Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 24 – Concepts of Western Unity

Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 24 – Concepts of Western Unity

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 twenty-fourth chapter of his book, called “Concepts of Western Unity: Macmillan, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, and Kennedy”.

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 Berlin crisis underscored the entrenchment of two major spheres of influence in Europe, a division rooted in the post-World War II geopolitical shifts. Initially, from 1945 to 1948, Joseph Stalin secured the Soviet sphere by converting Eastern European nations into satellite states, posing a latent threat to Western Europe. This prompted a response from the democracies of the West, leading to the formation of NATO, the establishment of the Federal Republic from the Western occupation zones, and the beginnings of Western European integration.

Throughout this period, both the Soviet and Western blocs made several attempts to undermine each other, all of which ultimately failed. For instance, Stalin’s 1952 Peace Note aimed to draw the Federal Republic away from the Western alliance but fizzled out, partly due to Stalin’s own death. Similarly, U.S. Secretary of State John Dulles’ plan for “liberating” Eastern Europe faltered during the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956. Later, Nikita Khrushchev’s 1958 ultimatum over Berlin ended with the Soviets tightening control over East Germany rather than breaking Western alignment. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet focus shifted towards influencing the developing world, resulting in a bizarre yet stable bipolar division in Europe, described by French philosopher Raymond Aron as a clear but absurd situation where stability was preferred over the uncertainties of change.

This stability exposed underlying tensions within the Atlantic Alliance, particularly following the Berlin crisis. Leaders like Britain’s Harold Macmillan, France’s Charles de Gaulle, and America’s John F. Kennedy had to navigate their conflicting views on alliance dynamics, nuclear strategies, and Europe’s future. Macmillan, realizing Britain’s diminished global stature post-Suez Crisis, sought to redefine its role, shifting from imperial power to strategic influencer, primarily through fostering stronger ties with the United States, contrasting with France’s push for greater autonomy from U.S. influence.

Despite Britain’s waning power, Macmillan’s approach was pragmatic; he recognized the necessity of aligning closely with the U.S. This was evident during the Berlin crisis, where he supported the U.S. stance, despite the risks of a nuclear confrontation. His subsequent diplomatic efforts, including a notable trip to the Soviet Union, aimed to defuse tensions through prolonged negotiations, albeit with limited substantive outcomes.

The dynamics within the Atlantic Alliance continued to evolve as the Soviet threat diminished, prompting internal debates and differing national strategies on dealing with America. France sought an independent European security policy, while Britain maintained its commitment to a transatlantic partnership, underscored by the Skybolt crisis of 1962. This incident, where the U.S. cancelled a missile program crucial to Britain’s nuclear strategy, initially seemed to validate French skepticism towards reliance on the U.S. However, the resolution at Nassau, where the U.S. offered Britain Polaris submarines, reaffirmed the strong bilateral relationship, contrasting the cooperative British approach with the confrontational French strategy under de Gaulle.

In contrast to Britain’s strong influence over American decisions, France under Charles de Gaulle faced a starkly different geopolitical reality, focusing instead on challenging the philosophical underpinnings of Atlantic cooperation. This led to a broader contest for leadership within Europe, reacquainting the United States with a style of diplomacy that had long been intrinsic to European power dynamics.

Historically, the United States had emerged from World War II as an unprecedented global superpower, wielding vast economic and nuclear advantages. This period of superiority somewhat obscured America’s understanding of European diplomacy, which was shaped by centuries of political and industrial innovation. As Europe, aided by America, began to regain its old dynamism, France, particularly under de Gaulle, sought to reclaim its historic role in international statecraft, emphasizing national sovereignty and strategic autonomy.

De Gaulle’s approach to diplomacy was heavily influenced by France’s tumultuous history, especially the traumas of World War I and II, which left deep scars on the national psyche. His leadership aimed to restore French dignity and self-esteem, distinguishing his policies from American pragmatism. This difference in national experience led to frequent misunderstandings with the United States, where American optimism and straightforwardness clashed with French skepticism and complexity.

The divergence in diplomatic styles was evident in how the two nations perceived alliances. The United States treated the Western Alliance like a corporation where influence was measured by material contributions. In contrast, France, drawing on a long tradition of diplomatic strategy, prioritized the accumulation of strategic options and believed that true harmony among nations emerged not from formal procedures but from a balance of competing interests.

De Gaulle’s personal interactions underscored his diplomatic philosophy. He famously challenged the American presence in Vietnam and critiqued U.S. policies directly to American leaders, emphasizing a Europe of strong, independent nation-states. His sharp inquiries into American strategies reflected his broader view that France must never appear subordinate, particularly in its relationship with the United States.

Throughout his presidency, de Gaulle strived to position France as an independent leader in Europe, capable of challenging American influence. His stance was not rooted in anti-American sentiment but in a pragmatic approach to international relations where French and American interests might align without compromising French autonomy. This was particularly apparent during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where de Gaulle provided staunch support to the United States, demonstrating his willingness to cooperate when French interests were aligned with American actions.

De Gaulle’s foreign policy ultimately sought to prepare Europe for a future where it could stand independently from the United States, advocating for a European identity and security apparatus that could operate without American oversight. His discussions with American presidents often revolved around historical precedents, emphasizing the delayed U.S. interventions in the World Wars as evidence of the need for European self-reliance.

This tension between American and French visions of Europe played out against the backdrop of Cold War crises, such as Khrushchev’s Berlin ultimatum, where de Gaulle aimed to showcase France as a more dependable ally than the United States. His strategy was not just about distancing France from American influence but about enhancing French leadership within Europe, leveraging historical fears and aspirations to reshape the European security landscape.

