Jacob Heilbrunn

The Wisdom of Henry Kissinger and George F. Kennan

Henry Kissinger has contributed several lengthy essays to the New York Times Book Review in the past few years, including a tribute to Dean Acheson. They are essential reading, marked by profundity and an elegiac tone. Perhaps his most remunerative piece appeared this past Sunday. It was a review of John Lewis Gaddis's excellent new biography of George F. Kennan.

It would be difficult to think of any other former secretary of state who could marshal Kissinger's skill in discussing Kennan's life. Kissinger unites keen insights with elegant prose. Kennan was often referred to by others as possessing a mysterious insight into world events. Isaiah Berlin revered him. Kennan thought of himself as more European than American. But Kissinger notes that he reflected "a very American ambivalence" about the tension between idealism and realism, recoiling from the implications of his own views, something that Kissinger did not do himself while serving as national security adviser and secretary of state. Kissinger writes that he came down on Acheson's side. Power mattered. It had to be exercised. Too much agonizing could lead to strategic paralysis.

Not surprisingly, Kissinger, as he did in his earlier essay on Acheson, draws implicit parallels and distinctions between his own career and Kennan's. Kennan never served in the highest offices of government. But Kennan, of course, formulated the containment strategy of the Soviet Union, and he was a valued adviser to several administrations. Dwight Eisenhower, Gaddis reports, attached much importance to his advice. So did John F. Kennedy.

Kennan was the anguished conscience of American foreign affairs. His oracular voice disturbed some on the right who disputed that he was an oracle. But in the end Kennan's counsel that America should not indulge in fantasies about attacking the Soviet Union directly but wait it out was vindicated. Yet Kennan himself oscillated between his own counsel and its consequences at several points during the Cold War—he saw that the arms race was a disaster. But would it not have been even more disastrous to abandon it unilaterally? This was one of the conundrums he could never quite solve. Perhaps Kennan's greatest contribution, however, was to warn against the spasms of moralism that prompted America to demonize its foes. For Kennan, international relations was more about a perpetual struggle for power than about virtue. America should not delude itself that it had a patent on virtuous behavior. Writing in the New Yorker, Louis Menand notes that there is something self-deceptive about such thinking, that "professions of benevolence might be masks for self-interest. It’s a harder doctrine to apply to ourselves. And that was, all his life, Kennan’s great, overriding point. We need to be realists because we cannot trust ourselves to be moralists."

Like Kennan, Kissinger, who was denounced by the neoconservatives for pursuing detente with the Kremlin during the Nixon and Ford administrations, reflects upon America's penchant for crusades:

No other Foreign Service officer ever shaped American foreign policy so decisively or did so much to define the broader public debate over America's world role. This process began with two documents remembered as the Long Telegram (in 1946) and the X article (in 1947). At this stage, Kennan served a country that had not yet learned the distinction between the conversion and the evolution of an adversary—if indeed it ever will. Conversion entails inducing an adversary to break with its past in one comprehensive act or gesture. Evolution involves a gradual process, a willingness to pursue one's ultimate foreign policy goal in imperfect stages.

These are sober and important and discerning words. But they are not ones that appear to hold much favor in the GOP. It would not be hard to think of the dismay with which Kennan would have regarded the Republican debate this past Saturday night, where the candidates, apart from Ron Paul, vied with each other to announce that they would assault Iran upon being elected to the White House and championed waterboarding. Disdain for China and Iran was palpable. The candidates displayed in abundance the illusion of American omnipotence—the notion that America can and should control events abroad, and that when matters go awry, as they often do, it's the sole fault of whoever happens to be president.

The kind of conservative realism that Kissinger espouses is very different. In Geoffrey Kabaservice's new history of the GOP Rule and Ruin, Kissinger is quoted as saying that he has always thought of himself as

a Disraeli conservative. Most American conservatives are Manchester liberals, in my opinion, or populists. I don't even consider them conservatives . . . It seems to me the essence of conservatism is to have change evolve from existing structures and to avoid sudden convulsive disruption. This means that evolution should be gradual, but also that one should not be unbending.

We fail to heed the wisdom of Kissinger and Kennan at our peril.