Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 16 – Three Approaches to Peace

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 sixteenth chapter of his book, called “Three Approaches to Peace: Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill in World War II”.

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.

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of an unprecedented genocidal conflict, constituting the largest land war in human history. As the German military penetrated deeply into Russian territory, Hitler extended the conflict globally by declaring war on the United States. Despite initial successes, the German forces failed to secure a decisive victory, culminating in a severe defeat at Stalingrad during the winters of 1941 and 1942-43, where the Sixth Army was obliterated. This pivotal loss shattered the German war machine, enabling Allied leaders Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin to start envisaging a post-war world and victory strategies.

Post-war visions varied greatly among the Allies, shaped by their national histories. Churchill sought to restore Europe’s traditional power balance by strengthening Great Britain, France, and a rehabilitated Germany to counterbalance Soviet power. Conversely, Roosevelt advocated for a “Four Policemen” model—where the U.S., U.K., Soviet Union, and China would maintain global peace, foreseeing Germany as a potential future threat. Stalin aimed to expand Soviet influence into Central Europe, creating buffer states to safeguard against any resurgence of German aggression.

Roosevelt was uniquely progressive in his rejection of traditional European diplomatic approaches, focusing instead on eradicating Nazi threats to establish a harmonious international order. He was dismissive of historical lessons suggesting that a total defeat of Germany could leave a power vacuum for the Soviet Union to fill. Instead, he envisioned a post-war peace maintained not by power balances but by a collective security system upheld by the Allied nations through mutual cooperation and vigilance.

Firm in his resolve, Roosevelt planned for American troops to return home post-war, eschewing any permanent military presence in Europe which might provoke Soviet opposition. His correspondence with Churchill in 1944 explicitly refused any American obligation to maintain forces in France post-liberation and dismissed any U.S. role in Europe’s economic rebuilding, seeing it as a British responsibility given their closer ties and greater interests in the region.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt’s interactions with Churchill and Stalin highlighted his disdain for empowering France and his skepticism of Britain’s capability to counter Soviet expansion alone. He envisaged a post-war order where the Allies would oversee Germany’s disarmament and supervise Europe without relying on American military involvement or supporting colonial ambitions of Britain and France.

Roosevelt’s vision for global governance, inspired by Wilsonian idealism and a belief in American exceptionalism, sought a world order free from traditional power dynamics, facilitated by the Four Policemen. However, this concept faced challenges akin to those of Metternich’s Holy Alliance, striving for peace through shared values among the victors—a notion complicated by the ideological differences between the Allies and Stalin’s relentless pursuit of Soviet interests. Ultimately, Roosevelt’s ambitious plans for a harmonious international community were hindered by these irreconcilable differences and the practicalities of post-war power dynamics.

Stalin’s vision for peace echoed centuries of Russian strategic thinking, aiming to secure a broad security zone around the Soviet Union. He supported Roosevelt’s call for the unconditional surrender of Axis powers, seeing it as an opportunity to eliminate any future German influence in peace negotiations, akin to the role played by Talleyrand in earlier European diplomacy. Stalin’s perspective was deeply influenced by his communist ideology, which did not differentiate between democratic and fascist nations, though he regarded democracies as less threatening. His foreign policy was pragmatic, prioritizing Soviet interests and territorial expansion, even if it meant seizing opportunities from allies or foes alike without provoking war.

As World War II progressed, Stalin’s readiness to discuss postwar arrangements was highest when the Soviet military situation was dire. Early attempts to negotiate with the Allies were stymied by Roosevelt’s reluctance to discuss peace terms prematurely. After the pivotal victory at Stalingrad, however, Stalin grew confident of Soviet territorial gains and reduced his diplomatic engagement, relying instead on military conquest to secure postwar objectives. Churchill, aware of the historical precedents of negotiating with expansionist powers, was prepared to discuss Europe’s postwar restructuring from the outset, but lacked the leverage to influence Stalin effectively without sufficient military backing.

Churchill faced the daunting task of navigating between the expanding influences of the United States and the Soviet Union, which threatened Britain’s global standing and security. Roosevelt’s vision of self-determination challenged the British Empire, while Stalin’s ambitions in Europe posed direct threats to British interests. Churchill, from a position of relative weakness, strove to maintain a balance of power as a basis for peace, fully aware that Britain could no longer independently sustain such a balance postwar. He recognized the necessity of fostering strong ties with the United States, often conceding to American strategies to ensure Britain was not isolated in the emerging global order.

The complexity of Allied relations was underscored by Roosevelt’s mixed feelings towards Churchill and Stalin. While personally closer to Churchill, Roosevelt often prioritized strategic interests over this friendship, sometimes expressing harsher criticisms towards Churchill than towards Stalin. Roosevelt’s approach was marked by a fundamental distrust of British motives, which he and his advisors saw as potentially self-serving and imperialistic. This skepticism shaped American reactions to British proposals, advocating for a new world order free from traditional power politics, which Hull articulated as a rejection of old European diplomatic strategies like spheres of influence and balance of power.

