To write about Henry Kissinger is to walk into a lion's den of controversy. Throughout his career, Kissinger has been anything but non-controversial. To some, he is a strategic and foreign policy genius who helped broker peace between Israel and Egypt and who reduced the risk of nuclear war. And, along the way, he earned a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the U.S. war in Viet Nam. To others, to put it bluntly, he is a war criminal, a Machiavellian (in the most negative sense) who used war and violence on behalf of American imperialism. If someone holds an opinion about Kissinger, it's not likely to prove neutral or nuanced.
I'm intrigued by Kissinger and his reputation, not sure (and perhaps happily so) whether to cast him as angel or devil, saint or sinner. However, I suspect, like all of us, he's played both roles and a many in-between. But in any case, he's acted with immense power and influence so that his flaws and strengths are magnified in the light of public scrutiny. This is why I've read a good deal by and about Kissinger; by his vehement critics and his enthusiastic accolades, and I've read a fair amount of what the man himself has written. Thus, when I saw this title (which itself intrigued me) on the New York Times list of best books of the year, I decided to take a look. I'm glad I did.
[Kissinger] is more than a figure out of history. He is a philosopher of international relations who has much to teach us about how the modern world works—and often doesn’t. His arguments for his brand of Realism—thinking in terms of national interest and a balance of power—offer the possibility of rationality, coherence, and a necessary long-term perspective at a time when all three of these qualities seem to be in short supply.
Gewen, Barry. The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. [All subsequent quotes are to this book.]
But what I found when I opened it was not another biography of Kissinger (of which there are many and more to come), but something rather different. The book isn't simply a reconsideration of Kissinger's career (although that's certainly one topic), but its unique perspective arises from its use of Kissinger's actions and thought to reflect upon political actors and their actions at the highest level. Indeed, as I looked at the Table of Contents for the first time, I found chapters entitled "Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt," "Hans Morgenthau," and "Hitler" as topics, as well as "Chile," "Vietnam," "Kissinger in Power," and "Kissinger Out of Power." The latter four chapters anyone might have expected, but Hitler, Strauss, Arendt, and Morgenthau? After reading the "First Person Prologue," I jumped over "Chile" and went right to "Hitler" even though I chomped at the bit to get to "Strauss and Arendt."
What Gewen has attempted--and accomplished--is to give voice to a view of political actors and action that Americans, as a whole, don't take kindly to. Gewen looks at the figures and situations in the chapters listed above to explore issues of political action and morality. As background, although not extensively discussed, are the late nineteenth and early-twentieth German thinkers Frederich Nietzche and Max Weber; Nietzche for his shattering ideas about morality and Weber for his assessment of the tragedy inherent in political action as described in his 1919 essay "Politics as a Vocation." The political phenomena that most affected the young Kissinger and his fellow, older German-Jewish refugees, Strauss, Arendt, and Morgenthau, was Hitler, who rose to power through a democratic process. Of course, as Gewen notes, Hitler began with violence in his "Beer Hall Putsch" and reverted to force and violence once firmly ensconced in power, but nevertheless, he and the Nazi party gained power via the electoral process. Thus, the failure of Weimar democracy to stand against the non-democratic forces of the Nazis and their Communist adversaries left a deep influence on these thinkers.
“Politics,” Weber famously declared, “is a matter of boring down strongly and slowly through hard boards with passion and judgment together.” Passion was necessary to define the politician’s goals; judgment provided the detachment required to guide behavior, “the ability to contemplate things as they are with inner calm and composure.” Someone who possessed passion but not a “realistic sense of responsibility” was little more than a “political dilettante” consumed by “sterile excitements” or by a romanticism that, in Weber’s words, “runs away to nothing.” The demagogue in particular was unsuited to the vocation of politics because “he runs a constant risk of becoming a play-actor, making light of the responsibility for the consequences of his actions and asking only what ‘impression’ he is making.” In Weber’s terms, the Hitler of these years, for all his oratorical success, was not a politician but a political dilettante, with no sense of realism or responsibility. It had to end badly for him. Weber’s analysis was prescient—at least it was up to 1923. For in that year, Hitler’s “sterile excitements” did in fact run away to nothing.
