Henry Kissinger and the Coming Imbalance of Power

By Jim SleeperOctober 8, 2014

World Order by Henry Kissinger

RUSSIA’S ENCROACHMENTS on Ukraine have prompted some Americans to reenact, even yearn for, what New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier characterized as the Cold War’s “mottled tale of glory” through staging confrontations, at least rhetorically[i]. Even a seasoned foreign policymaker such as the former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Pole by birth, wary of détente with Russia, “clarified” the Ukraine conflict this way in The Washington Post on March 3: “Much depends on how clearly the West conveys to the dictator in the Kremlin — a partially comical imitation of Mussolini and a more menacing reminder of Hitler — that NATO cannot be passive if war erupts in Europe […]” “This does not mean that the West, or the United States, should threaten war,” Brzezinski added diplomatically, proposing in his column that the West do precisely that.[ii]

Enter Henry Kissinger — 91 years old, 37 years out of public office as Richard Nixon’s and Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State from 1973–’77 (and, before that, Nixon’s National Security Advisor from 1969) — to calm the roiling waters. In a Washington Post column published two days after Brzezinski’s, Kissinger, the veteran practitioner and now valedictorian of the “realist” school in foreign affairs, warned Americans against indulging any inclination to attach missionary passion to force in order to solve crises abroad:

Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.

He rebuffed romantic visions of resistance to the Kremlin’s fascist clown:

For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one. […] Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.

Reminding the West’s would-be Cold Warriors that “Ukraine has been independent for only 23 years” since the 14th century and that “even such famed [Soviet-era] dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history,” Kissinger might as well have said that Ukraine matters more to Russia than Texas did to the United States, which seized it from Mexico with the help of “Anglo” separatists in 1846. “These are principles, not prescriptions,” he said of his proposals. “People familiar with the region will know that not all of them will be palatable to all parties. The test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction.”

Neither Western Cold Warriors nor Russians have accepted Kissinger’s “principles.” Does he himself truly believe in them? Has the statesman who’s been reviled at home and indicted abroad for plotting war crimes, brutal coups, and intra-state massacres in the 1970s become an apostle of détente, as neoconservatives and isolationists have charged? Or is he the cold-blooded, brutal Machiavellian loathed by leftists and liberal humanitarians?

Kissinger sometimes makes it hard to tell. His new book World Order, like the eight that precede it, defends a way of balancing power among sovereign states that he claims has given the world whatever order it’s had since the 17th century. Consistent though he has been in justifying the premises and protocols of this so-called Westphalian system, he worries that this time they’re really coming apart. He wants to persuade Americans to take the new threats seriously, and to uphold the power-balancing he and earlier Western foreign ministers — Richelieu, Wallenstein, Talleyrand, Palmerston, Metternich — strove for three centuries to sustain, instead of championing conservative crusades and leftist insurgencies.

Kissinger also wants to vindicate his own statesmanship — although aside from mentioning his exploratory visit to China in 1971, he doesn’t openly assess any of his own successes and failures in power-balancing. Adopting instead an “area studies” approach to several states’ incompatible understandings of world order, Professor Kissinger conducts a world tour of nations and regional governments that are shattering the state-based Westphalian consensus. What he doesn’t do in this book is examine the swift, dark undercurrents that are driving these disruptive new visions of world order.


He begins by recounting at length Europe’s invention of international balance-of-power principles that have framed modern history. Those conventions and protocols — hammered out by exhausted combatants in Westphalia in 1648 after 30 years of bloody religious war — rely on the constitutive fiction that all nations’ sovereignty is equally legitimate and inviolable. Westphalian rules prohibit states from intervening in one another’s domestic affairs; mandate diplomatic immunity that facilitates communication to reduce conflict; and require “ideological neutrality and adjustment to evolving circumstances.” The balance of power is “not an exaltation of power but an attempt to balance and limit its use.”

This approach to power-balancing has gone in and out of favor over time, often serving not as the structuring principle of foreign policymaking that Kissinger makes it out to be but rather as a convenient political tool for imperialists. Kissinger lauds Europe’s monarchies for reimposing Westphalian rules at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after crushing Napoleon’s effort to universalize what he, like other conservatives, condemns as the brutal, proto-totalitarian doctrines of Rousseau, Montesquieu, French Revolutionary leaders, and other misguided apostles of democracy. But he doesn’t much ponder those same rulers’ colonial conquest and exploitation outside Europe itself. This extension of state-centric, balance-of-power politics to the world owed a lot to Europe’s capitalist techno-military superiority, but Kissinger says little about it and the colonial exploitation that figured importantly in sustaining Westphalian power balancing for a century after the Congress of Vienna.

