How To Think About Henry Kissinger

Patrick J. Garrity

June 1, 1997

Henry Kissinger is a great American success story. As a youth, he emigrated with his family to the United States, fleeing Nazi tyranny. He served in the Army during World War II, then went to Harvard University and received his doctorate in political science. As President Nixon’s National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, he was the chief architect of the policy of d‚tente, the opening to China, and shuttle diplomacy to the Middle East. (And in good American fashion, he has since become a television commentator, lecturer, and consultant, and made a lot of money.) He speaks movingly about his adopted country and its contributions to civilization and peace. And so when the President of the United States recently misspoke and referred to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as “a mirror image of the Warsaw Pact,” Kissinger instantly spoke up for his generation for all Americans when he rejoined that “we saw NATO as something unique and precious, possessed
of elements that ought to be preserved and expanded into the nucleus of a union of democracies.”

In his approach to diplomacy, Kissinger has sought to challenge and recast the traditional American approach to the world. He believes that a more realistic, sober tradition that of European statecraft recommends itself to the United States, especially as it approaches the new century. To be sure, Kissinger does not believe that Americans will ever become Europeans. But he thinks that American optimism and naivet‚ about international relations should be leavened by the harsh experience of other men and times.

In fact, a good case can be made that the American tradition is practically and morally superior to that of Europe. But let us first examine Kissinger’s case for the prosecution.

The European Tradition

Kissinger’s approach to the world is based on the great European diplomatic tradition often referred to as realpolitik as it developed from the 17th to the 19th centuries. This tradition can be summed up in two ideas. First, raison d’etat, where the interests of the state justify whatever means are necessary to pursue them. The national interest thus replaced the medieval notion of a universal morality that guided all men and nations. The second key concept is the balance of power an international order in which no nation is dominant. Each nation maintains its independence by aligning itself, or opposing, other nations according to its calculation of the imperatives of power. All status quo nations benefit from this arrangement: they can check the pretensions of the most aggressive nation, and thereby achieve international stability and moderation. Kissinger’s pantheon of practitioners of balance-of power politics includes Cardinal Richelieu, William of Orange, Fre
derick the Great, Metternich, Castlereagh, and Bismarck. (He also places the American Founders, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon in this category.)

To be sure, Kissinger is not an unqualified admirer of realpolitik. He warns that European-style diplomacy tempts its practitioners toward overextension. Nations that pursue security through the acquisition of power can easily go too far. This dangerous tendency led to the tragedy of the First World War. Kissinger believes that the solution to overextension lies in seeking “an agreement on common values. The balance of power inhibits the capacity to overthrow the international order; agreement on shared values inhibits the desire to overthrow the international order.”

These shared values should not however be confused with morality as it is understood in domestic politics, but rather in a mutual recognition of rules and limits among sophisticated members of an international community. Peace and justice are desirable outcomes for Kissinger, but they are at best derivative or supportive: to aim at them directly in international affairs is to court precisely the opposite.

The American Tradition

The American diplomatic tradition, as Kissinger sees it, is a rejection of raison d’etat in favor of a different standard of international relations. This standard, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, is that there should be “but one system of ethics for men and for nations.” For Americans, the objectives of foreign policy may be properly understood only as a means to the end of protecting and promoting individual freedom and well-being. In Kissinger’s account, the United States sees itself as a an exceptional nation, due to its republican form of government, the benign circumstances attending its development, and the innate virtue of its citizenry.

For Kissinger, the American tradition points in two opposite and equally unfortunate directions. The first response is the withdrawal of America from international affairs, so as to perfect its own democratic institutions and serve as a beacon for the rest of humanity. The second, more recent response is to engage in crusades for democracy around the world, as a means to transform the old international system into a global international order based on democracy, free commerce, and international law. In such a world, peace will be the natural outcome of relations among peoples and nations, rather than the result of an artificial, unstable, and unjust balance of power.

For most of its history, Kissinger argues, the United States chose the first course, isolationism. But during the second half of this century, the second American path, that of crusading internationalism, dominated. Woodrow Wilson is the exemplar par excellence of American internationalism. For Wilson, America’s role in the world was justified not by the need to sustain the balance of power, but by the obligation to spread its principles throughout the world. These principles held that peace depends on the spread of democracy. Although Wilson could not persuade his countrymen to support the great project to democratize the world, Wilsonian idealism has lived on. According to Kissinger, “it is above all to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency, and continues to march to this day.”

Kissinger acknowledges and celebrates the fact that the United States did succeed in bringing down the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, according to Kissinger, American foreign policy during the Cold War was excessively moralistic and insufficiently attuned to the realities of international relations. Kissinger particularly criticizes the American view that the Soviet Union was an ideological rather than a geopolitical threat. As a result of this misperception, Kissinger argues, America’s Cold War success was far more costly than it could have been. The tragedy of Vietnam, rather than the triumph of the fall of the Berlin Wall, dominates Kissinger’s reflections on American policy during the Cold War.

The American Future: Kissinger’s View

The moral of the story for Kissinger is that America must mend her ways, at least to a degree. As the bipolarity of the U.S.-Soviet conflict passes, a new set of international relations is emerging. Contrary to American expectations, nations are pursuing self-interest more frequently than high-minded principle. There is more evidence of competition than cooperation, exactly as the European diplomatic model would predict. Further, Kissinger argues, the decline of American power precludes the United States from dominating the world, just as our interdependence with that world precludes withdrawal. Other countries have grown into great power status, and their interests must be taken into account. Order in this new world must be based on some concept of equilibrium, a balance of power.

To summarize Kissinger’s views very simply, there are two critical theaters where the balance of power should be applied. First, Europe. Here, Russia, despite its initial steps towards democracy, and a newly unified Germany are the powers that must be balanced. Put differently, the United States has an interest in seeing that unbridled Germany and Russia do not compete over the center of the Continent, as they did in the first half of this century. This requires the continuation of an American presence in Europe and the enlargement of NATO to the east. Second, Asia. Here, the United States must balance China and Japan, and help them coexist despite their suspicion of each other. In practical terms, to achieve these regional balances, Kissinger recommends a relatively tough line towards Moscow, and a relatively accommodating line towards Beijing.

To succeed in the future, and to become comfortable with the balance of power, Kissinger implies that Americans must rein in their exceptionalism and become much more of an ordinary country.

Keeping the Faith:
Defending the American Tradition

There is much value in Kissinger’s critique, especially in his case against Woodrow Wilson. But to judge the ultimate wisdom of Kissinger’s advice for the future, we are entitled to the observation that American diplomacy actually seems to have been remarkably successful. After all, the United States has emerged victorious and prosperous from the great wars and crises of the 20th century. What other great nation can make such a claim? Perhaps we were lucky. Almost certainly we could have done better. But the fact of our success, most recently over the Soviet Union, suggests that there is something to the American style of diplomacy after all.

To be sure, having success is not necessarily the same thing as deserving it. And here the American standards are simply different than those espoused by Kissinger. The American diplomatic tradition is oriented to a first order by the compass of morality, and not that of geopolitics. (Perhaps better stated, the correct view of morality includes and subsumes the requirements of geopolitics.) As their starting point, Americans look foremost to the first principles of the regime: human liberty and self-government, most fundamentally expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration orients us in the political world domestically and internationally by making the essential distinction between “civilization,” on the one hand, and “barbarism” and “savagery,” on the other. Americans thus seek to defend and promote civilization first and foremost their own and to resist those who would promote slavery and despotism. Americans do not seek to defend and pro
mote the balance of power as such. They reject a diplomacy that is indifferent to questions of civilization and barbarism, whether at home or abroad.

Kissinger warns that this moral orientation leads Americans into the dangerous extremes of isolationism or crusades. He contends that geopolitical concerns are necessary to bring about a properly moderate behavior. But in the American diplomatic tradition, moderation is generated internally, rather than imposed from outside. It is a consequence of reflection on the very same moral principles that guide our domestic politics. The Declaration of Independence speaks of paying “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” and it submits its argument “to a candid world” recognizing that we should behave with due regard to the interests and sensibilities of others. More importantly, the Declaration explains that legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed, and that each people has a right to choose a government that seems to them most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Americans do not seek to interfere in others’ choice about their preferred for
m of government, just as we will not suffer others to meddle with our choice.

But Americans cannot be indifferent to the form of government that others may choose, or have imposed upon them. Here is where the moral, rather than strategic, compass is decisive, by allowing Americans to distinguish between friends and enemies. Despotic governments often try to treat other peoples, including Americans, in the same way that they do their own people: in a savage, barbaric, fashion. Despots hate free governments the way the devil hates holy water. Democratic, constitutional nations like the United States naturally attract the sympathy of oppressed peoples, and serve as a standard by which those peoples can find fault with, and eventually overthrow, tyranny. We have seen this phenomenon recently occur in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Thus, America cannot help but be the enemy of despotism, unless the United States renounces its own character and history.

This does not mean that the United States must engage in a crusade against despotism, or for democracy. The Declaration of Independence invokes the need for prudence, as well as asserting the inalienable rights of mankind. Geopolitics does matter in the real world, and we should appreciate Kissinger’s point about the frequent need for the hard-headed application of power. When trouble finds us, we are sometimes well advised to make alliances of necessity, even with despots. We allied ourselves temporarily with the French monarchy against England during the American Revolution, and in this century with Stalin against Hitler, and then with Mao against the Soviet Union. But we recognize that these alliances are made out of necessity, and when circumstances change, our moral compass reminds us again of our true friends and enemies. Thus, today, the American diplomatic tradition points us towards concern about the future threat that might be posed by China, governed by a quasi
-Marxist, quasi-nationalist authoritarian regime. But at the same time, we should not insist that threat is inevitable. That is China’s choice, not ours. In the meantime, we should keep our power dry and stay close to our democratic friends, like Japan and Germany.

Thus, the correct reading of history suggests that the United States can base its foreign policy on the moral truths that underlie the regime what Kissinger calls exceptionalism without being Wilsonian. American diplomacy need not be reduced to crusading internationalism or pacifistic isolationism, as long as the people and their leaders remain true to themselves.

A final observation: today, we have another Secretary of State with a background not dissimilar from that of Henry Kissinger. She too is a European refugee (from Czechoslovakia), and her family also fled from tyranny (communism). She is of a different gender, and political party, and holds different views about American diplomacy. But she is just as American as Kissinger, and speaks as movingly about her adopted country. The retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a Polish ‚migr‚, replacing a man whose family came to the United States from Jamaica. Do we doubt that one day we will have a refugee from, say, Vietnam in one of those positions? Thus, sometimes even when American diplomacy fails, as it did in Southeast Asia, America can still succeed, and deserve success.

Patrick J. Garrity is a Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute in Claremont, California