Kissingerian Contempt: Realism, Statism and Other People’s Genocides

For a blog apparently devoted to global politics, we have so far rather neglected its voguish scandals and intrigues. Disciplinary exposure therapy has evidently done its work, particularly where the amorphous theory-cum-policy-manual of Realism is concerned. After all, what could be more mutually disappointing than a lengthy online discourse on the neo-neo ‘debate’ or its ilk? So much somnabulatory exegesis.

That said, last month’s fracas over ‘criminal psychopath’ and one-time ‘elegant wit’ Dr Henry A. Kissinger deserves a mention. In new releases from the Nixon tapes, his fawning jingoism in the name of some clear-cut national interest rather caught the eye:

The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy…And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.

Bushite polemicist Michael Gerson took the opportunity to indict Realism, denouncing its shallow moral compass in favour of a vision of more righteous foreign policy (neo-conservative manifest destiny branch). Stephen Walt responded, pointing out that Kissinger is not the delegated representative of Realists, that many who self-describe as such opposed both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and that hand-wringing by culpable members of the Bush administration over the human costs of foreign policy is straight-up hypocrisy. Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber rightly stressed that this was besides the point, since what makes Kissinger Realist in the relevant sense is his instrumentalist attitude to the lives of others and the over-riding importance of material power in his world view. Along the way, he also provided a particularly apt description of this particular peace-prize winning carpet-bomber as in thrall to “a scholar’s fantasy of Metternich, in which cynicism, duplicity, and clandestine brutality were not foreign policy tools so much as a demonstration of one’s ‘seriousness’ as a statesman“. Nice. Enter Christopher Hitchens, spraying invective like it was the old days and usefully dismantling the apologetics now apparently emanating from several quarters [1].

Naturally, the seriousness of Kissinger’s servile indifference is as nothing next to his actual and extensive crimes, if legal language can be made to fit the special character of his achievements. And one can hardly credit that the good doctor’s snivelling before the anti-Semitism of Richard Milhouse Nixon should matter half as much as his responsibility for the deaths visited on Kien Hoa or the euphemistic and not-so-euphemistic barbeques served up as part of operations ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’, ‘Dinner’, etcetera. Indeed,  given the contrast between the toadying descriptions of his ‘charm’ or the flirtations visited on him by quarter-witted correspondents on the one hand, and the mass graves actually attendant on his realpolitik on the other, we can hardly but reach for Colonel Kurtz and for the bucket. To join such a man at a policy-wonk banquet, replete with silver service. The horror, the horror.

We might justly conclude that garden-variety national security bigotry cannot possibly compare with that legacy. But the affair remains interesting for what it reinforces about Realism as an intellectual-political practice. Take two of the charges most persistently levelled against Realism: that it is simultaneously too loose analytically to count as a firm theoretical edifice and that it presents an easy justificatory grammar for those wielding state power. As Justin Rosenberg put it in his long-standing critique:

[A]s description, realism leaves too much out; as a set of prescriptive axioms, it lets too much in; and as social theory – well, that it is not a social theory at all: rather, it is an operator’s manual posing as one…Every realist consensus is, like the Roman Catholic distinction between the Church Spiritual and the Church Temporal, post factum. And while realism likes to think that it guides foreign policy, actually, it has often ended up simply legitimating it: its ‘usefulness’ has been of a rather different kind to what it had hoped.

We have quite a paper-trail on Kissinger, decades of accumulated self-rationale, transcription, policy prescription and investigative journalism. And yet we still cannot decide whether he is a Realist or an Ideologue. To toy with the blatantly obvious, he is a unique case. But no less a symptomatic one for that. The Kissinger Dispute is illustrative of the tension between strong and weak articulations of contemporary Realism [2]. In this case, his detractors are positing the strong articulation, namely that Realism requires a silencing of our ethical faculties in the name of narrow cost/benefit analyses, and ones which systematically privilege human lives within certain arbitrary territorial boundaries. This is Realism as power politics, conventionally understood.

For those seeking to exclude Kissinger from the gang, by contrast, Realism is nothing so vulgar as all this. Instead, with a little help from homophony, Realism is merely realism, as in a disposition to see the world as it obviously is. Walt’s quote of choice (“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails”) conveys this unarguable, and therefore insipid, version of doctrine. Hands up everyone who thinks mere hope can alter the trajectory of a tempest! Or that whining in a sinking boat is any replacement for a strong front crawl!

In defending Realism from contamination-by-association, Walt’s favoured examples simply dodge the problem. So he writes that “[a] simple-minded focus on ‘good versus evil’ is useless when the choice is between two equally despicable tyrants” (thus implying that Realists would not be focused primarily on the national interest if one tyrant was worse than the other). Similarly, we learn that Realists simply “know that misguided moral crusades can place one’s own country in danger and get lots of innocent people killed” (which rather suggests that Realists are all for moral crusades, provided they are competent ones). These kind of simple parables even allow the Realist impulse to be turned into a utilitarian imperative, as when it is said that more people would be alive today if Bush the Junior had been less idealistic in his regional remaking.

This kind of defence commits at least two errors. First, it tests via the easy cases. To say that an approach is moral when self-interest aligns with the dictates of ethical reason is to say nothing at all about the ethical content of the theory itself. ‘Using’ ideals “particularly when doing so gives one an advantage over an adversary” is not engaging in ethical thought in any interesting or conceptually-distinct sense. No tragic dilemmas are involved when doing the right thing also lines your pockets. Better to ask what happens when self-interest and morality don’t align. Perhaps some Realists do believe in a harmony of interests in a sufficiently broad sense to systematically affiliate might with right. If so, they’ve kept fairly quiet about their submerged universalist commitments.

