His objective was to build, tend and repair a sustainable balance in global affairs.
“Now what can the old fox mean by that?” Klemens von Metternich is supposed to have said when the great French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord died in 1838. Like Talleyrand, my friend and teacher Henry Kissinger spent half a century in the world of high politics, survived the political eclipse of his original employer, grew rich over the course of a controversial career, and demonstrated intellectual and political agility that led some to hail him as a genius and others to curse him as a monster.
Nothing about the public reaction to Kissinger’s death would have surprised him. He had been the object of intense adulation and passionate loathing for more than 50 years. Although he enjoyed the admiration much more than the hate, he was used to both. More than that, he appreciated both sentiments at something like their real worth.
One element of Kissinger’s diplomatic talent was an almost preternatural intuition that let him grasp the worldview of his interlocutors, often understanding them better than they understood themselves. He felt the full intellectual and moral weight of the attacks against him but found the burden less than crushing. This wasn’t because he held morality in contempt. It was because he thought most criticism of his decisions in office reflected a shallow understanding of politics. That understanding, he believed, was often filtered through a partisan reading of history that overlooked the sins of Democratic presidents as it picked obsessively at the faults of Republicans.
Kissinger understood something that too many Americans, on the left and right, find difficult to grasp: Power and morality aren’t opposites. Rather, power is the platform that makes moral action possible for a state. And morality isn’t a set of rules and laws that states are expected to obey. Rather, in international relations, morality involves creating an order that prevents the anarchy and slaughter of great-power warfare. Such an order gains legitimacy not by its perfect adherence to a religious or secular moral code, but by its ability to preserve values and conditions that allow civilizations, and the human beings who inhabit them, to flourish.
The disastrous follies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had left the U.S. in a difficult predicament when Richard Nixon brought Kissinger into the White House in 1969. The overreaching hubris of technocratic intellectuals like McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, along with the naive liberal determinism of Walt Rostow and others, had led the U.S. into an unwinnable and unsustainable war. Worse, as the Soviets reached strategic nuclear parity with the U.S. and the Bretton Woods economic order buckled when the gold standard lost credibility, the entire post-World War II order was in danger of collapse. There was, Nixon and Kissinger believed, no elegant escape from this predicament. Devils had to be supped with, promises had to be broken, and sometimes blood would be left on the floor.
For Kissinger, the construction, tending and repair of a sustainable balance in global affairs was the supreme moral and political challenge of statecraft, especially as nuclear weapons threatened to make great power war unsurvivable. If the restoration of balance required embracing Mao Zedong at the height of his sanguinary career, so be it. If it required more bombs in North Vietnam and Cambodia, then send in the B-52s. Any guilt or shame attached to such moves belonged in his view to those whose follies had left the U.S. with nothing but bad choices.
Politically, Kissinger was a victim of his success. Once America’s position in the world had been restored, Americans turned in revulsion from the methods and the men responsible for turning the tide. Liberals such as Jimmy Carter wanted American foreign policy to focus on human rights. Conservatives such as Ronald Reagan wanted to replace Kissingerian détente with a more robustly anti-Soviet approach. Neither camp fully understood that the ability to pursue far-reaching ideological goals was a consequence of Kissinger’s achievement.
Statesmen err, sometimes with tragic consequences, as rapid-fire decisions are made in an era of crisis. Kissinger always accepted that. He could be sensitive, but I never saw him get truly angry with someone who argued that a decision he made in office was in error.
Although he was angrier when people impugned his morals than when they attacked his decisions, what frustrated Kissinger most was not that some academics and writers held him in moral disdain. It was that he never succeeded in getting a critical mass of Americans to embrace the approach to statecraft that, in his view, offered the greatest chance to secure American interests while preserving our increasingly fragile civilization from the ravages of war.
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Appeared in the December 5, 2023, print edition as ‘Henry Kissinger on Power and Morality’.