I heard Kissinger discuss these issues recently when he visited Harvard for a conversation that filled the university’s largest auditorium. A graduate student, Jessica Blankshain, asked the former secretary of state about his thesis, written 55 years ago, and quoted his admonition that a statesman’s job is to harmonize the just with the possible. Later, at a dinner given by Harvard President Drew Faust, Kissinger talked about how the 1815 reconstruction of Europe might be a model for drawing Iran into a new and more stable Middle East.
I’ll explain more about the European parallel for today’s diplomacy, but first a description of the Harvard event: It was a long-overdue reunion between Kissinger and the university where he received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees and then taught as a professor until joining the Nixon administration in 1969 as national security adviser. That was the Vietnam era, and Harvard was a cauldron of passionate protest.
When Kissinger left government in 1977, the Harvard community was still angry and made only a grudging offer to bring him back, which he declined. This opened a breach that was finally healed with the convocation in Sanders Theatre and Faust’s celebratory dinner. I was invited because I have been teaching a course this semester at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
The event was moving because it offered Kissinger, at 88, a platform for reflection about the costs of war and the challenges of diplomacy. “If the statesmen of 1914 had known what the world would look like in 1919, would they ever have gone to war?” he asked the students. Of course not, but as Kissinger observed a few moments later: “In office, you have to act as if you’re sure what you’re doing. You don’t get rewarded for your doubts.”
Back to Iran, and the process of reconciling revolutionary nations with status quo powers. What Kissinger explored in his dissertation was the creation of a new “concert of Europe” in 1815, after the Napoleonic wars, through the diplomacy of Austria’s Count Metternich and Britain’s Lord Castlereagh: They were “statesmen of the equilibrium, seeking security in a balance of forces. Their goal was stability, not perfection.”
The upheaval of today’s Middle East is surely comparable to the disorder in Europe that followed the French Revolution and, under Napoleon’s banner, spread military turmoil across the continent. The Middle East still hasn’t absorbed the Iranian Revolution of 1979, let alone the Arab Spring that is shaking the Sunni world. It’s a region begging for a new concert of nations that accommodates conservative monarchies and new republics.
Kissinger’s description of revolutionary Europe might have been written about the Iran of the ayatollahs: “It is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion.” Such ascendant powers can be checked only by a new system that at once accepts their rise and limits the most harmful effects.
Restoring the old order is impossible, now as it was in 1815. But we can imagine a different order that establishes new lines of legitimacy and collaboration. The diplomacy that enables such transformations is “the art of restraining the exercise of power,” wrote Kissinger of his protagonists, Metternich and Castlereagh. About modern Iran, Kissinger has observed, the essential requirement is that it behave like a nation rather than a cause, operating in a rules-based system of nations. Once this happens, Iran can be a force for regional stability, not disorder.
The conversation with Iran in Istanbul is a fragile beginning. But we should expand our minds, with Kissinger, to imagine what a serious exercise of diplomacy might achieve.