Roosevelt’s stance on colonialism was a significant point of contention, emphasizing anti-imperialism and advocating for the development and independence of colonized nations. This position clashed with British interests but resonated with American anti-colonial principles. Discussions on this topic highlighted differing perspectives on the role of empires in the modern world, with Roosevelt pushing for the application of the Atlantic Charter globally, including in British colonies. This led to ongoing debates over the future of colonialism, with Roosevelt’s administration promoting a vision of widespread decolonization that was at odds with British imperial policy.

The strategic and ideological differences between the Allied leaders not only influenced wartime diplomacy but also set the stage for the postwar world. American and British leaders navigated these differences with an eye toward both immediate military objectives and long-term global restructuring, reflecting a complex interplay of national interests, ideological goals, and personal dynamics among Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.

America’s approach to military strategy has historically separated foreign policy from military actions, a philosophy that reflects its experiences in the Civil War and World War I, which both concluded with clear victories. This segmentation meant that diplomatic efforts were reserved for post-conflict phases, a method that later contributed to complications in Korea and Vietnam. Conversely, British strategy, deeply influenced by resource constraints and the devastating toll of World War I, has always intertwined military action with diplomatic considerations, aiming to minimize casualties and manage geopolitical consequences simultaneously.

Churchill, recognizing the strategic and diplomatic stakes, advocated for aggressive maneuvers in Southern Europe during World War II, viewing these regions not just as military targets but as pivotal areas to limit Soviet post-war influence. However, American military leaders, prioritizing direct engagement with German forces, largely dismissed Churchill’s strategy for Southern Europe as an attempt to leverage American forces for British national interests. This divergence in strategy underscored differing priorities: the U.S. pressed for a direct second front in France, while Churchill sought to manipulate European theatres to curb Soviet power post-war.

Roosevelt demonstrated decisive wartime leadership by affirming the Allied focus on defeating Germany first, contrary to some American military preferences for prioritizing the Pacific theatre. His decisions facilitated significant Allied operations like the landings in North Africa and Italy, which strategically weakened Germany ahead of the D-Day invasion in Normandy. These actions, although delayed, aligned with Stalin’s push for a second front to alleviate pressure on Soviet forces, albeit for different strategic reasons—Stalin aimed to keep the fight away from Eastern Europe where Soviet post-war interests were most concentrated.

The debate over the timing and placement of the second front continued to influence post-war politics and the onset of the Cold War. Critics later argued that delays in establishing this front exacerbated Soviet distrust and cynicism, which were seen as contributing to Stalin’s hardened stance in Eastern Europe. However, this view underestimates Stalin’s pragmatic and strategic approach, evidenced by his prior engagements with Hitler and his history of ruthless political maneuvers.

The decision by America’s leadership to postpone discussions of the post-war order until after victory was secured played a critical role in shaping the eventual Cold War landscape. This approach, driven by Roosevelt’s policy of unconditional surrender, was intended to prevent divisive peace negotiations and reassure allies of mutual commitment to total victory. However, this policy also meant that the post-war world was shaped without preliminary agreements on political restructuring, leading to a power vacuum filled by the most assertive and strategically positioned forces at war’s end.

Roosevelt’s leadership was instrumental in shaping international frameworks for the post-war world through various conferences that laid the groundwork for global institutions like the United Nations and economic agreements at Bretton Woods. However, his staunch refusal to discuss war aims or confront potential disagreements with the Soviets set the stage for post-war tensions, as the Allies had not established a shared vision or balance of power for the post-war landscape, leaving unresolved issues that would later ignite geopolitical conflicts.

Stalin initially perceived Roosevelt’s reluctance to engage in discussions about the postwar settlement as a tactical move, intended to take advantage of the Soviet military predicament. The Soviet leader was driven by the goal of forging a new balance of power from the expected collapse of the Axis forces. Unlike his Western allies, Stalin was uninterested in abstract principles like those outlined in the Atlantic Charter; instead, he preferred concrete negotiations, particularly those involving territorial adjustments. His approach was grounded in traditional Realpolitik: he envisioned the dismemberment of Germany, a westward shift of Poland, and the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, directly contravening the self-determination principle of the Atlantic Charter. In exchange, he was prepared to support British strategic interests in Western Europe.

