Welcome Back to Kissinger’s World
Neoconservatism has died, and liberal internationalism is discredited. Perhaps it’s time to return to the ideas of one of the last century’s greatest realists.
Listen to this article
You can hate Henry Kissinger and think him evil. What you can’t do is ignore him—especially now. So argues Barry Gewen in his incisive new intellectual history of Kissinger and his times, The Inevitability of Tragedy. Indeed, not only can we not ignore the old statesman, who turned 97 in May, but we need him more than ever. To be precise, we desperately need Kissinger’s ideas and instincts about how to muddle our way through a world that, we now realize, isn’t working very well—and probably never will.
The world, from Washington’s perspective especially, has gotten Kissingerian again. America’s crusades are over or at best are corroded and crumbling at their derelict foundations. The Wilsonian crusaderism that transformed sensible Cold War containment into a futile and delusional battle against the myth of monolithic communism, ending horribly in Vietnam; and then reawakened in the post-Cold War era as a neo-Reaganite call to end “evil” regimes, finishing tragically in Iraq, has all but exhausted itself. No one wants anything to do with transforming the world anymore—so much so that Americans put a frank neo-isolationist, Donald Trump, in the White House so that he could shut the country off from the world.
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated Trump’s agenda, inspiring a new wave of “America First” isolationism, as his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, argued in a recent essay calling for a reversal of U.S. economic offshoring in response to China’s “predatory trade and economic policies” and deceptions over the origins of the pandemic. The Trump administration is even invoking the power blocs of previous eras, mulling the creation of an “Economic Prosperity Network” of like-minded countries that would detach themselves from China. With the 2020 presidential race in full swing, Democrats too are sounding more and more like Cold Warriors toward China, with the party’s presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, hammering Trump for his occasional praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping. And as a party, Democrats are questioning as never before liberal internationalist institutions that came out of their own tradition, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO)—largely because of a growing sense of grievance that China has exploited and violated WTO rules to rob middle-class Americans of their jobs.
The United States is not ready for any of this. Certainly, U.S. diplomats have not figured a way out of it. To be sure, the liberal international order and the system of alliances that emerged out of World War II three-quarters of a century ago still exist, thankfully, and we’ll continue to make use of them. But mistrust among allies is high, cooperation all but nonexistent, and each country seems inclined to go its own nationalist way. Global institutions like the United Nations and WTO have become meek poor relations at the table, pleading for policy scraps, while Washington, Beijing, and Moscow jostle for a seat at the head. Among nations the great ideological struggles are over—or at least in deep hibernation. Over the course of the past century or so, we have witnessed the debunking of monarchy, authoritarianism, fascism, communism, and totalitarianism, each of them tried and tested to destruction. And now, to a degree, we are also experiencing the failures of democracy, which in so many places seems polarized into paralysis, as in Washington, drowning in memes of misinformation and hacked by malign external forces like Russia. We have also seen how capitalism—though it bested Cold War communism in terms of ownership of the means of production—has proved grossly unequal to the test of producing social equity. The world’s chosen system is prone to continual collapse.
Just as significant, American prestige and power are as low as they’ve been in living memory, especially following Trump’s divisive, polarizing first term, which culminated most recently in international condemnation of his brutal approach to the protests that erupted following the killing of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis. Beyond that, the president’s puerile jingoism and fumbling coronavirus response have only completed the road to reputational ruin begun under President George W. Bush. It is difficult now to remember how high American prestige was less than two decades ago, as recently as Sept. 10, 2001—that post-Cold War unipolar moment when the Yale University historian Paul Kennedy observed that the lone superpower had surpassed even ancient Rome in economic and military dominance—and how quickly that went off course. In what was possibly the worst strategic misdirection in U.S. history, Bush and his neoconservative abettors (who are all in hiding now, conceptually speaking) turned what should have been a globally unifying struggle against the international community’s remaining criminal holdouts, Islamist terrorists, into an exhausting imperialist game of invasion and whack-a-mole, exposing in the process America’s worst vulnerabilities on the ground and in the air. Then Bush did commensurate damage to the U.S. economy, ending in the Wall Street crash and Great Recession. China, meanwhile, rose and spread its monied influence across the world, Vladimir Putin preened and plotted, and the Viktor Orbans, Narendra Modis, and Jair Bolsonaros went their own ways. And Americans, disgusted with how badly they’d been misled, responded first by electing a freshman senator (Barack Obama) who rose to prominence by calling Iraq a “dumb war” and who then vacillated for eight years over U.S. involvement overseas and finally by embracing America First populism.
