The Classical Realist: Robert D. Kaplan Says History Will Validate Henry Kissinger
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Switzerland
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Statesman. Nobel Prize laureate. Alleged war criminal. Henry Kissinger is a man who arouses fierce condemnation in his critics and fervent defense in his supporters. How he is remembered depends largely on whom you ask. Fortunately, you won't have to ask Stratfor Chief Geopolitical Analyst Robert D. Kaplan -- he recently published an article entitled In Defense of Henry Kissinger in The Atlantic, where he has been a foreign correspondent for almost three decades.
Kaplan's career has brought him face to face with political personages and power brokers the world over. So it comes as little surprise that Kaplan counts Kissinger, who turns 90 this month, as a close friend. But Kaplan's treatise in The Atlantic is informed less by his affection for the former statesman than it is on his accomplishments. Measuredly he writes, "To be uncomfortable with Kissinger is … only natural. But to condemn him outright verges on sanctimony, if not delusion. Kissinger has, in fact, been quite moral -- provided, of course, that you accept the Cold War assumptions of the age in which he operated."
That line goes to the heart of geopolitics. Kissinger's choices, according to Kaplan, were a byproduct of necessity -- namely, the Cold War. Like all decision-makers, Kissinger was constrained by realities beyond his control, particularly in Vietnam, where enviable policy options were hard to come by. Kaplan estimates that Kissinger operated under the auspices of American self-interest, and self-interest, after all, is a fundamental tenet of geopolitics. History thus will probably remember him more kindly later than it does now, for in geopolitics, results often takes years, even decades, to validate the decisions that precede them.
To support his claims, Kaplan compares Kissinger to two former British foreign secretaries whose decisions, while reviled during their respective postings, were later validated by history. In the early 1800s, Viscount Castlereagh helped allow the Bourbon dynasty in France to be restored -- much to the ire of his fellow Britons -- but was also instrumental in defeating Napoleon and in negotiating the treaty that prevented Napoleonic-level violence in Europe for decades. Some years later, Lord Palmerston was harshly criticized at times for a foreign policy agenda that supported foreign rebellions, even though they served British interests. But it was his agenda that guided the United Kingdom as it evolved from a quasi-empire to full-on, global empire. As Kaplan writes, "Decades passed before Palmerston's accomplishments as arguably Britain's greatest diplomat became fully apparent."
Through it all Kaplan is careful to keep Kissinger, and his legacy, in perspective. He doesn't claim his decisions to be morally superior; rather, he praises Kissinger for having the fortitude to make morally compromising decisions that affected millions of lives. For Kissinger is a classical realist, which, according to Kaplan, is "emotionally unsatisfying but analytically timeless."
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