A response to the recent article in National Interest, The Case for Kissinger by Jacob Heilbrunn, as well as the paper by Waltz, Kenneth N. (2000). Structural Realism after the Cold War. International Security, 25(1), 5–41. doi:10.1162/016228800560372
In 2020, realism, with its emphasis on international anarchy and a competitive rather than cooperative system of power seems more applicable that at any time for the past several decades. International organizations have broken down under the weight of public corruption and peddling donor state interests instead of neutrality. Free trade is in question as cheating and retributive tariff regimes are on the rise rather than in decline. Hegemons like the PRC have rejected the international order and the rules in exchange for the imposition of their own will and a new set of norms “with Chinese characteristics,” namely absolutist non-interventionism, ruling through force rather than through mandate, and buying legitimacy through diplomatic deals underpinned by the availability of cash or loans.
The PRC epitomizes using strength to impose their will, power and advantage for their own race over moral considerations, and the truth of international anarchy where international court rulings on the South China Sea were simply ignored and left uninforced as China was left unimpeded in constructing militarized artificial islands in foreign maritime territory.
However, there should be a very large question over the legacy of Kissinger and whether his form of realism, which was exceedingly unideological led the United States and the world towards increased stability or led the very foundations for the new breakdown in the international order we see today.
Kissinger was an extremely adept and skillful statesman, with the word effective being an understatement, but only at achieving the goals he set for himself. However, his blunders in judgement, lack of foresight, and the precedent created by his missteps have created the world today, and made America and the world less stable, and more multipolar.
Kissinger was an America, but he was neither a democrat, nor an anti-communist, he was a pragmatist to the extreme whose very ends were crafted based on what was reasonable, but not towards any ideology other than short-term pragmatism.
Waltz questions democratic peace theory, and with some reason, though to that point it is not clear. There are few reasonable people left who question the normative value of democracy and its promotion abroad, and one only need look to Kissinger’s pragmatic choices to see what the consequences of collusion and appeasement have summed up to.
Kissinger’s claimed emnity towards communism must have been equally felt towards right-wing authoritarianism after his brushes with fascism during WWII and in his experience as a first generation Jew in America after the Holocaust. Yet, Waltz quotes Kissinger as scoffing at democracy when the ‘wrong’ leader was elected, i.e. leftists, saying, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people (9),” before undermining Allende and ushering in decades of bloody authoritarianism.
Kissinger was no more resolute towards communism. Weakness in Vietnam led to its fall and reunification under communism. This itself was not particularly consequential in the distribution of political power except in the hedging of the Soviet Union against China. What this failure did was set a precedent whose repercussions would echo for decades, regarding American resolve, on a deeper level demonstrating that popular resistance in a democratic country to prolonged conflict could undermine governmental support for security operations, even it that threatened long-term national interests. Shades of this failure have colored American operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now affect the calculus in regions where America has considered intervening such as Syria.
Detente with China was Kissinger’s worst blunder of all. While he is a scholar of history and understood statecraft, he fundamentally misunderstood the intentions of China in its rise and failed to predict that the next generations of leaders, while not colonial in the sense that the USSR was seeking to export communism, instead sought to export a more subversive and less obvious form of ideological diffusion, that of “Chinese” international norms and rules backed by a nuclearized and and indigenized military complex that are already threatening US military alliances in place since the end of WWII.