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Introduction: Kissinger's Realism and Today's Crusading Idealism
Three decades after he left office, Henry Kissinger continues to exert a fascinating hold on the public imagination as well as intellectual sway over the nation's foreign policy conversation. The longevity of his influence and of his celebrity is greater than that of any other statesman in modern times. He remains the most prominent foreign policy intellectual in the world, his advice sought by corporate and political leaders, his rumbling voice a regular on the airwaves, his byline stamping frequent analytic essays.
Partly this prolonged prominence is due, as even his detractors concede, to the power of his intellect. Nowadays, policy discussion too often tends to be polarized, partisan, and propelled by the type of talking points that work well on cable TV shows. Even people who disagree with Kissinger tend to be impressed by the rigor, nuance, depth, and unsentimental sharpness of his arguments. His writings and pronouncements combine historical axioms with timely insights to produce the same mixture of sweep and specificity that distinguished his memoirs.
Now that global politics is no longer oversimplified by the clarity of the cold war, Kissinger's approach of understanding and emphasizing balances of power has become even more relevant. Likewise, his fingertip feel for the world's webs of interdependence how an event in one corner of the planet will reverberate in another has become more important in an era of complex globalization.
Despite his continuing prominence, however, he has been notably absent from any official role in government. From the time he left office at the end of the Ford administration through the terms of the younger George Bush, there have been three Republican presidents in office for almost twenty of the last thirty-two years. Yet none appointed Kissinger to any high post. Why?
The answer says as much about the political changes in the Republican Party, and in the country, as it does about Kissinger. Kissinger represents a conservative internationalism that is largely rooted in realism, realpolitik, power balances, and pragmatism. In this book, I have described how the opponents who did him most harm were not those on the dovish left or liberal Democratic side, but rather the neoconservatives or highly ideological Republicans who saw America's global struggle in crusading, values-based, moral, and sentimental terms.
Ronald Reagan, as readers of this book will see, ended up being Kissinger's most wounding ideological adversary. Although Reagan at various points considered having a rapprochement with Kissinger, in the end he was excluded from the administration. More important, Reagan's approach to foreign policy as a crusade for freedom rather than as a quest for a stable balance of power came to define the Republican view.
This was especially true after September 11, 2001, during the George W. Bush administration. Some Kissingerian realists, most notably Brent Scowcroft and to some extent Lawrence Eagleburger, went public with their skepticism of a crusading foreign policy. Kissinger likewise had qualms, but he expressed them in a hedged, nuanced, subtle way.
That was typical for two reasons. First, his views are invariably rather nuanced, and the complexities he saw involving Iraq and the greater Middle East were typically subtle, smart, and filled with ambiguities that turned out to be prescient. The world is a complex and dangerous place, and Kissinger's great strength as an analyst (and his weakness at fitting in with more ideological conservatives) is that he is not very good at oversimplification. In addition, he is instinctively averse to open and outright challenges to people in power. This is particularly true when it comes to conservative Republicans in power, because he knows that their distrust of his ideological fervor is what has kept him exiled from office.
This relates to a core issue explored in this book, one that is, I think, even more valid today. I contend that Kissinger was one of the few realists as opposed to idealists to shape American diplomacy. In that approach he was a master. He had a feel for balances of power, spheres of influence, and realpolitik relations. He brilliantly created a triangular structure involving the U.S., Russia, and China, and that architecture preserved the possibility of America's power and global influence after the debacle of Vietnam.
On the other hand, he did not always have the same feel for the role that idealistic values sentiments, he would call them play in allowing a democracy to operate openly and with sustained confidence at home and abroad. Nor did he fully appreciate, I argue, that the openness and messiness of America's democracy is what gives strength, not weakness, to its foreign policy. He was thus under Nixon's dark tutelage too fond of secrecy, and too much in need of it.
Kissinger was not exactly thrilled by this argument or by this book when it first came out, even though he had given me many interviews. I think he was surprised that its critique came from the conservative side as much as from the liberal side. I also suspect, given the fact that he is not known for his thick skin, that he would probably be outraged if he reread his Nobel Peace Prize Citation or his own memoirs on the grounds that they are not favorable enough.
