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Kissinger’s Folly
Henry Kissinger in Cologne, Germany 2005. Alamy

Kissinger’s Folly

In its cold materialist outlook, Realism fails to recognize that every nation has a unique set of interests shaped by its own history, geography, and beliefs.

· 16 min read

Henry Kissinger, the consummate philosopher-statesman who died last month at the age of 100, was fond of invoking Goethe’s maxim, “Better an injustice than disorder.” This bon mot is a good place to start when assessing Kissinger’s controversial record. In a recent paean to the late American diplomat, Robert Kaplan cited it as an object lesson in the study of history and a core insight of the foreign-policy “Realism” with which Kissinger was most closely identified.

Kissinger has long intrigued me as a complex and apparently inconsistent figure: the refugee from Nazi Germany who, in his twilight years, warned the German chancellor of the dangers of unimpeded migration; the diplomat accused of war crimes who won the Nobel Peace Prize; the Jewish immigrant who declared that Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was not “an American concern,” even if Soviet Jewry were pressed into gas chambers; and the man who rose to the highest office in the executive branch of government for which a foreign-born citizen is eligible but never fully assimilated into the American establishment.

What emerges from a sober study of his life and ideas is that Kissinger had neither the personal experience nor the philosophical disposition to embrace the incorrigible idealism of so much of the American foreign policy elite. To his bullet-biting sensibility, the great object of political activity was order, and this was invariably put at risk by the fervent pursuit of justice. To Kissinger, the national interest was a better guide for leaders than abstract ideology and missionary zeal. Peace in a messy world was best preserved by old-fashioned diplomacy working to maintain a durable balance of power.

For this philosophy of power, Kissinger has incurred the wrath of legions of critics the world over. After his government service, he aimed to prove that he had been more sinned against than sinning, but this public-relations effort was subject to diminishing returns. On the political and intellectual Left, he is still routinely branded a war criminal. This cunning Machiavellian creature is held responsible—in the judgment of the Intercept at least—for “millions of deaths” across what used to be known as the Third World, from hot wars in Vietnam and Cambodia to state-directed slaughter in Bangladesh and East Timor. Kissinger’s reputation on the political and intellectual Right is a more complicated matter. There, conspicuous sympathy and support is mixed with stout opposition from neoconservatives who, while acknowledging his merits as a thinker and as a statesman, remain opposed to his crabbed view of the national interest.

But among his defenders, an altogether different interpretation prevails. In their telling, Kissinger was a brilliant figure, whose precepts and principles struck the correct balance between isolationism and adventurism in the conception and execution of foreign policy. Not strictly of the Left or the Right, proponents of Kissinger’s unflinching brand of Realism extol its underlying philosophical pessimism about human nature and world politics. It is a doctrine without any religious or secular moral code, driven only by the desire to tame the brutal Hobbesian impulses between states in the international system. Realism has modest expectations of American power, which its adherents regard as a necessary corrective to both the impractical conservative impulse to build a Fortress America and the idealistic liberal impulse to transform the world.

The Cold War provided the context for Kissinger’s career in government. Faced with an implacable enemy armed with nuclear weapons and an aggressive global ideology, the United States had adopted an arduous strategy of containment. In the long struggle against Soviet power, Kissinger’s bleak mindset received considerably more indulgence in Washington than otherwise might have been the case. When Richard Nixon brought Kissinger into the White House in 1969, the effort to build positions of enduring geopolitical strength was in full swing. A guerilla war was raging in Vietnam to expand communist power, and America’s staying power was uncertain.

Kissinger—who served as national security adviser and secretary of state under two Republican presidents, and for a time held both posts concurrently—arrived on the scene at a moment of crisis and upheaval. There were defensible and indefensible aspects of his diplomacy, which speaks against the popular depiction—advanced by figures as diverse as Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Bourdain—of a uniquely sinister figure in the annals of American history. Those looking for a morality tale in the life and career of Kissinger are bound to be disappointed.

