Kissinger Revisited

Henry Kissinger is back. Of course, he never has been out of view for very long – thanks to a steady stream of commentaries, serious publication, and unmatched access to the inner sanctums of high policy. It is the attention given the questions of the man’s place in history, his philosophy and his enduring influence on how American elites think about the world that fluctuates. Two sobering new excursions into those realms are absorbing those who are intrigued by attempts to provide answers: Niall Ferguson’s  Kissinger 19231968The Idealist and Greg Grandin’s Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman.  They probe the man, his mind, his actions and their bearing on the present troubled state of America’s external relations.

The common avenue of entry into Kissingerian universe is the hoary issue of idealism vs realism. That is entirely understandable in the light of Kissinger’s life-long discomfort with the prevailing American conception of a conflictual world at odds with the national faith in enlightened reason, betterment of man in society, and the beneficence of the United States’ acting as a force for good in the world – on those occasions when it chooses to do so. As far as rhetoric is concerned, American leaders always have been and always will be Wilsonian. Practice is quite another issue – whether during the era of so-called isolationism or in more recent times of global activism.

Kissinger, by contrast, has lived in quite a different mental universe. It is the perspective defined and formed by the turbulent experience of the Old Continent. Oddly, Kissinger has refrained from offering a succinct statement of his philosophy of international relations despite his voluminous writings on the subject. Perhaps the closest he came was in his early account of the Council of Vienna and in his expansive Diplomacy – each of which featured on its cover pictures of great statesmen in stern pose around a conference table. Indeed, Diplomacy should have been titled Power Politics had the principle of truth in advertising been observed. Selecting the actual title was but another indication of how sensitive Kissinger has been to the intellectual distance that separates him from the American lexicon of foreign affairs. His success nonetheless is a tribute to his own diplomatic skills which as displayed in Washington may well have exceeded their demonstration abroad. Let’s recall that this was the man who almost succeeded in convincing Ford and Reagan to run on a single ticket in 1976 with the proviso that he stay on as Secretary of State. Not bad for the devoted adviser and admirer of Nelson Rockefeller.

Ferguson and Grandin both take exception to this depiction of Kissinger as an arch realist. The former discovers previously invisible signs of a peculiar Kissingerian idealism to justify the subtitle of his work. Ferguson’s rather convoluted argument harks back to the man’s thesis at Harvard on the Kantian view of Free Will and history. He argues that Kissinger harbors an abiding commitment to democracy that dovetails with the claim that he “never was a Machiavellian.” These assertions are hard to sustain, much less reconcile, with his conduct of American foreign policy or his writings.  Kissinger has expressed on numerous occasions the enormous challenge to classic diplomacy imposed by the institutional and political restrictions of American democracy. These pronounced views came out in spite of his constant awareness that he was looked at as “alien” by many in the national Establishment and the public. It would be fairer to say that Kissinger was an English Whig of the Burkean variety – although his political reference points were always more Central European than British. It is only slightly more of a reach to postulate that the model political system for the statesman, to his mind, was Wilhelmine Germany minus the anti-Semitism.

Grandin’s take is more interesting. He develops the thesis that Kissinger should be seen as a foreign policy “existentialist” rather than a “realist.”  For Grandin, “realism” is only about national interest defined in terms of security and control with the manipulation of power the means to gain relative advantage in a system determined game of utilitarian calculation. “Existentialism” focuses on spontaneous action and grandinkissingercreative will operating free of strict rules or structurally dictated regularities. There is something artificial about the distinction, though. In the real world, “realists’ are obliged to interpret and to decide in situations that are unique. None is exactly like any other. Any leader who did try to follow a formulaic approach was doomed to impotence or failure. There is ample support for that intrinsic ‘existential’ element in the fine-grained accounts we have of the crisis leading up to the Great War.

