HUMAN EVENTS: RIP Henry Kissinger, who won one Cold War, and lost another

In a 1975 episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was asked by Buckley about his choice to give then-President Richard Nixon a copy of Oswald Spengler’s famously pessimistic book Decline of the West.

“There’s a certain irreversibility, isn’t there, in Spengler’s view of things, which I take it you did not want to suggest to the president?” Buckley prodded. In other words, wasn’t the book a bit too defeatist?

“I don’t believe that there’s an irreversibility in events,” Kissinger replied, “but I do believe that to reverse a trend requires more than proclamations. And it is important to understand what the trend is, before one can reverse it.”

What Kissinger did not say, but implied, was that absent great leadership, Spengler’s defeatist predictions would indeed come true: the West would, in fact, decline.

It is ironic, therefore, that we begin this obituary for Kissinger – a man both great and flawed, though the extent to which one cancels out the other is still a matter of hot debate -- by noting that when it comes to the palpable decline that Western governments, institutions, and culture faces today, Kissinger did not take his own advice. That is, while it’s almost inarguable that Kissinger understood the trends abroad, and used that insight to defend the West as perhaps no Secretary of State since him has done, the fact is that when it came to trends within the West itself, Kissinger was woefully blind.

Which is not to say that we want to bury Kissinger without praising him. Arguably, it was Kissinger’s strategy of détente, not to mention his cold-blooded decision to successfully pry Mao Tse Tung’s China into the US’s orbit, and away from the existentially threatening Soviet Union, that permitted the Cold War to later be won by President Ronald Reagan (who initially criticized Kissinger’s strategy, only to adopt a version of it while in office). That his strategies had a body count is undeniable; what is also undeniable is that when you are fighting an existential war, let alone against regimes so ruthless that they are responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of their own people, some amount of ruthlessness is required. History, not us, will ultimately judge if Kissinger's ruthlessness went too far, but given that he had a hand in the most consequential defeat that global communism has suffered, we have to give him credit for a species of genius. While it is understandable that Leftists would loathe Kissinger (being communists or communist sympathizers themselves), or that the neo-Wilsonian so-called “neoconservatives” would despise him for his cold-blooded brand of realpolitik, the fact remains that in the history of US foreign policy, few figures align more closely with the “America First” approach favored by President Trump. Indeed, Kissinger himself advised Trump when Trump grew tired of his own Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. To us, that has to count as a vote of confidence in the wily late diplomat.

And yet, while Kissinger was a peerless diplomat, he was also something of a Cassandra. For example, in his last interview given before his death, Kissinger warned that democracy was in great danger, not from Trump or from fascism or from other elite chimera, but from the fact that inequality is growing as the middle class is drowning. According to Kissinger, democracy was essentially a middle-class phenomena, one created in times of high trust, technological stability, and respect for differing opinions. As Kissinger saw it, all three were now vanishing. Moreover, Kissinger’s diplomacy may have led him perilously close to the enemy; he was widely regarded until his death as a reliable go-between to China’s Communist Party, and helped to smooth relations between the countries multiples times even when, as we would argue, it might have been wiser for them not to be smooth. In short, even if Kissinger won the Cold War against Russia, his choice to promote coziness with the Chinese may have ultimately led to the rise of China and thus, to a second Cold War against China. Though, to his credit, Kissinger would later counsel the US to isolate Communist China by allying with Putin’s Russia in much the same way they had done the reverse during his time as Secretary of State.

But the real problem with Kissinger’s legacy, we think, goes deeper than merely an over-affection for previous allies. Rather, we would argue, that while Kissinger’s realpolitik brand of foreign policy is often considered the sine qua non of cynical, ultrarealist foreign policy doctrines, when it came to matters domestically, Kissinger was fatally naïve.

For example, despite joking that he was a “cardinal villain in the liberal demonology,” we are at a loss to find examples of Kissinger criticizing the rise of Leftist radicalism domestically, let alone of his referring to its great power base being the universities, particularly his own alma mater, Harvard. And before you protest that this isn’t the function of a diplomat, consider this: we now know that current homegrown displays of radicalism--  like the pro-Hamas movements on college campuses – often get tolerated because Hamas-friendly foreign regimes like Qatar now fund those very campuses. Can we imagine a world in which Henry Kissinger, the dean of realist foreign policy, would not recognize the threat of having our own educational institutions – including the one that produced him – dependent on money from our enemies? Do we think he, with his deep roots in Washingtonian foreign policy, was unaware of it? The thought beggars belief.

No; more likely, Kissinger must’ve seen these threats as too inconsequential to worry much about. Even though he was himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, and was painfully aware of the antisemitism that percolated through America’s elite institutions even as he was, himself, a part of them. Why? Why such a blind spot? Why, as Kissinger himself instructed Buckley, did he not see the trends at work – trends which may, in fact, have been funded by people who he once courted in order to isolate the Soviets?

Any number of answers suggest themselves. One could argue, for example, that he was trapped in a defunct foreign policy paradigm and saw temporary allies as permanent ones. But if that was true, why the frequent urgings to ally with Russia? No, we think something more fundamental was at work, and it all starts with one simple, and tragic idea: that whatever he thought of our foreign rivals, Kissinger must have assumed the US would always be the ally of people like him. And therefore, that people like him would always be cultivated and allowed to rise to protect our nation in times of need.

This is not surprising, given his history. The US offered him sanctuary from the Nazis; Nazis he would later fight in the army. After that, Harvard not only harbored him, but provided the launching pad by which his now legendary career would begin. He became the first naturalized citizen to be Secretary of State. For Henry Kissinger, the American dream wasn’t just a slogan; it was his life. It was tangible. It was inarguable. It was natural. But what he did not see, or perhaps what he did not wish to see, was the myriad political choices which had allowed this “natural” state to flourish, nor how fragile those choices would become when the pressure of ideology was applied to them. If we still lived in the America that Henry Kissinger had emigrated to in 1938 – the America he must’ve assumed would always exist – there might be any number of other Kissingers firmly ensconced at our elite institutions and ready to pick up the torch in our time of need.

But they aren’t. A Henry Kissinger applying to Harvard today would be deemed too white, too patriotic, too Jewish; in a word, too unfashionable. Even if he were to attend and somehow gain a professorship, his theory of realpolitik would never be published; it’d be deemed “problematic,” lacking “moral clarity,” and possibly even be considered grounds for revoking his tenure due to its friendliness with people whose flags don’t make good emojis for Twitter bios. And as for his ever becoming Secretary of State? The anarcho-tyrannical state would’ve found some reason to indict or cancel him before he even made it to his confirmation hearings, perhaps with phony #MeToo accusations. A man who famously said “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac?” Ew. Gross. #Thisiswhyweneedfeminism. Do better.

In other words, our system not only hasn’t produced another Kissinger, but it’s rigged against him. This did not have to happen. It could have been stopped. The system of meritocracy, which praised American ingenuity and genius, and which therefore nurtured Henry Kissinger himself, could have been protected; should have been protected by beneficiaries like him. Yet when it came time for this genius of foreign policy to attend to defending the institutions, culture, and community that had fostered him in our cold civil war, if only to pave the way for more like him? Kissinger was uncharacteristically silent. Kissinger refused to see the trends.

But we do. Now, we have no choice. And so, while we appreciate the great, if cold legacy of foreign policy that Kissinger left behind, we have to close by echoing him: Yes, to reverse a trend requires more than proclamations. It takes action. And even if Kissinger offered neither proclamations nor action about today’s cold civil war, we like to hope that his legacy of victory over international communism can offer the seeds of a strategy for fighting the Leftist threat here at home.

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