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Kissinger on Obama’s Concert Diplomacy

Henry Kissinger writes on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy today in the Washington Post, and, as usual, he frames most relationships under the aegis of realism (including all the assumptions of rational agency).  Though more about Iran and North Korea than Russia, Kissinger does note that U.S.-Russia relations will have an impact on negotiations with Iran … which we think is the understatement of the year.

Obama has launched negotiations on an extraordinary range of subjects. Each has a political as well as a strategic component. Each deals with issues peculiar to itself. Each runs the risk that inherent obstacles could obscure ultimate objectives or that negotiating tactics could warp substance. But the challenges are also closely related. For example, arms control negotiations with Russia will affect Russia’s role in the nonproliferation effort with Iran. The strategic dialogue with China will help shape the Korean negotiations. The negotiations will also be affected by perceptions of regional balances — of the key participants, for Russia, this applies especially to the former Soviet space in Central Asia; for China and the United States, to the political structure of Northeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.


This reality needs to be translated into some operational concept ofworld order. The administration’s approach seems to be pointing towarda sort of concert diplomacy, which existed for some two decades afterthe Napoleonic Wars, in which groupings of great powers work togetherto enforce international norms. In that view, American leadershipresults from the willingness to listen and to provide inspirationalaffirmations. Common action grows out of shared convictions. Poweremerges from a sense of community and is exercised by an allocation ofresponsibilities related to a country’s resources. It is a kind ofworld order either without a dominating power or in which thepotentially dominating power leads through self-restraint.

The economic crisis favors this approach even though there are fewexamples of sustained operation of such a concert. Typically, membersof any grouping reflect an unequal distribution of willingness to runrisks, leading to an unequal willingness to allocate efforts on behalfof international order, and hence to the potential veto by the mostirresolute. The Obama administration need not choose yet whether toultimately rely on consensus or equilibrium. But it must fine-tune itsnational security structure to judge the environment it faces andcalibrate its strategy accordingly.