On Dec. 17, Henry Kissinger published an article in The Spectator, “How to Avoid Another World War.” In just over a thousand words, the 99-year-old doyen of the realist school of international relations argued that the time is approaching for a negotiated peace in Ukraine to reduce the risk of another devastating world war.
Kissinger compares the current situation in Ukraine to September 1916, when—in his opinion—an opportunity was missed to end the Great War on the basis of “a modified status quo ante.” His framework for peace through negotiation would “confirm the freedom of Ukraine,” including its link with NATO, “however expressed.” It would also “define a new international structure” and eventually enable Russia to “find a place in such an order.” Russia would need to disgorge its conquests since Feb. 24, but not the territory it seized in 2014—including Crimea—which could be the subject of negotiations and possible referenda after a ceasefire.
While he is insightful in his own way, Kissinger’s analysis is nevertheless deeply flawed. A brutal and protracted slugfest at this point might be unavoidable, as all sides remain convinced that victory is yet within reach.
Kissinger warns that “the preferred outcome for some is a Russia rendered impotent by the war,” and he disagrees with this view—which (as he knows but does not spell out) has become an article of faith in the neoconservative cabal. He insists that “Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium.” Dreams of breaking up Russia may create a “contested vacuum” and endless wars, compounded by the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons.
The quest for peace and order has two elements sometimes treated as contradictory, Kissinger insists: the pursuit of elements of security and the need for acts of reconciliation. “If we cannot achieve both,” he concludes, “we will not be able to reach either.”
Prima facie this is a sound set of ideas coming from a seasoned realpolitiker. That Kissinger wants to see “peace and order” reestablished is unsurprising. To him the notions of “equilibrium” and “the balance of power” denote an inherently desirable state of global affairs in the 21st century, no less than they did so in Europe after the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
After all, the proposed framework comes from the man who—half a century ago—facilitated President Richard Nixon’s normalization of relations with Mao’s China and whose role model was Prince Clemens von Metternich, the subject of his Ph.D. thesis converted in 1957 into a book with a telling title: A World Restored. This early magnum opus presented a solid case for political realism and its corollary, the balance-of-power diplomacy model, both of which Kissinger subsequently practiced with consummate skill as national security adviser and secretary of state. He stated then, and insists still now, that peace is best kept through a distribution of power that moderates the appetites of the mighty. Kissinger’s approach has been mercifully free from the messianic ravings about America as the “propositional” nation with a virtuous mission to remake the world in its image or the ongoing mendacious lies about the “rules-based international order.”
But the fundamental problem with Kissinger’s argument is that it stands on a flawed historical analogy comparing World War I to the current conflict in Ukraine, and inevitably proceeds to an equally flawed conclusion. To put it simply, none of the WWI warring parties wanted a compromise peace in 1916 based on status quo ante bellum (however “modified,” as Kissinger adds). None of the key players want it now: neither Putin’s Russia nor the “collective West” commanded by the Biden administration, to which both “Europe” and the regime in Kiev are fully subservient.
To understand the problem a long quote is needed. In August 1916, Kissinger says, after two years of war and millions in casualties, the principal combatants in the West (Britain, France, and Germany) began to explore prospects for ending the carnage. In the East, rivals Austria and Russia had extended comparable feelers:
Because no conceivable compromise could justify the sacrifices already incurred and because no one wanted to convey an impression of weakness, the various leaders hesitated to initiate a formal peace process. Hence they sought American mediation. Explorations by Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s personal emissary, revealed that a peace based on the modified status quo ante was within reach. However, Wilson, while willing and eventually eager to undertake mediation, delayed until after the presidential election in November. By then the British Somme offensive and the German Verdun offensive had added another two million casualties.
This is simply incorrect. As we know from abundant primary sources, the Germans were not willing until the end to state terms, or to negotiate except with understanding that they would keep the gains in Belgium and northeastern France which they had made in the early months of the war. The Entente was equally loath to risk dissensions if the Allies were drawn into mere general discussions. Britain, even more than France, always expected to defeat Germany in the fullness of time, not least thanks to the lethal effect of the Royal Navy’s blockade. When House suggested to his British hosts the U.S. calling a peace conference, with the promise that any German refusal to make peace on Wilson’s terms (which Berlin presumably would have rejected) would help bring America into the war, the British turned down the offer.
