In 2015, I published a book, Kissinger’s Shadow, which argued that Henry Kissinger is good to think with. By this, I meant that his long career (as an early Cold War defense intellectual, top foreign policymaker, consigliere to the world’s elite and hawkish pundit) and very self-aware philosophy of history help illuminate the contours of postwar militarism, tracing a bright line from the disastrous war in Southeast Asia to the catastrophic one in the Gulf.
The book came out a year before the unanticipated election of Donald Trump to the White House, when I thought an autumnal Kissinger’s last act would be to bask in the warmth of neoliberal accolades offered by Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power. Its conclusion focused on the ways in which Barack Obama’s pragmatic, managerial militarism echoed Kissinger’s earlier justifications for interventionism and war, and the way Kissinger used Obama’s disregard of national sovereignty, in his reliance on drones and bombing campaigns, as an ex post facto absolution of his own past actions. Asked about his involvement in the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and his illegal bombing of Cambodia, Kissinger answered that Obama has behaved similarly, pointing to drone assassinations and the ouster of Gaddafi in Libya.
It seemed a perfect expression of American militarism’s merry-go-round logic: Kissinger invokes today’s endless, open-ended war to justify what he did in Cambodia, Chile and elsewhere nearly half a century ago, even as what he did half a century ago helped create the conditions for today’s endless wars.
It turns out Kissinger’s Shadow needed an epilogue, for the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency vindicated its argument in a different way.
Kissinger idealized people very much like Trump nearly his whole life: great statesmen whose greatness resides in their spontaneity, their agility, who thrive on chaos, on, as Kissinger wrote in the 1950s, “perpetual creation, on a constant redefinition of goals.” They need to avoid the paralysis generated by thinking too much about what might go wrong, about the “pre-vision of catastrophes” that often beset diplomats and regional specialists. “There are two kinds of realists,” Kissinger wrote in the early 1960s, “those who manipulate facts and those who create them. The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.” And who better to create their own reality than the star of reality TV?
In his postwar cohort of defense intellectuals, Kissinger was among the most self-conscious about the philosophical tradition undergirding his policies and counsels — a kind of German idealism drawn from the early twentieth-century philosopher – historian Oswald Spengler, who defined history according to its subjective, pre-rational, and instinctual elements. That tradition stood in stark contrast to the empiricism, pragmatism, and positivism that dominated American Cold War social science, which held that reality is transparent, that the “truth” of facts can be arrived at by simply observing those facts.
At Harvard in the late 1940s and 1950s, when he did his undergraduate and graduate work before taking a position as assistant professor, Kissinger strongly criticized both moral absolutism and the idea of objectivity, that the laws that govern society are knowable through observation.
Recently, Kissinger’s authorized biographer, Niall Ferguson, argued that Kissinger is a Kantian, which is both half right and fully wrong. Kissinger did embrace the part of Kantian thought that emphasized radical freedom, but he did so not to affirm — as Ferguson believes — but to undermine foundational ethics. “We can hardly insist,” he said in a Harvard seminar discussion, “on both our freedom and on the necessity of our values.” We can’t, in other words, be both radically free and subject to a fixed moral requirement. Quoting Kant’s famous categorical imperative to treat people always as ends and never as means, Kissinger added an addendum: “what one considers an end, and what one considers a mean, depends essentially on the metaphysics of one’s system, and on the concept one has of one’s self and one’s relationship to the universe.”
In other words, Kissinger early on declared himself in favor of what the modern New Right has denounced, until recently at least, as radical relativism: there is no such thing as absolute truth, he argued in his early writings, no truth at all other than what could be deduced from one’s own solitary perspective. “Meaning represents the emanation of a metaphysical context,” he wrote. “Every man in a certain sense creates his picture of the world.” Truth, Kissinger said, isn’t found in facts but in the questions we ask of those facts. History’s meaning is “inherent in the nature of our query.”
That line is from a thesis Kissinger submitted as a Harvard senior, a nearly 400-page journey through the writings of a number of European philosophers. “The Meaning of History,” as Kissinger titled his thesis, is dense, melancholic and often overwrought, easy to dismiss as the product of youth. But Kissinger continued to repeat many of its premises and arguments, in different forms, throughout his life. Besides, by the time of his arrival at Harvard, Kissinger had extensive real-world experience thinking about the questions his thesis raised, including the relationship between data and wisdom, the material world and consciousness, and being and nothingness, confirming an often overlooked fact about our post-fact present: the experiential origins of the intellectual relativism that swept through the twentieth century are mass murder, militarism, imperialism and endless war.
