Kissinger’s Fundamental Mistake
The foreign policy guru understood more about nineteenth-century Europe than twentieth-century America.
HENRY KISSINGER, WHO DIED LAST MONTH at the age of 100, was described as clear-eyed by his admirers and as cold-blooded by his detractors (and his admirers sometimes agreed with that, too). His realpolitik model of diplomacy had long been impugned as indifferent to the suffering of the world’s most helpless people. Biographers have debated—and will continue to debate—how his dour outlook may have emanated from his youth as a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. With the Nazi episode—to whom he lost many members of his family— before his eyes, Kissinger understood, along with his fellow émigré Hans Morgenthau, both the necessity and the limitations of power.
In Kissinger’s fixation on balance-of-power politics, he has been accused of overlearning the lessons of Munich. According to one account, the major difference between Kissinger and almost every other American statesman was his singular focus on avoiding calamity, rather than achieving positive accomplishments. The real problem, however, was that he failed to learn the lessons of Munich well enough.
It was not Munich but Vienna that drove Kissinger to distraction. The work that marked his arrival as a preeminent scholar was adapted from his Ph.D. dissertation. In A World Restored, Kissinger recounted the tale of how two statesmen of the early nineteenth century, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich and British Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh, forged a new European order at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the end of the Napoleonic wars—an order that kept the peace (more or less) for 100 years. Kissinger published this history of the balance of powers in 1957, when the Cold War was still young.
In Kissinger’s telling, the great enemy of world order was a figure in the mold of Napoleon, the zealous revolutionary bent on conquest. The hero was Metternich, the arch-realist, who arranged European power not only to defeat Napoleon, but also to prevent another one from rising. Metternich had no grand imperial pretensions and offered no universal vision that would clash with the perceptions and beliefs of others in the international system. Instead, he pursued stability based on cunning calculations of national interest and an equilibrium of forces. What Kissinger feared and loathed about “morality in foreign policy” (as Ronald Reagan later phrased it) was the danger of entering a world in which, in G.K. Chesterton’s phrase, “virtue runs amok.”
Though he dismissed comparisons of himself with Metternich, Kissinger believed that diplomacy was the art of restraining the exercise of power. In international affairs, he argued that there were only two roads to stability: “One is hegemony and the other is equilibrium.” On the evidence of his career as a scholar as well as a statesman, he plainly favored equilibrium, despite the postwar order being underwritten to a considerable degree by American hegemony.
Kissinger’s focus on stability—to the exclusion of almost all other goals—typified a school of American international relations during the Cold War, and to a large degree to the present. His influence as both an academic and a statesman was so great that it’s hard to disentangle how much he made the era of American realpolitik and how much it made him. He moderated his views on the role of morality in foreign policy after the Cold War, yet it’s hard to imagine that without his influence, so many American scholars and practitioners of international affairs would warn constantly about “instability” as if that were the end, rather than the beginning, of analysis.
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Kissinger’s devotion to stability contributed to some of his catastrophic misjudgments. At the height of his statecraft in the early 1970s, following the opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, shuttle diplomacy in the Near East and the end of the Vietnam War, he was hailed as “Super K.” But despite his formidable intellect and considerable achievements, he never managed to disenthrall himself from the illusion that the world would profit more from a multipolar order than one organized and led by the United States. In his crabbed view of American power, he only wished to see his adopted country venture abroad to preserve a modicum of stability, however crude, and to keep chaos at bay. This was the difference between Kissinger and Reagan: The former’s view of the Cold War was that calamity could be avoided as long as the world was as well-balanced as a Calder mobile; the latter’s view was “We win; they lose.”
Overapplying the lessons of Germany in the century before his birth, Kissinger misdiagnosed the Soviet Union as an ascendant power whose rise needed to be accommodated. It was he who persuaded President Ford not to invite Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the White House. At one point he suggested that the Soviets were “Sparta to our Athens.”
It was this spirit of resignation and defeatism in the long twilight struggle that convinced Reagan to launch his 1976 presidential primary campaign even while Ford, a fellow Republican, occupied the White House. The fate of freedom in the world depended on American power and engagement in the world, both of which were evidently waning. And the American public needed to become accustomed to the rigors, and the necessity, of global responsibility. On each of these fronts, Kissinger was on the wrong side. In time, Reagan’s old nemesis even confessed that while it was President Bush who presided over the final disintegration of the Soviet empire, “it was Ronald Reagan’s presidency which marked the turning point.”
Realpolitik is devoid of principle or moral scruple, based solely on a practical pursuit of the national interest. But Robert Kaplan, one of Kissinger’s sharpest defenders, insists that realism is not an amoral doctrine. Instead, it “is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: the avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power.” Niall Ferguson, author of the official biography, concurs. In Kissinger: The Idealist, Ferguson argues that his subject bore no resemblance to the myth of an American Machiavelli. “It was an inherently moral act,” Ferguson says of Kissinger’s outlook, “to make a choice between lesser and greater evils.”
It is true that in a fallen world, statesmen must embrace “the inevitability of tragedy,” as Barry Gewen titled his intellectual life of Kissinger. The most favorable interpretation of Kissinger is that a balance-of-power is the key to peace, and his life was an attempt to impose the lessons of his dissertation on the modern world. The problem is that the Congress of Vienna has little relevance in the modern world.
In a world order undergirded by American power and leadership, Kissinger and the “realists” have not accounted for the achievements of the Pax Americana and have equally not assimilated the need for its continued role. For Kissinger, the world was in perpetual need of another Congress of Vienna—a multipolar order where great powers could make a fine-tuned balance.
The irony of his life wasn’t just that he was wrong, but that he misunderstood the country he served: As a political project dedicated to universal principles, America is much more like revolutionary France than Habsburg Austria.