We Forget Henry Kissinger’s Effectiveness at Our Own Peril

Henry Kissinger was the pre-eminent statesman of post-World War II America. He was not just a policymaker, he was a strategist who thought about the world in conceptual terms and drew on a nuanced understanding of history and geopolitics to guide U.S. statecraft. Mr. Kissinger adhered to a realist intellectual framework that produced enormous strategic payoffs, enabling the United States to pivot from a failing war in Vietnam to a much more limited and restrained version of the Cold War that promoted international stability and restored domestic consensus.

In the aftermath of Mr. Kissinger’s recent death, a chorus of critics has contended that he trampled on American values as he played by the rules of realpolitik, sacrificing human rights and democratic ideals in the service of geopolitical gain. He is guilty as charged. During his tenure as national security adviser and secretary of state from 1969 until 1977, Washington often aided and abetted human suffering and cozied up to odious regimes.

Yet Mr. Kissinger’s immoral excesses do not compromise his accomplishments as a statesman. The pragmatic realism that anchored his effective diplomacy rested on two fundamental principles. First, he understood that international stability depends on preserving an equilibrium of power, which in turn rests on the practice of strategic restraint and the forging of a set of ordering rules that all major states deem to be legitimate. Second, he understood that good strategy means keeping commitments and resources in balance by pursuing attainable ends that are in sync with available means. The result is a brand of statecraft that yields success abroad and support at home.

Today Washington has lost touch with these conceptual anchors and with Mr. Kissinger’s pragmatic realism. Fueled by the ideological hubris that emerged at the Cold War’s end, the United States is coming off two decades of strategic overreach in the Middle East. Mr. Kissinger tamed relations with China and Russia while dividing the Communist bloc, but the United States is now in a dangerous rivalry with both powers that pushes them together. The ends of U.S. policy are today outstripping its political means, exacerbating polarization and the appeal of an “America First” neo-isolationism. As Mr. Kissinger presciently warned in 1957, “the acid test of a policy … is its ability to obtain domestic support.” Washington would now be wise to rediscover the practice of realpolitik as a fractured America seeks to navigate a fractured world.

Mr. Kissinger’s approach to global affairs was heavily influenced by his interpretation of the history of the Concert of Europe, a diplomatic forum that preserved great-power peace in Europe for much of the 19th century. The subject of his first book (“A World Restored”), the Concert was founded in 1815 by Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria after they had finally defeated Napoleonic France. This great-power directorate had the good sense to admit France in 1818, turning a vanquished adversary into a stakeholder in the postwar peace.

The Concert preserved a stable equilibrium of power by providing a forum in which its members could exercise mutual restraint and resolve their disputes peacefully. Restraint applied to ideology as well as to power. Concert members had their political differences, but the five powers agreed to disagree about the merits of liberal reform versus absolute monarchy, thereby preventing matters of ideology and domestic governance from impairing international cooperation. As Mr. Kissinger concluded in “A World Restored,” the architects of the Concert were “statesmen of the equilibrium, seeking security in a balance of forces. Their goal was stability, not perfection.”

Mr. Kissinger turned to restraint to secure his greatest achievement: the U.S. opening to China in the early 1970s, a move that helped the United States preserve an equilibrium of power by putting distance between China and the Soviet Union. China and the United States shared little common ground ideologically, but Mr. Kissinger, like the Concert architects he was modeling, was placing interests before values in the service of geopolitical stability.

As relations between Washington and Beijing matured, he also worked to reduce tensions with Moscow, clearing the way for détente and laying the groundwork for decades of arms control agreements. Exercising restraint toward the Soviet Union was about not only reducing the intensity of East-West rivalry, but also responding to the domestic cleavages opened up by America’s costly war in Vietnam.

Although he initially doubled down on U.S. involvement in the war, Mr. Kissinger came to appreciate that the nation was overstretched abroad. He then sought to bring political means and geopolitical ends back into alignment by withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam, easing tensions with the Soviet Union, and undertaking a broader strategic retrenchment. He helped shape the Nixon Doctrine, a new strategy that called on America’s partners abroad to “assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower” for their own defense.

In the Middle East, Mr. Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” after the 1973 Yom Kippur War laid the groundwork for Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and effectively brought an end to decades of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He did largely set aside the Israel-Palestine piece of the puzzle, focusing instead on incrementally advancing the cause of regional order. He sought stability, not perfection.

Mr. Kissinger did at times stray from his own realist moorings. He continued to wield influence after leaving office, lending support to the launch of NATO enlargement and backing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, policies that many other realists opposed. But such departures from pragmatic realism were infrequent for him — and ultimately proved to be strategic mistakes.

To be sure, Mr. Kissinger’s legacy is stained by the U.S. atrocities committed during his watch. America’s carpet-bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973 killed upward of 100,000 civilians and helped bring to power the murderous Khmer Rouge. The United States supported Pakistan during its 1971 slaughter of Bengalis in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Mr. Kissinger backed Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who in 1973 toppled Chile’s Marxist leader, Salvador Allende, and was responsible for countless abductions and murders.

