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KISSINGER: THE USES AND LIMITS OF POWER

24 minute read
TIME

GENERAL Curtis LeMay, the retired Air Force Chief of Staff, was attending a stag dinner in the country with old friends when the conversation turned to the recent appointment of Henry Kissinger as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. The general stood and grumped: “I remember him. He was a crypto-left-winger when he was teaching at Harvard and a dangerous pinko when he was serving John Kennedy.” Another former general in the group arose and said, “Curt, I can forgive you occasionally for not knowing what you’re talking about. But in this case it’s obvious you don’t know who you’re talking about. You’ve mixed up Henry Kissinger with Arthur Schlesinger.” LeMay nodded sheepishly and sat down.

Of course, it is difficult to keep track of all the intellectuals with strange-sounding names and unorthodox notions who orbit the campuses, think tanks and Government. While renowned in those circles, Henry Alfred Kissinger is not exactly, as Spiro Agnew might have said, a household name. Though he has never been a diplomat, he knows more foreign leaders than many State Department careerists. A superficial reading of some of his works makes him seem like a hawk, but many intellectual doves regard him as Richard Nixon’s most astute appointment. Bonn, London and Paris may disagree on a score of issues, but they are in happy unanimity in their respect for him; even Moscow is not displeased.

Two Great Temptations

He advised three Administrations before this one, and roundly criticized key policies of the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson regimes. He has never held an important administrative job in Government but after only three weeks in his post, Kissinger has assembled a foreign-policy staff and structure in the White House basement that is already having a clear impact on the President’s actions.

From the moment of his selection in December, Government officials, fellow academics and journalists have scrutinized his every move. William Buckley wrote to him: “Not since Florence Nightingale has any public figure received such universal acclamation.” Senator Jacob Javits commented that Kissinger’s appointment could prove to be the most significant the President has made, because “it is in foreign policy that the Nixon Administration will make its mark.”

The two major questions about Kissinger are: What does he stand for and how much power does he have? On the first, he has documented himself over a dozen years with many hundreds of pages on diplomatic history, military strategy and foreign relations-although his views, seldom rigid, have evolved on a number of points. Perhaps the most interesting fact about him is that he has not fallen into either of the two great temptations that have beset American foreign policy in the past —excessive idealism and excessive pragmatism. He believes in the concept of order, but he does not believe that it is to be achieved through preaching or the imposition on others of a vision, however noble, by force. He thinks it can be achieved only step by step with a clear view of one’s goal, but the greatest flexibility of method. He wants to teach the U.S., so lately come to international leadership, what he considers the alpha-to-omega lessons for a major power: the need for “greater conceptualization.” He wants the nation to indulge in self-interrogation: “What are we attempting to do? How would we measure success? What kind of world are we trying, to bring about?”

He insists that the U.S. should understand both the potentials and limitations of its strength. He believes that it has been too reluctant to “think in terms of power and equilibrium.” It has not grasped the fundamental importance of operating from the stable base of a widely accepted world view. In his philosophy, the empirical approach that has served the U.S. so well in other fields can prove misleading in foreign affairs; it tends to produce ad hoc solutions pegged to the crisis of the moment, but not necessarily to predetermined needs and interest. In realistic terms, no policy can be expected to succeed unless it anticipates not only the desired outcome but also the other side effects it may produce. For instance, the nuclear nonproliferation treaty was negotiated without enough consideration for possible adverse effects: dismay in some Western European capitals over what was essentially a Moscow-Washington deal and the encouragement to some countries, like India and Japan, to consider going the nuclear route alone.

As to how much power Kissinger has, it is too soon to gauge his long-term influence on Nixon. For the present, he clearly has a great deal. He sees the President an average of 90 minutes a day, apart from formal meetings of the National Security Council. Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird are not experts in their fields; Kissinger is in his. While Rogers and Laird have been relatively slow in reorganizing their mammoth departments, Kissinger immediately attracted attention by his speedy recruitment of staff members, many of them well-known specialists. Most of his aides were in place by Inauguration Day, and the Kissinger staff began immediately to grind out position papers.

A Certain Wariness

As a result, Kissinger is already widely suspected in Washington of being a would-be usurper of the powers traditionally delegated to the State and Defense Departments and other branches of Government. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman J. William Fulbright fears that the new NSC organization will “move in the direction of taking very important matters out of the hands of the traditional agencies, most of which felt a responsibility to Congress.” In the White House itself, one aide who is close to Nixon says: “Kissinger is seen as tremendously talented, energetic and hardworking, going all the time. But there is a certain wariness about him and the whole empire he is building.” The President has been forced to issue repeated assurances that Secretary of State William Rogers is indeed the principal adviser on foreign policy, and the State Department the principal executor of that policy.

