The moral foundations of Foreign Policy, Address by Secretary of State Kissinger 1975

Bloomington, Minnesota, July 15, 1975.

THE MORAL FOUNDATIONS OF FOREIGN POLICY  By Henry Kissinger

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: I have long looked forward to coming to Minnesota because it is the home of a man I admire enormously, the one man who likes to talk almost as much as I do—Senator Humphrey. At the hearings on my nomination as Secretary of State, Senator Humphrey instructed me with much wisdom on the difficult job ahead. His advice was right on the mark, and has been ever since. He is a good friend, and a great statesman. Minnesotans can be proud that he represents them in the United States Senate, for he is an example of the spirit of our country—its decency, its humanity, and its strength.

America has now entered upon its 200th year as a free nation. In those 2 centuries our country has grown from a small agricultural nation with very few responsibilities beyond its borders to a world power with global responsibilities. Yet, while the range of interests has changed massively, our commitment to the values that gave birth to our nation has remained unaltered.

These are the aspects of our national experience I would like to address today: the pursuit of America’s values as a humane and just example to others; and the furthering of America’s interests in a world where power remains the ultimate arbiter. How do we reconcile and advance both aspects of our national purpose? What, in our time, is the significance of the age-old quandary of the relationship between principle and power?

Through the greater part of our history we have been able to avoid the issue. A fortunate margin of safety and an unexplored continent produced the impression that principle and power automatically coalesced, that no choice was necessary or that only one choice was possible.

But now for nearly a decade our nation has been weighed down by uncertainty and discord. We have found ourselves doubtful of our virtue and uncertain of our direction largely because we have suddenly realized that like other nations before us we must now reconcile our principles with our necessities. Amid frustration, many Americans questioned the validity of our involvement in the international arena; in the wake of our disappointments, some abroad now doubt our resolve.

We are, I believe, emerging from this period with a renewed sense of confidence. Recent events have brought home to us—and to the rest of the world—that a purposeful, strong, and involved America is essential to peace and progress. These same events have also reminded us of the contribution this country made in the 30 years since World War II—and what is at stake in the next 30 years.

The United States can look back on an extraordinary generation of achievement. We have maintained a stable balance of power in the world; we have preserved peace and fostered the growth of the industrial democracies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan. We helped shape the international trade and monetary system which has nourished global prosperity. We promoted decolonization and pioneered in development assistance for the new nations. We have taken major initiatives to forge more reliable and positive relationships with the major Communist powers.

In a planet shrunk by communications and technology, in a world either devastated by war or struggling in the first steps of nationhood, in an international system not of empire but of scores of independent states, the global contribution of one nation—the United States—has been without precedent in human history. Only a nation of strong conviction and great idealism could have accomplished these efforts. We shall not turn our backs on this legacy.

The Modern Agenda

Today we face a new agenda. Our accomplishments over the past generation have changed the world and defined our tasks for the coming decades:

• Our allies, the major industrial democracies, have recovered their vigor and influence. We are transforming our alliances into more equal partnerships. We shall act in harmony with friends whose security and prosperity is indispensable to our own and whose cooperation is essential for progress and justice.

• The incredible destructiveness of modern weapons has transformed international politics. We must maintain our military strength. But we have an obligation, in our own interest as well as the world’s, to work with other nations to control both the growth and the spread of nuclear weapons.

• In our relations with the Communist powers we must never lose sight of the fact that in the thermonuclear age general war would be disastrous to mankind. We have an obligation to seek a more productive and stable relationship despite the basic antagonism of our values.

• Thirty years of economic and political evolution have brought about a new diffusion of power and initiative. At the same time, interdependence imposes upon all nations the reality that they must prosper together or suffer together. The destinies of the world’s nations have become inevitably intertwined. Thus, the capacity of any one nation to shape events is more limited, and consequently our own choices are more difficult and complex.

The Legacy of Our Past

To deal with this agenda we require strength of purpose and conviction. A nation unsure of its values cannot shape its future. A people confused about its direction will miss the opportunity to build a better and more peaceful world. This is why perhaps our deepest challenge is our willingness to face the increasing ambiguity of the problem of ends and means.

We start with strong assets. Throughout our history we have sought to define and justify our foreign policy in terms of principle. We have never seen ourselves as just another nation-state pursuing selfish [Page 316] aims. We have always stood for something beyond ourselves—a beacon to the oppressed from other lands—from the first settlers to the recent refugees from Indochina. This conviction of our uniqueness contributed to our unity, gave focus to our priorities, and sustained our confidence in ourselves. It has been, and is, a powerful force.

