Henry Kissinger’s Excellent Diplomacy
Castlereagh was vilified for helping craft a post-Napoleonic peace that restored the Bourbon dynasty in France and preserved the Continent’s aristocratic order. But this approach, writes Kaplan, was necessary to establish a lasting European peace and foster Britain’s emergence as the dominant world power. Palmerston manifested a complete inconsistency in terms of morality in foreign policy while manifesting a complete consistency in supporting Britain’s internationalist aims. “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.”
This kind of tactical improvisation in the interest of strategic stability is difficult for many to understand or appreciate. But it served Britain well in the nineteenth century, and it served America well in the years of Kissinger’s prominence. “Like Palmerston,” writes Kaplan, “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.” Subsequent political leaders might later find opportunities to foster a more liberal order, but in the meantime the “trick is to maintain one’s power undiminished until that moment.” That’s what Kissinger sought to accomplish during his years serving Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Kaplan acknowledges that it is often searing for some to face the reality that affairs of state sometimes don’t lend themselves to the application of Judeo-Christian morality. But those who act on the necessity of violating such moral precepts and then take 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.” Thus, in the case of Kissinger, to be uncomfortable with him may be natural. “But to condemn him outright verges on sanctimony, if not delusion.”
Indeed, adds Kaplan, you can make a case that Kissinger’s actions and geopolitical sensibilities were quite moral—”provided, of course, that you accept the Cold War assumptions of the age in which he operated.”
Here’s where Kaplan gets particularly interesting, as he punctures much post–Cold War analysis put forth by liberal intellectuals, particularly the idea that the West’s victory was inevitable, and hence the tough U.S. response to the Soviet threat was in many ways unnecessary. No, says Kaplan, the Soviet threat was real, particularly in Europe. Eastern Europe had been reduced to “a vast, dimly lit prison yard” that would have expanded westward but for the military divisions and nuclear weapons of America. It was those military resources, in the hands of U.S. leaders willing to plan for Armageddon, which kept the peace.
Read it all, especially if you are a current policymaker.
UPDATE: It is worth emphasizing just how much more moral Kissinger’s application of realpolitik was when compared with the utterly naïve foreign policy of the Carter administration. As Kaplan makes clear, a strong case can be made for the proposition that the Carter administration’s “morality-based” foreign policy was responsible for more humanitarian disasters than anything Henry Kissinger might have brought about. Indeed, between Carter and Kissinger, the latter saved countless more innocent lives worldwide, while advancing American interests in a manner the Carter administration could only have dreamt of imitating.