In Defense of Henry Kissinger

He was the 20th century's greatest 19th-century statesman.
Henry Kissinger, photographed in New York City on March 11 (Grant Cornett)

In the summer of 2002, during the initial buildup to the invasion of Iraq, which he supported, Henry Kissinger told me he was nevertheless concerned about the lack of critical thinking and planning for the occupation of a Middle Eastern country where, as he put it, “normal politics have not been practiced for decades, and where new power struggles would therefore have to be very violent.” Thus is pessimism morally superior to misplaced optimism.

I have been a close friend of Henry Kissinger’s for some time, but my relationship with him as a historical figure began decades ago. When I was growing up, the received wisdom painted him as the ogre of Vietnam. Later, as I experienced firsthand the stubborn realities of the developing world, and came to understand the task that a liberal polity like the United States faced in protecting its interests, Kissinger took his place among the other political philosophers whose books I consulted to make sense of it all. In the 1980s, when I was traveling through Central Europe and the Balkans, I encountered A World Restored, Kissinger’s first book, published in 1957, about the diplomatic aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. In that book, he laid out the significance of Austria as a “polyglot Empire [that] could never be part of a structure legitimized by nationalism,” and he offered a telling truth about Greece, where I had been living for most of the decade: whatever attraction the war for Greek independence had held for the literati of the 1820s, it was not born of “a revolution of middle-class origin to achieve political liberty,” he cautioned, “but a national movement with a religious basis.”

When policy makers disparage Kissinger in private, they tend to do so in a manner that reveals how much they measure themselves against him. The former secretary of state turns 90 this month. To mark his legacy, we need to begin in the 19th century.

In August of 1822, Britain’s radical intelligentsia openly rejoiced upon hearing the news of Robert Stewart’s suicide. Lord Byron, the Romantic poet and heroic adventurer, described Stewart, better known as Viscount Castlereagh, as a “cold-blooded, … placid miscreant.” Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary from 1812 to 1822, had helped organize the military coalition that defeated Napoleon and afterward helped negotiate a peace settlement that kept Europe free of large-scale violence for decades. But because the settlement restored the Bourbon dynasty in France, while providing the forces of Liberalism little reward for their efforts, Castlereagh’s accomplishment lacked any idealistic element, without which the radicals could not be mollified. Of course, this very lack of idealism, by safeguarding the aristocratic order, provided various sovereigns with the only point on which they could unite against Napoleon and establish a continent-wide peace—a peace, it should be noted, that helped Britain emerge as the dominant world power before the close of the 19th century.

One person who did not rejoice at Castlereagh’s death was Henry John Temple, the future British foreign secretary, better known as Lord Palmerston. “There could not have been a greater loss to the Government,” Palmerston declared, “and few greater to the country.” Palmerston himself would soon join the battle against the U.K.’s radical intellectuals, who in the early 1820s demanded that Britain go to war to help democracy take root in Spain, even though no vital British interest had been threatened—and even though this same intellectual class had at times shown only limited enthusiasm for the war against Napoleon, during which Britain’s very survival seemed at stake.

In a career spanning more than two decades in the Foreign Office, Palmerston was fated on occasion to be just as hated as Castlereagh. Like Castlereagh, Palmerston had only one immutable principle in foreign policy: British self-interest, synonymous with the preservation of the worldwide balance of power. But Palmerston also had clear liberal instincts. Because Britain’s was a constitutional government, he knew that the country’s self-interest lay in promoting constitutional governments abroad. He showed sympathy for the 1848 revolutions on the Continent, and consequently was beloved by the liberals. Still, Palmerston understood that his liberal internationalism, if one could call it that, was only a general principle—a principle that, given the variety of situations around the world, required constant bending. Thus, Palmerston encouraged liberalism in Germany in the 1830s but thwarted it there in the 1840s. He supported constitutionalism in Portugal, but opposed it in Serbia and Mexico. He supported any tribal chieftain who extended British India’s sphere of influence northwest into Afghanistan, toward Russia, and opposed any who extended Russia’s sphere of influence southeast, toward India—even as he cooperated with Russia in Persia.

Realizing that many people—and radicals in particular—tended to confuse foreign policy with their own private theology, Palmerston may have considered the moral condemnation that greeted him in some quarters as natural. (John Bright, the Liberal statesman, would later describe Palmerston’s tenure as “one long crime.”)

Yet without his flexible approach to the world, Palmerston could never have navigated the shoals of one foreign-policy crisis after another, helping Britain—despite the catastrophe of the Indian Mutiny in 1857—manage the transition from its ad hoc imperialism of the first half of the 19th century to the formal, steam-driven empire built on science and trade of the second half.

Decades passed before Palmerston’s accomplishments as arguably Britain’s greatest diplomat became fully apparent. In his own day, Palmerston labored hard to preserve the status quo, even as he sincerely desired a better world. “He wanted to prevent any power from becoming so strong that it might threaten Britain,” one of his biographers, Jasper Ridley, wrote. “To prevent the outbreak of major wars in which Britain might be involved and weakened,” Palmerston’s foreign policy “was therefore a series of tactical improvisations, which he carried out with great skill.”

Like Palmerston, Henry Kissinger believes that in difficult, uncertain times—times like the 1960s and ’70s in America, when the nation’s vulnerabilities appeared to outweigh its opportunities—the preservation of the status quo should constitute the highest morality. Other, luckier political leaders might later discover opportunities to encourage liberalism where before there had been none. The trick is to maintain one’s power undiminished until that moment.

Ensuring a nation’s survival sometimes leaves tragically little room for private morality. Discovering the inapplicability of Judeo-Christian morality in certain circumstances involving affairs of state can be searing. The rare individuals who have recognized the necessity of violating such morality, acted accordingly, and taken responsibility for their actions are among the most necessary leaders for their countries, even as they have caused great unease among generations of well-meaning intellectuals who, free of the burden of real-world bureaucratic responsibility, make choices in the abstract and treat morality as an inflexible absolute.

Fernando Pessoa, the early-20th-century Portuguese poet and existentialist writer, observed that if the strategist “thought of the darkness he cast on a thousand homes and the pain he caused in three thousand hearts,” he would be “unable to act,” and then there would be no one to save civilization from its enemies. Because many artists and intellectuals cannot accept this horrible but necessary truth, their work, Pessoa said, “serves as an outlet for the sensitivity [that] action had to leave behind.” That is ultimately why Henry Kissinger is despised in some quarters, much as Castlereagh and Palmerston were.

To be uncomfortable with Kissinger is, as Palmerston might say, only natural. But to condemn him outright verges on sanctimony, if not delusion. Kissinger has, in fact, been quite moral—provided, of course, that you accept the Cold War assumptions of the age in which he operated.

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