Kissinger: A Machiavellian Conservative

By Miguel Nunes Silva

In The European Conservative


Other than heads of state or military leaders, few people manage to be truly consequential in world history. Diplomats access the hallways of power, but they primarily do the bidding of their political masters. Academics fare even worse and often find themselves even more distant from the helm of power. Henry Kissinger was extraordinary in having achieved much more than most diplomats and academics—and even politicians.

The two World Wars were the defining events of the 20th century, and those who were able to change the course of those conflicts have become figures of enduring historical importance: Churchill, Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin. But concerning the Cold War, historians are yet to select a leading figure. Some have pointed to President Kennedy as instrumental in having avoided another world war during the Cuban Missile Crisis; others prefer President Reagan and his arms race strategy designed to put maximum pressure on the Soviets. But it is Henry Kissinger who still casts a shadow in the 21st century, one greater than anyone else’s during the period of the Cold War.

Perhaps it was precisely because he was neither a career politician nor a military officer that he was the ideal man to win a cold war. Recruited by President Nixon from academia, Kissinger became a leading Republican diplomat for decades. In this role, he orchestrated the Sino-Soviet split, thus multiplying Moscow’s strategic commitments and weakening the Communist bloc as a whole. This was his crowning achievement—and was the moment the course of the Cold War changed. 

It’s important to understand just how significant this achievement was. A good comparison is the ‘Kirkpatrick doctrine’ during the Reagan Administration, which applied few scruples when partnering with undemocratic forces or authoritarian regimes—as long as they were anti-communist. This echoed some of Kissinger’s own unscrupulous approaches—though he went much further by partnering with communists against other communists. Kissinger—like Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who developed her eponymous doctrine—operated under one fundamental assumption: that the USSR and all associated totalitarian regimes were long-lasting and stable. 

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall—and, shortly afterwards, of the USSR itself—U.S. neoconservatives argued that Reaganite ‘providential belligerence’ should have been the policy from the beginning. It was their belief that an uncompromising affirmation of liberal democracy would always outlast competing political systems that informed the Bush Administration’s approach to the Middle East. As a consequence, 20 years later, America’s geopolitical strategy in the region is in shambles. While Kissinger gave his reluctant public blessing to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he never endorsed the Bush policy of ‘making the world safe for democracy.’ 

Indeed, unlike the neoconservatives in D.C., Kissinger’s realpolitik was utilitarian and not Manichean. It was Machiavelli that guided him, not Leo Strauss. As a German émigré, he brought with him the philosophical tradition of Metternich and Bismarck, while additionally embodying Hans Morgenthau’s school of thought. In such a worldview, each polity in an anarchic global system is understood as a separate entity with quantifiable characteristics—though they are not qualitatively differentiated. Kissinger thus brought with him the European Westphalian tradition and rejected the American idea of a ‘City upon a hill.’ His statesmanship pursued power not morality.

It was his dismissal of normative considerations that earned him disrepute in humanitarian and international law circles. Under his direction, the Nixon doctrine revamped the Kennedy administration’s more idealistic approach: military coups and persecution in Latin America, Portuguese colonialism in Africa, ethnic cleansing in South Asia, and even antisemitic Arab revanchism all were tolerated—so long as the balance of power favoured the United States. In Vietnam, the Kissinger-Nixon duo escalated the war—thus increasing the casualties—in order to cynically push for a more favourable political outcome in the peace negotiations. Because he consented to or overlooked the human costs of the geopolitical realignments his policies pursued, he was forever labelled a monster by a good portion of polite society such as author Seymour Hersh. Christopher Hitchens even put him on trial in one of his books. But it is worth considering that many in the international Left would never forgive Kissinger for his policies’ success in creating a schism in socialism.

Another matter which added to his ill repute was his writings on nuclear weapons, which would ultimately be caricatured in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic character of Dr. Strangelove. Earlier in his academic career, he had theorised on intra-war deterrence—or, how to use medium-range nuclear weapons most efficiently on the battlefield. This made him once again anathema to pacifists (especially of the unilateral disarmament type) and environmentalists. But such considerations were a necessary area of theoretical research, as it was also being pursued with seriousness on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Kissinger, for his part, believed that America’s echoing of Anglo-exceptionalism was ‘ethical egotism.’ The Soviet regime did eventually fall, but Nixon understood that it was not Moscow’s form of government that constituted a problem for the U.S. but rather its rivalry for global primacy. Since the emergence of hyper-Atlanticism, the West has become isolated while the rest of the world has gradually integrated. This degeneration of Western powers has been such that their sanctions have become largely ineffectual against foes like Russia. 

Kissinger warned against the political obsessions that ruled the West by urging negotiations with Putin on several occasions. He remained consequential to his last days, diverging from the West’s histrionic opposition to Russia in the Ukraine War and, more recently, dumbfounding bien pensant Germans by expressing doubts over Berlin’s suicidal immigration policies.

Expanding on Kissinger’s thinking, is it possible to claim that he was a ‘conservative’? Realists in international relations come from both sides of the spectrum, after all. Straussians, for instance, might claim that his moral relativism would place him further to the Left. But despite a rather bohemian personal life, Kissinger was, at heart, a stone-cold conservative rooted in the local. This was evident from his particularist opposition to universalist doctrines (whether Marxist or Puritan). His vision was that of a man who does not believe the human race can be remade, only guided. Like an Adam Smith of political science, Kissinger believed in the ‘invisible hand’ of the balance of power and the imperative of raison d’état. Like Metternich and Castlereagh before him, he led an alliance of katechons against a revolutionary evil empire.

Because Kissinger’s utilitarianism was estranged from America’s manifest destiny—and, more recently, aligned him with the rise of China in the early 21st century—many on the Right have long disparaged him. Kissinger advanced America’s cause—but not because it was America. 

As with other Weimer émigrés of his generation, his international background contributed to a somewhat sceptical view of myths, even national ones. Just as Hannah Arendt dared to blaspheme Jewish millenarianism by undemonising Eichmann, Kissinger dared to overlook America’s righteousness. This confrontation against so many interests might help to explain Kissinger’s implacable careerism—a self-serving mechanism that assured his relevance within the system and society of America as well as transnational globalist circles. 

It is this proximity to globalism that has raised much suspicion about his motives, especially in the current conservative anti-internationalist zeitgeist. He was, of course, fully prepared for the necessary deference to the political class and this very tendency was on display in the Nixon recordings, where he was heard acquiescing to President Nixon’s paranoia, for instance. However, this turpitude also extended to the financial realm, with a long portfolio of investments and economic ties to interests that his policies had benefited, and where his echoing personal influence was capitalised. Just precisely where the ethical boundaries of his profiteering stood, will undoubtedly be studied in future generations, as diplomatic archives are progressively declassified.

Henry A. Kissinger is a strong contender for the title of the 20th century’s most consequential man, for good or ill. Like others before him, he turned the tide of a war. He also revolutionized academia and remained an influential thinker whose advice was sought until his final days. Like other figures of the 20th century, his legacy will be a matter of historical and political debate for years to come.

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