All this brings us directly back to Kissinger, the great realist Hans Morgenthau (who was his mentor), and the fierce geopolitical urgency of now. Global anarchy beckons, and proliferating great-power rivalries demand savvy, hardheaded strategic diplomacy of the kind that Morgenthau conceived in theory and Kissinger mastered in practice. This appears to be the main message of Gewen’s book, which demands to be studied, especially at a moment when Sinophobia is surging and Beijing is giving back as good as it gets. For China today, Gewen writes, is “the Apatosaurus in the room.”
The answer to the future of U.S.-China relations—and the global peace and stability that largely depend on getting them right—may lie in the past, Gewen suggests. It’s no small coincidence that Kissinger and his philosophy had their moment in the sun at a time of U.S. weakness, during the Vietnam War, civil unrest, Watergate, and the stagflation of the 1970s, when diplomats had to find common ground and a balance among the major powers. Because a weakened and disordered Washington may be in an analogous place today vis-à-vis China, Kissinger’s favorite subject and the focus of his greatest diplomatic triumphs. In particular, Washington needs a reversion to tried and tested realpolitik that will be deft enough to turn great-power rivalry into a stable and peaceable modus vivendi. As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a scholar of China who has watched Beijing’s rise up close, wrote in a recent essay about the coronavirus pandemic in Foreign Affairs: “The uncomfortable truth is that China and the United States are both likely to emerge from this crisis significantly diminished. Neither a new Pax Sinica nor a renewed Pax Americana will rise from the ruins. Rather, both powers will be weakened, at home and abroad. And the result will be a continued slow but steady drift toward international anarchy.”
Yet it is just this likelihood of mutual weakness between the two great world powers that may provide a way out. The answer begins by recognizing and accepting what we face today—which is a permanently gray world. This is hard to accept for Americans, who for several generations since World War II and in the triumphalist aftermath of the Cold War have grown used to unquestioned world dominance. But it is largely this chaotic 21st-century world that Morgenthau, though largely forgotten now except in academia, presciently described in the ur-text of modern realism more than 70 years ago, Politics Among Nations, and which Kissinger expanded on in his diplomatic career, as Gewen brilliantly documents in his book. Morgenthau anticipated the present breakdown in the belief about the progress of human society when he said that the rationalists who pined for perfection in human governance and society denied the “inevitability of tragedy,” to pick up Gewen’s main theme. That is what every great statesman has known—that the “choices he faced were not between good and evil … but between bad and less bad,” writes Gewen, a longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review (who, full disclosure, has occasionally assigned me reviews). This describes much of Kissinger’s career, including the opening to China, the 1973 truce in the Middle East, even the chaotic and bloody end to the Vietnam War and the thousands of lives lost Kissinger must have on his conscience.