Charles de Gaulle envisioned a Europe unified in a manner similar to Bismarck’s Germany, where France would play a dominant role akin to Prussia’s in the past. This vision sought to balance various national interests: the Soviet Union would keep Germany divided, the United States would secure Western Europe, and France would channel German aspirations into European unity. However, France lacked the economic strength and political leverage to dominate this arrangement, particularly given the presence of the superpowers.

The inherent disagreements between France and the United States were particularly pronounced in the realm of nuclear strategy. The Nuclear Age introduced unprecedented challenges in military strategy, as the sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons meant that power had to be managed rather than simply amassed. This period marked a shift from traditional military engagements to a focus on deterrence, defined by the intellectual challenge of preventing war rather than conducting it. The new strategic landscape was fraught with theoretical debates on deterrence’s effectiveness, often complicating alliance dynamics.

The American strategy aimed to increase nuclear war’s calculability to make deterrence more credible. However, European allies, particularly France, resisted these efforts, fearing that making nuclear war more conceivable could inadvertently lower the threshold for conflict. Moreover, the possibility of an independent nuclear strike by European powers like France created a strategic dilemma for the United States, which feared being dragged into a nuclear war by the actions of its allies.

In response to these complex challenges, America sought to centralize control of nuclear forces within NATO, aiming to prevent unilateral actions that could trigger a broader conflict. De Gaulle, however, resisted this approach, viewing it as an infringement on national sovereignty and an unacceptable dependency on American decisions. His stance reflected a broader French desire for strategic autonomy, emphasizing national control over nuclear forces as a critical component of national security.

De Gaulle proposed a NATO restructuring that would create a directorate involving the United States, Britain, and France, which would collaboratively address global security challenges and manage nuclear strategy. This proposal aimed to elevate France to a leadership role within NATO but was met with resistance from both the United States and Britain, who were wary of encouraging nuclear proliferation and altering the existing balance within NATO.

Eisenhower and Macmillan’s responses to de Gaulle’s proposals were largely evasive, reflecting a preference for bureaucratic solutions over substantive structural changes. This approach ultimately proved ineffective against de Gaulle’s assertive style. Frustrated by the lack of serious engagement with his proposals, de Gaulle escalated his efforts to assert French independence, culminating in the withdrawal of French forces from NATO’s integrated military command and the expulsion of American nuclear weapons from French soil.

These actions underscored the deep-seated differences in American and French approaches to nuclear strategy and alliance politics, highlighting the challenges of maintaining unity among NATO members with divergent national interests and strategic cultures. De Gaulle’s policies not only aimed at enhancing French autonomy but also at revising the foundational principles of international security cooperation in the Nuclear Age.

John F. Kennedy represented a new era of American leadership, one that had participated in World War II but had not shaped its direction nor the initial post-war order. His administration sought to transform the Atlantic Alliance from a defensive posture against Soviet aggression into a proactive Atlantic Community, steering towards what would later be termed a new world order.

Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were particularly concerned with the traditional military doctrine of massive retaliation, which posed the risk of catastrophic nuclear war. They developed a strategy of flexible response, which emphasized a range of military options between total annihilation and complete surrender, and reinforced the role of conventional forces. This approach required central control over nuclear weapons, which Kennedy and his administration saw as critical to prevent a fragmented, and potentially catastrophic, approach to nuclear warfare.

The Kennedy administration proposed the NATO Multilateral Force (MLF) to integrate NATO’s nuclear capabilities. This plan involved deploying intermediate-range missiles on multinational crewed ships under NATO command, with the U.S. retaining ultimate control. However, this solution was criticized for either being redundant or ineffectual in addressing NATO’s nuclear dilemmas.

Kennedy also advocated for a politically and economically integrated Europe that would stand as an equal partner with the United States in global leadership. He envisioned this partnership as a reciprocal relationship, where Europe and the U.S. would share global responsibilities equally. However, this vision was met with skepticism in Europe, particularly due to the military implications of the flexible response strategy which suggested that the U.S. could control the escalation of nuclear conflict, potentially leaving Europe at risk.

The debate over military integration within NATO highlighted the philosophical differences between the U.S. and its European allies, particularly France. The U.S. viewed NATO operationally with each nation retaining national command in peacetime, a stance that allowed for the deployment of forces outside of NATO obligations as seen in various conflicts. The French, under de Gaulle, viewed American nuclear monopoly and its implications as a diminishing factor of European autonomy in security matters, leading to his push for an independent French nuclear capability.

The Skybolt controversy exacerbated these tensions, with de Gaulle perceiving the Anglo-American special relationship as a threat to French status and autonomy. Kennedy’s subsequent offer to assist the French missile program did little to alleviate these concerns, leading to de Gaulle’s public rejection of U.S. proposals and his veto of Britain’s entry into the Common Market, highlighting his preference for a European setup free from overwhelming U.S. influence.

De Gaulle’s efforts culminated in the signing of a treaty of friendship with Germany, intended to solidify Franco-German cooperation and counterbalance the influence of Anglo-American policies in Europe. This treaty, largely symbolic, underscored the ongoing divergence in American and European views on cooperation and alliance dynamics.

Ultimately, Kennedy’s vision of a cooperative Atlantic partnership clashed with de Gaulle’s approach, which emphasized European autonomy and skepticism towards American-led global frameworks. This conflict underscored the inherent challenges in aligning American and European visions of international order, particularly in the context of nuclear strategy and geopolitical influence.

As the Cold War progressed, and later, as it ended, the dynamics within NATO and between the U.S. and Europe evolved. The disappearance of the Soviet threat and the rise of a more balanced global power distribution necessitated a reevaluation of cooperation strategies, reflecting a complex interplay of national interests and regional stability that continues to shape international relations into the post-Cold War era.




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