in the relative power and influence of the major states; there has been a quantitative change of colossal proportions in the interdependence of Western societies and in the demands we make on natural resources; and there are qualitative changes in the preoccupations of our societies.

He then posed the question: ‘Can the highly-industrialized states sustain or recover a quality in their national life which not only satisfies the new generation, but can act as an example or attractive force to other societies?’ 1 In 1976, I answered that question with an emphatic ‘yes’. I would be more ambivalent today. The changes Alastair considered fundamental, at the time, were the first relatively minor stages towards the globalised world economy and the world of proliferating nuclear weapons. Then, the geopolitical or strategic dividing line ran through the centre of the European continent. Today, it would be impossible to draw one divid-

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ing line, to find a common denominator for all the fault lines that divide the contemporary world. The overriding theme of my speech then, based on my experience as US secretary of state, was how to manage the US–Soviet rivalry in a way that preserved stability and protected nations that relied on us while maintain- ing the peace. At the time of my Buchan Lecture, the Soviet influence was strategically advancing into southern Africa. But, in essence, the bipolar framework prevented a nuclear holocaust and, in time, permitted massive peaceful changes of the international order. Compare this, if you will, with the contemporary world. The centre of gravity of world affairs has left the Atlantic and moved to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. European unity has progressed substantially. It has also accelerated a change in the perception regarding the legitimate exercise of national power that started with the experience of the two wars. The European Union has diminished the importance of the sovereign state, but it has not yet embedded itself in the hearts of its population. With a reduction in the centrality of the sovereign state, it has become more difficult to frame policies in terms of national interest and to use force for specific strategic objectives. Military objectives are being limited to peace- keeping or inflated into universal enterprises, such as promoting human rights, enhancing the environment or fighting global terror. Military mis- sions and foreign interventions are defined as a form of social work. Wars in which Atlantic countries have been engaged in the past two decades have become extremely controversial, tearing the domestic consensus. Fundamental asymmetries in today’s strategic landscape have opened up. While America was pronounced a hyperpower by a European foreign minister, a new challenge to the international order arose that challenged the concept of the Westphalian settlement based on sovereign states, but which has proved difficult to handle by the Westphalian state system:

the emergence of radical Islamism. Inherently transnational, it rejects the established notion of sovereignty in quest of a universal system embracing the entire Muslim world. A different attitude towards strategy exists in Asia, where major coun- tries are emerging into confident nationhood, and the term ‘national

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interest’ has no pejorative implication. For example, China has announced

a number of ‘core interests’ which are, in essence, non-negotiable and for

which China is prepared to fight, if necessary. India has not been similarly explicit, but it has, by its conduct in the region it considers vital, a pro- pensity for strategic analysis more comparable to early twentieth-century Europe than the European Union’s tendencies in the twenty-first century. Vietnam has demonstrated a ferocious readiness to vindicate its definition of national interest. In these circumstances, the classic concept of collective security is dif- ficult to apply. The proposition that all nations have a common interest in the maintenance of peace and that a well-conceived international system, through its institutions, can mobilise the international community on its behalf is belied by experience. The current participants in the international system are too diffuse to permit identical or even symmetrical convictions sufficient to organise an effective global collective security system on many key issues.


A good example is nuclear proliferation. The United States and some of

its allies treat the issue as a technical problem. They propose means of preventing it and offer international sanctions as a remedy. Korea’s and Iran’s neighbours have a different, more political or geostrategic perspec- tive. They almost certainly share our view of the importance of preventing nuclear proliferation around their periphery. China cannot possibly want a

nuclear Korea, or Vietnam for that matter, at its borders or a nuclear Japan, nor Russia nuclear-armed border states – likely consequences of the failure

of non-proliferation policy. But China also has a deep concern for the polit-

ical evolution of North Korea, and Russia for the internal consequences of

a confrontation with Islam. Too many invading armies have entered China

along the Yalu route. Manchuria’s industrial centres are too close by for

China not to be uneasy lest pressures on proliferation wind up creating a security crisis along its frontier with Korea, or Russia about a confrontation with Iran spreading into Russia’s Islamic regions. Hence, the willingness