Instead, Kissinger attributes Westphalianism’s resilience to Theodore Roosevelt’s statesmanship at the dawn of the 20th century, when he mobilized the unlikely convergence in America of geographical security, the hitherto unexploited resources of a continent, and largely voluntary demographic and cultural pluralism. In Roosevelt’s hands, as Kissinger tells it, the consequent American exceptionalism inclined and empowered the United States to rescue the international state system.

Unfortunately, as he acknowledges, America’s first really big rescue effort after Roosevelt’s foundered on Woodrow Wilson’s pious determination to make the world safe for democracy by joining a “war to end all wars.” Kissinger barely mentions the destructive role that Europe’s own Westphalian statesmen played by fomenting the war in the first place and punishing the defeated Germany counterproductively. If diplomacy is “war by other means,” diplomacy can be as destructive as war itself. Yet Kissinger seems more troubled by Wilson’s myopic universalism than by the treacheries of European diplomats who not only betrayed balance-of-power principles at home but also drew “national” borders for Syria and Iraq — and, later, for India and Pakistan — and plotted their ways into those nations’ affairs.

America’s effort to restore an international balance of power after World War II was more successful. The United States was flush with power, and its statesmen had learned enough from the blunders of 1919 to lift the defeated Germany and Japan back into the international system on relatively equal terms — somewhat, he tell us, as statesmen at the Congress of Vienna had invited the defeated France of Napoleon back into their world order instead of prostrating it.

Kissinger says little about destructive tendencies in the global capital of 1914 and 1939, including profit-hungry state-capitalist military machines that drove the world so close to Armageddon. He worries more about Western Europeans’ present virtual disarmament behind the shield of American power and about what he considers their unsustainable hope that Enlightenment humanitarianism and liberal democracy can prevent horrors like those of the last century. Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in 1938 at age 15, indulges little such hope.

Noting that rising regions’ understandings of world order can’t be reconciled with the liberal West’s, he dismisses Western interventionists as deluded by a naive hope that democracy can achieve progress in history. Foreign policy isn’t a fable of progress with a happy ending, he counsels, but an endless balancing of dissatisfactions. Only a dark, intuitive statesmanship can keep order, “tempering ever-recurring challenges” to sustain the balance of power that brings the only hope of securing any liberty and justice.


Is Westphalian balancing itself working? Is it sustainable? World Order depicts emerging national, post-national, and regional entities — in Russia, China, Iran, and Arab lands — that reject its premises and protocols and are returning to the “fracturing certainties” of imperialism, autocratic nationalism, and religious fanaticism — the very follies that Kissinger thinks only his kind of diplomacy managed to restrain.

He casts Russia, with “its absolutism, its size, its globe-spanning ambitions and insecurities,” as destined to swing back and forth between the “domineering certainty of a superior power” and, when vulnerable, “brooding invocations of vast inner reserves of strength.” Thus, Putin seeks both domination and spiritual depths in Ukraine, where 9th-century Slavic tribes formed a confederation around Kiev, a birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy that is “perceived almost universally by Russians as […] an inextricable part of their own history.”

Kissinger recounts Islam’s history in the Middle East to explain why the European state system imposed upon it after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is taken as an affront:

To many of the faithful, especially in a period of resurgent Islamism — the modern ideology seeking to apply Muslim scripture as the central arbiter of personal, political, and international life — the Islamic world remains in a condition of inescapable confrontation with the outside world.

Like the Ottoman Caliphate, the Persian Empire had no use for pluralism in a balance of power; Kissinger dismisses Iran’s liberal-republican “Green” demonstrations of 2009, writing that “the unchanged rhetoric of a generation [of theocrats] is based on conviction rather than posturing and will have had an impact on a significant number of the Iranian people.”

He offers little hope of preventing nuclear proliferation through negotiation with Iran, but neither does he see any better hope in Western bellicose threats to Iran than he sees in such threats to Russia. He judges their rulers incorrigible because they are beholden to their nations’ darkest myths and cultural depths.

