A biographer asked Dr. Henry Kissinger in 2004 what his core principles consisted of. “I’m not prepared to share that yet,” the former secretary of state and national security adviser responded.
Famous for playing it close to the vest, Kissinger’s political poker game is a major subject of author and critic Barry Gewen’s new book, “The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World,” which attempts to deconstruct Kissinger’s Machiavellian brand of political philosophy.
Gewen believes Kissinger’s worldview — when it comes to politics at least — can be summarized in a phrase: balance of power.
“Balance of power is this idea that you are not out in the world to spread to democracy, but to establish commodious relations where that is possible, and stalemates where that is not,” the author and critic tells The Times of Israel in a phone interview from his New York apartment.
For Kissinger the fundamental point of political diplomacy isn’t to see the righteous prevail, Gewen says, but to pit power, conflict, and ego against each other so that huge historical upheavals can be minimized and all hell doesn’t break loose.
“Kissinger says you can make a choice,” says Gewen. “You can simply wash your hands of the wrong-headed, misguided, and even evil people [in power], or, you can say, if power is there, try and influence it, even if the people in power disagree with you.”
Gewen believes politicians today can learn a great deal from Kissinger’s measured approach to international relations. Kissinger is now 97 years old and hasn’t served in an official capacity since 1977. But most US presidents in the interim have sought his off-the-record advice.
Gewen says Kissinger operates in a sphere of influence in Washington that crosses partisan lines and party loyalties.
The author calls Kissinger “the back door man of American politics,” and claims there is “no doubt” Kissinger has been influencing presidential decisions behind the scenes in numerous US administrations over the last few decades.
“The president Kissinger had the most impact on was George W. Bush,” says Gewen. “But among the Democratic presidents the one Kissinger was closest to was Barack Obama.”
Gewen’s book also argues that Kissinger’s compromising brand of realpolitik has gleaned a great deal of influence from three distinguished German Jewish émigré intellectuals: Hans Morgenthau, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt.
Like Kissinger, all three began their lives in Germany and eventually headed westward to the United States. From a studious reading of their existential political theory Kissinger arrived at a philosophical conclusion: malleable and adaptable ideas that eschew rigidly committing to one ideology tend to fare better in the complex world of political negotiation.
Malleable and adaptable ideas that eschew rigidly committing to one ideology tend to fare better in the complex world of political negotiation
“These three German [Jewish intellectuals] were not Marxists or Zionists, but they were all deeply concerned about Israel and worked for its survival,” says Gewen. “All of them were freethinkers who existed in the world as it was — without a foundation or fundamental [ideology] to back up their ideas.”
“Neither Morgenthau, Strauss, or Arendt are what you would call ‘liberal American democrats,’” Gewen says. “Because they could see that democracy could bring to power utterly bloodthirsty tyrants.”
Here Kissinger could speak from personal experience. Kissinger was born on May 27, 1923, in Fürth, Germany. Known as the Bavarian Jerusalem it had a vibrant Jewish community and became known for its welcoming cosmopolitan spirit of tolerance. The Kissingers were assimilated German Jews. But the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s saw the family flee Nazi Germany to the United States.
Struggle, hardship and a scarcity of money was Kissinger’s first impression of his adopted homeland, the US
Kissinger took favorably to the unrestrained individual liberty offered by the American way of life. But struggle, hardship and a scarcity of money was Kissinger’s first impression of his adopted homeland. Kissinger’s father, Louis, could not find work easily. And so Kissinger’s mother, Paula, kept the family afloat by starting a successful catering business.
“[The Kissingers] lost several members of [their] family in the Holocaust,” says Gewen. “And when the family got out of Germany and went to the United States Kissinger’s father was a broken man who was never the same because his entire belief system [and sense of identity] had been completely destroyed.”
“Kissinger grew up continuing to love his father, but what he saw in his father was weakness,” Gewen adds.
Gewen believes there is an undeniable link between Kissinger’s immigrant past and his subsequent conservative political instinct, though the trauma of the former ensured a cautious skepticism was always applied to the latter.
One can certainly give a psychological reading on the impact Hitler had on Kissinger’s mentality
“Kissinger has played down this part of his [history], but it was very important,” says Gewen. “One can certainly give a psychological reading on the impact Hitler had on Kissinger’s mentality without simply reducing his ideas to, well, he was a traumatized German Jew.”
Gewen notes that Kissinger’s Americanization began as soon as he set foot in the United States.
His birth name, Heinz, became the anglicized Henry, and English was the only language spoken at the family home. Kissinger was drafted during World War II, and was sent back to Germany as a private in 1944, where he was assigned to Army Intelligence. The work saw Kissinger breaking up Nazi sleeper cells, a mission that got him awarded the Bronze Star and promoted to staff sergeant.
In 1947 Kissinger attended Harvard University, where he went on to pursue a PhD in the Department of Government. His 1954 dissertation, “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace,” examined the efforts of Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich to reestablish a legitimate international order in Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. (Eventually published as a book, the thesis was an interesting historical example of “balance of power.”)
After receiving his doctorate in 1954, Kissinger accepted an offer to stay at Harvard as a member of the faculty in the Department of Government.
Kissinger achieved widespread fame in academic circles when he published his 1957 book “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” which proposed a flexible response to Soviet aggression and favored a limited conflict fought with conventional forces and tactical nuclear weapons.
From 1961 to 1968, while still teaching at Harvard, Kissinger served as a special advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on matters pertaining to foreign policy. In 1969 Kissinger left Harvard and went to Washington full time after president Richard Nixon appointed him National Security Advisor.
Kissinger’s suave presentation of US foreign policy serving under the Nixon and Ford administrations respectively turned him into a global celebrity, and he was credited with a multitude of diplomatic achievements. He was instrumental in advocating the policy of détente, which saw the US developing cordial relations with the Soviet Union during a particularly hostile period of the Cold War.
Where some see a pragmatic peacemaker in Kissinger, others see an egomaniac with an insatiable appetite for power and war mongering
Kissinger also developed secret talks with China that led to Nixon and Mao Zedong’s famous meeting in 1972. In 1973, Kissinger was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam for their efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the Vietnam War.
But where some see a pragmatic peacemaker in Kissinger, others see an egomaniac with an insatiable appetite for power and war mongering. A now infamous late night telephone chat between Nixon and Kissinger from 1972 that Gewen reproduces in his book certainly gives those accusations some credence.
“We will bomb the bejesus out of [the North Vietnamese, and] to hell with history,” Nixon rages with drunken paranoia. “History will think well of you then,” Kissinger replies with sober subservience.
“I think there [is] in Kissinger a quality of the yes man,” says Gewen. “But you have to understand how Kissinger sees the world, which is in terms of power. This ties into the opportunistic side of his personality, which is not very attractive.”
“Nixon at one point even called Kissinger his ‘Jew boy,’” Gewen adds. “Now if you are Kissinger and you are sitting there [in a meeting] and you have lost many relatives in the Holocaust, how do you respond to that? Do you not get up, quit, and walk out?”
Kissinger did not.