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.
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.
Kaplan’s ode to Kissinger is a reminder that foreign policy does not run on the same set of perspectives as domestic policy. But, it’s just as complicated and tribal. What gives realism its intellectual and practical force is its parsimony. What Kaplan does not ask is, if balance of power is still relevant in the 21st Century.
This is powerful stuff, a direct challenge to much of the thinking that passes for conventional wisdom these days, particularly on the left. Kaplan’s article is primarily about Kissinger and his place in history, which the writer believes will generate ever-greater respect with the march of time and the added perspective that time engenders. But it is also very much about fundamental foreign-policy principles—how great nations such as the United States navigate through the shoals of an angry world. “Realism,” writes Kaplan, “is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: the avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power.” That was the Kissingerian perspective, seen through countless actions and decisions over eight tumultuous and ultimately successful years in American global policy making. Kaplan sums up: “Henry Kissinger’s classical realism—as expressed in both his books and his statecraft—is emotionally unsatisfying but analytically timeless.”
People discount how, if we dismiss morality for timelesness or objectivity, we can also go beyond truth to do what is right. The ways humans take the narrowest course, and then forget, is infinitely more interesting than trying to approach perfection.