But the emphasis on principle has also produced a characteristic American ambivalence. Relations with a world of nations falling short of our ideal have always presented us with dilemmas. As a people, we have oscillated between insistence on our uniqueness and the quest for broad acceptance of our values; between trying to influence international developments and seeking to isolate ourselves from them; between expecting too much of our power and being ashamed of it; between optimistic exuberance and frustration with the constraints practicality imposes.

Through most of our history we have sought to shield our country and hemisphere from outside intrusion, to shun involvement in balance-of-power politics. Soldiers and diplomats—the practitioners of power—have always been looked upon with suspicion. We considered generosity in relief efforts, the encouragement of free international trade, and the protection of our economic interests abroad as the only wholesome forms of international involvement.

Our founding fathers were sophisticated men who understood the European balance of power and knew how to profit from it. For the succeeding century and a half, our security was assured by favorable circumstances over which we had little influence. Shielded by two oceans, and enriched by a bountiful nature, we proclaimed our special situation as universally valid to nations whose narrower margin of survival meant that their range of choices was far more limited than our own.

Indeed, the concern of other nations for security reinforced our sense of uniqueness. We were a haven for millions, a place where the injustices, inequities, privations, and abridgements of human dignity which the immigrants had suffered were absent, or amenable to rapid redress. As our strength and size expanded, we remained uncomfortable with the uses and responsibilities of power and involvement in day-to-day diplomacy. At the turn of the century, for example, there were soul-searching debates over the Spanish-American War and our first acquisition of noncontiguous territories. While many saw our policies as dictated by our interests, others considered them our entrance into a morally questionable world.

Our tradition of law encouraged repeated attempts to legislate solutions to international conflicts. Arbitration, conciliation, international legal arrangements, neutrality legislation, collective security systems—all these were invoked to banish the reality of power. And when our involvement in conflict became unavoidable in 1917, Woodrow Wilson [Page 317] translated our geopolitical interest in preventing any nation’s hegemony in Europe into a universal moral objective. We fought to “make the world safe for democracy.”

The inevitable disillusionment with an imperfect outcome led to a tide of isolationist sentiment. The Great Depression drew our energies further inward, as we sought to deal with the problems of our own society—even as that same depression simultaneously generated real dangers abroad.

We were stirred from isolation only by external attack and we sustained our effort because of the obvious totalitarian evil. We opposed all-out war, and total victory further strengthened our sense of moral rectitude—and ill prepared us for the aftermath. Of all the nations involved, we alone emerged essentially unscathed from the ravages of conflict—our military power, economic strength, and political confidence intact. And in the postwar bipolar world of cold war confrontation we believed we faced a reincarnation of the just defeated foe—an apparently monolithic and hostile ideological empire whose ambitions and values were antithetical to our own.

Our success and the preeminent position it brought convinced us that we could shape the globe according to American design. Our preponderant power gave us a broad margin for error so we believed that we could overwhelm problems through the sheer weight of resources. No other nation possessed so much insurance against so many contingencies; we could afford to be imprecise in the definition of our interests. Indeed, we often imagined that we had nothing so selfish as interests—only obligations and responsibilities. In a period of seemingly clear-cut, black-and-white divisions, we harbored few doubts about the validity of our cause.

America’s Role

We no longer live in so simple a world. We remain the strongest nation and the largest single factor in international affairs. Our leadership is perhaps even more essential than before. But our strategic superiority has given way to nuclear balance. Our political and economic predominance has diminished as others have grown in strength and our dependence on the world economy has increased. Our margin of safety has shrunk.

Today we find that—like most other nations in history—we can neither escape from the world nor dominate it. Today we must conduct diplomacy with subtlety, flexibility, maneuver, and imagination in the pursuit of our interests. We must be thoughtful in defining our interests. We must prepare against the worst contingency and not plan only for the best. We must pursue limited objectives and many objectives simultaneously. In this effort, the last decade has taught us:

• That our power will not always bring preferred solutions; but we are still strong enough to influence events, often decisively.

• That we cannot remedy all the world’s ills; but we can help build an international structure that will foster the initiative and cooperation of others.

