The Inevitability of Defending Henry KissingerRoundup
tags: Cold War, foreign policy, Henry Kissinger, human rights
Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a writer on American civic culture and higher education.
Barry Gewen introduces his study of Henry Kissinger, The Inevitability of Tragedy, with an anecdote that may be more telling than he intended. “A couple of years ago, I was having dinner with a friend,” he recounts, “when he leaned across the table and whispered to me, ‘Barry, Henry Kissinger is evil.’” Throughout this book, Gewen defends Kissinger’s record as flawed but indispensably instructive for Americans now amid the country’s converging, collective tragedies. This is a familiar argument. What’s unusual is the friend’s way of delivering his denunciation. Was he acting theatrically, just for fun? Or was he tempering genuine outrage with ironic humor to get through to Gewen—a critic, essayist, and longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review who has promoted Kissingerian Realism for years.
The Inevitability of Tragedy, Gewen’s first book, is a manifesto or summa of his efforts to convert Kissinger’s critics and would-be prosecutors into his students. Kissingerian Realism, he explains, is “shaped by pessimism and a dim view of humanity,” by a sense of the fragility of political order, and by little “confidence in either the workings of democracy or the inevitability of progress.” Kissinger believed that policy “must start from that grim vantage point” and that tragedy erupts unpredictably in international relations and in all politics, deranging democratic majorities as often as greedy, war-mongering elites. This can’t be stopped by moralistic condemnations but must be finessed and contained, however painfully, by acts of power-balancing—arranged by deft, omniscient political actors such as Kissinger and explained by interpreters such as Gewen.
Kissinger, Gewen writes, acquired his “dim view of humanity” while growing up in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and ’30s, when its democratic institutions were being overtaken by Nazism. In 1938, the 15-year-old Kissinger and his family escaped to America, as did thousands of other Jews, shaken by the collapse of democracy and high culture and fearing for their lives. Only a relatively few intellectuals and political actors among them would embrace Kissingerian-style Realpolitik in its tragic fullness, but Gewen strains to link Kissinger with the tragedy-minded émigré public intellectuals Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, neither of whom ever wrote or spoke publicly in his favor. The true exception, whom Gewen portrays at length, was the political scientist Hans Morgenthau, 19 years older than Kissinger and a deeply principled, if darkly pessimistic, conservative political philosopher and foreign-policy remonstrant who became his mentor and remained his friend even when they disagreed strongly about the Vietnam War.
What Gewen doesn’t say is that some high policymakers have found Morgenthau’s and Kissinger’s “grim vantage point” perversely reassuring because it reinforces presumptions of their own dark omniscience, unappreciated by the rest of us. The inevitability of tragedy helps them to excuse their blunders and outrages as necessary costs of braving what Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the “unknown unknowns” that bedevil all grand strategists. These omissions and concessions might matter less if they did not fit so comfortably into a sustained pattern of excuse-making for Realpolitik at the New York Times Book Review—an institution with far more power than any individual biographer to shape Kissinger’s legacy.
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