The Kissinger Effect on Realpolitik


Editor’s Note: This is an adapted excerpt from John Bew’s Realpolitik: A History (Oxford University Press, 2015).


In the late 1960s, a full tilt toward realpolitik seemed highly unlikely. For most Americans, even those in government, the word still stuck in the gullet. For this reason, the new departure in U.S. foreign policy under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger created something of a shock wave, both within and outside the apparatus of government, which left its mark on American political discourse for years to come.

When one speaks of realpolitik in the modern era, the name of Kissinger — President Nixon’s national security advisor from January 1969 to November 1975 and secretary of state for Nixon and then President Ford, from September 1973 to January 1977 — usually follows close behind. During Kissinger’s tenure in office, usage of the word realpolitik spread throughout the governmental machine. It also became popularized, more than ever before, in the public sphere. There was a widespread fascination with the Kissingerian mind among followers of foreign policy. Not for the first time, it became common to juxtapose contemporary American foreign policy with 19th-century European diplomacy. As the historian Walter Laqueur described in Commentary magazine in 1973, one of the side effects of Kissinger’s rise to eminence was a sudden revival of interest in Lord Castlereagh and Count Metternich, triggered by Kissinger’s 1957 book, A World Restored. Political commentators,

not previously known for their expertise in the intricacies of early 19th-century European diplomacy, have been eagerly leafing through the pages of this book, expecting to find some useful leads — if not the master key — to Kissinger’s grand design for the 1970s. Nowadays no article, and few columns, seems complete without a quotation or two about the Metternichian system or Bismarck’s Real-politik.

At the simplest level, one can see an obvious connection that links our story together. Kissinger was a German-speaking immigrant to the United States from Bavaria, and he wrote about 19th-century European diplomacy. Yet when one digs a little deeper, the picture becomes more complex. For one, realpolitik is a label that Kissinger himself regards as unhelpful. In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, he commented:

Let me say a word about realpolitik, just for clarification. I regularly get accused of conducting realpolitik. I don’t think I have ever used that term. It is a way by which critics want to label me and say, “Watch him. He’s a German really. He doesn’t have the American view of things.”

“The advocates of a realist foreign policy are caricatured with the German term Realpolitik,” he added in 2012, “I suppose to facilitate the choosing of sides.”

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 this is to paint a caricature. Kissinger’s intellectual formation bore the imprint of an eclectic range of influences and experiences. From inception, it also included a strong dose of what I have described so far as anti-realpolitik. Much has been made of the time he spent in his native Germany, returning as an American soldier, in the final stages of the Second World War, under Fritz Kraemer — a fellow German American, who recognized his intellectual talents — with the 84th Division in Bensheim. Kraemer later broke with Kissinger in the détente era because of his belief that the moral component to the Cold War had not been emphasized sufficiently during Kissinger’s tenure, though the two were reconciled and Kissinger spoke at his funeral oration.

It was also significant that Kissinger — educated at the Government Department at Harvard, outside the main hubs for the study of international affairs at Yale or Chicago — did not bear the imprint of a particular theory of international relations, and perhaps evaded some of the rhetorical grooves associated with these. Rather than structures or systems, his initial interest was more the history of ideas. 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. German refugees, Beer added, had “firsthand experience of the effect ideas can have in the world.” The journal that Kissinger ran at Harvard, Confluence, sought contributions from a wide range of prominent thinkers and public intellectuals, all with different perspectives. Alongside contributions from Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau were essays by Hannah Arendt, McGeorge Bundy, Enoch Powell, and Paul Nitze.

Kissinger was no follower of a single line. Hans Morgenthau briefly taught at Harvard in 1951 and Kissinger later called him “my teacher,” in that he subscribed to the basic principles of Politics Among Nations. He should not, however, be classed as a disciple of Morgenthau, with whom he differed on a number of issues. He spent more time under the tutelage of William Yandell Elliott, who steered him toward other traditions in the history of ideas such as the writings of Homer, Baruch Spinoza, and Georg Wilhelm Hegel. It was for Elliott that Kissinger wrote his undergraduate dissertation, “The Meaning of History.” This explored the writings of Immanuel Kant, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee — three thinkers who stood firmly on the side of anti-realpolitik. Kant was denounced by the German exponents of Realpolitik, and Spengler regarded them as hopelessly naïve. Toynbee was a liberal internationalist and a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. More significantly, perhaps, Kissinger’s dissertation rejected narrow empiricism and the idea of pure reason, arguing that the role of history should be to grasp “the totality of life, not just its appearances.”

