Henry Kissinger and the American Century
By Jeremi Suri
Belknap Press, 368 pages, $27.95.
Henry Kissinger is probably going to regret the day in 1979 when he said this: “The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they continue in office.” It’s not a particularly earth-shattering observation. The implication being, of course, that a leader’s past — his family background, the socioeconomic and political realities that shaped his formative years — offers a key to understanding why he acts in a certain way, and ultimately to why he holds one worldview as opposed to another. But coming out of the mouth of Kissinger, someone who has always self-consciously wrapped his past in enigma, denying that his Jewishness, his German-ness, his status as an immigrant in America ever had anything to do with the formation of his famously idiosyncratic and influential foreign policy views, it is a rare invitation — and one from a man who has always loved attention, but not scrutiny.
Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, takes up the challenge in his new biography, “Henry Kissinger and the American Century.” He even uses Kissinger’s quote as his epigraph, picking up the thrown gauntlet. The resulting book, refreshingly short compared with the thousands of pages devoted to the man — most of which he has written himself — is both unusual and fascinating.
Using deconstruction, mixed with some psychoanalysis and a bit of intellectual history, Suri tries to arrive at Kissinger’s political philosophy by figuring out his “deep structure,” the various elements of his past that formed his psychology and his outlook. If what you want is a straight accounting of the facts of Kissinger’s life, try Walter Isaacson’s biography, which is still the definitive account, or Robert Dallek’s excellent new book covering the years of Kissinger’s collaboration with Nixon. Suri is not interested in whom Kissinger met with as national security advisor (from 1969 to 1973) or secretary of state (1973 to 1977), when he met them or even the minute details of what was discussed. In fact, he spends few pages on Kissinger’s actual time in office. What he wants to get to the bottom of is why Kissinger is Kissinger, or, as he puts it, “I focus not on what Kissinger did, but on why he did it.” Suri also tries to put the man in context, explain how the demands of the Cold War world facilitated the rise of such an outsider to American power. He wants to know “how Kissinger came to a position where he could do what he did — why so many people invested this German-Jewish immigrant with so much power.”
Henry Kissinger has been whispering into the ears of prime ministers and presidents for several decades. When you listen to the totality of what he has advised, it comes down to a simple admonition: Be flexible. Our Western democratic world, in his eyes, is an extremely fragile place. Therefore we (and by “we,” he usually means the elites) must do what is necessary to ensure its stability. For Kissinger, statesmanship is the key: setting goals that are not too idealistic, and then manipulating the proverbial sticks and carrots.
Of course, by making stability the supreme objective, many other principles — like human rights, democracy and the rule of law — end up falling by the wayside. The world is imperfect, and Kissinger does not try to fight this imperfection. He tries to work with it, making the least harmful choice out of a field of bad options. This is the part of his legacy that has gotten him labeled a “war criminal” by some (including, famously, Christopher Hitchens). Kissinger would say, in his defense, that he is simply willing to accept lesser evils — supporting repressive regimes in Chile or South Africa during his time in office, for example — for the sake of maintaining a greater peace and balance in the world.
How did he arrive at this cold pragmatism? Suri turns to the one place where Kissinger himself has always told us not to look for clues: his childhood in a small town in Bavaria. When Kissinger was 10, the Nazis came to power, and Kissinger experienced his world collapsing around him. Five years later, he and his brother, along with their parents, were forced into uncertain exile in America. The searing experience becomes the keystone for understanding Kissinger’s subsequent political philosophy. He observed firsthand how easily the democratic institutions of Weimar Germany crumbled and how nobody stood up against the ensuing chaos, and it was something the boy internalized, making it difficult, Suri writes, “for Kissinger to feel confident in the resilience of democratic institutions when confronted by extreme internal and external threats.”
It is from this intuitive wariness and skepticism about democracy’s ability to sustain itself that the young German Jewish refugee will come to be guided by the sense that the world needs a strong America — led by versatile statesmen — that will stand as a bulwark against the disorder and disequilibrium that he experienced as a child.
Once he arrives at this essential truth about Kissinger, Suri then brings his subject down to earth. Given how hard Kissinger has tried to obscure his origins and make himself and his ideas seem exceptional, it’s a little jarring to realize how much he is simply the result of historical circumstances that shaped not only him but millions of others of his generation, as well. After all, how many political creatures who came of age when Kissinger did had their viewpoints forged during World War II and rose to power through the various government and academic apparatuses created by the Cold War? Suri makes a strong argument that the trans-Atlantic alliances between Europe and America cemented in the postwar period provided an opportunity for a cosmopolitan German-born Jew to present himself as a translator and a connector between the old world and the new. Someone needed to fulfill this role, and Kissinger, the industrious networker, found it fit him perfectly.
In other ways, though, Kissinger found himself playing the part of the court Jew, the man behind the scenes, whose power came not of his own making but from his connection to an establishment leader. When Kissinger joined Nixon’s administration in 1969 as national security advisor, there was no doubt that he was beholden to the president — a blatantly antisemitic man who periodically called him “Jew boy” to his face. Only when Kissinger made a name for himself — by emerging as a charismatic figure on the world stage and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the process — did he gain a value that made him indispensable to Nixon during Watergate and impossible to discard once Ford took over the presidency.
Of course, it’s Kissinger we’re talking about here, so Suri cannot escape making a final judgment on this most divisive of public figures. He has no forgiveness for all that is cold and calculating about Realpolitik, damning Kissinger for being “profoundly ignorant of the effects of his policies.” But Suri also does not fully condemn him. “He is not a war criminal,” he wants us to know. Suri goes even further, pointing to the mess of the Iraq War in an effort to throw his subject’s ideology into sharp relief. Kissinger’s ideas of balance and stability, Suri argues, never would have allowed him to pursue a war for the idealistic reasons of spreading democracy. The war has failed so measurably that the Kissingerian model — of engaging with the world through diplomacy and through the delicate use of rewards and punishments — now seems a desirable antidote to Bush’s ideological crusade. This is Suri’s final proof that, for better or worse, Kissinger’s foreign policy approach is still the best one around, and he adds that “no strategic vision for managing the Middle East and other regions of the world has emerged in its place.”
One can probably do no better than Suri’s portrait of Kissinger’s mind. Still, in his final pages, explanation tips too far into exculpation. Kissinger took the most important lesson of the 20th century — that dogma and unrelenting principle only lead to destruction — and he applied it to the practice of foreign policy, an act that was, as Suri writes, “revolutionary.” But the 20th century also taught us something that Kissinger, with all his limitations, never learned. “Stability” at any price — military strongmen, apartheid, or the trampling of human and civil rights — is not worth it. And worse, it is this type of “stability,” as we’ve seen all too clearly in the 21st century, that will come back to bite you when you least expect it.
Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a book about the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.
This story "Kissinger, Unearthed" was written by Gal Beckerman.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman