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Kissinger's unaccountable realism



He always had a high opinion of himself, and it was one he managed to market to supreme effect. But Henry A. Kissinger, former National Security Advisor and US Secretary of State and now centenarian, was a practitioner of the darker arts of statecraft and diplomacy. An advocate of realism, he left his mark on several continents, playing a role in destabilising governments and regimes, and up-ending international law when he thought it necessary.

The last part is of much interest, if only suggesting that this scion of the US foreign policy establishment showed that a rules-based international order was a chimerical notion before the self-interest of great powers. Making much of his refugee status (he fled Nazi Germany in 1938), he advertised himself as one who had learned the lessons of Hitler’s Germany. His book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 (1957), initiated him as a ‘realist’ tinged with idealism, an admixture the historian Greg Grandin calls ‘imperial existentialism’.

Concerned with the Europe of the wily diplomat Prince Clemens von Metternich, Kissinger came to believe in an international system of balance, oiled by a decent amount of terror. The fair and the just had little role to play in this scheme; durability of a stable order was what counted.

This became an obsession, so much so that world politics became a matter of systems and adjustments, rather than blood and loss. The Cold War, with its risk of thermonuclear annihilation between the US and USSR, could itself generate a suitable balance of terror. Democratic experiments, certainly of the socialist variety, could go hang. In that sense, realism faced its own limits, being accused of being adjustable, malleable and a concept that could stand for everything.

That said, Kissinger has entranced historians and critics. Historian Niall Ferguson, punting from the conservative angle, is effusive about a figure who evolves: the raw material idealist who gets lucky with the granite pragmatism of the Nixon presidency after foiled and misguided attachments. Barry Gewen goes so far as to claim that Kissinger’s approach to international affairs ‘runs so counter to what Americans believe or wish to believe.’ For all that, Kissinger could still endorse the ultimate goals of the country, and imperium, that became his home. ‘A capitalist society, or, what is more interesting to me, a free society,’ he claimed in an interview in 1958, ‘is a more revolutionary phenomenon than nineteenth-century socialism.’ Realism, it would seem, could be pursued within a certain idealistic framework.

In the shadow of such thinking was Metternich’s fashioned legacy, whose role, alongside British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Robert Stewart Castlereagh, was to construct a post-Napoleonic Europe suspicious of democratic revolutions and freedom movements. As a result, Kissinger reasons, Europe maintained – with various stutters – continental stability from 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. Even with that sense of achievement, Kissinger had to concede that Metternich lacked ‘the ability to contemplate an abyss, not with the detachment of a scientist, but as a challenge to overcome – or perish in the process.’ Without realising it, he enunciated a prophecy: ‘For men become myths, not by what they know, nor even by wat they achieve, but the tasks they set themselves.’

Kissinger’s partnership with President Richard Nixon became something of a mirror of this project, one ruthless, amoral and sanguinary. While international relations theorists could only see theories and models of power, dictators, strongmen and the autocrats wreaked havoc over countries, murdering, torturing and disappearing their citizens.


'Kissinger was one of the first, along with Nixon, to concede that the US, for all its power, could not sustain it indefinitely. The pieces would have to be reordered.'


Nixon sought Kissinger’s apprenticeship in the lead-up to the 1968 Vietnam peace talks orchestrated by the Johnson administration. As Republican presidential candidate, Nixon did not wish the Democrats to be getting any kudos for brokering peace in the Indochina conflict. With Kissinger reprised as a twentieth century Iago, he convinced the South Vietnamese that better terms could be reached under a Nixon administration. Sit tight and wait till the election result. The talks duly collapsed, prolonging the war for another seven years. In a grotesque twist, Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating a non-existent peace that eventually led to the triumph of the North Vietnamese two years later. The brainchild of ‘Vietnamisation’, which saw the US withdraw its own forces, leaving South Vietnam to do the heavy lifting with US equipment and training, showed the limits of the Kissingerian world view. Much the same formula was used in the wake of the US retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021.

With Nixon in the White House, the question remained as to how the North Vietnamese might be encouraged to return to the diplomatic table. This, thought the Machiavellian duo, could be achieved by conducting a secret bombing campaign of Hanoi’s supply routes in Laos and Cambodia. When the covert bombing program was exposed by the New York Times on May 9, 1969, Kissinger hounded the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to place a number of selected government officials and journalists under surveillance.

