The Meaning of Kissinger: A Realist Reconsidered

Niall Ferguson. Foreign Affairs. Volume 94, Issue 5. Sep/Oct 2015.

There are reasons other than his longevity why so many world leaders—among them the Chinese President Xi Jinping—continue to seek the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who stepped down as U.S. secretary of state close to four decades ago. In this respect, Barack Obama is unusual. He is the first U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower not to seek Kissinger’s advice. Periodically, commentators urge Obama to be more “Kissingerian.” Others argue that he is Kissingerian in practice, if not in rhetoric. But what exactly does the term mean?

The conventional answer equates Kissinger with realism, a philosophy characterized by the cool assessment of foreign policy in the stark light of national self-interest, or, in the journalist Anthony Lewis’ phrase, “an obsession with order and power at the expense of humanity.” Writing in 1983, Kissinger’s former Harvard colleague Stanley Hoffmann depicted Kissinger as a Machiavellian “who believe[s] that the preservation of the state … requires both ruthlessness and deceit at the expense of foreign and internal adversaries.” Many writers have simply assumed that Kissinger modeled himself on his supposed heroes, the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich and the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck, the standard-bearers of classical European realpolitik.

Yet the international relations scholar Hans Morgenthau, who truly was a realist, once memorably described Kissinger as, like Odysseus, “many-sided.” In the early 1960s, for example, when the agonizing question arose of how much the United States should shore up the government of South Vietnam, Kissinger initially believed that South Vietnam’s right to self-determination was worth U.S. lives. Morgenthau, the authentic realist, vehemently disagreed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Kissinger did indeed write about Metternich and Bismarck. But only someone who has not read (or who has willfully misread) what he wrote could seriously argue that he set out in the 1970s to replicate their approaches to foreign policy. Far from being a Machiavellian, Kissinger was from the outset of his career an idealist in at least three senses of the word.

First, even if Kissinger was never an idealist in the tradition of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who sought universal peace through international law and collective security, he was not a realist. Kissinger rejected Wilsonian idealism because he felt that its high-mindedness was a recipe for policy paralysis. As he put it to his friend the historian Stephen Graubard in 1956, “The insistence on pure morality is in itself the most immoral of postures,” if only because it often led to inaction. But Kissinger knew that realism could also be paralyzing. As a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who returned in 1944 in an American uniform to play his part in the final defeat of Nazism, Kissinger had paid a personal price for the diplomatic failures of the 1930s. And yet, as he pointed out in a 1957 interview, the British architects of appeasement, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, had “thought of themselves as tough realists.” Second, having immersed himself as an undergraduate at Harvard in the work of Immanuel Kant, Kissinger was an idealist in the philosophical sense. His unpublished senior thesis, “The Meaning of History,” was an admiring critique of Kant’s philosophy of history. Kissinger’s central argument was that “freedom is … an inner experience of life as a process of deciding meaningful alternatives.” “Perpetual peace” might indeed be the ultimate, wrote in his thesis, “Whatever one’s conception about the necessity of events, at the moment of their performance their inevitability could offer no guide to action … However we may explain actions in retrospect, their accomplishment occurred with the inner conviction of choice.”

Third, from an early stage in his career, Kissinger was a convinced antimaterialist, as hostile to capitalist forms of economic determinism as he was to Marxism-Leninism. It was dangerous, he argued in his senior thesis, to allow “an argument about democracy [to] become a discussion of the efficiency of economic systems, which is on the plane of objective necessity and therefore debatable.” By contrast, “the inward intuition of freedom … would reject totalitarianism even if it were economically more efficient.” This attitude contrasted starkly with that of his contemporaries, such as the economist and political theorist Walt Rostow, for whom the Cold War could be won so long as capitalist growth rates were higher than communist ones. “Unless we are able to make the concepts of freedom and respect for human dignity meaningful to the new nations,” Kissinger wrote in The Necessity for Choice, “the much-vaunted economic competition between us and Communism … will be without meaning.” In other words, liberal democratic ideals had to be defended for their own sake, without relying on the material success of capitalism to make the case for them. This was a theme to which Kissinger returned repeatedly in the 1960s as an adviser and speechwriter to Nelson Rockefeller, whose three unsuccessful bids for the Republican presidential nomination he supported.

