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The Meaning of Kissinger

A Realist Reconsidered

 Henry Kissinger at Harvard, July 1969. ALFRED EISENSTAEDT / LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION / GETTY IMAGES

There are reasons other than his longevity why so many world leaders—among them the Chinese President Xi Jinping—continue to seek the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who stepped down as U.S. secretary of state close to four decades ago. In this respect, Barack Obama is unusual. He is the first U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower not to seek Kissinger’s advice. Periodically, commentators urge Obama to be more “Kissingerian.” Others argue that he is Kissinger­ian in practice, if not in rhetoric. But what exactly does the term mean?

The conventional answer equates Kissinger with realism, a philosophy characterized by the cool assessment of foreign policy in the stark light of national self-interest, or, in the journalist Anthony Lewis’ phrase, “an obsession with order and power at the expense of humanity.” Writing in 1983, Kissinger’s former Harvard colleague Stanley Hoffmann depicted Kissinger as a Machiavellian “who believe[

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