• That we can no longer expect that moral judgments expressed in absolute terms will command broad acceptance; but as the richest and most powerful nation, we still have a special responsibility to look beyond narrow definitions of our national interests and to serve as a sponsor of world order.

• That we cannot banish power politics from international affairs, but we can promote new and wider communities of interest among nations; we can mute the use and threat of force; we can help establish incentives for restraint and penalties for its absence; we can encourage the resolution of disputes through negotiation; and we can help construct a more equitable pattern of relations between developed and developing nations.

This new complexity has produced in some a rebellion against contemporary foreign policy. We are told that our foreign policy is excessively pragmatic, that it sacrifices virtue in the mechanical pursuit of stability. Once attacked as cold-war oriented, we are now criticized by some as insensitive to moral values. Once regarded as naive in the use of power, we are now alleged to rely too much on the efficacy of force. Once viewed as the most generous of nations, we now stand accused by some of resisting a more equitable international economic system.

It is time to face the reality of our situation. Our choice is not between morality and pragmatism. We cannot escape either, nor are they incompatible. This nation must be true to its own beliefs or it will lose its bearings in the world. But at the same time it must survive in a world of sovereign nations and competing wills.

We need moral strength to select among often agonizing choices and a sense of purpose to navigate between the shoals of difficult decisions. But we need as well a mature sense of means, lest we substitute wishful thinking for the requirements of survival.

Clearly we are in need of perspective. Let me state some basic principles:

Foreign policy must start with security. A nation’s survival is its first and ultimate responsibility; it cannot be compromised or put to risk. There can be no security for us or for others unless the strength of the free countries is in balance with that of potential adversaries; and no stability in power relationships is conceivable without America’s active participation in world affairs.

The choices in foreign policy are often difficult and the margins are frequently narrow; imperfect solutions are sometimes unavoidable. In [Page 319] the Second World War, for example, we joined forces with countries whose values we did not share in order to accomplish the morally worthy objective of defeating Nazism. Today we cooperate with many nations for the purpose of regional stability and global security, even though we disapprove of some of their internal practices. These choices are made consciously, and based on our best assessment of what is necessary.

At the same time, security is a means not an end. The purpose of security is to safeguard the values of our free society. And our survival is not always at stake in international issues. Many of our decisions are not imposed on us by events. Where we have latitude we must seize the moral opportunity for humanitarian purposes.

Our assistance to developing nations, for example, serves both foreign policy and humanitarian ends. It strengthens political ties to other nations. It contributes to expanded trade; close to 90 percent of our foreign assistance is eventually spent in this country. And our assistance reflects our values as a people, because we cannot close our eyes to the suffering of others. Because of history and moral tradition, we cannot live with ourselves as an island of plenty in a world of deprivation.

In the whole field of foreign aid, and particularly in food aid, America’s record is unsurpassed. We and the world owe much to leaders with vision and compassion like Senator Humphrey who drafted the Food for Peace legislation some 20 years ago.

Finally, our values link the American people and their government. In a democracy the conduct of foreign policy is possible only with public support. Therefore your government owes you an articulation of the purposes which its policies are designed to serve; to make clear our premises, to contribute to enlightened debate, and to explain how our policies serve the American people’s objectives. And those principles—freedom, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of law—are at the heart of our policy; they are also the foundation of our most basic and natural partnerships with the great industrial democracies which are essential to our safety and well-being.

Morality and Policy

The relation of morality to policy is thus not an abstract philosophical issue. It applies to many topics of the current debate. It applies to relations with the Communist powers, where we must manage a conflict of moral purposes and interests in the shadow of nuclear peril; and [Page 320] it applies in our political ties with nations whose domestic practices are inconsistent with our own.

Our relationship with the Communist powers has raised difficult questions for Americans since the Bolshevik Revolution. It was understood very early that the Communist system and ideology were in conflict with our own principles. Sixteen years passed before President Franklin Roosevelt extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Government. He did so in the belief, as he put it, that “through the resumption of normal relations the prospects of peace over all the world are greatly strengthened.”

Today again courageous voices remind us of the nature of the Soviet system and of our duty to defend freedom. About this there is no disagreement.

