The Australian Literary Review

By Tom Switzer

The Eccentric Realist: Henry Kissinger and the Shaping of American Foreign Policy By Mario Del Pero Footprint Books, 2010, 193pp.   America and the Cold War, 1941-1991: A Realist Interpretation By Norman A. Gaebner, Richard Dean Burns and Joseph M. Siracusa Praeger, 2010, 686pp.

No one involved in US politics, apart from presidents, has been subjected to as many books and biographies as Henry Kissinger. When he was national security adviser and secretary of state four decades ago, he bestrode the global stage like a geopolitical colossus. The press often compared his diplomatic success -- from the opening to China to detente and arms control with the Soviets to the peace agreement that ended the Vietnam War – to those of the great statesmen of the past. Journalist Tom Braden reflected the accepted wisdom when he proclaimed “this little round man with a German accent” an “American hero.”

Not much has changed since he left the corridors of power in January 1977. The world’s media – from CNN to the Washington Post to the ABC1’s Lateline – go to great lengths to air and publish his views on anything from the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East. He has, in the words of the distinguished historian Sir Michael Howard, “never written anything less than magna opera”. Barack Obama and John McCain invoked his authority when they justified their foreign policy positions during the 2008 presidential campaign. Just being seen with the 87-year-old is a mark of seriousness and legitimacy. Kissinger, in short, is still an American and international celebrity.

Mario Del Pero’s The Eccentic Realist is the latest book to appear, and it is a useful account of his realism in the context of the Cold War. Realism, a foreign policy philosophy with antecedents in 19th century European balance-of-power politics, stresses a hard-nosed focus on clearly defined national (economic and strategic) interests that are pursued with a prudent calculation of commitments and resources. Although Kissinger is generally recognised as a leading intellectual and practical exponent of realpolitik during the Cold War, Del Paro says he was far more opportunistic and inconsistent. Kissinger’s realism, he argues, was as much a response to domestic politics as it was a cold, hard assessment of the facts of power politics from 1969 to 1977. From the enunciation of the Truman doctrine of containment in 1947 until Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War two decades later, the Cold War consensus prevailed in Washington: Red China was isolated, Soviet summitry was often shunned, and the anti-communist crusade was waged from the Korea peninsula and Berlin Wall to Latin America and Indo-China. By the late 1960s, however, Americans became weary of ideological forays abroad. Kissinger, with a wet finger to the wind, merely provided them with a doctrine that translated that political weariness into foreign policy of realpolitik, culminating in detente with the Soviet Union and opening of diplomatic relations with Communist China. For Del Pero, Kissinger was keenly aware that realism could win elections. In the end, though, the force of American exceptionalism overcame Kissinger’s political skills and realist agenda, and helped set the scene for a more ideologically driven foreign policy and resumption of the Cold War in the late 1970s. There is a lot of truth to Del Pero’s argument. For Kissinger, far from embracing the Cold War vision of a world divided between the satanic East and godly West, described the world in classic balance-of-power terms – divided into the five power blocs of the United States, Soviet Union, China, Japan and western Europe, no one of which was predominant. Whereas since the 1940s US policy had been based on defending the “free world” against the threat of Communism, from 1969 to 1977 Kissinger, together with Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, openly advocated rapprochement with the Soviet Union and Communist China and lauded the contribution that Moscow and Peking might make to a new “structure of peace”.  Vietnam had marked a sad sunset to the Cold War world, not a new dawn for American pre-eminence. In office, moreover, Kissinger hardly followed in the footsteps of Cold Warriors Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles and Dean Rusk. Instead, he more or less embraced the mindset of the leading realist critics of the Cold War Walter Lippmann, Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan. This is an important distinction, which Del Pero could have developed further. During the Cold War, realists had decried the tendency of US foreign policy to be idealistic. By seeking unlimited moralistic goals in place of specific limited national interests, America’s leaders had inflamed domestic public opinion with appeals to utopian goals and had ignored the costs of achieving them. (Sound familiar?) To try to remake the world in America’s image risked overextension. But to seek to withdraw from the world risked abdication. What was needed, the realists argued, was to define distinctions between the essential and undesirable, between what was possible and what was beyond America’s capacities.