Kissinger had escaped the Holocaust, but at least twelve of his family members hadn’t. Drafted into the US Army in 1943, he spent the last year of the war back in Germany, working his way up the ranks of the intelligence service. As military administrator of the occupied Rhine River town of Krefeld, with a population of 200,000, he purged Nazis from municipal posts. He also distinguished himself as an intelligence agent. Identifying, arresting and interrogating Gestapo officers and securing confidential informants, Kissinger won a Bronze Star for his effectiveness and bravery.
In other words, the relationship between fact and truth, a central preoccupation of his thesis, was not an abstract question for Kissinger. It was the stuff of life and death, and Kissinger’s subsequent diplomacy was, writes one of Kissinger’s Harvard classmates, a “virtual transplant from the world of thought into the world of power.”
Kissinger was greatly influenced by Spengler’s civilizational critique, the idea that complex societies are born, mature and then fade. He was especially impressed with Spengler’s notion that the moment of decline could be identified by the moment when technique supersedes purpose, when the accountants, economists and bureaucrats take over from the priests, poets and warriors.
It is the moment when the “causality men” (Spengler’s term) and the “fact men” (Kissinger’s term) take over that a civilization is in most danger. As the dreams, myths and risk-taking of an earlier creative period fall away, intellectuals and political leaders become predominantly concerned with questioning not why, but how. “A century of purely extensive effectiveness,” Spengler writes, referring to the bureaucratic rationalism of modern society, which strives for ever more efficient ways of doing things, “is a time of decline.” The intuitive dimensions of wisdom get tossed aside, technocratic procedure overwhelms purpose, and information is mistaken for wisdom.
Western culture was history’s highest expression of technical reason: it “views the whole world,” Kissinger wrote in 1950, “as a working hypothesis.” The “machine” was its great symbol, a “perpetuum mobile” — a perpetual-motion machine that asserts relentless “mastery over nature” (you can hear strong echoes of Adorno and Horkheimer’s “critique of instrumental reason” in Kissinger’s thesis). And the vastly powerful and obsessively efficient United States was the West’s vanguard. As such, it was especially vulnerable to becoming trapped in the “cult of the useful.”
Harvard was the Vatican of American positivism, filled with the country’s high priests of social science (including a young pioneer in game theory, Daniel Ellsberg). Kissinger looked around and asked: would American leaders command or fall slave to their own technique? “Technical knowledge will be of no avail,” the twenty-six-year-old student-veteran warned, “to a soul that has lost its meaning.”
Kissinger wrote those lines before the US fully committed to Vietnam, but over the years he’d return repeatedly to many of his thesis premises to explain why that war, along with others that followed, went wrong. “When technique becomes exalted over purpose, men become the victims of their complexities,” he wrote in 1965. His book World Order, which he published at age ninety-one, cites TS Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock”: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Kissinger accepted Spengler’s critique of past civilizations. But he rejected its dreary determinism, instead leavening its pessimism with a variant of existentialism, the idea that history had no intrinsic meaning, and therefore couldn’t be “determined” by anything. Humans possess free will, he wrote, and their actions enjoy a significant range of freedom. Decay was not inevitable. “Spengler,” Kissinger wrote in 1950, “merely described a fact of decline, and not its necessity.” “There is a margin,” he would write after he left public office in the late 1970s — that is, after Vietnam, after his policies helped unleash the genocides in Bangladesh and East Timor, after his brutal support for homicidal insurgencies in southern Africa and after his illegal bombing of Cambodia set the conditions that gave rise to the Khmer Rouge —“between necessity and accident, in which the statesman by perseverance and intuition must choose and thereby shape the destiny of his people.” Limits did exist, Kissinger wrote, but political leaders who hide “behind historical inevitability” to justify their inaction are guilty of “moral abdication.”
Hence Kissinger was always on the hunt for the Great Statesman who rises above facts and bureaucracies, who can tap into the “soul-sense” of their culture and translate intuition into bold policy. “Often enough a statesman does not ‘know’ what he is doing,” Spengler wrote, “but that does not prevent him from following with confidence just the one path that leads to success.” Kissinger thought Nixon was one such man, but, alas, he overplayed his hand. There was Reagan, whom Kissinger at first resisted (largely because Reagan and the first generation of neocons rose to prominence attacking Kissinger), but eventually came around to admiring. Reagan had “his own exuberant way of communicating with the American public,” Kissinger said, defending Reagan calling Muammar Gaddafi a “mad dog” and supporting the bombing of Libya.
