Thoughts on a Recent Defense of Kissinger

Robert Kaplan in the Atlantic has a defense of Henry Kissinger’s legacy.  He likens him to the nineteenth-century statesmen he modeled himself after, such as Britain’s Castlereagh and Palmerston, who worked to promote peace through a preservation of the balance of power, and promoted their own countries’ interests while expecting others to do the same. 

Those who disagree with this approach and favor conducting foreign policy to promote ideals are guilty of confusing “foreign policy with their own private theology.”  “Judeo-Christian morality” is inapplicable to “affairs of state.”  This only begs the question* of what is public and what is private.  The hope behind realism is that if decision-makers regard theology and ideology as private, subjective matters, and interests as the only thing solid, they will be more likely to pursue interests rather than fighting religious or ideological wars.  Interests are subject to compromise; religion and ideology less so.  So if countries can learn to pursue their own interests, and can understand and predict how other countries will do so, we can have relative international peace.  Similarly, relative domestic peace will be achieved by similar means, with institutions designed to channel self-interest and insuring that dominant thinking treats religion and ideology as private. 

Yet the moral goals behind realism have to compete against others; to assume their superiority is dogmatic.  For Kaplan, Palmerston “had only one immutable principle in foreign policy: British self-interest, synonymous with the preservation of the worldwide balance of power.”  He was committed to one moral goal above all others, just as his opponents are accused of being.

In defending Kissinger, though, Kaplan bends ever so slightly on this principle, attempting to justify realism on liberal idealist terms and making its wisdom dependent on circumstances.  “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.” 

This is an argument I’ve encountered at times: Nixon and Kissinger’s realpolitik allowed the U.S. to maintain a decent position at a difficult time, paving the way for liberal idealist Reagan to disrupt the status quo by pursuing Cold War victory.  It’s a bit silly as Kaplan states it; when aren’t the times difficult and uncertain?  Did things stop being difficult and uncertain in Reagan’s time?  Didn’t the Cold War status quo entrench certain dangers and uncertainties?

Kaplan argues that intellectuals can afford to be sensitive to suffering that actions cause, but statesmen, as men of action, cannot do so if they are to “save civilization from its enemies.”  The statesman, he suggests, is blind to the suffering his actions cause, while the intellectual is blind to the necessity for these actions to achieve other goals.  He uncritically assumes that the statesman’s perspective and bias is superior, and that the goals he pursues are more important than the ones the intellectual pursues.  Additionally, his argument moves away from the realist idea of competing nations with competing interests and toward a version of Wilsonian or Reaganite liberal idealism, saving civilization from evildoers.

This is the central confusion in his piece.  Is Kaplan arguing against idealism that says “don’t take an action that violates this particular moral ideal, even if it’s in your state’s interest?”  Or is he arguing against the sort of idealism that says “we should consistently support the spread of liberalism and oppose illiberal ideologies?”  In the first case, he has to make end-justifies-the-means arguments, and his realism be the kind that says “there’s evil in the world, and we must fight it!”  But this is precisely the sort of thing that Wilsonian and Reaganite idealists are wont to say in arguing for supporting democracy.  That’s why they rejected Kissinger’s willingness to accept a perpetual sphere of communist power rather than pursuing Cold War victory.  In the second case, his realism will be of a kind that says “nation states should just pursue and balance their interests.  What is this talk of good and evil?  That’s private morality and makes compromise impossible.”  From such a perspective, the danger of an ideological foreign policy is precisely that it leads states to believe that their ideological end justifies any means, while the virtue of realism is that it promotes stability and peace.

Kaplan points to the nature of communist regimes, the horrors they impose, in arguing for the necessity of American power, backed by nuclear threat, to prevent their spread.  He notes that the murders by North Vietnamese Communists of tens of thousands of their citizens before American involvement produced “an idealistic sense of mission that helped draw us into that conflict.”  Well, exactly.

The nineteenth century realism of the settlement of the Napoleonic Wars that Kissinger admired was based on sovereign powers working together to preserve peace and the balance of power.  It wasn’t about good (liberal) versus evil (totalitarian) struggles, it was about a largely illiberal, authoritarian order that preserved peace and stayed out of the way of evolutionary political and revolutionary economic progress could take place.  Not such a bad thing, but how realistic would it have been to expect such cooperation between the U.S., China and the USSR, and could legitimizing the Soviet Union and Mao’s China really be as morally justified as the post-Napoleon order?  Kissinger was a brilliant guy and undoubtedly recognized at least the first problem, and he did not try to simply impose nineteenth century concepts on the twentieth.  But Kaplan’s defense of Kissinger suffers from not recognizing these tensions.


