Outstanding theorists are rarely good practitioners. Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, whose speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos generated enormous resonance in the world media, can serve as one example of this rule.
Kissinger has received recognition primarily for his books and contributions to various academic and expert ventures. However, the practical fruits of his policies have been bitter for the US. The embarrassing end to the Vietnam War, the opening of the way for China to become a superpower and challenge American domination, the delaying of the collapse of the Soviet Union by a good ten years… Those who are appalled by Kissinger’s theses in Davos can take comfort in the fact that there is no fear of them being picked up by anyone in America outside the media-academic circles.
Realism and the human price tag
In any case, the influential former Secretary of State’s past mistakes has less to do with the common denominator of consistently overestimating the goodwill and rationality of thinking of successive US opponents/adversaries. His view of the Ukrainian affair proves that Kissinger simply cannot keep up with the facts any longer and is wandering around in a postulated world. Unfortunately, it is a pity that, in this way, he lends credence to political illusions and thus moves away from the prospect of the West ridding itself of its delusions about Russia.
At the same time, Kissinger is an excellent example of the weakness of a certain kind of political realism, which is guided exclusively by cold calculations, completely ignoring the “human factor.” Cold calculation of profits and losses is “not an easy or small science,” especially for us Poles. However, we must remember that politics is not a game of chess: it is made up of living people who, unlike chess pieces, have their weaknesses, obsessions, and quirks. Politicians make decisions guided by the baggage of the tradition that brought them up, the collective emotions that brought them to power, and the pressure of expectations of the communities or groups they lead and depend on. And even if they try to be guided only by coldly conceived interests, they often perceive these interests quite wrongly, or they make mistakes, even cardinal ones, acting to their own detriment and that of their own countries, in the profound conviction that the opposite is true.
In short, politics is like the economy, which, as the late Krzysztof Dzierżawski brilliantly put it, is not a locomotive but more an anthill, which means that its cycles do not repeat themselves automatically, according to unchanging rules, but result from millions of subjective choices made daily by individuals, the outcome of which may be determined by the unforeseen flapping of wings by a butterfly on another continent, symbolic of the mathematics of chaos.
That is why both practicing and understanding politics (not only economic – any type of politics) is an art. And for art, knowledge alone is not enough. If it were otherwise, leaders would simply be educated in the fields of “the presidency,” “ the ministry of foreign affairs,” etc., graduates would be chosen with excellent exam results, and the world would have been a paradise long ago.
I apologize if these remarks seem trite to anyone; it is worth saying a few banalities to ourselves to avoid falling into the trap of imposing our expectations on the world. And both Kissinger’s past actions and his call to “not seek to destroy Russia” and to get along with it based on a community of interests are examples of just such a trap.
This is so well known that we can probably dispense with detailed summaries here, but suffice it to indicate the general axis of the old theorist’s thinking. His starting point is the assumption that America needs Russia as an ally against China, and Russia needs America as an ally against China. If Russia is rendered irrelevant, China will grow excessively, there will be an imbalance in the world balance, leading to misery.
The problem, which the aged realist overlooks, is that the geopolitics that Russia follows is quite different from the “Euclidean,” so to speak. From a rational point of view, the geopolitics of the West is simply paranoia. Russia is – according to itself – a unique, great civilization, which the West hates precisely because it is great and unique and wants to destroy its otherness at all costs. It, therefore, surrounds it in various ways, conspires to conquer one neighboring country after another by deceit, bribery, and violence, under the guise of “democratizing” it, and is preparing for Russia’s final destruction.
This is not the place for a detailed lecture on Russian paranoia; our readers know a great deal about it thanks to successive reviews of the Russian media supplied to them by Maciej Pieczyński. Suffice it to say that nobody in Russia thinks in the way Kissinger assumes. Russia’s enemy and the threat are always and will always be the West and, therefore, NATO. Russia does not see any danger from the east or the south, China or the Islamic world. On the contrary, it considers all civilizations competing with the West as its natural ally.
Kissinger’s realism is thus based on an erroneous assumption. Just as Chamberlain’s realism at the time assumed that once the declared goal had been realized, i.e., to gather into one German state all areas inhabited chiefly by Germans, Hitler would become an important and calculable element of the European balance. Or, on the other hand, the peculiar realism of Hitler himself, who assumed that the English would not fight him to the death because, as descendants of the Normans, they were the natural allies of the Germanic peoples.
Why do I take the liberty of discrediting an aged but distinguished expert who once held high dignities with such confidence? Because the falsity of his assumptions has already been proven in practice, which is what he apparently missed. Kissinger’s theory has already been put into practice. After all, it was in the name of gaining allies against China that the US last autumn came to terms with the construction of the Berlin-Moscow axis symbolized by Nord Stream 2 and agreed to withdraw from Europe in its favor and to respect its “sphere of influence.”
The Biden administration’s abrupt change in policy came with the realization that the concession was counter-productive. The abrupt change in the Biden administration’s policy came with the realization that appeasement was counter-productive. Any further attempts to “buy” Russia into an anti-China alliance will be taken by Russia as symptoms of America’s weakness and seen as a reason to intensify the war against the West, in which it sees China as an ally.
So the conclusion is simple: since Russia has chosen the role of China’s junior partner against the West, rather than the West’s against China, it should be bled and weakened to the maximum so that it can do little to help China and little to harm the West. And that it loses a dream ally? You will have to look for another. As it happens, all the rising powers in Asia are antagonistic to China to a greater or lesser extent. They feel threatened by it, and their possible inclusion in an alliance with the West may yield much more than the bribing of Russia with an offer to recognize it as an allied regional power postulated by the old generation of realists.
The Americans also seem to have realized that Germany is not suitable as their partner in Europe. For not only is Germany dependent on Russia, but it is also dependent to an even greater extent on China, as Der Spiegel wrote last week in a widely reported article that was unusually critical of its own government. The “respect for Russian interests” postulated in the name of maintaining the balance thus leads in practice to the creation of a strong anti-American, Sino-Russian-European bloc. And this is a prospect that is absolutely unacceptable to the US. The only way to remedy it is exactly what Kissinger, in the name of his realism, warns against. Russia needs to be bled to death and maximally weakened, and – in the long run – defeated by pushing it as far as possible eastwards out of Europe and pulling out of its orbit the “European powers,” i.e., Germany and France, which have been increasingly satellite-like to the Kremlin in recent years. The latter opens up a fantastic international opportunity for Poland – let’s hope we are smart enough to see it and at least partly take advantage of it.
As you can see, the word “realism” can mean completely different approaches. In my opinion, realism consists in accepting facts, even unexpected ones or those that contradict current beliefs. Well, the fact, proven by Putin on the morning of February 24, 2022, is that Russia is waging war against the West in general, and NATO and the US in particular; and that it has been waging it secretly for a long time and intends to do so to a victorious end. And since it doesn’t take two to make war, unilateral aggression is enough – the West is simply at war with Russia. Failure to accept this fact and to believe that we are still coolly playing some geopolitical chess must lead to defeat.
On the other hand, war-time realism is guided by the principle that no loss is so significant that it is not worth suffering if it avoids even more significant losses in the future. All leaders, opinion shapers, and experts of the West, also in Poland, should write this principle over their desks and underline it with a thick double line. At the same time, they should trash the thesis coined by the Western left during the Cold War and repeated sclerotically by Kissinger today that the condition for world peace is to offer Russia conditions of coexistence favorable to Russia.
Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz