For all its idealism, however, America bumped up against rather different views of world order. Communism and the Third World directly challenged the American gospel. Kissinger raises several questions that he believes confronted Washington: Was American foreign policy a tidy story with a beginning and an end that leads to final victories? Is there an ultimate destination? Or is it really a tale of managing constant challenges? It will come as no surprise to those familiar with his record and writings that Kissinger markedly inclines toward the latter view.
It was for this approach to international relations that he came under such fire in the 1970s. But the notion, widely disseminated by his ideological foes, that Kissinger, far from trying to buttress U.S. power, was trying to manage its decline is something of a fiction. Actually, he was attempting to address a daunting new reality, which was that the tumult of the 1970s meant that the United States required breathing space as it extricated itself from Vietnam and confronted a newly emboldened Soviet Union, not to mention a Western Europe, led by the Federal Republic of Germany, that was intent on rapprochement with Moscow.
When it comes to his discussion of this era and his own accomplishments, Kissinger is not reticent about expressing his admiration for Richard Nixon. Nixon’s solitary nature meant that he had read widely, a trait that Kissinger avers made him the best-prepared incoming president since TR on foreign policy. Nixon and Kissinger also evinced a theoretical unanimity in their approach toward foreign affairs that is quite rare. Kissinger reminds us that in 1971, Nixon told the editors of Time that it would be desirable to have an interlocking set of ambitions among the great powers: “I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance.”
This sentiment did not represent a maleficent doctrine antithetical to the American credo. On the contrary, it constituted a form of moralism—relations based on mutual dignity and respect, forgoing the attempt to derive advantage from temporary circumstances in favor of an enduring peace. As Kissinger notes in reflecting upon Reagan’s record as president, neither pure power nor pure idealism can suffice. Kissinger calls for “a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation. At this moment in history, this would be a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities.”
Whether this will actually occur is, of course, questionable. When it comes to the GOP itself, as Robert D. Kaplan noted of Kissinger in the Atlantic last year, “The degree to which Republicans can recover his sensibility in foreign policy will help determine their own prospects for regaining power.” Kissinger himself never returned to high office after Ford’s defeat in 1976. He was too controversial a figure inside both political parties. But no other modern secretary of state has come close to matching his influence and fame.
His latest contribution amounts to a guide for the perplexed, a manifesto for reordering America’s approach to the rest of the globe. No doubt Russia, China and Iran may strike out on courses that seek to overturn the kind of Westphalian principles lauded by Kissinger. But as a means of apprehending international affairs—and of maintaining the delicate balance between power and idealism—Kissinger’s precepts are surely more valuable than ever. It is no accident that after the debacles of the past decade, Kissinger’s realism is starting to make something of a comeback. Now that the doctrines championed by his neocon detractors have largely come into disrepute, at least among the American public, realism is starting to receive more of a hearing.
Perhaps the return of realism should not altogether be surprising. In a sense, it has never gone away. For the tenets that Kissinger has studied and pursued amply merit the term classical, as they are timeless. Kissinger’s vision could help to shape a more tranquil era than the one that has emerged so far. He himself ends his work on a note of humility, observing that in his youth he was “brash enough” to believe he could pronounce on “The Meaning of History.” “I now know that history’s meaning,” he writes, “is a matter to be discovered, not declared.” It would be a pity if his counsel went unheeded.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.