As Kissinger observed in the first volume of his memoirs, “High office teaches decision-making, not substance … On the whole, a period in high office consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it.” Since nearly all scholarly attention has been focused on Kissinger’s time in office, his own intellectual capital-the ideas he developed between the early 1950s and the late 1960s at Harvard, at the Council on Foreign Relations, and for Rockefeller-has been insufficiently studied. Properly understood as an innovative critique of realpolitik, his ideas offer at least four key insights into foreign policy that Obama, not to mention his successor, would be well advised to study: history is the key to understanding rivals and allies; one must confront the problem of conjecture, with its asymmetric payoffs; many foreign policy decisions are choices between evils; and leaders should be wary of the perils of a morally vacuous realism.

History is the Memory of States

After the philosophy of idealism, the most important thing Kissinger learned at Harvard was the centrality of history to understanding problems of national security. “No significant conclusions are possible in the study of foreign affairs-the study of states acting as units- without an awareness of the historical context,” he wrote in his doctoral dissertation, published in 1957 as A World Restored: “The memory of states is the test of truth of their policy. The more elementary the experience, the more profound its impact on a nation’s interpretation of the present in the light of the past.” After all, Kissinger asked, “Who is to quarrel with a people’s interpretation of its past? It is its only means of facing the future, and what ‘really’ happened is often less important than what is thought to have happened.” To the political scientist, states might “appear … as factors in a security arrangement.” To the lawyer, they might seem like interchangeable parties in an endless succession of international lawsuits. In fact, Kissinger wrote, all states “consider themselves as expressions of historical forces. It is not the equilibrium as an end that concerns them … but as a means towards realizing their historical aspirations.”

A recurrent theme in Kissinger’s early writing is the historical ignorance of the typical American decision-maker. Lawyers, he remarked in 1968, are the “single most important group in Government, but they do have this drawback-a deficiency in history.” For Kissinger, history was doubly important: as a source of illuminating analogies and as the defining factor in national self-understanding. Americans might doubt history’s importance, but, as Kissinger wrote, “Europeans, living on a continent covered with ruins testifying to the fallibility of human foresight, feel in their bones that history is more complicated than systems analysis.”

Unknown Unknowns

Unlike most academics, Kissinger discerned early in his career that high-stakes policy decisions often must be taken before all the facts are in. “The choice between … policies did not reside in the ‘facts,’ but in their interpretation,” he argued in A World Restored. “It involved what was essentially a moral act: an estimate which depended for its validity on a conception of goals as much as on an understanding of the available material.”

This was an idea Kissinger later formulated as “the problem of conjecture in foreign policy.” Decision-making, he argued in a 1963 lecture,

requires [the] ability to project beyond the known. And when one is in the realm of the new, then one reaches the dilemma that there’s really very little to guide the policy-maker except what convictions he brings to it … Every statesman must choose at some point between whether he wishes certainty or whether he wishes to rely on his assessment of the situation … If one wants demonstrable proof one in a sense becomes a prisoner of events.

If the democracies had moved against the Nazis in 1936, Kissinger argued, “We wouldn’t know today whether Hitler was a misunderstood nationalist, whether he had only limited objectives, or whether he was in fact a maniac. The democracies learned that he was in fact a maniac. They had certainty but they had to pay for that with a few million lives.”

This insight had profound implications for the nuclear age, when the potential casualties of a world war could number in the hundreds of millions. Also in 1963, in an unpublished paper entitled “Decision Making in a Nuclear World,” Kissinger summed up what he called the “terrible dilemma” confronting the Cold War decision-maker:

Each political leader has the choice between making the assessment which requires the least effort or making an assessment which requires more effort. If he makes the assessment that requires least effort, then as time goes on it may turn out that he was wrong and then he will have to pay a heavy price. If he acts on the basis of a guess, he will never be able to prove that his effort was necessary, but he may save himself a great deal of grief later on … If he acts early, he cannot know whether it was necessary. If he waits, he may be lucky or he may be unlucky.

The key point about the problem of conjecture is in the asymmetry of the payoffs. A successful preemptive action is not rewarded in proportion to its benefits because, as Kissinger wrote, “it is in the nature of successful policies that posterity forgets how easily things might have been otherwise.” The preemptive statesman is more likely to be condemned for the up-front costs of preemption than to be praised for averting calamity. By contrast, playing for time-the essence of the appeasement policy of the 1930s–is not certain to lead to disaster. And making the least effort is usually also the line of least domestic resistance.