At the center of Kissinger’s legacy is the Vietnam war, which he would later describe as “the first foreign commitment in which America’s moral convictions clashed with what was possible.” Tasked with the vexing assignment of extricating the United States from what President Johnson had called “that bitch of a war,” Kissinger insisted that the conflict had to end on terms—“peace with honor”—that would not erode the credibility of US security guarantees or energize communist regimes and movements around the world. To this day, Kissinger’s most vehement critics refuse to grapple with the logical and probable consequences—in Southeast Asia and beyond—of abandoning South Vietnam without a fight. In any event, the consequences of ceding South Vietnam to the communists in April 1975 were horrifying enough.

At the same time, though, Kissinger’s narrow commitment to pursuing security interests was insufficiently idealistic and unnecessarily sordid. In a bid to defuse the superpower conflict, Kissinger devised an accommodationist strategy to reconcile the Soviets to a global status quo that was favorable to Washington. Although the architect of détente had no illusions about the nature of Soviet communism or the dangers of Soviet expansionism, Kissinger judged that America was a wounded and weary titan, and so he sought to decrease the tempo of the Cold War. This worked for a time, in the form of arms control agreements and expanded East-West commerce. But it was doomed to fail because it sought to separate ideology from geopolitics in a rivalry where the antagonists had fundamentally divergent views of the world’s future.

The policy of easing tensions with the Soviet Union also jettisoned humanitarian considerations in American statecraft. It was on Kissinger’s advice, for instance, that President Ford declined to host the Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the White House. Some moral compromises were more severe and exacted a steep price in blood, such as his aversion to Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. A particularly chilling episode came in 1971 when Pakistan’s military junta overturned the results of a free and fair election and initiated a genocidal campaign against Bengalis in a restive province. As Gary J. Bass hauntingly documents in The Blood Telegram, Nixon and his chief foreign-policy consigliere countenanced this slaughter in order to maintain the opening to Beijing.

Any consideration of Kissinger’s sterile worldview should include his century-long failure to come to grips with the implications of American hegemony. Among American statesman, he was least likely to extol the willingness of the US to bear a disproportionately large share of the costs associated with securing the global commons and fostering cooperation in the order of nations. This reticence is most obvious in the opening chapter of Diplomacy, in which Kissinger contrasts the foreign-policy visions of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In this telling, Wilson is cast as a messianic figure whose good intentions spell disaster for world order, while Roosevelt is portrayed, first and foremost, as “a sophisticated analyst of the balance of power.” Roosevelt “started from the premise that the United States was a power like any other, not a singular incarnation of virtue,” and that peace was his ultimate aim.

But this reading of history does not withstand scrutiny. In reality, Roosevelt didn’t hold “European-style views” of the United States as just another power on the world stage, looking to secure only its immediate interests and forsaking larger responsibilities. To the contrary, Roosevelt believed that America was a singular nation, and that the balance of power was not a sufficient guarantee of security if it was not based on freedom. “If given the choice between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness,” he repeatedly declared. This was not simply rhetoric. Roosevelt agitated for the first almost purely humanitarian military intervention in US history when he urged President McKinley to declare war against Spain on the grounds that “it was our duty, even more from the standpoint of national honor than from the standpoint of national interest to stop … [the] murderous oppression” of the Cuban people.

This subtle and elevated interpretation of the national interest placed a robust sense of honor in the service of liberal principles. “Warlike intervention by the civilized powers,” Roosevelt insisted, “would contribute directly to the peace of the world.” This sentiment not only prefigured America’s global role after World War II, but its charged description of America as a civilized power never would have crossed Kissinger’s lips. His project of balancing power in the international sphere made no room for ethical distinctions between liberty and tyranny, let alone civilization and barbarism. But for Roosevelt, power was not to be accumulated to erect a global equilibrium on the model of a Calder mobile. It was, rather, a crucial handmaiden to “righteousness” and “justice” among “the nations of mankind.”