Theoretically, Kissinger’s main job is not to advise the President on a particular course of action in a given situation. Rather it is to draw on the resources of the operating agencies—primarily State, Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency—and develop all the information and options available so that the President can reach decisions with the fullest possible understanding of their ultimate implications.

To that end, the machinery surrounding the National Security Council has been elaborately revised.

“Foreign policy,” says Kissinger, “isn’t made by answering cables.” Nixon remembered only too well the efforts during the Eisenhower Administration to establish a workable structure through the National Security Council. The forms were created, but there was not much in the way of ideas. In reaction, John Kennedy swept away the NSC substructure and relied on more spontaneous methods. Lyndon Johnson virtually abandoned the NSC and used the “Tuesday luncheon” with top advisers as the principal form of deliberation. The meetings were so informal that there is no known official record of the discussions or the decisions made over the table. There was no machinery for the systematic follow-up of policy.

Nixon came into office determined to restore some of the formalities of the Eisenhower years and at the same time make them more creative. As in the past, there are five planning subcommittees with responsibility for as many areas of the world. Now, however, they will come under the NSC instead of the State Department, although an Assistant Secretary of State will act as chairman of each. To these are being added five groups set up by function (see chart).

No Basement Policy

After the subgroups complete work on a given issue, the conclusions are sent to a new NSC review board, chaired by Kissinger. Here competing views are refined and new material can be added. It is Kissinger’s review board that prepares the final working document for NSC consideration. Finally, after an NSC decision has been made, overseeing its implementation among the departments becomes the responsibility of a committee headed by Under Secretary of State Elliot Richardson. Kissinger is a member of that body as well.

How well this machinery will work remains to be seen. Kissinger insists that the organizational changes that give the National Security staff formal responsibility for coordination of planning will create neither a bottleneck nor a trespass on the rights of Cabinet officers such as Rogers and Laird. “I’m not making policy in the White House basement,” he contends. “When policy comes to be seen as my policy, then I’ve failed.” He adds: “If Cabinet officers sense that I use this position to regulate the flow of information so that the outcome is in the direction of my preferred point of view, then I’ve lost my effectiveness.” Since taking office, Kissinger has said nothing publicly on substantive issues.

Caustically Critical

Kissinger’s somewhat anguished protestations that he knows his place may not avail him much. The middle echelons of the State Department, for instance, are always fearful of being trampled upon by the White House staff; it was no different when McGeorge Bundy held Kissinger’s post. Critics have sometimes accused Kissinger of having an ego as big as his intellect. They have raised eyebrows at the fact that he worked for different Administrations (nothing very unusual as such), and noted that, while serving as Candidate Nelson Rockefeller’s foreign-policy adviser, he was often caustically critical of Richard Nixon. The inevitable crack that traveled from Harvard to the corridors of the State Department: “I wonder who’s Kissinger now.”

Humility is not his hallmark. When he served as a consultant to the Kennedy Administration, he disagreed with its European policy. He pressed his views insistently and was indignant when they were ignored. He resigned because of that. “I think I was right on the substance,” he says now, “but I was insensitive in my reaction.” While he was working for Rockefeller, he was told once that a speech he had written was being redone. “When Nelson buys a Picasso,” he snapped, “he does not hire four house painters to improve it.”

He is of average height, compact build, sandy-haired, composed and inconspicuous. He is 45, but he easily could pass for several years less—or more. Horn-rimmed glasses obscure his grey eyes. On first meeting, he can smile shyly and even indulge in professorial persiflage, as if to belie his reputation for being brusque with colleagues, students and office help. “There cannot be a crisis next week,” he jokes, in a softly Germanic accent. “My schedule is already full.”

Indeed it is. In setting up the new machinery and addressing the problems that confront the Nixon Administration, Kissinger has been working six days a week from 7:30 a.m. to near midnight. His new bachelor quarters overlooking Rock Creek Park are a shambles; he got home to dress for an intimate White House dinner one night unsure whether he would find a dinner jacket and black tie. He arrived back at the White House 20 minutes late. The critic who has always demanded “creativity” of government smiles wanly and says he dreads the moment when someone will approach him with a new idea; he fears he might not have time to consider it. For the time being, he says, he is living off “intellectual capital.”