The Lesser of Evils

“There is not only right or wrong but many shades in between,” the young Kissinger wrote in 1948, in a revelatory letter to his parents. “The real tragedies in life are not in choices between right and wrong,” he argued, because “only the most callous of persons choose what they know to be wrong … Real dilemmas are difficulties of the soul, provoking agonies.” Put simply, the most difficult choices in foreign policy are certain to be between evils, and so the truly moral act is to choose the lesser evil (even if it is politically the harder choice).

In 1957, in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, for example, Kissinger argued that maintaining an equilibrium of power in the Cold War would require such difficult choices:

We are certain to be confronted with situations of extraordinary ambiguity, such as civil wars or domestic coups … There can be no doubt that we should seek to forestall such occurrences. But once they have occurred, we must find the will to act and to run risks in a situation which permits only a choice among evils. While we should never give up our principles, we must also realize that we cannot maintain our principles unless we survive.

The philosophical underpinning of the book is that an apparently abhorrent thing, such as a limited nuclear war, may be the lesser evil if the alternatives are capitulation or annihilation. In his final chapter, Kissinger spells out a general theory of lesser evils that may be read as a kind of credo:

It would be comforting if we could confine our actions to situations in which our moral, legal and military positions are completely in harmony and where legitimacy is most in accord with the requirements of survival. But as the strongest power in the world, we will probably never again be afforded the simple moral choices on which we could insist in our more secure past … To deal with problems of such ambiguity presupposes above all a moral act: a willingness to run risks on partial knowledge and for a less than perfect application of one’s principles. The insistence on absolutes … is a prescription for inaction.

Later, in 1966, Kissinger made a similar argument about Vietnam: “We do not have the privilege of deciding to meet only those challenges which most flatter our moral preconceptions.” But by then, he had already realized that the war against North Vietnam could be ended only by negotiation. The United States, he had seen for himself, “lacked any overall concept for the conduct of military operations against the guerrillas, and for the building of a nation.” Its stock recipe of copious resources and complex bureaucracy was inappropriate. A negotiated peace was a lesser evil compared with a hasty abandonment of South Vietnam or a further escalation of the U.S. military effort against the North.

The Illusion of Realism

In his writing about Metternich and Bismarck-most explicitly in the unfinished book manuscript he wrote about the latter-Kissinger made clear that he regarded pure realism in foreign policy as potentially pernicious. “Societies are incapable of the courage of cynicism,” he wrote in an unpublished chapter on Bismarck. “The insistence on men as atoms, on societies as forces has always led to a tour de force eroding all self-restraint. Because societies operate by approximations and because they are incapable of fine distinctions, a doctrine of power as a means may end up by making power an end.”

To be sure, there was much in Bismarck’s strategy that Kissinger admired. It was through studying Bismarck that he came to see the crucial importance of playing rivals off one another. According to Kissinger, after German unification, Bismarck’s new European order hinged on his ability to “manipulate the commitments of the other powers so that Prussia would always be closer to any of the contending parties than they were to each other.” In particular, Kissinger came to admire the elegant ambiguity of Bismarck’s 1887 Reinsurance Treaty- a secret agreement whereby Germany and Russia would observe neutrality should the other become involved in a war with a third country, unless Germany attacked France or Russia attacked Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary-the abandonment of which by Bismarck’s successors introduced a fatal rigidity into European diplomacy. Yet in his essay “The White Revolutionary,” Kissinger argued that Bismarck, with his essentially Darwinian view of international relations as an amoral struggle for survival, was bound to fail to institutionalize his geopolitical achievement.

A central problem of the democratic age, as Kissinger saw it, was that people tended to prefer charismatic leaders to crafty statesmen. “The claims of the prophet,” Kissinger wrote in A World Restored, “are a counsel of perfection … [But] utopias are not achieved except by a process of leveling and dislocation which must erode all patterns of obligation … [while] to rely entirely on the moral purity of an individual is to abandon the possibility of restraint.” Against the prophet, Kissinger sided with the statesman, who “must remain forever suspicious of these efforts, not because he enjoys the pettiness of manipulation, but because he must be prepared for the worst contingency.” Part of the statesman’s tragedy is that he must always be in the minority, for “it is not balance which inspires men but universality, not security but immortality.”

