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Comparing Nixon/Kissinger Foreign Policy to European Diplomacy in Early to Mid-19th Century

Gang GUO
Department of Political Science
University of Rochester
May 10, 2000

In this essay, I'll first argue that, in terms of the international distribution of power, despite some superficial similarities, there exist qualitative differences between the Europe in early to mid 19th century and the world in Nixon/Kissinger period. Then I'll show that, because of their wrong perception, or more specifically, the hasty analogy of their contemporary world to the early to mid 19th century Europe, the foreign policy makers (mainly Kissinger) in the Nixon administration practiced a "balance of power" diplomacy, which had some similarities to European diplomacy in the early to mid 19th century, but the Nixon/Kissinger policies had internal contradictions and produced mixed results. Finally, I will try to single out some variables that were important in the diplomacy in each period. For the last variable, I'll argue that ideology played a less important role in the Nixon/Kissinger era diplomacy versus power politics than in the early to mid 19th century European diplomacy.

By and large, the early to mid 19th century Europe was characterized by a multi-polar system with five major powers, whereas the world in the Nixon/Kissinger period was apparently a bipolarity in which the United States was a stronger power than her rival, the Soviet Union. As Waltz pointed out, "that bipolar and multipolar systems are distinct is widely accepted. Systems of two have qualities distinct from systems of three or more. ... Until 1945 the nation-state system was multipolar, and always with five or more powers" (1979:163).

In the 19th century, after France was rolled back from the dominant position in the Napoleon Wars, a new international order emerged as the balance of five powers. "The system's members would consist of two world powers, more invulnerable than ever; three major Continental powers, distinctly weaker and more vulnerable; and a host of smaller intermediary bodies" (Schroeder 1994:516). The "two world powers" were Russia and Britain, but they didn't constitute a world bipolarity, as Schroeder argued, "they were not really world rivals. The seeds of rivalry were sown, but had hardly begun to germinate" (ibid. 515). During most of the period, the Britain-Russia relation didn't occupy a central position or even become prominent in the early to mid 19th century European diplomacy.

In the Nixon/Kissinger period the world was far from becoming a multi-polarity. Not only in terms of the "correlation of forces" in the world, but also in the perceptions of all the major powers, world politics in that period centered on the US-Soviet relationship. No other nation in the world yet commanded such extensive power resources as the two superpowers. In terms of military power, the Soviet Union and the United States enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in the world. Their strategic and conventional arsenal and their global military presence were unparalleled and unprecedented in the world. In gross world product, the United States and the Soviet Union had a share of 35.4%, and each had a larger share than any other country in 1970 (Kennedy 1987:436). In this US-Soviet bipolarity, in turn, the United States obviously occupied a position of strength vis-?vis her rival. Comparisons can be made on various dimensions, such as economy (the U.S. had a GNP almost two times that of the Soviet Union in 1970), science and technology, research and development, strategic capabilities, ..., and the Soviet Union was in a position of weakness. That was probably why the Soviet leaders regarded the mere acceptance of strategic parity by the Americans as "an unprecedented advance" since the Bolshevik Revolution (Garthoff 1994:19).

The above is not to deny that the U.S. power was experiencing a relative decline, but this decline was (and is) far from complete. There certainly was a diffusion of power since the end of World War II, which accelerated in the late 1960s, due for the most part to the war in Vietnam (Thornton 1989:xx). The post-World War II dominance of the United States can be mostly attributed to the particular situation created by the War, with Germany and Japan devastated and Russia, Britain, and all the other major powers severely weakened (Ulam 1983:9). In Waltz's words, "we can scarcely do better" (1979:178). As these countries recovered, relative decline of American power was inevitable. The above is neither to deny that by the end of 1960s the Soviet Union had acquired ICBMs approaching those of the United States in numbers, but in "fact, it was less than the parallel American build-up in MIRV warheads during the 1970s. The American lead in absolute numbers of strategic bombs and warheads actually widened between 1970 and 1980" (Garthoff 1994:874). In one word, the United States was a declining hegemony (declining from the somewhat "abnormal" peak position right after World War II), but still the hegemony.

