Kissinger´s Lessons on Legitimacy

About to turn 100 years old, Dr. Henry A. Kissinger is the subject of a widespread tribute. But given that it is impossible to describe his life and work in an opinion column, perhaps it is useful to emphasize some lessons from his strategic thinking.

As a lifelong admirer of balance of power, throughout his entire career -both in academia and in diplomacy- Kissinger promoted the search for stability through a framework of legitimacy acceptable to the decisive actors of the system.

A subject described by Kissinger in his masterpiece “A World Restored. The Politics of Conservatism in a Revolutionary Age” (1954), in which he would explain the problems of the European order after the convulsions that followed the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.

An extraordinary essay on the decisive concept of Legitimacy. A concept that is not necessarily equated with “Justice” but with the ability to reach a minimum framework of understanding between states. In which they accept a number of rules to the point that none of them is so dissatisfied as to be tempted to initiate a course of action to challenge said canons. As tragically happened with Germany after the Treaty of Versailles.

To the extreme that the arrangements of 1919 would perhaps became the exact opposite of those of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. When France, defeated and responsible for having broken the European order, was admitted as a great power. Thanks to the talent of Kissinger´s most admired diplomat: K. Metternich.

Because, as Kissinger wrote, if the stability of Europe was rescued from chaos, that was possible primarily as the result of the work of British Foreign Secretary Castlereagh and his Austrian counterpart. The one who masterfully explained that statesmen must try to reconcile what is considered just with what is considered possible. In a world in which while the former depends on the domestic structure of each state, the latter arises from the relationship of forces derived from the resources, the geographical position and the determination of the different members of the international community.

Those who would apply their political talent to warn that beyond their wishes, to overcome the traumas of the revolutionary era and provide the system with a framework of stability, it was necessary to achieve a balance of power. The one that would arise from organizing a European order around five great powers made up of Great Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia and a France within its natural borders.

After Waterloo, the French defeat should be followed by a new equilibrium. A reality warned by Metternich who detected that no other power as Austria could be more interested in the restauration of the equilibrium than the state whose geographic position condemned it to devastation in any war of two powers which could come into contact only at its expense. As Kissinger explained, Austria was the pivot state without whose assistance none of the other powers could achieve a decisive victory. Which forced Metternich to exercise the most sophisticated diplomacy.

An understanding to which Metternich had unsuccessfully invited Napoleon himself. By offering him a scheme in which France would abandon its conquests, ceasing its revolutionary policy. Which would have meant -in Kissinger’s words- that Napoleon had ceased being Napoleon. Perhaps allowing Napoleon to be saved from himself.

But that genius could not stop. Unable to understand a sense of proportion, and convinced that his power came from an unceasing series of military campaigns, he could not be content -as Talleyrand warned- with being “just” the King of France. Giving himself up to a career that would take him from the Republic to military dictatorship, from military dictatorship to universal monarchy and from  universal monarchy to the disaster of Moscow.

As Kissinger wrote, just as in a Greek tragedy, the warning of the oracle does not suffice to avert the doom because salvation resides not in knowledge but in acceptance. To the point that Napoleon´s continuation in power became incompatible with the peace of Europe.

The Congress of Vienna would be called to restore the equilibrium. Because the logic of war is power, while the logic of peace is proportion. And while the success in war is victory, the success of peace is stability. The one that had to be preserved through a formula of legitimacy that prevented one of the actors in the system from being tempted to return to challenge the European order.

Kissinger warned that any acceptable international understanding implies some degree of dissatisfaction for the parties. Because -paradoxically- if one power were fully satisfied, all others would have to be totally dissatisfied and a revolutionary situation would perhaps be inexorable. Stability -for Kissinger- would arise from an order in which its members perceive that they have a relatively acceptable security. In which although claims and partial dissatisfactions persist, it is essential that there be no complaints of such a magnitude that they lead them to seek to destroy the system instead of amending it.

Kissinger recognized that the Congress of Vienna was an effort to achieve stability and not revenge. Which implied that France should not be torn to pieces but brought to the acceptance of its limits. Vienna´s merit would be based on a formula to avoid such extreme dissatisfactions that could lead some actor to the point of seeking to tear down the agreement instead of amending it diplomatically. An understanding that -in essence- would work for almost a hundred years, endowing the system with an almost unrepeatable time of relative peace and prosperity.

Such lessons that are once again relevant in today’s world. When the third most important player in the world understands -rightly or wrongly- that the global order that emerged at the end of the Cold War contains unacceptable doses of illegitimacy. With the aggravating circumstance of leading it to adopt a revisionist policy. To the extreme of questioning the very foundation of the system of sovereign states based on the inviolability of borders.

About the Author
Mariano Caucino was Argentine ambassador to Israel (2018-2019) and to Costa Rica (2016-2017).