The NSC has been meeting twice a week. So far there have been no far-reaching decisions on any major issue, but interim decisions of considerable significance are being made for the future. In some of them, Kissinger’s thinking has been clearly evident.

In confronting the Middle East, there was no time for exhaustive review before a decision was made. The new Administration inherited insistent pressure for concerted action by the four big powers. A hurried staff survey produced seven options that really amounted to three broad choices: do nothing, press for an overall settlement, or work for smaller measures of amelioration. The first and third alternatives were dismissed. Too much is at stake in a situation that some in Washington compare to the pre-World War I Balkans. At his first press conference, Nixon stressed this grave view. Then the Administration answered the French request for Big Four action by agreeing to explore the question at the United Nations. The idea is that the U.S. would actually join a formal Big Four meeting only if earlier talks showed that results were likely.

Skeptical Questions

On Viet Nam, an initial canvass of Government departments produced no very deep insights for the NSC. Therefore Kissinger’s staff sent out a new request, National Security Council Memorandum No. 1, which posed about three dozen questions, some of them exhaustively detailed. The tone of the query was skeptical. Consequently, those in the bureaucracy who are relatively optimistic about the state of the war were upset. For others, who believe the war effort is still going badly and that the Saigon government’s position is not improving as it should, it was a welcome opportunity to get their view on record. The gist of some questions: What support would the anti-Communists in the South be able to muster if they had to compete politically with the National Liberation Front? Would the pacification effort survive another major Communist assault? What are the real prospects for the South Vietnamese army to hold its own without U.S. combat units?

The deadline for answers is this week. While the Administration gropes for a new handle on the negotiations and the war itself, the U.S. delegation at the Paris talks has been seeking agreement on restoring the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Viet Nam. It is also trying to arrange prisoner exchanges. More generally, it is exploring the possibility of mutual U.S.-North Vietnamese troop withdrawals.

Aside from the formal talks at the Hotel Majestic, American representatives in Paris have maintained informal contacts with North Vietnamese envoys at a secret location. These unofficial discussions have accomplished nothing so far. The idea of continuing them accords with the approach Kissinger outlined just before Nixon appointed him: Washington and Hanoi should settle whatever issues they can between them, while leaving as many internal Vietnamese questions as possible to the Vietnamese themselves. Like Nixon, Kissinger has not attacked the basic U.S. commitment in Viet Nam, though he has been critical of Lyndon Johnson’s “ad hoc decisions made under pressure.” While working for Rockefeller, Kissinger framed a plan for mutual U.S.-North Vietnamese military withdrawal, leading eventually to a political settlement.

The New Linkage

Perhaps the most complicated and fateful issue facing the Nixon Administration—and one likely to be unresolved long after the Vietnamese war has ended—is an agreement on arms restraint with the Russians. Because the Johnson Administration and the Soviets agreed last summer to begin talks aimed at holding down offensive and defensive nuclear weaponry, the Nixon Administration expects to come under increasing domestic pressure to follow through with the negotiations. The President has said repeatedly that he favors such talks, but he has added a crucial new element to the equation by linking the arms question to the general political atmosphere in the world. What Washington is now saying to Moscow, in effect, is that the U.S. requires an earnest of good intentions.

Will the Soviets now continue to back the Arab states down the line, keeping the flash point high with military assistance and advisers? Will the Russians make a more active effort to induce Hanoi to compromise? Will the old cycle of crisis and relaxation in West Berlin continue? The Nixon Administration does not hold out for a full settlement on any or all of these problems as a precondition of arms talks. It doubts that any general, genuine détente is possible in the immediate future. Rather, it hopes to make the world “less risky and more tolerable,” as one official puts it.

For its part, Washington is making some conciliatory gestures. Nixon’s request for prompt Senate approval of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty is one example. Another is that he no longer asks “clear-cut superiority” for the U.S. in nuclear capability, as he did during the campaign, but now speaks of “sufficiency.”

The linkage of arms and political issues is a reversal of the approach during the Kennedy and Johnson years, when the U.S. pursued limited nuclear pacts with the Russians regardless of other considerations. Kissinger spelled out his reasoning most recently in an essay published two months ago: “The risk is great that if there is no penalty for [Soviet] intransigence, there is no incentive for reconciliation. The Kremlin may use negotiations—including arms control—as a safety valve to dissipate Western suspicions rather than as a serious endeavor to resolve concrete disputes or to remove the scourge of war.”