He ends his discussion of Iran on a bizarrely ambivalent note by reminding us that when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin tried to transcend their own nations’ fears and resentments, both were assassinated. “But their achievements and inspiration are inextinguishable,” he adds, hoping that when “doctrines of violent intimidation […] are thwarted — and nothing less will do — there may come a moment similar to what led to the breakthroughs recounted here, when vision overcame reality.” Maybe. But I sense considerable pain behind the diplomatic eloquence here.

Kissinger is more optimistic about rising nations in southern and southeast Asia such as India and the Asian Tigers — proud but prickly states that seem amenable to Westphalian balances of power. China is sui generis; indeed, Kissinger’s previous book is entitled On China, and in this one he reminds us that China’s size and exceptionalist view of itself as the center of the universe make it a counterpart as well as a rival to the United States at a time when neither nation can be “the” hegemon that the US was after World War II.

He seems not to notice that Russia’s, Iran’s, the Arab world’s, even perhaps China’s defections from state-based world order are eclipsing not only his cherished Westphalian presumptions but also the Enlightenment prophecies of Reason’s advance that he and other conservatives love to loathe. He keeps arguing with 17th- and 18th-century philosophes, asking, again rhetorically and testily:

Is there a single concept and mechanism logically uniting all things, in a way that can be discovered and explicated (as d’Alembert and Montesquieu argued), or is the world too complicated and humanity too diverse […] requiring a kind of intuition and an almost esoteric element of statecraft?

And he keeps inveighing against would-be revolutionaries “vesting sovereignty in an abstraction — not individuals but entire peoples as indivisible entities requiring uniformity of thought and action — and then designating themselves the people’s spokesmen and indeed embodiment.” Isn’t that pretty similar to what Westphalian statesmen themselves have done?He dismisses almost every instance of democratic upheaval, from Europe’s revolutions of 1848 through India’s “socialist infatuations” in the 1950s and protests in Tiananmen or Tahrir squares or Tehran. That’s remarkable, coming from one who has seen huge, oppressive national-security states brought down by their own truly sovereign peoples at times in India, Eastern Europe, and South Africa.

He asks Americans, in effect, to transfer their own democratic idealism from the crusading, missionary, democracy-promoting, “Mission Accomplished” gambits of Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush to a modest balance-of-power-sharing that neoconservative and liberal interventionists reject, but that Kissinger believes is more effective and more moral in the end.


What would it take for most Americans to accept such counsel? For one thing, the counselor ought to have practiced what he preaches, but it’s far from clear that Kissinger did so as the Vietnam War raged on through the six years he worked with Richard Nixon. And while he urges Americans to use force only to shore up a value-neutral pluralism in world affairs, that’s not what he did when he helped Chile’s Pinochet crush an elected, leftist government. The historian John Lewis Gaddis suggested in The New York Times that “Kissinger’s preoccupation with keeping Marxism out of places like Chile and Angola reflects this inability to see that time was on the side of the West, that a more relaxed attitude might have yielded less violence and greater benefits.”

Famously thin-skinned about such criticisms of his record as a maestro of power-balancing, he bypasses most of them in this book. He doesn’t acknowledge, much less rebut, voluminous evidence (some of it tape-recorded by Nixon, some of it presented in Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Gary Bass’s The Blood Telegram, and other books) that he was heartlessly, perhaps criminally complicit in American carpet bombing in Cambodia, General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship in Chile, and Pakistan’s massacre of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis.

He does acknowledge that effective statesmen sometimes ignore their own rulers’ and peoples’ convictions and instructions in order to forge gambles that they consider justified, even at the cost of thousands of lives, to defend national interests and prevent humanity’s ever-imminent descent into wars of all against all that, next time around, may really end us all.

In this Kissinger is joined by Charles Hill, his former speechwriter and State Department Policy Planning Staff member, whom he credits lavishly with helping to draft and edit this book. (Hill did the same for one of Kissinger’s successors, Secretary of State George Shultz.)

In Hill’s own book, Grand Strategies, he observes that statesmen and their confidants and informal envoys — such as Cardinal Richelieu’s Père Joseph and Oliver Cromwell’s John Milton (not to mention Kissinger’s and Shultz’s Charles Hill) — “possess a certain mad, enigmatic quality” because they keep order only by slipping back and forth across borders and “red lines” to hold secret conversations with rivals and assist in interventions that cannot be publicly acknowledged, much less publicly justified. This conceit is as dear to diplomats as the conceit of certain intellectuals that their own moral witness at the barricades can turn history’s tides. But surely both kinds of actor surf tides of hubris accelerated by their “mad, enigmatic” qualities.