That ’70s Show

In many ways, Kissinger’s experience in government illustrated this last point only too well. Although initially hyped in the press as “Super K,” he later became the target of vitriolic attacks from both the left and the right, the former accusing him of war crimes in the Third World, the latter accusing him of kowtowing to the Kremlin. Perhaps as a result, there is little evidence that Kissinger’s insights into foreign policy have been institutionalized or even memorized.

“There is no such thing as an American foreign policy,” Kissinger wrote in an essay published in 1968. There is only “a series of moves that have produced a certain result” that they “may not have been planned to produce” and to which “research and intelligence organizations, either foreign or national, attempt to give a rationality and consistency … which it simply does not have.” That could equally well be said today, more than 40 years later. Kissinger’s explanation for the lack of strategic coherence stemmed from the pathologies of modern democracy. Unlike the leaders of the nineteenth century, he explained, “the typical political leader of the contemporary managerial society is a man with a strong will, a high capacity to get himself elected, but no very great conception of what he is going to do when he gets into office.” Again, the same could be said today.

Obama and his advisers are not historically inclined. In one of the most memorable one-liners of the 2012 presidential election campaign, Obama mocked his Republican Romney’s description of Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe.” Yet only 17 months later, Russia annexed Crimea, flouting international law. Obama’s boast, in January 2014, that he didn’t “really even need George Kennan right now” soon rang hollow.

Perhaps, however, it was not the 1980s that were calling but the 1970s. Then, as now, the American economy experienced a severe shock, which left a lasting hangover. The oil shock of 1973 has its analogue in the banking crisis of 2008. Like Richard Nixon, Obama inherited a war that was not lost in military terms but that had become deeply unpopular at home. Iraq was this generation’s Vietnam, except that, thanks to the surge led by commanders such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Obama inherited a war that was being won.

Like Nixon, too, Obama faces a Russia that is much less interested in cordial relations than it sometimes pretends to be: it is easy to forget that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, in his prime, was a Putinlike figure, intent on wielding power not just in Russia’s backyard but all over the world. And like Nixon, Obama finds both his European and his Asian allies exceedingly difficult to manage. Today’s western Europeans spend even less on defense as a share of their national incomes than they did in the 1970s. They have forgotten Kissinger ‘s old adage that “whenever peace-conceived as the avoidance of war-has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community.” Meanwhile, the Asians are going in the opposite direction, developing their own military strategies for coping with the rise of China in the belief that Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia is a sham. And the Middle East is at least as big a powder keg now as it was when Kissinger was in office.

Whatever else one might argue about the foreign policies of the Nixon and Ford administrations, it is undeniable that by the outset of his career as U.S. national security adviser, Kissinger had at least developed a strategic framework within which to address the challenges the United States faced and that each component of the strategy was based on the four principles outlined here.

The strategy Kissinger began to devise in the mid-1960s had three distinct components. First, he sought to revive the transatlantic alliance with Western Europe. To counteract the powerful but introspective forces of Western European integration and West German Ostpolitik, he tried to revivify bilateral relations between the United States and the three major European powers: France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Second, he sought to put flesh on the concept of détente by seeking opportunities for cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, not least in strategic arms control, without jettisoning the fundamental principle that Soviet expansion should be resisted and Soviet power contained. Finally, and most important, he began to discern that despite its obviously revolutionary character, the People’s Republic of China might be brought into the balance of power and that Sino-Soviet antagonism could be exploited by drawing the United States closer to each of the contending parties than they were to each other. Kissinger’s critics have long found fault with the tactics he employed in executing this strategy, particularly in countries he considered of secondary importance. They have not been able to deny that there was a strategic concept. Today, we see the fruits of nearly seven years without such a concept.

American policymakers (and not only in the current administration) have for too long underestimated the importance of history to the self-understanding of nations. In decision after decision, they have failed to grasp the significance of the problem of conjecture, sometimes underestimating the benefits of preemption, sometimes underestimating the costs of inaction. They have ducked difficult choices between incommensurate evils and, behind a veil of highfalutin speeches, practiced a cynical realism that will always lack legitimacy both at home and abroad. For all these reasons, the United States finds itself in almost as great a strategic mess as it was in at the end of 1968. A Kissingerian approach is badly needed. But first policymakers-and the public-need to understand the meaning of Kissinger.