Despite the severity of the war situation, Stalin continued to push for these objectives into 1942. Churchill showed some willingness to negotiate on Soviet terms, but Roosevelt and his advisers firmly opposed any balance-of-power or territorial concessions, aligning with their broader rejection of Old World diplomacy. This stance was evident in Roosevelt’s communications, which emphasized adhering to declared principles over making expedient territorial arrangements. Stalin’s attempts to solidify his demands, including proposing mutual assistance pacts with Romania and Finland, were met with resistance from the U.S., which saw such moves as a revival of discredited imperial tactics.

As the war progressed, Stalin’s strategy became clear: he aimed to secure Soviet borders and expand influence without making significant concessions. This approach was evident during Molotov’s 1942 visit to Washington, where Roosevelt proposed a new world order based on collective security rather than traditional power balances, hoping this would be more appealing to Stalin than the territorial expansions he sought. Roosevelt’s vision included an international trusteeship for former colonies, an idea he believed would align with broader Allied security interests.

Molotov, however, remained focused on immediate Soviet goals, unaffected by the ideological or diplomatic pitches from the Allies. His negotiations mirrored his earlier discussions in Berlin, showing a consistent pursuit of Soviet territorial and strategic interests. Stalin’s lack of response to Roosevelt’s overtures and his subsequent silence on the matter indicated a strategic decision to wait until the war’s end to finalize any agreements, anticipating that a stronger Soviet military position would enhance his leverage at the peace table.

Ultimately, Stalin’s patience and strategic positioning allowed him to enter postwar negotiations with substantial gains already in hand, effectively using these as leverage to shape the final agreements in favor of Soviet interests. This approach underscored the stark differences in diplomatic strategies between the Allies, with the Soviet Union employing a pragmatic, territorially focused strategy that contrasted sharply with American idealism and the British blend of pragmatism and principle.

Roosevelt’s diplomatic strategy during World War II was heavily influenced by his need to maintain American public support, which generally opposed traditional European concepts like spheres of influence and balance of power. Understanding that American ideals were crucial in sustaining the war effort, Roosevelt aimed to position Stalin in a way that would uphold his reputation, possibly as a preemptive measure to counter any post-war Soviet expansionism. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. suggested that Roosevelt prepared for the potential souring of Soviet-American relations by developing a robust military infrastructure, though it seems Roosevelt’s primary motivation was to bolster the war effort rather than explicitly to hedge against Soviet ambitions.

Roosevelt’s personal approach to diplomacy was evident in his interactions with Stalin, contrasting sharply with Churchill’s more cautious and pragmatic stance. Roosevelt’s attempt to arrange a meeting with Stalin alone, without Churchill, at the Bering Straits underscores his reliance on personal diplomacy. The proposed informal meeting, which ultimately never occurred, highlighted Roosevelt’s unique approach to forging a direct personal connection with Stalin.

The two major summits that did take place, at Teheran and Yalta, were significant not only for their strategic discussions but also for the psychological and tactical games played by Stalin. Both summits were strategically positioned close to Soviet territory, which, along with Stalin’s demeanor, served to assert Soviet dominance and put the Western leaders at a disadvantage. Roosevelt, despite his declining health by the time of the Yalta Conference, showed a consistent preference for fostering cooperation with Stalin, often at the expense of confronting him directly about contentious issues like the fate of Eastern Europe and Poland.

At Teheran, Roosevelt’s decision to accept Stalin’s invitation to stay in the Soviet-controlled villa was a gesture of goodwill, yet it did little to sway Stalin from his strategic objectives, particularly his insistence on the delayed opening of a second front in France and the complete demilitarization of Germany. Stalin’s ability to control the conversation and focus on regions away from the soon-to-be contentious Eastern Europe demonstrated his adept handling of diplomatic interactions.

Roosevelt’s handling of the Polish question at Teheran was particularly indicative of his diplomatic style. He expressed personal agreement with Stalin’s plans but cited domestic political considerations, particularly the significant Polish-American population, as reasons for his inability to openly support Stalin’s position at that time. This approach hinted at Roosevelt’s broader strategy of delaying firm commitments and keeping American options open, despite the potential risks this posed for the post-war arrangement.

Throughout these interactions, Roosevelt maintained a hopeful perspective on Soviet intentions, which reflected not only his personal diplomatic style but also a broader American optimism about the potential for post-war cooperation. This was emblematic of a national tendency to favor a more idealistic and humanitarian view of international relations over a strictly geopolitical one. The American public and leaders like Senator Tom Connally perceived actions such as the dissolution of the Comintern as signals of the Soviet Union moving towards Western values, a hopeful interpretation that underscored a significant underestimation of the ideological and strategic realities of Stalin’s regime.

As the Allies made significant advancements in 1944, particularly with the Normandy landings, Stalin began to tighten his grip on Eastern Europe, gradually increasing his demands from territorial adjustments to outright political control. His strategic approach evolved from merely seeking recognition of the 1941 Soviet borders to orchestrating a shift in the political landscape, most notably by supporting the communist-dominated Lublin Committee in Poland while sidelining the London-based government-in-exile. This shift indicated Stalin’s growing confidence and assertiveness as the military situation turned increasingly in his favor.