For a while after the book came out, he didn't speak to me. Then, after I had become the managing editor of Time, he was invited back to an anniversary party featuring all who had been on the cover. The phone rang and his distinctive voice came on to say, "Well, Walter, even the Thirty Years War had to end at some point. I will forgive you." (He did allow that his wife, Nancy, both loyal and smart, was partial to the Hunded Years War.) Since then, we have worked together on various projects, including a Middle East program at the Aspen Institute.
In our recent conversations, Kissinger has contended, persuasively, that he has always recognized the role of values in forging a sustainable foreign policy. For him there is a balance that must be struck between a nation's interests and its ideals, and that balance is best struck unsentimentally.
For a fuller expression of this argument, readers of this book should also read Kissinger's own works written subsequent to his time in office. Most notable is his 1994 tome Diplomacy, which traces the balances made in foreign policy, including that of realism and idealism, from the times of Cardinal Richelieu through brilliant chapters on Theodore Roosevelt the realist and Woodrow Wilson the idealist.
Kissinger, a European refugee who has read Metternich more avidly than Jefferson, generally tilts his book toward the realist camp. "No other nation," he wrote in Diplomacy, "has ever rested its claim to international leadership on its altruism." Other Americans might proclaim this as a point of pride; when Kissinger says it, his attitude seems that of an anthropologist examining a rather unsettling tribal ritual. The practice of basing policy on ideals rather than interests, he pointed out, can make a nation seem dangerously unpredictable.
Both in Diplomacy and in his other writings and pronouncements over the past two decades, Kissinger makes the most forceful case by any American statesman since Theodore Roosevelt for the role of realism and its Prussian-accented cousin realpolitik in international affairs. Just as George Kennan's odd admixture of romanticism and realism helped shape American attitudes at the outset of the cold war, Kissinger's emphasis on national interests rather than moral sentiments defined a framework for dealing with the complex world that emerged after the end of Soviet communism. As he put it in the conclusion of Diplomacy: "American idealism remains as essential as ever, perhaps even more so. But in the new world order, its role will be to provide the faith to sustain America through all the ambiguities of choice in an imperfect world."
In fact, America's idealism and realism have been interwoven ever since Benjamin Franklin played an ingenious balance-of-power game in France while simultaneously propagandizing about America's exceptional values. From the Monroe Doctrine to Manifest Destiny to the Marshall Plan, the U.S. has linked its interests to its ideals. This was especially true during the cold war, which was a moral crusade as well as a security struggle.
Kissinger realized, of course, that there was such a balance to be struck, and he appreciated the need for a values-based idealism to be part of this balance. However, my contention in this book, which I believe still holds, is that this balance was tilted in the 1970s a bit too much toward the secrecy and backchannel maneuverings that sometimes seem necessary in conducting a realist diplomacy in a democracy. When the third volume of his own memoirs, dealing with the Ford years, came out in 1999, well after I had written this book, he defended rather than denied this tilt. "The United States," he concluded, "must temper its missionary spirit with a concept of the national interest and rely on its head as well as its heart in defining its duty to the world." Although that sentence was written at the end of the Clinton years, it could be directed at the subsequent Bush administration as well.
Kissinger's realist power approach during the 1970s succeeded at building a worthy framework for stability, but it failed to sustain support from either end of the political spectrum, was not fully compatible with the sentiments that permit sustained international engagement in a democracy, and therefore tended to encourage an unhealthy secrecy.
Today, however, the questions facing the American polity may be from the reverse side: Have we tilted too far in the idealistic direction? Do we need a bit more Kissingerian realism and subtlety? Has the nation's international approach, in its zeal to spread freedom, become so driven by a sense of moral mission and crusading spirit that it could now use a sobering dose of caution, pragmatism, realism, cold calculation of interests, and traditional conservatism?
In answering these questions, I think it is crucial that we appreciate the role of the Kissinger conservative realpolitik tradition in the context of his forty-year struggle against what he regarded as the sentimental idealism of both crusading neoconservatives and moralistic liberals. An understanding of Kissinger and of his sense of global dynamics is just as relevant now as it was in the aftermath of Vietnam and at the end of the cold war.
Copyright (c) 1992, 2005 by Walter Isaacson