The new ceasefire deal for Syria agreed to by Russia and the U.S. on February 23 seems to reflect a de facto recognition of Moscow’s strengthening hand in shaping the outcome of the Syrian conflict, as well as other standoffs not only of the military kind.
With the Russian contingent’s withdrawal from the Middle Eastern country and the full-scale implementation of the truce of February 26, it is worth to look at an appraisal of recent events by the preeminent U.S. diplomat and Cold War warrior par excellence Henry Kissinger, who went where others dare not in an article published in National Interest on February 4, 2016.
In his piece, Kissinger suggested that the world has become multipolar and that it is a mistake to ignore the interests of the burgeoning emerging markets – Russia in particular. “The danger today is less a return to military confrontation [between Russia and the U.S.] than the consolidation of a self-fulfilling prophecy in both countries. The long-term interests of both countries call for a world that transforms the contemporary turbulence and flux into a new equilibrium, which is increasingly multipolar and globalized,” Kissinger wrote in the article.
The idea of a “multipolar” world has been the centerpiece of President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy since he took office in 2000, but commentators have poured scorn on the idea whenever Putin brings it up as whining or meaningless rhetoric. Russia has rejected the U.S. right to appoint itself the “steward of this globe,” as top U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland confessed that the U.S. sees itself at an investment conference in Kiev last year.
Putin has not claimed that Russia has any special right to dictate its terms to other countries, not even in its own backyard, which includes Ukraine. Nonetheless, the Russian leader insists that Russia has national interests in decisions a country like Ukraine makes and that these must be considered. Despite the talk of the Kremlin’s drive to “recreate the Soviet Union,” Russia is insisting instead that the interests of the large countries of the world – not just its own, but those of all the emerging markets, especially the BRICS nations – are to be taken into consideration. Putin has been explicit on several occasions that the proper body to organize and balance these interest is the United Nations, the most recent being Putin’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015.
“Russia is confident of the United Nations’ enormous potential, which should help us avoid a new confrontation and embrace a strategy of cooperation. Hand in hand with other nations, we will consistently work to strengthen the U.N.’s central, coordinating role. I am convinced that by working together, we will make the world stable and safe, and provide an enabling environment for the development of all nations and peoples,” Putin said in concluding that speech.
But the U.N. has not been able to fulfill this role, and Russia is arguably as much to blame for blocking its effectiveness as the U.S. – the lack of statesmanship that Kissinger was referring to.
As a former Secretary of State, Kissinger described the deterioration of international relations, warning that the world is entering a dangerous phase. “The nature of the turmoil is in itself unprecedented,” said Kissinger, who was on the political frontline for most of the Cold War.
“[International relations] are probably the worst they have been since before the end of the Cold War. Mutual trust has been dissipated on both sides. Confrontation has replaced cooperation. Regrettably, the momentum of global upheaval has outstripped the capacities of statesmanship,” Kissinger said in what is a damning condemnation of all the world’s political leaders. “The prevailing narrative in each country 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.”
Ad hominem attacks are not the hallmark of statesmanship. BBC documentaries that rehash old rumors of presidential corruption without presenting any new evidence or commissions that accuse a sitting head of state of “probably” ordering murders are not classy. For their part, the half-truths that some Russian media outlets present about the West don’t make things any better.
But it is Kissinger’s multipolar remark that should shock most. Washington has taken a hard line and is refusing to compromise in insisting on its goals, such as ousting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to take one example. As Washington has clearly lost the initiative in Syria, what Kissinger is suggesting is not that the U.S. was outfoxed by a wily Putin; instead, the U.S. should, in principle, listen to what the Russians have to say. Moscow has long-standing interests and friendships in Syria, and its point of view needs to be respected.
“Perhaps most important has been a fundamental gap in historical conception. For the United States, the end of the Cold War seemed like a vindication of its traditional faith in the inevitable democratic revolution. It visualized the expansion of an international system governed by essentially legal rules. But Russia’s historical experience is more complicated. To a country across which foreign armies have marched for centuries from both East and West, security will always need to have a geopolitical, as well as a legal, foundation,” said Kissinger.
The grand old statesman goes on to pose a philosophical problem: How does the United States work together with a country that has explicitly rejected the U.S. value system based on individual freedoms and adopted a statist version of capitalism in its place?
Kissinger goes on to say that many commentators see the U.S. and Russia entering a new Cold War, but that is to misunderstand the situation. “In the 1960s and 1970s, I perceived international relations as an essentially adversarial relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. The world has changed dramatically since then. In particular, in the emerging multipolar order, Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States.”
Now, that is not an opinion you hear often from a U.S. politician. But then, Kissinger is a statesman, not a politician.