The most interesting and important debates over foreign policy within the United States often take place on the Right. Conservatives have long argued America's proper role in the world, not only with liberals, but with one another. Should the United States be assertive in promoting democracy overseas? Should it encourage a "balance" among the world's major powers? The Bush Administration has settled the argument, for the moment, in favor of American global leadership, energetic democracy promotion, and preemption against terrorism. But the foreign policy debate among conservatives will recur, and in that debate, the "realist" policy alternative is sure to find a prominent place. When it does, its advocates will no doubt look for example to Henry Kissinger, the leading spokesman and practitioner of Realpolitik in U.S. foreign policy over the past forty years.
Kissinger advocated what he called a "philosophical deepening" of American diplomacy, whereby the United States would recognize its own limits and focus on bolstering a stable international order, rather than trying to reform other nations or change their systems of government. For Kissinger, the Wilsonian tradition of liberal idealism and democracy-promotion was not the solution to America's predicament; it was the problem. Kissinger wanted to downplay ideology as a basis for identifying threats to the United States. He still considered the USSR to be America's leading political and military adversary, because of the way it behaved internationallybecause it was aggressive and destabilizing. But in his view, Communism itself was no longer the enemy.
In relation to the Soviet Union, President Nixon and his national security advisor entered into a détente of unprecedented scope and seriousness. Under considerable domestic pressure to reduce military spending in any case, and hoping for Soviet cooperation in various Third World hot-spots, the Nixon administration between 1971 and 1974 reached a series of major trade, technical, and arms control agreements with Moscow. In relation to the People's Republic of China, Nixon and Kissinger initiated even more sweeping policy changes. Realizing that China and the USSR had long since fallen out, and that China was the weaker of the two, the Nixon-Kissinger team reached out to Beijing, recognized the People's Republic, and declared American support for the policy of "One China." By playing on Sino-Soviet tensions, and drawing closer to both sides, Kissinger expected the U.S. to gain diplomatic leverage worldwide. This was balance-of-power diplomacy in pure form. Kissinger hoped that the overall improvement in America's relations with both Moscow and Beijing would allow the United States to retrench strategically, without abandoning anti-Soviet containment. A rough balance would be created between the three major world powers, each with its own sphere of influence, creating a more stable international order, and reducing the burden of an internationalist foreign policy upon the United States.
With such a set of dramatic and substantial foreign policy achievements under his belt by the time Nixon resigned in 1974, one might think that Henry Kissinger would have been a popular man within the United Statesand indeed he was, with American public opinion at large, as well as with certain foreign policy experts. But the most striking thing about Kissinger's reception in academic, bureaucratic, journalistic, and political circles was the intense criticism that he received and continues to receivecriticism that only built over time and that crossed ideological boundaries. Liberals attacked Kissinger for being "immoral": for causing or supporting egregious human rights violations in such places as East Timor, Chile, and Indochina; for supporting right-wing dictators overseas; for ignoring local sources of conflict within the Third World; and for simply following a more covert and nuanced version of Cold War strategies that were supposedly outdated by the 1970s. Christopher Hitchens has been a leading spokesman for this school in recent years, going so far as to argue that Kissinger is a "war criminal," but the groundwork for this charge was laid early on by journalists and academics such as Seymour Hersh and Stanley Hoffman. Conservatives, on the other hand, criticized Kissinger for cozying up to Communist dictatorships; for permitting the continued expansion of Soviet influence and military power; and for giving too much to Moscow without any significant benefit in return. Again, this line of criticism was well-articulated by congressional hawks such as Henry ("Scoop") Jackson, as well as by conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley. At the highest level of American politics, Jimmy Carter came to embody the liberal line of attack against Kissinger; Ronald Reagan, the conservative. Interestingly, Kissinger's liberal and conservative critics have always agreed with one another that the United States has a moral obligation to promote democracy overseas, that the internal political arrangements of other countries matter, and that pure Realpolitik in foreign policy is not enough.
Into this debate comes the historian Jussi Hanhimaki, professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, with his new book Flawed Architect, a five-hundred page study of Kissinger's diplomacy that is obviously meant to be definitive. Hanhimaki has the advantage of access to a wider range of primary materials than anyone before him. He has clearly read almost everything on the subject, and the tone of his work is generally scholarly and measured. The sheer, painstaking detail and thoroughness of his narrative provides assorted moments of interest. Having said that, the book is ultimately a disappointment.
To begin with, for all its claims to being "balanced," Flawed Architect is basically a watered-down version of the traditional liberal critique of Kissinger. There are no major reassessments, no stunning revelations, no bold new arguments regarding the fundamentals of Kissinger's diplomacy. In fact, Hanhimaki's perspective is quite conventional among academic historians. Second, the very balance that Hanhimaki seeks makes his work dry and pedantic. One yearns for the polemics of a Christopher Hitchens, if only to have a more stimulating literary experience. Most importantly, the liberal critique of Kissinger that underlies Flawed Architect is itself flawed.
Hanhimaki chides Kissinger for his supposedly immoral approach toward foreign policy. In the case of Chile, for example, Kissinger receives the usual scolding for dark and sinister doings against Salvador Allende. The question that is never discussed is whether allowing a Leninist government to secure power within Chile would have been more "moral" than providing aid to its opponents. Similarly, Hanhimaki blames Kissinger for contributing to "immense human suffering" in places such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and East Timor. Yet one pores over Flawed Architect in vain for any direct evidence that Kissingeror for that matter the United Stateswas actually responsible for these terrible events. Was it Kissinger, or Suharto, who ordered the killings in East Timor? Was it Kissinger, or Pol Pot, who launched mass murder in Cambodia? Was it Kissinger or the Pakistani army that waged war against the people of Bangladesh? Can Hanhimaki offer any evidence that Kissinger later supported these massacres? He can't, because there isn't any.
Hanhimaki cannot quite bring himself to say that Kissinger is a war criminal, and the reason is revealing. According to Hanhimaki, the entire Cold War policy of the United States was "mistaken," "short-sighted," and "flawed," and since Kissinger operated within that framework, he must be absolved from any special wrongdoing. These charges against American Cold War strategy, like those against Kissinger's supposed immorality, are asserted rather than argued; apparently they are taken for granted in Geneva, and do not need to be supported. Hanhimaki is right about one thing, at least: Kissinger was a Cold Warrior. From Kissinger's perspective, détente was meant to supplement Cold War containment, not to supersede it. If containment was the stick, then détente was the carrot, by which Soviet behavior would be linked to American responses. Détente, that is, was intended as part of a more restrained and inexpensive version of containment. But this is hardly a charge against Kissinger. It is to his credit that he stuck to a strategy of anti-Soviet containment when America's intellectual and cultural elites were abandoning that very policy. It is to his credit that he tried to contain Soviet expansion through an imaginative combination of rewards and punishments. Insofar as his vision failed, it was due primarily to the behavior of the one party that receives remarkably little attention in Hanhimaki's book: the Soviet Union.
Military officers like to say that "the enemy gets a vote." When it came to détente, the USSR had a vote. And in fact, the USSR had its own doctrine of détente, known as "peaceful coexistence," developed well before Kissinger ever came into office. The logic of this doctrine was straightforward, laid out with remarkable candor by Soviet leaders throughout the 1970s. Under peaceful coexistence, the USSR sought to gain Western economic assistance, and minimize the risk of nuclear war. Outside explicit areas of agreement, however, Moscow took it for granted that conflict between capitalism and Communism would inevitably continue. In particular, Soviet leaders believed that their possession of an increasingly strong nuclear deterrent permitted them to support socialist revolution in the Third World without fear of nuclear war. Indeed, by the 1970s Moscow was confident that the global "correlation of forces" was shifting against the United States. Peaceful coexistence, then, emphatically did not mean that the USSR would join the United States in defense of international order. It meant that the Soviet Union would continue to support "national liberation struggles" in the developing world, and to promote its own influence globally, while managing the decline of the United States as smoothly and peacefully as possible.