Hill’s book mentions Kissinger only once, and bizarrely, as an earthly exemplar of the fallen angel Mammon, who exhorted Satan’s hosts to, as Hill puts it, “adapt to the conditions of Hell” and “seek to prosper.” This is gallows humor among diplomats who can’t tell the whole truth; there’s an almost impish, “honor among thieves” quality to Kissinger’s collaboration with Hill.

Both also know how to dial up enough charm and humility to reassure superiors and publics that they share nationalist dispositions they actually disdain, and sometimes subvert. For example, when John Lewis Gaddis, the Cold War historian — who has helped bring Kissinger and his papers to Yale, along with new Kissinger Visiting Scholars and Kissinger Senior Fellows programs — was invited to work on George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address of 2005, he inserted into it a very un-Kissingerian vow to work toward “ending tyranny in the world.” Kissinger, visiting Gaddis’s “Grand Strategy” seminar at Yale on Inauguration Day, teased him good-naturedly about the danger in a historian’s trying to make history (as he himself, of course, had done) and gave the Inaugural Address an off-hand endorsement: A student recalls that Kissinger said, “‘I thought the speech was fine,’ he said, but what he was really saying was, ‘Don’t ask me to say what I really think.’”

In World Order, Kissinger and Hill have softened his bitterness toward fools to the right of him (reactionary, romantic nationalist isolationists and bombastic, crusading neoconservatives) and to the left (moralistic humanitarian interventionists, from Woodrow Wilson to Jane Fonda) — not to mention fools who worked under him (Kissinger was notorious for raging at assistants, and as he left the State Department in 1977, he got a big laugh out hundreds of staffers at a farewell reception by telling them, “I will remember you with affection — tinged with exasperation.”)

Humor aside, there’s often something by turns presumptuous and desperate in these collaborators’ self-presentations. If there’s hubris in revolutionaries’ prophecies of human liberation, there’s more than a little of it also in Kissinger’s rationale for arrogating so much decision-making about raisons d’état to operators such as himself:

The statesman undertakes multiple tasks, many of them shaped by his society’s history and culture. He must first of all make an analysis of where his society finds itself, past and future, then try to understand where that trajectory will take him and his society […] To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage… And the statesman must then inspire his people to persist in the endeavor […]

Kissinger has been repeating this for 60 years: His doctoral dissertation of 1954 claims that a statesman is

one of the heroes in classical drama who has a vision of the future but who cannot transmit it directly to his fellow-men and who cannot validate its “truth” […] It is for this reason that statesmen often share the fate of prophets, that they are without honor in their own country, that they always have a difficult task in legitimizing their programs domestically, and that their greatness is usually apparent only in retrospect when their intuition has become experience.

Prescient though this passage was about its author’s own career, it was plaintive, too, as if Kissinger foresaw his own imprisonment in diplomacy’s lonely duplicities and would crave recognition for his accomplishments, even if “only in retrospect,” and that he’d need public understanding of the bloody deeds that he would sometimes abet or even direct. Reviewing Kissinger’s Years of Renewal in 1999, Gaddis noted the poignancy of statesmen’s craving to leave a self-justifying record of their oft-disguised exertions:

It was Richard Nixon’s “permanent nightmare,” Kissinger recalls, in words that might apply to himself, to Churchill or to any formidable figure in history, “that, in the end, all his efforts … would vanish into thin air, defeated by the hostility of contemporaries and the indifference of historians.”

Kissinger is telling us, without quite saying it, that the world has needed him more than it’s likely to admit.


Also without quite saying so, Kissinger suggests repeatedly that justice and morality should be indulged just enough to impart legitimacy to nation-based power-wielding, but not enough to shape or guide it. Foreign policy realism doesn’t foreclose aggressive, even brutal tactics, but it claims to undertake them only in national self-defense or to strengthen critical balances of power and legitimacy among states. What matters is the balance itself. It dampens insecurities and excitements that would otherwise foment crusades into places like Ukraine.

