Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 13 – Stalin’s Bazaar

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the thirteenth chapter of his book, called “Stalin’s Bazaar”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

The surprising alliance between Hitler and Stalin exemplifies how geopolitical interests can override ideological differences, challenging the assumption that such disparities always dictate foreign policy. Despite their origins on the societal fringes and distinct paths to power—Hitler through demagoguery and Stalin through bureaucratic maneuvering—their union revealed a lack of understanding among democracies about their true motivations and strategies. Hitler’s governance was characterized by impulsivity and a craving for public adoration, contrasting with Stalin’s methodical and paranoid approach to consolidating power.

Stalin’s perception of himself as a historical servant, unlike Hitler’s more egocentric view, allowed him to pursue the Soviet national interest with patience and strategic flexibility. He was adept at navigating the complexities of power, unhampered by the moral considerations that restrained other leaders. This made him a realist in international relations, misjudged by Western democracies that underestimated his willingness to engage with ideological adversaries for pragmatic gains.

Stalin’s background and Bolshevik ideology positioned him as a “scientist of history,” believing in the inevitability of historical processes and viewing diplomacy as a tool to advance communist objectives. His approach to international relations was grounded in a belief that the Soviet Union could manipulate global dynamics in accordance with Marxist-Leninist theory, remaining unfazed by diplomatic conventions.

Despite ideological animosity towards capitalist nations, Stalin’s foreign policy was marked by a readiness to form alliances that served Soviet interests, demonstrating a pragmatic approach to Realpolitik. This was evident in the Soviet Union’s interactions with Nazi Germany, where Stalin sought to delay conflict with the capitalist world until it became internally divided. Stalin’s diplomacy aimed at maximizing Soviet advantages, revealing a sophisticated understanding of power relations that Western democracies failed to appreciate.

As tensions with Nazi Germany intensified, Stalin eventually aligned with the anti-Hitler coalition, but only after his attempts at rapprochement with Germany failed. This strategic shift underscored his pragmatic approach to foreign policy, prioritizing Soviet security and interests over ideological purity. Through figures like Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Union engaged with the League of Nations and promoted collective security, all while maintaining a focus on safeguarding the USSR against potential threats from Hitler’s Germany.

The fragile relationship between the democracies and the Soviet Union was further strained by France’s hesitance to engage in military staff talks despite political pacts with the Soviet Union. Stalin, interpreting this as a lack of support, positioned himself strategically to potentially let the “imperialists” resolve their conflicts independently, showcasing the complexities and mistrust in these international relations. The democracies, particularly France and Great Britain, seemed to misunderstand the necessity of including the Soviet Union in their defense strategies against Germany, underestimating their own vulnerabilities and overestimating their capabilities without significant allies.

The refusal to fully embrace the Soviet Union in collective security efforts highlighted a deep-seated ideological and strategic disconnect. Stalin’s background as a committed Bolshevik and the contentious territorial issues with neighboring countries underscored the inherent challenges in establishing a comprehensive security system in Eastern Europe. The Western powers’ exclusion of the Soviet Union from critical diplomatic negotiations only served to exacerbate Stalin’s distrust and paranoia, which was already pronounced due to his repressive domestic policies and suspicion of capitalist conspiracies against the Soviet state.

Despite these tensions, Stalin’s approach to foreign policy remained calculated and pragmatic. He was not easily provoked and maintained a strategic focus on keeping the Soviet Union from being entangled in capitalist conflicts. The Munich Agreement further solidified his resolve to maneuver the Soviet Union into a position where it could exploit the conflicts between capitalist powers to its advantage. Stalin’s cold, strategic mindset was evident in his response to the agreement, predicting its implications for Poland and positioning the Soviet Union to benefit from the ensuing chaos.

In the aftermath of Munich, Stalin began signaling a shift in Soviet foreign policy, emphasizing neutrality and the potential for a pragmatic resolution of disagreements with Germany. This stance was publicly articulated, indicating a readiness to distance the Soviet Union from the collective security commitments previously endorsed. The Eighteenth Party Congress, occurring in a climate of fear and survival following extensive purges, served as a platform for Stalin to declare Soviet neutrality and express a willingness to engage with whichever capitalist power offered the most advantageous terms, effectively inviting Germany to negotiate.

Stalin’s strategic positioning was a clear departure from his earlier support for collective security, reflecting a nuanced approach that allowed for flexibility and opportunism in the face of impending war. This shift underscored Stalin’s skill as a strategist, capable of adapting Soviet foreign policy to the changing international landscape while keeping the ultimate goals of Soviet security and advantage in sharp focus.

