When the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sent a congratulatory cable to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, ostensibly to honour the Syrian on his country’s Independence Day on April 17, many were shocked. Remarkably, and though this was a routine protocol communication, Guterres nudged Damascus to make an “effective contribution to help build a stronger UN and to enhance joint efforts to ensure peace, development and human rights for all”. The letter, which came less than a month after the latest chemical attacks that killed scores, highlighted the challenges of “realpolitik” in the 21st century and it is fair to ask whether such preferences carried any weight at a time when many rejected unrestrained domination.
The German-language term “realpolitik” is best described as diplomatic practice that relies on concrete factors rather than ideology or any ethical premises. It is the ultimate sign of pragmatism and may, occasionally, rely on amoral behaviours to accomplish declared or secret objectives.
Naturally, it would be wrong to impugn any such assertions on the UN Secretary-General in his latest cable to Damascus, even if it looks truly bad. Rather, what Guterres confronts is a delicate balancing act, much like what 20th century practitioners encountered. Indeed, no one faced the challenge better that Henry Kissinger, who served as national security council advisor — as well as United States secretary of state in the second term — to former president Richard Nixon. For Kissinger, “realpolitik” required that Washington deal with China, the then Soviet Union and the emerging European Union, all in practical terms rather than any ideological or ethical norms. Nixon did not blink at the idea of playing China against Russia despite his visceral opposition to Communism. Kissinger secured his reputation after he embarked on shuttle diplomacy in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, ostensibly to persuade antagonists to accept ceasefires and partial withdrawals, though the wily geo-strategist simultaneously encouraged Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran to increase oil prices in order to pay for massive arms purchases from the US.
At the pinnacle of the 1973-1974 oil crisis, Kissinger’s vision required — at least in his mind — that he accept the Shah’s plans to invade and occupy several countries on the Arabian Peninsula, with Nixon’s full acquiescence. Washington coerced Tehran to break the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries though the effort failed because oil-producing states could barely control production and prices. It never occurred to arrogant sycophants that Iran and the Arab oil countries did not and could not control markets, although such technicalities seldom motivated much less moved disciplined thinkers who intended to rule with iron fists.
Of course, Kissinger ignored many subtleties, cavalierly sacrificed the Kurds — famously saying: “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work” — and referred to Nixon behind his back, according to the Federal Reserve Bank chairman Arthur Burns, as “the felon”. His ethics were and are in a class by themselves, something that historians dealing with the period and the personality are now straining with.
Ever since the Nixon administration, American foreign policy became tainted, and while the wily Kissinger rejected the term “realpolitik” going so far as to say that it is used by both liberal and realist thinkers to label, criticise and facilitate a choosing of sides, he justified his behaviour as pure statesmanship. Kissinger defined the role of a statesman as one who “recognise(s) the real relationship of forces and ... make(s) this knowledge serve his ends”. According to Kissinger, this was required to protect interests regardless of any consideration for human rights, or any other rights.
With the epochal changes that transformed the world during the past three decades — including the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China as an economic power house, the consolidation of the European Union as an unmitigated centre of global authority, the immense influence of globalisation, the genuine Arab Uprisings and, most important, the emergence of popular nationalisms, among others — the reach and influence of “realpolitik” evolved into raw pragmatism, moved by constant flexibility.
Former US president Barack Obama, and before him former presidents Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush struggled between idealism and realism. Russian, Chinese, British and French leaders confronted similar challenges. Even in the developing world, a number of leaders encountered equally baffling trials as most practised realpolitik, because they believed — like Kissinger — that one has to be cold-blooded to protect and defend the interests of his/her country.
Such preferences explained recent wars and, more important, the lack of commitment to red lines or other intolerable behaviour. Truth be told, it was and is realpolitik, not any ideological or ethical norms that motivate prime ministers and presidents everywhere — from Russian President Vladimir Putin to US President Donald Trump. What drove Obama in Syria and that is now moving Trump, what compelled Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Putin [the two alternate in what must be a unique condominium] to act in Ukraine, what pushed Chinese leaders from Jiang Zemin to Xi Jinping to reclaim the South China Sea Spratly Islands, are all examples of “practical necessities” to rule.
The list is long and Guterres is but the latest actor to show his cards, though few should be surprised that people everywhere are increasingly opposed to such practices. That, at least partially, explains the rebirth of nationalism in a number of spots, with political ideology playing a far larger role than other considerations. Ordinary people in several countries, including in advanced European societies, see their ideals abandoned and few are ready to sacrifice their identities for passing political gains. In fact, the transformation occurred with the paradigms of men like late Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Lech Walesa in Poland, late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan in the UAE and late King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz in Saudi Arabia, among others, who proposed genuine alternatives.
Time will tell, though it seems that we are on the verge of a new era, in which “practical necessities” to rule will no longer be sufficient.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the just-published The Attempt to Uproot Sunni Arab Influence: A Geo-Strategic Analysis of the Western, Israeli and Iranian Quest for Domination (Sussex: 2017).