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How Do You Explain Henry Kissinger?


THE INEVITABILITY OF TRAGEDY
Henry Kissinger and His World
By Barry Gewen

When the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642, Pope Urban VIII is said to have declared: “If there is a God, the Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If not … well, he had a successful life.”

Henry Kissinger likes that anecdote. He cites it in his writings.

This is, perhaps, projection.

Has Kissinger, sly and witty, revived the tale as a wink toward his elegists? He has surely enjoyed success — secretary of state, winner of the National Book Award and the Nobel Peace Prize — yet always in chorus with charges of sin.

Barry Gewen tackles the contradictions, and offers absolution, in “The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World,” a timely and acute defense of the great realist’s actions, values and beliefs.

“We dismiss or ignore him at our peril,” writes Gewen, a longtime editor at The New York Times Book Review. “His arguments for his brand of realism — thinking in terms of national interest and a balance of power — offer the possibility of rationality, coherence and a necessary long-term perspective at a time when all three of these qualities seem to be in short supply.”

In our current age, when demagogues and dictators once more stomp about the stage, Kissinger is “more than a figure out of history,” Gewen writes. “He is a philosopher of international relations who has much to teach us about how the modern world works.”

We know Richelieu as the archfoe of “The Three Musketeers,” but Alexandre Dumas based the character on a very real prelate whose Machiavellian talents helped hatch the concept of the nation-state. As chief minister to the king of France for most of two decades, he was not above siding with Protestant tyrants to stir chaos in the Holy Roman Empire, and so keep France a pre-eminent power. He “achieved vast successes by ignoring, and indeed transcending, the essential pieties of his age,” Kissinger wrote, admiringly, in his book “Diplomacy” — a history of the craft.

Kissinger, too, has little use for pieties. Canonical neoconservatives, Wilsonian dreamers, crusaders for human rights and other adherents of American exceptionalism ended his active career in government in 1977. Indeed, a striking aspect of Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik is the range of his array of enemies: Dreamy leftists accused him of war crimes as right-wing anti-Communists maligned him as a squish.

Like Richelieu, Kissinger believes that a constellation of states, each striving for its own selfish interests, and offsetting rivals, can bring order in a way no church or empire can. “The well-being of the state justified whatever means,” Kissinger wrote in “Diplomacy” (a book that Gewen calls a near-masterpiece). “National interest supplanted the medieval notion of a universal morality.” Writ larger, a “balance of power replaced the nostalgia for universal monarchy with the consolation that each state, in pursuing its own selfish interests, would … contribute to the safety and progress of all.”

A cold and cynical world, to be sure. But also a more stable one, perhaps.

Gewen’s book is a thoughtful rumination on human behavior, philosophy and international relations, not a womb-to-tomb biography. We learn little about Kissinger’s marriages, children or business clients, or the cultural phenomenon he became in the mid-1970s. The reader will find Max Weber, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche in these pages, but nary a reference to Jill St. John.

What Gewen focuses on, and excels at, is the story of how the rise of gangster dictators left an irradicable impression on the Jewish intellectuals who escaped Nazi Germany before World War II. These men and women — Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau and Kissinger — bent their brilliant minds toward the questions raised by the century’s savagery. They concluded that human beings are timorous and manipulable vessels who could not be relied on to recognize and resist evil — at least not before the Imperial Japanese Navy broke the still of a Sunday morning in Hawaii.

Kissinger, and Gewen, acknowledge a use for Wilsonian romanticism. It is hard to recruit an army with the battle cry: “Restore the balance of power!” It was America’s naïve idealists — bleeding out on Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach in the cause of human rights and justice — who bred Kissinger’s affection for his adopted country. “Nowhere else is there to be found the same generosity of spirit and absence of malice,” Kissinger wrote in his memoirs, as in “small-town America.”

Yet Kissinger “was separated from most other Americans by his sense of tragedy,” Gewen writes. In Germany, “he had seen how the processes of democracy could go disastrously wrong.” Thus, the famous realism. “The task for policymakers in his view is a modest, essentially negative one,” Gewen says: “Not to steer the world along some preordained path to universal justice but to pit power against power to rein in the assorted aggressions of human beings and to try, as best they can, to avert disaster. This is a perspective shaped by pessimism.”

Fair enough. Who will enter an argument about appeasement with Kissinger, whose uncles, aunts and cousins died in the death camps, who fled Germany with his parents and brother as a teenager and returned in soldier’s gear to fight for its liberation in 1944?

Not Gewen, who most capably illustrates how the lessons of Munich steered two generations of American statesmen during the Cold War, and into killing grounds like Southeast Asia: none more so than Kissinger and his boss, Richard Nixon.

