Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 6 – Realpolitik Turns on Itself

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 sixth chapter of his book, called “Realpolitik Turns on Itself”.

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.

Realpolitik, a foreign policy approach focusing on power and national interests, played a crucial role in the unification of Germany. However, this unification ironically led to the downfall of Realpolitik’s intended purpose. Typically, Realpolitik helps avoid armaments races and wars when major international players can adapt to changing circumstances and share common values.

Post-unification, Germany emerged as Europe’s strongest nation, fundamentally altering European diplomacy. Historically, European powers like Great Britain, France, and Russia exerted influence from the continent’s edges. Now, for the first time, a powerful force emerged from Europe’s center, presenting a challenge to the peripheral nations.

Germany’s central location on the continent created a strategic dilemma. Following Realpolitik traditions, European coalitions would likely form to contain Germany’s growing power. If Germany attempted to defend itself against potential coalitions from both east and west, it would inadvertently provoke these neighbors, accelerating coalition formation. This situation led to a self-fulfilling prophecy in international relations, marked by two primary conflicts: France’s hostility towards Germany and the escalating tensions between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires.

France, deeply affected by its defeat in the 1870 war and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, harbored a strong desire for revenge. This resentment, coupled with the realization of lost French dominance, meant that France could no longer contain Germany alone and needed allies. France’s strategy inadvertently limited Germany’s diplomatic flexibility and escalated crises involving Germany.

German unification also strained relations between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. After Austria’s defeat in the struggle for German pre-eminence, it shifted its focus to the Balkans, the only region where it could expand. This expansion into an area with a predominantly Slavic population was bound to create tensions with Russia. Austrian policy, marked by aggressive nationalism and foreign policy hysteria, often clashed with Russian interests.

Germany’s primary interest in the Balkans was to preserve the Austro-Hungarian Empire, vital for maintaining the balance of power Bismarck had established. However, supporting Austria without antagonizing Russia presented a significant challenge for Germany. This delicate balancing act was complicated by the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which led to conflicts among the Great Powers over territorial claims.

Russia, initially an insignificant player in European politics, rapidly became a dominant force. By the mid-18th century, Russia’s growing power and potential for expansion were recognized by Western observers. The absolute power of the Tsar allowed for arbitrary and unpredictable foreign policy decisions, contributing to the complex dynamics of European international relations. By the 20th century, Russia had established itself as one of the two global superpowers, although it eventually lost much of its influence in a dramatic decline.

Russia’s history is marked by a complex paradox: while it constantly expanded, it simultaneously felt perpetually threatened. The more diverse its empire became, the more insecure Russia felt. This stemmed from its efforts to keep various nationalities isolated. Russian rulers often used the narrative of a significant foreign threat to maintain control, which ironically became a self-fulfilling prophecy destabilizing European stability.

As Russia expanded towards Europe, the Pacific, and Central Asia, what began as a quest for security morphed into expansion for its own sake. This continuous outward push, initially defensive, became aggressive over time. For instance, the conquest of Crimea from Turkey was initially a defensive strategy to strengthen Russia’s position. However, by the mid-19th century, expansion had become synonymous with security, leading to Russia’s continuous drive into Central Asia, as Chancellor Aleksandr Gorchakov explained.

Despite this expansionist policy, Russia also played a crucial role in maintaining the European balance of power. It was instrumental in preventing the success of Napoleon and Hitler in establishing universal empires. Russia, therefore, was both a threat and a key component of European stability. This dual role was further complicated by Russia’s tendency to push the limits of its power, sometimes aligning with conservative values in Europe, but other times adopting a more messianic, imperialistic approach.

Russian exceptionalism, like that of America, was based on its unique societal characteristics. However, while America’s expansion westward was justified by the concept of “manifest destiny,” Russian expansion into Central Asia raised concerns, particularly with Britain. The two countries’ exceptionalism differed fundamentally: America’s was rooted in liberty, Russia’s in common suffering and mission.

Russian nationalism, deeply intertwined with the Orthodox faith, played a significant role in shaping its foreign policy. Influential figures like Fyodor Dostoyevsky saw Russia’s role as liberating Slavic peoples, even if it meant opposing the entirety of Western Europe. Russia viewed itself not just as a nation, but as a cause driven by faith and upheld by military strength. This messianic drive continued even after the Russian Revolution, with the Communist International.

