Henry Kissinger Reminds Us Why Realism Matters

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by Walter Isaacson,

from TIME Magazine,

In his new book, the 91-year-old statesman strikes a note of humility.

When Henry Kissinger talks about world order, to some it might seem as if he is living in a previous century. The 17th, perhaps. Beginning with his Harvard doctoral dissertation 60 years ago, he has extolled the concept of international order…

Kissinger’s appreciation for order, he later recalled, came after his family fled Hitler’s Germany in 1938 and arrived in New York, where he realized he did not have to cross the street to avoid non-Jewish boys who might beat him up. Kissinger became an exemplar of the realist, as opposed to idealist, school of diplomacy, someone who believed that a foreign policy that is overly guided by moral impulses and crusading ideals was likely to be dangerous. “The most fundamental problem of politics,” he wrote in his dissertation, “is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.”

Likewise, we are tempted to raise an eyebrow at the news that Kissinger, now 91, has produced … his 17th book in 60 years, this one titled simply World Order. Respect for sovereignty? How quaint! Hasn’t he heard that in the 21st century, threats respect no borders, the world is flat, and we have a humanitarian duty to protect people in places where regimes are repressive? That is why we rejected realist thinking for a “Freedom Agenda” that included invading Iraq to make the Middle East safe for democracy, toppling Muammar Gaddafi in Libya under a humanitarian banner and seeking (well, at least until ISIS came along) to do the same to President Bashar Assad in Syria.

Kissinger’s World Order doesn’t seem dated at all. The U.S. might do well to heed his prescription that it alloy its idealism with a new dose of realism.

Kissinger’s book takes us on a dazzling and instructive global tour of the quest for order, from Cardinal Richelieu to Metternich and Bismarck, the Indian minister Kautilya of the 4th century B.C. and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, and a succession of American Presidents beginning with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, all culminating in a world order based on sovereign nation-states at the end of World War II. “By the mid-20th century,” Kissinger writes, “this international ­system was in place on every continent.”

When he was the co-pilot of American statecraft as Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser and Secretary of State in the early 1970s, Kissinger was able to manipulate the levers of this system with a mastery that would have mesmerized Metternich. Eschewing our differences in ideologies and values, he forged a détente with the Soviet Union and an opening to China, then played off both to create a triangular balance of power that preserved the U.S.’s influence after its retreat from Vietnam.

But sustaining such a values-neutral pursuit of strategic interests is difficult in a democracy that celebrates its moral exceptionalism.

Likewise on Iraq, Kissinger initially supported the mission to topple Saddam Hussein, but he says, “I had doubts, expressed in public and governmental forums, about expanding it to nation building and giving it such universal scope.” He blames George W. Bush and his Administration for pursuing idealistic crusades that ignored earthly realities. As Bush put it in a 2003 address, “Iraqi democracy will succeed—and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation.” This ideal was, Kissinger notes, unmoored from realities. “To seek to achieve [American values] by military occupation in a part of the world where they had no historical roots,” he writes, “imbued the American endeavor in Iraq with a Sisyphean quality.”

Kissinger ends his latest book on a different note, one of humility—a trait that for most of his career he was better at humorously feigning than at actually possessing. “Long ago, in youth, I was brash enough to think myself able to pronounce on ‘The Meaning of History,’” he writes. “I now know that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared.”

The key to Kissinger’s foreign policy realism, and the theme at the heart of his magisterial new book, is that such humility is important.

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