The realist critics were lonely voices in the late 1940s, 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s. But the political and intellectual climate changed in the late 1960s: disillusioned with a policy of global containment of the Soviet Union and bewildered by the consequences of the anti-communist crusades in the 1960s, a majority of Americans were urging a change in course. And so Kissinger opportunistically and unscrupulously changed his strategic thinking. Del Pero credits him for bringing to foreign policy a distinctly European rather than American cast of mind, far more concerned with achieving order and equilibrium than securing freedom and democracy. In this new era, we are told, Kissinger went to great lengths to encourage naive America to adapt itself to a new status of recognising limits to power in a complex world that did not conform to its idealist expectations. All true. Unfortunately, the point is largely lost on the authors of the two-volume America and the Cold War, 1941-1991. Norman Graebner, one of America’s most distinguished diplomatic historians who died in May, joined forces with the University of California Los Angeles historian Richard Dean Burns and the Melbourne-based academic Joseph Siracusa to pen what they call “a realist interpretation” of the five-decade-long standoff between East and West. Much of their thesis is plausible enough: as realists in the mould of Lippmann, Kennan and Morgenthau, they criticise the idealism and globalism inherent in the Truman Doctrine and denounce the Munich syndrome and domino theory that sustained Washington’s strategic thinking during the Cold War. It was one thing for the US to contain the Soviets in Europe; it was another thing to apply that doctrine to the Third World where local conditions and cultural histories, not monolithic Communism, largely held sway. “American portrayals of Soviet territorial ambitions beyond Greece and Turkey,” the authors argue, “far exceeded what the Kremlin could have achieved.” But the authors miss the significance of the Kissinger era. These years, during which he served as both national security adviser and secretary of state (at one point, 1973-75, he held both positions simultaneously), are depicted not only as logical continuation of the previous 20 years but also as a direct link to the Carter-Reagan eras: “From Truman to Reagan, America’s political establishment conducted a ‘war on communism’ that refused to consider any resolution short of the Soviet Union’s surrender.” Although the authors recognise Nixon was aware of the essential changes in international relations that required a new, more pragmatic, approach to foreign policy, they nevertheless fail to acknowledge that his administration marked a radical departure from the orthodox Cold War polices that preceded -- and succeeded -- it.  To be sure, Kissinger’s realism – epitomised in the China opening in 1971-72 – was a welcome corrective to the fog with which evangelical anti-communism had clouded US foreign policy. But realpolitik  -- with secrecy, back channels and a cold eye cast on power, a recognition and acceptance of the limits to power, a lack of moral prejudices, an appreciation for balance and stability in the international system – was not the language of Cold War American idealists. This was not the vision that was echoed in Harry Truman’s doctrine “ to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” or the vision that John F. Kennedy sought when pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” or the vision of even the “old Nixon” in 1953 who declared “our goal must be nothing less than to bring freedom to the Communist world.” Instead, Kissinger sought to emulate the vision of Metternich: a concert of great powers that resembled not an American millennial world order but the balance of power in the Old World after the 1815 Congress of Vienna. This is an important point, because it helps explain why Kissinger’s realism led to a fierce backlash from both the Left and Right. In the Democratic Party, a split had occurred in 1972 between the anti-war faction, led by presidential candidate George McGovern and a pro-war Cold War faction, led by Senator Henry Jackson (whom future George W. Bush advisers Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz advised). The latter group eventually became what is now known as neo-conservatives -- hawkish Democrats who became leading lights in the 1980s as well as the post-9/11 era. Although they expressed themselves in different ways, Democrat Jimmy Carter, from 1977 to 1981, and Republican Ronald Reagan, from 1981 to 1989, rebuked Kissinger for promoting and justifying a foreign policy devoid of humanitarian concerns and moral scruples, and instead proudly proclaimed America’s uniqueness and exceptionalism. “Kissinger did not comprehend the strength of his opponents,” Del Pero writes. “What he underestimated and failed to anticipate was the rapid re-emergence of an exceptionalist, and soon hegemonic, political culture.” Again, America and the Cold War misses much of this story. Indeed, the neo-con backlash against realpolitik is all but ignored. For his part, although Del Pero rightly highlights Kissinger’s “Europeanisation” of American diplomacy, he overstates his case that a dramatic change in policy was inevitable regardless of which party controlled the White House. True, any administration during this period would have acknowledged US limits as a result of Vietnam and it would probably explored the possibility of exploiting the Sino-Soviet split that was increasingly evident in the late 1960s. What made US policy from 1969 to 1977 so different, however, was that neither Kissinger nor Nixon gave their fellow citizens an authentic vision of America’s place in the world to inspire confidence or elicit enthusiasm. Kissinger had not simply redefined America’s world view. As Del Pero points out, he attempted to “de-exceptionalise the way in which US foreign policy was conducted and, even more so, was narrated”. To demonstrate Kissinger’s intellectual dishonesty, Del Pero says that in the 1980s and afterwards, he “vainly tried to render himself acceptable to the neo-conservatives and the New Right, even embracing some of the critiques they had originally formulated of him and his detente.” But Del Pero could have also assessed Kissinger’s later writings, including his support for a preventive war against Iraq in 2003, to justify the broader thesis of his philosophical incoherence. There is no mention, for instance, of Kissinger’s rapidly changed story of the Cold War. His first two volumes of his memoirs, written in 1979 and 1982, recount the story of his trying to wean Americans away from their Wilsonian idealism and to make them see the necessity of pursuing more modest aims of stability and equilibrium.  But the third volume of his memoirs published in 1999, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, tells a very different story. Here, Kissinger’s account of his eight years in government is designed to establish continuity between Kissinger’s realpolitik and Reagan’s idealism. It was during this 1969-77 period, Kissinger argues, “that the main lines of American policy for the final two decades of the Cold War were put in place.” The “victories of the 1980s derived from a Reaganite variant – not a rejection – of the strategies of the 1970s.” But, as most historians recognise, it is a stretch to connect the Reagan era (defence build-up, Strategic Defence Initiative, Pershing missiles in Europe, strident anti-communist language) to the Kissinger era (detente, limits, spheres of influence and balance of power). All of this is a reminder that Kissinger, for all his gravitas and diplomatic skills, is intellectually dishonest. As his friend and mentor Hans Morgenthau identified in 1975, one of his greatest skills was his ability to “adjust” from time to time “intellectual conviction to political exigencies.” In government as well as in academia, Morgenthau argued, Kissinger operated as a “many-sided” Odysseus, a “polytropos” with multiple faces, whose intellectual peripateticism was rarely disinterested. “Kissinger”, Morgenthau maintained, “is a good actor who does not play the role of Hamlet today, of Caesar tomorrow, but who is Hamlet today and Caesar tomorrow.” TOM SWITZER is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of the Spectator Australia.