Dr Strangelove, RIP

It’s widely, if perhaps erroneously, believed that the Kubrick character was based on Henry Kissinger, who died yesterday aged 100.

The film was made in 1964, before Kissinger held any official post in the US  government, but he was already known as foreign policy consultant to the high and mighty. He was also known for his elastic conscience enabling him to reshape his ideas and allegiances to fit the moment.

Kissinger called himself a master of  “constructive ambiguity”, and it’s in that spirit that I find myself reacting to his death. On the one hand, he was far and away the most brilliant State Secretary in my lifetime. On the other hand, well… let’s talk about the good hand first.

The obituaries describe Kissinger as a diplomat, which constitutes a demotion. A diplomat merely communicates his government’s foreign policy to foreign countries; he doesn’t formulate it. Kissinger did.

Throughout Nixon’s presidency and some of Ford’s, he sidelined the State Department, first to set the foreign policy and then to carry it out singlehandedly. In that Kissinger displayed a certain distrust of traditions, even some constitutional ones, but one could argue that his distrust wasn’t altogether misplaced.

That was a back-breaking load for one man to carry, but Kissinger’s back was up there with the strongest. One can imagine him at the 1815 Vienna Congress, rubbing shoulders or locking horns with the likes of Metternich, Talleyrand and Castlereagh. He was a figure of a similar calibre, and I can’t think offhand of too many post-Vienna statesmen fitting the same description.

Yet if a brilliant mind isn’t matched by a superlative character, it can keep firing blanks — those with a blinding flash and deafening noise, but blanks nonetheless. No one illustrates this simple observation as vividly as Henry Kissinger.

Granted, anyone involved in diplomatic wheeling and dealing will sometimes wheel into moral cul-de-sacs. It would be naïve to expect any statesman to avoid immorality completely. But immorality isn’t the same as amorality, and this is another point Kissinger illustrates.

He took pride in his mastery of realpolitik, sacrificing moral principles and intellectual convictions for the sake of achieving immediate practical results. In fact, he was so good at it that one could legitimately wonder if he genuinely had any moral principles or held any intellectual convictions.

While it would be silly to deny that realpolitik is an important tool of statecraft, it’s hard to ignore that it often leads to a divorce from reality for the sake of instant political gratification. It can’t be otherwise.

Global interlacing of well-nigh incompatible national interests creates such a jumble of variables that it may well be beyond any man or even any group to untangle. Hence it’s usually impossible to calculate the consequences of a foreign policy on a purely realpolitik basis.

What looks like solid reality today may well prove to be ephemeral tomorrow and its exact opposite the day after. Suddenly the amoral pragmatism of yesteryear stops looking pragmatic while still remaining amoral.

Conversely, what at first looks like foolhardy obtuseness based on nebulous principles (all principles are nebulous to the realpolitik set) may well produce the best practical results.

If you look at Kissinger’s greatest putative triumphs, détente with the Soviet Union, SALT 1, reconciliation with China, ending the Vietnam War, peace between Egypt and Israel, only the last one can in hindsight be judged as a qualified success.

Détente was negotiated at a time when the US had an overwhelming strategic superiority over the Soviet Union. A principled stance, later adopted by Ronald Reagan, could have made “the evil empire” come apart at the seams at least a decade earlier.

Instead, Kissinger’s policy of appeasement led to a massive transfer of capital and technologies to the Soviet Union, which enabled her almost to achieve military parity with NATO in the 1970s.

SALT 1 also contributed to that development. It was strictly an act of PR grandstanding because everyone, including Kissinger, knew the Soviets would cheat. The ‘real’ in realpolitik was effectively replaced with ‘virtual’. The US public had its fears of nuclear bombs allayed, while the Soviets surreptitiously kept stockpiling those bombs sky high under the cover of SALT.

China provided another reason for Kissinger to give himself a contortionist pat on the back. He secretly travelled there in 1971 to set up what was billed as a historic meeting between Nixon and Mao, followed by a thaw in the frosty relations between the two countries.