Grandin is correct in stressing the place of individual will in Kissinger’s characteristic approach. The opening to China is cited often as the prime example. Still, the core logic of that historic move was dictated by standard balance-of-power principles. No assessment of Kissinger as statesman, much less of Kissinger the man, can ignore his super-sized ego or his hunger for the limelight. Recall that this is the immigrant boy from Furth who, in the notorious interview with an Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, visualized himself as Gary Cooper in High Noon alone on the dusty street steeled to do battle against evil. Having Grace Kelly waiting in the wings surely added to the allure.


The more cutting debate about Kissinger and his works has to do with his conduct rather than his philosophy. Indochina, above all – with Chile, Cyprus, East Timor, Yom Kippur War, etc following in train. Were his policies a success or failure in political terms? Did he act immorally? Of course, anyone who engages in this discussion should preface the analysis by acknowledging that Richard Nixon in every instance was an equal if not greater protagonist.  The Ferguson mode of approach emphasizes the agony of decision. A notion that brings us back to that early preoccupation with Kantian Free Will and ethical choice. The two questions are intertwined. For the statesman typically operates in a domain where the ethic of ultimate ends does not apply; where the ethic of responsibility does. At the core of this latter are the inescapable trade-offs that a political man must make between ends and means, and in weighing outcomes (either as possibilities of alternative policy choices or as the actual effects of actions that produce multiple impacts). It follows logically that any attempt to answer either question will be influenced by how one appraises those ends and outcomes.*

For example, if one values very highly the opening to China as facilitated by Pakistan – and ascribes to it all kinds of positives for the United States and the world over time – then Pakistani military atrocities in the Bangladesh war of secession might be judged less severely than if less positive value were attached to the China initiative.

It is much harder to make this argument vis-a-vis Indochina. That is true on several counts. One, the casualties were several orders of magnitude greater. The mass slaughter of a million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge, for example, was made possible in part by the political ramifications of the United States’ secret war against the Vietcong in Cambodia and the policy of undercutting Prince Sihanouk.

Two, the Vietnam policy was an abject failure insofar as Nixon and Kissinger aimed to reconcile a very gradual American withdrawal with the building of an ARVN political and military capability that would give it a fighting chance to resist the Communists while ensuring no precipitate, embarrassing collapse. To this end, the two men were prepared to accept tens of thousands of additional American casualties and countless Indochinese casualties. In the event, the cost to American reputation and moral standing was enormous – leaving aside the bitter divisions at home that still haunt us. It can be argued, as does Ferguson, that the Indochina policies were elements of a grander strategy of which the opening to China was the centerpiece. Unless Washington could demonstrate its staying-power as a force in Asia by persevering in Vietnam, it is said, that strategy would lack credibility. So the two premises justifying the human costs of what Nixon and Kissinger did are: 1) the positive value of the China gambit outweighed them; and 2) holding on in Vietnam was critical for it to be viable.

I personally do not find this line of rationalization persuasive – by either standard of ethical conduct.  On the moral scale, a million plus deaths cannot be justified by any diplomatic maneuver – especially when neither national survival nor even vital interests are engaged. On the political scale – a demonstration of American resolve in Vietnam was unlikely to have been the deciding factor in Mao’s judgment given however powerful was the strategic logic pointing to a modus vivendi with the United States.

Kissinger’s tolerance for the human costs of playing the power political game is even clearer in Latin America. The crucial American role in the Pinochet coup makes it culpable for the horrors that followed. That same mentality made us an accomplice to the Argentinian junta’s similar defenestration of its opponents – whatever their political stripe. In the perspective of history, these policies clearly are failures of political judgment as well as of moral conduct. They reflect a quite simplistic conception of the displaced Cold War with the USSR. This is not merely a matter of 20-20 hindsight.  Even at the time, there was no serious American national security interest at stake in either country.  So what if a leftist coalition ruled in Chile? So what if some melding of Peronistas and diverse leftist elements displaced the Argentinian oligarchy?

The Kissinger cum Establishment response was a pale version of the Southeast Asian domino theory. It was all about momentum – political and ideology.  The fear was of a Cuban inspired tide sweeping over the continent, with Che’s black beret as its symbolic Holy Grail, that could tilt the global balance-of-power in the Kremlin’s favor. This was evident nonsense in the 1970s as much as it appears to us as nonsense today.