And then there was Trump, a true son of Spengler, someone with his finger on the pulse of his culture. Sensing decline, Trump wouldn’t be afraid to act to bend the curve upward. Unlike past presidents, he instinctively sensed the trap that was being laid for him by the bureaucracy, intelligence agencies and foreign service, and he refused to enter. Trump, according to Kissinger, “has no obligation to any particular group because he has become a president on the basis of his own strategy.” He is a free man.
That Trump followed Obama is significant, for in Kissinger’s civilizational typology, the professorial Obama is a platonic ideal of the leader who appears just at the precipice. He’s a “fact man,” paralyzed by a vision of history that sees the past as nothing more than a series of cause-and-effect relations, and the present as nothing more than the product of endless blowback. Obama, according to Kissinger, was less concerned with advancing American purpose than he was with “short-term consequences turning into permanent obstacles.” And so he did nothing, believing that he vindicated American values by withdrawing rather than acting.
We are living in time of extreme global crisis, Kissinger said, and Obama couldn’t represent the West because he had no sense, no feeling, for the West. He, complained Kissinger, “basically withdrew America from international politics.”
Kissinger, based on the philosophy of history described above, had over the course of his career insisted on the importance of creative and unexpected responses to crises — exactly the “unpredictability” that Trump both values and performs.
“Unpredictability” is needed for a number of reasons. The greatest of great diplomats are the men who shake up their foreign-policy bureaucracies, which over time inevitably become ossified, beholden to past policies (like Washington’s One China policy) and too dependent on “experts,” who, deeply versed in the details of their particular region, inevitably recommend caution rather than action. “Those statesmen who have achieved final greatness did not do so though resignation, however well founded,” Kissinger once wrote. “It was given to them not only to maintain the perfection of order but to have the strength to contemplate chaos, there to find material for fresh creation.”
“Unpredictability” is also needed to introduce the threat of irrationality into negotiations. Kissinger has long insisted that war and diplomacy are inseparable and that, to be effective, diplomats need to be able to wield threats — the more irrational, or “unpredictable,” the better to make the threat credible — and offer incentives in equal, unrestricted, measure. This was the logic that led Kissinger, as a rising defense intellectual trying to make a name for himself in the 1950s and 1960s, to advocate the use of both “limited nuclear war” and low-intensity wars in areas of marginal significance, such as Southeast Asia. The goal was, as he wrote in 1957, to convey the “maximum credible threat.” To do so, nothing should be off the table (Trump made this exact argument during his campaign).
“How can you conduct negotiations without a credible threat of escalation?” Kissinger asked defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg on Christmas Day 1968, a month before Nixon’s inauguration. Kissinger had asked Ellsberg to put together a position paper outlining possible alternatives for Vietnam, which Ellsberg did. But he didn’t include a “threat option” in the paper. “People negotiate all the time without threatening bombing,” Ellsberg said dryly.
Until recently, one could argue that it was Richard Nixon who best realized Kissinger’s philosophy of history and diplomacy. Upon winning the presidency in 1968 with a promise to end the war in Vietnam, Nixon wanted a tough line against North Vietnam (just as Trump wanted a tough line against China, and ISIS, and Mexico, and Cuba, and Iran…), believing it would force Hanoi to make the concessions necessary to bring the conflict to a face-saving conclusion.
Even before the November 1968 election, Nixon had shared with his advisor, Bob Haldeman, this plan, which became known as the “madman” theory. Walking along a Key Biscayne beach, Nixon told his future chief of staff that he wanted the North Vietnamese “to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Kissinger obliged. “Toughness” was a leitmotif that ran through much of his statecraft, and the madman theory was a logical extension of Kissinger’s philosophy — the idea that power isn’t power unless one is willing to use it. Kissinger and Nixon’s mad bombing of Southeast Asia was driven by motives that were the opposite of Machiavellian realism: it was executed to try to bring about a world Nixon and Kissinger believed they ought to live in — one in which they could, by the force of their material power, bend peasant-poor countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to their will — rather than reflect the real world they did inhabit: one in which, try as they might, they had been unable to terrorize these weaker nations into submission.