For all his adroit diplomacy, Kissinger failed to come to terms with the manifold purposes of great power, and particularly the nature and scope of American hegemony as the linchpin of a largely peaceful, democratic, and economically integrating world. Realism, a tradition that harkens back to Thucydides, encourages respect for power as the ultima ratio of international life. This insight is the first step required for any effective grand strategy. But a necessary tool for successful diplomacy is not a sufficient one. Kissinger wielded power with the singular purpose of avoiding the catastrophe of great-power conflict. But peace between the great powers has never been the sole focus of American foreign policy, which has sought to promote a world order conducive to its interests and its principles alike.

Because the emphasis on power eludes and vexes so much of the political class—in Kissinger’s day and in our own—it’s often forgotten that it is not an end in itself. Kissinger’s defenders have written off his numerous blindspots and blunders as lacking “strategic significance” in the “hierarchy of priorities” necessitated by the Cold War. But America’s hierarchy of priorities included certain responsibilities that Kissinger, in his obsession with order, was happy to shirk. His worldview valued an equilibrium of forces at the expense of American principles—and because the moral component of America’s strength enhances its global hegemony, ultimately its power, too. In his pursuit of a selfish definition of national interest, Kissinger neglected the mission of preserving and extending an international order that was benevolent as well as peaceful.

Kissinger and Cambodia
Attempts to hold US policy solely responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge are historically inept.

The spectacle of amoral realism galvanized the campaign of Ronald Reagan. Whereas Kissinger spoke not only about “the inevitability of tragedy” but also the inevitability of American decline, Reagan was determined to marshal American will, assert US military primacy and win the Cold War. Kissinger treated Reagan’s plans for consigning communism to the “ash heap of history” with derision. “Reagan doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Kissinger fumed during the 1976 primaries. By the end of the next decade, after Reagan led a massive defense buildup and delivered robust support for anti-communist counterrevolutionaries from Afghanistan to Angola, the ghastly Soviet experiment collapsed. The fall of the Berlin Wall revealed that it was Kissinger who didn’t know what he was talking about.

After the end of the Cold War, a new world order beckoned. The victorious West believed that strategic and ideological conflict was well and truly over. In the place of grand strategy and statecraft, people and their leaders embraced a glib universalism, believing that nation-states were becoming obsolete. The conventional wisdom held that the world of competition and power was giving way to a world of cooperation and consent. Such an exuberant mood had little use for Kissinger’s stark appeal to the perennial realities of power and the reasons of state.

That changed with al-Qaeda’s declaration of holy war on September 11th, 2001. The bloody and costly wars in the broader Middle East that followed—and the widespread sense, real or imagined, of the diminution of American power—brought Kissinger’s creed back into fashion. The protracted and uncertain nature of the conflict against jihadist terror made Americans regret venturing into the lands of Islam. In the age of Obama and Trump, America’s leaders signaled the abdication of its traditional role in defense of the international order in favor of “nation-building at home” and “America First,” respectively. A decade of exertion and sacrifice on behalf of regime change and support for consensual government in the Middle East had made it necessary, in the words of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “to put ideology aside” in foreign policy. Under the circumstances of a changing world, in which power and prestige appeared to be shifting East, the United States had little choice but to reduce its global involvement and abandon its far-flung ambitions.

What this new political dispensation lacked in analytical rigor it made up for with emotional gratification. Faced with a restive public, declining national confidence and failures abroad, Washington sought to rationalize its impatience with “endless wars” and global responsibility. Kissinger’s grim worldview received a new lease on life. The burning grounds of Iraq and Afghanistan burnished his reputation as a faithful servant of the national interest who measured what was possible in the international arena, not simply desirable. Sir Michael Howard, the eminent British war historian, once pointed out that the balance-of-power ethos to which Kissinger subscribed represents the middle ground between “optimistic American ecumenicism” (the basis for many global-disarmament movements) and the “war culture” of the American West (in recent times associated with the neoconservatives). This ethos, in other words, avoided both the Scylla of seeking a complete retreat from the world and the Charybdis of attempting to conquer it.

