Reconsidering the Meaning of Kissinger

Written by Amelie Theussen, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

After Research Frontiers looked at Irving Kristol, the Godfather of Neoconservatism, last week, this week is dedicated to another key figure in international relations, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger’s counsel is still sought after by many world leaders, but Barack Obama is apparently not one of them. While some commentators urge Obama to be more “Kissingerian”, others argue that he is “Kissingerian” in practice; but what does this mean? Conventional wisdom equates Kissinger with realism, sees him as a Machiavellian, who assesses foreign policy only in the light of national self-interest.

However, as Niall Ferguson argues in his article The Meaning of Kissinger, Kissinger was not a realist, but rather “many-sided”. Ferguson maintains that Kissinger’s intellectual ideas have been insufficiently studied, as prominence is given to his time in office. He contends that Kissinger’s work has to be understood as “an innovative critique of realpolitik”, and not as realist. Properly understood, Ferguson says, Kissinger offers “at least four key insights into foreign policy that Obama, not to mention his successor, would be well advised to study”: 

First, history is central to understanding problems of national security, as it shows analogies to current events and defines national self-understanding. Second, many policy decisions (especially the ones with high stakes) must be taken before all facts and information is known. Kissinger termed this idea “the problem of conjecture in foreign policy”. In many situations, the statesman has very little information to guide his decision-making and has to act on basis of his convictions and make a risky guess. However, there is an asymmetry of payoff: on the one hand, successful preemptive actions are not rewarded proportionally to their benefits, because it is easy to forget how different the situation could have developed. Also, focus mostly likely lies on the costs of the preemptive action and not on the disaster being averted. On the other hand, postponing the decision-making does not necessarily lead to the possible disaster. And, as Ferguson remarks, “making the least effort is usually also the line of least domestic resistance”. The third key insight Kissinger provides is the recognition that “the most difficult choices in foreign policy are certain to be between evils, and so the truly moral act is to choose the lesser evil (even if it is the politically harder choice)”. Finally, Kissinger also cautions against the perils of a pure and morally devoid realism. He sees an inherent danger that self-restraint erodes because of the way societies operate by approximations and their incapability to make fine distinctions, where “a doctrine of power as a means may end up by making power an end”. Because of this, Kissinger regards the preference for charismatic leaders over crafty statesmen as a central problem of the democratic age.

Read Niall Ferguson’s reasons for why a Kissingerian approach remains highly relevant for America’s foreign policy, and find out what the 1970s can teach us about today’s world and what we can learn from the strategic framework Kissinger developed in the late 60s for the challenges America faces today. Find The Meaning of Kissinger in the September/October 2015 issue of Foreign Policy here