The Kissinger Effect on Realpolitik -War on the Rocks


Henry Kissinger is closely associated with the term realpolitik and the IR school, realism. This article suggests that Kissinger did not fit neatly inside of these categories. The discussion is enlightening not only because of its insights into Kissinger’s thinking, but also because of the way it highlights the tension between abstract principles of foreign policy, moral beliefs and pragmatism in American policy making.

Some of the more interesting points:

First: “Stanley Hoffmann, a Harvard professor and contemporary of Kissinger, claimed that Kissinger’s career was “a quest for a realpolitik devoid of moral homilies,”…but….. “One of his professors at Harvard, Sam Beer, later recalled that Kissinger “had an intuitive grasp of the importance of ideas in world affairs,” particularly religion.”

Second: “In addition to the history of ideas, Kissinger was as much interested in statesmen and statesmanship — and the role of the individual in managing and mitigating trends in international relations.  …his doctoral thesis….  set itself against a “scholarship of social determinism” that “reduced the statesman to a lever on a machine called ‘history.’”

Third, Kissinger criticized realism and its proponents, such Kennan, for having a doctrinaire mechanical understanding of politics. What he referred to as ‘absolutist tendencies’. “He saw in Kennan’s later writings an unwillingness to “manage nuance” and accept ambiguity as irreducible components of political life.” And claimed later: “The challenge of statesmanship was “to define the components of both power and morality and strike a balance between them.” This was not a one-time effort but required “constant recalibration.” It was “as much an artistic and philosophical as a political enterprise” and demanded “a willingness to manage nuance and to live with ambiguity.”

Of course, Kissinger’s many critics would be unimpressed by how he practiced this “artistic and philosophical enterprise”. Indeed, as the article points out, Kissinger’s handling of the Vietnam war and the bombing of Cambodia was criticized by fellow realists such as Hans  Morgenthau “who wrote to Kissinger directly, just as Kissinger was about to take up his position as national security advisor, to denounce him for not coming out strongly enough against the war or signaling his intention to bring it to an end.” He later said, once Kissinger was in office, “The incompetence and pathology is really shocking.” Morgenthau’s critiques were practical rather than moral, but it demonstrates that in practice, realism and realpolitik come in many different shades.