Kissinger’s idea was to use China as a counterbalance to Soviet power in the Cold War. To that end, the US created a communist monster now challenging her power all over the globe – this without forestalling the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which cost the US billions to reverse. Aggressive Muslim gangs, trained and armed by Americans, sprang up as a result, a problem still with us today.

In 1973 Kissinger negotiated the Paris Accords, which again everyone knew was delivering South Vietnam to the communists. People who always insist on ending wars ought to remember that surrender is a guaranteed way of doing so – even if it’s passed off as a diplomatic coup.

The Nobel Committee hastily awarded its Peace Prize to Kissinger and his Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho. The latter had the decency to turn it down; he knew that what he had signed was America’s capitulation, not a peace treaty. No such compunctions for Kissinger, even though he knew it too. A year and a half later, South Vietnam was turned into a giant concentration camp.

Kissinger set out to emulate his idols, the stars of the Vienna Congress, who created a blueprint for lasting peace in Europe. But their compact lasted a century; his, only a fraction of that period, if that. However, I doubt the long-term failure of Kissinger’s short-term achievements made a dent in his vain self-regard. He knew he was a genius, and he didn’t care who else knew it.

Unsurprisingly, when a more principled Reagan administration took over, there was no place in it for Kissinger. And even a less confrontational George H.W. Bush left his talents unused. So did Bush’s intellectually challenged son, although he could have used any help he could get – especially since he and Kissinger agreed in their assessment of the new villain, Putin.

After Bush met Putin, he said:  “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Congratulations to Dubya: he got a sense of something that didn’t exist.

Being an academic, rather than an oilman, Kissinger put a more intellectual spin on exactly the same assessment. He saw Putin as a character out of a Dostoyevsky novel, sharing all the same “contradictions and doubts about his people.” One suspects that, if Kissinger were in charge of the US foreign policy now, Kiev would already be a regional centre in the Russian Federation – while he would be collecting another Nobel Peace Prize.

A brilliant man, no doubt. But his character flaws prevented Henry Kissinger from becoming a great one. Still, I’ll miss him, the way one misses one’s youth with all its illusions.  

6 thoughts on “Dr Strangelove, RIP”

  1. I was 8 years old when SALT I was signed. I remember thinking it wasn’t good for the U.S. as the Soviets would just lie and cheat about their end of the agreement. We all knew about the “evil empire”. I have also commented here about my feelings during Nixon’s visit to China. Still just 8 years old, I knew there was something different about the Chinese people and their leaders. But everybody wanted to play ping-pong and watch pandas.

    I remember seeing Kissinger on television and hearing his throaty declarations. He certainly was sure of what he was saying – no equivocating. I used to wonder why he suddenly disappeared from the scene of world politics.

    May he rest in peace.

  2. Kissinger was a friend of Israel and later (if less wholeheartedly) of the Ukraine, so he scores highly on both your recent tests for distinguishing good from evil.

    But I agree that there was always something not quite right about him, even when he said the right things and (less often) caused the right things to be done. He’d have made an interesting Roman Emperor.

    1. But we’re both forgetting Kissinger’s one unambiguously good work: the replacement of the elected socialist Allende by the unelected non-socialist Pinochet in Chile.

      “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” Kissinger said, according to the BBC. “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

      I agree.

      1. So do I. Characteristically, the ‘liberal’ press puts this good work into Kissinger’s debit column. Allende is depicted as a fellow liberal. Instead he was a communist militant of long standing. Years before the Second World War, he was a member of the communist kriegbund in Europe — a terrorist in today’s parlance. And at the time of his demise, Allended was a Castro puppet — and of course the darling of the kind of papers neither of us reads.

  3. Kissinger said himself that normal human morality has no place where decisions of a strategic geo-political nature need to be decided. Human morality where a person makes a decision based on good or bad considerations differs greatly compared to the “strategic geo-political” decision where you must decide between bad and bad.

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