What Joe Biden Could Learn From Henry Kissinger

The United States cannot afford to withdraw from the world.

illustration of Henry Kissinger and Joe Biden
Henri Bureau / Sygma / Corbis / VCG / Getty; Drew Angerer / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Martin Indyk is a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in October 2021.

Last month, President Joe Biden went before the United Nations General Assembly in New York and declared the end of America’s forever wars in the Middle East. “As we close this period of relentless war,” he told the assembled representatives, “we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy.”

But Biden’s speech was accompanied by inauspicious diplomatic steps. First came the shambolic and ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left America’s allies feeling that the United States had failed to consult adequately with those who had fought beside it before it rushed for the exits. Then Biden announced a new Indo-Pacific defense pact with Australia and the United Kingdom. France, America’s oldest ally, was shafted in the process, its $60 billion contract to build diesel submarines for the Australian navy abruptly canceled, its role and interests in the Indo-Pacific rendered irrelevant to the Asian power equilibrium that Biden was striving to shore up in the face of a growing challenge from China. Relentless diplomacy was beginning to look like ruthless diplomacy. Indeed, if the art of diplomacy is to tell a person to go to hell and make him look forward to the trip, French President Emmanuel Macron’s outrage suggested that Biden had failed to meet that standard.

Perhaps Biden could learn something from America’s most accomplished diplomat, Henry Kissinger. At 98, Kissinger remains a controversial figure, his realpolitik brand of balance-of-power diplomacy reviled by some for its application in Laos, Cambodia, Chile, and Bangladesh, but revered by others for achieving the opening with China and détente with the Soviet Union. All of those events, however, took place while Kissinger was serving as Richard Nixon's national security adviser. Only when Kissinger became secretary of state in September 1973 and moved from the West Wing to Foggy Bottom were his diplomatic skills fully put to the test. And that is when his relentless diplomacy in the Middle East sidelined the Soviet Union during the Cold War and produced four Arab-Israeli agreements, which established a new American-led order in that turbulent part of the world and laid the foundations for Arab-Israeli peace.

Like Biden after Afghanistan, Kissinger had to confront the limits to the use of force demonstrated by the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. And like Biden, he faced a period of domestic turmoil, as the Watergate scandal forced Nixon from office and raised questions abroad about the ability of the U.S. to sustain a coherent and reliable foreign policy. Kissinger executed a pivot in U.S. foreign policy away from Southeast Asia toward the Middle East. Ironically, almost five decades later, Biden is now executing a pivot away from the Middle East back toward Southeast Asia.

Recognizing the limits of coercive power and facing a growing isolationist trend at home, Kissinger, like Biden, understood that the United States could not afford to withdraw from the world. Instead, Kissinger depended on deft diplomacy to promote American interests at a time of intense geopolitical rivalry, when deploying ground forces was no longer an option.

Illustration of Henry Kissinger.
Timothy A. Clary / Getty; Brownie Harris / Corbis / Getty; The Atlantic

Kissinger’s success was built with several key ingredients. He always began with a clear objective, at least in his own mind, and a strategic concept for how to achieve it. In the Middle East of the 1970s, his objective appeared to be peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. But that obscured his real purpose, which was to build a new, American-led order in the region. For Kissinger, peacemaking diplomacy was a process designed to ameliorate conflicts between competing powers, not resolve them. He feared that pursuing peace as an idealistic end state would jeopardize the stability that his order was designed to generate. Peace for Kissinger was a problem, not a solution. The desire for peace needed to be manipulated to produce something more reliable, a stable order in a highly volatile part of the world.

Kissinger’s diplomatic daring was informed by an innate conservatism. He was wary of the crusading impulses that drove many American leaders to overreach in their desire to remake the world in America’s image. He knew from his study of history that maintaining order was usually too prosaic an objective to inspire presidents, compared with the immortality they might hope to achieve by pursuing peace or democracy in far-off regions that knew little of either. Declarations like Biden’s—that democracy versus autocracy is the defining struggle of our time—were not for Kissinger. Rather, he pursued the more mundane but achievable idea of a balance of power between competing states to deter those who would seek revisions to the order. In his concept, that equilibrium would discourage war and create the conditions over time for peace and democratic change.

Once balance had been established, the United States, with its immense power, would play the role of the “indispensable balance wheel,” swinging back and forth between the contending regional powers, ideally positioning itself closer to all of them than they were to one another. That was the challenge for America then: using its power to deter states from disrupting the order and rewarding them for maintaining it. And that is the same challenge Biden faces today.