There is, however, a clear conflict between two moral imperatives which is at the heart of the problem. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the world’s fears of holocaust and its hopes for a better future have both hinged on the relationship between the two superpowers. In an era of strategic nuclear balance—when both sides have the capacity to destroy civilized life—there is no alternative to coexistence. In such conditions the necessity of peace is itself a moral imperative. As President Kennedy pointed out: “In the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

It is said, correctly, that the Soviet perception of “peaceful coexistence” is not the same as ours, that Soviet policies aim at the furthering of Soviet objectives. In a world of nuclear weapons capable of destroying mankind, in a century which has seen resort to brutal force on an unprecedented scale and intensity, in an age of ideology which turns the domestic policies of nations into issues of international contention, the problem of peace takes on a profound moral and practical difficulty. But the issue, surely, is not whether peace and stability serve Soviet purposes, but whether they also serve our own. Constructive actions in Soviet policy are desirable whatever the Soviet motives.

This Government has stated clearly and constantly the principles which we believe must guide U.S.-Soviet relations and international conduct and which are consistent with both our values and our interests:

• We will maintain a strong and flexible military posture to preserve our security. We will as a matter of principle and national interest oppose attempts by any country to achieve global or regional predominance.

• We will judge the state of U.S.-Soviet relations not by atmospherics but by whether concrete problems are successfully resolved.

• All negotiations will be a two-way street, based on reciprocity of benefit and reliable observance of agreements.

• We will insist, as we always have, that progress in U.S.-Soviet economic relations must reflect progress toward stable political relationships.

• We will never abandon our ideals or our friends. We will not negotiate over the heads of, or against the interests of, other nations.

• We will respond firmly to attempts to achieve unilateral advantage, or to apply the relaxation of tensions selectively.

Beyond the necessities of coexistence there is the hope of a more positive relationship. The American people will never be satisfied with simply reducing tension and easing the danger of nuclear holocaust. Over the longer term, we hope that firmness in the face of pressure and the creation of incentives for cooperative action may bring about a more durable pattern of stability and responsible conduct.

Today’s joint manned mission in space—an area in which 15 years ago we saw ourselves in almost mortal rivalry—is symbolic of the distance we have traveled. Practical progress has been made on a wide range of problems. Berlin has been removed as a source of conflict between East and West; crises have been dampened; the frequency of U.S.-Soviet consultation on bilateral and multilateral problems is unprecedented; the scope of bilateral exchanges and cooperation in many fields is in dramatic contrast to the state of affairs 10, even 5, years ago. The agreements already achieved to limit strategic armament programs—the central weapons of our respective military arsenals—are unparalleled in the history of diplomacy. Your Senator [Walter F.] Mondale is a strong and constructive advocate of such strategic arms control efforts.

Our immediate focus is on the international actions of the Soviet Union not because it is our only moral concern, but because it is the sphere of action that we can most directly and confidently affect. As a consequence of improved foreign policy relationships, we have successfully used our influence to promote human rights. But we have done so quietly, keeping in mind the delicacy of the problem and stressing results rather than public confrontation.

Therefore, critics of détente must answer: What is the alternative that they propose? What precise policies do they want us to change? Are they prepared for a prolonged situation of dramatically increased international danger? Do they wish to return to the constant crises and [Page 322] high arms budgets of the cold war? Does détente encourage repression—or is it détente that has generated the ferment and the demands for openness that we are now witnessing? Can we ask our people to support confrontation unless they know that every reasonable alternative has been explored?

In our relations with the Soviet Union, the United States will maintain its strength, defend its interests, and support its friends with determination and without illusion. We will speak up for our beliefs with vigor and without self-deception. We consider détente a means to regulate a competitive relationship—not a substitute for our own efforts in building the strength of the free world. We will continue on the course on which we are embarked because it offers hope to our children of a more secure and a more just world.

These considerations raise a more general question: To what extent are we able to affect the internal policies of other governments and to what extent is it desirable?

There are some 150 nations in the world, and barely a score of them are democracies in any real sense. The rest are nations whose ideology or political practices are inconsistent with our own. Yet we have political relations and often alliances with some of these countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe.

Congressman [Donald M.] Fraser has raised this issue with great integrity and concern, and I have profited from many discussions with him. We do not and will not condone repressive practices. This is not only dictated by our values but is also a reflection of the reality that regimes which lack legitimacy or moral authority are inherently vulnerable. There will therefore be limits to the degree to which such regimes can be congenial partners. We have used, and we will use, our influence against repressive practices. Our traditions and our interests demand it.