Kaplan argues that the nature of communist regimes made it necessary for the U.S. to maintain power, including mutually assured destruction threats, to preserve the status quo and prevent Communist expansion (pointing to the horrors of life under communism); this argument combines realism and idealism.  Anti-communist idealists, arguing from the same premise of the evils of communism, argued against accepting the status quo and in favor of attempting to win the Cold War, seeing permanent MAD/Cold War and the permanent existence of the Iron Curtain as dangerous and illegitimate.  We might have to live with these things for a time, but it was neither necessary nor right to accept them as permanent realities.

The Iron Curtain was an ongoing violation of the sovereignty of Eastern European countries, and sovereignty is a basic premise of realpolitik.  The U.S. engaged in its own version of Soviet suppressions of Hungarian and Czech uprisings in Nixon-Kissinger’s actions toward Chile in supporting Pinochet’s coup.  Again, the “order” realism seeks to make permanent becomes pretty disordered.

When it comes to Chile, even Kaplan isn’t quite comfortable arguing that the end justifies the means.  “[Nixon/Kissinger’s] 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.”  So there’s confusion over whether the coup was justified (it was “better for Chile” to have Pinochet, who tortured, killed and repressed people but oversaw economic progress, reduced poverty and drastically reduced infant mortality; but on the other hand these costs were “perhaps intolerable,” and after all “no amount of economic and social gain” justifies these things.)  In addition, we have the return of the confusion not only what realism really is, but what its ultimate moral justification is.  Is the national interest alone enough, or is the coup justified because it helps the people of Chile?


So much for the definitional and philosophical confusions of Kaplan’s larger moral claims.  Let’s consider his more limited political claims.  Here he scores solid points in many areas.  It really was impressive to improve relations with the USSR while playing it off against China.  It really is true that thawing relations with China while it was still totalitarian under Mao set the stage for its peaceful economic rise, and its transformation into something closer to nineteenth century authoritarian regimes that leave room for evolutionary progress.  Here Kissinger really did help impose nineteenth century framework on the twentieth.

“[Nixon/Kissinger] manage[d] 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,” Kaplan writes.  He points to America’s role under Nixon and Kissinger in saving Israel during the Yom Kippur War, paving the way for eventual Israeli-Egypt peace. 

His defense of Kissinger’s legacy on the Vietnam War, which is a large part of his piece, relies on the idea that maintaining U.S. credibility was necessary to prevent the collapse of its position.  But if the U.S. abandoned a war that was not crucial to its national interests, would it really lose credibility in its promises to protect what was crucial?  If it scaled back its ambitions, would it really be thought to be abandoning any role in the world?  Isn’t realism all about the idea that nations can identify their own and each other’s vital interests, and predict each other’s actions on that basis? 

Kaplan has the tricky task of defending, against conservatives, Kissinger’s scaling back of American ambitions, and defending against liberals the continuation of a war based on earlier, excessive ambitions.  Kaplan’s defense would be that a humiliating U.S. defeat would be a shock to the status quo, would be misinterpreted, and what was needed was a gradual, orderly retreat to a defensible position.  But continuing Vietnam also had a cost of both objective and subjective varieties.  And Kaplan’s argument that our eventual loss was humiliating but not that humiliating, that it preserved some shred of credibility, is just unconvincing. 

It is true that dominoes fell after Vietnam, but they were not strategically crucial dominoes.  The USSR expanded its ambitions in the 1970s; conservatives blame this on détente and surrender in Vietnam.  Kaplan has to blame 70s Soviet ambitions only on surrender in Vietnam, yet at the same time has to claim that Kissinger prevented Vietnam from being even worse and thus saved America’s position for the endgame under Reagan.  Yet the Soviets’ overreach was part of their undoing, so when liberals look at history, they don’t see that anyone has to be blamed for the late 70s expansion of Soviet ambitions.  Rather, we should have simply sat back and watched the Soviets’ inevitable implosion.

This liberal view, too, is problematic.  Liberals went from ridiculing Reagan’s idea that the Soviets were vulnerable, and opposing his policies that were based on that assumption, to agreeing that the Soviets were vulnerable, and therefore arguing that we need not have done anything to exploit these vulnerabilities.

* In the actual, logical meaning of that phrase


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s