Grandin cites American policies in Latin America in both periods in support of an original, if ultimately unconvincing thesis that Kissinger’s quasi-revolution in how the United States viewed the world, and its readiness to use coercion to get its way, have exercised an enduring influence. It goes far, he argues, to explain what we have been doing in the Middle East as well as other regions.  One does observe some elements of striking continuity; however, there are slim grounds to place blame for them on Kissinger’s shoulders. Interestingly, interventions in Latin American designed to topple “leftist” governments are a striking case in point.  The Bush and Obama administrations all but declared war on reformist governments throughout the region – despite their being democratically elected (and, in some cases, reelected). They targeted for regime change: Venezuela, Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador. Washington provided political and even material backing for opposition movements that sought to unseat uncongenial leaders. They succeeded in Honduras and Paraguay.


Their motivations are baffling. There is no Cold War. No Soviet Union. No Fidelistas. There is mounting Chinese influence via economic avenues; but we are impotent to do anything at all about that and it is concentrated in countries like Brazil and Argentina where we dare not blatantly encourage opposition forces. So what is on the minds of Washington officials? Protection of vested American business interests is one consideration. Challenges to the neo-liberal ideological juggernaut central to the Obama worldview is a related consideration. Then there is the historically grounded habit of taking license to throw Yankee weight around south of the border. Kissinger cannot be held accountable for those long entrenched attitudes.

Kissinger is more visible as an ideological and personal presence re. American wars in the Middle East as integral to the GWOT. He lent his support to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He has urged that very effort be bent to upgrade our military capacity in the region. And, he has pronounced Iran as the greatest threat to Middle East stability. On Iran, he is a staunch advocate of the Israeli-Saudi-Republican line. Indeed, he drafted a public letter opposing the nuclear deal with Iran and urged Congress to vote against it. Although co-signed by George Shultz, Kissinger took the initiative and Shultz today has misgivings about his role.

What do the two books noted above tell us about Kissinger’s thinking that led him to take such a radical, hard to justify position? Kantian ‘idealism?’ Classic ‘realism?’ Appreciation for democracy? None of this rings true. Atavism looks to be the surprising answer. Ferguson reminds us of Kissinger’s searing experience in Nazi Germany, of family exterminated, of the Furth Jewish community wiped out – albeit Kissinger himself has never made much of these experiences in public.

Indeed, we should recall the account of one conversation he had in the Oval Office where Nixon baited him by posing the hypothetical question of what the United States’ response should be if the Kremlin leadership were to turn on Russian Jews and launch their version of the Final Solution. Kissinger, the obedient courtier, replied that from the perspective of American national interest there should be no lasting break in treating with Moscow – the moral horror notwithstanding. He added, of course, that outraged condemnation should be vociferously expressed.

Iran, nuclear weapons, Ahmedinejad’s heated rhetoric – together, they seem to have opened old psychic wounds.  Kissinger, the ultimate realpolitiker, had no qualms about dealing with Mao, the Soviet leadership, the North Vietnamese and an assortment of minor villains whom we thought useful. He always affirmed that it is national interest rather than ideology that ultimately determines a country’s foreign policy. He thought that the structure and distribution of power were the prime factors that  defined choices. He preached relativism rather than absolutes. Diplomatic success was to be found in accepting the less than ideal arrangement because alternatives were more dangerous. This Kissinger has criticized the hostile reaction to Putin’s actions in Ukraine in explaining his voiced concerns about how the American move to shift the country into the NATO/EU bloc threatened Russia’s legitimate geostrategic interests.

So, what has happened to that Kissinger when it comes to Iran? For the Kissinger who rails against the Islamic Republic is neither idealist nor realist. Instead, he is a man reverting to tribalism. The rationalist and realist has been swept up by the emotions of the blood feud. In that, is he exercising his Free Will?

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.