In the early to mid 19th century Europe, on the contrary, there didn't exist any discernible structure of bipolarity similar to the Nixon/Kissinger era world, let alone a single hegemony. Although in terms of industrial and sea power, early to mid 19th century Britain enjoyed an overwhelming advantage (Kennedy 1987:151), she was hardly able to assume the position of a hegemony then due to its weakness in other important power source dimensions, problems with power fungibility, and its aversion to outside involvement and commitments (Schroeder 1994:587). In Kennedy's words, "Britain's growing industrial muscle was not organized in the post-1815 decades to give the state swift access to military hardware and manpower as, say, Wallenstein's domains did in the 1630s or the Nazi economy was to do" (Kennedy 1987:152). Overall, the European system remained a five-power multipolarity (Britain, Austria, Russia, France, and Prussia) without a single hegemony or rivalry, fundamentally different from the world in the Nixon/Kissinger era.

Given that the Soviet power enjoyed a relative rise due to a large extent to the relative decline of the American power, and that "the rise to economic superpower status of West Germany and Japan threatened a return to the global structure of pre-World War II politics in which a strong Germany sought to control Europe and a powerful Japan attempted to dominate Asia" (Thornton 1989:274), it seemed easy, or even tempting, to misread the trend as the reality, as the U.S. foreign policy makers did in the Nixon/Kissinger era. In 1973, Kissinger claimed that "in economic terms, there are at least five major groupings. Politically, many more centers of influence have emerged" (Kennedy 1987:408). As in most of the time, if not always, public comments by politicians served certain political purposes (Bundy 1998:55), and the "difficulties in assessing correctly the relative power position of nations have made the invocation of the balance of power one of the favored ideologies of international politics" (Morgenthau 1985:232). Therefore in the Nixon/Kissinger era diplomacy, we first of all observe a rhetoric similarity to the early to mid 19th century European politics, that is, the decision-makers' explicit reference and direct analogy to the balance of power diplomacy.

19th century European politicians were quite fond of using "balance of power" in their rhetoric, as can be seen in the numerous invocations of the term in diplomatic documents and political speeches. This was echoed in the Nixon/Kissinger administration, as in Kissinger's words, after the Congress of Vienna, the new "international order ... was created more explicitly in the name of the balance of power than any other before or since" (1994:79). In the Nixon/Kissinger era, based on the hasty judgement that the "United States therefore finds itself increasingly in a world with numerous similarities to nineteenth-century Europe, albeit on a global scale"(1994:166), Kissinger proposed to dispense with the contemporary bipolar world order "and move gradually to a multipolar order repositioning American power from its forward position around the Soviet periphery" (Thornton 1989:146). In other words, "America will have to learn to operate in a balance-of-power system, however uncongenial it may find such a course" (Kissinger 1994:167). This rhetoric seemed to be shared by Nixon, who explicitly claimed that "we must remember the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended periods of peace is when there has been balance of power. ... I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance" (Time 1972:January 3, this statement has been much criticized - notably by Zbigniew Brzezinski - for its inaccuracy and naivety).

So much for the language, but what about the practice? Did the European politicians in the early to mid 19th century and the decision-makers in the Nixon/Kissinger era conduct the same "balance of power" diplomacy, as they claimed to be doing? A careful examination of the two period will reveal that, the European diplomatic practice in the early to mid 19th century was more consistent with the "balance of power" politics, both in intention and in the results, whereas the American foreign policy in the Nixon/Kissinger era, inconsistently pursued, although possibly intended to create a "balance of power", produced results that were neither stable "balance" nor unequivocally beneficial to the U.S..