to apply pressure on behalf of non-proliferation is limited to measures

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208 | Henry A. Kissinger

stopping well short of this outcome. A similar analysis could be applied to Iran’s nuclear proliferation, where Russia and China limit themselves to measures that do not affect their commercial interests. In this manner, collective security begins to undermine itself. A decade of United Nations-backed negotiations on Korea and Iran has produced no significant results, much less an end to the Iranian or Korean programmes.

It becomes a method used by proliferators to gain time. Negotiations on

proliferation and sanctions come to be defined by their attainability, not by their consequences.

Time is not neutral. The drift regarding proliferation will, within a measurable point, oblige the international system to choose whether to take decisive measures, however defined, or to live in a proliferated world. We will then have to come to grips with what this world will look like, how it organises itself, the meaning for alliances and deterrence. At that point, strategic weapons systems of established powers, now being somewhat constrained by arms-control negotiations, may become the principal means of preventing wars between proliferating countries and of nuclear weapons turning into conventional instruments of warfare. Can the established nuclear powers permit nuclear exchanges even if they are

not directly involved? I hope it will not become necessary to devote an IISS conference to that subject a couple of years from now. Another obstacle to a global collective security system is that the most destructive existing weapons systems are, to some extent, incommensu- rable to the tasks assigned to them. The two nuclear superpowers, Russia and the United States, have developed extremely costly strategic systems essentially irrelevant to today’s military challenges to world order. In none of the actual wars that have been fought since the end of the Second World War was the use of strategic nuclear weapons either contemplated or relevant. During the Cold War, the two sides, Washington and Moscow, chal- lenged each other through proxy wars – in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Latin America – using conventional army and naval and air power. At the pinna- cle of the nuclear era, conventional forces assumed pivotal importance. At

a time when power was supposedly concentrated in the capitals of the two

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superpowers, the critical struggles of the era were taking place on the far- flung periphery: Inchon, the Mekong River Delta, Luanda and El Salvador. The measure of success was not vast arsenals but effectiveness in support- ing local allies in the developing world. In short, the strategic arsenals of the major powers, incommensurable with conceivable political objectives, created an illusion of omnipotence belied by the actual evolution of events.


These cracks in the system have been obscured, to some extent, by the dominant role of the United States, by its willingness, sometimes eager- ness, to step into the breach unilaterally or with coalitions of the willing. The scope for so dominant an America is shrinking as a result of a number of objective factors. Firstly, America has been involved in three successive wars with vast domestic consequences: Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. That pattern will end because, in the future, the American public will insist on clarity of objectives and unambiguous definitions of attainability. Wars will be risked only for specific outcomes, not for abstractions like nation-building. Secondly, economic conditions in the United States and in the Atlantic Alliance will inevitably bring about pressure on military budgets, con- straining the scope for intervention and imposing the need for establishing priorities. At the same time, the United States remains the strongest single power in the world. Constrained in its unilateral capacities, it is still the indispen- sable component of any collective security system, however defined. But it is no longer in a position to dominate. It must henceforth practice the art of leadership not as the sole leader but rather as a part of a complex world. Ultimately, the United States will have to share the responsibility for global order with emerging power centres, lest it fall victim to what Paul Kennedy has called ‘imperial overstretch’. Some observers have forecast a multipolar world, with regional heavy- weights, like Russia, China, India, Brazil or Turkey, grouping their smaller neighbours and building power blocs that can potentially create a global equilibrium between themselves. I do not believe that it is possible to com-