Vietnam revealed the moral emptiness at the center of Kissinger’s philosophy of history, which, judging from his keen embrace of Trump, has never been filled. Over the years, Kissinger repeatedly urged America’s leaders to state their vision and make clear what they meant to accomplish with any given policy or action — to not, as he put it, exalt technique over purpose. Such advice makes liberals swoon, since it seems so, well, serious. But Kissinger could never define what he meant by purpose.
At times, he appeared to mean the ability to play a long geostrategic game, to imagine where one wants to be, in relation to one’s adversaries, in ten years’ time and to put in place a policy to get there. At other times, purpose might’ve referred to the need to create “legitimacy,” demonstrate “credibility,” or establish a global “balance of power.” But these are all instrumental definitions of purpose. They all still beg the question: why? If the projection of power is the means, what is the end? It was not to accumulate more objective power, for Kissinger had consistently argued that there was no such thing. Kissinger was perhaps most well-known for the concept “balance of power.” But there’s a fascinating and rarely cited passage in his 1954 doctoral dissertation in which he insists that what he means by this is not “real” power: “a balance of power legitimized by power would be highly unstable and make unlimited war almost inevitable, for the equilibrium is achieved not by the fact but by the consciousness of balance” (Kissinger’s emphasis). As he went on to write, “this consciousness is never brought about until it is tested.”
In order to “test” power — that is, in order to create an awareness of power — one needs to be willing to act. And the best way to produce that willingness is to act. On this point, at least, Kissinger was unfailingly clear: “inaction has to be avoided” in order to show that action is possible. Only “action,” he wrote, could void the systemic “incentive for inaction.” Only “action” could overcome the paralyzing fear of the “drastic consequences” that might result from such “action” (such as nuclear war). Only through “action” — including wars, he justified, in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — can America become vital again, can it produce the consciousness by which it understands its power, breaks the impasse caused by an over-reliance on nuclear technology, instills cohesion among allies and reminds an increasingly petrified foreign policy bureaucracy of the purpose of American power.
In the 1950s, drawing on Spengler’s civilizational diagnostic, Kissinger critiqued the idea of projecting power for power’s sake, believing that is what happens when the technicians and bureaucrats take over, those who know how but forget why. But at the end of the day, that is always where Kissinger winds up, embracing the object of his own criticism.
Kissingerism is a perpetual motion machine: the purpose of American power is to create an awareness of American purpose. Put in Spenglerian terms, power is history’s starting and ending point, history’s “manifestation” and its “exclusive objective.” And since Kissinger held to an extremely plastic notion of reality, other intangible concepts such as “interests,” “values,” “tradition” and “imagination” were also pulled into the whirlpool of his reasoning: we can’t defend our interests until we know what our interests are and we can’t know what our interests are until we defend them. We can’t be motivated to act on our values unless we know what our values are, but we can’t know what our values are until we act.
The perpetual motion machine has been made flesh in Donald Trump, who, like Kissinger’s philosophy of the deed, is hollow at his core, who performs power for power’s sake, dominance for dominance’s sake, whose projections of unpredictability collapse tactic and purpose, means and ends — who creates his own meaning, his “picture of the world” with every tweet.
Kissinger began his young adult life fleeing German fascism and started his career as a defense intellectual warning about fascism. In 1964, he attended, as an advisor to the moderate Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican National Convention, held in San Francisco’s Cow Palace, and was appalled by the “the frenzy, the fervor and the intensity” of the young white men who supported Barry Goldwater.
In describing the Goldwater movement, Kissinger used terms that could easily be applied today to Trumpism. He condemned mainstream Republicans for accommodating, rather than confronting, Goldwaterites, acting much as German democrats did “in the face of Hitler.” “A revolution was clearly in the making,” Kissinger cautioned, equating the racist, anti-Semitic, conspiratorial, anti-NATO Goldwater delegates who had taken over the convention with the “European Fascism” he witnessed in Germany in the 1930s.
In San Francisco, however, Kissinger was not looking backward at his Nazi-tormented youth, but forward to his future. Over the subsequent years, with each lurch of American politics to the right, Kissinger lurched with it. At every single one of America’s postwar turning points, moments of crisis when other defense intellectuals of his stature, be they political liberals or conservatives, expressed doubts about American power — Hans Morgenthau, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, George Kennan, Thomas Schelling, Reinhold Niebuhr — Kissinger broke in the opposite direction.