In the "Congress of Vienna" era, European diplomacy clearly featured a conscious pursuit of "balance". As the most important power resource in this period was land, most of the "balance of power" diplomacy was conducted through territorial adjustments and international guarantees (Rich 1992:32). Especially important in this period, and exemplary of the balance of power politics, is the diplomatic practice of Austria, which was geographically situated in the middle of the other Powers. In the early to mid 19th century Europe, as Kennedy described, "the Habsburg Empire, sprawled across Europe from the northern-Italian plain to Galicia, would act as the central fulcrum to the balance, checking French ambitions in western Europe and in Italy, preserving the status quo in Germany against both the 'greater-Germany' nationalists and the Prussian expansionists, and posing a barrier to Russian penetration of the Balkans" (1987:163). In "this complex five-sided checkmate", each of the tasks was supported by one or more of the other Great Powers" (1987:163). "For Metternich, the ideal combination would have been British support to preserve the territorial balance, and Russian support to quell domestic upheaval - the Quadruple Alliance for geopolitical security, and the Holy Alliance for domestic stability" (Kissinger 1994:88). In this period, balance of power was also pursued by the other European powers. Despite Schroeder's aversion to this term (he prefers the term "political equilibrium" (1994:482)), many examples show that balance of power politics seems to be one of the themes of diplomacy for the Great Powers in that period. In the Congress of Vienna, for example, Talleyrand's "chief practical goal was to gain France an equal status and voice among the great powers at Vienna, and to exploit the rifts among the Eastern powers so as to revive French influence in Germany and Italy and pave the way for future concrete gains", and thus he supported Metternich and opposed Russia and Prussia at Vienna (Schroeder 1994:529-530). And "most important, the real aim of France's action was not to push back Russia in Poland; it was to revive the old enmity between Prussia and Austria so that France could exploit it in Germany and Italy, and to make France indispensable to Britain in the West" (ibid., 531). During the Congress, Britain also proposed a balance of power, that is, "Austria, Prussia, and Germany organized to check Russia in Eastern Europe" (ibid., 533). After the Congress, much of the territorial reorganization in Germany and Italy was carried out with a view to security against France (Rich 1992:20). Another well-cited example of the balance of power diplomacy is the settlement of the Belgian question. From 1831 on, the five powers seemed to stick to the practice as they declared that they "had the right, and the events imposed upon them the duty to see to it that the Belgian provinces, after they had become independent, did not jeopardize the general security and the European balance of power" (Morgenthau 1985:211). Schroeder concluded that "the successful management of the Belgian question was clearly a great achievement in international politics" (1994:691).

In the Nixon/Kissinger era, the foreign policy, if consistently pursued, would bear a certain amount of resemblance to the "balance of power" diplomacy in the early to mid 19th century European politics, although unlike the previous period, here the major means of "balance" was not through territorial adjustment or international guarantee, but more through political negotiations. Three of the most important aspects of this policy, Nixon Doctrine, d閠ente with the Soviet Union, and rapprochement with Mainland China, would illustrate this. The Nixon Doctrine was initially intended to prepare for American withdrawal from South Vietnam (Bundy 1998:68). However, having been applauded by the American public, it was extended to apply to "all the defense of the free nations of the world" (Nixon 1970:197), which basically meant a retraction of American commitments overseas and more reliance on American allies' self-help. The intention of this doctrine was more or less in line with their perception of a multi-polar world in which the powers balance each other. The d閠ente with the Soviet Union was the most important aspect of the Nixon/Kissinger foreign policy. By accepting strategic parity with the Soviet Union and trying to bind the Soviet leaders with several agreements, d閠ente was certainly more consistent with the "five-power world" in which the Soviet Union was no longer the target of a crusade by all free nations in the world led by the United States, but one of the players in a "balance of power" game. The American rapprochement with mainland China had, according to Hartley, as one of its intended consequences at least a "four-power balance" in East Asia (1975:19), or even a global "trilateral" relationship among the United States, the Soviet Union and China, with the United States uniquely positioned to be capable of (at least in the Nixon/Kissinger era) playing the other two powers off against each other (Thornton 1989:146).

