Henry Kissinger's Century
The diplomat defined
RIP. It’s amazing to consider what Henry Kissinger saw in 100 years of life. Many, many remembrances of him today from different perspectives — Niall Ferguson, working on the second volume of his biography, had written this anticipatory piece for the Journal quite a while back:
Kissinger served Presidents Nixon and Ford as White House national security adviser and secretary of state—holding both positions between September 1973 and November 1975. He was the first naturalized citizen in either office. His accomplishments include the negotiation of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union, the opening to China, the cease-fire in the Yom Kippur War, and the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, for which he and North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.
These were no small achievements for a man who arrived in 1938 as a refugee from Nazi Germany, studied at night and sold shaving brushes during the day, and served in the Army during World War II, first in the infantry, then in counterintelligence. Like many Jewish refugees, Kissinger might have been content with an academic career. He thrived at Harvard, where he wrote a portentous senior thesis, “The Meaning of History,” and a brilliant doctoral thesis on the post-Napoleonic European balance of power.
Yet Kissinger aspired to wider influence. His 1957 book “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy” launched his career as a public intellectual. With its contrarian argument for “limited nuclear war,” the book was well-timed for the crisis of American confidence that followed the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik.
Kissinger became politically influential in the 1960s as New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s principal foreign-policy adviser. When Rockefeller lost his final bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, Kissinger seemed destined to return to academia. Instead Richard Nixon—Rockefeller’s archrival—named Kissinger national security adviser.
“But Kissinger is a professor,” Dwight Eisenhower objected. “You ask professors to study things, but you never put them in charge of anything.” That proved one of Ike’s rare misjudgments: Kissinger swiftly showed himself to be a skillful bureaucrat. He maintained proximity to—and had regular conversations with—the reclusive, thin-skinned president. Just as important, he built an eclectic social network, including the journalist brothers Joseph and Stewart Alsop and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
Yet Kissinger’s real contribution was as a strategist and negotiator. Asked in 1976 to assess his own statesmanship, he replied: “I have tried—with what success historians will have to judge—to have an overriding concept.” He combined grand strategy with indefatigable “shuttle diplomacy” and an ability to read his foreign counterparts.
Nixon’s inheritance from Lyndon B. Johnson was unenviable. The U.S. was mired in Vietnam, overcommitted yet seemingly losing. The Soviet Union was expanding its influence, from the Middle East to South America, and winning the nuclear arms race. The grand strategy of the Nixon administration was to “Vietnamize” the ground war by rapidly drawing down U.S. troops and shifting the emphasis to strategic bombing of the North, while at the same time seeking to exploit the Sino-Soviet split.
In 1972 the administration achieved what Kissinger called “three out of three”: Nixon’s February visit to China, the May Moscow summit, and Kissinger’s October breakthrough with Le Duc Tho in Paris. On the phone to Nixon, Kissinger spoke of having “set up this whole intricate web. When we talked about linkage, everyone was sneering.”
In pursuit of this strategic trifecta, Kissinger was prepared to sacrifice smaller pieces on the chessboard. Pakistan took precedence over India and East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh), because Islamabad was the key conduit to Beijing. South Vietnam and Taiwan found that the U.S. was a fickle ally. Kissinger’s many critics focused on the human costs of strategic decisions that were, Kissinger long argued, inevitably choices between evils.
Nixon’s downfall had paradoxical implications for Kissinger. On the one hand, it made him even more powerful. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, Nixon was so preoccupied with his domestic travails that Kissinger was essentially in charge. Yet Congress’s assertions of power in Watergate’s aftermath ultimately doomed the attempt to avoid dishonor in Vietnam. The 1975 fall of Saigon was a bitter pill.
At the time of Watergate, the French political philosopher Raymond Aron warned Kissinger: “You’d better pray for [Nixon’s] survival, because the minute he goes they’ll come after you.” That proved prescient.
In the 1970s it was conservatives, from William F. Buckley to California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who found fault with the policy of détente with Moscow and Beijing. As the Cold War drew to a close and Reagan embraced his own version of détente, the left’s critique of Kissinger grew louder. After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, it became easier to denounce the lesser evils the U.S. had committed during the Cold War. Yet other administrations also faced such choices, preferred military dictators to Marxists, and sent American forces into foreign countries.