Implicit in this approach is the belief that weaponry itself, even the destructive power of nuclear arms, is not to blame for the cold war confrontations that might produce general war. With the possible exception of the Cuban missile crisis, the major tension points since World War II have developed over what Kissinger terms problems of “structure”—the two Germanys, the two Koreas, the two Viet

Nams, the Arab-Israeli impasse. Dangerous turmoil in Asia, Africa and Latin America, of course, is a legacy of events that began long before most people had ever heard of atoms, let alone atom bombs. The Nixon Administration apparently views the weapons issue by itself with less urgency than its predecessor did.

At a Crossroads

M.I.T. Professor George Rathjens, who was until 1965 assistant to the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, summarized the case for prompt action last month: “We are in effect at a crossroads. We and the Soviet Union now have a better chance than we are likely to have in the foreseeable future to make decisions that may enable us to avoid or at least moderate another spiral in the strategic-arms race.”

But the Nixon Administration thinks it has considerable leeway. It believes that no vital decisions must be made in the next few months, at least, that would commit the U.S. irrevocably to further nuclear escalation. During this period, a determination can be made whether broad-scale talks with the Russians are feasible.

Meanwhile, the U.S. debate over the arms question is taking on national proportions, spurred largely by the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) project called Sentinel. Until 1967, McNamara resisted pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to go ahead with this type of weapon. Many scientists and civilian planners argued that it was always easier and cheaper for the adversary to improve his offensive equipment by using decoys, multiple warheads and other devices, than it was for the other side to build an adequate defense. It thus seemed wiser to continue to improve the U.S. offensive capability, thereby perpetuating what the planners call “assured destruction,” the ability to devastate the Soviet Union even after absorbing a first strike.

While work on new U.S. offensive missiles continued, the Russians accelerated expansion of their attack force at a faster rate than Washington had anticipated, and had begun deploying their own ABM system around Moscow. The Soviet catch-up drive, together with China’s nuclear development program and the approaching 1968 election, finally pushed the Johnson Administration into the ABM competition. Under Johnson, the U.S. planned a so-called “thin” ABM system, at an estimated cost of $5 billion, to protect against a relatively primitive Chinese missile attack in the 1970s. However, many believe that the project, once begun, would inevitably grow into a “thick” defense against a Russian strike at a cost of $50 billion or more. Last week the Nixon Administration temporarily halted work on the Sentinel pending a new review. Intelligence reports indicate that the Russians, probably because they questioned its efficiency, last year slowed installation of their ABM system.

What is relatively certain is that the U.S. at the moment retains the capacity to decimate any enemy, although the Russians have come a long way in catching up in numerical terms. Both sides are pressing ahead with technical advances, although the U.S. has a substantial lead. One example: the newest Russian missile, the SS-13, is roughly the equivalent of the U.S Minuteman I, which is already being replaced with a later, much improved model. A still more modern weapon, containing multiple warheads capable of individual targeting (the MIRV missile), will be operational in about two years. Russia is also working on a MIRV. In the category of warheads available for use in what the military call a “wargasm”—a ghastly coinage meaning a sudden, total conflict—the Pentagon reported only last month that the U.S. leads 4,200 to 1,200.

The distinctions are to some extent academic. Each side can now substantially destroy the other even without striking the first blow, and marginal changes in either quantity or quality of weapons will not change that fact. Hence a rough balance exists. Both sides are also spending heavily. However, proportional to gross national product, the military burden weighs less on the U.S. than on Russia. Mutual escalation could only end in a new balance at a higher and more expensive level.

Kissinger has a long record of pronouncements on nuclear issues; it was in this field that he first made his name. Yet his work has at times been open to varying interpretations. In his first major book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, he said that limited nuclear war was containable and therefore conceivable. He later backed away from that theory; yet for a time colleagues mirthfully referred to him as “Dr. Strangelove, East” (Physicist Edward Teller held the Western title). But his main argument, which eventually became U.S. policy, was that the old massive-retaliation approach of the middle-’50s was irrational because it offered no real alternative between surrender and wholesale annihilation: “It does not make sense to threaten suicide in order to prevent eventual death.” John Foster Dulles’ policies in general seemed “onedimensional” to Kissinger.

A Legitimate Order

In the first book, and in The Necessity for Choice (1960), he seemed to be highly skeptical of the chance for successful negotiations with the Russians and of U.S. capacity to bargain with a power that viewed the world so differently. “To us,” he wrote, “a treaty has a legal and not only a utilitarian significance, a moral and not only a practical force. In the Soviet view, a concession is merely a phase in a continuing struggle.” He also has doubts about the notion that as Russia evolves into a more liberal society, it will necessarily be more tractable. “In some respects,” he said recently, “it was easier to deal with Stalin than with this timid, mediocre leadership that lets crises develop and has missiles.”

Particular decisions to arm or disarm, to talk or to remain silent, must, in his view, be keyed to current opportunities rather than past failures. What remains constant is his concern with the fundamental uses of strength. The U.S. has not quite grasped an axiom that European statesmen had long ago mastered: peace is not a universal realization of one nation’s desires, but a general acceptance of a concept of an “international order.” It may chafe all concerned, but irritation is acceptable if no one’s survival is threatened. In his history of the post-Napoleonic period, A World Restored, and in writing of the later fusion of German states, Kissinger displayed admiration for Metternich of Austria, Castlereagh of Britain and Bismarck of Prussia.

They were all reactionaries who stood in the way of republicanism, to be sure, but Metternich and Castlereagh particularly understood the need for “legitimate” political structures, for satisfying national (if not popular) aspirations, for balancing the powers of their day. Says Kissinger: “An international order, the basic arrangements of which are accepted by all the major powers, may be called ‘legitimate.’ ” The world conceived in the Congress of Vienna ultimately crumbled, but only after a century of relative peace. The Germany constructed by Bismarck blundered into a fate of blood and new division, but only after the Iron Chancellor lost power. And the failures give Kissinger another lesson to teach Americans: great states disintegrate, and so can theirs. “Nothing is more difficult for Americans to understand than the possibility of tragedy.”

Kissinger is European by birth and a Europeanist by doctrine. For the U.S., he says, “international success or failure will ultimately be determined in the Atlantic area.” His constant theme in criticizing the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations’ approach to the Atlantic Alliance was that they operated from insufficient understanding and flexibility. In his view, once the Marshall Plan had served its purpose and NATO was firmly established, American predominance made less and less sense. Washington’s master plans for Western Europe became increasingly irrelevant. Why should not Charles de Gaulle pursue his own vision of a European third force? Why should the military commander of NATO always be an American? For Kissinger, who believes that the age of superpowers is drawing to an end, the growth of independence in Western Europe is natural and desirable.

When he travels to Western Europe next week with Nixon and Rogers, the tour will be something of a personal triumph for Kissinger. It represents, if only symbolically at the moment, a renewal of the kind of relationship that he has advocated. Europeans are intensely, if not always justifiably, suspicious of American attempts to guide their policies, and are increasingly resentful of the growing U.S. involvement in their economies. Kissinger believes that the Atlantic nations can cooperate closely in many spheres, once they can agree on what he calls “coalitions of shared purposes.” Precisely what these purposes will be, beyond the obvious mutual interest of defense, remains to be worked out by Nixon diplomacy.

The Disraeli Conservative

Kissinger calls himself a political independent. “If I were in 19th century Great Britain,” he says, “I might be a Disraeli Conservative in domestic affairs, but not in foreign policy.” Disraeli was an unabashed imperialist. Kissinger, by contrast, believes that U.S. power must not be spread too thinly, especially in politically underdeveloped areas that Americans little understand.

It is curious that Henry Kissinger, the futurist who demands that the U.S. look far ahead before deciding what to do tomorrow morning, should be so much at home in the 19th century. However, states and statesmen were more predictable during that period, and the margin for error was a little greater. He is not alone in arguing that the U.S. could benefit from reading—and understanding—history. “The pre-eminent task of American foreign policy,” he has said, “ought to be to get some reputation for steadiness. Whether we are dangerous to our enemies one can argue, but we are murder on our friends. We will not get steadiness unless we can have a certain philosophy of what we are trying to do.”

That 19th century certitude, of course, should still be supplemented by instinct, another essential trait in an age when the only rapid communications were between a man’s brain and hand. Kissinger, in A World Restored, quotes a line from Metternich: “I was born to make history, not to write novels, and if I guess correctly, this is because I know.” As he helps Richard Nixon make history, Kissinger will have to make some knowing guesses himself, probably fateful ones. The U.S. can hope that Kissinger, a man of brilliant intellect, will guess correctly—and that Nixon guessed correctly in choosing him.

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