Syrian Intervention Would Upset World Order: Kissinger

The former secretary of state cautions against intervention by outside powers in Syria.

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger during a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, November 29, 2011
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger during a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, November 29, 2011 (Department of Defense/Glenn Fawcett)

Military intervention in Syria would undermine the supremacy of national sovereignty, the former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger warns.

Writing in The Washington Post, the veteran diplomat observes that the uprisings in the Arab world have replaced the Westphalian principles of territorial integrity — named after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe — with a generalized doctrine of humanitarian intervention, also known as “responsibility to protect.”

In this context, civil conflicts are viewed internationally through prisms of democratic or sectarian concerns. Outside powers demand that the incumbent government negotiate with its opponents for the purpose of transferring power. But because, for both sides, the issue is generally survival, these appeals usually fall on deaf ears. Where the parties are of comparable strength, some degree of outside intervention, including military force, is then invoked to break the deadlock.

This happened in Libya last year where Arab and NATO countries intervened on the side of anti-government fighters to topple the regime of dictator Muammar Gaddafi — much to the chagrin of China and Russia, which regarded the mission as a breach of Westphalian principles and therefore now block intervention in Syria with their vetoes in the United Nations Security Council.

Kissinger laments that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention explicitly eschews appeals to national interest or balance of power. “It justifies itself not by overcoming a strategic threat but by removing conditions deemed a violation of universal principles of governance.” That’s all good and well, but what of the consequences?

If adopted as a principle of foreign policy, this form of intervention raises broader questions for US strategy. Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any nondemocratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system? Is, for example, Saudi Arabia an ally only until public demonstrations develop on its territory?

It is not as though traditional strategic imperatives have disappeared. The United States could surely benefit from the fall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of Iran’s, but “not every strategic interest rises to a cause for war,” Kissinger warns.

The more immediate worries in Syria include the risk of military overstretch on the part of the United States, further erosion of prestige in the case of failure and the very real possibility of replacing one unstable regime with another as different groups would vie to take over once Assad is deposed.

In the longer term, Kissinger sees even greater cause for concern. The United States “cannot afford to be driven from expedient to expedient into undefined military involvement in a conflict taking on an increasingly sectarian character,” he believes.

In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath. A sense of nuance is needed to give perspective to the proclamation of absolutes.

As it happens, this is the very argument that China and Russia are making, except they are vilified for it by Western powers.