Unlikely Heir Obama Returns to Kissinger's Realpolitik

Henry Kissinger, the hawkish national security advisor to Nixon who popularized realpolitik, turns 90 this week. Few would have expected President Obama to pick up his mantle, but the erstwhile idealist resembles Kissinger more every day.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, shown here with his wife Nancy, remains an influential public figure.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, shown here with his wife Nancy, remains an influential public figure.

Foto: Brendan Smialowski/ Getty Images

When Henry Kissinger was at the height of his power, the US media dubbed then President Richard Nixon's national security advisor "the true president." At the time, he was traveling around the world at such a breakneck pace that journalists speculated that there must be five Kissingers (four doubles and one real). Around that time, a reporter asked him a question: Why are Americans so fascinated by a young man from Fürth in the German region of Franconia, who fled the Nazis at the age of 15?

Kissinger replied: "I've always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse."

At Harvard University, the German émigré wrote his senior thesis about Austrian statesman Count Clemens von Metternich. Some 388 pages long, it prompted the university to introduce a page limit. His theory was that while Metternich might have temporarily destroyed the beginnings of liberalism in 19th-century Europe with the help of his secret diplomacy, he also preserved the balance of powers.

Kissinger, who celebrates his 90th birthday on May 27, has more in common with Metternich than he would like to admit, after having made his mark in history with a number of cool diplomatic strokes. He balanced the fragile equilibrium of horror among the nuclear powers in the Cold War. And, to his credit, Kissinger's secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese communists secured the relatively orderly withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

Kissinger secured Mao's China as a strategic partner and practiced Bismarckian realpolitik in Latin America. In the Kissinger system, unrest was more dangerous than injustice, and a functioning balance of power was more important than human rights.

His policies, however, often collided with America's self-image. The country likes to think it can save the world, if not actually reinvent it. But it also wants to be loved, a wish Kissinger neither could nor wanted to fulfill.

Realism without Moral Scruples

Before Washington's withdrawal from Vietnam, Kissinger, together with President Nixon, had Cambodia bombed practically back into the Stone Age. He also resisted an early end to the war for a long time, and wrote to Nixon: "Withdrawal of US troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public: The more US troops come home, the more will be demanded."

Kissinger supported Chilean General Augusto Pinochet, which helped bring about an economic recovery, but Pinochet also proved to be a brutal dictator. Kissinger's diplomacy opened up China, but it also made Beijing's nomenclatura policies socially acceptable. He still openly admires what he sees as China's wisdom today.

For such realism without moral scruples, he was chided even in the United States  as a manipulative monster with a German accent, and even as a war criminal who "lies like other people breathe," as investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote.

After Nixon, American presidents, instead of citing the national interest, preferred once again to invoke America's God-given mission, most notably former President George W. Bush and his neo-conservatives. They even wanted to free the world from the "axis of evil." But the neo-cons are history, while Kissinger's realism, stemming from the 19th century, still remains valid, as President Barack Obama , the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, demonstrates today.

During the election campaign, Democratic candidate Obama portrayed himself as an idealistic "citizen of the world." But he was hardly in office before he began pursuing the maxim that idealists give nice speeches, while realists shape policy.

In this fashion, the president turned himself into a lone judge who personally approves which Islamist is to be killed with a drone attack somewhere in the world. He launched a new era of conflict with massive investments in "cyber war." And Obama prosecutes betrayers of state secrets even more relentlessly than any of his predecessors.

The president has coldly recognized that war-weary Americans prefer progress at home instead of elsewhere in the world. This is one reason he has threatened Syrian dictator Bashar Assad while following up with little in the way of action. Not unlike Kissinger's approach in Chile, Obama looks the other way when America's allies, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, subjugate their people, or when China harasses dissidents. US author Jacob Heilbrunn calls this approach "neo-Kissingerism," and notes: "Obama may even start speaking about foreign affairs with a German accent."

Kissinger is a realist with a weakness: He is vain, and he was never indifferent to how other people felt about him. It must make him jealous to see that Obama is so popular in many parts of the world, despite his cold-blooded actions. But as he turns 90, Kissinger probably relishes the notion that the president resembles him more and more every day.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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