Trilateralism, argues Jussi Hanhimäki, emerged partly as an American response to decolonisation and globalisation, in which the two key foreign policy advisors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski had successively played a major role. In April 1973, Kissinger had launched this “Year of Europe (and Japan)” initiative, bases on the premise that these advanced industrial democracies with similar problems and challenges (and who happened to control most of the world’s wealth and capital) would have to re-orient their relationships in order to meet and maintain common interests in a newly changing global context. While some of the rhetoric may have been framed in terms of the development and betterment of humanity, an essential motivation behind the concern for West–West cooperation was how to protect the pre-eminent position of these states confronted with competition from the Soviet Union and oil-producing nation-states in the Gulf.
The author advances that in such a context, the “failure” of the initiative was more about “optics” rather than actual content or substance. By spring of 1973 Kissinger had been riding on his successes as a central figure in the opening of China, the dialogues with the Soviet Union leading to the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the negotiations to end the Vietnam War leading to the Paris Agreement signed in January 1973. With this celebrated status in the diplomatic arena, Kissinger floated the “Year of Europe (and Japan)” initiative with a speech in April 1973 in New York, but this was met with immediate criticism and suspicion, including by West Germany’s Chancellor Willy Brandt and British Prime Minister Edward Heath. European leaders were displeased with the rhetoric and centre stage given to the United States and its global ambitions in comparison with their polities; some harboured the suspicion that this was an American effort to undermine the momentum of European integration in the European Economic Community (EEC), which Great Britain had entered in January 1973. However, even though Kissinger’s initiative seemed unable to garner much mileage as a diplomatic success, it materialised through specific collaborative policy initiatives in the following years, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Group of Seven (G7). There was strengthening of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries’ collaboration in the context of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). Apart from diplomatic ties, some of these initiatives were helped by events like the oil crisis in October 1973, which created urgency for those who depended on Middle Eastern oil, namely, European states who relied on the United States to make sure that the oil kept flowing. Such events remind us that there were also realpolitik concerns in the background.
These new reconfigurations pushed forth by Kissinger and Brzezinski also signalled recognition that the economic and structural aspects of power had changed since the 1940s and that new forms of alliances were needed for the United States to remain a central player in world politics, even if less dominant than it used to be. They have to be understood as part of a longer history of the notion of reverting “decline”, whose mitigation required policy solutions.
Professor Hanhimäki also addresses the question of how the two central diplomatic figures, Kissinger and Brzezinski, shaped the lens through which the larger politics could be viewed. They were both born in Europe (Germany and Poland respectively), and were eventually naturalised as US citizens. Both had received PhDs from Harvard, knew each other there and worked as professors in Ivy League universities before joining a diplomat-political career. They represented a certain group of émigré scholars who had made it to the highest policy-advisory rungs in the government. Their background may well have led them to find some cohesion in pleading for upgraded US-European relations to respond to emerging global challenges; whether they succeeded or not, or if anyone else would have fared similarly or better, is impossible to tell. Both diplomats have also been often criticised for the fact that many of their policies did not have a domestic political resonance. Kissinger, especially, was considered to be removed from the ground while privileging closed-doors-diplomacy. Brzezinski seemed more attuned to political realities of the time, including greater sensitivity to the civil rights movement, as shown by his touring and lecturing in Black minority colleges. Nonetheless, their foreign policy initiatives eventually bore fruit and were realised despite the perception that the “Year of Europe (and Japan)” had failed.
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Full citation of the article:
Hanhimäki, Jussi. “Re-configuring the Free World: Kissinger, Brzezinski, and the Trilateral Agenda.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 17, no. 23 (2019): 23–41. doi:10.1057/s42738-019-00002-4.
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By Aditya Kiran Kakati, doctoral candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology; edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by Bakhtiar Zein/Shutterstock.com.