The limits of 'realism'


Gewen’s book is not a womb-to-tomb biography. We learn little about Kissinger’s marriages, children or business clients, or the cultural phenomenon he became in the mid-1970s
When the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642, Pope Urban VIII is said to have declared: “If there is a God, the Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If not … well, he had a successful life.”

Henry Kissinger likes that anecdote. He cites it in his writings. This is, perhaps, projection.

Has Kissinger, sly and witty, revived the tale as a wink toward his elegists? He has surely enjoyed success — secretary of state, winner of the National Book Award and the Nobel Peace Prize — yet always in chorus with charges of sin.

Barry Gewen tackles the contradic­tions, and offers absolution, in this book, a timely and acute defence of the great realist’s actions, values and beliefs.

“We dismiss or ignore him at our peril,” writes Gewen, a long-time editor at The New York Times Book Review. “His arguments for his brand of realism — thinking in terms of national interest and a balance of power — offer the possibility of rationality, coherence and a long-term perspective at a time when all three of these qualities seem to be in short supply.”

Kissinger has little use for pieties. Canonical neoconservatives, Wilsonian dreamers, crusaders for human rights and other adherents of American excep­t­i­o­nalism ended his active career in govern­m­ent in 1977. Indeed, a striking aspect of Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik is the range of his array of enemies: Dreamy leftists accused him of war crimes as right-wing anti-Communists maligned him as a squish.

 Gewen’s book is not a womb-to-tomb biography. We learn little about Kissinger’s marriages, children or business clients, or the cultural phenomenon he became in the mid-1970s. The reader will find Max Weber, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche in these pages, but nary a reference to Jill St John.

The Inevitability of Tragedy:  Henry Kissinger and His World

Author: Barry Gewen

Publisher: WW Norton & Company

Price: $30 

Pages: 452


What Gewen focuses on, and excels at, is the story of how the rise of gangster dictators left an irradicable impression on the Jewish intellectuals who escaped Nazi Germany before World War II. These men and women — Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau and Kissinger — bent their brilliant minds toward the questions raised by the century’s savagery. 

It was America’s naïve who bred Kissinger’s affection for his adopted country. Yet Kissinger “was separated from most other Americans by his sense of tragedy,” Gewen writes. In Germany, “he had seen how the processes of democracy could go disastrously wrong.” Fair enough. Who will enter an argument about appeasement with Kissinger, whose uncles, aunts and cousins died in the death camps, who fled Germany with his parents and brother as a teenager and returned in soldier’s gear to fight for its liberation in 1944?

Not Gewen, who most capably illustrates how the lessons of Munich steered two generations of American statesmen during the Cold War, and into killing grounds like Southeast Asia: none more so than Kissinger and his boss, Richard Nixon.

As Gewen sees it — accurately, for the most part — Richard Nixon dictated the strategy, and Kissinger supervised its execution. The rift between the Soviet Union and China may have been, as Kissinger has said, inevitable. But Nixon’s insight to seize the moment and exploit the split was not.

It’s Kissinger’s embrace of “whatever means” and his facile dismissal of the “medieval notion” of universal morality that give critics ammunition. The ends were grand, but the means so often awful. Nixon and Kissinger expanded the war in Southeast Asia, leaving Laos a cratered wreck, Cambodia a charnel house, Americans at each other’s throats and Vietnam with an armistice that yielded neither peace nor honour. They countenanced the right-wing coup in Chile and stood by as the government of Pakistan launched a genocidal campaign against its Bengali minority.

Gewen takes on the “war crimes” arraignments in chapters on Chile and Southeast Asia, concluding that the threat posed by Chilean socialism to hemispheric tranquillity absolved the United States for helping to foster a bloody coup, and that the Cold War necessity of preserving US “credibility” and “prestige” justified Nixon’s callous choice of four more years of war in Southeast Asia.

Gewen doesn’t posit how Kissinger would apply his philosophy to specific challenges like Islamic fundamentalism, Russian cyberwarfare, Brexit, immigration, the loss of American high-wage jobs or the decline of national allegiance among those most profiting from globalisation. But we would be wise to remember that, along with the virtues that Gewen finds in Kissinger’s performance, there was also incoherence, irrationality and short-sightedness.

Listen to the tapes from December 1971. Nixon and Kissinger tilted toward Pakistan — in part because it was serving as their conduit to China, in part because India had signed a treaty with the USSR and in no small part because the terminally insecure Nixon felt slighted by Indira Gandhi.

Violating US law, Nixon and Kissinger moved arms to Pakistan. They viewed the conflict through a Cold War prism, instead of a regional rivalry, and, ranting in the Oval Office, nudged each other toward a nuclear “final showdown” with the Soviet Union. “I consider this our Rhineland,” Kissinger raved. If India was allowed to dismember Pakistan it would wreck the balance of power, reward aggression and the United States would be “finished … through … forever.”

Nixon brought Kissinger back to his senses — and then fretted in private that his national security adviser might need psychiatric care. The lessons of Munich can be overlearned. A world viewed only through the lens of power can be as dangerous as that soaked in sentiment. Kissinger and his kindred spirits may be right to alert us to the shortcomings of faith, hope and democracy. But realism, too, is no guarantee against delusion.

©2020 The New York Times News Service

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