Rescuing Realpolitik from Henry Kissinger

Posted March 17, 2024

Categories: Articles, Featured, Human Rights


Henry Kissinger wrote his doctoral dissertation about Europe’s “long peace” after the defeat of Napoleon, focusing on how conservative statesmen negotiated the Concert of Europe through a mixture of diplomacy and military power. Kissinger was enamored of this approach to achieving an “equilibrium of forces.” The lesson he absorbed, and later applied as a presidential advisor, was the imperative of suppressing rebellious elements, be they reactionary or revolutionary, in order to preserve a stable status quo.

It was this seemingly old-fashioned approach to geopolitics that Kissinger smuggled into the second half of the twentieth century. He saw no role in global affairs for morality, particularly in its modern version of human rights. He spent long hours analyzing the global balance of power in order to reinforce a world order favorable to the United States. He wanted to sustain the “long peace” of the Cold War even if it meant the deaths of millions of people who lived far from Washington, Moscow, or the Berlin Wall.

Many obituaries of the recently deceased centenarian have highlighted his high crimes and misdemeanors: his recommendations to expand the Vietnam War to Cambodia, his role in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile, his support for Pakistan’s generals as they slaughtered up to 3 million people in East Pakistan, his effective greenlighting of Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor and Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus.

Kissinger certainly shares responsibility for this catalogue of war crimes. In this respect, he is no different from many of the despots whose rings he kissed: Mao in China, Brezhnev in the Soviet Union, Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran. Because he spoke their idiom—a transnational language of power salted with frequent brutality—Kissinger could serve as the ideal interlocutor between a putatively democratic country and a series of dictatorships.

Kissinger was thus a throwback to previous centuries of statecraft when force of arms took precedence over force of argument. What made him different—larger than life and attractive to autocrats and celebrities alike—was the country that he served. If Kissinger had been a foreign minister in post-war Austria or Germany, he would not have had such global impact. Instead, having relocated as a young man to America before World War II, he became a Metternich with nukes. And that was a very dangerous thing indeed.

But aside from the fingerprints he left on any particular atrocity, Kissinger’s insertion of his version of realpolitik into U.S. foreign policy will represent perhaps his most toxic legacy.

Getting Real

The concept of realpolitik, formulated in 1853 by German theorist Ludwig August von Rochau, was a challenge to liberals of the time to “get real”—to acknowledge that apex predators rule the jungle. That didn’t mean, in Rochau’s book, to go all “red in tooth and claw” in response. Rochau simply reminded his fellow liberals that ideals and moral suasion would not necessarily win the day. As Rochau put it rather elegantly, if you want “to bring down the walls of Jericho, the Realpolitik thinks that lacking better tools, the most simple pickaxe is more effective than the sound of the most powerful trumpets.”

The conflict between a policy based on the world as it should be (idealism) and one grounded in the world as it is (realism) engaged many a thinker and government official in the decades since Rochau. Kissinger’s innovation, such that it was, involved the application of realpolitik, a term encrusted with many associations over the years, to the realm of the Cold War.

During that 40-year span, in an atmosphere of compulsive and often compulsory anti-Communism, conservatives maintained an unrelenting hostility toward the Soviet Union, China, and their sympathizers. Liberals did too, for the most part, though they were notably pinker in their approach to domestic policy. Progressives on the other hand favored détente with Communist regimes, either out of sympathy for some putatively shared socialist goals or out of a fear of nuclear war.

Kissinger didn’t care about those forms of ideology. He looked at geopolitics as if it were a game in which the players must outmaneuver one another for maximum gain (no game, no gain). Ideology was just so much heavy baggage that could prevent the odd alliances necessary for such game-playing. Thus, Kissinger urged the Nixon administration to negotiate an opening with China to drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow. And he favored nuclear arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union not because he was a fan of disarmament but because he believed the United States could profitably redirect its resources in order to retain (or regain) a strategic advantage.

This single-minded focus on geopolitical advantage rendered all other considerations irrelevant. Kissinger once asserted that “nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo.” It was no accident that the axis of history overlapped the axis of his personal fortune. Kissinger made much money from helping companies invest in the same China that he’d helped to open years before. No surprise that some of his most flattering obituaries have come from the Chinese.

The categories of idealism and realism inevitably became entwined in Kissinger’s mind. He wasn’t bowing to any reality by driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union. He was creating a reality, a version of the world as he wanted it to be. He was not rigorously anti-ideological. He was pursuing an ideology of his own making, a liberal internationalism presided over by the United States. He simply embraced Deng Xiaping’s preference for an effective mice-catcher regardless of the color of its fur.

Kissinger’s Legacy

Let’s get realpolitik here for a moment.

