Though you wouldn’t know it from my social media feed, where the prevailing sentiment since Wednesday night has been glee over the long-awaited death of Henry Kissinger, the former national security adviser and secretary of state remained beloved to the end among the people whose opinions mattered to him. He made it to 100 this past summer, and his birthday party at the New York Public Library was attended by, among others, Larry Summers, Robert Kraft, Michael Bloomberg, Samantha Power, Eric Schmidt, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and current Secretary of State Tony Blinken. The event was closed to the public and not recorded, but the guest list alone makes it a fitting tribute to the central value Kissinger spent his long career cultivating: proximity to power at any moral cost.
Kissinger’s many admirers see him as he always portrayed himself: an intellectual, a scholar, a prolific writer, above all a man of great and consequential ideas. While he certainly didn’t lack for academic credentials, this gives a misleading impression of what really drove Kissinger. In truth, he was ideologically flexible, opportunistic, and profoundly contemptuous of anything resembling sincere principle.
Consider his relationship to the neoconservative movement. Whatever else one might say about the neocons, they had a set of ideological beliefs, which coalesced in no small part in opposition to Kissinger during his tenure in the Nixon administration. Kissinger championed détente with the Soviet Union, and the neocons were for renewed confrontation; he was the cold-blooded realist and the product of a haughty German Jewish bourgeoisie that had transplanted itself to upper Manhattan months ahead of Kristallnacht, and they were pugnacious, moralistic outer-borough brawlers whose Yiddish-speaking parents had fled the Pale of Settlement. Three decades later, when the neocons had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice by launching an unprovoked and catastrophic invasion of Iraq, there were indeed realists in the GOP foreign policy establishment who urged caution—notably, Brent Scowcroft—but Kissinger endorsed the invasion and the basic neoconservative logic that underlay it. He understood instinctively where power lay at that moment.
Iraq shouldn’t be reduced to an isolated bad call. Was Kissinger’s successful effort to scuttle peace talks with North Vietnam in 1968—thus prolonging direct U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia by five years and expanding the carnage into Cambodia and Laos at horrific additional cost in life—driven by realist foreign policy considerations or by Kissinger’s cynical desire to elect Richard Nixon and thereby advance his own career? What U.S. interest was truly served by backing Pakistan’s genocidal suppression of the Bengalis, which ultimately failed to prevent Bangladeshi independence? And while Kissinger may have initially restored relations with China with the goal of undermining the Soviet Union, was the pro-Beijing lobbying that consumed the last years of his life driven by a sober assessment of the national interest or by the lucrative financial opportunities it created for him and his friends?
To call Kissinger a cynic or a hypocrite undersells it, though of course he was both. Cynics and hypocrites abound in Washington and New York, but none achieved Kissinger’s level of prestige and social cachet, attracting fawning supplicants across partisan and ideological lines. That Samantha Power, a liberal Democrat who built her entire brand on moralism in foreign policy and who defined genocide, a crime Kissinger repeatedly implicated himself in, as “a problem from hell,” sought and enjoyed Kissinger’s company says something damning about her, but that he welcomed it says something more subtly damning about him. He may have objected to her ostensible worldview and its incompatibility with his own, but he also understood that their shared ability to publicly transcend these divisions at a Yankees game was an expression of something far more potent. The true elite, they both seemed to be saying, are above such petty debates. We may not always agree on exactly which countries to bomb and when and why, but we agree that we are the ones who get to decide that, and you are not. This is the defining ethos of “the Blob,” Washington’s insular foreign policy community, for which Kissinger was the high priest and Power remains one flavor of acolyte.
Kissinger’s crimes—a nonexhaustive list would include the illegal carpet-bombings of Cambodia and Laos, the extermination campaigns in Bangladesh and East Timor, and the support for right-wing military juntas from Greece to Chile—were not obscure in Washington when they were committed, and have been revealed in ever greater detail since. It has been rare to hear Kissinger’s famous friends deny any of them; the general tendency is to sneer at the idea that ordinary citizens have the standing to bring them up. Far from blemishing his record, Kissinger’s willingness to inflict remorseless violence in the service of an abstract conception of U.S. grand strategy was precisely his appeal. George W. Bush seems at least faintly embarrassed about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives on his conscience, and the Biden administration is currently scrambling to persuade key constituencies that it doesn’t relish the thousands of Palestinian children Israel has killed in U.S.-funded airstrikes over the past two months, but Kissinger never felt the need to apologize for slaughters of even greater magnitude. How could our policy elites help but admire his swaggering, imperial impunity?
Kissinger and I did share one thing in common: a love for the board game Diplomacy, which simulates his approach to manipulating and balancing great powers against one another. As has been previously reported, I spend a lot of my time in a group chat organized around a global-scale variant of the game I co-designed; the variant is named after Klemens von Metternich, the conservative Austrian statesman who shaped the post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe and whom Kissinger consistently cited as his inspiration. My friends and rivals in the group, a motley crew of left-leaning journalists and policy wonks, all understand the appeal of treating geopolitics as a game that rewards unscrupulous and amoral behavior; where we differ from Kissinger is in confining that behavior to a harmless hobby, as opposed to inflicting it on real nations populated by living human beings.
The shared interest in Diplomacy stemmed from a shared fascination with history, especially the sort of history where powerful men impose their will via powerful states. Earlier this week, I finished Gold and Iron, the late Fritz Stern’s 1977 joint biography of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and his Jewish banker and close informal adviser, Gerson von Bleichröder, whose financial and diplomatic know-how Bismarck employed in building the Second German Empire and establishing its globe-spanning foreign relations. Bismarck was also one of Kissinger’s personal heroes, and reading about his long correspondence with Bleichröder, it’s hard not to notice parallels to Nixon’s relationship with Kissinger. Like Bleichröder, Kissinger tolerated his political patron’s antisemitism without complaint, placing his own advancement ahead of any kind of tribal loyalty or sentiment. And like Bleichröder, he accrued great rewards for doing so—honors, social clout, wealth, and the power to shape the world.
But Bleichröder was ultimately condemned from birth to be an outsider in Germany, never fully embraced no matter how obsequiously he served. The German-born Kissinger encountered no such obstacle in the postwar United States—he was welcomed, celebrated, paid tribute to, and sought after for advice by half a century’s worth of presidents. In his obsessive mastery of his own public image; in his eagerness to share a stage with anyone who seemed to matter; in his zealous personal ambition, his total lack of shame about the human cost of that ambition, and above all how richly his ambition and shamelessness were rewarded, right up to the moment of his death, Kissinger was, as Greg Grandin has argued, the quintessential American.
Ultimately that’s why all the VIPs wanted to celebrate with him in his 100th year. Had Kissinger been a true ideologue, committed to principle even at the risk of failure and disappointment, he wouldn’t have carried the same aura. The point of associating oneself with Kissinger wasn’t to express specific support for, say, wiretapping American journalists or disappearing Argentine dissidents—it was to present oneself as above caring either way about such things. Kissinger was a model of the pursuit of power and status for their own sake. He’s gone now, but those who regard him as an aspirational figure will be with us for decades to come.