This week in the high, thin air of Davos, Switzerland, many of the people who own and oversee the international economy are peering out at the planet below and discussing what needs to be done to preserve the world order while, not that many miles away, the grueling war in Ukraine is threatening the stability that these VIPs value above all else.
On Monday, attendees at the annual conference of the World Economic Forum listened to a rumbling voice from the past, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the architect of the 1970s détente with the Soviet Union and the opening of the People’s Republic of China to the wider world. At 98-years-old, Kissinger remains what he has been throughout his life as a hugely influential diplomat and academic: an ardent advocate of the Realist school of international relations.
The Realists believe that, generally, the best government leaders can do is manage bad situations to avoid conflict. They frown on foreign policy driven by belligerence or idealism. They prefer making deals and compromises that may dash the dreams of people struggling under oppression, but preserve a status quo that serves the national interest.
At Davos, Kissinger said the brave Ukrainians who have driven back the massive Russian assault on their country now need to be forced to give up some territory to the invaders in order to reach a peace deal that restores “the status quo ante.”
That position is about as Realist, or “realpolitik,” as it gets and several European leaders and many foreign policy experts agree with Kissinger. They believe the Ukrainians’ desire for victory and preservation of their country’s territorial integrity is naïve and, perhaps, dangerous if Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, finds himself facing defeat. In other words, they favor a less-than-perfect deal that gives the war criminals in the Kremlin the ability to claim some kind of success.
More often than not, the Realists are correct; the only practical choice in diplomacy is an imperfect choice that is better than a worse one. But people like Kissinger also can be blinded by their worldly cynicism. In the 1970s, Kissinger wrote that the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would probably remain a stalemate that would need to be carefully managed for many more decades, perhaps for another century. Instead, in 1989, the Soviet empire dissolved almost overnight.
In 2022, all the experts who said Russia’s overwhelming military power would crush Ukrainian resistance in a matter of days have been proven wrong. It turns out that the Russian army is a blunt, but hollow instrument. It is not impossible that Putin’s grip on power is also less than it appears. Tipping points in international affairs are rare, as Kissinger would no doubt point out, but they do come, more often than the experts ever predict.
It is way too early to tell Ukrainians to give up hope and compromise their independence. They may be on the verge of tipping the world in a better direction.
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