In Defense of Henry Kissinger

He was the 20th century's greatest 19th-century statesman.
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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.

Because of the triumphalist manner in which the Cold War suddenly and unexpectedly ended, many have since viewed the West’s victory as a foregone conclusion, and therefore have tended to see the tough measures that Kissinger and others occasionally took as unwarranted. But for those in the midst of fighting the Cold War—who worked in the national-security apparatus during the long, dreary decades when nuclear confrontation seemed abundantly possible—its end was hardly foreseeable.

When policy makers disparage Kissinger in private, they tend to do so in a manner that reveals how much they measure themselves against him.

People forget what Eastern Europe was like during the Cold War, especially prior to the 1980s: the combination of secret-police terror and regime-induced poverty gave the impression of a vast, dimly lit prison yard. What kept that prison yard from expanding was mainly the projection of American power, in the form of military divisions armed with nuclear weapons. That such weapons were never used did not mean they were unnecessary. Quite the opposite, in fact: the men who planned Armageddon, far from being the Dr. Strangeloves satirized by Hollywood, were precisely the people who kept the peace.Many Baby Boomers, who lived through the Cold War but who have no personal memory of World War II, artificially separate these two conflicts. But for Kissinger, a Holocaust refugee and U.S. Army intelligence officer in occupied Germany; for General Creighton Abrams, a tank commander under George Patton in World War II and the commander of American forces in Vietnam from 1968 onward; and for General Maxwell Taylor, who parachuted into Nazi-occupied France and was later the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, the Cold War was a continuation of the Second World War.

Beyond Eastern Europe, revolutionary nihilists were attempting to make more Cubas in Latin America, while a Communist regime in China killed at least 20 million of its own citizens through the collectivization program known as the Great Leap Forward. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese Communists—as ruthless a group of people as the 20th century produced—murdered perhaps tens of thousands of their own citizens before the first American troops arrived in Vietnam. People forget that it was, in part, an idealistic sense of mission that helped draw us into that conflict—the same well of idealism that helped us fight World War II and that motivated our interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s. Those who fervently supported intervention in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia yet fail to comprehend the similar logic that led us into Vietnam are bereft of historical memory.

In Vietnam, America’s idealism collided head-on with the military limitations imposed by a difficult geography. This destroyed the political consensus in the United States about how the Cold War should be waged. Reviewing Kissinger’s book Ending the Vietnam War (2003), the historian and journalist Evan Thomas implied that the essence of Kissinger’s tragedy was that he was perennially trying to gain membership in a club that no longer existed. That club was “the Establishment,” a term that began to go out of fashion during the nation’s Vietnam trauma. The Establishment comprised all the great and prestigious personages of business and foreign policy—all male, all Protestant, men like John J. McCloy and Charles Bohlen—whose influence and pragmatism bridged the gap between the Republican and Democratic Parties at a time when Communism was the enemy, just as Fascism had recently been. Kissinger, a Jew who had escaped the Holocaust, was perhaps the club’s most brilliant protégé. His fate was to step into the vortex of foreign policy just as the Establishment was breaking up over how to extricate the country from a war that the Establishment itself had helped lead the country into.

Kissinger became President Richard Nixon’s national-security adviser in January of 1969, and his secretary of state in 1973. As a Harvard professor and “Rockefeller Republican,” Kissinger was distrusted by the anti-intellectual Republican right wing. (Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was slipping into the de facto quasi-isolationism that would soon be associated with George McGovern’s “Come Home, America” slogan.) Nixon and Kissinger inherited from President Lyndon Johnson a situation in which almost 550,000 American troops, as well as their South Vietnamese allies (at least 1 million soldiers all told), were fighting a similar number of North Vietnamese troops and guerrillas. On the home front, demonstrators—drawn in large part from the nation’s economic and educational elite—were demanding that the United States withdraw all its troops virtually immediately.