Following the occupation of Prague, Britain rapidly shifted from appeasement to actively opposing Germany, mistakenly believing an immediate threat loomed from Hitler, potentially targeting countries like Belgium, Poland, or even Romania, despite its lack of a shared border with Germany. This misjudgment reflected a failure to accurately assess Hitler’s strategic approach and Stalin’s intentions, as signaled during the Eighteenth Party Congress. Britain’s urgency led to a muddled strategic choice between forming a broad collective security system or a traditional alliance, eventually opting for the former by reaching out to various nations, including the Soviet Union, in a flawed attempt to unite them against the perceived threat to Romania.

This initiative highlighted the inherent flaw in the collective security doctrine: the assumption of a uniform desire among nations to resist aggression, which clashed with the individual security concerns and geopolitical realities of each country. The varied responses underscored the complexity of aligning diverse national interests into a cohesive strategy against Germany. Poland and Romania’s refusal to involve the Soviet Union, coupled with the latter’s proposal for a conference in Bucharest, exemplified the diplomatic challenges in forming a united front against Nazi aggression.

Amidst these complexities, Britain’s unilateral guarantee to Poland, hastily extended without securing a coordinated military strategy or considering the dynamics between Poland and the Soviet Union, demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of the regional power balance and the feasibility of defending Eastern Europe. This approach not only underestimated the military implications of the purges in the Soviet Union but also ignored Stalin’s strategic flexibility and his capacity to exploit the situation to the Soviet Union’s advantage.

By guaranteeing Poland and Romania’s borders unilaterally, Britain inadvertently strengthened Stalin’s position, allowing him to negotiate from a place of strength without committing to any reciprocal alliance with the Western democracies. This strategic blunder was rooted in several incorrect assumptions about Poland’s military capability, the sufficiency of Franco-British forces, the Soviet Union’s interest in maintaining the status quo in Eastern Europe, and the ideological divide between Germany and the Soviet Union, all of which underestimated the complexity of the situation and Stalin’s adeptness at diplomatic maneuvering.

Britain’s missteps provided Stalin with a unique opportunity to dictate the terms of his engagement in the looming conflict, ensuring that the Soviet Union could remain a pivotal player without prematurely committing to either side. This strategic positioning underscored Stalin’s ability to leverage the unfolding geopolitical dynamics to the Soviet Union’s advantage, further complicating the already intricate web of international relations on the eve of World War II.

Stalin’s diplomatic maneuvering in the lead-up to World War II was characterized by his careful balancing act between the West and Nazi Germany, aiming to maximize Soviet gains without directly engaging in conflict. His two primary concerns were confirming the solidity of the British guarantee to Poland and exploring the possibility of a German offer that could satisfy Soviet territorial ambitions. Britain’s commitment to Poland ironically increased Stalin’s leverage, allowing him to demand more in negotiations with both sides. However, Stalin’s proposals for an alliance and military convention with Britain and France were too ambitious and complex to be feasible, reflecting his true intention of keeping his options open rather than committing to a Western alliance.

As negotiations with Britain and France stagnated, Stalin signaled his openness to a deal with Germany. Hitler, eager to avoid a two-front war, took the initiative, proposing a nonaggression pact that would include secret protocols dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. This proposal aligned with Stalin’s goals of territorial expansion and avoiding direct conflict, leading to rapid agreement between the two sides. The Nazi-Soviet Pact, signed in August 1939, marked a dramatic shift in European diplomacy, allowing Hitler to invade Poland without fear of Soviet intervention and ultimately sparking World War II.

The pact was a testament to Stalin’s strategic acumen, as he secured significant gains for the Soviet Union while preserving its military strength. It also highlighted the limitations of British and French diplomacy, which had failed to offer Stalin a compelling alternative to the German proposal. The Western powers’ inability to develop a coherent strategy against Hitler, combined with their reluctance to make significant concessions to the Soviet Union, left Stalin free to pursue a deal with Germany that reshaped the geopolitical landscape of Europe.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact had profound implications for the outbreak of World War II, demonstrating the failure of appeasement and collective security as means to prevent conflict. It also underscored the complex interplay of strategy, ideology, and national interest that defined European diplomacy in the interwar period. By exploiting the divisions between the Western democracies and Nazi Germany, Stalin positioned the Soviet Union as a key player in the unfolding global conflict, ultimately leading to its emergence as a superpower in the aftermath of the war.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.




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