Super-K: The myth of Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger will turn 100 tomorrow — a remarkable feat, and one among his many. Kissinger’s longevity seems to validate the very popular and quasi-supernatural representation of him: the mystic image of “super-K” of a famous 1974 Newsweek cover — in blue tights and red mantel — ready to save the world, one diplomatic move at the time.
The old sage of world politics still gives interviews and, from time to time, writes oracular op-eds, which foreign policy buffs peruse hoping to dissipate the thick fogs of global politics (or to impress their friends at the dinner table). He remains the object of the never-ending interest, if not fascination, of legions of international relations scholars, pundits, journalists, and the informed public at large.
Expect in these days a deluge of commentaries on his centenary, the vast majority celebrating his unique acumen, erudition, and sophistication. A much smaller but not insignificant critical crowd will denounce him as an unscrupulous, authoritarian-inclined schemer, if not an outright war criminal.
Both the apologists and the detractors adhere to the idea that Kissinger was, and still is, an amoral but coherent realpolitiker. For the latter, he is a cynical and unprincipled champion of high-power politics, who has constantly justified and actively promoted its worst excesses. The former considers him the honest steward of the national interest, tutoring the public on the inescapable (and brutal) nature of the relations among nations, and exposing the inner naiveté — both dangerous and hypocritical — of human rights enthusiasts, democracy-promotion visionaries, and international law-primacy theorists.
But do we really find this coherence in Kissinger’s ponderings as an intellectual, in his actions as statesman and in his policy prescriptions as a much sought-after foreign policy guru? The answer can hardly be positive. In a career in the public domain that spans seven decades, Kissinger has often followed the political and intellectual vogues of the time more than challenged them. He has adapted — in his works, ideas, and proposals — to these vogues more than he has shaped them.
A simple survey of his writings and his most important political deeds shows this. In the mid-1950s, he reflected on the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons when it was popular and expedient to do so career-wise. Later that decade, he adhered to the belief — unfounded but politically convenient — that the U.S. suffered from a missile gap vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Moscow’s technological edge on rockets, he claimed, was permanently altering the global balance of power, with the U.S. risking losing the Cold War. (A missile gap did in fact exist, but still to Washington’s advantage.)
In the mid-1960s, Kissinger tackled another relevant topic of the day: transatlantic relations. His refined argument was that the U.S. should listen more to its European allies, and that cooperation was to be preferred to conflict. While privately harboring some doubts on the unwise American decision to scale up its military intervention in Indochina, he never questioned the strategic premises of the war in Vietnam.
Once in government, as Nixon’s national security advisor, he concurred to prolong that conflict fruitlessly. He rationalized this through a quintessential fetish of post-1945 U.S. foreign policy: the obsession with credibility and the ensuing inability to distinguish between theaters that were truly vital for U.S. security and those that were not. (Events would quickly show that Vietnam fell squarely in the latter category.) With a paradoxical reasoning, which would make any coherent realist fall out of his or her chair, super-K claimed that the U.S. had created a strategic interest by intervening in the first place, and that regardless of Vietnam’s importance, international confidence in the United States and its commitments was at stake. A withdrawal, therefore, could not be contemplated.
Four decades later, Kissinger would offer a similar argument about the intervention in Iraq and the necessity for Washington to avoid hasty retreats. The opening to China — allegedly one of his acts of diplomatic genius — had long been in the making, and we now know that it was actually Nixon’s idea. Kissinger was, in fact, very skeptical at first.
While in government, Kissinger’s analyses of various international issues were often ill-informed and dogmatic, and his policy proposals inconsistent if not outright dangerous. During the confused democratic transition in Portugal in 1974-75, to take one example among many, he completely misread the situation and applied rigid and binary Cold War lenses. He flirted with a Chilean solution (that is, a rightist military coup d’état) or a Taiwanese solution (separation of the strongly reactionary Azores Islands from the mainland; “Apparently,” he quipped, “only whites have no right to autonomy”).
In the late 1980s, he celebrated the systemic stability of the Cold War just before the implosion of the Socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and, later, the Soviet Union itself. In the 1990s, he even reconsidered his original critique of Woodrow Wilson’s idealism.
These are just a few, illustrative examples, to which many others could be added. This invites the question of why he is still so revered, admired and consulted. To answer, we need to focus on Kissinger the myth more than Kissinger the man. He has been an incessant, and often successful, promoter of his image as the wise, no-nonsense sage, daring to speak the brutal truth to those who are prone, and capable, of listening and learning from it. But there is something more to this than simple opportunism and efficacious self-aggrandizement.
Kissinger’s popularity is linked in part to modern America’s oscillation between messianic projects to rescue and transform other regions, and huge disappointments followed by demands from an ungrateful world for U.S. retrenchment. During periods of crisis, introspection and self-doubt, Kissinger’s gloomy rhetoric and clear-cut recommendations have seemed to offer a simple way out of any strategic or moral conundrum: pursue the national interest; discharge impractical melioristic utopias; don’t mistake morality for moralism.
As he once put it, during one of the crises following the Vietnam catastrophe, time often comes for the U.S. to “face the stark reality” and “learn to conduct foreign policy as other nations had to conduct it for so many centuries — without escape and without respite.”
Kissinger’s fame has always reflected his image as the learned, heavily accented, historically-aware European, teaching to naïve America the harsh and inescapable rules of world politics. Not by accident, and despite his sudden rediscovery of Wilson, he was less popular and influential during the neoliberal and humanitarian euphoria of the 1980s and 1990s. And not by accident, he has regained the spotlight after the dramatic fiascos of the American wars of this century, the 2008 financial crash and the resulting radical contestation of globalization.
Like every fantasy hero, super-K is cut out for predicaments and emergencies, for what he offers is invariably a crisis discourse. Whatever we might think of him, his writings and his policies, it’s hard then to imagine a more appropriate myth for today’s age and dilemmas.
Mario Del Pero is Professor of International History at SciencesPo-Paris. He is the author of “The Eccentric Realist. Henry Kissinger and the Making of American Foreign Policy” (Cornell University Press).
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