Some prominent American protesters even visited North Vietnam to publicly express solidarity with the enemy. The Communists, in turn, seduced foreign supporters with soothing assurances of Hanoi’s willingness to compromise. When Charles de Gaulle was negotiating a withdrawal of French troops from Algeria in the late 1950s and early 1960s (as Kissinger records in Ending the Vietnam War), the Algerians knew that if they did not strike a deal with him, his replacement would certainly be more hard-line. But the North Vietnamese probably figured the opposite—that because of the rise of McGovernism in the Democratic Party, Nixon and Kissinger were all that stood in the way of American surrender. Thus, Nixon and Kissinger’s negotiating position was infinitely more difficult than de Gaulle’s had been.

Kissinger found himself caught between liberals who essentially wanted to capitulate rather than negotiate, and conservatives ambivalent about the war who believed that serious negotiations with China and the Soviet Union were tantamount to selling out. Both positions were fantasies that only those out of power could indulge.

Further complicating Kissinger’s problem was the paramount assumption of the age—that the Cold War would have no end, and therefore regimes like those in China and the Soviet Union would have to be dealt with indefinitely. Hitler, a fiery revolutionary, had expended himself after 12 bloody years. But Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev oversaw dull, plodding machines of repression that were in power for decades—a quarter century in Mao’s case, and more than half a century in Brezhnev’s. Neither regime showed any sign of collapse. Treating Communist China and the Soviet Union as legitimate states, even while Kissinger played China off against the Soviet Union and negotiated nuclear-arms agreements with the latter, did not constitute a sellout, as some conservatives alleged. It was, rather, a recognition of America’s “eternal and perpetual interests,” to quote Palmerston, refitted to an age threatened by thermonuclear war.

In the face of liberal capitulation, a conservative flight from reality, and North Vietnam’s relentlessness, Kissinger’s task was to withdraw from the region in a way that did not betray America’s South Vietnamese allies. In doing so, he sought to preserve America’s powerful reputation, which was crucial for dealing with China and the Soviet Union, as well as the nations of the Middle East and Latin America. Sir Michael Howard, the eminent British war historian, notes that the balance-of-power ethos to which Kissinger subscribes represents the middle ground between “optimistic American ecumenicism” (the basis for many global-disarmament movements) and the “war culture” of the American Wild West (in recent times associated with President George W. Bush). This ethos was never cynical or amoral, as the post–Cold War generation has tended to assert. Rather, it evinced a timeless and enlightened principle of statesmanship.

Kissinger confers with President Lyndon Johnson not long after being appointed to Richard Nixon’s national-security team. December 5, 1968. (Associated Press)

Kissinger confers with President Lyndon Johnson not long after being appointed to Richard Nixon's national-security team. December 5, 1968 (Associated Press)

Within two years, Nixon and Kissinger reduced the number of American troops in Vietnam to 156,800; the last ground ­combat forces left three and a half years after Nixon took office. It had taken Charles de Gaulle longer than that to end France’s involvement in Algeria. (Frustration over the failure to withdraw even quicker rests on two difficult assumptions: that the impossibility of preserving South Vietnam in any form was accepted in 1969, and that the North Vietnamese had always been negotiating in good faith. Still, the continuation of the war past 1969 will forever be Nixon’s and Kissinger’s original sin.)

That successful troop withdrawal was facilitated by a bombing incursion into Cambodia—primarily into areas replete with North Vietnamese military redoubts and small civilian populations, over which the Cambodian government had little control. The bombing, called “secret” by the media, was public knowledge during 90 percent of the time it was carried out, wrote Samuel Huntington, the late Harvard professor who served on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council. The early secrecy, he noted, was to avoid embarrassing Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk and complicating peace talks with the North Vietnamese.

The troop withdrawals were also facilitated by aerial bombardments of North Vietnam. Victor Davis Hanson, the neoconservative historian, writes that, “far from being ineffective and indiscriminate,” as many critics of the Nixon­-Kissinger war effort later claimed, the Christmas bombings of December 1972 in particular “brought the communists back to the peace table through its destruction of just a few key installations.” Hanson may be a neoconservative, but his view is hardly a radical reinterpretation of history; in fact, he is simply reading the news accounts of the era. Soon after the Christmas bombings, Malcolm W. Browne of The New York Times found the damage to have been “grossly overstated by North Vietnamese propaganda.” Peter Ward, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, wrote, “Evidence on the ground disproves charges of indiscriminate bombing. Several bomb loads obviously went astray into civilian residential areas, but damage there is minor, compared to the total destruction of selected targets.”