Second, the broadly-painted view of Realism-as-commonsense dissolves theoretical purchase into banality. Read this way, if you think that “bad behavior is commonplace” in international politics, you’re a Realist. Moreover, if you’re in favour of “a hard-headed calculation of means, ends, costs, and benefits” while also pursuing moral aims, you’re a Realist. A transcendence of ethics into statist matter.

Realists believe in policy that works and policy that works is therefore Realist. As well established as criticisms of this circularity are, one of the things that makes the Kissinger case interesting is the implicit status of Realism as the parameter of debate. By which I mean that interest is taken to be both the grounds for excluding certain kinds of ethical reasoning and the terrain on which true ethical reasoning takes place, once we have admitted that we live in a political world necessitating some choices. It is rare indeed to find any discussion of foreign policy options that would be in the national interest but which also clearly require the violation of particular ethical standards. Where foreign policy does involve complicity (e.g. the “uncomfortable compromise” with Stalin contra Hitler), this is always clearly in the greater long-term good of all, a net benefit orchestrated by intelligent and properly informed moral agents.

This kind of deferral to statism enters, too, into the thinking of critics like Hitchens. His outrage at the actual consequences of Kissingerian contempt is certainly the real thing, but somehow requires the supplement that however bad they were for the people who caught what bombers released, they “were also political and diplomatic disasters” for the United States. Kissinger may have been a Realist on such an account, but he was a bad one. It wasn’t just that Kissinger was doing brutal things in the name of foreign policy, it was that it wasn’t good foreign policy in the first place.

This, I think, is why he inspires such discomfort among those who would otherwise not fret too wildly about the niceties of normative theory. What Kissinger embodies is a kind of über-Realism, and what his career repeatedly demonstrates is the disposition necessary to the reasons of state taken to its immoral limit. What is usually covered up in double-talk and ambiguity is laid bare. A glimpse of the Real under the symbolic order, if you like. The void. And not because Kissinger was the pure demonic agent of all that horror, but because the political context in which he was free to act, reliant on such obsequious obedience, manifested the contradictions in a particularly naked way.

Walt is surely right to say that many Realists are deeply moral citizens. It would certainly be strange if a whole school of academic thought was peopled only by the ethically under-developed. But one cannot escape the critique of realpolitik by proof of private virtue. Hence the need to conflate interest and right in accounts of a realist foreign policy. And hence the sinister libidinal charge of Kissinger, who perpetually threatens cognitive dissonance. He disturbs the distinction between the rational policy-maker and the madman, one that is continually recovered in attempts to paint him as one or the other. Psycopathy is not a condition of idealist zeal, but of cold calculation.

So while number-crunchers like Robert McNamara (who should really be in the dock as a co-accused) tend to slip out the back door when the conversation turns to the evils of foreign policy, Kissinger remains with Nixon as a kind of horrific exception. But there is no doubting his success within the ordained bounds of academia and policy. None come close to his ‘record’ in government, at least in terms of staying power. This is what a high-functioning national security eminence looks like. Kissinger may have fantasised himself a hyper-Metternich, but then that is also the figure appropriate to the requirements of self-interested international relations.

[1] Note in passing the strange role played by Kissinger’s Jewishness as a linchpin for the outrage. Hitchens nicely places him as a Holocaust affirmer, volunteering his views on Soviet gas chambers as a tithe to Nixon’s old world bigotry. A telling cravenness. But why should Kissinger care any more for Soviet Jews than for Kurdish insurgents? Here too there is a difficulty with just how realpolitik shows itself in subjectivity and a sense in his detractors that however cruel one might be about others in speech, the most recent revelations cross a special communalist line. Note too Gerson’s inability to countenance that one might simultaneously be a ‘friend of Israel’ and have murderous contempt for actual Jews in danger.

[2] Not to pull back or anything, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is nothing of subtlety or value in some of the analytical or political commitments taken to be Realist in orientation. Doubtless there is much that is acute and historically informed and appropriately alive to the complexities of collective political action. I just don’t accept that such insight is specially Realist.


6 thoughts on “Kissingerian Contempt: Realism, Statism and Other People’s Genocides

  1. Good stuff. It’d be funny to watch the realists battle over the legacy of Kissinger – whether he’s a “bad” realist who proves the value of “good” realism, etc – if we weren’t discussing a man who embodied the extreme end of a pathological world view that he was able to effectively implement at the highest levels of power for a number of years, with much suffering and destruction in his wake.

    Most provocative bits, I think, is exploring how far the myopia of Realism stems from an academic obsequiousness to the “foreign policy” of the state. Even where Walt or others might succeed in arguing against a particular policy on instrumental/quasi-moral grounds, realism remains an ideology of brutal statism, which is the unhappy truth Kissinger as both actual man and political idea constantly brings to the surface.

    For more fawning over Kissinger, check out Robert Evans’ biography, Ch25 (pg 215) documents the first blush of their love.


  2. Astounding.

    “I was too ashamed, too scared to call Kissinger. I had too much respect for him, too much disdain for myself. There I stood knowing that my actions could tarnish a man who for a decade had been one of my closest friends, one whom I’d stop a bullet for; but now I’d left him naked to take one. For the next decade I purposely refused his embrace, never telling him why.

    Only once, at Lowell Guiness’s 1985 New Year’s Eve party in Acapulco, did we exchange words. Seeing Kissinger across a very crowded room, I had turned the other way. Without asking me, Denise Beaumont, the lady I was with, walked to Kissinger’s side, took him by his arm, and brought him over to me. Our eyes me.

    ‘Bobby, why haven’t you returned my calls?’

    Kissing him on the cheek, I said, ‘Because I love you, Henry. Don’t ask any more questions. Happy New Year.'”


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