But the notion that the United States can or should be a status-quo power defies both the history of its encounters with the world as well as its liberal ideals. In this context, too much has been made of President Obama’s decision to be the first president in the past half-century to snub Kissinger by not consulting the elder statesman in his management of world affairs. Admittedly, Obama’s failure to understand the value of American credibility—particularly evident in the red-line fiasco in Syria—represented a grave departure from Kissinger’s approach. But I suspect that when Obama issued a threat to the Syrian dictator against the use of chemical weapons which he had no intention of enforcing, Kissinger’s dissent stemmed from the threat itself and not from refusing to will the means.

Despite his vigorous counter-terrorism policy and his habit of moral preening, Obama’s consistency in avoiding foreign-policy entanglements was part of a larger design to demote America’s status as the “indispensable nation.” In this way, Obama actually harbored some of Kissinger’s pessimistic sensibility. If you squinted, Obama’s jejune motto in foreign policy—“don’t do stupid shit”—resembled Kissinger’s obsessive focus on averting disaster. Perhaps this is why, in time, Kissinger received a respectful hearing from the Obama White House. Not for nothing did Samantha Power, the humanitarian activist turned diplomat, share a box at Yankee Stadium with Kissinger and accept an award in his name. Obama’s senior advisor Ben Rhodes even titled his memoir “The World As It Is”—a Kissingerian assertion of an ideology billed as a statement of reality.

After his death, warm endorsements of Kissinger’s Realism emanated from the precincts of the intellectual Left. “Whatever else one can say of him,” argues Malcom Kyeyune in the radical journal Compact, “Kissinger spent his final years cautioning Washington against blundering into more foreign conflicts.” On this there can be no doubt. Kissinger was the chief apologist in the West of the right of the Chinese communists to massacre students protesting in Tiananmen Square. He was also a consistent voice in favor of the amoral quietism in Bosnia that permitted ethnic cleansing. If his counsel had been heeded, there would have been no danger at all of blundering into foreign conflicts—and no check on foreign aggression and mass suffering.

The pervasive sense that there are things “worse than Kissinger’s crimes” has powerfully animated the opponents of American hegemony who came to regard Kissinger as an unlikely but formidable ally. In this context, it’s worth examining Kissinger’s analysis of the most severe challenge to global order in the post-Cold War era. On the subject of the Ukraine war, Kissinger was a firm proponent of reaching some sort of modus vivendi with Moscow rather than trying to deter or punish its aggression. Before Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine, Kissinger appealed to the West not to antagonize Moscow. He pressed for Ukraine to be reduced to a neutral state.

After Putin gave the order to invade all of Ukraine in 2022, Kissinger initially hedged but ultimately objected to the wanton violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Nearly a year into the war, on the eve of Zelensky’s trip to Washington to address Congress, Kissinger wrote an article urging the West to press Ukraine for “peace through negotiation.” Such a peace would see Russia relinquish all the territory it gained in its latest campaign, with the rest of the Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine being the “subject of a negotiation after a ceasefire.”

Although Kissinger never repented of his view that America needed to show “greater sensitivity to Russian complexities,” he did retract his suggestion that Ukraine could somehow become a neutral state. But he never seemed to grasp that Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, saturated in revanchism and dreams of imperial glory, was not willing to settle for an independent and democratic Ukraine just across the Russian frontier. It was for the good of Ukraine, and the rest of the free world, that his counsel of accommodation had gone unheeded.

Nevertheless, his flawed posture impressed those for whom US foreign policy is at the root of the conflict in Ukraine, and many other conflicts besides. As Kyeyune writes, “Now, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians dead or injured, the economies of Europe suffering from creeping deindustrialization, and the armories of the Western bloc severely depleted, it is hard to argue that Kissinger was wrong.” Indeed, his soft line against Moscow made Kissinger among the few “prominent voices for peace” in “the destructive and futile conflict that recently engulfed the Western world.”

This argument is simply not credible. The idea that deindustrialization in the north of England or in la France periphérique—a complex economic process that has been decades in the making—is somehow a consequence of helping Ukraine resist Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion is absurd. Meanwhile, the depletion of Western armories due to the substantial—though belated and grossly inadequate—provision of military assistance to Kyiv after Russia’s “special military operation” would seem to vindicate those who had been warning for years that cuts in the defense industrial base were reckless expedients in an increasingly dangerous world. Finally, the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians maimed and murdered in the past two years as Russia has sought to reconstitute its old imperial order must be laid at the doorstep of Moscow not Washington or Brussels.

