Kissinger’s Century
by Michael Brenner on 17 Oct 2023 0 Comment

Henry Kissinger is back – at the age of 100. Remarkably, he somehow managed a risky trip to Beijing where he met with senior Chinese leaders. The evident purpose was to offer them guidance on how to treat with Washington so as to avoid the deteriorating Sino-American relations leading to an irremediable collapse. Kissinger is one of the very few American whom Xi et al will listen to. They respect him both for the past and in recognition that his concern at this point is to advance collective interests rather than solely American interests. Doubtless, he has been attempting to do the same among his contacts in the Bush administration.


Of course, Kissinger has never been out of the game entirely. Having unique access to the inner sanctums of high policy. One of his projects was to tutor Jared Kushner in the complexities of international affairs. During the 2016-2017 interregnum, they met several times. Kissinger saw him as having the potential to act as a stabilizing force within Trump’s circle who could counteract any rash or badly misguided actions. Success in that venture would have the ancillary benefit of ensuring that Kissinger’s views would be heard in the new administration.


So, it is a propitious moment to reconsider the recurrent questions about the man’s place in history, his philosophy and his enduring influence on how American elites think about a world in transformation. A sobering excursion into those realms is in order that probes 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 for decades 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.


A few claim to have uncovered a peculiar Kissingerian idealism to justify the subtitle of his work.[1] They hark back to the man’s thesis at Harvard on the Kantian view of Free Will and history. The argument is that Kissinger harbours 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. Second best; Wilhelmine Germany with selective anti-Semitism?


Others advance the thesis that Kissinger should be seen as a foreign policy “existentialist” rather than a “realist.”[2] It is predicated that, “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 creative 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.


It is correct to stress 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. (Kissinger’s melancholic side might identify more fully with the analogous scene in Gunfighter’s Moon which is emotionally much deeper. Then again, Frank Morgan in the end doesn’t get the woman).   


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? Does this fall under the heading of 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 end and outcomes.[3]


For example, if one values very highly the opening to China – 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 more severely than if less positive value were attached to the China initiative. It is much harder to make this argument re. 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 center-piece. 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.


Kissinger’s tolerance for the human costs of playing the power political game is clear in Latin America, too. 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 favour. This was nonsense in the 1970s as much as it appears to us as nonsense today.


Washington’s serial interventions in Latin American designed to topple “leftist” governments do call out for explanation. The Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations all but declared war on reformist governments throughout the region – despite their being democratically elected (and, in some cases, re-elected). They targeted for regime change: Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador.


Washington provided political and even material backing for opposition movements that sought to unseat uncongenial leaders. They succeeded in Honduras, Paraguay and, briefly, in Bolivia.[4] Their motivations are baffling. There is no Cold War. No Soviet Union. No Fidelistas. There is spreading 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 / Biden 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 does this record 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. Let’s remind ourselves 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.


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 seem to have been swept up by the emotions of the blood feud. In that, he is exercising his Free Will. Iran, nuclear weapons, Ahmedinejad’s diatribes against Israel and Jews, they may 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.


Kissinger’s expressed views on the Ukraine conflict illustrate the subtle interplay of elements in his precepts and their application in individual cases. Early on, he 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. Subsequently, he has justified the Western strategy while noting that Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO would be a good thing – on balance. Vintage Kissinger.


There is a simple reason for this fluctuation independent of abstract ideas and philosophy. Kissinger has always been obsessed by a desire to be in on the action – even as a behind-the-scenes whisperer. He cannot stand being relegated to the sidelines. Throughout his career, he has been ready to bend with the political and ideological winds of diverse persons and administrations. Whatever the apparent superficial contradictions, they will be more than offset by preserving the opportunity to have his wise counsel heard. So, in the instance of Ukraine, the inflexible American dedication to backing Ukraine to the bitter end dictates that he should avoid criticizing it since that would mean exclusion.


Ukraine itself, of course, is just the focal point for more far-reaching strategic issues. The United States is now explicit about the intention to retain its global dominance; it casts rivals China and Russia as mortal enemies who must be confronted on all fronts; it rejects any idea of a global condominium, of multipolarity of institutionalized multilateralism; they, in turn, have formed a multifaceted partnership to reshape the international system in a manner that would relegate American hegemony to history. Kissinger has not addressed these macro issues in any of his public comments. We wonder as to what he conceives to be a viable future and what we might do to achieve it.


One thing we can say with confidence. If Kissinger were captaining American foreign policy, we would not be girding ourselves for all-out ‘war’ with China and Russia for no compelling security reason - without a definable goal, a coherent strategy, a clear measure of success, or contingency plans. An endless slog through the 21st century is not something that he would view with equanimity. Everything is relative; these days, things are more relative than ever.



1] See Niall Ferguson, Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist (Penguin 2015)

2] See Greg Grandin, The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman (Metropolitan Books 2015)

3] There is a certain similarity between this formulations and Barack Obama’s main theme in his Nobel acceptance speech in 2009. There, Obama compared himself favourably with Gandhi and Martin Luther King insofar as he, a man of virtue, had the dual obligation to protect his people even while affirming higher ethical principles.

4] The 2009 coup and expulsion of President Zelaya prompted the Organization of American States to suspend Honduras. The Obama administration pressed for a “compromise” that consolidated the hold of the junta, led to a rigged election, made Honduras a major hub for the drug cartels and vaulted it into the position of topping the list of global murder capitals.


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