08 December 2023
So the old bastard finally died.
Consigliere to Jared Kushner, Theranos board member, Google CEO co-author, ad-man for gold and The Economist on American network television, mass-producer of self-flattering prose, executive headhunter for US occupations in the Middle East, glorified telephone switchboard operator between Washington and Beijing: the industry of Henry Kissinger’s interminable twilight was only matched by its tawdriness. In this, as in much else, he was an unremarkable product of his country. The idea that abetting massacres from East Pakistan to East Timor was a quantum leap in the annals of American atrocity makes him almost too convenient a figure for his apologists and detractors alike: it elevates him to the status (long sought by himself) of the decisive US foreign policy mind of the post-war, while giving his nimbler defenders almost too generous an edifice of infamy to chip away at. Was it so unexpected that the country that had fire-bombed Japanese civilians to get Tokyo to the table also fire-bombed Cambodians in an attempt to get Hanoi to one as well? Was backing the massacre of Timorese an unusual follow-up to backing the mass-killing of Indonesian ‘communists’? Was it so shocking that the political class that had installed the Shah would also ease the way for Pinochet? Was Dr. Kissinger’s record in the Middle East really worse than that of his old nemesis Dr. Brzezinski? For what set the man apart, one may have to look elsewhere.
The presiding conceit of Kissinger’s career was that he was bringing geopolitical necessities (he never really warmed to the term ‘realism’) to the attention of a country enamoured with its own innocence, and hampered by its own idealism. (‘American idealism… had defeated itself with its own weapons’ is the sentiment repeated ad infinitum in his books and memoirs). The ironies here were multiple. The first was that a country led by hard-nosed statesmen running from Teddy Roosevelt to Dean Acheson to Richard Nixon was somehow beholden to pussy-footing idealists in need of a dose of German Realpolitik, as if America’s ruling class had never not been perfectly ruthless in pursuit of its interests. It was, in fact, widely admired for this in the alleged ‘realist’ heartland. ‘We Germans write fat volumes about Realpolitik but understand it no better than babies in a nursery’, the New Republic editor Walter Weyl recalled being told by a Berlin professor during the First World War. ‘You Americans understand it far too well to talk about it’. ‘As a German making remarks about American imperialism’, Carl Schmitt gushed, ‘I can only feel like a beggar in rags speaking about the riches and treasures of foreigners’. As Baudrillard once said of French Theory, German Realpolitik was like the Statue of Liberty: a gift from the Old Continent that the Americans neither wanted nor needed.
The second irony is that Kissinger himself was never really a ‘realist’ at all; at least not in the sense of a John Mearsheimer or a Hans Morgenthau. He believed from the very beginning that the US could only triumph with a maximal commitment to its own missionary ideology. ‘A capitalist society, or, what is more interesting to me, a free society, is a more revolutionary phenomenon than nineteenth-century socialism’, Kissinger said in 1958. ‘I think we should go on the spiritual offensive’. Even when he was operating in realist guise, many of his judgements seem to have been based on a drastic overestimation of communist power, neatly captured in his theory of ‘linkage’. The Vietnamese needed to be taught a lesson so that Castro didn’t get any ideas. Pinochet needed to be installed in order to drive fear into Italian Communists. It was a picture of the world in which every action was hot-wired to another one. Even his vaunted understanding of China was full of bizarre assessments, such as that it had been wholly worth China’s while for Deng Xiaoping to squander 40,000 troops in its adventure against Vietnam since, after all, it kept the Soviet Empire from extending down to Phnom Penh and Bangkok.
Kissinger discovered earlier than most of his peers that celebrity is the ultimate trump card in American life. His stature occasionally allowed him to speak with less euphemism than the rest of the establishment. Instead of simply denying the illegal bombing of Cambodia, Kissinger quite coolly laid out its rationale as a tit-for-tat for Hanoi’s use of the country for its supply routes, while claiming that it had accelerated the peace process. What Kissinger most admired in diplomacy was the unexpected lunge. Perhaps his favourite gambit in the history of European diplomacy were the marital negotiations of Bismarck – whom Kissinger admired far more than Metternich – for the hand of Johanna von Puttkamer. Dealing with a prospective Pietist father-in-law who looked unkindly on the rakish young man, Bismarck seized Johanna in front of her father and planted a kiss, making their nuptials a fait accompli.