But truth compels also a recognition of our limits. The question is whether we promote human rights more effectively by counsel and friendly relations where this serves our interest, or by confrontational propaganda and discriminatory legislation. And we must also assess the domestic performance of foreign governments in relation to their history and to the threats they face. We must have some understanding for the dilemmas of countries adjoining powerful, hostile, and irreconcilable totalitarian regimes.

Our alliances and political relationships serve mutual ends; they contribute to regional and world security, and thus support the broader welfare. They are not favors to other governments, but reflect a recognition of mutual interests. They should be withdrawn only when our interests change and not as a punishment for some act with which we do not agree. In many countries, whatever the internal structure, the [Page 323] populations are unified in seeking our protection against outside aggression. In many countries our foreign policy relationships have proved to be no obstacle to the forces of change. And in many countries—especially in Asia—it is the process of American disengagement that has eroded the sense of security and created a perceived need for greater internal discipline, and at the same time diminished our ability to influence domestic practices.

The attempt to deal with those practices by restrictive American legislation raises a serious problem, not because of the moral view it expresses—which we share—but because of the mistaken impression it creates that our security ties are acts of charity. And beyond that, such acts—because they are too public, too inflexible, and too much a stimulus to nationalistic resentment—are almost inevitably doomed to fail.

There are no simple answers. Painful experience should have taught us that we ought not exaggerate our capacity to foresee, let alone to shape, social and political change in other societies. Therefore let me state the principles that will guide our action:

• Human rights are a legitimate international concern and have been so defined in international agreements for more than a generation.

• The United States will speak up for human rights in appropriate international forums and in exchanges with other governments.

• We will be mindful of the limits of our reach; we will be conscious of the difference between public postures that satisfy our self-esteem and policies that bring positive results.

• We will not lose sight of either the requirements of global security or what we stand for as a nation.

The Domestic Dimension

For Americans, then, the question is not whether our values should affect our foreign policy, but how. The issue is whether we have the courage to face complexity and the inner conviction to deal with ambiguity; whether we will look behind easy slogans and recognize that our great goals can only be reached by patience, and in imperfect stages.

The question is also whether we will use our moral convictions to escape reality or as a source of courage and self-confidence. We hear too often assertions that were a feature of our isolationist period: That a balance of power is a cynical game; that secret conspiratorial intentions lurk behind open, public policies; that weapons are themselves the sources of conflict; that intelligence activities are wicked; that humanitarian assistance and participation in the economic order are an adequate substitute for political engagement.

These are the counsels of despair. I refuse to accept the premise that our moral values and policy objectives are irreconcilable. The ends we seek in our foreign policy must have validity in the framework of our beliefs or we have no meaningful foreign policy. The maintenance of peace is a moral as well as a practical objective: Measures to limit armaments serve a moral as well as practical end; the cohesion of our alliances with the great industrial democracies makes our way of life and our principles more secure; cooperation to improve the world economic system enhances the well-being of peoples; policies to reconcile the rich nations and the poor, and to enhance the progress of both, serve a humane as well as a political end.

We live in a secular age which prides itself on its realism. Modern society is impersonal and bureaucratized. The young, who in every generation crave a sense of purpose, are too often offered cynicism and escapism instead of a faith that truly inspires. All modern democracies are beset by problems beyond the margin of governments’ ability to control. Debunking of authority further drains democratic government of the ability to address the problems that beset it. A world of turmoil and danger cries out for structure and leadership. The opportunities that we face as a nation to help shape a more just international order depend more than ever on a steady, resolute, and self-assured America.

This requires confidence—the leaders’ confidence in their values, the public’s confidence in its government, and the nation’s collective confidence in the worth of its objectives.

Thus, for this nation to contribute truly to peace in the world it must make peace with itself. It is time to put aside the cynicism and distrust that have marked, and marred, our political life for the better part of the past decade. It is time to remind ourselves that while we may disagree about means, as Americans we all have the same ultimate objective—the peace, prosperity, and tranquillity of our country and of the world.

And most of all, it is time we recognized that as the greatest democracy the world has ever known, we are a living reminder that there is an alternative to tyranny and oppression. The revolution that we began 200 years ago goes on, for most of the world still lives without the freedom that has for so long been ours. To them we remain a beacon of hope and an example to be emulated. So let us come together for the tasks that our time demands. We have before us an opportunity to bring peace to a world that awaits our leadership.

Henry Kissinger Secretary of State 1975

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