Despite the "grand design" (Schurmann 1987:47) of this diplomatic practice, the consequences of that was mixed, and the policy itself had experienced swerves and turnabouts. This is different from the generally consistent practice of "balance of power" diplomacy in early to mid 19th century Europe. One of the most obvious reasons for that is, the European "balance of power" in the last century was conducted in an international context of by and large equitable distribution of five powers, at least as far as the geographical dimension, a far more important aspect of power resources in the last century than now (Morgenthau 1985:127), was concerned; while the Nixon/Kissinger diplomacy was based on a false perception of and a hasty analogy to a "five-part" (Thornton 1989:10) multipolar world. In the last century, Metternich had the luxury of considerable freedom of action toward the other powers only as long as the five powers were comparable in power resources. If Austria had been a hegemonic power in Europe, Metternich's diplomatic manoeuvres would have possibly only produced suspicion and resistance from the other powers. In the Nixon/Kissinger era, however, operating in a world context fundamentally different from a multipolarity, the foreign policies had consequences that were probably not intended by the makers. Take the Nixon Doctrine, for example. This doctrine, as Hartley described, produced a state of flux and feelings of confusion abroad (1975:30), probably not without secret applaud from the Soviet Union. Especially important is the irritation and distrust on the part of the Western European allies as a result of the application of this doctrine there. Given the international configuration of power, these consequences seemed inevitable. The Western European countries, while having a combined economic power comparable to that of the U.S., did not yet have the combined military clout to stand alone against the Soviet bloc. Therefore, as the United States advocated "self-help" by her allies and reached agreements with the Soviet Union, the Western European countries naturally developed a feeling of irritation toward the U.S. and a suspicion about the credibility of the American nuclear "shield". Ironically, this fact partially contributed to the swerves and reversals in the American foreign policy, as Nixon and Kissinger became convinced of the need for "American leadership" as a solid element on which to build a permanent structure of international stability in 1973 - 74 (Hartley 1975:31), apparently a rejection of the alignment fluidity resulting from the Nixon Doctrine. Another example, probably equally important, is the freedom of action that the Soviet Union (and Mainland China, too) had gained as a consequence of the Nixon/Kissinger "balance of power" diplomacy.

So here, a puzzle presented itself. Why were there so many inconsistencies between the rhetoric, the intentions, and the consequences of the "balance of power" politics? To answer this question, we have to go back to the concept of "balance of power" itself. Then we'll probably be able to see more clearly the differences between the "balance of power" in the early to mid 19th century Europe and that in the Nixon/Kissinger era.

The concept of "balance of power" is very elusive, probably due to the numerous uses and abuses by politicians and scholars. According to one of Morgenthau's definitions of balance of power as "a policy aimed at a certain state of affairs", we have to differentiate "balance of power" as an aim and as a result. Although Waltz explicitly rejected the notion that in a balance of power the states aim at anything other than power superiority, in the early to mid 19th century Europe it seemed that there were at least some powers that restrained "themselves by accepting the system of the balance of power as the common framework of their endeavors" (Morgenthau 1985:239). In the case of Metternich's Austria, it was clear that, due to her geographical vulnerability and military and economic weakness (Schroeder 1994:33), Austria didn't have the luxury of aspiration at power superiority. Internally, "the Austrian Emperor ruled an ethnic mishmash that must have made him groan every time he thought about it" (Kennedy 1987:164), which not only meant constant need of forceful repression of ethnic groups, but also meant potential military weakness due to ethnic diversity of the army (ibid., 165). Externally, Austria (plus her acquisitions (Schroeder 1994:565)) was situated in the middle of Europe, vulnerable from multiple sides. Metternich's balance of power politics was aimed more at the preservation of the status quo and at the binding of the other powers in such a consensus (Seaman 1955:15).

