Henry Kissinger was an inconsistent opportunist - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Henry Kissinger Richard Nixon

Henry Kissinger was an inconsistent opportunist

No one involved in US politics, apart from a few presidents, has been subjected to as many books and biographies as Henry Kissinger, who died this week at age 100. When he was national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations from 1969-77, he bestrode the global stage like a geopolitical colossus.

The international media, with rare exceptions, often compared his diplomatic successes – from the opening to China to detente and arms control with the Soviets, to the peace agreement that ended the Vietnam War – to those of the great statesmen of the past.

His major controversies – think of the US invasion of Cambodia in 1970 or Washington’s role in the alleged toppling of socialist Salvadore Allende in Chile in 1973 – have also attracted widespread academic and journalistic scrutiny.

After his tenure in government, Kissinger’s views from the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East were keenly sought – so much so, that presidents and presidential candidates alike often invoked his authority when they justified their foreign policy positions.

Kissinger came to be known as a leading intellectual advocate and political practitioner of the “realist” school of foreign policy. A philosophy with antecedents in 19th-century European balance-of-power politics, realism stresses a hard-nosed focus on clearly defined national (economic and strategic) interests that are pursued with a prudent calculation of commitments and resources.

However, in the judgment of several commentators (as varied as Mario Del Pero, Robert Kagan and John Mearsheimer) Kissinger was far more opportunistic and inconsistent than his admirers suggest. His realism was as much a response to domestic politics as it was a cold, hard assessment of the facts of power politics, both during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras.

From the enunciation of the Truman containment doctrine of 1947 until Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War two decades later, “Red” China was isolated, Soviet summitry was often shunned, and the anti-communist crusade was waged from the Korean peninsula and the Berlin Wall to Latin America and Indochina.

By the late 1960s, however, Americans became weary of ideological forays abroad. Kissinger, with a wet finger to the wind, merely provided them with a doctrine that translated that political weariness into a foreign policy of realpolitik, culminating in detente with the Soviet Union and the opening of diplomatic relations with Mao Zedong’s China.

Kissinger’s realism led to a fierce backlash from America’s liberals and conservatives alike.

Ultimately, however, the force of American exceptionalism – the belief that the US is a nation born of a liberal ideal, dedicated to the proposition and claiming a manifest destiny to redeem the world – overcame Kissinger’s political skills and realist agenda.

To be sure, Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s realism was a welcome corrective to the fog of evangelical anti-communism that had clouded US foreign policy. But realpolitik – with secrecy, back channels and a cold eye cast on power, acceptance of the limits of power, a lack of moral prejudices and an appreciation for international balance and stability – was not the language of America’s true believers.

Not for Kissinger was Harry Truman’s pledge “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” or John F. Kennedy’s vow to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”.

Instead, Kissinger sought to emulate the vision of Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich: a concert of great powers that resembled the balance of power after the 1815 Congress of Vienna (on which Kissinger wrote his Harvard PhD thesis). He appeared to lecture fellow Americans on the need to adapt to the their decline in a more plural international environment and adopt policies that would smooth the path to a more limited role in global affairs.

This is why Kissinger’s realism led to a fierce backlash from America’s liberals and conservatives alike. Although they expressed themselves in different ways, Democratic Jimmy Carter (1977-81) and Republican Ronald Reagan (1981-89) rebuked Kissinger for promoting and justifying a foreign policy devoid of humanitarian concerns and moral scruples, and instead proudly proclaimed America’s uniqueness and exceptionalism.

To demonstrate Kissinger’s intellectual dishonesty, the aforementioned Del Pero says that in the 1980s and afterwards he “vainly tried to render himself acceptable to the neo-conservatives and the new right, even embracing some of the critiques they had originally formulated of him and his detente”.

Indeed, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kissinger tried to portray Reagan’s idealism as a continuity with his own eight years of realpolitik in government. Never mind that the Reagan era (defence build-up, the Strategic Defence Initiative, Pershing missiles in Europe, strident anti-communist language) was in striking contrast to the Kissinger era (detente, limits, spheres of influence and balance of power).

Add to this his later writings, including his support for NATO expansion in the 1990s, a preventive war against Iraq in 2003, and even, until recently, his support for China engagement – policies most realists opposed – and it’s clear Kissinger lacked a core philosophy.

All of this is a reminder that Kissinger, for all his gravitas and diplomatic skills, was intellectually dishonest. As his friend and mentor Hans Morgenthau, another Jewish emigre from Nazi Germany, identified in 1975, one of his greatest skills was his ability to “adjust … intellectual conviction to political exigencies” from time to time.

In government as well as in academe, Morgenthau argued, Kissinger operated as a “many-sided” Odysseus, a “polytropos” with multiple faces, whose intellectual philosophy was rarely disinterested. Kissinger was “a good actor who does not play the role of Hamlet today, of Caesar tomorrow, but who is Hamlet today and Caesar tomorrow”.

Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and outgoing presenter at ABC’s Radio National.