Another influence was Carl J. Friedrich, a German-born scholar who had been at Harvard since 1926. It has been claimed that Friedrich steered Kissinger away from two prevailing trends in American intellectual life favored by some realists — naturalism and pragmatism, which had little room for the spiritual or supernatural components of intellectual life. Friedrich was a strong critic of both Morgenthau and the diplomat and scholar George Kennan, whom he accused of expounding an “American version of the German Realpolitik.” Kissinger does not necessarily see Friedrich as a foreign policy thinker, though he does acknowledge his influence.

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. This was reflected in A World Restored, based on his doctoral thesis. A study of the diplomacy of Count Metternich and Lord Castlereagh in the period after the defeat of Napoleon, it set itself against a “scholarship of social determinism” that “reduced the statesman to a lever on a machine called ‘history.’” The test of a statesman, argued Kissinger, in a phrase Ludwig von Rochau — the originator of Realpolitik — might have written, was “his ability to recognise the real relationship of forces and to make this knowledge serve his ends.”

It has been pointed out that Kissinger’s subjects in A World Restored were tragic figures, and that — following Weber perhaps — the expectation of tragedy is something which lurks behind his work. Metternich and Castlereagh both fell into the “abyss” of their age. Castlereagh killed himself in 1822 and his policies were denounced by later generations; Metternich fell in 1848 and the balancing act by which he had attempted to preserve the Austrian Empire lurched from crisis to crisis. Yet, on closer examination, Kissinger’s interpretation of this period was far from fatalistic. It allowed for the triumph of wisdom and smart statecraft to mediate danger and steer a steady course. It can be said that Kissinger shared the Weberian notion of an “ethics of responsibility” with Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and Kennan. But again, it is a mistake to assume that this was simply the preserve of self-described realist thinkers.

Another mistake is to assume that Kissinger has certain historical “heroes” whom he hoped to emulate. He has dismissed as “childish” the notion that he personally identifies with Metternich. Of greater significance was his interjection into the Bismarck debate of the 1950s and 1960s. It has often been observed that there was “something Bismarckian” about the grand strategy of Nixon and Kissinger after 1968. Yet it is worth subjecting the Bismarck comparison to greater scrutiny as it provides a clue to much else besides.

In fact, Kissinger’s assessment of Bismarck’s political strategy shows an acute awareness of its limitations. In 1968, shortly before his appointment by Nixon, Kissinger published his own reflections on Bismarck (which he had been unable to include in his original PhD thesis). In Kissinger’s view, what Bismarck had practiced was a policy of “self-restraint on a philosophy of self-interest.” But he had built a system that was dependent on his genius, which was extremely dangerous when inherited by those with less skill and caution: “In the hands of others lacking his subtle touch, his methods led to the collapse of the nineteenth-century state system.” One of the weaknesses of the Bismarckian state was its authoritarian nature, which encouraged “the emergence of courtiers and lobbyists, but not statesmen.” What was more, Germans had also learned the wrong lessons from him. “They remembered the wars that had achieved their unity” but forgot “the patient preparation that had made them possible and the moderation that had secured their fruits.” German nationalism, he wrote, “unleavened by liberalism turned chauvinistic.” The exclusion of the liberals was also damaging. Liberalism without responsibility “grew sterile.” This combination of forces had created the space for the rise of Nazism. Here Kissinger ended with a telling quotation from Bismarck’s friend General Albrecht von Roon, who wrote: “No one eats with impunity from the tree of immortality.” Kissinger’s interpretation of Bismarck was closer to A. J. P. Taylor’s critical 1955 biography than William Langer’s attempt to resuscitate the Prussian statesman for an English-speaking audience in the 1930s. It was also markedly different from the version of Bismarckism celebrated by George Kennan, leading to a revealing discussion between the two. Kennan’s 1981 book, The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875–1890, had Bismarck as its hero. After publication, Kissinger wrote to Kennan:

I have enjoyed your book greatly. Not that it fails to be depressing. If even Bismarck could not prevent what he clearly foresaw, what chance does the modern period have? That is the real nightmare.

Kennan’s reply was that “Bismarck did all that he could, in his outwardly rough, but essentially not inhumane way.” In Kennan’s view, the greatest danger was the failure of the current generation, “with the warning image of the atomic bomb before it,” to learn from Bismarck’s example. Yet Kissinger always had a sense of the need to keep a rein on Bismarckism, based on his understanding of its aftereffects in Germany. In his 1994 book Diplomacy, he offered as resounding and unambiguous a criticism of it as any that appeared in Britain before 1914. As he put it, “the unification of Germany caused Realpolitik to turn in on itself, accomplishing the opposite of what it was meant to achieve.”

