Lamentations over “Realpolitik” – An Obituary of Sorts

I have been reading many of the obituaries of Henry Kissinger in the past few days. So far, only two have been a positive one, while the others (either by the editorial board or columnists or invited authors in FT, Politico, Washington Post, NYT, Guardian, Huff Post, New Yorker, Atlantic) have been mostly negative. Because of the way that his life affected my own career path, I am personally inspired to chime in to the hoopla. Here are my thoughts about why I do not align with the positives.

As a student majoring in Government at Oberlin College way back in the 1960s (the JFK and LBJ years), I was especially interested in studying international relations and was encouraged to do so by two professors – one in the Economics Department Robert Tufts and one in the Government Department George Lanyi. I think they even taught courses together. My main textbook was Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, in which he espoused the theory of realism and balance of power politics. I remember lively debates about Morgenthau’s rationale for constant movement away from equilibrium. A related message from these two professors was that the US had had a team of policy analysts who produced a paper known as “NSC-68” to justify the maintenance of a major military budget after World War II as a crucial part of American foreign policy going into the 1950s. Paul Nitze, I recall, was associated with this paper.

I liked my professors, but I did not agree with their embrace of either Morgenthau or Nitze. In fact, as an idealistic and progressively-minded young Republican, I was caught up in the moral dilemma of having been elected president of the campus Republican club in 1964 when I was (a) opposed to the war in Vietnam and (b) opposed to Barry Goldwater. The day after Goldwater’s defeat, I was horrified to hear a couple of cigar-chomping cocky Ohio Republicans in our club announcing, as if they were in the know, that the Republican Party’s leadership had learned its lesson and would be consolidating around the compromise candidate of Richard Nixon. That ended my days as a Republican.

I did go off to graduate school, though, not quite knowing where to turn politically but drawn to the concept behind the name of the school I had chosen – the School of International Service – at American University.  I appreciated the collegial atmosphere there between its professors and graduate students. Not only were we inspired to be service oriented, but I was struck by the fact that one of the professors, Samuel Sharp, had been protected by the University’s administration in the days of the House Unamerican Activities Committee for his having suggested that the key to the Soviet Union was not communism but national interest. The ideological embrace of anti-communism in US foreign policy was just as disconcerting, albeit for different reasons, than the hard-edged realpolitik of Morgenthau and Nitze. I personally aligned with Professor Sharp’s view that Vietnam’s independence movement was not ideologically driven by communism as much as by a desire for Vietnamese independence. And what’s more, that China and Russia (that is, the USSR in those days) were even in competition in Vietnam!

Sadly, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election and proceeded to appoint this devotee of realism, Henry Kissinger, as his National Security Advisor. Yes, I have been reminded in many of his obituaries that Kissinger himself was a supporter of Nelson Rockefeller and, although quick to join the Nixon administration, was never fond of Nixon himself, even as he was instrumental in carrying out (and formulating) Nixon’s foreign policy objectives. Kissinger may have seen the same divisions between China and Russia that I had appreciated in Professor Sharp’s analysis, but he (Kissinger) certainly aligned himself with the rabidly anti-Communist record of Nixon’s political history. And furthermore, as many of these same obituaries of Kissinger have observed, they were drawn to each other as two loners and outsiders of the American political system through their love of power, their “burning” ambition and their “talent for duplicity”.

Regardless of any critiques of their personalities, however, my personal disapproval of Kissinger’s performance is oriented to the things he actually did or for which he was responsible. Through his over-riding focus on a realpolitik view of American national interests, his approach to the Russia/China divide wrought havoc on the credibility of American commitment to democracy and human rights. He (and Nixon) may be associated with getting the US out of Vietnam, for example, but everyone seems to forget that Humphrey could in all likelihood have done it more quickly and respectably.  I had been interested in a foreign service career but for the Vietnam War.  And I remember being especially upset about the outrageous and secretive bombing of Cambodia and Laos that was part of Kissinger’s apparent strategy to buttress the hard-nosed image of America’s  power.

