Henry Kissinger’s speech today at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security was framed as a tribute to Thatcher. In fact, it was a conversation with her.
Speaking to the conference – organised by the Centre for Policy Studies, CapX’s parent body – Kissinger shared a few memories of the former Prime Minister. Her lecturing him about how politics was about moving the centre, not moving towards it – while still a little-known education minister. Her splenetic response when he asked her which of the compromises suggested by the Foreign Office over the Falklands she favoured.
But the bulk of Kissinger’s speech (which I’ve embedded below) was effectively a response to, and updating of, the message Thatcher delivered in Fulton, Missouri, in 1996 – on the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s speech at the same location warning of the “Iron Curtain” descending on Europe.
Thatcher claimed in that speech that “the world remains a very dangerous place, indeed one menaced by more unstable and complex threats than a decade ago. But because the risk of total nuclear annihilation has been removed, we in the West have lapsed into an alarming complacency about the risks that remain. We have run down our defences and relaxed our guard.”
Thatcher discerned multiple threats on the horizon, including (prophetically), “radical Islamist movements [that] now constitute a major revolutionary threat not only to the Saddams and Assads but also to conservative Arab regimes, who are allies of the West”.
But her gravest worry, as with Churchill, was Russia, which she claimed had descended into a form of “robber capitalism”. As a result, “primitive political ideologies which have been extinct in Western Europe and America for two generations surfaced and flourished, all peddling fantasies of imperial glory to compensate for domestic squalor”.
For Kissinger, the situation today is even more fraught, and the problem is even more fundamental. The world order, he says, has been based on the Westphalian system – nation-states that co-operate and compete according to a set of mutually agreed rules.
The great challenges we face, he warned, are challenges because they cannot be contained within this system. Indeed, they act to undermine it.
First, there is Russia, which has more than fulfilled Thatcher’s gloomy prophecies. Putin’s view of politics, said Dr Kissinger, “is often described as a recurrence of 1930s nationalist authoritarianism”. But it is closer to Dostoevsky on Pushkin, an appeal to “the spiritual qualities of the Russian character”, to some “almost misty conception of greatness”.
What this means, he said, is that Russia demands absolute security – but it can only achieve this, it feels, via the absolute insecurity of its neighbours. It cannot be strong unless they are weak.
Next, there is China. The problem for the system, he argues, is China’s sheer size – “it transcends the dimensions of the Westphalian state”. Indeed, if it fulfils the “Chinese Dream” set out by Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic will, by its centenary in 2049, be as powerful as any other country in the world, with a vast population and the per capita GDP of a developed nation.
This leaves both China and America facing a challenge unique in their long histories. America, says Kissinger, has not had to contend with a genuine equal since it became a global power. And “never has China conceived of a foreign nation as more than a tributary to it”. Both countries, he said, “think of themselves as exceptional… America sees spreading its values as part of its mission. China has historically acted on the principle that the majesty of its performance would motivate other countries into hierarchy based on respect.”
The third great challenge is the Middle East, where “the order that emerged at the end of the First World War is now in shambles. Four states… have ceased to function as sovereign: Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen have become battlegrounds for factions ceasing to impose their rule”. And the ideals of the Islamists cross – indeed, erase – the boundaries of the nation-state: their claims are universal.
For Margaret Thatcher, where we had gone wrong was placing our trust in international institutions – the EU and UN – to safeguard our future. But “we have learned that they cannot perform well unless we refrain from utopian aims, give them practical tasks, and provide them with the means and backing to carry them out”.
She was more complimentary about Nato. But while “Nato is a very fine military instrument… an instrument cannot define its own purposes, and since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Western statesmen have found it difficult to give Nato a clear one.”
This, too, was Kissinger’s point. Instead of a strategic alliance, he warned, Nato has become merely a security guarantee – a nuclear umbrella provided by America beneath which European states can shelter. But while Article 5 is all very well, it cannot be the end of the story.
Nato can be fixed, he said, “but it will not come automatically, or through proclamation”. Instead, it needs a “permanent re-examination” of its capabilities and strategic objectives: “What changes will it seek to prevent, and by what means?”
Of course, there are differences between the two. Thatcher insisted that “the West is not just some Cold War construct, devoid of significance in today’s freer, more fluid world. It rests upon distinctive values and virtues, ideas and ideals, and above all upon a common experience of liberty”.
Kissinger’s vision, as you might expect, was grounded more in realpolitik. But it was no less sweeping.
The upheavals facing us, he said, threaten our security, “but they also challenge the West to contribute to the building of a new world order”, involving cooperation (from a position of strength) rather than confrontation.
If the West withdraws into itself, he warned, “we will see a gradual extension of chaos”. Then other great powers which cannot afford chaos along their borders will gradually step into the West’s place – and “the pattern of world politics for centuries will thereby be revolutionised”.
Kissinger ended by quoting Thatcher’s own words: “I believe that what is now required is a new and imaginative Atlantic initiative. Its purpose must be to redefine Atlanticism in the light of the challenges I have been describing.”
But he also quoted her warning: “There are rare moments when history is open and its course changed… We may be at just such a moment now.”