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International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Global Strategic Review 2010












International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Global Strategic Review 2010




By Henry A. Kissinger

September 10, 2010

Thirty-four years ago, I had the honor of delivering the first Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture for the
IISS. Alastair had been a friend, an occasional critic and a permanent inspiration. The annual
conference opening today is a tribute to his vision. 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 globalized world economy and the world of proliferating
nuclear weapons. Then, the geopolitical or strategic dividing line ran through the center of the
European continent. Today, it would be impossible to draw one dividing 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 Secretary of State, was how to
manage the U.S.-Soviet rivalry in a way that preserved stability and protected nations that relied on
us while maintaining 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 center 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

Change Without War: The Shifting Structures of World Power, The BBC Reith Lectures
1973 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), p. 18.


International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Global Strategic Review 2010

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 peacekeeping or inflated into
universal enterprises, such as promoting human rights, enhancing the environment or fighting global
terror. Military missions 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 countries are emerging into
confident nationhood, and the term “national 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 propensity for strategic analysis more comparable to early
20th-century Europe than the European Union’s tendencies in the 21st century. Vietnam has
demonstrated a ferocious readiness to vindicate its definition of national interest.

In these circumstances, the classic concept of collective security is difficult 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 mobilize 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 organize an effective global collective
security system on many key issues, including nuclear proliferation.

A good example is the issue of nuclear proliferation. The United States and some of its allies treat
these issues as a technical problem. They propose means of preventing it and offer international
sanctions as a remedy. Korea’s and Iran’s neighbors have a different, more political or geostrategic
perspective. 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


International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Global Strategic Review 2010

political 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
centers are too close-by for China not to be uneasy lest pressures on proliferation wind up creating a
security crisis along their 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 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 programs. 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
organizes 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, incommensurable 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 World War II was the use of strategic nuclear weapons either
contemplated or relevant.

During the Cold War, the two sides, Washington and Moscow, challenged each other through proxy
wars—in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Latin America—using conventional army and naval and air power.
At the pinnacle of the nuclear era, conventional forces assumed pivotal importance. At a time when
power was supposedly concentrated in the capitals of the two 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 supporting 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


International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Global Strategic Review 2010

These cracks in the system have been obscured, to some extent, by the dominant role of the United
States, by its willingness, sometimes eagerness, 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:

(1) 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 and exit strategy.

(2) Economic conditions in the United States and in the Atlantic Alliance will inevitably bring about
pressure on military budgets, constraining 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 indispensable 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 centers, lest it fall
victim to what Paul Kennedy has called “imperial overstretch.”

Some observers have forecast a multipolar world, with regional heavyweights, like Russia, China,
India, Brazil or Turkey, grouping their smaller neighbors and building power blocs that can
potentially create a global equilibrium between themselves. I do not believe that it is possible to
compartmentalize the international order into a system of regional hegemons. The U.S. 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 regionalized.
They require global approaches.

Niall Ferguson has coined the term an “apolar world,” in which an overstretched 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 modernizes its society to take on broad
international commitments; Europe is hobbled by its long-term demographic decline. In the absence
of a global rule-keeper, religious strife, local internecine conflicts and non-state rogue actors, like al
Qaeda, will rent 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 ultimately and save humanity untold suffering.


International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Global Strategic Review 2010

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 Shiite country, should wish to
prevent a virulently anti-Shiite fundamentalist regime returning to power in Kabul. For Pakistan, the
ascendancy of Islamic jihadists in a neighboring state would serve to destabilize the Pakistani
regime. India has every incentive to prevent ignition of jihadist fervor and political victories for
them. Former Soviet republics, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, would be destabilized 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 Sinkiang defines a potential
Chinese interest.

All these countries have a more vital interest in a stable and coherent 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 substantially 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 integrating 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 transformation is one of the


International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Global Strategic Review 2010

pivotal questions of our time.

Increased popular participation is not the inevitable road to international 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 voices,
including a chauvinistic tendency insisting on an ever more assertive 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: The DNA of both countries could generate a growing adversarial
relationship, much as Germany and Britain drifted from friendship to confrontation, unless their
leadership groups take firm steps to counteract such trends. Both countries 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. It requires a pattern of continuous cooperation on key issues, not
constant debates on short-term crises.

I recognize that I have advanced more problems than solutions. What better place than the IISS
Conference to call attention to the challenge that the answers we give cannot be better than the
questions we pose?