Henry Kissinger was National Security Adviser and Secretary of State for Presidents Nixon and Ford. Before that he had been in a variety of academic, military and political positions. During his time with Nixon and he is generally thought to have played a role in Pinochet’s rightist coup that over threw the elected Socialist-Communist government of Chile in 1973, and which used a strategy of arbitrary arrest, torture and murder to terrorise the Chilean left, and even arranged the murder of leading military men who did not approve of Pinochet. I believe that because of this Kissinger is not able to travel in Europe, due to the possibility of arrest and trial for human rights crimes. He is also associated with a secret policy of bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam war, so that it could not be used as a rear base by Vietnames communists, This is widely believed to have been an illegal policy, and some think it had a to to do with the ‘Khrmer Rouge” (Cambodian Communists) coming to power, and their particularly fanatical form of totalitarian rule, far more extreme than in Vietnam. These and other events of Kissinger’s time in power have made him a villain for the left, and a dubious character for anyone who would like to see a strong role for law and human rights in international relations. He also has the aura of a brilliant and cunning, if amoral, master mind of all the tricks of diplomacy, international relations, and power politics.
Nevertheless, he has the reputation of a serious scholar and a real thinker with regard to the history of diplomacy. This has not led me to read anything by Kissinger since I generally take the line that books by politicians are not worth reading, and certainly are never major contributions to thinking about anything, even as in Kissinger’s case politics was preceded by a successful academic career.
In the last couple of days, I’ve seen two very favourable reviews of Kissinger’s latest book On China. One by Jonathan D. Spence in the New York Review of Books, a publication aimed at left-liberal American intellectuals, and their equivalents abroad; another by Simon Schama in the Financial Times, which is also an interview with Kissinger. Schama is an American based British historian, known as a ‘public intellectual’ in Britain with left leaning politics. Both articles suggest considerable intellectual depth and historical knowledge on Kissinger’s part combined with his personal experience of participating in Nixon’s policy of establishing relations with Mao’s China. Schama refers to qualities of modesty and openness in Kissinger. Of course some of this could have been put on for Schama’s benefit, but as he points out Kissinger’s flattering remarks about replying to Schama’s comments on his earlier book Diplomacy, are borne out by the text of On China.
I aim to read Diplomacy and On China, when time allows, as the unusual achievement of a former politician in writing serious books about topics, where I have some interest. Should we judge Kissinger less harshly because of his intellectual achievements, and what sounds like a very genuine commitment to ope minded discussion and intellectual engagement? Probably not. My impression of Kissinger;s political career, and his pronouncements on international relations has too many negative aspects. The obvious comparisons are with the two great Germanic statesmen of the nineteenth-century: Otto von Bismark in Prussia then the German Empire he created, Prince Metternich in the Austria Empire. Few doubt the great personal and intellectual qualities they brought to state affair, their genuine devotion to what they understood to be their duty, and that they tower over their successors in their respective systems. However, the genius was in stabilising through short term ruthlessness what could not last. In Bismark’s case he did not believe in what he created. He despised German nationalism, and created the German Empire to reinforce Prussian power (that is of the monarchical state based in Berlin which had its territorial core in an area stretching from Brandenburg to what is now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad). He hated and mistrusted Catholics, liberal, leftists, Poles and southern Germans. Though he was a pillar of the European state system, it was heading towards a disaster in any case, as the major powers were constantly trying to isolate and over take each other, and were always ready for a war. The period of European peace outside the Balkans from 1870 to 1914, should not lead us to regard World War One as a mere accident. The ‘accident’ could not have happened in a genuinely stable state system. Bismark’s use of war to settle issues until 1870 itself established precedents later German governments would use. The survival of political institutions which were obviously backward compared with France, Britain, and the United States, meant that when democracy came after World War One, it did so with the stigma of defeat, and entrenched anti-democratic forces in the background. And we all know where that led. Metternich preceded Bismark and failed in the more obvious sense that he had to resign from government and go into exile during the 1848 movement of liberalism and nationalism across Europe. As he continued to advise the new Emperor, we could say that he was part of the renewed Habsburg Austrian system. This was a system which accommodated democratic, liberal, and national feelings far too slowly to survive the crisis of World War One. The immediate cause of that war was Austrian expansion into the Balkans (leading a Serbian anarchist and nationalist to assassinate the heir to the Habsburg throne in Sarajevo). By that time, the Empire was not in a state of fight in a war against other major powers, and disintegrated at the end of the war. The post Habsburg nations did not establish viable liberal democracies, with the exception of Czechoslovakia (though even there ethic Slovaks and Germans were never entirely happy with the state). Austrian democracy itself gave way to a quasi-fascist Catholic Corporatist state even before the Nazis came to power in Germany. This dismal post-Habsburg history leads some.even now, to regard the end of the Habsburg Empire as some great disaster of European history, that the victorious World War One powers, should have kept it in existence, and that the Habsburg statesmen going back to Metternich must have had the right idea. If their ideas were so right, we really have to wonder how the Habsburg state was unable to contain rising nationalism of most groups in the Empire, with conflicting demands, demands that could not be met through liberal-democractic institutions because the conservative Hapsburg leaders were afraid of the weakening affect such institutions, and were far too slow to work on them.
It’s a big step from Bismark and and Metternich to Kissinger, and both the earlier figures were in power much longer than Kissinger and with powers far exceeding his (which was part of the problem). Kissinger had a shared obsession with stability and alliance, with doing whatever it took in the short term to preserve and expand existing areas of influence. He evidently sees this as historically informed long term thinking, but what long term good did Kissinger’s policies do? His policies in Vietnam did not prevent Communist take over of all of Indochina. His policy in Chile stained America as the instigator of coups against elected government. Allende’s Socialist-Communist government was divided in itself, was in conflict with the extra-parliamentary left as well as the hard right, completely alienated the moderate right and centre, never controlled the army in reality, and was an economic disaster. It never had majority electoral support in the country, or in the national assembly. It would have failed and been over thrown by a coup of some kind without American involvement, a reality Kissinger’s tricks obscured. His policies in China did not prevent China from continually moving ever towards a more assertive and historically resentful foreign policy position in the region, and in the world, and if their example of international relations was Kissinger type of tricky ‘realism’ then who can be surprised? International relations cannot be conducted on the basis of moral purity, of Wikileaks style exposure of all information, but the Kissinger type naive cynicism is simply unable to see the long term costs of a policy in which power is always devoted in an extreme way toward defending any friend or any enemy of any enemy, asserting America’s naked power, without regard for the later consequences. It’s not surprising that Kissinger has written a book about China since this is his best claim to a constructive legacy, and it was a success of some kind, but not in a way that has led China to put cooperation before festering historical resentments and a growingly evident desire to dominate its neighbours and its region. How do I know? The reviews of Kissinger’s book certainly support that view.