A foreign policy conceived in wholly negative terms is ultimately neither coherent nor worthwhile. The formulation of a global strategy that advances the national interest has never been the abstract exercise the Realist school of international relations believes it to be. The theory that a rigorous pursuit of national interest breeds rational relations among nations belies human nature and history. This is because the process of determining the national interest is closer to an art than it is to an exact science. Perceptions vary widely, and do not remain stagnant over time. By subordinating moral considerations to raw calculations of national interest, the Realists insist that restraining American power is the surest means of avoiding overstretch and the calamity of great-power conflict. Since these fears have not been borne out in the years since the United States became the world’s predominant power, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a rigid definition of the national interest constitutes an ideology of its own.

Another way to think about the national interest has been advanced by the British diplomat Robert Cooper. In The Breaking of Nations, Cooper explains that the agonizing dilemmas of statecraft usually inhere in defining the national interest in the first place. Rather than being delivered from a foreign-policy Mount Olympus, this involves a complicated and dynamic inquest into the wellsprings of human motivation. The definition of the national interest is inextricably bound up with questions of national identity and national honor that tend not to detain those who view international relations as an elaborate chessboard.

This is what makes the Realist ideal of equilibrium fundamentally flawed. The instinct to accommodate the growing power of dissatisfied nations to achieve some arbitrary balance sits uncomfortably with questions of morality and justice. It often means ignoring the character of regimes and sacrificing the security and sovereignty of small countries to satiate the appetite of great powers. This gloomy and unsentimental form of power politics—what George Packer calls the “impersonality of Kissinger’s view of international relations”—pays little heed to the human element that shapes politics in the real world. In its cold materialist outlook, Realism fails to recognize that every nation has a unique set of interests shaped by its own history, geography, and beliefs.

This is particularly true of an exceptional nation like the United States. Founded on an audacious proclamation of universal truths, since its inception, America has held its own national cause to be, in large measure, the cause of mankind. It is for this reason that US foreign policy so often oscillates between aloofness and aggression, between rescue and retrenchment, featuring exuberant deployments of its power and hasty retreats from the foreign world. One of Kissinger’s last books, World Order, diagnoses America’s bipolar foreign policy, a condition that is perennial because it is congenital. “The conviction that American principles are universal,” Kissinger says, “has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.” This “suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.” But how could this be otherwise given America’s founding commitment to self-evident truths about the equality of all men and women?

It is vital to approach the world as it is rather than as one would like it to be. This nurtures a potent sense of “the inevitability of tragedy,” as Kissinger once phrased it—a quality that, among his most deranged detractors, was conspicuous by its absence and for which they will never forgive him. But with apologies to Ben Rhodes, it is not enough to take the world as it is. It must also be improved and ameliorated, as it has been on balance since the rise of American global predominance. 

This fundamental declaration of justice that sits at the heart of America’s republic, and has always animated its thinking about its conduct in the world, brings me back to the aphorism with which I opened this essay: “Better an injustice than disorder.” These words would appear to be antithetical to American principles. But it’s worth noting that the exact quote (“I prefer to commit an injustice than to tolerate disorder”) was uttered by Goethe during the French Revolution before the city of Mainz, which had been recovered from the Prussians. Goethe spoke only minutes after personally intervening to prevent the lynching of a captured French soldier.

In context, the “injustice” in this tale consisted of sparing an enemy soldier who may have been a great criminal. The “disorder” was that of the bloodthirsty mob, eager to tear the man to pieces. So, the phrase really meant the opposite of what Kissinger intended. It reflected a profound truth that injustice is a terrible form of disorder, just as true order cannot flow from or exist alongside great injustice. Americans cannot afford to lose sight of this lesson. It is one that foreign-policy Realists—despite their commitment to seeing the nature of power clearly—have never seen at all. 

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