Kissinger's Counsel

In his new book World Order, the former Secretary of State offers a sweeping guide to the rise of the modern state system, and warns that a stable balance of power remains as crucial now as in the era of Westphalia.

September-October 2014

Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin, 2014), 432 pp., $36.00.


WHEN HENRY KISSINGER celebrated his ninetieth birthday in Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel in June 2013, he attracted an audience of notables, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Valery Giscard D’Estaing, Donald Rumsfeld, James Baker and George Shultz. Kerry called Kissinger America’s “indispensable statesman,” but it was John McCain who, as the Daily Beast reported, electrified the room with his remarks. McCain, who was brutally tortured in what was sardonically known as the Hanoi Hilton, earned widespread respect for courageously refusing to accept an early release from his Vietnamese captors after his father had been promoted to commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

At the party, McCain recounted for the first time the specific circumstances of that refusal. He explained that when Kissinger traveled to Hanoi to conclude the agreement ending the war in 1973, the Vietnamese offered to send McCain home with him. Kissinger declined. McCain said:


He knew my early release would be seen as favoritism to my father and a violation of our code of conduct. By rejecting this last attempt to suborn a dereliction of duty, Henry saved my reputation, my honor, my life, really. . . . So, I salute my friend and benefactor, Henry Kissinger, the classical realist who did so much to make the world safer for his country’s interests, and by so doing safer for the ideals that are its pride and purpose.


It was a poignant moment. On one side was a scion of one of America’s preeminent military families who went on to become a senator championing a hawkish foreign policy that precisely reflects the neoconservative wing of the GOP. On the other was a Jewish refugee who had personally witnessed the descent of his homeland into ideological fanaticism and fled it with his parents to embark upon a new life in the United States, where he became a premier exponent of realist thought in foreign policy and a world-famous statesman. Both were bound together by events that forged a bond between them that was deeper than any differences they may have about America’s role abroad.


THE COMITY they displayed at the birthday gala is especially striking in the context of the contemporary Republican Party, where the principles that Kissinger has espoused over the past seven decades have not simply been abandoned. Again and again, they have been denounced as antithetical to American values. And this denunciation has come from both the left and the right.

Though Kissinger has come under attack from liberal circles—among the more notable assaults are Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power, Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger and, most recently, Gary J. Bass’s The Blood Telegram—he has also regularly incurred the ire of conservatives. Throughout the 1970s, he was steadily denounced as deaf to human-rights concerns on the one hand, and as an appeaser on the other.

Perhaps the virulence of the attacks should not have come entirely as a surprise, since Kissinger did not emerge from the conservative wing of the GOP. Instead, he emerged from the ranks of the American establishment. Indeed, Kissinger was a Rockefeller Republican who first earned fame in the 1950s as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he published a study on nuclear weapons and Europe. He was also a professor of government at Harvard and a consultant to John F. Kennedy’s national-security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. Then, in 1968, Richard Nixon tapped Kissinger to become his national-security adviser. Kissinger added the post of secretary of state in 1973, a position that he retained after Gerald Ford became president, though he had to relinquish his post as national-security adviser.

Throughout, Kissinger attempted to apply the theoretical principles of classical realism to achieve what he saw as a global equilibrium of power. Together with Nixon, he promoted détente with the Soviet Union, established relations with China, ended the Vietnam War, and pursued shuttle diplomacy to end the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arabs. In essence, Kissinger outmaneuvered the Soviets in both China and the Middle East. Kissinger’s aim was not to launch a crusade against the Soviet Union, but to formulate a creative response to promote a balance of power in the mold of the Congress of Vienna, which secured the peace for much of nineteenth-century Europe before the big bang of World War I, when a rising Wilhelmine Germany embarked on a reckless bid to relegate the British Empire to the second tier of world powers.

In response, the neoconservatives, who had been staunch Democrats, united with the Right in decrying Kissinger as pursuing a policy of appeasement and surrender. Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and his aide Richard Perle steadily worked to stymie the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that Nixon and Kissinger pursued with the Soviet Union and helped author the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which tied most-favored-nation status to the right of Soviet Jews and others to emigrate. (In his memoir Years of Renewal, Kissinger would single out neocon leaders Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol for criticism: “Tactics bored them; they discerned no worthy goals for American foreign policy short of total victory. Their historical memory did not include the battles they had refused to join or the domestic traumas to which they had so often contributed from the radical left side of the barricades.”)