Secretaries of State Kissinger, Shultz and Baker had geopolitical finesse and deep insight.
What does statesmanship look like? It has been decades since we’ve seen it consistently at the highest levels in Washington. Over the past two years we’ve witnessed the Biden administration’s sanctimonious mishandling of its relationship with a historic ally, Saudi Arabia; its cavalier treatment of other Middle Eastern friends; and its misconceived Summit for Democracy, which relegated de facto allies in favor of weak, anarchic states. Although the White House has been furiously switching gears of late—mostly on account of its need for allies against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine—its foreign-policy assumptions have been revealed as fundamentally unsound.
Standing in contrast to these misdeeds are the records of three great Republican secretaries of state who shepherded American diplomacy during the middle and late phases of the Cold War: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker III. Their successes were inextricable from their understanding of America as a nation-state, a worldview that put the needs of the U.S. above all else.
The first of the three, Mr. Kissinger, is exemplary because he combined two sensibilities. He was a master of the geopolitical chessboard. In 1971 he orchestrated the U.S. move closer to communist China—despite the vast moral outrages of the Cultural Revolution—to balance the Soviet Union’s global influence. A year later he forged a nuclear-arms-limitations deal with the U.S.S.R. Mr. Kissinger found success elsewhere, too. In 1973 he split Egypt from its alliance with Syria against Israel and laid the groundwork for a separate peace between Cairo and Jerusalem. But Mr. Kissinger also brilliantly intuited the passions and psychological needs of leaders from Zhou Enlai to Anwar Sadat to Golda Meir. Without such insight, his successes would have been limited.
Shultz translated President Reagan’s geopolitical vision into subtle diplomatic reality. He made tough calls that advanced interests over values. One was his decision to limit weapons sales to Taiwan to mollify Beijing, opting for stability over ideology. In reaction to the Soviet refusal to withdraw SS-20 ballistic missiles from Europe in 1983, Shultz helped deploy Pershing II missiles in West Germany as a counterbalance—a decision that signaled to the Soviets that Western Europe couldn’t be decoupled from the U.S. In so doing, he also went against the wishes of more than a million West German peace marchers.
But Shultz’s realpolitik was tempered by humanitarian concerns. He championed the Helsinki Final Act—which urged the Eastern Bloc to respect human rights—and demanded Soviet compliance. He took the lead in providing emergency aid to the famine-wracked Horn of Africa in the mid-1980s and convinced the White House to deny aid to Renamo guerrillas in Mozambique because of their human-rights violations. He understood that foreign policy required a hierarchy of needs and that moral action had its place in that hierarchy—if not always on the highest rung.
Mr. Baker was a skilled deal-maker who negotiated the 1990 Two Plus Four Agreement, which allowed Germany’s reunification and brought decades of stability in Europe. The same year he put together a coalition of 35 nations to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Mr. Baker couldn’t have accomplished any of this without a piercing Shakespearean insight into his interlocutors’ personalities and motivations. He was able to manipulate them precisely because he understood them so well.
The Cold War’s end brought on the mistaken notion that the U.S. no longer had any enemies and thus that its foreign policy ought to be guided exclusively by universal values such as human rights. This relegation of the national interest had its roots in the Carter administration, which came after Mr. Kissinger and before Shultz.
President Carter’s foreign policy was self-defeating—the Cold War realism of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was frequently at odds with the legalistic agenda of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. In the course of opposing right-wing pro-American dictatorships and supporting left-wing anti-American ones, Mr. Carter undermined U.S. allies in both Iran and Nicaragua.
President Clinton’s initial assumption was that geoeconomics had replaced geopolitics. The implication was that America’s principal enemies were global: poverty, resource scarcity and so on. The Balkan wars of the 1990s, in which Mr. Clinton intervened, were a human-rights catastrophe but not the existential threat liberal internationalists imagined. The U.S. was able to intervene mainly because the real strategic threats—a rising China, Russia and al Qaeda—were still incubating.
The foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration was a tragedy because it focused exclusively on Islamic terrorism and Middle East wars at the expense of moderating Russia’s and China’s surging influence. The Obama administration was often uncomfortable with the projection of American power, and the Trump administration, despite some good instincts, was an impulsive and organizational mess.
Messrs. Kissinger, Shultz and Baker rose to their positions within a context of general intellectual seriousness. That culture has been absent for decades, owing in part to something Mr. Kissinger identifies in his most recent book, “Leadership.” Universities, he writes, produce only “activists and technicians,” who because of their particular obsessions lack in general wisdom. They have turned their obsessions into an ideology, with little regard for the national interest as millions of Americans understand it. They equate talk of geopolitics with cynicism, which explains the Biden administration’s downgrading of morally imperfect but otherwise vital allies such as Saudi Arabia and Singapore.
The hair-splitting philosophical and technocratic culture of Washington also contributes to America’s foreign-policy decline. This, again, can be traced to the universities. What distinguishes Messrs. Kissinger, Shultz and Baker as a group is that it’s impossible to label them according to today’s rigid ideological standards. They were all realists but of an extremely elastic and internationalist kind that is missing from post-Cold War realism—which erroneously puts “restraint” on a pedestal.
Each of them, moreover, promoted human rights without turning it into a pompous performance. Mr. Kissinger and President Nixon’s opening to China, by creating a more stable geopolitical context, ultimately led to economic development that raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Mr. Baker’s negotiating skills brought stability to Central Europe, which allowed for the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Shultz’s concern for human rights was more explicit, even as he quietly subsumed his own humanitarian accomplishments in Cold War Europe and Africa within a larger geopolitical framework.
These three giants had their mistakes and blind spots. But their regard for the national interest was absolute. They weren’t globalists, climate activists or human-rights campaigners. They saw American power as an ultimate good in an intractable world where it was always a matter of pushing to the edge of the possible. It was a Homeric age of statecraft that should serve as a lodestar for this and future administrations.
Mr. Kaplan holds a chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is author of “The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power,” forthcoming in January.
Appeared in the August 27, 2022, print edition as ‘A Homeric Age of Statesmanship’.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.