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Opinion America’s foreign policy has lost all flexibility

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai drink a toast in Beijing on Nov. 10, 1973. (HWG/AP) (AP)
5 min

On his trip to Saudi Arabia last year, President Biden made an emphatic declaration about U.S. policy in the Middle East: “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” Last week’s rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by China, suggests that this is precisely what has happened. The reestablishment of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not in itself a seismic event; they broke off relations only seven years ago. But last week’s revelation exposes a deep-seated flaw in American foreign policy, one that has gotten worse in recent years.

In 1995, the journalist and scholar Josef Joffe wrote an essay that described two paths for American grand strategy after the Cold War. He called them “Britain” or “Bismarck.” The first was to emulate Britain in its traditional approach toward geopolitics, by building alliances against any rising powers that seem hegemonic but to otherwise stay uninvolved. Joffe argued that this “balance of power” strategy would be impossible for America as a preeminent power and linchpin of the international order. Instead, he advocated a strategy as the broker, drawing on Bismarck, the great Prussian statesman who unified Germany and made it Europe’s leading great power in the late 19th century.

Bismarck famously depicted the ideal situation for Germany as “not that of the acquisition of territory, but of an overall political situation in which all the powers except France need us and are held apart from coalitions against us by their relations to each other.” The associated doctrine is called the Kissinger Diktat, named not for Henry Kissinger, but for the spa town of Bad Kissingen where Bismarck codified it. In a remarkable case of historical resonance, however, Henry Kissinger’s greatest diplomatic triumph a century later was animated by the same idea. In making the opening to China while simultaneously pursuing detente with the Soviet Union, Kissinger ensured that Washington ended up with better relations with Beijing and Moscow than they had with each other.

In fact, many of the more notable successes of American foreign policy centered around this Bismarckian idea. For decades during the Cold War, the United States had better relations with Israel and the Arab states than they had with each other. It weaned communist countries such as Yugoslavia and Romania away from Moscow’s grip. And for decades, before the Iranian revolution, it had better relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia than they had with each other.

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Today, however, Washington has lost the flexibility and suppleness that would inform just this sort of strategy. Our foreign policy today usually consists of grand moral declarations that divide the world into black and white, friends and foes. Those statements quickly get locked in place with sanctions and legislation, making policies even more rigid. The political atmosphere becomes so charged that merely talking with a “foe” becomes risky.

There is now a whole slew of countries with which the United States has either no relations or only limited, hostile contact — Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Myanmar, North Korea. You can make the case for opposing any one of these countries individually; collectively, though, the effect is to create a rigid foreign policy — one in which we’re unwilling to talk to everyone in the room and unable to show flexibility, presumably based on the idea that it’s best to simply hope for the overthrow of these regimes.

This is not really a criticism of the Biden administration, but rather of U.S. foreign policy over the past decades. America’s unipolar status has corrupted the country’s foreign policy elite. Our foreign policy is all too often an exercise in making demands and issuing threats and condemnations. There is very little effort made to understand the other side’s views or actually negotiate.

The Obama administration tried to take a different path. It negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran, which seemed to bolster the moderates within the regime and could have led to a more workable relationship with that country. It engaged China while pushing back on issues such as economic espionage, with some success. It began a process of normalizing relations with Cuba. It even tried to maintain a working relationship with Russia.

But the political climate in Washington was largely hostile to this kind of Kissingerian diplomacy, and once Donald Trump entered the White House, he pulled out of the nuclear deal, slapped tariffs on China, tightened sanctions on Cuba and tried to overthrow the Venezuelan government. None of these efforts succeeded, but they are now so firmly established that they are extremely hard to change. Biden campaigned on undoing many of these policies, but once he took office he found it politically easier to just go along with the tough line.

All this evokes the inertia of an aging empire. Today, our foreign policy is run by an insular elite that operates by mouthing rhetoric to please domestic constituencies — and seems unable to sense that the world out there is changing, and fast.