For reasons foreign and domestic, Kissinger didn’t make this very clear during the Vietnam War, even though he has claimed since then that Nixon and he were intent on shedding the Cold War assumptions that drove the United States into that conflict. Even now, a foreign policy based on realism and gradualism remains a tough sell to Americans, many of whom believe that their country has a mission to extend Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” to people everywhere. Kissinger himself has recited that catechism to reassure its true believers, as any secretary of state must do to stay in office. Even now, in World Order, he lauds American idealism but subtly contextualizes it by giving it a historical spin:

The prevalent American view considered people inherently reasonable and inclined toward peaceful compromise and common sense; the spread of democracy was therefore the overarching goal for international order. Free markets would uplift individuals, enrich societies, and substitute economic interdependence for traditional international rivalries […][This] effort to establish world order has in many ways come to fruition […] The spread of democracy and participatory governance has become a shared aspiration […] The years from perhaps 1948 to the turn of the century marked a brief moment in human history when one could speak of an incipient global world order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional European concepts of statehood and balance of power.

Notice that — a bit like Brzezinski, who voiced caution against threatening Russia with war in order to raise precisely that possibility, and indeed to threaten it — Kissinger indulges what sounds like American triumphalism, but only to prepare readers to understand that “its very success made it inevitable that the entire enterprise would eventually be challenged.” Similarly, he couples “my continuing respect and personal affection for President George W. Bush, who guided America with courage, dignity, and conviction in an unsteady time […]” with his own “serious doubts, frequently expressed in public and governmental forums at high levels, about expanding [regime-change in Iraq] to national building and giving it such universal scope.”

In the new world, he notes in his chapter on China,

The United States is not so much a balancer as an integral part of that balance […]

In the Cold War, the dividing lines were defined by military forces. In the contemporary world […] [c]oncepts of partnership are becoming, paradoxically, elements of the modern balance of power […] Wise statesmanship must try to find that balance. For, outside it, chaos beckons.

Almost approvingly, he characterizes the United States as an “ambivalent superpower,” torn between its exceptionalism and its oft-miscarried messianism: “The quest for that balance, between the uniqueness of the American experience and the idealistic confidence in its universality, between the poles of overconfidence and introspection, is unending. What it does not permit is withdrawal.”

Not surprisingly, neoconservatives and other would-be Cold Warriors have accused Kissinger of accepting American decline and wanting only to manage it. In World Order, he dismisses them, between the lines. Neoconservatives such as Max Boot and David Brooks, who traveled to Afghanistan a few years ago and wrote glowing columns touting American-directed nation-building there, won’t be happy with Kissinger’s reminder that “[u]nification of Afghanistan has been achieved by foreigners only unintentionally, when the tribes and sects coalesce in opposition to an invader.”

He even rubs the point in by noting that what American and NATO forces met in Afghanistan in the early 21st century was exactly what the neocons’ great hero, Winston Churchill, described in 1897 as that country’s eternal division by tribes, clans, and feuds, puncturing facile expectations that the British would bring order to Afghanistan: “In this context,” Kissinger concludes concerning that country today, “the proclaimed coalition and UN goals of a transparent, democratic Afghanistan central government operating in a secure environment amounted to a radical reinvention of Afghan history.”

He also gently dispatches the neoconservative warrior Robert Kagan — who worked in the Reagan State Department at Charles Hill’s behest — in a footnote that credits Kagan with an “eloquent” exposition of the very American messianism that Kissinger proceeds to discredit by contextualizing it as a moment in history now best transcended.

In an uncharacteristically undiplomatic outburst on NPR on September fifth, Kissinger deflected a question about charges that he’d been wrong to endorse the carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War: “I think we would find, if you study the conduct of [the military], that the Obama administration has hit more targets on a broader scale than the Nixon administration ever did […]” Yet in World Order he suggests that Obama clings to a naive faith in Reason’s power to move history. Asked in the NPR interview if Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would make a good president, he replied that “as a personal friend, I would say yes […] But she’d put me under a great conflict of interest if she were a candidate, because I tend to support the Republicans.”

He keeps making himself difficult to understand. But perhaps what he believes is difficult for most Americans to understand, whether they’re on the crusading or the isolationist right or on the universalist liberal left.


There are three gaps, or blind spots, in Kissinger’s account, if not, indeed, in his worldview.

