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

The Meaning of Kissinger

A Realist Reconsidered

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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[s] that the preservation of the state . . . requires both ruthlessness and deceit at the expense of foreign and internal adversaries.” Many writers have simply assumed that Kissinger modeled himself on his supposed heroes, the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich and the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck, the standard-bearers of classical European realpolitik.

Yet the international relations scholar Hans Morgenthau, who truly was a realist, once memorably described Kissinger as, like Odysseus, “many-sided.” In the early 1960s, for example, when the agonizing question arose of how much the United States should shore up the government of South Vietnam, Kissinger initially believed that South Vietnam’s right to self-determination was worth U.S. lives. Morgenthau, the authentic realist, vehemently disagreed.

Kissinger's own intellectual capital has been insufficiently studied.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Kissinger did indeed write about Metternich and Bismarck. But only someone who has not read (or who has willfully misread) what he wrote could seriously argue that he set out in the 1970s to replicate their approaches to foreign policy. Far from being a Machiavellian, Kissinger was from the outset

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