The most intriguing aspect of Gewen's chapter on Hitler was his account of Hitler as a mesmerizing performer. Hitler's rhetoric, his ethos and pathos, allowed him to gain power and to remain popular well into his regime. I couldn't avoid reading this account of Hitler's speeches and performance without thinking of the current American president and his shocking successes even as he failed to gain even a plurality of voters in either of his two elections. What do their electoral successes--limited as they were--mean for the viability of democracy?
Hitler told people what they wanted to hear. His pronouncements were not a challenge but a confirmation of his followers’ assumptions and preconceptions, an incitement to cast off the dreary restrictions of civility and rationality and allow their emotions full Dionysiac release, above all a permission both to maintain hope in the face of obdurate reality and to hate anyone or anything that was perceived to undermine that hope. Catholics, Socialists, and Communists, with intellectual structures of their own, were not as susceptible to him. He appealed to a devastated populace that, like him, had lost everything, including their established beliefs, felt a profound sense of grievance, and found consolation in a pan-Germanism that was part sentimentality and part utopianism, a sort of forward-looking nostalgia. The content of the speeches was important to that degree.
. . . .
Because he dwelled on longings instead of facts, he preferred abstractions to specifics, emphasizing honor, nation, family, loyalty. What distinguished him was the totality of his commitment, the intensity of a speaker who had stared into the abyss and drew back, once lost and now found—saved by extreme pan-Germanism and fanatical anti-Semitism and afterward devoted to spreading the message to others. He employed neither logic nor reason but sheer passion, while physically embodying the feelings of his audience like a medium.
. . . .
Hitler rallies were like religious revivals, where the crowds went not for the articulation of policy positions but for the release of unbridled emotion.
I leave it to the reader's imagination about how this account might apply to current events and persons.
I dove into the following chapter with great enthusiasm and yet a bit of puzzlement. As for the enthusiasm, I've lately rekindled my youthful enthusiasm--perhaps even infatuation--with the thought of Hannah Arendt. And conversely, I've only dipped into the works of Strauss, and I've never gotten a handle on why others have been so taken with his project. And how are these two thinkers related to Kissinger? On a direct level, it turns out almost not at all. Strauss (b. 1899) and Arendt (b. 1906) are about a generation older than Kissinger (b. 1923). Strauss and Arendt both obtained their educations entirely in Germany (and both in part from Martin Heidegger), while Kissinger was a kid out playing soccer. Kissinger completed high school after emigrating to the U.S. in 1938, and all of his further formal education came from Harvard after a four-year stint in the U.S. Army. Gewen finds no direct contact between Kissinger and Strauss, and Kissinger had only a passing encounter with Arendt when he edited a submission by her to a journal he was editing in the early 1950s (Arendt didn't like his heavy-handed edits.) So why are Strauss and Arendt included in this book? Both of these philosophers-turned-political thinkers brought their deeply learned thought and traumatic experiences as German-Jewish refugees to the U.S. and applied their insights to their understanding and appreciation of the American political system. Both were at once deeply appreciative of their new home and appalled by various American political beliefs, practices, and trends, as were Kissinger and Hans Morganthau.
I should add that Gewens' exposition and discussion of Strauss's project is the best that I've read: succinct and insightful. I was introduced to Arendt as an undergraduate and took enthusiastically to her perspective (although it was not easy for me to grasp, I must add). But I came to know Strauss only tangentially, as a scholar of the history of political thought. I believe Arendt to be the more widely read between she and Strauss so that Gewen does a great service for those like me who are Strauss-curious. (A good deal was written during the W. Bush years about Strauss and the neocons, but what I took from all of that is that Strauss shouldn't be saddled with their bellicose ways.) In distinction from his thorough exposition of Strauss's work, Gewens' treatment of Arendt is somewhat less focused on her concepts, although not without some detail and insight. For instance, his discussion of Arendt's On Revolution and its ideas about the social vs. the political; liberation as distinct from freedom; and her notion of authority. But he addresses much of his attention to her mixed attitudes toward her adopted country: a mix of fascination, enthusiasm, and deep critique, which she shared with the other German-Jewish emigres examined in this book. An example of her critique--and what drew the most negative responses other than her Eichmann writing--was her article about Little Rock and segregation. The article highlights her distinction between the social and the political. Gewen notes that few Americans appreciated (and many rejected) Arendt's social-political distinction and its implication for race relations. However, there exists at least one notable exception--although never publically expressed in response to the controversy--Leo Strauss, who also insisted on a strong distinction between the public and the private. Gewen notes that Arendt and Strauss
tended to view contemporary events from a great height, sub specie aeternitatis. A problem was never simply a problem to be solved by whatever means were at hand in the pragmatic American fashion; it had to be analyzed in terms of its deeper implications. What’s more, they were decidedly anti-utopian, sniffing out unbounded idealism wherever it arose, and skeptical of those who offered solutions to what seemed to them to be part of the human condition. Neither believed that prejudice and discrimination could ever be completely eradicated. Tamp it down in one area and it would reemerge in another. The best one could hope for was to keep it confined to the social realm, to develop or degenerate as it would. People could not—and should not—be forced to be good, since everyone knows what the paving stones are on the road to Hell.
