Kissinger: Realism in Theory


Say what you will about Clinton, at least she has the sense to pay heed to the demon Kissinger. I may like Bernie’s non-interventionist ways (and that’s about the only thing I like other than the fact that he channels the crazy uncle), but his hating on Nixon’s right hand man is sophomoric at best (Bernie: “Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.”). It is rather amusing: a socialist Jew hating on a socialist-killing Jew. Blood doesn’t run thicker than water, apparently.

Kissinger’s rap sheet is admittedly extensive. He had many a finger in many a bloody pie. Shallow American-hating folk quickly jump on the cool kids’ Kissinger-hating  Zinnian bandwagon. Cambodia, East Timor, Indo-Pakistan, Chile: Kissinger is a war criminal! These shrill accusations warrant little more than a shrug: if you work in a butcher shop, your apron will get stained. Further, Kissinger’s world was a particularly nasty place. First, he faced nasty foes: the Soviets and the Maoists had wrought unspeakable slaughter on their own people and others. They were also expansionistic. American-backed dictatorships, while unpleasant, did not engage in the whole scale destruction perpetrated by communist regimes.  Second, the nastiness flourished under threat of nuclear annihilation. Kissinger’s world was not Mr. Rodger’s neighborhood.

Kissinger Logic

Kissinger-haters, both then and now, miss these vital points of historical context to varying degrees. In doing so they also miss Kissinger’s main priority and his underlying ethic.

The priority was simple enough: national security in an insecure time. All else, especially the internal affairs of other states, mattered little. This did not make Kissinger unprincipled, though: “Where the age-old antagonism between freedom and tyranny is concerned,” wrote Kissinger,  “we are not neutral.” “But,” Kissinger clarified very characteristically,  “other imperatives impose limits on our ability to produce internal changes in foreign countries. Consciousness of our limits is a recognition of the necessity of peace not moral callousness.” “The necessity of peace”: the desire to compel the world to accept American principles ran up against the real danger of a great power conflict spiraling out of control into a nuclear confrontation. As Kennan would put it: “[E]ven we in the end are compelled to consider the security of our people…because…unless they can enjoy that security they will never be able to make any usueful contribution to a better and more peaceful world” (Gaddis, 31).

Here we find the underlying moral. According to Robert Kaplan, Kissinger’s “realism is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: the avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power.” Kissinger sought moderation by maintaining the balance of power, which required one to address the Soviets attempts to expand their power. Make no mistake: the foe was an expansionistic, aggressive power during the late 1960s in the 1970s. Unlike our current, regional opponents, the Soviet Union had global aspirations with the capabilities to match (ISIS they were not). But Kissinger sought to cooperate with the Soviets to relax tensions even as he delivered sharp jabs on the periphery to signal to the Soviets America’s determination to thwart their ambitions. Carrots and sticks. What folk on the left complained about was the sticks. What folk on the right complained about was the carrots. Wise to the nature of the foe, Kissinger was not above offering compromises.

Kissinger in Practice

Key to Kissinger’s American first, anti-nuclear war strategy was the idea of linkage: action and inaction on the periphery could be leveraged to negotiate a comprehensive relaxation of tensions while also demonstrating America’s resolve—her credibility to come through on threats. This meant that at times Kissinger engaged in dubious actions to avoid a greater conflagration brought on by the perception of American weakness. Kissinger’s self-righteous critics ultimately demonstrate a lack of imagination when they bury themselves like a tick into one of Kissinger’s evils but miss the greater evil he sought to avert. Missing the forest for the trees, the critics are blind to the bigger picture.

According to Kissinger, peace (the opposite of the slaughter and chaos of the Second World War), is a process “not a final condition.” To this end, he attempted to work out terms with the ideological foe that ensured stability (some will recall Russell Kirk’s axiom: “Order is the first need of all.”). Here we find realism embodied: nations may have their ideals, but they are constrained by the limits and flux of power relationships.  In the context of the Cold war, never in human history were the stakes higher nor nuclear destruction more possible. According to Kissinger:

The idea was not to give up on the rivalry with the Soviet Union [because that was unavoidable]; instead, [the goal] was to create a web of ties that would moderate the conflict that comes with such a rivalry…”By acquiring a state [of understanding of each others internal differences] in this network of relationships…the Soviet Union may come more conscious of what it would lose by a return to confrontation [namely, nuclear annihilation].”

Here we find the concept of carrots, sticks, linkage, global devastation, and the preservation of a way of life. We simply could not impose our ideals on the Soviet Union. The Soviets needed to understand that their “behavior in one field might be rewarded by agreements in another.” But this should have nothing to do with internal affairs. Kissinger: “What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us.” When things rest on a knife’s edge, whether or not your foe acknowledges the freedom of speech is a lesser matter. Projecting ideals are less important than preserving ideals (a concept that fell by the wayside after the Cold War and American became, for a time, a unipolar power).

The execution to maintain this balancing act was admittedly, distasteful at times. As Kaplan puts it, “Kissinger’s classical realism…is emotionally unsatisfying.” “But,” Kaplan writes in Kissinger fashion, “analytically timeless.” He played a role in preventing nuclear war even as he accepted relatively smaller atrocities around the periphery.

In classic conservative fashion, Kissinger asked “What is?” and not “What ought to be?” The former question realizes constraints. The latter tends to utopian demagoguery and extreme violence.  As put at The American Conservative the other day: “Pragmatism doesn’t have to be value-free, while a willingness to make compromises can demonstrate a moral quality.”

The Oscillating Nation

The “emotionally unsatisfying” nature of Kissinger’s foreign policy ran him afoul both the left and the right. A nation with the soul of a church, Americans have believed they fight for principles, not interests. In reality Americans tend to mix the two, and so it is of no surprise that Republicans grew frustrated with Kissinger’s apparent lack of toughness on the Soviets, while liberals hated that he worked with evil dictators. in this way, Kissinger sought to sail between the competing moralisms of Scylla and Charybdis and preserve his adopted country from nuclear war.

Predictably, kids raised on a steady diet the American-hating left eat up sophomoric moralism are oblivious to the childishness of their elders’ criticisms of Kissinger (for one, they deprive the rest of the world of agency, accrediting all evils to Kissinger). None of this is to say that Kissinger’s execution was flawless or that his decisions never ended in horrific casualties. But what leader of state, even our most beloved, can avoid such charges? Even granting that Kissinger made more dubious choices than most, you can only question a particular decision if you first wrestle with his strategic framework, which sought to limit violence to the margins of the world order to prevent the eruption of a greater, more terrible war between the major powers. In comparison to the euphoric and well-intentioned havoc America has wreaked on the world since the end of the Cold War, much can be said for Kissinger’s relatively non-militaristic and single-minded pursuit of order.

As a man who escaped the holocaust and lost family to the terrible onslaught of Hitler’s manic rage, one can hardly accuse Kissinger of being insensitive to brutality. Later generations, so separated from the violent upheavals of the Second World War, would do well to read a book and appreciate Kissinger’s strategy in context. His calculated violence sought international order without which freedom, peace, and life cannot exist.


John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 31.

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