Kissinger’s mild critique of Kennan — for whom he had much admiration — follows similar lines to the criticisms of American realism. He saw in Kennan’s later writings an unwillingness to “manage nuance” and accept ambiguity as irreducible components of political life. In a New York Times review of John Lewis Gaddis’s 2011 biography of Kennan, he used his own version of Bismarck against Kennan. 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.” The practitioners of the art must learn “to put the attainable in the service of the ultimate and accept the element of compromise inherent in the endeavor.” Bismarck defined statesmanship as the art of the possible. Kennan, as a public servant, had been celebrated for his penetrating analysis of the international order. Yet his career was stymied, Kissinger argued, by his “periodic rebellion against the need for a reconciliation that could incorporate each element only imperfectly.”

As Kissinger argued, there was an absolutist tendency in American realism. This had created an ever-greater distance between the self-described “realists” and those responsible for the exercise of power. In fact, realism had taken on the form of an ideology in its own right, just as it had done in Bismarck’s Germany:

The irony of Kennan’s thought was that his influence in government arose from his advocacy of what today’s debate would define as realism, while his admirers outside government were on the whole motivated by what they took to be his idealistic objections to the prevalent, essentially realistic policy.

What was more, Kissinger argued that Kennan’s view of international affairs was an externalization of a uniquely American understanding of politics. Kennan’s vision of peace “involved a balance of power of a very special American type, an equilibrium that was not to be measured by military force alone.” More specifically, it reflected the “culture and historical evolution of a society whose ultimate power would be measured by its vigor and its people’s commitment to a better world.” In his famous “X” telegram, of course, Kennan had called on his countrymen to meet the “test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations.” Significantly, Kissinger contrasted Kennan, the idealist and philosophizer, with Dean Acheson, the craftsman. The growing distance between the two men in the postwar era reflected Acheson’s greater aptitude as a practitioner, and Kennan’s rather wistful retreat into scholarship and history. It took Acheson “to translate Kennan’s concept [of containment] into the design that saw America through the cold war.”

Kissinger’s relationship with Hans Morgenthau might be viewed the same way. Kissinger retained great admiration for Morgenthau and spoke at his funeral in 1980. Yet the two men disagreed over the Vietnam War, which Nixon inherited from President Johnson in 1968. On 22 October 1968, Morgenthau 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 was also extremely hostile to the bombing of Cambodia in 1970, as part of the Kissinger-Nixon strategy to extricate the United States from the war without being seen to surrender; writing to Niebuhr — another Vietnam War opponent — Morgenthau said, “The incompetence and pathology is really shocking.”

Morgenthau’s objection was not so much to the details of policy in Vietnam, as the fundamental premise on which it rested. In portraying American strategy as “pathological,” his target was the whole philosophical basis of foreign policy. In fact, the text of his 1968 letter to Kissinger, and his 1970 letter to Niebuhr, appeared almost verbatim in an article he produced in 1976 on “The Pathology of American Power.” This pathology was characterized by four “intellectual defects shared by all”: first, obsolete modes of thought and action; second, “demonological interpretations of reality,” or primitive answers to complex problems; third, denial of reality though illusory verbalizations; and fourth, faith in worldwide social reform. Typically, the only remedy was a “reformation” of the basis of American foreign policy. This reformation was “predicated upon the performance of the intellectual task of laying bare the roots of American failure and upon the moral resolution to act upon the political insights gained by this re-examination.”

Thus Kissinger’s defense of the administration’s Vietnam policy was markedly distinct from such absolute categories. Having negotiated the Paris accords that ended the war, he argued for meaningful financial and military aid for Vietnam in 1974, partly because 50,000 Americans had died fighting there, though this request was rejected by Congress. As he wrote in his memoirs, in one of his few uses of the word, “the thrust of my appeal was to such unfashionable concepts as ‘honor’ and ‘moral obligation,’ not to realpolitik as our critics had it.” Writing a decade after Kissinger had left office, the historian Michael Hunt made the case that both Nixon and Kissinger had a profound sense of America’s unique world role — a perception heightened by the Cold War paradigm. Their insistence on maintaining prestige and credibility over Vietnam spoke to a longer tradition in American foreign policy stretching back at least as far as the 1890s. Thus Hunt argued Kissinger acted in a way more redolent of Alexander Hamilton than a classic European diplomat.

To this day, there is a strong element of American exceptionalism running through Kissinger’s writings, in which the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt is the touchstone. David Mack, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs in the early 1990s, who had taken Kissinger’s classes at Harvard, saw his “realpolitik perspective” as uniquely American rather than European. “He saw the United States as the last best hope of the world, even if we could use a greater dose of cynicism and reality.”


John Bew teaches history and foreign policy at the King’s College London War Studies Department. He is a contributing editor at War on the Rocks.