In an effort to manage the unfolding situation, Churchill attempted to negotiate directly with Stalin during a visit to Moscow in October 1944. This negotiation led to an informal agreement where influence in various Eastern European countries was apportioned by percentage between the Soviets and the British. However, this method of assigning influence proved impractical without enforcement mechanisms or clear criteria for compliance. Ultimately, the arrangement had little effect on the Soviet consolidation of power in the region, with countries like Yugoslavia finding relative autonomy not because of the agreement but due to their own resistance efforts.

By the time of the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the situation on the ground had evolved so much that the earlier Churchill-Stalin agreement was essentially irrelevant. Stalin’s forces were already entrenched in the disputed territories, effectively deciding the issue of borders and political control through military presence rather than diplomatic negotiation. At Yalta, Churchill and Roosevelt faced the realities of Soviet dominance and made significant concessions, including acknowledging the 1941 Soviet borders and agreeing to a westward shift of Poland’s borders.

Roosevelt, despite his declining health, prioritized securing Soviet cooperation for the newly envisioned United Nations and ensuring Soviet engagement in the war against Japan. His willingness to compromise with Stalin over territorial demands in Asia, particularly with concessions in Manchuria and strategic ports, was controversial and reflective of his broader strategy to integrate the Soviet Union into a post-war international order that ostensibly aimed to eliminate traditional power politics like spheres of influence.

The aftermath of Yalta was marked by an optimistic portrayal from Roosevelt, who emphasized the formation of the United Nations while downplaying the concessions made to Stalin and the implications for Europe and Asia. This portrayal underscored a persistent hope in American diplomacy that cooperation with the Soviet Union could continue peacefully into the foreseeable future. This optimism was also echoed by Roosevelt’s advisors, who believed that Stalin, despite his authoritarian grip, could be a reasonable and long-term partner. This narrative of hopeful cooperation persisted in American foreign policy discussions well beyond the immediate post-war period, influencing U.S. relations with subsequent Soviet and Russian leaders.

As World War II drew to a close, the complex interplay of military strategy and geopolitical maneuvering intensified. Stalin strategically shifted his demands as the Allies’ military position strengthened, transitioning from territorial to outright political control. This shift was emblematic of Stalin’s adherence to Realpolitik; he openly advocated for the imposition of his own social system wherever his armies could reach, indicating a stark contrast to the more idealistic approaches favored by his Western allies.

Churchill, recognizing the gravity of Stalin’s ambitions, attempted to negotiate directly with him in 1944. This resulted in a rudimentary and somewhat desperate agreement delineating spheres of influence in Eastern Europe based purely on percentages, an approach both novel and impractical given the lack of enforcement mechanisms. This agreement ultimately did little to curb the Soviet dominance that unfolded, as Stalin’s forces solidified control over Eastern Europe, irrespective of previously agreed percentages.

The Yalta Conference in February 1945 further demonstrated the Allies’ diminishing leverage over Stalin. Roosevelt and Churchill conceded to Soviet demands regarding the borders of 1941 and Poland’s frontier adjustments, while nominally securing a commitment from Stalin for free elections in Eastern Europe—a promise made with differing interpretations of “freedom.” These concessions underscored the inherent conflict between the Allies’ diplomatic strategies and the harsh realities of Soviet expansionism.

Roosevelt’s strategy during these negotiations reflected a broader American idealism and a persistent underestimation of Stalin’s strategic intent. This was evident in Roosevelt’s decision to grant Stalin significant concessions in Asia in exchange for Soviet entry into the war against Japan, concessions that included strategic territories and influence that had historical significance far beyond their immediate military value.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the geopolitical landscape was markedly altered. The Soviets had expanded their influence extensively, creating a new balance of power that heavily favored them in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. The American approach, which had emphasized high ideals and the establishment of global institutions like the United Nations, faced the harsh realities of Soviet expansionism and the onset of the Cold War.

Roosevelt’s optimistic view of postwar cooperation faced challenges from the realities of Soviet policy and the American public’s reluctance to maintain a long-term military presence overseas. This reluctance was reflected in Roosevelt’s assurances that U.S. forces would not remain in Europe long after the war, inadvertently paving the way for Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe.

The resulting Cold War was a testament to the limitations of the Allied strategy and the difficulties of implementing a vision for a peaceful world order based on mutual trust and cooperation. The ideological divide that emerged was profound, shaping international relations for decades and highlighting the enduring influence of geopolitical realities over idealistic aspirations. The postwar period thus evolved into a protracted struggle to achieve the stable peace that had eluded world leaders during the war.

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




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