On the ground, the bombing campaign cost some 150,000 lives, with recent reports suggesting that the violence may have been greater than initially thought, involving the use of helicopter gunships and ground operations by US and allied troops. The covert approach, one evading public scrutiny and Congress, became the blueprint for future military strikes, including the US drone program.

The signature contribution of Kissinger as a student suspicious of democratic movements came in his instrumental role in overthrowing Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende. Just over a week after Allende’s election in September 1970, CIA director Richard Helms was told that, ‘We will not let Chile go down the drain.’

In November, Kissinger, refusing to accept local conditions in the country, warned that Allende’s election would provide an all too encouraging example for ‘the rest of Latin America and the developing world; on what our future position will be in the hemisphere; and on the larger world picture’. This was a model whose ‘effect can be insidious.’

When one considers the Kissinger ledger of lives lost, from the Vietnam War to Cambodia, East Timor, Bangladesh, the ‘dirty wars’ of Latin America he did so much to encourage, and a number of interventions in Africa, Grandin’s estimate comes to 3 million.

Beyond this, however, other motivations came through, befitting the refashioned guise of Metternich. The small country disasters of US interventions could be ignored in favour of the grand show: putting out the feelers to the China of Mao Zedong; teasing and tormenting the divisions between Moscow and Beijing. Finally, those in Washington had a sense, contrary to a view held since the Truman administration, that the Communist bloc was not monolithic but potentially fractious.  By bringing in Communist China from the diplomatic cold, at the expense of Taiwan, a cleavage within the World Revolutionary Bloc might be exploited. In doing so, Kissinger was one of the first, along with Nixon, to concede that the US, for all its power, could not sustain it indefinitely. The pieces would have to be reordered.

Given such a record, it should come as no surprise that the still fully engaged consultant to governments and companies would abhor the International Criminal Court. Such a body risked entrenching a ‘dictatorship of the virtuous’ and a ‘tyranny of judges’. It exemplified Kissinger’s belief that statecraft was best done unshackled, to be conducted with impunity as to consequences.

Amidst the gushing birthday tributes and whitewashing omissions lie a stretch of efforts, and commentary, demanding that Kissinger account for his actions during his eight years in office. In a powerful polemic written in 2001, the late Christopher Hitchens argued that Kissinger’s ‘own lonely impunity is rank; it smells to heaven.’ It was ‘time for justice to take a hand’ in bringing him before the courts.

That same year, during a vacation in France, Kissinger was summoned by a local magistrate keen to question him about his role and involvement in Operation Condor, a network of eight Latin American military dictatorships responsible for the abductions, torture and murder of tens of thousands. He left his hotel, shielded by bodyguards and adamant he would not yield to any such request.

In the United Kingdom, a stillborn effort was made by human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in April 2002 to seek a warrant for Kissinger’s arrest, citing the Geneva Conventions Act 1957. The charges asserted that ‘while he was national security adviser to the US president 1969-1975 and US Secretary of State 1973-1977, [Kissinger] commissioned, aided and abetted and procured war crimes in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia’.

The presiding District Judge Nicholas Evans, of the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, conceded he could do little in the absence of the Attorney-General’s consent. Kissinger was left untouched and unruffled, which he, as a centenarian, remains.




Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. 

Main image: President Richard Nixon with United States National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, circa 1972. (Frederic Lewis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Displomacy, Realism, Kissinger, United States, Foreign Policy



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Existing comments

Kissinger's Peace Prize was not exactly for "negotiating a non-existent peace."
The 1968 Tet Offensive by 85,000 North Vietnamese forces was defeated, and by 1969 most had withdrawn from South Vietnam.
"Detente" was about to cut off supplies from the Soviet Union and China, so North Vietnam made a further attempt to win the war outright in 1972 but again failed.
Kissinger and Le Duc Tho finalized the Paris Peace Agreement in January 1973, and by December US military personnel in Vietnam were "less than 250."
The communists however ignored or manipulated the Agreement. One intelligence report showed Hanoi preparing for a "general offensive" but postponing it hoping that Watergate would paralyze the US.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution and the Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson Amendments of 1973-4 meant Congress effectively stymied presidential conduct of foreign policy, and Nixon and Ford were powerless to prevent the North Vietnamese from breaking the agreement and taking everything in 1975.
As for the wartime killing, let's not forget that the US was fighting communism which had enslaved and killed some 100 million people. Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew credited US efforts in Vietnam with giving his country time to strengthen itself against communist expansionism.