As Gewen sees it — accurately, for the most part — Richard Nixon dictated the strategy, and Kissinger supervised its execution. When they clicked, it was magnificent. The rift between the Soviet Union and China may have been, as Kissinger has said, inevitable. But Nixon’s insight to seize the moment and exploit the split was not. On his return from Beijing, and that planet-shaking handshake with Mao Zedong in 1972, Nixon told aides that he hoped his breakthrough would keep the peace for 20 years. By his definition of peace — the absence of a conflagration on the scale of the two world wars — we are now at half a century and counting. Hundreds of millions from China, India and other lands have escaped famine and want and acquired stakes in a global economy in which all agree that a nuclear war would be bad for business.

It’s Kissinger’s embrace of “whatever means” and his facile dismissal of the “medieval notion” of universal morality that give critics ammunition. The ends were grand, but the means so often awful. Nixon and Kissinger expanded the war in Southeast Asia, leaving Laos a cratered wreck, Cambodia a charnel house, Americans at each other’s throats and Vietnam with an armistice that yielded neither peace nor honor. They countenanced the right-wing coup in Chile and stood by as the government of Pakistan launched a genocidal campaign against its Bengali minority. For all the billions on the prosperous side of the scale, there are a million and more on the counterweight who saw loved ones slaughtered and tortured and homes destroyed, who died horrific deaths in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile and Bangladesh in the service of power politics. Nixon and his right-hand man made the calculation that these lives were worth the sacrifice. Pope Urban had it right. If there is a God, Kissinger has much to answer for.

Gewen does not dodge the butcher’s bill. He takes on the “war crimes” arraignments in chapters on Chile and Southeast Asia, concluding that the threat posed by Chilean socialism to hemispheric tranquillity generally absolved the United States for helping to foster a bloody coup, and that the Cold War necessity of preserving U.S. “credibility” and “prestige” justified Nixon’s callous choice of four more years of war in Southeast Asia.

Often, Gewen is persuasive — and often persuasively reasonable. He endorses Kissinger’s realism, but he is not an absolutist. “Without a moral component,” he writes, “foreign policy could be a rotten, blood-drenched business.” He notes how times can change — how Ronald Reagan’s Wilson-like crusade against Communism seems, for the late 1980s, as apt as Kissinger’s policy of détente a decade earlier. Yet when proposing Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik as a model foreign policy for our time, he chooses to portray Nixon and his adviser at their most penetrating. That is overselling. After learning of the White House secret taping system, Kissinger rightly feared that he would come across as a “perfect fool” for his groveling. The tapes serve as a fact check for historians, showing the unsightly side of Kissinger: craven, wrongheaded, paranoid.

The author says that the moment for Nixinger’s realpolitik philosophy “has come round again.” In the 21st century, American foreign policy “has bounced from crisis to crisis with uncertain aims and little or no long-range outlook. Henry Kissinger’s philosophy of realism provides both.”

As with almost any question involving Nixon, the answer is “Yes, but.” Gewen doesn’t posit how Kissinger would apply his philosophy to specific challenges like Islamic fundamentalism, Russian cyberwarfare, Brexit, immigration, the loss of American high-wage jobs or the decline of national allegiance among those most profiting from globalization. But we would be wise to remember that, along with the virtues that Gewen finds in Kissinger’s performance, there was also incoherence, irrationality and shortsightedness. Kissinger may have much to teach, but we take him as our model with care. Realists in sway to power can be just as unhinged as crusaders with a cause.

Listen to the tapes from December 1971, as Pakistan slid to war with India. Nixon and Kissinger tilted toward Pakistan — in part because it was serving as their conduit to China, in part because India had signed a treaty with the U.S.S.R. and in no small part because the terminally insecure Nixon felt slighted by Indira Gandhi.

Violating U.S. law, Nixon and Kissinger moved arms to Pakistan. They viewed the conflict through a Cold War prism, instead of a regional rivalry, and, ranting in the Oval Office, nudged each other toward a nuclear “final showdown” with the Soviet Union. “I consider this our Rhineland,” Kissinger raved. If India was allowed to dismember Pakistan it would wreck the balance of power, reward aggression and the United States would be “finished … through … forever.”

Nixon brought Kissinger back to his senses — and then fretted in private that his national security adviser might need psychiatric care. The lessons of Munich can be overlearned. A world viewed only through the lens of power can be as dangerous as that soaked in sentiment. Kissinger and his kindred spirits may be right to alert us to the shortcomings of faith, hope and democracy. But for all of the merits that Gewen identifies in Kissinger, realism, too, is no guarantee against delusion.

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