Kissinger, it is true, is not an easy man to restore to good public opinion, as Gewen notes in considerable detail. Kissinger and Richard Nixon oversaw the brutal campaign to force Hanoi to the table, dropping more bombs on Cambodia than all the bombs Allies dropped in World War II, ultimately leading to hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths; that policy, along with their indifference to the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh and apparent support of the coup in Chile, helped provoke a generation of prominent liberals from Seymour Hersh to Christopher Hitchens to label Kissinger a paranoiac and a war criminal. There was always a duplicity about his beliefs and shrouding of his motives—he knew that Americans weren’t going to fight to, in his words, “preserve the balance of power.” (Gewen notes that Kissinger had concluded as early as 1965, after a visit, that Vietnam was unwinnable but still supported the war.) Gewen tries to place Kissinger in the lineage of German Jewish thinkers who escaped the Holocaust and were haunted by the failures of Weimar democracy, along with Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt—though he’s not entirely persuasive here, given that some of Strauss’s often-obscure ideas later inspired the neocons and another such European refugee from Hitler, Madeleine Albright (nee Korbel), ended up a passionate hard-power Wilsonian.
But Kissinger’s ideas have more resonance now because we are clearly in a place similar to the American weakness in the ’70s, when foreign-policy elites weren’t thinking of triumph but just survival, as they should be now, especially when America’s internal problems are arguably as enervating as they were back then. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of Gewen’s book is that after spending hundreds of pages delving into the biographical and historical sources of Kissinger’s nuanced, Hitler-haunted realism, the author doesn’t apply it much to the present—and only fleetingly to China. Because there is no greater vindication of Kissingerian realism than what has happened in China during the first decades of the 21st century. After a quarter century in which it became fashionable in Washington to think that co-opting China into the post-Cold War system of global markets and emerging democracies would gradually nudge that country toward Enlightenment norms—what Kissinger once archly called “the age-old American dream of a peace achieved by the conversion of the adversary” —such illusions have faded away. All we have left is an emerging superpower that fits Kissinger’s hardheaded view of a country he visited some 100 times, dating back to his first talks with Mao Zedong. And if Kissinger’s analysis is correct—as it probably is—the United States and China can find accommodation if they work at it, with preaching kept to a minimum.
What the post-Cold War triumphalists didn’t understand, Gewen writes, is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union we confronted “a world without ideology, in which transcendent prescriptions for democracy were no answers to the problems at hand.”
Indeed, it has become far worse than that. We should frankly confront the postmodern reality that all hopes for the perfectibility of society and governance have fallen short; there is no longer any Great Cause to launch a revolution over. Thomas Jefferson’s “ball of liberty,” which Americans once expected to roll unfailingly across the globe, has ended up in a gutter. The recent Nations in Transit report from Freedom House documents a “stunning democratic breakdown”—in particular pointing to failures in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, saying that there are “fewer democracies in the region today than at any point since the annual report was launched in 1995.” History will trundle on, weak Afghan-like states will continue to fail, and democracies and autocracies like the United States and China will remain in contention with each other. But no one should delude themselves any longer that this clash of wills will yield some Great Teleological Outcome—a resolution in favor of one form of social and political organization over another.
As a result, as Kissinger once explained, “Almost every situation is a special case.” The new rise of nationalism, he wrote, might seek “national or regional identity by confronting the United States.” This is what Xi’s China has done. Indeed, many of today’s nationalists are responding to Washington as the Soviets once did, consolidating national control by playing up the threat from foreign enemies. And neonationalism across the globe should be dealt with in the same jujitsu manner George Kennan recommended against the Soviet Union: Reduce the perceived threat from the United States, and authoritarian systems like China’s are more likely to wither on their own. (Even now Xi may be facing a serious internal challenge; Rudd, in his Foreign Affairs essay, writes that Xi’s coronavirus response “has opened up significant political dissension within the Chinese Communist Party, even prompting thinly veiled criticism” of his “highly centralized leadership style.”) As Gewen notes, Kissinger observed in his 2011 book, On China, that even Mao, the Marxist revolutionary responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese, was no ideologue like Lenin but a “China-first” nationalist and represented a country that had its own sense of exceptionalist insularity—like the United States—but unlike the Americans the Chinese regime saw little need for missionary zeal and proselytizing abroad. China today is buying influence everywhere. But creating so-called debt colonies around the globe is a lot less threatening than outright conquest.
