“We are in a very, very grave period” remarked the 95 year-old former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger a few days ago – a reference to the worsening cycle of geo political relations caused by a number of factors including what appears to be further escalation of Donald Trump’s trade wars with China, the European Union and Iran together with growing tensions with Russia and elsewhere. The Kissinger remark led me to muse over a number of comments made by a number of wiser and older heads over the weekend.
In a period when nothing is certain and nothing can be taken for granted in respect of geo-political relations there appears to be a distinct lack of understanding of diplomacy. That the world is more troubled than at any time since the end of the ‘cold-war’ is hardly in doubt but with a US president hell bent of putting America first and tearing up established trade rules never in peacetime was there a greater need for European leaders to stand together and fight to save rules based order. What a pity it is then that rather than find itself speaking as one against new found adversity Europe appears more content to tear itself apart.
In my musings I found myself drawn to listen to some of the voices of older, wiser heads that popped above the parapet over the weekend. Cynics will no doubt call these people ‘Yesterday’s Men’ but in the troubled world that we live in there is no harm listening and maybe learning from former politicians and statesmen who have been there before. Three that caught my attention and that have spoken out over the past week, be this to related to Brexit or global geopolitics, include two former Prime Ministers in the form of John Major and Tony Blair and one that I will concentrate most of my attention in this commentary piece today, former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
Whilst I was no fan of his erstwhile boss Richard Nixon, I make no apology for being a long-time fan of Henry Kissinger. Edward Luce who interviewed Henry Kissinger for the Financial Times last week rightly referred to him as being co-architect of cold war rapprochement with China and also of détente with the now former Soviet Union. Politely refusing to be drawn that much on the subject of Donald Trump, other than to suggest that the Helsinki summit was one that had to take place and that it was one that he himself had advocated, I found it particularly interesting that in talking about Russia’s “almost mystical tolerance for suffering” Kissinger implied that “the west wrongly assumed in the years before Putin annexed Crimea that Russia would adopt the west’s rules-based order”.
Interesting too that Kissinger suggested that “NATO misread Russia’s deep-seated craving for respect” and that the mistake it made “is to think that there is a sort of historic evolution that will march across Eurasia and not to understand that somewhere on that march it will encounter something very different to a Westphalian [western idea of a state] entity”. Such views echo to a point those that I have previously made myself in ‘commentary’ in respect of, Russia after all having been invade twice over the past one hundred years by Germany, our continually underestimating Russian fears of the potential for western aggression. What little Kissinger did say on Donald Trump was poignant enough though – “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”
Henry Kissinger was a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher and spoke in the Financial Times interview of her being “a magnificent partner” adding that “I am a believer in the special relationship because I think America needs a psychological balance and this is a natural one based on history — not just on contributions.”. He also spoke in the interview of Margaret Thatcher’s first Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington who died at the age of 99 a week ago and who had himself resigned in 1982 much to the surprise and disdain of the PM over the Falkland crisis. Carrington later went on to become NATO Secretary General and to my knowledge never said a bad word about his former Prime Minister. Peter Carrington never regretted resigning as Foreign Secretary and I will remember him with great pleasure as someone who always presented himself as having been very fortunate. Indeed, in a BBC interview a couple of years ago Carrington went further saying that he believed that what he did [by resigning] placed the then Mrs Thatcher in a very much stronger position and di her the power of good”. Like Kissinger, Peter Carrington believed very firmly in the power of diplomacy just as he also did of common sense. Kissinger says of him in the Luce interview that Carrington had said to him that ‘What is the point of assuming responsibility if you then whisper to your friends that you are not really responsible?’
My apologies for digressing and back to the subject in hand. I have long admired Henry Kissinger and while we never actually met we did occasionally correspond. On reading his quite excellent book ‘Diplomacy’ in 1996, I note that in a commentary I said that Kissinger had ‘usefully challenged some theories that had dominated the post war years and that he had placed at our disposal a fine translation of the Wilsonian theme and that, to the eyes of the overseas reader nearly eighty years after the original thesis, a continuous reappraisal and reminder of the necessarily difficult decisions which the US will continually face in carrying the burden of peace without domination’.
Amongst a wide range of successful and failed diplomacy the book ‘Diplomacy’ which was published by Simon & Schuster contains observations on selected speeches and essays in regard of foreign policy success and failure and makes very interesting observations in respect of what is titled, ‘The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance’. It remains a must read.
I cannot cope the interview with henry Kissinger that was published in the Financial Times here but it is well worth a read. Separately, in an interview with Andrew Marr on BBC1 on Sunday, former PM John Major said that he now believes that in respect of the great number of fantasy promises made by both sides in the Brexit referendum debate that “a second referendum is morally justified”. A remainer of course, John Major emphasised dangers of a ‘no-deal’ with the EU and left the viewer in no doubt of his belief that from an economic perspective the North East would suffer most.
Meanwhile, interviewed by Evan Davis on the BBC2 Newsnight programme on Thursday evening and talking initially about Prime Minister Theresa May, another former PM in the form of Tony Blair took the view that her approach to Brexit was a “fallacy” and also that her current plan would not keep Brexiteers happy adding that “If she thinks this honours the Brexit mandate” his view was that “it doesn’t honour what most people who voted for Brexit think and we know that because they’re saying it.”
Speaking of the Chequers plan, while on one hand Blair defended Theresa May saying that she was approaching Brexit “from a well-intentioned viewpoint” he said of her plan that it was handing victory to “elites” and “betraying” the millions of people who voted in 2016. “If the system kind of says: ‘Look, we voted to leave but we now think that “leaving is really a pretty bad idea so let’s do this halfway house, half in half out, then we accept the rules but you leave the political structures.’
Blair said that the “irony is that the solution where a majority of the population for sure is going to say: ‘We don’t want that’ because people like me will say “well, this is pointless” whilst true Brexiteers will cry betrayal.
Outside of the pure Brexit issue and speaking of Labour, Mr. Blair said that “traditional party structures” were no longer relevant and that in his view “Labour was now “unreconstructed leftist” and that this would leave many people feeling “unrepresented”.
The above are just views of course but in a world where diplomacy, understanding and leadership are all in short supply, worth listening to none the less.
CHW (London – 23rd July 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785