Two American immigrants, both survivors of life under Nazi rule still making waves in their nineties, set the terms of debate at the World Economic Forum.
who celebrates his 99th birthday this week, made a virtual appearance to urge against attempts to defeat or marginalize Russia, calling on Ukraine to accept the territorial losses of 2014 to end the war. A few hours later,
in person at the forum at age 91, warned that victory in the war against
Russia was necessary to “save civilization” and urged the West to provide Ukraine with everything it needs to prevail.
Their prescriptions are radically different, but their perceptions have much in common. Both men believe that American values and interests make the defense of peace in Europe a primary goal of American foreign policy. Both see themselves as defenders of what is best in Western civilization. Both see the war as a major shock to the world system and fear the consequences of a long military struggle. Messrs. Kissinger and Soros both believe that Russia is ultimately a secondary problem for American policy, and that the future of U.S.-China relations is of much greater significance in the long run.
Where they disagree is on the nature of the order and civilization they seek to conserve. Mr. Soros, much like the Biden administration, sees the dominant issue in world politics as a struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. Democracies are obliged by law to respect the rights of their citizens at home, and must conduct themselves under the restraints of international law abroad.
Totalitarian rulers reject such limits at home and abroad, and Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is as lawless as his treatment of dissidents at home. His attack on Ukraine is an attack on the fundamental principles of international order, and if that attack succeeds, international politics will return to the law of the jungle by which, as the Athenians once told the Melians during the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
The Kissinger position is less ideological. There always has been and always will be many types of government in the world. America’s job is to create and defend a balance of power that protects our freedom and that of our allies at the least possible risk and cost. We do not have a mission to convert the Russians and Chinese to the gospel of democracy and we must recognize that rival great powers have rights and interests that must be respected. Russia, as Mr. Kissinger told the Davos audience, is and will remain an important element in the European state system, and an enduring peace must recognize that unavoidable fact.
Looking at history, the one thing that seems clear is that neither approach yields an infallible guide to success. The French and British leaders who tried to appease Hitler in the 1930s made very Kissingerian arguments about the need to respect German national interests. The neoconservatives pushing
George W. Bush
to invade Iraq made Sorosian arguments about the totalitarian nature of
regime. As Messrs. Kissinger and Soros would both agree, mechanistically applying any theory of history to the messy realities of international life is a good way to get into trouble.
a man who demonstrated both Sorosian and Kissingerian characteristics through his long career, was asked about postwar planning in 1942, he replied with words Western leaders should remember today. “I hope these speculative studies will be entrusted mainly to those on whose hands time hangs heavy, and that we shall not overlook Mrs. Glasse’s Cookery Book recipe for jugged hare—‘First catch your hare.’ ”
Our hare is not caught. Far from asking for terms, Mr. Putin may be preparing for a war of attrition—and a long war holds many perils for the West. Russia’s new tactic of threatening the world food supply by blockading Ukrainian ports reminds us that Mr. Putin still has some cards up his sleeve and many Europeans appear to fear a Russian gas embargo more than Russia fears a European boycott.
Ukraine cannot fight a long war without enormous help from the West, economic as well as military. What will happen to its currency as Ukraine spends everything it has on a war of survival? How many $40 billion aid packages is Congress prepared to pass? How much economic aid is the EU ready to provide at a time when many EU economies are struggling with inflation and high fuel prices? If the war causes food shortages and even famines around the world and political instability spreads into such countries as Egypt, will the West be able to coordinate a global response even as it continues to aid Ukraine?
Henry Kissinger and George Soros may have dominated the Davos debates, but Mrs. Glasse will probably have the last word.
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Appeared in the May 26, 2022, print edition as ‘Kissinger vs. Soros on Russia.’