THR Web Features   /   December 4, 2023

Democracy and Dr. Kissinger

He believed that international stability came at a moral price.

John M. Owen IV

( Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on Air Force One in 1974; Everett Collection HIstorical/Alamy.)

For someone who craved attention, who cultivated reporters and published several memoirs, Henry A. Kissinger liked secrecy. Or better put, he wanted others to keep secrets so that he could reveal them when and how he chose. The lengthy obituary in the New York Times recalls that in 1969, his first year as Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, he was so infuriated by leaks from the White House on the war in Indochina that he had the FBI tap the phones of a number of aides. “If anybody leaks in this administration,” he declared, “I will be the one to leak.”

The story is revealing. Kissinger the scholar studied power. Kissinger the statesman acquired power, guarded it, and wielded it—in the White House, in the State Department, and around the world. But his death at age 100 leaves us with a puzzle. How is it that this brilliant student of the liberal philosopher Immanuel Kant, this one-time refugee so grateful to America for taking his family in, misunderstood the force of democracy?

Since Kissinger’s demise late last month, we have been reminded in countless reports of the man’s extraordinary story and world-historical achievements. One of the large and talented group of Jewish émigrés to escape the Nazis in the 1930s, he completed three Harvard degrees by 1954 and rose to become the first (and so far only) person to simultaneously occupy the offices of both national security advisor and secretary of state in the Nixon and then Ford administrations. With Nixon, he used his talent for secrecy to shock the world by opening relations with Communist China and achieving détente with the Soviet Union.

Kissinger was brilliant, but he could not claim to be original. As a diplomat, he self-consciously rehearsed the Realpolitik statecraft of historic European titans such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu, and Otto von Bismarck. He was particularly enamored of Klemens von Metternich, the foreign minister and chancellor of Austria from 1809 until 1848. In A World Restored—his first book, published in 1957, based on his doctoral dissertation—Kissinger depicts Metternich as the main force behind the surprising decades of great-power peace and order that followed the cataclysmic wars of Napoleon. The conservative Metternich helped set up an ingenious system, the Concert of Europe, a set of mechanisms that ensured that the great powers would respect one another’s spheres of influence. When a revolution in one of Europe’s smaller states threatened to spread and upset the balance of power, the foreign ministers of the Concert powers would meet and, under Metternich’s subtle influence, agree on which of them would restore order. For someone of Kissinger’s towering intellect and ambition, it was irresistible: a genius engineering great-power cooperation.

A dozen years after A World Restored was published—with many publications and much networking in the interim—the newly elected President Nixon offered Kissinger a chance to be Metternich. He seized it. Kissingerian statecraft recognized that the number one task in world politics was keeping relations among the great powers stable. In 1969, there were only two such powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. America had just lost its decades-old edge in nuclear weapons. Communism, and thus Soviet influence, were on the move in the Third World; American attempts to halt it were failing, particularly in Vietnam.

What would Metternich do? He would cut a deal with Moscow.

The first major step in this direction by Kissinger and Nixon was to exploit the deep rift between the Soviet Union and the other communist giant, China. Kissinger’s secret mission to China in 1971—there is that secrecy again—was followed by Nixon’s 1972 journey, which thawed the long-frozen Sino-American relationship and signaled Moscow that something new was happening. The second move was to offer the Soviets détente, a relaxation of tensions, via arms control, trade, scientific exchanges, managed competition in the Third World, and a recognition—in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—that the east-west division in Europe was permanent. The third move was to negotiate a US withdrawal from Vietnam, a maneuver more awkward and humiliating to the Americans, and that effectively ceded Indochina to communism. 

By borrowing from the old realist masters, Kissinger had shifted the world. In the 1970s, knowledgeable people began to refer to the Cold War in the past tense. What was not to like? But Kissinger, a subtle thinker, understood that international stability came at a moral price. Weaker states, especially those with powerful neighbors, found their independence compromised. As the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides put it, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Under Metternich, the weak included Spain and Naples; under Kissinger, Cambodia and Taiwan. 

There was a second moral compromise. Kissinger probably liked democracy as much as the next secretary of state, but it was no business of the United States to promote or defend it abroad. For decades, realists, including George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, and Hans Morgenthau, had derided popular influence on foreign policy for its moralism. Democratic excess led to such affronts as the hysterical Spanish-American War and to such tissues of fantasy as the pathetic League of Nations. As a graduate student, Kissinger had declared, “If I had to choose between justice and disorder, on the one hand, and injustice and order, on the other, I would always choose the latter.”

If keeping Chile out of the Soviet bloc meant helping overthrow its duly elected but Marxist President Salvador Allende, so be it. If restoring order to the world meant conceding vast areas of the world to permanent communism, that was the price one paid. When Kissinger did allow democratic principle a hearing, it was with an eye roll. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 establishing the inviolability of European borders also included a set of human rights principles putatively binding on all—the so-called Third Basket. Kissinger, like his communist counterparts, considered the Third Basket a meaningless concession to the troubled consciences of Western liberals. It would not derail the main achievement of solidifying the Soviet and American blocs in Europe.

Except that it eventually did. At least, a number of scholars argue the Helsinki Third Basket galvanized democratic dissent all over the Soviet bloc and helped lead to the downfall of communism and the Soviet Union itself fifteen years later. That leads us to an enduring puzzle about Kissinger: Why did he not fully appreciate the power of democracy—within America and within authoritarian and totalitarian societies? Metternich surely did. He saw that if Naples became a republic, it would leave Austria’s sphere of influence and throw Europe into geopolitical imbalance. That is why the Concert of Europe worked: The great powers of the Continent were all afraid of democracy. In the modern world, you cannot separate great-power politics from democracy and liberty.

Kissinger was the chief diplomat of a democracy dealing with two communist giants. He did not appreciate until much later just how difficult it would be for America and its allies to tolerate despotism in vast portions of the world and to ignore those fighting against it. The Carter and Reagan administrations did appreciate these things, each in its own way. And it was Reagan who decided to make the desire for democracy a weapon in the Cold War, not only by pressing it on the Soviet bloc but allowing it to topple some of America’s old anticommunist authoritarian friends in the Third World. 

Stabilizing superpower relations in the 1970s was no small achievement. Kissinger’s vision, knowledge, skill, and sheer doggedness helped bring it about. But sometimes an obsessive focus on one goal can obscure other possibilities. In the 1970s, the desire for self-government was erupting in many parts of the world. For Kissinger, that was sometimes a detail, sometimes an annoyance, sometimes even a danger. He did not see it for what it was: an opportunity.