To optimistic and idealistic Americans, such views were pessimistic and cynical. Arendt and Strauss were pessimistic to be sure, cautious about the uses of power, but neither was cynical. (p.150.)
Gewen concludes his consideration of Strauss and Arendt with this insight:
[E]ven the most valid criticisms of their thought are, in a way, beside the point, because they don’t grapple with the problem that was of the greatest urgency to the two German Jews as they surveyed the United States—the problem of democracy itself. Most of their American readers couldn’t be worried in the same way. Quite the contrary. Democracy for them wasn’t an issue to be addressed, it was a given—the life-sustaining ocean everyone swam in—and it was even more than that: a good, a virtue, an aspiration, a touchstone, a metric, a cause, a talisman, a foundation, a faith. Search long and hard and you will never find public figures in the United States ever openly declaring themselves against the spread of democracy at home or abroad. (This would become a problem for a Henry Kissinger trying to explain his policies to the American people.) But these two outsiders couldn’t share that faith. Democracy for them was a question, not an answer, and even if the solutions they devised were unsatisfactory or inappropriate to the real world of the United States, or perhaps any world at all, at least Arendt and Strauss were struggling to produce solutions when most of their compatriots couldn’t even see a problem. It was this challenge to the national orthodoxy by two foreigners that gives their writings on America such depth and richness, such salience. It is also, inevitably, what provokes the hostility each encountered from true believers in democracy and The American Way. The patriotically inclined, it’s clear, don’t like to think without banisters. (pp. 164-165).
Morganthau (b. 1904) as a subject of a chapter in this book seems an obvious choice. He is probably the most significant voice about international relations in the American academy between the end of World War Two and his death in 1980. And, like Kissinger, Strauss, and Arendt, he was a German-Jewish refugee to the U.S. But unlike Strauss and Arendt, Morganthau met and came to know Kissinger, becoming a mentor to his younger colleague. Their shared background and similar interests made this bond possible, but it ran deep. Morganthau became one of the most prominent and outspoken critics of the American involvement and later war in Vietnam while Kissinger, working for Nixon, attempted to prosecute the war while finding a way out, yet they remained on good (if strained) terms. In this chapter, Gewen provides a persuasive account of how the experiences and beliefs of these four refugees have come to influence American political thinking and in turn how they have been influenced by some of the prevailing traits of American political beliefs, such as Wilsonianism (cheerleading for democracy as a panacea) and isolationism ("let the rest of world be damned and leave us alone"). Political realism was not utterly new to America. Reinhold Niebuhr, a Lutheran theologian, for instance, was a prominent voice for Christian realism in the 1930s onward, and practical men like Acheson, Harriman, and Kennan, for example, practiced realism in the conduct of American foreign affairs. But Morgenthau and Kissinger were the thinkers (and in Kissinger's case, the actor) who gave realism its most considered exposition and defense.
For Morgenthau, it was a matter of starting with the situation at hand and adjusting one’s ideas to the ever-changing facts on the ground, all for the sake of the national interest. Apparent contradictions or inconsistencies didn’t bother him. Morgenthau was a Realist down to his bones. For him, it wasn’t even a question of the best being the enemy of the good; the good was an enemy as well. In foreign policy, choices usually come down to the bad and the less bad. Like Kissinger, Morgenthau always retained a sense of the tragic and, I would say, it was this shared German-Jewish sensibility, as much as their similar ideas on national interest and balance of power, that was the foundation for the two men’s decades-long friendship, whatever disagreements they may have had over the years, no matter how sharp or how strong.