This ambivalence in Russian history, between messianic aspirations and a sense of insecurity, has led to contradictory behaviors. For example, Russia’s involvement in the partitioning of Poland was partly for security and partly for territorial gain. The inherent conflict in Russia’s foreign policy approach was later mirrored in George Kennan’s analysis of the Soviet Union, predicting that without expansion, the Soviet Union might collapse.

Russia’s self-perception as a distinguished nation with extraordinary achievements in literature and music was not universally acknowledged. Unlike other colonial empires, Russia did not emerge as a cultural beacon for its conquered peoples or as a model society. To the outside world, Russia was often seen as an enigmatic, expansionist force that elicited fear and necessitated containment, either through co-optation or confrontation.

In the 19th century, Prince Metternich of Austria attempted co-optation with Russia, maintaining European stability for a time. However, after the unification of Germany and Italy, the ideological threats that had united European rulers diminished. Nationalism and revolutionary republicanism no longer seemed to threaten the established order. As a result, the alliances formed to defend against these perceived threats weakened, and the focus shifted to conflicts over territorial disputes, like those in the Balkans and Alsace-Lorraine. This shift led to a more confrontational approach in international relations.

Great Britain, historically the balancer in European affairs, found itself confused about the central threat to the balance of power. While it had traditionally intervened against any single power dominating the continent, unified Germany’s rise was not seen as a direct threat, partly because it wasn’t achieved through conquest. British foreign policy focused more on colonial ambitions, particularly in conflict with France and Russia, rather than European diplomacy.

Bismarck, leading Germany, sought peace for the newly unified nation. He aimed to keep both Russia and Austria from aligning with France, Germany’s adversary. This required managing the competing interests of Russia and Austria in the Balkans and maintaining good relations with Great Britain, which was wary of Russian intentions towards Constantinople and India. Bismarck’s diplomatic skill enabled him to maintain a balance of power for nearly two decades, despite the absence of moral bonds among European states.

Bismarck’s strategy included reassuring other powers that Germany had no further territorial ambitions and keeping Germany out of colonial competition. He managed to form an alliance with both Russia and Austria, reminiscent of Metternich’s Holy Alliance, but this was a challenging task as Russia and Austria had conflicting interests in the Balkans.

The first Three Emperors’ League under Bismarck’s leadership showed the limits of controlling foreign policy through shared domestic principles. Bismarck had to shift his focus to manipulating power dynamics and self-interests among the nations. This period was marked by events like the 1875 pseudo-crisis, where a German newspaper editorial about an imminent war, likely influenced by Bismarck, reflected the increasing reliance on Realpolitik in international relations.

The perception of a non-existent threat can bolster a nation’s international standing, as evidenced by a diplomatic maneuver in 1875. France, skillfully suggesting that Germany was planning a pre-emptive attack, caused Britain to consider an alliance with Russia. This was a significant shift, given British Prime Minister Disraeli’s usual distrust of Russian imperial ambitions. The crisis, largely inflated by publicity, subsided quickly, and Disraeli’s plan was never put to the test. Yet, Bismarck, aware of Britain’s concerns, realized the need for proactive diplomacy to prevent future coalitions against Germany.

A genuine crisis soon emerged in the Balkans, illustrating the fragile nature of the Three Emperors’ League and foreshadowing the conflicts leading to World War I. In 1876, the Bulgarian rebellion against Turkish rule and Russia’s subsequent Pan-Slavic intervention escalated tensions. For Britain, the prospect of Russian control over the Straits posed a significant threat to its interests in Egypt, leading it to staunchly support the Ottoman Empire.

This situation placed Bismarck in a difficult position. A Russian advance, possibly provoking British military action, would also likely involve Austria, forcing Germany to choose sides and potentially unravel the Three Emperors’ League. Bismarck’s strategy was to maintain neutrality between Austria and Russia, yet he sought to strengthen the League by drafting the Berlin Memorandum, warning Turkey against its oppressive actions. However, British Prime Minister Disraeli perceived this as a step towards dismantling the Ottoman Empire, contrary to British interests. In response, Disraeli moved the Royal Navy to the Eastern Mediterranean, supporting Turkey and revealing the underlying differences within the League.