The Biden administration, looking at the geopolitical map, could decide that the current alliance between China and Russia does not serve U.S. interests or those of its European allies. It could decide that even though Chinese policies have become considerably more nationalistic and assertive over the last decade, the leadership in Beijing today is certainly more level-headed than were Mao and his advisors in the late 1960s. Borrowing a page from Kissinger’s book, Biden might decide to dial down the current anti-China enmity in the United States and semi-secretly negotiate a rapprochement that effectively drives a wedge (once again) between Beijing and Moscow. This deal would be considerably more equitable than what Kissinger managed, given the current size of the Chinese economy, but the effect would be comparable: a reduction of Russia’s influence.

When Kissinger’s brand of Chinapolitik prevailed in the 1970s, critics accused him of selling out the Tibetans and the Taiwanese, among others. If the Biden administration were to revive this strategy, critics would similarly accuse the president of abandoning the Uighurs and the Taiwanese.

But this time, Washington would have another, rather un-Kissinger-like priority: decarbonizing the global economy. Cooperation with China could speed innovation, direct more investments on an international level toward sustainable energy, and help to rewrite the rules of the global economy to make the transition away from fossil fuels possible. The argument for China to downgrade its relationship with Russia would rest not on the latter’s human rights record but on its stubborn dependence on a petro-economy.

The question, then, is whether this kind of chess-playing diplomacy can be stripped of its national arrogance—increasing the power and status of the United States—and applied to collective goals like saving the planet. In this case, as in the 1970s, ideals like human rights would not be jettisoned but rather delinked from singular priorities. In the 1970s, nuclear arms control agreements were largely protected from conditionalities like adherence to this or that human rights convention; today the same would apply to climate agreements.

To be clear, Kissinger-style realpolitik lives on in its most noxious forms. The Biden administration is making deals with the Saudi government regardless of its human rights record, much as Kissinger disregarded the Shah’s ruthlessness in Iran. What Kissinger did with Pakistan, a succession of U.S. administrations is now doing with India, this time in the name of containing China rather than opening it up. Trump’s greenlighting of Turkey’s invasion of Syria echoed Kissinger’s backing of Turkey’s incursion into Cyprus.

But the world has also moved on from the Kissinger era. Human rights agreements, institutions, and civil society organizations exert a powerful influence on global policy. The United States no longer has quite the free hand that it did in the 1970s; both China and the European Union represent alternative centers of power. Countries of the Global South—Brazil, South Africa, India—have taken their revenge on Kissinger by becoming important geopolitical players.

At 100, Henry Kissinger had become an anachronism, much as his version of realpolitik was an anachronism when he reintroduced it into U.S. policy in the 1960s and 1970s. Pragmatism, of course, has long been an engine of politics. But a systematic indifference to moral concerns became untenable after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, two years before Kissinger submitted his undergraduate thesis at Harvard.

From Ukraine to Climate Change

Now that Kissinger is gone, it’s time to reassess realpolitik for this era.

Over the last decade, Kissinger viewed Ukraine as part of Russia’s “sphere of influence,” though near the end of his life he shifted to supporting Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Either way, he was calculating the likelihood of different scenarios based on his assessment of the balance of power on the ground. Although it would be ludicrous to ignore such assessments, it’s critically important to incorporate international law and human rights in any policy recommendation, namely that Russia violated international law by invading Ukraine and has committed extensive atrocities during the war. Negotiations that contribute to undermining these norms, along with Ukrainian sovereignty, would represent the worst kind of realpolitik, as does the notion that Ukraine should “give up” simply because Russia has a larger and stronger military.

Support for Ukraine on these grounds is no mere idealism. The UN, after all, exists, as does international law. A realpolitik rescued from Kissinger would acknowledge power politics and the ruthless reality of military force but would nevertheless find ways to assert the importance of norms and strengthen the hand of the weak, the poor, and the victimized.

Even more critically, the planet needs a new realpolitik for the waning of the Anthropocene era.  Addressing climate change is not idealistic or ideological. It is also not in the interests of a single country or some subset of UN member states. Rather, the rising water, the burning wildfires, and the super-storms are as real as it gets—for all countries. But to address these problems fairly requires adherence to norms of equity, for instance in the climate debt the Global North owes the Global South so that it too can transition away from fossil fuels.

That’s what Rochau was driving at when he coined the term realpolitik. Addressing climate change will require a hard look at the powerful forces maintaining the fossil-fuel status quo and a forging of alliances across disparate ideologies. But it will also need that ingredient that Kissinger scorned: a respect for rights and international law.

Kissinger is gone. By purging geopolitics of his antiquated notions of amorality, let’s put to rest his toxic legacy as well.

FPIF, December 6, 2023

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