The key is not to overreact. And the choice is stark for both countries, Gewen writes. “One way or another, either through an intellectual evolution that accepts limits and diplomatic compromise or through the wholesale shedding of blood, they will have to give up their cherished exceptionalism for a Westphalian system of international diversity and a more modest, if uncomfortable, equilibrium.” Moreover, Washington and Beijing will need to bring in other major world powers to accept this new balance of power.
Kissinger anticipated much of this outcome, Gewen writes. Decades ago he foresaw that the Reagan era and the Cold War’s end would not prove a new beginning for American-style liberal democratic capitalism, as the neocons believed and liberal internationalists hoped, but was more “in the nature of a brilliant sunset.” While Kissinger conceded, as always, that Wilsonian idealism would continue to define the heart of U.S. foreign policy, he wrote that even in the triumph of the Cold War—which he admits was partly won by the primacy of human rights in the debate (especially its role inside the Soviet bloc)—U.S. leaders would have to articulate a new balance of power “to preserve equilibrium in several regions of the world, and these partners can not always be chosen on the basis of moral considerations alone.”
China too is engaged today in a self-searching debate about how far it can go in global dominance, and the country’s long history of geopolitical caution (in deed if not always in word) is encouraging. Amid all this self-doubt and mutual probing of “limits”—one of Kissinger’s favorite words—lies the possibility of common ground, even if the two economies decouple in terms of supply chains and financial codependence. For without smart, aggressive diplomacy to find a new balance of power, there is the possibility of a catastrophic, even world-ending misstep. In particular, Kissinger—perhaps the most profound student of the centurylong peace that began with the Congress of Vienna and ended in August 1914—worries about the pre-World War I descent into aggression, an especially scary prospect in a nuclear age. Like many in Washington and Beijing today, Europe’s leaders back then blithely thought “risk taking was an effective diplomatic tool,” Kissinger wrote.
Now Beijing is lining up armies of bots and billions of dollars against U.S. democracy, and many in Washington are recklessly calling for a new cold war to confront “the imperialists in Beijing” who are “a menace to all free peoples,” in the words of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a rising star in the Republican Party. First task of this dangerous new agenda: withdraw from the WTO, under which China has “bent and abused and broken the rules of the international economic system to its own benefit” and cost 3 million American jobs, Hawley said in a May 20 speech.
The stakes for solving the issues between Washington and Beijing are hard for Americans to digest but in their essentials fairly simple: The two sides need to agree to disagree about certain fundamental beliefs, Kissinger says. The Americans will never give up their commitment to human rights and personal freedom, and the Chinese will never stop being mostly focused on maintaining stability in their vast populace, thus giving short shrift to human rights and freedom. On moral and cultural grounds, this is an irreconcilable stalemate. On economic grounds too, there is only the prospect of diplomatic compromise. China has flagrantly stolen U.S. intellectual property and exploited open U.S. markets by flooding them with state-subsidized cheap products—another great failure of the George W. Bush administration was neglecting to invoke WTO “anti-surge” rules to blunt this—and Trump’s trade war has made no headway against such practices. The way forward? Muddle through. Or, as Kissinger put it, find a “pragmatic concept of coexistence” not unlike Cold War-era detente, when a Vietnam-embogged and stagflation-encumbered America was also in no shape to conduct ideological crusades and instead got into bed with Beijing while negotiating arms restraint with Moscow. Keep the pressure on diplomatically but fudge the fundamental issues, as smart diplomats have always done. Because the alternative—constant conflict and war in the South China Sea that could potentially go nuclear—is unthinkable. “Ambiguity,” Kissinger said, “is sometimes the lifeblood of diplomacy.”