Beyond his gamesmanship over Vietnam, Kissinger’s orientation to realpolitik produced many other actions that I found reprehensible and unnecessary. The tragedies that struck Chile (and Argentina but also elsewhere in Latin America) have to be laid at Kissinger’s doorstep. And Bangladesh. And Timor-Leste. And the Middle East after the Yom Kippur War? In spite of his active shuttle diplomacy there, much as we see Secretary Antony Blinken doing now, he displayed a realpolitik view of the world even there.

Were there successes along the way? Of course there were. The question is would they have happened anyway? Take the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (started by LBJ in 1967 but concluded by Nixon/Kissinger in 1972). I do remember spending an academic leave year in Vienna and befriending the wife of the head diplomat in the SALT negotiations. She was instrumental in getting us a turkey for Thanksgiving, and I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article on “Having Turkey with SALT” for the Greensboro, North Carolina newspaper. That was in 1971, at the early stages of the movement toward “détente” with the Soviet Union. I subsequently benefited/participated in this opening up process in 1977 on a trip to the Soviet Union organized by the American Council of Young Political Leaders and hosted by the “Komsomol” (the USSR’s Young Communist League). The ACYPL, it should be noted, was started in 1966 to promote this kind of exchange – already in the works, then, under LBJ’s presidency. I do think this would have been more advantageous to detente under Humphrey.

And the opening up with China? This is probably the most significant accomplishment of Kissinger’s diplomacy, driven in large part by his willingness to play a balance of power game at the expense of human rights or democratic values. Might it have happened in some other way eventually? I certainly remember plenty of scholarly interpretations (Sam Sharp being only the most obvious) of the divisions between China and the Soviet Union over Vietnam (and globally) well before Kissinger played his cards here. But he even did it secretively, at the expense of tolerating Pakistani massacres in what became Bangladesh. Didn’t his taking advantage of Pakistan to pull off his undercover trip to China set the stage for American tolerance of this kind of Pakistani brutality elsewhere? Especially since Chinese domestic repression itself was completely ignored by Kissinger?

What is the point of writing about it now? The past is the past. It’s good that the Republic of China became the official member of China at the UN (and elsewhere) in 1971 and that the first SALT treaty was successfully negotiated with the Soviet Union in 1972.  (Forget recent developments, of course.)  I am sure that the US could have worked out a better withdrawal from Vietnam under Humphrey, but again the past is the past (except for the landmines in Laos).  And, yes, President Carter went on to shepherd the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel and to carry out the official recognition of the People’s Republic of China.  These are certainly successes that came out of what preceded them and were legitimately furthered in a bipartisan way under Carter.

Nonetheless, I believe that President Carter’s deliberate shift in emphasis in American foreign policy to human rights, democratic values, nuclear disarmament and poverty eradication was better for the US and the world than the ruthless balance of power game played by Kissinger. I appreciated how Carter pursued these concerns, especially in Latin America and in Africa but also in the Middle East. One should not ignore Carter’s support for Zimbabwe’s independence and for ending apartheid in southern Africa. He  also pushed boldly for transferring control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians and negotiating a treaty to do this in his first term.

What is more, I personally benefited from the success of those Camp David Accords as a White House Fellow in 1979-80 when our class was able to see first-hand the results of the agreement in a trip to Egypt and Israel during our fellowship year. I vividly recall how warmly Anwar Sadat spoke to us about “my good friend Jimmy”. Could this have happened under Kissinger, whether representing Nixon or Gerald Ford? It was through a more compassionate kind of American leadership that US foreign policy under Carter was combining its military and economic strength with its values. Not perfectly, but at least a lot better.

Following my year as a White House Fellow, I was optimistic about America’s role in the world. We even met with a mellow Paul Nitze during our Fellowship year. But then, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan set the stage for shifting back away from these concerns.  They haven’t disappeared, of course, but I lament the reversals that happened then. It meant another twelve years of searching for that service-oriented international career but ultimately a recognition that American foreign policy was not ever going to be part of my career path. Ultimately, I had to conclude that the continuing dominance of the Kissinger influence of realpolitik in US foreign policy was not for me, even if he only reinforced (or transmogrified!) what others like Morgenthau espoused. Rest in peace, Henry Kissinger.

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