The disproportionate harshness of the attacks on Kissinger wasn’t entirely unexpected to him, and not only because of his early experiences of antisemitism. As a young historian, he had been keenly aware of the near-impossibility of a popular foreign policy. Writing about Prince Metternich in his first book, “A World Restored” (1957), Kissinger noted that statesmen tend to have a “tragic quality,” because “it is in the nature of successful policies that posterity forgets how easily things might have been otherwise. . . . The statesman is therefore like one of the heroes in classical drama who has had a vision of the future but who cannot transmit it directly to his fellow-men.”
Unwittingly, the young Kissinger had written his own epitaph.
If you want to go back to the moment when Kissinger truly lost his role as the definer of foreign policy on the right — coming after months of criticism from “far right darling” former California Gov. Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail and in broadcasts — it’s recounted in this oral history of the 1976 convention:
Ford’s team entered the convention taking no chances on losing a first ballot vote. For them, that meant avoiding a fight over changes to the platform. But when Reagan’s strategist drafted a foreign policy plank, known as “Morality in Foreign Policy,” to challenge Ford’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his policy on détente, Kissinger wanted it struck. Dick Cheney, working for the Ford campaign, would later tell Shirley that the platform change “did everything but strip Henry bare of every piece of clothing on his body.” But Ford’s campaign, not wanting to alienate any delegates, accepted the platform change.
That platform is here. It strikes me as pretty good.
The goal of Republican foreign policy is the achievement of liberty under law and a just and lasting peace in the world. The principles by which we act to achieve peace and to protect the interests of the United States must merit the restored confidence of our people.
We recognize and commend that great beacon of human courage and morality, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for his compelling message that we must face the world with no illusions about the nature of tyranny. Ours will be a foreign policy that keeps this ever in mind.
Ours will be a foreign policy which recognizes that in international negotiations we must make no undue concessions; that in pursuing detente we must not grant unilateral favors with only the hope of getting future favors in return.
Agreements that are negotiated, such as the one signed in Helsinki, must not take from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day gaining it.
Finally, we are firmly committed to a foreign policy in which secret agreements, hidden from our people, will have no part.
Honestly, openly, and with firm conviction, we shall go forward as a united people to forge a lasting peace in the world based upon our deep belief in the rights of man, the rule of law and guidance by the hand of God.
But let’s set aside those disputes and appreciate the complexity of a great man who faced some of the greatest decisions of our time — and was quite the cultural icon, too.
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Diplomacy For Populism, But What Kind?
Politico has a piece on the work Tucker Carlson has done as a kind of shadow diplomat for populism around the world, which is worth reading just because you may have missed how widespread his activity has been. But what really sticks out beyond Politico’s litany is that, if you know the politicians talked about within the piece, their brands of populism are very, very different. Consider the libertarian populism of Javier Milei, and it has far less to do with right wing populism’s spread around the globe than it does with his Rothbardian philosophy.
Michael Lind, having had enough of all this, pronounces in Unherd today that “Populism has Become a Gimmick.”
When populist candidates started to win national elections in the 2010s, panicked establishmentarians on both sides of the Atlantic warned that they could consolidate their power and destroy democracy. On both counts, these misgivings were misplaced. From Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, contemporary populists have proved incapable of consolidating power or exercising it effectively. And far from being incompatible with democracy, they owe their success to today’s version of democracy, in which protest votes are becoming ritualised. As opposed to being a harbinger of a new fascism, populism is now just another political style, detached from any substantive politics and incapable of radical reform.
Donald Trump’s embrace of Argentina’s new President, Javier Milei, shows how empty of ideological consistency populism can be. If Trump in his first run for the White House and his presidency stood for anything, it was for the rejection of economic libertarianism in favour of tariffs, immigration restriction and a refusal to cut the middle-class entitlements on which his voters depended. Milei, however, is a free-market radical whose programme is the exact opposite of “Trumpism”. And yet, hours after Milei was elected president of Argentina, Trump posted on social media: “Congratulations… you will turn your country around and truly make Argentina great again!”
This might seem like a contradiction, but only if Right-wing populism is considered a coherent public policy programme. And that is far from the case. Today, populism is little more than a shared campaign style — like the weird hair Trump shares with Milei, Johnson, and Geert Wilders.
Further evidence that populism has become a gimmick, rather than a serious programme, comes from the record of populists in office. Silvio Berlusconi, the original Right-wing populist, a plutocrat and media celebrity before Trump, was prime minister in four Italian governments. Despite all the commotion, it is hard to see what, if anything, changed as a result. Under Georgia Meloni, Italy’s hard-Right has reconciled itself to the EU and softened its tone. In the UK, Johnson came and went, securing Brexit but otherwise leaving no trace on public policy. And like a bad-tempered, orange-haired Cheshire Cat, Trump in his first term left nothing but a scowl.
