Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 2 – The Hinge

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 second chapter of his book, called “The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson”.

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.

In the early 20th century, America transitioned from its traditional isolationist stance in foreign policy to a more active role in world affairs, propelled by its growing power and the decline of the European-centered international system. This shift was notably shaped by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, each with a distinct philosophy.

Roosevelt, understanding the dynamics of global power, advocated for American involvement in international affairs as a necessity for national interest and global balance. Conversely, Wilson’s approach was more idealistic. He believed America’s role in the world was to spread its democratic principles. His administration marked America’s emergence as a key global player, introducing ideas that equated peace with democracy, ethical conduct for states, and adherence to universal law. These concepts, though initially met with skepticism by European diplomats, have enduringly influenced American foreign policy.

American foreign policy has roots in the early years of the Republic, reflecting a strategic pursuit of national interests. Initially, this meant maintaining independence by skillfully navigating between European powers, particularly during the French Revolution. The Founding Fathers, desiring neither France nor Britain to dominate, adopted a policy of neutrality, using it as a diplomatic tool. Jefferson characterized the Napoleonic Wars as a struggle between two tyrants, reflecting a perception of moral equivalence and an early form of nonalignment.

Simultaneously, the U.S. did not shy away from territorial expansion within the Americas. Key treaties and acquisitions like the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which significantly expanded U.S. territory, were part of this strategy. This expansion was seen not as foreign policy but as an internal matter. American leaders, including James Madison and James Monroe, justified this expansion as essential for the nation’s growth into a great power, despite their criticisms of European power politics. Monroe, in particular, argued that territorial expansion was crucial for the country’s security and status as a major power, highlighting the importance of territory in defining a nation’s characteristics and resources.

American leaders in the early nation maintained a commitment to principles of exceptionalism while occasionally employing European power politics strategies. European nations often waged wars to prevent the rise of dominant powers, but America, bolstered by its strength and geographical distance, was confident in addressing challenges as they arose. George Washington’s warning against permanent alliances reflected this confidence and was interpreted not just as a geopolitical strategy but as a moral principle, aligning with America’s self-view as a bastion of liberty.

Early American foreign policy was underpinned by the belief that Europe’s frequent wars were due to its cynical statecraft. American leaders envisioned a world where states acted cooperatively rather than as rivals. They rejected the notion that states should be held to different moral standards than individuals, as suggested by European diplomacy. This belief in ethical consistency between individuals and nations was central to American thought.

Thomas Paine and others attributed Europe’s frequent conflicts to government systems that neglected freedom and human dignity. The prevailing American view was that peace depended on promoting democratic institutions, with a consistent belief that democracies are inherently peaceful. However, Alexander Hamilton was a notable exception, questioning the assumption that republics were more peaceful than other forms of government.

Despite Hamilton’s skepticism, the dominant American conviction was that the U.S. had a special responsibility to spread its democratic values as a means to ensure world peace. This led to debates over whether America should actively promote free institutions or simply lead by example. Early leaders like Thomas Jefferson believed that America could best champion democracy by practicing its virtues domestically, serving as a model for others.

The moral underpinnings of America’s foreign policy, coupled with its prosperity and functional institutions, led to no perceived conflict between high-minded principles and survival. However, this approach also created a unique ambivalence: if American foreign policy was to be as morally upright as personal conduct, how should security be analyzed? Did America’s commitment to freedom automatically moralize its actions, and how did this differ from Europe’s raison d’état, which justified state actions based solely on their success?

This American ambivalence, analyzed by scholars like Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, reflects the dilemma of desiring the benefits of power without the typical consequences of its exercise. This tension between moral principles and pragmatic statecraft has been a recurring theme in American foreign policy. By the 1820s, the U.S. had found a compromise, allowing it to maintain its critical stance toward European balance-of-power politics while pursuing its own expansionist “manifest destiny” across North America.

Until the 20th century, American foreign policy was straightforward, focusing on fulfilling its manifest destiny and avoiding overseas entanglements. The United States supported democratic governments globally but refrained from actively enforcing this preference. John Quincy Adams encapsulated this philosophy in 1821, stating that while America supported freedom and independence worldwide, it would not seek out foreign conflicts to engage in. This policy also included keeping European power politics out of the Western Hemisphere, a stance solidified by the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.

The Monroe Doctrine was a response to attempts by the Holy Alliance (Prussia, Russia, Austria) to suppress the revolution in Spain and potentially extend their influence into the Americas. The United Kingdom, opposing intervention in domestic affairs, proposed a joint action with the United States to prevent European control over Latin America. However, John Quincy Adams, wary of British motives and fresh from the 1812 war, advised President Monroe to independently assert that Europe should not interfere in American affairs. This doctrine effectively declared the Western Hemisphere off-limits to European colonization or interference and signaled that any such attempt would be considered a threat to U.S. peace and safety.

This policy allowed the U.S. to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere without engaging in traditional European power politics. It justified interventions to prevent any European influence in the Americas, as seen in President Polk’s rationale for incorporating Texas in 1845. The Monroe Doctrine was gradually expanded to justify American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.

The Civil War temporarily shifted America’s focus from territorial expansion, with the primary concern being the prevention of European recognition of the Confederacy. After the war, the doctrine continued to be invoked for expansionist purposes, including the purchase of Alaska. Unbeknownst to the European powers, the United States was rising as a major global power, surpassing Britain in industrial output by the late 19th century and experiencing a massive increase in resources, population, and industrial production.

Despite this surge in power, the U.S. Senate maintained a focus on domestic issues, keeping the military small and avoiding international commitments. However, as America’s power grew, so did its influence in the international arena. By the late 1880s, the U.S. began to build up its navy, transitioning from a relatively insular power to one that could not resist the allure of a more pronounced role on the global stage. This shift marked the beginning of a new era in American foreign policy, as it began to engage more directly with international affairs.

In the 19th century, despite the protection offered by the British Royal Navy, American leaders viewed Great Britain as a significant challenge and strategic threat. This perspective led the United States to assert its dominance in the Western Hemisphere, using the Monroe Doctrine, ironically supported by Britain, as its justification. By the end of the 1800s, the U.S. had successfully challenged British influence in Central America.

As the U.S. became supreme in the Western Hemisphere, it started to engage more broadly in international affairs, growing into a world power almost inadvertently. American leaders, while continuing to see the U.S. as a beacon for the world, began to recognize that its power entitled it to a say in global issues, even before the world turned fully democratic.

Theodore Roosevelt was pivotal in this shift. He was the first president to assert that the U.S. should actively influence global affairs, based on national interest rather than just moral principles. He saw the U.S. as a power like any other, with the right to use its strength to pursue its interests. Roosevelt expanded the Monroe Doctrine’s scope, interpreting it as a right for U.S. intervention in the Western Hemisphere. This approach led to actions like forcing Haiti to manage its debts, supporting Panama’s independence from Colombia to establish the Canal Zone, and intervening in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Roosevelt’s stance marked a departure from the traditional American view of foreign policy. He saw the world as a stage of struggle and rejected the idea that peace and public morality were synonymous or that America was insulated from global dynamics. To him, America’s strength was essential for ensuring its influence and survival.

Rejecting traditional beliefs in the efficacy of international law and disarmament, Roosevelt believed in the necessity of power for protection and international influence. He envisioned America as a great power, playing a role in shaping the 20th century similar to how Britain influenced the 19th. Roosevelt’s perspective on foreign policy was pragmatic and power-centric, contrasting sharply with the idealistic views of many of his predecessors. He sought to prepare America for an active, assertive role in global affairs, challenging the nation’s long-held beliefs about its place in the world.

Theodore Roosevelt was critical of the idea of world government and pacifist approaches to international relations, emphasizing the need for strength backed by force. He believed in the concept of “spheres of influence,” where major powers held sway over specific regions, like the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere or Britain in India. For instance, Roosevelt accepted Japan’s occupation of Korea, recognizing the reality of power over the legality of treaties.

Roosevelt approached international affairs with an understanding of global power dynamics unmatched by any American president except perhaps Richard Nixon. He initially viewed the European balance of power as self-regulating, but later saw Germany as a threat to this balance. During the Algeciras Conference in 1906, which aimed to determine Morocco’s future, Roosevelt prioritized geopolitical interests over commercial ones, aligning America’s interests with those of Britain and France.

In Asia, Roosevelt viewed Russia as a threat and thus supported Japan, Russia’s main rival. He considered a balance between Japan and Russia ideal for maintaining global equilibrium. This approach led him to facilitate the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, ending the Russo-Japanese War and earning him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Roosevelt’s initial neutrality regarding Germany’s invasion of Belgium in World War I shifted as he recognized the threat to the balance of power. He advocated for rearmament and support for the Triple Entente, seeing a German victory as dangerous to U.S. interests. His preference for British naval control over German hegemony was influenced by cultural affinity and historical experience.

Roosevelt’s thinking was grounded in realpolitik, a sharp contrast to the idealism that would characterize Wilson’s presidency. Had Roosevelt’s approach defined American foreign policy, it would have marked an adaptation of European statecraft principles to American circumstances. However, American foreign policy evolved beyond Roosevelt’s tenure, influenced by a public not fully prepared for the aggressive role in global affairs that he envisioned. This evolution reflected America’s struggle to reconcile its traditional values with the realities of becoming a world power.

In a twist of history, America eventually assumed the global leadership role Theodore Roosevelt had envisioned, but under principles he criticized and led by a president he despised: Woodrow Wilson. Wilson personified American exceptionalism and shaped the dominant intellectual approach to U.S. foreign policy. While Roosevelt had a deep understanding of international politics, it was Wilson who tapped into America’s self-perception as an exceptional nation, unwilling to engage in the morally neutral, power-based diplomacy common in Europe.

Wilson’s ability to connect with the American public’s ideals was remarkable. He became president due to a split in the Republican Party and understood that America’s inherent isolationism could only be overcome by appealing to its belief in unique, exceptional ideals. Wilson gradually led an isolationist nation into World War I, emphasizing America’s commitment to peace and its lack of selfish national interests.

