Surrounded by an aura of infallibility and prestige, Henry Kissinger was not the mythical Merlin he wanted to be, nor was he the simple criminal his detractors insisted he be. It is better to view Henry Kissinger as he was: an American success story, an incisive scholar, and an imperfect statesman. His passing at 100 presents an opportunity to reflect on the many lessons Kissinger taught American policymakers throughout his long diplomatic career. While we should not seek to replicate the naked realism of his White House years, we should practice what he prescribed in his later years as an author: a firm commitment to our principles tempered with honest recognition of their limits in a changing, ever more complex world.
Kissinger’s approach to statecraft was at once simple and complex. As a “realist,” Kissinger viewed countries as selfishly pursuing their interests. But he understood “interest” in a wide fashion. Far from constricting the term to the realms of survival, power, and material prosperity, he carved a healthy role for history and culture in determining an actor’s interpretation of his particular interest. Accordingly, since Woodrow Wilson, Americans have viewed the “American interest” and the promotion of human rights and democracy as complementary, if not identical, enterprises. Also, like a realist, Kissinger took states as his unit of analysis, but he placed substantial stock on the role of individual leaders as well. Leaders were both unique personalities with their own idiosyncrasies and receptacles of long-embedded historical narratives. They could manifest as RAND Corporation calculators, subversive prophets, or charismatic revolutionaries. For Kissinger, President Vladimir Putin was neither a madman nor a rational actor but a reflection of the historical psyche of Russian exceptionalism. Wounded pride, nourished by anti-Western conspiracies, was more to blame for the Ukraine invasion than hopes for a new Soviet empire or control of the global wheat supply.
In a world of self-interested nations clamoring for authority and led by men promoting conflicting visions of justice, Kissinger prescribed “balance-of-power” diplomacy in which the aspirations of comparable centers of power reached some stable degree of equilibrium. In the name of this equilibrium, responsible statesmen should not encumber themselves with moral outrage at the domestic practices of rival or friendly states. Accordingly, he could turn a blind eye to the severe human rights abuses of China while opening diplomatic relations with the communist nation. Similarly, and partly due to this Chinese opening, Kissinger could pursue détente with the Soviet Union. These accomplishments, combined with the American withdrawal from Vietnam, were Kissinger’s most remarkable diplomatic achievements as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Whatever their merits, these feats are testimonies to Kissinger’s talents as a practitioner of statecraft.
Perhaps this methodological blending of history, culture, and personality permitted Kissinger, as a scholar, to articulate prescient warnings at the end of the Cold War. While much of the intelligentsia at the time was celebrating the “End of History,” Kissinger offered a less rosy but still optimistic interpretation in his 1994 opus, Diplomacy. There, the scholar-statesman challenged American leaders to see past the unipolar moment and prepare for the inevitable rise of competing powers rooted in vastly different cultural experiences. More than anything, the book called for bold statesmanship, for visionary leaders to construct a world order reconciling “what makes the constituent societies feel secure with what they consider just.” This momentous challenge provides a glimpse into the problem that always haunted Kissinger: he tended to treat claims to justice as mere causal variables without treating justice itself as a virtue to be pursued.
Kissinger’s biggest flaw was his treatment of international affairs as only the management of conflict and prevention of war. In his own words, foreign policy is “...an endeavor with no end...a set of rhythms to be managed.” Accordingly, he came dangerously close to confusing stability as an end rather than a means to some moral purpose. After all, a balance of power strategy on its own is morally neutral: equilibrium and stability have no other moral end than peace and a temporary one at that. Such an outlook verges on un-American, a fact Kissinger knew well when he referred to balance-of-power as a distinctly European approach to world order. This outlook was informed by his belief that there can be no end of history, no permanent peace or condition where humans live with full awareness of their dignity unfettered from fear of looming war. There is no room for Providence in Kissinger’s worldview.
With such a conviction, compromise is not a card one must sometimes play on the quest for a better world but the singular objective. That is, Kissinger treated compromise as a goal and accordingly was too quick to shun Americans’ moral impulses where they were uncompromising and, therefore, dangerous. Indeed, he flouted moral principles while in office. He was enraged by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s loud denunciation of the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism and racism. He allowed Pakistan to commit genocide in Bangladesh so as not to imperil the rapprochement with China. He encouraged an unnecessary coup against President Salvador Allende, leading to the brutal reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Democratic processes, like human rights, were surely desirable, but not at the expense of strategic concerns for stability. As he famously quipped, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”
Kissinger appears to have recognized this flaw in the twilight of his career. In World Order, for example, he praises the “Wilsonian” Ronald Reagan, whose clear-eyed moral vision was better suited to defeating the Soviet empire than Nixon’s managing of the conflict. “The Nixon style of policymaking was important to restore fluidity to the diplomacy of the Cold War; the Reagan style was indispensable for the diplomacy of ending it.” But while developing a greater appreciation for (at least) the utility of principled American action, Kissinger did not abandon his belief in the need for a balance of power strategy. To be effective, American values “must be paired with an unsentimental analysis of underlying factors” and “combined with an approach that takes into account the strategic element of policy.” In the end, he seemed to have advocated a synthesis in which the United States fulfills its moral, Wilsonian mission through its example, a world beacon rather than a world policeman. It could, thereby, retain the authority and legitimacy required to sustain a balance with its rivals.
With wars raging in Ukraine and Gaza and alarm bells sounding for China’s takeover of Taiwan, Kissinger’s hopes for a new equilibrium between the great powers have faded. Far from the powers reaching a consensus or reconciliation on the structure and purpose of world order, the formerly prevailing notions of such an order are being openly questioned all around. In such chaos and confusion, moral clarity is needed more than accommodation. An American strategy that aims once more at promoting liberal democracy is more needful than a strategy that aims at balance but achieves disorder. For all his genius and insight, Kissinger would likely disagree.
Max J. Prowant is a researcher with the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a Ph.D. Candidate in Government at the University of Texas.