Needless to say, this is not what Kissinger had in mind. As a series of Cold War crises occurred over the course of the 1970s, the gap between Soviet and American conceptions of détente became quite clear. During the Yom Kippur war, Moscow and Washington wrestled to establish influence in the Middle East. In Angola and Mozambique, the Soviet Union and its Cuban proxy acted to establish and maintain friendly Communist regimes. In 1975, North Vietnamese forces, with Soviet assistance, invaded and conquered South Vietnam. At sea, the USSR deployed a blue-water navy for the first time, capable of global reach. And a protracted Soviet buildup in both conventional and nuclear forces continued to outpace military spending by the United States. The overall sense during these years was that Soviet power and influence was expanding relative to America's, especially in the developing world. Détente only seemed to be smoothing the path for this change in relative positions.
At the heart of the Soviet determination to expand was not only a bid for power but also the conviction that the USSR represented a superior political and socioeconomic system, destined to spread worldwide. For all of his insight and experience on matters of foreign affairs, Kissinger never seems to have taken the ideological underpinnings of Soviet foreign policy all that seriously. The very realism that made him such a brilliant observer and practitioner of balance-of-power diplomacy blinded him to the continuing influence of Marxist-Leninist thinking on the Soviet foreign policy elite. He simply found it hard to believe that a great power like the Soviet Union would not be satisfied with a formal recognition of political and military equality from the world's other superpower. He saw himself as a Metternich, negotiating with restoration France, giving the Soviets incentives for cooperation, tying them into a stable international order. But in fact his position was more akin to Metternich's at the time that Napoleon was still in power, and Europe faced a strong and insatiable French empire. The only solution at that time was to defeat Napoleon; and the only solution to the Cold War, in the long run, was to bring down the Soviet Union.
This, of course, was the position of Kissinger's conservative critics: an end to diplomatic concessions, relentless anti-Soviet containment, and "rollback" where possible, informed by a full appreciation of the evil of Communism. During his time in office, these critics made Kissinger's life difficult, complicating his efforts at linkage, and undermining his strategy of détente. But in the long run, at a fundamental level, they proved to have a better grasp of the Soviet challenge than he did. Reagan, in particular, appreciated both the irrepressible nature of the Cold War conflict and the genuinely idealistic elements within the U.S. diplomatic tradition. Kissinger has said as much, over the past 15 years, in tribute to his onetime adversary.
The current Bush Administration looks to Reagan's example, rather than Kissinger's, for inspiration on matters of national security and diplomacy. Reagan reminded both liberals and conservatives of a number of important lessons: that strength and idealism are not incompatible; that the American people will support a foreign policy that promotes freedom overseas; and that a hard line in the face of tyranny and aggression pays off in the end. Reagan understood what the foreign policy realists did not: that the domestic political arrangements and ideologies of other countries matter, that in themselves they can constitute either a blessing or a threat to the United States. A world in which totalitarian ideologies run freewhether fascist, Communist, or Islamistis a danger to America. A world that is increasingly democratic will be more peaceful, more prosperous, and friendlier to the United States. That is what realists like Kissinger can learn from their conservative critics.
But conservatives can learn from Kissinger, too. They can learn from his unparalleled example of diplomatic skill and subtlety in negotiation; his keen sense of history; his fingertip feeling for geopolitical relations; and his caution with regard to Wilsonian endeavors. In the end, Kissinger and Reagan actually had a great deal in common. Both understood that real threats exist to our security, that diplomacy without power is pointless, that multilateral institutions are largely ineffective in maintaining the peace, that the national interest is not a term of opprobrium, and that morality in politics means taking responsibility for real-world outcomes rather than simply striking a righteous pose. These guidelines may not constitute "realism" in the narrow academic sense, but they are certainly realistic, and they come naturally to conservatives of all types. Conservatives do not believe that utopia is just around the corner; they know that human nature is too imperfect for that. Their approach to foreign policy is therefore not one of empty moralism or giddy anticipation, but rather toughness, prudence, and vigilance. In this sense, when it comes to international politics, all conservatives are realists.