The Morality of Kissinger's Realism

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Henry Kissinger produced more moral outcomes than his idealistic enemies.

Robert D. Kaplan’s provocative profile of Henry Kissinger, out today in The Atlantic, says a great deal about the man—some of it quite antagonistic toward much received wisdom about the former presidential national-security adviser and secretary of state. But the piece, "The Statesman: In Defense of Henry Kissinger," also says a great deal about Kaplan himself.

What it says about Kaplan is that he has few peers these days in the historical forcefulness and analytical clarity of his writings on geopolitics and the meaning of strategic realism. What it says about Kissinger, in summary, is that, notwithstanding the often vicious attacks on him over the decades as a man whose love of power politics blinded him to any proper regard for morality in affairs of state, he was in fact the greatest statesman of his age. He operated in the mold of Britain’s great nineteenth-century foreign secretaries, Castlereagh and Palmerston, whose strategic realism fostered Britain’s rise on the world stage as well as much good that Britain was able to accomplish as a result of that rise.

Kaplan reminds us that, just as Kissinger has been hated in his time by those given to moralistic views on foreign policy, so were Castlereagh and Palmerston in their own times by the same kinds of intellectuals. Writes Kaplan: "Like Castlereagh, Palmerston had only one immutable principle in foreign policy: British self-interest, synonymous with the preservation of the worldwide balance of power." Both men sought to maintain the global status quo in the interest of stability even as they desired a better world.

Castlereagh was vilified for helping craft a post-Napoleonic peace that restored the Bourbon dynasty in France and preserved the Continent’s aristocratic order. But this approach, writes Kaplan, was necessary to establish a lasting European peace and foster Britain’s emergence as the dominant world power. Palmerston manifested a complete inconsistency in terms of morality in foreign policy while manifesting a complete consistency in supporting Britain’s internationalist aims. "He supported any tribal chieftain who extended British India’s sphere of influence northwest into Afghanistan, toward Russia, and opposed any who extended Russia’s sphere of influence southeast, toward India—even as he cooperated with Russia in Persia."

This kind of tactical improvisation in the interest of strategic stability is difficult for many to understand or appreciate. But it served Britain well in the nineteenth century, and it served America well in the years of Kissinger’s prominence. "Like Palmerston," writes Kaplan, "Henry Kissinger believes that in difficult, uncertain times—times like the 1960s and ‘70s in America, when the nation’s vulnerabilities appeared to outweigh its opportunities—the preservation of the status quo should constitute the highest morality." Subsequent political leaders might later find opportunities to foster a more liberal order, but in the meantime the "trick is to maintain one’s power undiminished until that moment." That’s what Kissinger sought to accomplish during his years serving Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Kaplan acknowledges that it is often searing for some to face the reality that affairs of state sometimes don’t lend themselves to the application of Judeo-Christian morality. But those who act on the necessity of violating such moral precepts and then take responsibility for their actions "are among the most necessary leaders for their countries, even as they have caused great unease among generations of well-meaning intellectuals who, free of the burden of real-world bureaucratic responsibility, make choices in the abstract and treat morality as an inflexible absolute." Thus, in the case of Kissinger, to be uncomfortable with him may be natural. "But to condemn him outright verges on sanctimony, if not delusion."

Indeed, adds Kaplan, you can make a case that Kissinger’s actions and geopolitical sensibilities were quite moral—"provided, of course, that you accept the Cold War assumptions of the age in which he operated."

Here’s where Kaplan gets particularly interesting, as he punctures much post–Cold War analysis put forth by liberal intellectuals, particularly the idea that the West’s victory was inevitable, and hence the tough U.S. response to the Soviet threat was in many ways unnecessary. No, says Kaplan, the Soviet threat was real, particularly in Europe. Eastern Europe had been reduced to "a vast, dimly lit prison yard" that would have expanded westward but for the military divisions and nuclear weapons of America. It was those military resources, in the hands of U.S. leaders willing to plan for Armageddon, which kept the peace.

And beyond Europe, "revolutionary nihilists" sought to make more Cubas in Latin America; Chinese Communists were killing some 20 million of their own citizens; Soviet plans were afoot to spread Communism into Africa; and the North Vietnamese, called by Kaplan "as ruthless a group of people as the 20th century produced," murdered up to tens of thousands of their own citizens "before the first American troops arrived in Vietnam."