Could S Jaishankar don the Kissingerian mantle?

aThe Ukrainian crisis has hit an immovable diplomatic roadblock. President Putin has reportedly cloistered himself in a tightly-controlled echo chamber that filters the truth about what is happening on the Ukrainian front. He has signaled that Russia will ease up on the bombardment only if Ukraine accepts an abridgement of its sovereignty. Ukraine, on the other hand, has stalled the Russian military but at phenomenal humanitarian and physical cost. Analysts estimate it could cost up to $500 billion to rebuild the Ukrainian economy. The rest of the world is in a bind. Most are agreed that Russia has breached international law but they cannot do without its oil and gas. As Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU foreign minister, said, “Since the start of the war, we’ve given (Russia) €35bn, compared to the €1bn we’ve given Ukraine to arm itself”. Also, everyone knows Russia cannot be driven back militarily to the status quo ante the Ukrainian invasion. For it is a nuclear power.

So, what is to be done? Is there any way of removing this diplomatic roadblock?

I do not have an answer, but I do want to share the thoughts that ran through my head upon reading Ambassador Martin Indyk’s superb book Masters of the Game — Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. Indyk was the US ambassador to Israel twice and also envoy special to the Middle East. His book is a granular analysis of Kissinger’s efforts to end the Arab-Israel Yom Kippur war of October 1973.

What struck me, and hence this article, were the nuggets of learning of contemporary relevance contained within the interstices of Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy half a century back. I wondered, what if Kissinger were 30 years younger? He will be 99 later this month. Might he have succeeded in cracking the Ukrainian conundrum? Less academic, is there a leader somewhere that has the intellectual heft, the strategic insight, the psychological intuition and the Machiavellian nous to don the Kissingerian mantle?

I will be criticized for engaging in an academic parlor game. The conditions today are different from those prevailing 50 years ago. But given the rising possibility of a nuclear exchange, this is a game, I aver, worth playing.

Indyk writes that Kissinger’s strategic approach to conflict resolution was derived from Immanuel Kant’s essay, ‘Perpetual Peace’. Kissinger took from this essay the message that “the root dilemma of our time is that if the quest for peace turns into the sole objective of policy, the fear of war becomes a weapon in the hands of the most ruthless…it produces moral disarmament” . (Indyk attributes this quote to Kissinger. All other quotes in this article are from the book)

According to Indyk, Kissinger did not believe peace was an “achievable or even desirable objective”. And that since “conflicts between states would lead over time to the exhaustion of their powers, (peace processes) should be designed to buy enough time for exhaustion to set in”. As such, they should be “step by step”, “cautious” and “sceptical” accumulating “nuances towards a long-term strategy”. The objective should be to “produce a stable order” based on a “commonly accepted set of rules”.

Kissinger followed this gradualist playbook to bring about an American-mediated end to the Yom Kippur conflict. He formulated a face-saving formula that, on the one hand, persuaded the Egyptian military to back down but without giving up all of its achievements and Saudi Arabia to lift the oil embargo that it had imposed upon the outbreak of the war and, on the other, “chastened” Israel enough but not so as to weaken its ability to negotiate from a position of strength. Indyk concluded that if “diplomacy is the art of moving political leaders to places they are reluctant to go, Kissinger was master of the game”.

Could a younger Kissinger achieve the same results today in Ukraine? I suspect not. The conditions are very different. In 1973, Kissinger was helped by a combination of factors that do not exist today. America was the dominant power and ready to play the role of a global policeman. It had influence and Kissinger leveraged that to maximal effect. Second, the timing was propitious. The US and the Soviet Union had placed detente on their agenda and the US was in talks with China. Third, despite his penchant for the “diplomatic lie”, Kissinger was a trusted mediator. And finally, in President Sadat of Egypt, Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and even President Hafez Assad of Syria, Kissinger was dealing with leaders who matched him in guile and intellect and who appreciated the consequential costs of a prolonged conflict. His success was as “much a product of the ingenuity or risk taking of these interlocutors as of his brilliance.”

Today none of these conditions exist. The US remains the most powerful military power in the world but it does not have the leverage it had six decades back. More pertinent, it has redefined its role in the global arena. Further, the US and China are adversaries. The words detente and trust are not part of their diplomatic lexicon. More worryingly, all parties are looking at the world through distinctly different lens.

So prima facie, the thought that the Kissingerian mantle can be donned today with comparable impact is indeed academic. But to paraphrase Edmund Burke, the greatest mistake one can make is to “do nothing” simply because one can do “so little”. So in that spirit, I share a final thought — does not our foreign minister have the qualities to don that mantle? His intellect is unquestioned. He has been Ambassador to China and US; he speaks Russian, and he is married to a Japanese. If our PM were to agree to an India-led, peacemaking initiative and leverage his personal relations towards that end, our foreign minister might not be the best qualified to play the “multi-level chess game” (with rules appropriately contemporised) that Kissinger played five decades ago to crack the Ukrainian impasse?

The writer is chairman, the Center for Social and Economic Progress

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