In the Nixon/Kissinger era, a higher degree of hypocrisy than the previous period could be seen as regards the aim and rhetoric of "balance of power". The diplomatic practice of Nixon and Kissinger showed that, despite their rhetoric about "balance of power", their real aim was not merely a "balance" of five powers in the world but rather, in Morgenthau's words, "what one means to defend ... is not the balance of power but a particular distribution of power regarded as favorable to a particular nation or group of nations" (1985:233), which in their case was the U.S.. While Metternich was conducting balance of power politics from a position of vulnerability, Kissinger's "balancing" was conducted with an eye on maintained strength. It was specifically designed to facilitate the strategic arms negotiation and to increase the Soviet incentive to act with self-restraint (Froman 1991:52). By enmeshing the Soviet Union in a complicated network of agreements and co-operations, Kissinger hoped that the Soviet Union would gradually renounce international expansion (Schurmann 1987:43), and thus the United States would gain strategic advantage. After all, it was doubtful whether, after all the rhetoric and half-hearted practice of "balance of power" diplomacy, Kissinger, and especially Nixon, actually believed in that. According to Schurmann's analysis, despite "the rhetoric about balance of power and a pentagonal world, Nixon continued to believe there were only two superpowers. ... The United States was the center in military, economic, and political terms for the Western alliance. Europe could not match it militarily, and it was not unified enough to have political strength comparable to that of the United States. 'Balance of power' was just nineteenth-century talk, probably introduced into the foreign affairs arena by Kissinger the political scientist" (Schurmann 1987:43, and there was certainly a big gap between Kissinger the political scientist and Kissinger the diplomat (Mazlish 1976:288)). Another revealing example is that when the Western European countries exhibited some degree of centrifugal tendencies (which was, ironically, a logical consequence of the application of Nixon Doctrine in Europe), the Nixon administration were apparently irritated (Hartley 1975:27). Here the inherent contradiction in their foreign policy was obvious: they talked about "self-help" by America's allies, but didn't allow for the allies' greater independence. And the end results were more swerves and reversals in their course.

Finally, I will discuss the elements that played an important role in the diplomacy in each period. There were elements that were far more important in one period than in the other. For example, as I have already discussed before, territory and, to a lesser degree, military power played a far greater role in the early to mid 19th century Europe than in the world during the Nixon/Kissinger era. Another variable, public opinion, certainly exerted much more important influence on international politics in the Nixon/Kissinger era than in the early to mid 19th century Europe (this is despite Nixon and Kissinger's efforts to bring "centralization and secrecy" into policy-making (Hartley 1975:9)). Next, I'll talk more about those important variables common to both periods. In both the "concert of Europe" period and the Nixon/Kissinger era, the following factors were important, as enumerated by Schroeder (1994:583): domestic-political, economic, ideology, etc.. I will talk about these in turn but concentrate more at last on the roles of ideology versus power politics.

Domestic politics. As Schroeder pointed out, the "first few years after 1815 were an 'Age of Recuperation', in which governments were trying to heal the wounds of war and resume normal life, especially through economic recovery and development" (1994:586). According to him, through the political learning process, the European powers "managed to concentrate on creating a political coalition for the purpose of durable peace rather than victory" (ibid., 581). Thus a relatively stable "balance of power" buttressed by a political consensus about government legitimacy was possible. Also the balance of power system served Austria's (or rather, the emperor's or Metternich's) domestic political interests. In the early to mid 19th century, as I discussed above, Austria faced the challenge of domestic unrest and of nationalism. Thus maintenance of the status quo in the name of ostensible moral principles helped to serve its domestic means. In the Nixon/Kissinger era, the impact of domestic politics was also obvious, sometimes decisive. In Schurmann's view, "before the Vietnam War the United States was able to maintain a separation between its foreign and domestic roles" (1987:45), whereas in the aftermath of the domestic opposition to the Vietnam War, as Froman argued, "the United States could not continue to police the world because it did not have a sufficiently robust political consensus to use its resources effectively" (1991:40). Although Nixon and Kissinger tried to introduce centralization and secrecy into the style and methods of American foreign policy making and even succeeded in some sense, as the domestic political establishments, especially the Congress, became more and more bent on exerting their influence, a shift in the conduct of American foreign policy was inevitable. A decisive event in this regard was Watergate, which crippled Nixon as the major policy-maker while giving Kissinger a unique chance to conduct American foreign policy almost single-handedly. Without Watergate, conceivably the American diplomatic practice would be very different, as the rift between Nixon and Kissinger on foreign policy was noticed by many authors (Schurmann 1987, Thornton 1989, Bundy 1998). On the side of the Soviet Union, the political power of the military-industrial complex (called "a state within a state" by Arbatov (1992:174)) to some extent contributed to the final breakdown of d閠ente, as the Soviet leaders encountered tremendous domestic political resistance to d閠ente and especially arms limitation.