Benjamin Disraeli, an unconventional and flamboyant figure, played a pivotal role in these events. His ascent to the Prime Ministership in 1868 was marked by his characteristic exuberance, in stark contrast to his political rival, William Ewart Gladstone, who was more pious and contemplative. Disraeli’s leadership was significant not only for his policies but also for his unique position as a Jewish leader in a predominantly Anglican Tory Party. This paradoxical leadership choice by the Tories, who later elected Margaret Thatcher as Great Britain’s first female prime minister, highlights their capacity for unexpected and groundbreaking political decisions.

Benjamin Disraeli’s career trajectory was rather extraordinary. Initially a novelist and a figure in literary circles, he was more likely to be remembered as a writer rather than a key political figure. However, as a Conservative leader, he believed in expanding the vote to the common man, confident that the middle class in England would support the Conservatives. Disraeli’s vision of imperialism differed from the traditional British approach. For him, the Empire was not just an economic necessity but a spiritual one, essential for Britain’s greatness. This view was expressed in his famous 1872 Crystal Palace speech, where he emphasized the importance of Britain being an imperial and globally respected country.

Disraeli strongly opposed Russia’s threat to the Ottoman Empire, aligning with his views on maintaining the European equilibrium and protecting the British Empire’s interests. The growing perception that Russia was the primary threat to Britain’s global position, particularly in Central Asia and near the Ottoman Straits, influenced Disraeli’s foreign policy. Russian expansion in Central Asia was characterized by a pattern of conquest and reassurance, where Russia would annex new territories while assuring Britain that it had no such intentions. Despite these reassurances, Russia’s expansion continued, often conflicting with British interests in India and the Middle East.

This conflict came to a head with the Berlin Memorandum, which Disraeli rejected, seeing it as a step towards dismantling the Ottoman Empire. Instead, he encouraged the Ottoman Turks to resist the Memorandum and continue their actions in the Balkans. However, Disraeli faced domestic pressure due to the Turkish atrocities, leading to a complex diplomatic situation. Russia’s declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire and its subsequent military successes initially seemed to place Russia in a strong diplomatic position. But Russia’s aggressive stance, particularly the Treaty of San Stefano which proposed a “Big Bulgaria” under Russian influence, alarmed both Britain and Austria, leading to their opposition to the treaty.

Bismarck, trying to maintain the Three Emperors’ League, had been cautious not to meddle too much in the Balkan crisis. However, the potential for a European war led him to organize the Congress of Berlin. The Congress was essentially to endorse agreements already made between Britain and Russia. Disraeli, attending the Congress, was in a strong position, having already achieved his aims. This situation allowed him to focus on minimizing the impact of Russia’s frustrations over having to give up some of its conquests.

Disraeli and Bismarck, both practitioners of Realpolitik, had a mutual admiration. They shared a disdain for moralistic rhetoric and preferred bold, dramatic approaches to policy. Disraeli’s success at the Congress of Berlin was significant, as he managed to maintain Britain’s interests effectively and navigate the complex diplomatic environment.

Disraeli was successful at the Congress of Berlin partly because Bismarck’s position was complex. Bismarck didn’t see any direct German interest in the Balkans and aimed primarily to prevent a war between Austria and Russia. He played the role of an “honest broker,” emphasizing Germany’s lack of direct interest in Eastern affairs. Bismarck’s strategy was to support Russia on issues related to the eastern Balkans and Austria on issues in the western Balkans. However, he did side against Russia when it came to the control of mountain passes facing Bulgaria, as demanded by Disraeli.

Despite Bismarck’s efforts, many Russians felt cheated of victory after the Congress. They resented not achieving their full objectives and blamed the European Concert, particularly Bismarck, rather than their own ambitions. Russian public opinion and the nationalist press saw Bismarck’s actions as a betrayal, even though Germany was traditionally an ally.