If Kissinger’s theory was clear, its practice was inevitably more complicated, especially in the Middle East. During his time in the White House, Kissinger agitated for a balance of power in which U.S. support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Shah’s Iran would deter the revisionist impulses of Soviet-backed clients in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Détente with the Soviet Union buttressed this equilibrium because it committed Moscow to maintaining the regional status quo. The order worked well enough for three years. But it collapsed when Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War on Israel in October 1973 and the Soviet Union, fearing the loss of its position of influence, swung behind them.

Kissinger was as surprised as the Israelis. He had become so confident in the prevailing equilibrium that he had overlooked a principle derived from his study of history: that for the order to be stable, a balance of power was insufficient; there also had to be a “moral consensus” among the powers that the existing arrangements were fair and just. The legitimacy of the Middle Eastern order Kissinger was creating in fact rested on shaky foundations because it failed to provide a sense of fairness or a modicum of justice to the Arab states that had lost territory to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

By his own admission, Kissinger had underestimated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, dismissing him as resembling a character from Verdi’s opera Aida (which is set in ancient Egypt). But once the Yom Kippur War broke out, Kissinger became determined to build a new Middle Eastern order based on working with Sadat to turn Egypt from a revolutionary power into a status quo power, moving it from one side of the balance to the other. In that way, he would remove the largest and most militarily powerful Arab state from the conflict with Israel, making it impossible for the others to contemplate going to war again. He learned this play from his study of the post-Napoleonic 19th-century European order, when Castlereagh and Metternich, the foreign ministers of Great Britain and Austria, respectively, brought France over to the side of the status quo powers.

Kissinger’s diplomatic mechanism for achieving this feat was an Arab-Israeli peace process in which the United States would persuade Israel to yield Arab territory in return for steps that would reduce the incentives for the Arab states to return to war. But because he viewed peace with a jaundiced eye, his peace process would be cautious, gradual, and incremental. He labeled it “step-by-step diplomacy.”

“Territory for peace” became the legitimizing principle for Kissinger’s new Middle Eastern order. But how to convince Israel, which had just experienced the trauma of a war in which its survival seemed to hang in the balance, that yielding territory would make it more, not less, secure? Especially when Kissinger shared Israel’s skepticism about Arab countries’ peaceful intent.

Here’s where Kissinger’s manipulative skills became essential to his successful diplomacy. In a series of ferocious arguments with Golda Meir, Israel’s doughty prime minister, he did not try to sell her on peace. Instead, he persuaded her to give up territory for time: time for Israel to get over the trauma of the war, time to reduce its isolation and build its military and economic strength, and time for the Arabs to eventually accept Israel and make peace with the Jewish state.

Convincing the Israelis was painful, difficult, and frustrating, yet Kissinger was indefatigable. Hour after hour, in meeting after meeting in Washington and Jerusalem, he deployed all the arguments in his arsenal, at times with a sense of humor that disarmed his stiff-necked audience, at others with threats that only reinforced their resistance. In the end, though, he succeeded in persuading Israel to hand back to Egypt the Suez Canal and then the oil fields and strategic passes in Sinai. Two years later, after Kissinger had left office, President Jimmy Carter brought this process to completion in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

Israel became committed to trading territory for time. With American assistance, Israel used time to build up its military, economic, and technological capabilities, becoming the strongest power in the Middle East. Meanwhile, over time, the Arab states gradually tired of the conflict, accepting the Jewish state in their midst and recognizing the benefits of cooperating with it—as recently evidenced by the Abraham Accords—just as Kissinger had predicted.

What he did not expect, however, was that Israel would also use time to consolidate its grip on the West Bank, as settlers continued to build and expand their communities with government support. At the end of Kissinger’s tenure as secretary of state, just 1,900 settlers lived on the West Bank; by 2020, that number had swelled to more than 466,000 in 131 settlements. That made it all the more difficult politically for Israel to withdraw from the territory even as its strength grew. Now, more than four decades later, the idea that Israel should relinquish the West Bank has become almost unimaginable. Kissinger understood the consequences of settlements for his legitimizing principle. He wrote in his memoirs that Israel had no choice in the end but to cede territory for peace, warning that “the Jewish state would consume its moral substance if it sought to rest its existence on naked force.”

Kissinger also applied his relentless diplomacy to Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. Syria did not have the same weight as Egypt in the Middle Eastern power balance, but it did have an important role to play in legitimizing Kissinger’s peace process. Syria prided itself on being the beating heart of pan-Arab nationalism, which utilized antagonism toward Israel as a unifying factor among disparate Arab states. By engaging in peacemaking with Israel, Sadat was breaking the mold. If Kissinger could entangle Assad in his diplomatic web, it would provide Arab cover for Sadat’s camp-shifting and undermine the Soviet Union’s ability to thwart Sadat’s endeavors.

