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The Morality of Kissinger's Realism

April 25, 2013 Topic: EthicsIdeologyPolitical TheorySociety Region: United States

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."

Indeed, the Vietnam expedition was initiated on the basis of moral precepts and a sense of idealism in behalf of liberating peoples from the brutal Communist fate. And Kissinger emerged, Kaplan reminds us, just as it was becoming clear that America’s terrible entrapment there was destroying the country’s Establishment, an Establishment that Kissinger fervently had wished to join. "His fate was to step into the vortex of foreign policy just as the Establishment was breaking up over how to extricate the country from a war that the Establishment itself had helped lead the country into."

This, Kissinger found himself caught between the increasingly isolationist and moralistic Democrats, who agitated for an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, and a contingent of Republican conservatives who wanted an aggressive war policy accompanied by ongoing bellicosity toward China and the Soviet Union. "Both positions," writes Kaplan, "were fantasies that only those out of power could indulge."

Complicating this position was the widespread perception in the West that the Cold War was an immutable fact of life, that the Communist regimes of Russia and China were locked in place in perpetuity, or close to it, and hence would have to be treated as legitimate states. That’s what Kissinger did, even as he sought simultaneously to coax China out of its angry isolation, to play it off against the Soviet Union and to negotiate nuclear-arms agreements with the Soviets. This complex policy matrix, however brilliantly conceived, placed Kissinger in a vise between liberals opposed to any tough American stance in the world and conservatives bent on American hegemony. But his balance-of-power ethos, says Kaplan, far from being either cynical or amoral, "evinced a timeless and enlightened principle of statesmanship." What’s more, it largely worked, as any dispassionate historical appraisal would show.

Kaplan is particularly astute in recognizing that the American withdrawal from Vietnam under Nixon and Kissinger was as rapid as realistically could be accomplished while preserving America’s standing in Asia and its ability to promulgate the difficult policy of remaking the geopolitical landscape of the region in ways to foster stability well into the future. Further, he suggests that Nixon’s controversial decisions to bomb Communist redoubts in Cambodia and initiate an incursion into that country to destroy enemy supply depots—actions necessary to prevent his withdrawal from being destroyed by military calamity in the South—were not primarily instrumental in the later Communist takeover of Cambodia, contrary to many latter-day interpretations. Kaplan points instead to the political opposition in the United States, which barred ongoing U.S. support for Cambodia’s anticommunist government.

"Future historians," writes Kaplan, in a frontal swipe at the liberal interpretation of those events, "will consider those actions [of congressional liberals] more instrumental in the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia than Nixon’s bombing of sparsely populated regions of Cambodia six years earlier." He notes that Saigon’s fall also emerged after liberals in Congress "drastically cut aid to the South Vietnamese." That fall might have occurred even with ongoing U.S. aid, but it’s worth noting that the North Vietnam’s big 1972 offensive ran into a stout military barrier from the South when Saigon still enjoyed robust U.S. support. But South Vietnam’s fate was probably sealed with the utter collapse of Nixon’s political authority in the Watergate scandal, which destroyed his ability to control events.

Kaplan traces Kissinger’s actions also in the Middle East, Chile and the Horn of Africa—all controversial and some of them carrying what was perhaps an intolerable cost in subsequent human rights abuses. And yet all contributed in one way or another to future diplomatic successes and to greater regional stability during that perilous Cold War era. A poignant example was Kissinger’s resolve to support the Ethiopian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in order to prevent that brutal dictatorship from becoming a full-fledged Marxist entity under Soviet domination. President Jimmy Carter, whose moralistic foreign-policy sensibilities were antipodal to Kissinger’s, promptly cut off aid after he took office, with the result that hundreds of thousands of people died in collectivization and "villagization" schemes—"to say nothing," writes Kaplan, "of the hundreds of thousands who died in famines that were as much a consequence of made-in-Moscow agricultural policies as they were of drought."

Kaplan adds: "The link between Carter’s decision not to play Kissingerian power politics in the Horn of Africa and the mass deaths that followed in Ethiopia is more direct than the link between Nixon’s incursion into a rural area of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge takeover six years later."