Another issue that both Kissinger and Morgenthau foresaw is that the more populist democracy becomes, the less able it is to conduct reliable foreign policy. Morgenthau, who later broke with Kissinger over his opposition to the Vietnam War, especially saw the effect popular democracy would have on professional diplomacy—an impact that is all too apparent in the Trump administration but also affected the ever dithering Obama and Bush administrations. Kissinger picked up this theme in his 2001 book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, and in a 2018 article in the Atlantic that Gewen describes as his “final lesson as a self-appointed educator of the American public.” In the growth of cyberspace, Kissinger perceived a “growing anarchy, which he equated with a Hobbesian state of nature in which the prospect of world order receded ever further from view … and in his mind the computerization of the world encouraged a kind of irresponsible thinking that was deleterious to rational judgment at best, disastrous at worst.”
In making this assessment, Gewen writes, Kissinger revealed a side of himself that his many detractors would find hard to believe: Kissinger the humanist. The algorithms and amassing of data in cyberspace—some of it sound, much of it not—threatened to undermine or even destroy good common sense. “[T]he successful conduct of foreign policy demands, above all, the intuitive ability to sense the future and thereby to master it,” Kissinger argued. Anticipating future pitfalls, and relying more on pragmatic common sense than providence, is something Americans have to keep relearning. Even the deistic Founders saw Providence on their side, and later American leaders like Ronald Reagan believed themselves to be doing the will of God. Kissinger admired Reagan for his principled stand against the Soviets, but he also ironically referred back to a quote from the proto-realist he so admired, Otto von Bismarck, who said, “The best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get hold of the hem of his cloak, and walk with Him a few steps of the way.” Kissinger appealed not to God but instead to a “metaphysical humility,” Gewen writes, “an understanding that mere humans would never know all they needed to know as they engaged in the dangerous game of international affairs.”
That lack of certainty sounds squishy, but what is worse is to be too hard and unyielding—in a word, arrogant. Hubris, a lack of humility, and an excess of moralizing led to the worst disasters in modern U.S. foreign-policy history, the invasions of Vietnam and Iraq. A close review of the debates leading up to Vietnam, which Gewen delivers in some detail, and the Iraq invasion reveals the lamentable extent of overconfidence among U.S. policymakers in the God-given righteousness of America’s cause. (The infamous phrase with which Bush made his final case for the Iraq invasion was, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”) Did Reagan win the Cold War, as many conservatives believe? Even Kissinger has acknowledged that Reagan’s confrontational approach, as opposed to detente, “had much to recommend it.” But mainly Reagan was lucky; he was the man who was in the room when 40 years of strategic patience—the policy of containment—paid off. (Reagan himself must have known how lucky he was, since he was still desperately trying to negotiate arms reduction with Moscow, much to the consternation of the hard-liners in his own second term, even as the Soviet system was collapsing internally.) Kissinger himself foresaw as well as anyone that slow and steady would eventually win the Cold War race, and even Kennan, the father of containment, once remarked that Kissinger “understands my views better than anyone at [the State Department] ever has.”
In the end, the choice in front of us is not as difficult as we may think. Kissinger lamented Wilsonianism’s excesses but conceded that it still formed the bedrock of American foreign policy. And a consensus is possible if the Wilsonians accept that American sovereignty and hard power will always be sacrosanct and the America Firsters accept that the liberal international order the United States created, flawed as it is, will remain far more a protector than an antagonist, not least because it has gained majority consensus in the world and helps take the raw edge off Washington’s still dominant military power, preventing would-be rivals like Beijing and Moscow from forming alternative power blocs. Striving openly for U.S. hegemony just won’t work, Kissinger has written, because no international order can survive if it isn’t viewed as just: “The dominant trend in American foreign policy thinking must be to transform power into consensus so that the international order is based on agreement rather than reluctant acquiescence.” Ragged though its dominance is, the United States, as chief author of this international order, still has the upper hand here. Or as Kissinger wrote: “Our goal should be to build a moral consensus which can make a pluralistic world creative rather than destructive.” The task is all the greater today.