Having started as an advisor to the centrist Nelson Rockefeller, he made his peace with Nixon, whom he at first thought unhinged. As Nixon’s national security advisor, he used a bellicose foreign policy, including the bombing of Southeast Asia and support for white supremacy in southern Africa, to placate the New Right. “We wouldn’t have had Laos,” he told Ronald Reagan, “we wouldn’t have had Cambodia,” had Hubert Humphrey been elected president in 1968.
When Watergate began Nixon’s downfall, Kissinger repeatedly told liberals that he remained in the administration to prevent the country from moving further to the fringe, to prevent “some real tough guys,” the “most brutal forces in the society,” from taking over. “We are saving you from the Right,” he told National Security Council (NSC) staffers who had resigned in protest over his 1970 invasion of Cambodia. “You are the Right,” they answered.
In the early 1970s, he thought it “inconceivable” that Reagan might become president. But in 1981 he lobbied the Reagan administration for a job, and then criticized Reagan from the right throughout the 1980s, especially urging the further militarization of his Middle East and Central American policies. The neoconservatives who coalesced around George W. Bush after September 11 rose to power attacking Kissinger, derailing or rolling back many of his diplomatic achievements; but Kissinger supported their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and exhorted them to go forward, to attack Yemen and Somalia.
Intellectually, as well, Kissinger moved quickly from a worried observer of the Goldwater insurgency to a sympathetic chronicler of revolutionary conservatives, offering what might be an apt historical precedent for Donald Trump: Otto von Bismarck, the nineteenth-century Prussian chancellor who united Germany in 1871. Kissinger had meant to include a section on Bismarck in his 1954 doctoral dissertation, which, by focusing on Klemens von Metternich and Viscount Castlereagh, the foreign ministers of Austria and Great Britain who imposed a conservative peace on Europe after winning the Napoleonic Wars, established Kissinger’s reputation as a realist. But Kissinger cut the material to save space.
He returned to the topic, though, publishing an essay on Bismarck in the summer of 1968, at a moment when political conservatives like Kissinger were searching for effective ways to counter an ascending new left movement and a world in revolt. Kissinger found hope in Bismarck, whose “genius” was his ability to “restrain contending forces, both domestic and foreign, by manipulating their antagonisms.” Biographers have said that the main thing Kissinger took from Bismarck was realpolitik, an “ability to exploit every available option without the constraint of ideology.”
Yet Kissinger’s essay, titled “The White Revolutionary,” makes clear that what he admired most admired in the Iron Chancellor was his revolutionary instinct, his “will to impose” a vision that was “incompatible with the existing order.” “His was a strange revolution,” Kissinger wrote. “It appeared in the guise of conservatism” and “triumphed domestically through the vastness of its successes abroad.” In so doing, Bismarck proved that liberals were not the only agents of world history, seizing the initiative from revolutionaries, equaling their élan, and adopting the dialectical imagination for himself. “Not every revolution begins with a march on the Bastille.”
Kissinger offered that observation about Bismarck, but he could have been talking about the “intense, efficient, curiously insecure” young conservatives who attended the 1964 Republican Convention, who were indeed learning to adopt the style, tactics and rhetoric of the Left — launching a long march through the institutions that has now resulted in control of the legislature, the courts, most state governments and, with Trump’s election, the White House and the nuclear codes. And based on his remarks, Kissinger apparently believed he had found in Trump his “white revolutionary”: a political conservative in possession of insurgent qualities, able to, as Kissinger put it elsewhere, dissolve “technical limitations,” break free of traditions, and shatter conventions, protocols and bureaucracies.
From Rockefeller to Nixon, then on to Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, Kissinger’s service tracks the metaphysical evolution of American power, from a time when spectacle mediated the relationship between interest and ideology to now, when foreign policy is completely subordinated to spectacle. We all live now in the Kissingerian void. What horrors await?
Who knows, but whoever does Kissinger’s eulogy — and it would be fitting if it were Trump himself — they should consider using these words from Kissinger’s 1950 thesis: “We cannot require immortality as the price for giving meaning to life. The experience of freedom enables us to rise beyond the suffering of the past and the frustrations of history. In this spirituality resides humanity’s essence, the unique which each man imparts to the necessity of his life, the self-transcendence which gives peace.”
Trump was the transcendence that gave Kissinger peace.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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