Economic. As Kennedy pointed out, in the early to mid 19th century Austrian military weakness was compounded by the lack of adequate funding, chiefly caused by the meagreness of its commercial and industrial base (1987:165). In the Nixon/Kissinger era, we can also discern the effect of the limited funding for overseas commitment after the Vietnam War on the foreign policy choices of Nixon/Kissinger administration. It is probably not too great an exaggeration to say that provided a sustained and sufficient military budget, the retraction of American burden overseas would be conducted differently, if done at all. Also, one of the considerations about cutting down on American commitment abroad was the diversion of resources for economic competition with Western Europe and Japan (Hartley 1975:32).

Last but not least, ideology versus power politics. In the early to mid 19th century Europe, ideology played a much more important role in the balance of power than in the Nixon/Kissinger era. For Metternich's balance of power system, the foreign policy instruments were reinforced by ideological consensus, or, as Schroeder put it, "the goal, clearly expressed and genuinely sought, was to achieve a political equilibrium, throughout the system resting primarily not on counterbalanced power but on mutual interests, consensus, and law" (1994:482). One of the most prominent example is the Holly Alliance, formed in September of 1815, which bound the monarchs of Russia, Austria and Prussia, along with the "rulers of almost all the Christian states of Europe" (Rich 1992:26) who would later accede to it, to deal with each other and with their peoples on the basis of the Christian Gospel, so that the European alliance would become a fraternal union between rulers and peoples banishing war and conflict from the earth. Despite the fact that Metternich and Castlereagh, "realists in politics themselves, recognized this and took advantage of it" (Schroeder 1994:559) to restrain Russia, the Holly Alliance was highly significant in terms of ideology. The European monarchs remained basically in agreement in recognizing limits and doing only what would truly end the war and make peace, even if they disagreed on precisely what that included. This kind of ideological consensus was in stark contrast to the world in the Nixon/Kissinger era. Real principles were involved in the Holly Alliance, and "the defence of legitimacy meant a recognition of the necessity of norms and law in international affairs. ... That such a consensus should have arisen at all, and come to control the use of power in international politics to a significant degree, was none the less revolutionary" (ibid., 582). Therefore, even though the Christian principle was sometimes made use of by power politics in that period, its mere existence signified a common recognition of legitimacy. A well-cited example of ideological consideration overcoming power politics during this period is the constraints of the Holy Alliance principle to support legitimate rulers in the suppression of revolutions on Tsar Alexander I, when he decided not to intervene to help the Greek revolution against Ottoman Empire (Rich 1992:51), which was obviously against the Russian national interests.

In contrast, in the Nixon/Kissinger era, first there existed no international consensus on ideology. The domestic political ideology of the two superpowers directly contradicted each other, and thus the ideology in one system were perceived as a challenge to the legitimacy of the other system. Liberal democracy and respect for human rights were far from universally recognized. Even if we regard "balance of power" as an ideology, it was used "in order to disguise, rationalize, and justify themselves" (Morgenthau 1985:231). This is not only true for the American side, as I have discussed above, but also true on the Soviet side, who welcomed the American acceptance of strategic parity of the two superpowers but didn't hesitate to seek strategic advantages. Second, in Nixon/Kissinger's foreign policy, ideological considerations were no longer important; instead, national interests and power politics became the greater concern. The U.S. government had apparently abandoned the efforts to encourage the growth of democracy in the pursuit of more "freedom of action". In the "balancing", "Washington increasingly shifted its support to repressive regimes to prevent the spread of communism" (Lebow 1993:4), in the name of "accommodation to the diversity of the world" (Hartley 1975:21). Another illustrative example is the American rapprochement with Mainland China. The "China breakthrough" (Schurmann 1987:135) happened during the probably most repressive period with the most widespread human rights violations in China since 1949. The little attention paid to ideology was also obvious in the American d閠ente with the Soviet Union. A strain of moralism in American political culture was incompatible with Kissinger's "foreign policy that sought stability as its highest goal" (Froman 1991:63), and so he had to reconcile them by assuming "that Soviet foreign policy did not derive from Soviet domestic politics" (ibid., 63). Therefore, "balance of power" politics was conducted with minimum consideration about ideology.

All in all, in Nixon/Kissinger's diplomatic practice ideology played a less important role versus power politics than in the early to mid 19th century European politics.