Shuvalov, the principal Russian negotiator, recognized that Russian discontent stemmed more from internal policy failures than foreign powers’ actions. However, this view was not widespread in Russia. The result was a growing resentment towards Germany, which would later be reflected in Russian policy documents leading up to World War I. The Three Emperors’ League, based on the unity of conservative monarchs, could no longer be maintained, leaving Realpolitik as the primary cohesive force in international affairs.

In the 1880s, Bismarck shifted his foreign policy approach. He moved from promoting Germany’s aloofness to creating a network of alliances to prevent potential adversaries from uniting against Germany. He formed the Dual Alliance with Austria in 1879, then expanded it into the Triple Alliance with Italy in 1882. These alliances were designed to protect Germany and its allies from different threats and to maintain the balance of power in Europe. Bismarck also facilitated agreements between his allies and Great Britain to manage Mediterranean interests.

However, Bismarck’s intricate system of alliances was difficult to sustain. Conflicts between Austria and Russia in the Balkans grew increasingly complex, and public opinion began to play a more significant role in foreign policy. This was evident in Great Britain, where Gladstone’s victory over Disraeli in 1880, largely based on foreign policy issues, marked a significant shift. Gladstone, like Wilson later, emphasized moral criteria in foreign policy, focusing on national aspirations and human rights over geopolitical concerns. He envisioned a new world order based on the collective action of European powers, a stark contrast to Bismarck’s Realpolitik approach. Bismarck saw Gladstone’s ideas as unrealistic and contrary to practical politics, reflecting a fundamental disagreement between the two leaders.

Gladstone’s view of Bismarck was blunt, as he once referred to Bismarck as “the incarnation of evil.” Despite Gladstone’s visionary ideas on foreign policy, similar to those later championed by Woodrow Wilson, they inadvertently led Britain to a more withdrawn role in global affairs. Gladstone’s return to power in 1880 made little immediate impact on Britain’s imperial policy in places like Egypt, but it did remove Britain as a significant player in the Balkans and European affairs more broadly. This shift left Bismarck, a more moderate statesman, without the British support that had been available under previous British leaderships like Palmerston and Disraeli.

In Germany, despite the broad suffrage, the government was not accountable to the Reichstag, leading to a climate where extreme rhetoric and nationalist propaganda flourished. This environment made it increasingly difficult for Bismarck to maintain his delicate balance of power in Europe. Similarly, in Russia, the influence of Pan-Slavic nationalism and the press exerted significant pressure on foreign policy, particularly for an aggressive stance in the Balkans and a confrontational approach towards Germany.

With the accession of Tsar Alexander III in 1881, Bismarck faced new challenges. Alexander III distrusted Bismarck’s complex policies and was influenced by his Danish wife’s resentment towards Bismarck for the loss of Schleswig-Holstein. The Bulgarian crisis of 1885 exacerbated these tensions, as Bulgaria, far from being under Russian influence, unified under a German prince. This outcome led to further Russian resentment towards Bismarck and Germany.

To maintain ties with Russia and prevent a Franco-Russian alliance, Bismarck devised the Reinsurance Treaty in 1887. This treaty promised mutual neutrality between Germany and Russia unless Germany attacked France or Russia attacked Austria. However, the secrecy of the treaty highlighted the growing gap between traditional cabinet diplomacy and the demands of an increasingly public-driven foreign policy.

Despite its complexity, the Reinsurance Treaty helped delay a Franco-Russian alliance. Bismarck resisted pressure from German military leaders for a pre-emptive war against Russia, emphasizing his commitment to peace in a speech to the Reichstag. However, the intricate web of alliances Bismarck had woven was becoming too complicated to sustain, and public opinion was reducing the flexibility needed for Realpolitik.

By 1890, the balance of power, a concept that had long guided European politics, was reaching its limits. Initially necessary to manage the multitude of states emerging in Europe, the balance of power had preserved state liberties more than it had maintained peace. The increasing complexity of alliances, coupled with the rise of public opinion and nationalist sentiments, began to erode the foundations of this system. Bismarck’s nuanced diplomacy, which had managed to preserve peace for nearly two decades, was being overshadowed by a growing tendency towards armaments races and rigid alliances, setting the stage for the catastrophic conflicts of the early 20th century.

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




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