The Next President Can Learn from Henry Kissinger

In his 800-plus page tome Diplomacy, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes the following about the challenges of foreign policy decision-making:

The analyst can choose which problems he wishes to study, whereas the statesman’s problems are imposed on him. The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion; the overwhelming challenge for the statesman is the pressure of time…The analyst has available to him all the facts; he will be judged on his intellectual power. The statesman must act on assessments that cannot be proved at the time that he is making them.” (Kissinger, Diplomacy, pp. 27-28)

For this reason, no diplomat leaves office with an unimpeachable record, and no secretary of state divides opinion quite like Henry Kissinger. Some see him as a master strategist, some believe that he is a war criminal, and some have recently argued that his record is more ordinary than it is made out to be.

Improbably, the long-standing debate over Secretary Kissinger’s record found its way into last Thursday’s Democratic primary debate, in which Senator Bernie Sanders criticized Secretary Hillary Clinton for seeking out the counsel of Kissinger during her tenure as America’s top diplomat. “I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger,” promised Senator Sanders.

On its own, there is little wrong with this statement; presidents have a right to choose their own advisors. However, few Americans are as experienced in or have written as prolifically about diplomacy and the international order over the past several decades than Henry Kissinger. Any presidential candidate who hopes to succeed in foreign policy must wrestle with the insight that Kissinger provides above, that statesmen and stateswomen are often forced to identify the lesser of two evils under the constraints of time and incomplete information.

In fact, among the greatest foreign policy challenges that the next American president will confront is a wrenching illustration of these constraints. Five years into the civil war in Syria, the U.S. is seeking to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict amidst a rapidly changing situation on the ground, where the two dominant belligerents are the murderous Assad regime on the one hand and the apocalyptic and genocidal Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) on the other. Moreover, the next president will have to contend with the added complexity resulting from the involvement of Iran, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Russia, both moderate and non-moderate rebels, and the various Kurdish groups.

In short, there are no perfect options in Syria. There is no course of action, including inaction, that carries with it no risk, that guarantees a more peaceful future for Syria, or that ensures the realization of American objectives. If Washington hopes to play an active role in ending the bloodshed, it will require a willingness to deal with good and bad actors without full information or the luxury of time. The path taken will be the outcome of a complex calculus that seeks to balance American interests, the just, and the possible.

When the next presidential administration develops its policy on the Syrian conflict, or any other vexing issue, they do not need to consult Henry Kissinger. There are other foreign policy experts who can provide insight and guidance. But even for those who disagree with the choices that Kissinger made while in government, there is much to learn from Kissinger’s analysis of diplomacy and the challenges of foreign policy decision-making.

Michael Goldfien is a Campaigns Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and has an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University. His research interests are in international relations, diplomacy, and the U.S. foreign policymaking process.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Image credit: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

Charged Affairs is a publication of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the organization. All rights reserved.

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