The ruthless realpolitik of Henry Kissinger

Whatever else one thinks of the late diplomat, he possessed a seriousness that is totally lacking among Western statesmen today.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics USA World

Henry Kissinger, the most significant statesman of the 20th century, has died at the age of 100.

A consummate practitioner of realpolitik, he was a diplomat very much in the tradition of such 19th-century figures as Klemens von Metternich and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. Like them, he possessed formidable clarity about the pursuit of the national interest in a complicated world.

Kissinger came to the fore as a national-security adviser and secretary of state under US presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the late-1960s and 1970s. And he continued to advise later presidents, too.

Kissinger played a significant role during the Cold War. His major achievement was to oversee America’s diplomatic engagement with China. He also contributed to the US-Soviet arms-control negotiations; to the building of ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours; and to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords between North and South Vietnam, which helped America save face when it withdrew its troops from Vietnam.

Kissinger combined pragmatism with a ruthless pursuit of the American national interest. He was a passionate Cold Warrior, committed to eradicating Communist influence in the Western hemisphere. This led him to engage in many morally objectionable actions. In 1970, he collaborated with the CIA to destabilise and eventually overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile. Later, he enthusiastically supported Argentina’s bloody coup in 1976, urging Argentina’s armed forces to quickly destroy their opponents before Western outcry over human-rights abuses could take hold. Unsurprisingly, he could count numerous military dictators as his friends.

Little wonder that his 1973 Nobel Peace Prize – awarded jointly to North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, who declined the award – proved to be so controversial. Many were outraged that this honour was bestowed upon someone regularly denounced as a war criminal for his ruthless support of America’s imperial ambitions.

There is little doubt that Kissinger was an amoral practitioner of realpolitik. Nevertheless, he possessed a sophisticated understanding of global affairs that is often lacking today, and he understood that there were limits to the projection of American power. He saw his role as resolving global conflict in such a way that would benefit Western interests.

There are few figures like Kissinger around now. In Leadership: Six Studies In World Strategy, published last year, he noted Western leaders’ lack of strategic purpose and intellectual seriousness. And he attributed at least some of the blame to universities for producing ‘activists and technicians’ rather than leaders.

He was right to worry about today’s diplomats and foreign-affairs specialists, almost all of whom have been educated in Anglo-American universities. They tend to regard geopolitics as old-fashioned and outdated. As Harold James, a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University, put it in 2021: ‘Insofar as [geopolitics] represents a false notion of geographical determinism, it is utterly inappropriate for a globalised world.’

Many of today’s globalist statesmen began their rise to prominence during the 1990s. They tend to believe that economic co-operation has overcome all sources of geopolitical tension and conflict. Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States, even once claimed that geopolitics had been displaced by geoeconomics.

Such claims now look foolish. The seemingly endless war between Russia and Ukraine threatens to destabilise global affairs, and the conflict between Israel and Hamas could soon draw in a large number of state and non-state actors. Understanding geopolitics is arguably more important than ever.

Unfortunately, today’s foreign-policy experts and diplomats lack such an understanding. And so they find themselves impotent in the face of the complex geopolitical challenges confronting them.

They are not just poorly trained and educated. Thanks to their cosmopolitanism, they are also thoroughly detached from their nation. Indeed, many officials working for the American State Department or the British Foreign Office regard the concept of national interest as an outdated or populist concept. From their standpoint, the nation has become morally irrelevant. They are far more comfortable fighting global poverty or promoting the rights of sexual minorities in the Middle East than they are with upholding the interests of their own nations. They prefer ideas of multilateralism and international law to the concept of the national interest.

This has had a dire effect on the foreign-policy establishment of the West. In effect, they no longer even understand the interests of the nations they are supposed to be serving. This has made them geopolitically illiterate. And, as a result, Western foreign policy lacks strategic clarity. It responds to global events rather than trying to shape them.

Western diplomats have not only become detached from the national interest, but the past, too. They lack a sense of history. That means they fail to grasp the relationship between geopolitics and the salience of the past.

In 2014, Kissinger noted that Western policymakers were ignorant of the influence of the past on Russia’s attitude to Ukraine. Writing in the Washington Post, he argued that Russia was trying to ‘force Ukraine into a satellite status’. ‘The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country’, he cautioned. ‘Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus… Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.’

It is worth reflecting on Kissinger’s assessment of Russian-Ukrainian relations. Although written over nine years ago, it anticipated the potential for a tragedy of historical proportions if the different sides failed to grasp the historical forces fuelling the conflict.

Of course, Putin and the Russian government bear direct responsibility for the tragedy inflicted on Ukraine. But a lack of Western sensitivity to Russia’s history and its present-day security concerns played a significant role in paving the way for the conflict. If Western policymakers had possessed an awareness of history and of the national interest, they might well have been able to avert the war in Ukraine.

The world is in desperate need of diplomats who understand the art of the possible and act in accordance with the imperative of realpolitik. Whatever else one thinks of Kissinger, he possessed a seriousness and clarity very much lacking today.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

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Topics Politics USA World


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