I have to admit that Gewen, in making his points about Kissinger and these other thinkers, was preaching to the choir with me as a reader. If I had to plant a flag on one school of international relations, it would be realism. Of course, realism as a body of thought is amorphous. Its basic tenants are that the international world consists of nation-states that strive in competition with one another for power and that the nation-state acts--must act as a matter of morality--to preserve and even extend its power. Politics is a zero-sum game that often entails tragic choices. Power must be balanced against power; to wit, nation-state against nation-state, or alliances of nation-states aligned against one another. Maintaining a balance of power(s) allows for stability and security. From these basic premises one can trace many branches. And, I contend, because of its breadth and inherent pliability, realism can subsume many of the strengths of its competitors in thinking about international relations. To wit, international law, international institutions (liberal internationalism), domestic political considerations, culture and thought (constructivism)--each way of thinking about international relations has its merits and weaknesses, as does realism. Perhaps the greatest weakness of realism is its assumption that humans are inherently aggressive, driven by a zero-sum game in a dog-eat-dog world. But this is not so, at least not always. Humans can degenerate into anarchy, but even as the master of doom--Hobbes--realizes, humans can--and inevitably do--come together in society, from the local level to the international level. And to be fair, both Morgenthau and Kissinger, recognize many of these exceptions and nuances required of realism when considered as more than merely a pseudo-Darwinian "survival of the fittest." And realism isn't a system of thought; it's more of an attitude, a stance, or platform with which to view the world. It's not a system that can provide "answers." Thus, we have Morganthau, the arch-realist, as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and Kissinger, the realist actor, willing to prosecute the war despite its high cost and uncertain (and unrealized) rewards.
It wasn't until I had completed the remainder of the book that I came back to read the first chapter, "Chile." It turned out not to have been a bad way to read the book. For those not acquainted with the history of the early 1970s, Chile democratically elected a Marxist president in 1970, Salvador Allende. Nixon and Kissinger, fearing another Castro in Latin American and the potential for the Soviet Union to gain another foothold in the Western Hemisphere, were eager to see Allende gone. But it didn't happen, a least not immediately. The CIA went shopping for a military coup but found no takers who weren't discarded loose canons. On the whole, the military remained loyal to the constitutional government. But after four years of Allende--and some gains for the poorest in Chile--the middle class, consisting of housewives, truck drivers, shopkeepers, lawyers, and doctors, all began taking to the streets as inflation soared, wages and earnings stagnated, and store shelves emptied. Without direct U.S. prodding (but also without any U.S. government opposition), the military decided to act. By that time, Nixon and Kissinger weren't paying much attention to Chile. But Allende was murdered and General Pinochet came to power to establish a military tyranny. Chile recovered and grew economically while a tyranny reigned. Not a satisfying trade with such bad alternatives on both ends. All of this shows the limits and Kissinger's foresight and perspective, his frustrations with democracy. Allende, like Hitler and Trump, was legitimately elected. And Kissinger's willingness to use covert means (as did his predecessors and successors) also comes to the forefront. I'm no expert on this episode, but Gewen's account is complex and displays the players (Allende, CIA, Kissinger, Nixon, etc.) in all their ambiguity, with faults and merits openly considered. Based on the thoroughness and ambiguities of his account, I suspect Gewen is providing the reader with a trustworthy and accurate account of this unhappy affair. Was Allende a threat to the U.S.? To Latin America? These are questions that Gewen raises but can't answer because these questions can never be answered: we can't rerun the tape of history to learn what would have happened had Allende not been deposed. Politics is about laying one's best bet and making a call without ever knowing what hand fate would have played, Perhaps you simply should have folded.
This was a terrific read, and the more that I've reviewed it and thought about it, the higher my estimation of it has reaches. For anyone who fancies oneself a student of human actions, of politics, of international relations, or of life, this will prove a thoughtful, well-researched, and well-argued book. You won't walk away from it with certainties. You won't see Henry Kissinger and others like him in a totally new and unambiguous light. But perhaps you'll see Kissinger as a representative of those trying to see through a dark glass into a future that holds continuing risks, uncertain friends and foes, and constant flux throughout the human and natural world. And maybe--if an actor has any luck--the actor will find some fleeting stability and certainty. But enjoy any certainty and stability while it lasts--because tragedy is inevitable.