First, for one who wishes that Americans could alter their messianic sense of their country, he seems unwilling to shed his own presumptions of diplomatic omniscience. He clings to top-down, Congress of Vienna–type notions of how to organize and wield power, trying to vindicate a Westphalian past we’re lucky to have survived. With global economic and technological upheavals now mooting many of his basic assumptions, he offers more questions than answers. A worried, even despairing, tone haunts these pages. Kissinger can’t be faulted entirely for that. We’re all at sea. But neither can he be credited with oracular wisdom.

A second blind spot in World Power is its almost studious avoidance of capitalism, which is no longer an “internal” matter that can be bracketed by statesmen, if it ever was. Kissinger has been deeply hostile to leftist assaults on capital, often with good reason, even when his tactical moves against them have been inexcusable. But today’s algorithmically driven, casino-financed, consumer-bamboozling economy would horrify even John Locke and Adam Smith; it has released the genie of power from the Westphalian bottles in which state power had at least fictive legitimacy.

Diplomacy, once a velvet glove on the iron fist of state power, often now finds itself covering only the algorithmically driven nothingness of mercurial “shareholder value.” Yet the closest Kissinger comes to acknowledging this in World Order is in a brief warning that the economic globalization that promises prosperity also “produces a political dialectic that often works counter to its aspirations.” Economic managers of globalization don’t talk often enough to managers of political processes about “economic or financial problems whose complexity eludes the understanding of all but the expertly trained.”

This is little more than an invitation to Davos, but Kissinger should know that the “expertly trained,” too, can be blind to the ways that the swift, dark undercurrents they’re riding can rattle not only his balance-of-power premises in Ukraine and the Middle East, but also American political culture’s own core values and strengths.

He does devote one whole chapter to the digital riptides, thanking Google CEO Eric Schmidt for introducing him to a world he knew little about. But he judges cyber-optimism politically facile and dangerous because it short-circuits diplomatic decision-making and turns statesmen into puppets of instant polls: “The pursuit of transparency and connectivity in all aspects of existence by destroying privacy inhibits the development of personalities with the strength to take lonely decisions.” You’d never know that Kissinger and other pre-Google statesmen were ever driven by raging, populist demands before the internet exploded into foreign policymaking.

Still, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have shown us that the digital explosion is eviscerating Westphalian assumptions about sovereignty and its military defenses. “The Commander of U.S. Cyber Command has predicted that ‘the next war will begin in cyberspace,’” Kissinger notes, adding that it may be highly asymmetrical and acknowledging that his own doctrines face challenges never contemplated by his predecessors — or really even by him in this book.

Third, Westphalian diplomats’ silence about the dissolution of state power and the ascent of anarchic investment often reflects not intelligent realism, but self-censorship prompted by power’s allure: people who yearn to be close to power often censor themselves almost enthusiastically to prove they can be relied on never to mention that an emperor has no clothes.

That kind of self-restraint — call it self-censorship by seduction, instead of by fear — hastens the decay of trust and freedom, inside but also outside the counsels of established power. It has a long, embarrassing record in American foreign policy, whose “yes men” perpetrated blunder after blunder, from installing the Shah of Iran and stage-managing the Bay of Pigs fiasco to promoting the Vietnam War and its sad successors.

Kissinger’s effort to coax American readers and leaders away from grandiose adventures abroad does suggest a yearning to bequeath something better than cold “realism”: “The sharp distinction drawn between realism and idealism rejects the experience of history. Idealists did not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognize that ideals are also a part of reality.”

Here, I think, he comes closest to admonishing his fellow realists, and even himself, against the hubris that diplomacy invites and engenders. The challenge for the rest of us is to sift the wisdom in his formidable oeuvre from its diplomatic double-talk, self-justification, and despair.


[i] Wieseltier: “…Putin’s imperialism beyond his borders and fascism within his borders,… reminded me of my…. regret at having been born too late to participate in the struggle of Western intellectuals… against the Stalinist assault on democracy in Europe. And all of a sudden…, I realized that I had exaggerated my belatedness…. Our time is not lacking for fundamental historical challenges and the obligation to choose sides. …. As our predecessors went to Berlin, so we would go to Kiev.”

[ii] Brzezinski: “There should be no doubt left in Putin’s mind that an attack on Ukraine would precipitate a prolonged and costly engagement…. NATO forces…should be put on alert…. If the West wants to avoid a conflict, there should be no ambiguity in the Kremlin as to what might be precipitated by further adventurist use of force…”


Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale and a former columnist for the New York Daily News, is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

LARB Contributor

Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics, is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997; Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!