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210 | Henry A. Kissinger

partmentalise the international order into a system of regional hegemons. The United States is a Pacific country; it cannot be excluded from East Asia, nor China or India from the Middle East and other resource-rich regions. Issues like energy or the environment or proliferation cannot be regional- ised. They require global approaches. Niall Ferguson has coined the term ‘apolar world’, in which an over- stretched United States gradually recedes from its hegemonic role around the globe but is replaced by nobody. China, in this view, is too focused on maintaining stability as it modernises its society to take on broad inter- national commitments; Europe is hobbled by its long-term demographic decline. In the absence of a global rule-keeper, religious strife, local inter- necine conflicts and non-state rogue actors, like al-Qaeda, will rend the world. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum; so does the international system. Chaos, if it occurs, will sooner or later settle down into a new order. It is the task of statesmanship to try to bring about what must happen ulti- mately and save humanity untold suffering. It may be time to look at a functional approach to issues of world order. The European Union eventually emerged because, in the absence of a political construction, functional entities were created bringing together countries with comparable interest into a common enterprise; the European Coal and Steel Community was a necessary step. Is it possible to construct a functional approach on a wider than regional but less than global basis, with those countries most affected taking a leading role? Afghanistan is a case in point. Virtually no country within strategic reach of Afghanistan, or certainly in the region, has an interest in seeing a Taliban victory, the presence of al-Qaeda as a state within a state and the potential splintering of the country into Pashtun and non-Pashtun elements. Even Iran, as a Shia country, should wish to prevent a virulently anti-Shia fundamentalist regime returning to power in Kabul. For Pakistan, the ascendancy of Islamic jihadists in a neighbour- ing state would serve to destabilise the Pakistani regime. India has every incentive to prevent ignition of jihadist fervour and political victories for them. Former Soviet republics, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, would be

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destabilised by ethnic unrest and irredentism that would be unleashed in Afghanistan, should Pashtun fanatics succeed in seizing control of the country. The impact of radical Islamism on Xinjiang defines a potential Chinese interest. All these countries have a more vital interest in a stable and coher- ent Afghan state than does the United States. For the time being, the American role is explained to the American public on the grounds that it serves a vital national interest, and it is acceptable to the parties in the region because they know we have no design on a permanent presence in Afghanistan. But an essentially unilateral American role cannot be a long-term solution. The long-term solution must involve a consortium of countries in defining, and then protecting and guaranteeing, that country. America should be in a sustaining, rather than a central controlling, role. The key issue is whether it can be built concurrently with the substan- tially unilateral American effort or has to await its end, either in success or frustration. It would be a sad outcome were so passive a posture to be the result. The relationship of America to China is an essential element of such an approach and of international order. The prospects of global peace and order may well depend on it. Many writers have drawn an analogy between China’s emergence as a great power and potential rival of the United States today and Germany’s ascendancy in Europe a hundred years ago, when Great Britain was the dominant international power but proved unable to integrate Germany. The case of China is even more complicated. It is not an issue of inte- grating a European-style nation-state but a full-fledged continental power. China’s ascendancy is accompanied by massive socio-economic change and, in some instances, dislocation internally. China’s ability to continue to manage its emergence as a great power side by side with its internal trans- formation is one of the pivotal questions of our time. Increased popular participation is not the inevitable road to interna- tional reconciliation, as is often asserted. A century ago, Germany was gradually allowing more and more freedom of speech and press. But that newfound freedom in the public sphere gave vent to an assortment of

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voices, including a chauvinistic tendency insisting on an ever more asser- tive foreign policy. Western leaders would do well to keep this in mind when hectoring China on its internal politics. This is not the occasion to review the range of American and Chinese interactions. I would like to conclude with one general point: both coun- tries are less nations in the European sense than continental expressions of a cultural identity. Neither has much practice in cooperative relations with equals. Yet their leaders have no more important task than to implement the truths that neither country will ever be able to dominate the other, and that conflict between them would exhaust their societies and undermine the prospects of world peace. Such a conviction is an ultimate form of realism.


1 Alastair Buchan, Change Without War:

The Shifting Structures of World Power,

The BBC Reith Lectures 1973 (London:

Chatto & Windus, 1974), p. 18.