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.
A part of the explanation is, of course, Kissinger’s record as a statesman. From January 20, 1969, until November 3, 1975, he served as assistant to the president for national security affairs, first under Richard Nixon, then under Gerald Ford. From September 22, 1973, until January 20, 1977, he was secretary of state—the first foreign-born citizen to hold that office, the highest-ranking post in the executive branch after the presidency and vice presidency. Nor was his influence over U.S. foreign policy confined to those years. Before 1969, he played important roles as a consultant and an unofficial envoy for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Under Ronald Reagan, he chaired the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, which met between 1983 and 1985. From 1984 until 1990, he served as a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was also a member of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy (1986–88) and the Defense Policy Board (2001–present). In 1973 the Norwegian Nobel Committee jointly awarded Kissinger and Le Duc Tho the Nobel Peace Prize, citing their perseverance in the negotiations that produced the Paris Peace Accords. Four years later Kissinger received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in 1986, the Medal of Liberty.
Kissinger’s record in office remains the subject of multiple historical controversies, echoes of the bitter debates of the 1970s, not least on the subject of Vietnam. Yet even his harshest critics cannot deny the skill with which Kissinger managed the most important of all the foreign relationships of the United States at that time, the one with the Soviet Union. He was responsible—to name only his most obvious achievements—for negotiating the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviets. While he held office, the United States ratified the nuclear arms Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international convention banning biological weapons, and the Helsinki Final Act. It was Kissinger who, with Zhou Enlai, opened diplomatic communications between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, arguably one of the turning points in the Cold War. It was Kissinger who negotiated the end of the Yom Kippur War between the Arab states and Israel and whose shuttle diplomacy paved the way for the Camp David Accords.
Kissinger’s Intellectual Orientation
Yet Kissinger has continued to be consulted by foreign leaders not just because of his achievements. He is valued even more for his unrivalled capacity to think conceptually and analytically about the international system as it evolves.
As a thinker, Kissinger is conventionally associated with realism, a philosophy characterized by the cool assessment of foreign policy in the stark light of national self-interest. 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.
Kissinger was certainly not an idealist in the tradition of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who sought universal peace through international law and collective security. 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.”
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 Nelson Rockefeller, whose three unsuccessful bids for the Republican presidential nomination he supported—has been insufficiently studied. Properly understood as an innovative critique of realpolitik, his ideas offer at least four key insights into foreign policy that any aspiring statesman 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.
The Importance of History
In addition to a philosophical 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.”
The Problem of Conjecture
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 policymaker 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.
The problem of conjecture lies 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.
Choice Between 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 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 Perils 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."
Henry Kissinger’s Legacy
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 until quite recently.
“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.
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. Such a concept is sorely needed today.
This essay is adapted from “The Meaning of Kissinger,” published in Foreign Affairs (September/October 2015).