Mr. Kissinger may have been more outspoken in defending his actions than other American statesmen, but he was hardly alone in pursuing policies that sacrificed U.S. values in the name of U.S. interests or that caused enormous collateral damage. Throughout the Cold War and after, successive administrations regularly worked with repressive regimes in the cause of national security and pursued policies, including America’s post-9/11 wars in the Middle East, that produced untold and unnecessary death and destruction.

Mr. Kissinger admittedly turned his back on American ideals too often and with seemingly little regret — and did more harm than good to the nation’s security by tarnishing its brand in much of the developing world. The United States can and should pursue a foreign policy that more effectively advances the welfare and rights of all peoples. But as a pragmatic realist steeped in history, Mr. Kissinger understood that in a dangerous world inescapably afflicted by geopolitical competition, great powers will often need to put their interests before their values.

It is not only Mr. Kissinger’s reputation that deserves rehabilitation, but also his brand of statecraft. Since the Cold War’s end, the United States has fallen prey to idealist illusions, convinced that the time has come to universalize the West’s liberal order. Rather than accommodating a new equilibrium as power diffuses across the international system, Washington has been vowing to preserve primacy. Instead of recognizing the limits of U.S. power and heeding the painful lessons that Mr. Kissinger learned from America’s futile war in Vietnam, the U.S. military spent the better part of the last two decades spinning its wheels as it sought to turn Afghanistan and Iraq into stable democracies. America’s ends have come to far exceed its political means, ensuring that a bipartisan internationalist consensus has given way to bitter polarization.

The U.S. obsession with the promotion of democracy has not only produced foolhardy bouts of nation-building, but has also alienated the many countries that have embraced alternative forms of government. In his 2014 book, “World Order,” Mr. Kissinger observed that the United States treats non-democracies as “less than fully legitimate,” meaning that “a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed.” This approach can hardly be the basis for stability in today’s world of broadly distributed power and ideological diversity.

Any effort to return to a U.S. foreign policy anchored by pragmatic realism must start with China. As China’s strength and ambition continue to grow, strategic competition with the United States will inevitably mount. But an interdependent globe cannot afford the disarray that would accompany geopolitical fracture between the world’s two pre-eminent powers. As Mr. Kissinger warned, the two countries need to blend “a balance of power with a concept of partnership,” ensuring that competition is “mitigated by agreement on norms and reinforced by elements of cooperation.” That approach would also help wean China away from its partnership with Russia, an important U.S. objective as it seeks to orchestrate a global equilibrium, and help the United States and China team up to tackle climate change and other global challenges.

To be sure, Americans will need to take a leap of the political imagination if they are to embrace a world that is ideologically diverse and work with a China whose autocratic ways are at odds with America’s messianic commitment to spreading democracy. But it was precisely such pluralism that enabled the Concert to preserve peace in an ideologically diverse Europe. A more tolerant approach to how other nations govern themselves would also advance U.S. interests in the Global South, where Washington’s zealous promotion of democracy at times undercuts its leverage and influence.

As for Russia, the United States should have done more to anchor its vanquished adversary in the post-Cold War settlement — just as the Concert integrated a defeated France into it ranks. Instead, Washington launched a process of NATO expansion that excluded Russia. Despite his initial support for NATO enlargement, Mr. Kissinger understood that opening the alliance to Ukraine would provoke Moscow, writing in 2014 that Ukraine should function as a “bridge” between East and West and that the country “should not join NATO.” Instead, NATO beckoned Ukraine, contributing to the sense of grievance and threat that climaxed in Vladimir Putin’s invasion last year.

With the Kremlin having returned to the path of territorial conquest, pragmatic realism requires that the West now reinstates a policy of firm containment. But it also requires sober acknowledgment that Ukraine is unlikely to be able to drive Russian forces from its territory; a military stalemate has settled in. Accordingly, the United States should press Ukraine to focus on defending and rebuilding the 80-plus percent of Ukraine still under its control. Over the longer term, the West should help Ukraine restore territorial integrity — an outcome more likely to be achieved at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.

In the Middle East, just as Mr. Kissinger advanced the cause of peace in the aftermath of the 1973 war, the United States should launch a determined diplomatic push at the end of the current round of bloodshed between Israel and Hamas. The goals should be to broaden and deepen peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and to begin moving toward a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians ultimately live securely alongside each other. As Mr. Kissinger frequently insisted, order must be legitimate if it is to last.

Despite his reputation as a callous practitioner of realpolitik, Mr. Kissinger acknowledged “America’s exceptional nature” and encouraged the United States to continue to advance “the human quest for freedom.” But he wisely cautioned that “America’s moral aspirations need to be combined with an approach that takes into account the strategic element of policy in terms the American people can support.”

Ever the strategist, Mr. Kissinger, in one of his last public messages a few months ago, warned that “we must develop a concept of where we are going and how we intend to get there across party lines and through political differences. Such is the requirement of leadership.” The United States would do well to heed his wisdom.

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author, most recently, of “Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.”

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