In his early addresses, Wilson laid out his vision of international relations, prioritizing universal law, trustworthiness, and arbitration over force. Roosevelt, who valued power and the willingness to use it, found Wilson’s high-minded principles frustrating and ineffective. Wilson, conversely, believed that America’s influence depended on its perceived altruism and envisioned the U.S. as a mediator in the European conflict, leveraging its higher values.

Wilson’s policy was far from isolationist; it was about asserting the universal applicability of American values and the nation’s commitment to spreading them. He reasserted traditional American ideals—liberty as a beacon, moral superiority of democracies, ethical foreign policy, and the state’s moral obligations—but with a universal, almost missionary zeal.

Wilson’s view of America as divinely favored and altruistically motivated implied a global role more expansive than Roosevelt’s vision. Roosevelt had imagined America as a powerful nation within the existing balance of power, while Wilson aspired for America to lead a transformation in international relations based on moral superiority and altruism. This approach set a precedent for American leadership claims based on unselfishness, a notion that foreign leaders often found unpredictable compared to the more calculable national interest-driven policies. Wilson’s idealistic vision laid the groundwork for a role in global affairs that extended beyond maintaining a balance of power, aiming for a higher moral and ethical influence worldwide.

Woodrow Wilson steered America onto a path vastly different from traditional statecraft. Rejecting the balance of power, he believed America’s greatness lay in its altruism and values. As early as 1915, Wilson advanced the idea that America’s security was linked with global security, implying a duty to oppose aggression worldwide. This notion positioned America as a global guardian of liberty, a precursor to the containment policy of the post-World War II era.

Roosevelt, a warrior-statesman, could not have envisioned such global interventionism. In contrast, Wilson, the prophet-priest, transformed American neutrality into a crusade for global freedom. He reinterpreted George Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements, arguing that anything concerning humanity could not be foreign to America, thus granting the U.S. a mandate for global intervention.

Wilson’s approach turned World War I into a moral crusade rather than a conflict of national interests. He framed the war as a battle for democracy and liberty, not as a response to specific grievances or strategic interests. For Wilson, the war was not about clashing national interests but about Germany’s assault on the international order. He personalized the conflict, targeting the German Emperor, thus making a compromise impossible and advocating for total victory.

Wilson’s views became widely accepted, even influencing figures like Herbert Hoover. The war was seen as a battle between good and evil, with America as the defender of freedom. This stance required a total overhaul of the global order, not just the defeat of Germany. Wilson envisioned a world made safe for democracy, where peace was maintained through partnerships of democratic nations.

If Roosevelt’s approach had prevailed, American participation in the war would have been based on national interests, similar to Britain’s historical foreign policy. The U.S. would have aimed to prevent any single power from dominating Europe or Asia. In Wilson’s vision, however, the U.S. was to spread democracy and freedom, a task requiring ongoing international engagement.

Wilson’s leadership marked a turning point for America, fundamentally changing its foreign policy direction. Instead of a focus on national interest, Wilson set America on a path of moral crusade, changing the way the country interacted with the rest of the world and setting the stage for its future role in global affairs.

Wilson dramatically shifted America’s foreign policy approach, advocating for a global role based on moral principles rather than traditional power politics. He criticized the European balance-of-power system and proposed a “community of power,” which later evolved into the concept of collective security. This idea envisioned a world order maintained by a moral consensus of peace-loving nations, a stark contrast to Roosevelt’s vision of maintaining peace through strength and alliances.

Wilson’s League of Nations was designed to embody this new approach, where power would yield to morality, and public opinion would dictate international relations. He believed that democratic governments worldwide and a new diplomatic code of honor were necessary for this system to work effectively. This idealistic view aimed to eliminate unilateral, arbitrary power that could disrupt global peace.

Wilsonianism represented a profound shift in American thought on foreign policy. Every American president since Wilson has echoed his themes, albeit with varying interpretations and applications. However, the practical challenges of implementing collective security became evident. Nations often disagreed on the nature of threats and their willingness to address them, as seen in numerous international crises.

This approach also highlighted a divide in American thought: should the U.S. defend its security interests regardless of how they are challenged, or should it only resist changes that are illegal? Wilsonianism implied that America was more concerned with the method of change rather than its own strategic interests, leading to debates about America’s moral right to intervene in international affairs.

Roosevelt, had he lived, would have disagreed with Wilson’s approach, believing that peace was not natural and could only be maintained through strength and vigilance. His perspective on foreign affairs faded after his death, with no significant American foreign policy school invoking his ideas since.

Despite the League of Nations not taking root in America, Wilson’s intellectual victory was significant. Post-World War II, America helped establish the United Nations based on Wilsonian principles. During the Cold War, the U.S. framed its conflict with communism as a moral struggle for democracy, and the collapse of communism saw a return to Wilsonian ideas of collective security and the spread of democracy.

Wilson’s legacy is the embodiment of America’s role in the world: a revolutionary ideology with a domestic preference for the status quo, often turning foreign policy into a struggle between good and evil. This approach has sometimes led to discomfort with compromise and inconclusive outcomes. Despite the challenges of implementing these ideals in a complex world, America has largely shaped the postwar global order, striving to be the beacon of hope and guidance Wilson envisioned.

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






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