Ross Howard | 07 June 2023  
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Attempting to justify the man doesn’t alter the fact that Vietnam, like so many US military and subversive activities post WWII, was I’ll conceived and immoral, with scant concern for the millions of innocent citizens killed and maimed, and the appalling destruction wrought. The US was supporting a corrupt government in the south which was certainly no better, and arguably worse, than the Communist alternative in the north. Kissinger was party to this charade, and so, sadly, were we as allies of the US in that immoral war.
Our continued subservience to the US in following it faithfully into its equally I’ll conceived Iraq and Afghanistan engagements suggests we’ve learnt absolutely nothing from the lessons history would teach us.

John Quilty | 09 June 2023  

I'm not "Attempting to justify the man", I don’t particularly like him, I'm merely attempting to refute a nonsense about his "negotiating a non-existent peace", imperfect as the agreement was. And while I agree that the Iraq and Afghanistan ventures were ill-conceived, the almost one million Catholics who fled North Vietnam to the South in 1954-5 to get away from communism, refutes the perennial communist propaganda that the other side is always so corrupt that it justifies their own barbarity.

Ross Howard | 11 June 2023  

The Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians certainly paid a high price for what began as a war of independence, and their kids are still being blown to pieces by unexploded cluster bombs, (which the USA has never paid reparations for). I wonder whether they think the war was worth it, as you seem to, Ross.

Peter Schulz | 10 June 2023  

Well, I wonder what the Cambodians who cheered the communist Khmer Rouge army into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 thought about it a week later when they were all driven into the countryside where about a quarter of the population was murdered in the most terrible circumstances.
As for the war itself, I've always had reservations, such as those described by William Broyles Jr. On the Vietnam Memorial he writes "there are no names of any sons or grandsons of the policymakers who plotted the war or of the congressmen who voted the appropriations to keep it going...The division was a matter of class...Not one of the boys who joined my platoon in the rice fields and jungles was the son of a doctor, lawyer, businessman, politician or professor...The educated kids who knew how to manipulate the system by and large avoided the war: the less-privileged Americans fought and died there.” [Newsweek, November 22, 1982]
And it seems to me that those who fought and returned, only to see their livelihoods later shipped off to Asia by globalization, are now regarded as Deplorables by the same ruling classes who still run Washington.

Ross Howard | 11 June 2023  

Kissinger: certainly, a flawed man with a flawed plan. No wonder he looked to the masters of amoral political manipulation of the British and Austro-Hungarian Empires. They have both fallen. Is the world a better place? With the current world situation, perhaps they both helped sow the seeds of the disasters which followed. Are the current world empires of the USA and China doing more or less the same? Politics is an amoral game of self-interest. Can Kissinger sleep without bodyguards? What will happen when he shuffles off this mortal coil? I wouldn't like to be him then.

Edward Fido | 07 June 2023  

If Kissinger were Middle-Eastern, we'd call him a terrorist. If he were Russian or Chinese, we'd call him a war criminal. But thanks to Western political theory, we just politely call him a 'realist' - such is 'the Rules-based Order'.

Peter Schulz | 08 June 2023  

Thanks to Binoy Kampmark for outlining what Kissinger's "realism" in international politics really meant for the people of many countries.

Gareth Evans also promoted the concept of "realism" in international relations when he was an apologist for the genocide of the East Timorese at the hands of the Indonesian Suharto dictatorship. And he did deals with the Indonesians to steal East Timor's resources while the country was illegally occupied - actions that violate international law.

It sounds to the listener as though it is a logical way to deal with international affairs, however, this article show this term can hide much death and human suffering.

I think Peter Schulz's comment on this article is very pertinent. Western political pundits might well say that Kissinger was a realist, but the truth is he was a war criminal who brought terrorism, death and suffering to many countries.

At least when Gareth Evans retired from politics, he did some very positive work with the International Crisis Group to meditate conflicts in several parts of the world.

Kissinger remained a dogged supporter of US hegemony all of his very long life.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 13 June 2023