Yet for all of the surprise moves that Kissinger would celebrate in his own career (the ‘castling’ of China and the Soviet Union was Nixon’s idea), he was more notable for his absolute conventionality on virtually all foreign policy questions. He never appeared at a jagged angle like Kennan. His trademark method was to find ulterior reasons for what the state was doing already: Bosnia; the Iraq War (on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s violation of the no-fly zone rather than weapons of mass destruction); earlier this year, in a typical reversal, he even endorsed Ukrainian entry into NATO. In return, he has been persona grata in every administration. ‘He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders, and sending me written reports on his travels’, Hillary Clinton noted of her time in his former position of Secretary of State. ‘I probably talk to Henry Kissinger more than I talk to anyone else’, Dick Cheney said at the height of the second invasion of Iraq. ‘We’ve been friends for a long time’, President Trump said, keeping to script. ‘He’s a man I have great, great respect for’. (In some rare contrast, Biden’s words of condolence to Kissinger’s family read like the Beltwayese for ‘fuck off’.)
In the gallery of Cold Warriors, one of the features that did set Kissinger apart was his attitude toward the Third World, which he came to rate as a greater threat than the Soviet Union. Kissinger was comfortably at home in the two-power rivalry – all those congenial lunches with Dobrynin – but the prospect of Southern nations using oil wealth to modernize and challenge the US-led order was intolerable. Hence so many photos of Kissinger powwowing with the likes of Suharto and Mobutu, and why he bothered keeping in touch with experts on decolonization like his old Harvard colleague Rupert Emerson. In the mid-1970s Kissinger started engaging in public ideological work to counter the rhetoric of the New International Economic Order, and private logistical work to re-channel OPEC oil revenues into Wall Street rather than development projects. This came to be seen as preferable to finding an excuse for military action against OPEC nations, which Nixon and Kissinger also mooted.
How did Kissinger become such a greedy historiographical blackhole, sucking the attention of historians, journalists and critics of US foreign policy away from all other corners, concentrating them in a single figure? One reason is that Kissinger was among the first products of the meritocratic post-war academy to ascend to such a height. The bitter sting that his academic peers felt about one of their own accruing such power made him the special negative object of their fascination, driven by unmistakable envy for a man whose most important decisions no longer included whether to grant a junior faculty member tenure. The result was mutual appreciation, with the academic historians elevating Kissinger, and Kissinger elevating them in return (common in the Nixon-Kissinger tapes is the slide from talking about Vietnamese bombing targets to complaining about ‘the professors’). In Niall Ferguson, Kissinger shrewdly selected a defender who will come to the net for him on every point (already in his first volume Ferguson has argued, not unjustly, that the substance of Kissinger’s reports back to the Nixon team from the Paris peace talks could have been gleaned by any attentive newspaper reader).
More important than the logic of the academy, though, was Kissinger’s grasp of the soft spots in the American press corps. A master at flattering journalists, or boring them when necessary, he was in his element where others were at their most flat-footed: in the impromptu interview, the barrage of questions at the podium. In one of the periodic windows when intellectuals were celebrities in America, and on the back of a Kennedy administration full of them, Kissinger projected a giant brain leavened by comic timing, Peter Sellars’s Strangelove come uncannily and delightedly to life. A quiver of self-deprecating sallies were at the ready. He was, as he liked to say, always trying to ‘organize an evasive reply’. In this domain he had learned more from Kennedy than from Nixon: never let the press forget that you are one of their own. You can hear the click of collusion in the background laughter to his jokes. Welcoming foreign diplomats, he would wheeze: ‘I have not faced such a distinguished audience since dining alone in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles’. It may be a while before Kissinger is seen in proportion: an unusually good student of the moods, and faithful servant of the interests, of his country’s elite.