The ritualistic vehemence with which many have condemned the bombings of North Vietnam, the incursion into Cambodia, and other events betrays, in certain cases, an ignorance of the facts and of the context that informed America’s difficult decisions during Vietnam.

The troop withdrawals that Nixon and Kissinger engineered, while faster than de Gaulle’s had been from Algeria, were gradual enough to prevent complete American humiliation. This preservation of America’s global standing enabled the president and the secretary of state to manage a historic reconciliation with China, which helped provide the requisite leverage for a landmark strategic arms pact with the Soviet Union—even as, in 1970, Nixon and Kissinger’s threats to Moscow helped stop Syrian tanks from crossing farther into Jordan and toppling King Hussein. At a time when defeatism reigned, Kissinger improvised in a way that would have impressed Palmerston.

Yes, Kissinger’s record is marked by nasty tactical miscalculations—mistakes that have spawned whole libraries of books. But the notion that the Nixon administration might have withdrawn more than 500,000 American troops from Vietnam within a few months in 1969 is problematic, especially when one considers the complexities that smaller and more gradual withdrawals in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan later imposed on military planners. (And that’s leaving aside the diplomatic and strategic fallout beyond Southeast Asia that America’s sudden and complete betrayal of a longtime ally would have generated.)

Despite the North Vietnamese invasion of eastern Cambodia in 1970, the U.S. Congress substantially cut aid between 1971 and 1974 to the Lon Nol regime, which had replaced Prince Sihanouk’s, and also barred the U.S. Air Force from helping Lon Nol fight against the Khmer Rouge. Future historians will consider those actions more instrumental in the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia than Nixon’s bombing of sparsely populated regions of Cambodia six years earlier.

When Saigon fell to the Communists, in April of 1975, it was after a heavily Democratic Congress drastically cut aid to the South Vietnamese. The regime might not have survived even if Congress had not cut aid so severely. But that cutoff, one should recall, was not merely a statement about South Vietnam’s hopelessness; it was a consequence of Watergate, in which Nixon eviscerated his own influence in the capital, and seriously undermined Gerald Ford’s incoming administration. Kissinger’s own words in Ending the Vietnam War deserve to echo through the ages:

None of us could imagine that a collapse of presidential authority would follow the expected sweeping electoral victory [of Nixon in 1972]. We were convinced that we were working on an agreement that could be sustained by our South Vietnamese allies with American help against an all-­out invasion. Protesters could speak of Vietnam in terms of the excesses of an aberrant society, but when my colleagues and I thought of Vietnam, it was in terms of dedicated men and women—soldiers and Foreign Service officers—who had struggled and suffered there and of our Vietnamese associates now condemned to face an uncertain but surely painful fate. These Americans had honestly believed that they were defending the cause of freedom against a brutal enemy in treacherous jungles and distant rice paddies. Vilified by the media, assailed in Congress, and ridiculed by the protest movement, they had sustained America’s idealistic tradition, risking their lives and expending their youth on a struggle that American leadership groups had initiated, then abandoned, and finally disdained.

Kissinger’s diplomatic achievements reached far beyond Southeast Asia. Between 1973 and 1975, Kissinger, serving Nixon and then Gerald Ford, steered the Yom Kippur War toward a stalemate that was convenient for American interests, and then brokered agreements between Israel and its Arab adversaries for a separation of forces. Those deals allowed Washington to reestablish diplomatic relations with Egypt and Syria for the first time since their rupture following the Six ­Day War in 1967. The agreements also established the context for the Egyptian-­Israeli peace treaty of 1979, and helped stabilize a modus vivendi between Israel and Syria that has lasted well past the turn of the 21st century.

In the fall of 1973, with Chile dissolving into chaos and open to the Soviet bloc’s infiltration as a result of Salvador Allende’s anarchic and incompetent rule, Nixon and Kissinger encouraged a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, during which thousands of innocent people were killed. Their cold moral logic was that a right-wing regime of any kind would ultimately be better for Chile and for Latin America than a leftist regime of any kind—and would also be in the best interests of the United States. They were right—though at a perhaps intolerable cost.

While much of the rest of Latin America dithered with socialist experiments, in the first seven years of Pinochet’s regime, the number of state companies in Chile went from 500 to 25—a shift that helped lead to the creation of more than 1 million jobs and the reduction of the poverty rate from roughly one-­third of the population to as low as one-tenth. The infant mortality rate also shrank, from 78 deaths per 1,000 births to 18. The Chilean social and economic miracle has become a paradigm throughout the developing world, and in the ex­-Communist world in particular. Still, no amount of economic and social gain justifies almost two decades of systematic torture perpetrated against tens of thousands of victims in more than 1,000 detention centers.

But real history is not the trumpeting of ugly facts untempered by historical and philosophical context—the stuff of much investigative journalism. Real history is built on constant comparison with other epochs and other parts of the world. It is particularly useful, therefore, to compare the records of the Ford and Carter administrations in the Horn of Africa, and especially in Ethiopia—a country that in the 1970s was more than three times as populous as Pinochet’s Chile.

In his later years, Kissinger has not been able to travel to a number of countries where legal threats regarding his actions in the 1970s in Latin America hang over his head. Yet in those same countries, Jimmy Carter is regarded almost as a saint. Let’s consider how Carter’s morality stacks up against Kissinger’s in the case of Ethiopia, which, like Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, was among the dominoes that became increasingly unstable and then fell in the months and years following Saigon’s collapse, partly disproving another myth of the Vietnam antiwar protest movement—that the domino theory was wrong.

As I’ve written elsewhere, including in my 1988 book, Surrender or Starve, the left-leaning Ethiopian Dergue and its ascetic, pitiless new leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, had risen to power while the U.S. was preoccupied with Watergate and the fall of South Vietnam. Kissinger, now President Ford’s secretary of state, tried to retain influence in Ethiopia by continuing to provide some military assistance to Addis Ababa. Had the United States given up all its leverage in Ethiopia, the country might have moved to the next stage and become a Soviet satellite, with disastrous human-­rights consequences for its entire population.

Unlike his fellow Cold War-era Republicans, Kissinger has always been painfully conscious of the degree to which he is loathed.

Ford and Kissinger were replaced in January of 1977 by Jimmy Carter and his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, who wanted a policy that was both more attuned to and less heavy-handed toward sub-Saharan Africa. In the Horn of Africa, this translated immediately into a Cold War disadvantage for America, because the Soviets—spurred on by the fall of South Vietnam—were becoming more belligerent, and more willing to expend resources, than ever.

With Ethiopia torn apart by revolutionary turmoil, the Soviets used their Somali clients as a lever against Addis Ababa. Somalia then was a country of only 3 million nomads, but Ethiopia had an urbanized population 10 times that size: excellent provender for the mechanized African satellite that became Leonid Brezhnev’s supreme objective. The Soviets, while threatening Ethiopia by supplying its rival with weapons, were also offering it military aid—the classic carrot-­and-­stick strategy. Yet partly because of the M-­60 tanks and F­-5 warplanes that Mengistu was still—largely thanks to Kissinger—receiving from the United States, the Ethiopian leader was hesitant about undertaking the disruptive task of switching munitions suppliers for an entire army.

In the spring of 1977, Carter cut off arms deliveries to Ethiopia because of its human-rights record. The Soviets dispatched East German security police to Addis Ababa to help Mengistu consolidate his regime, and invited the Ethiopian ruler to Moscow for a week-long state visit. Then Cuban advisers visited Ethiopia, even while tanks and other equipment arrived from pro-Soviet South Yemen. In the following months, with the help of the East Germans, the Dergue gunned down hundreds of Ethiopian teenagers in the streets in what came to be known as the “Red Terror.”