Populist voters in all Western democracies, whatever their other differences, want current high levels of immigration to be reduced. Trump made this central to his campaign in 2016, and it was inextricably wrapped up with Brexit under Johnson. But once in office, Trump betrayed his voters by refusing to press for the only effective way to reduce demand for immigration — requiring American employers to certify that their workers are all US citizens or legal immigrants. Instead, Trump avoided clashing with the business wing of the Republican Party, which is keen on cheap illegal immigrant labour, and diverted attention to a “big, beautiful wall” along the US-Mexican border which his own party failed to fund.
For his part, Johnson as prime minister proved to be as ineffectual in stemming mass migration to the UK as King Canute was in stopping the tide. In 2021, Johnson promised not to return to “the old failed model of… uncontrolled immigration”. And yet, more immigrants arrived in the UK in 2022 than all those who arrived between 1945 and 2022.
The problem here is structural: the very feature of modern Western democracies that creates the demand for populist politicians also ensures their failure. In the north Atlantic, this structure has been transformed in the last generation by two phenomena. The first is the transfer of decision-making power away from democratically elected legislatures and executives to entities that are highly insulated from election results: national and transnational judiciaries, central banks, international institutions, and corporations such as the social media giants that function as de facto public utilities but with no democratic oversight or control. The second is the disintegration of political parties as mass membership organisations, in which ordinary citizens in local chapters can participate and exert influence outside of elections.
The Covid Governors’ Debate
As California’s governor, Newsom was the nation’s most zealous Covid authoritarian. His state was the first to lock down and the last to end its state of emergency. Newsom closed parks, beaches, and playgrounds, along with businesses and schools; he outlawed church gatherings for nearly a year, until the Supreme Court overturned the ban. Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research ranked California among the slowest states to recover economically from the crisis and dead last in providing in-school instruction to students during the pandemic.
Early this year, Newsom tried to defend his policies and attack those of DeSantis by claiming that California’s cumulative Covid mortality rate was significantly lower than Florida’s. But this was a false comparison. When properly adjusted for the age of each state’s population (Florida has a higher percentage of vulnerable elderly people), the states’ Covid mortality rates show little or no difference. When further adjusted for each state’s relative prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and other risk factors, Florida’s Covid mortality rate is significantly lower than California’s, as a rigorous analysis in the Lancet concluded earlier this year. A research team from six universities calculated that Florida had the 12th-lowest state Covid mortality rate, while California had the 15th-highest.
In an NBC interview in September, Newsom switched tactics, conceding that in retrospect he would have adopted different policies. “I think all of us in terms of our collective wisdom, we’ve evolved,” he said. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We’re experts in hindsight. We’re all geniuses now.” But he’s wrong about that, too. Plenty of useful information was available early in the pandemic, but he and most other leaders ignored it. They still haven’t learned from their mistakes, which is why California and the Biden administration continue pushing harmful mask and vaccine policies that have been rejected throughout Europe.
While it’s true that political leaders had to contend with uncertainties and terrible guidance from the public-health establishment, it was their job to consider policies’ overall social costs and benefits, not just the daily Covid case count that obsessed the media and the Centers for Disease Control. Elected officials had a duty to defend citizens’ rights against narrowminded bureaucrats and to lead calmly and rationally, protecting and reassuring Americans instead of panicking them into losing their livelihoods and surrendering their liberties.
Newsom flunked this test of leadership. So did Donald Trump and Joe Biden. As president, Trump initially opposed lockdowns, instinctively (and correctly) concluding that the damage would be too great, but he lacked the discipline to analyze the evidence or control Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. Birx would later boast of having tricked Trump into locking down by pretending that the lockdowns would last only 15 days, then working to ensure they remained in place long-term. Trump later consulted scientists advocating sound policies, but he neglected to follow their advice. He failed to constrain, much less fire, Fauci and Birx, as he and his advisers feared a potential media firestorm in an election year.
Items of Interest
“The choice of speechwriters always determined the tone and not infrequently the substance of a Presidential speech. The common conception is that speechwriters are passive instruments who docilely craft into elegant prose the policy thought of their principals. On the contrary, the vast majority of them are frustrated principals themselves who seek to use their privileged position to put over their own ideas.”
— Henry Kissinger