Assad was shrewd enough to recognize that Kissinger’s purpose was to break up the united Arab front against Israel and that if he succeeded, Syria would be left weakened and isolated. But he also understood that he could extract advantage from the fact that Kissinger needed him to provide cover for Sadat and reinforce the perception that only the United States could deliver for the Arabs. It was a match of wits and guile unlike any other in Kissinger’s experience as secretary of state. For 30 days, Kissinger shuttled between Jerusalem and Damascus, making 13 trips, with side excursions to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to secure the support of Sadat and King Faisal. It was a dispiriting, frustrating, and exhausting endeavor that put him out on the frontier of American diplomacy without any serious backing from President Richard Nixon—who was by that point completely preoccupied with fending off his imminent impeachment.

Back and forth the American diplomat went, patiently cajoling both sides closer to an agreement, threatening the Israelis, promising blandishments to the Syrians. The fruit of his labor, negotiated in 1974, was the Golan Heights disengagement agreement. It kept the peace in the Golan between Israel and Syria for more than four decades, with only a handful of minor violent incidents.

Even today, with Syria engulfed in civil war and Israel regularly striking Iranian targets, the agreement remains in force and the Golan Heights remains peaceful, notwithstanding efforts by Iranian-backed militias to approach the border and former President Donald Trump’s gratuitous recognition of Israeli sovereignty there. Kissinger’s relentless diplomacy had taken both Syria and Egypt out of the conflict with Israel. Henceforth, no Arab neighbor of Israel would contemplate waging war on the Jewish state, and all of them would seek to resolve their differences with Israel through American-led diplomacy.

It was by no means a flawless performance. Kissinger underestimated the ability of lesser powers to disrupt the will of the great powers in the Middle Eastern order that he was tending, and his preference for order and skepticism about peace led him to miss several opportunities to advance the peace process that he had created. Nevertheless, the art in his diplomacy lay in his conception and achievement of an American-led regional order, in which the pursuit of peace was an essential mechanism.

What is the takeaway for the Biden administration as it shifts its focus from the Middle East to Asia to counter China’s rising, assertive power?

At a time of intense geopolitical competition, Kissinger’s first priority would be to establish an equilibrium in the Asian balance of power. Biden is attempting to achieve that by concerting the policies of the major powers in the region, bringing India into the fold, and building Australia’s force-projection capabilities. But America’s own military deployments in the Asian arena will need to be significantly strengthened, especially to deter a Chinese move against Taiwan. More attention clearly needs to be paid to the role of America’s European allies. They have less to contribute because of their geographic distance, but they can nevertheless add ballast to the enterprise, if only by building their own capacity to balance Russia in Europe, thereby helping relieve the burden on the United States as it shifts resources to Asia. Ignoring their interests, as Biden did recently with France, only advantages China, creates problems in Europe, and undermines the credibility of American diplomacy by revealing a gap between rhetoric and practice.

As Kissinger learned the hard way in the Middle East, an equilibrium in the balance of power is insufficient without a legitimizing principle that gives our partners a sense of fairness and justice. In Asia, the threat of a Chinese-dominated alternative order makes that easier to achieve. America’s role as the “offshore balancer” in Asia, which it has been playing since its withdrawal from Vietnam, is broadly accepted there as desirable. Moreover, the threat from China concentrates the minds of leaders who might otherwise pursue grievances with their neighbors.

However, Biden’s idea of an alliance of democratic states to counter autocratic ones, far from generating a moral consensus in Asia, could make one more difficult to accomplish. Many of the powers that Biden needs on his side are autocratic or trending that way, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and India. Biden would be better off developing a coherent trade policy that would benefit our regional partners. By joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, the United States could help legitimize fair-trade rules that China would have difficulty ignoring.

At the same time, Biden also needs to shore up the Middle Eastern order, lest our retrenchment from there tilt the balance of power in favor of Iran and outside powers such as Russia and China. An event like Iran attempting to cross the nuclear-weapons threshold, for example, could divert American attention away from Asia and require the United States to return to the Middle East with force yet again. The Arab-Israeli peace process that Kissinger initiated to legitimize that order has also stalled. If a sense of justice and fairness is to be restored, Kissinger’s approach of a gradual, incremental process needs to be applied to the Palestinian problem. The small economic steps now being taken by the Israeli government should be tied to a peace process that begins with some territorial steps (such as restricting settlement building and ceding more territory to Palestinian control) and leads to an eventual Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza at peace with Israel.

Kissinger’s style of relentless diplomacy required a combination of caution, skepticism, agility, creativity, resoluteness, and guile in the service of a strategy that favored the pursuit of order over grandiose objectives and magical thinking. By those standards, Biden’s relentless diplomacy is falling short. But the learning curve is always steep in a new administration, no matter how professional the policy makers. They would do well to absorb the lessons from Kissinger’s experience.