Still, all was not lost—at least not yet. The Ethiopian Revolution, leftist as it was, showed relatively few overt signs of anti-­Americanism. Israel’s new prime minister, Menachem Begin, in an attempt to save Ethiopian Jews, beseeched Carter not to close the door completely on Ethiopia and to give Mengistu some military assistance against the Somali advance.

But Begin’s plea went unheeded. The partial result of Carter’s in­ action was that Ethiopia went from being yet another left-leaning regime to a full-­fledged Marxist state, in which hundreds of thousands of people died in collectivization and “villagization” schemes—to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands who died in famines that were as much a consequence of made-­in-­Moscow agricultural policies as they were of drought.

Ethiopians should have been so lucky as to have had a Pinochet.

The link between Carter’s decision not to play Kissingerian power politics in the Horn of Africa and the mass deaths that followed in Ethiopia is more direct than the link between Nixon’s incursion into a rural area of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge takeover six years later.

In the late 19th century, Lord Palmerston was still a controversial figure. By the 20th, he was considered by many to have been one of Britain’s greatest foreign ministers. Kissinger’s reputation will follow a similar path. Of all the memoirs written by former American secretaries of state and national­-security advisers during the past few decades, his are certainly the most vast and the most intellectually stimulating, revealing the elaborate historical and philosophical milieu that surround difficult foreign-­policy decisions. Kissinger will have the final say precisely because he writes so much better for a general audience than do most of his critics. Mere exposé often has a shorter shelf life than the work of a statesman aware of his own tragic circumstances and able to connect them to a larger pattern of events. A colleague of mine with experience in government once noted that, as a European-­style realist, Kissinger has thought more about morality and ethics than most self­-styled moralists. Realism is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: the avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power.

Aside from the successful interventions in the Balkans, the greatest humanitarian gesture in my own lifetime was President Richard Nixon’s trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, engineered by Kissinger. By dropping the notion that Taiwan was the real China, by giving China protection against the Soviet Union, and by providing assurances against an economically resurgent Japan, the two men helped place China in a position to devote itself to peaceful economic development; China’s economic rise, facilitated by Deng Xiaoping, would lift much of Asia out of poverty. And as more than 1 billion people in the Far East saw a dramatic improvement in living standards, personal freedom effloresced.

Pundits chastised Kissinger for saying, in 1973, that Jewish emi­ gration from the Soviet Union was “not an American concern.” But as J. J. Goldberg of The Jewish Daily Forward was careful to note (even while being very critical of Kissinger’s cynicism on the subject), “Emigration rose dramatically under Kissinger’s detente policy”— but “plummeted” after the 1974 passage of the Jackson­-Vanik amendment, which made an open emigration policy a precondition for normal U.S.­Soviet trade relations; aggrieved that the Americans would presume to dictate their emigration policies, the Soviets began authorizing fewer exit visas. In other words, Kissinger’s realism was more effective than the humanitarianism of Jewish groups in addressing a human­-rights concern.

Kissinger is a Jewish intellectual who recognizes a singular unappealing truth: that the Republican Party, its strains of anti-Semitism in certain periods notwithstanding, was better able to protect America than the Democratic Party of his era, because the Republicans better understood and, in fact, relished the projection of American power at a juncture in the Cold War when the Democrats were undermined by defeatism and quasi-­isolationism. (That Kissinger-­style realism is now more popular in Barack Obama’s White House than among the GOP indicates how far today’s Republicans have drifted from their core values.)

But unlike his fellow Republicans of the Cold War era—dull and practical men of business, blissfully unaware of what the prestigious intellectual journals of opinion had to say about them—Kissinger has always been painfully conscious of the de­ gree to which he is loathed. He made life-­and-death decisions that affected millions, entailing many messy moral compromises. Had it not been for the tough decisions Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger made, the United States might not have withstood the damage caused by Carter’s bouts of moralistic ineptitude; nor would Ronald Reagan have had the luxury of his successfully executed Wilsonianism. Henry Kissinger’s classical realism—as expressed in both his books and his statecraft—is emotionally unsatisfying but analytically timeless. The degree to which Republicans can recover his sensibility in foreign policy will help determine their own prospects for regaining power.


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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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