Moreover, Kissinger’s timetable is inexplicably wrong. In August 1916, the Somme offensive—which the British started disastrously on July 1—had long ended in defeat. The carnage at Verdun—which had commenced in February of that same year—was nearing its gruesome and indecisive finale. Both were planned long before House’s mission, and neither was impacted by it.
Austria’s peace feelers started only in January 1917, when the Dual Monarchy’s new emperor-king Charles—who finally inherited the throne from Frances Joseph in November 1916—contacted his wife’s brother Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma (a colonel in the Belgian army) to convey his proposal for a separate peace to the French.
As for Russia, in the summer of 1916, its resurgent army staged the Brussilov offensive, which almost kicked Austria-Hungary from the war. It was the only successful Allied operation of strategic import until August 1918. Russia’s first peace feelers only started after the Kerensky revolution toppled the tsardom in February 1917.
“The Great War went on for two more years and claimed millions more victims,” Kissinger states correctly, “irretrievably damaging Europe’s established equilibrium.” President Wilson and his confidant Col. House had next to nothing to do with that outcome, however. Their peace initiatives had failed, like all others, because—until the last months of the war—neither side lost the confidence that they could defeat their opponents by military force.
The Germans were aware that the Allies enjoyed an advantage in resources. With its armies in possession of enormous enemy territory in both the east and the west, and with the Allies apparently unable to break through their lines, no German leader saw reason to offer major concessions to the enemy. Until September 1918, the military situation of the Reich never looked desperate. Naval leaders promised in 1916 that a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare would force Britain to negotiate on German terms within six months. They dismissed the effect of America’s entry into the war, trusting that the war would end before the U.S. could make its weight felt. Not all German policymakers were as convinced of such optimistic predictions. They were even more afraid, however, of the high domestic costs, social and political, which they associated with a compromise peace, so they rejected Wilson’s mediation.
From the fall of 1914 until the very end, the Allies thought the balance of power was in their favor because they had access to greater resources than the Central Powers. Russia dropped out of the war in 1917, but America came in, which effectively made defeat unthinkable.
To the French leaders, the early successes of the Germans in the West indicated that if France succumbed, the Germans would annex French coal and iron mines and demand huge war reparations. To ensure mere survival, they saw as minimum goals the return of all occupied territory, the restoration of an independent Belgium, and the return of Alsace and the Lorraine.
For the British, Germany wanted to dominate Europe and it would succeed in this if it retained control over Belgium, crippled France territorially and financially, and reduced it to the status of a second-rate power. Britain would face an unassailable enemy on the eastern side of the Channel, which was unacceptable by definition. British leaders, including both Asquith and Lloyd George, considered any peace short of Germany’s defeat to be an unacceptable risk.
Diplomacy failed in 1916 because the minimum conditions of the warring sides were incompatible. In a zero-sum game, accepting the other side’s minimum terms was considered equal to one’s own defeat. Defeat was unthinkable, because until the fall of 1918 neither side considered an outright victory beyond reach. Both sides believed that they had the prospect of winning and would be able to impose their terms on their opponents. Under such circumstances, the costs of continuing to fight seemed more acceptable than the costs of accepting compromise peace which was—in both sides’ view—tantamount to defeat. The war, therefore, continued until the German military leadership realized that defeat was imminent: the home front was collapsing and the reserves of manpower were exhausted.
This is a sketchy yet accurate summary of what happened in war-torn Europe just over a century ago. The same dynamic applies to the war in Ukraine today.
In the United States, the unholy alliance of global hegemonists and the military-industrial-congressional complex has a vested interest in continuing the war to the last Ukrainian on the battlefield and to the last German, Italian, and Frenchman in their deserted factories and unheated homes. That much was clear from the nauseating spectacle of Zelensky being greeted in Congress on Dec. 21 as a figure that was part Churchill and part messiah.
In Russia, any acceptance of Kissinger’s notion of Ukraine linked to NATO (“however expressed”) is tantamount to defeat. To Putin and to anyone likely to replace him, this is more important than territory. No Russia, under Putin or under any likely successor, would ever be able to “find a place in such an order.”
The war in Ukraine is most unlikely to end in a negotiated compromise because a mutually acceptable agreement is structurally impossible. It will continue until one side concludes that its continuation is not worth the cost. That was the reality of Europe in 1916. No less tragically, it is also the reality of eastern Europe as we approach 2023.