Monday, December 4, 2023
It's Monday, December 4, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Massive Legacy of Henry Kissinger: Realpolitik and Its Influence on America's Foreign Policy in the 20th Century
There is so much for us to consider this week. Later in the week, we're going to discuss what is going on right now in Israel, as Israel has gone back on the offensive against Hamas in Gaza, and for good reason, on very good grounds. We're going to be discussing that and the meaning of those events, and we're going to be putting it in the larger context of how American Evangelicals and others are thinking through some of these issues. But most pressing coming out of the weekend is a consideration of two lives that were very consequential, and a third that is very controversial. Now as we start, that's a good distinction to make. There are lives that are consequential and there are lives that are controversial.
Most consequential lives are controversial in some sense, but some controversial lives are not really consequential on the grand stage of history. So we're going to be talking about Henry Kissinger, the late Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and we're going to be talking about the former US representative from the third district of New York, George Santos, or at least we think it's George Santos, but we're going to have to wait to talk about that one. First, we're going to talk about one of the most consequential lives of our times, and that will be the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. And in order to understand this, we have to look at some of the biggest worldview issues and world events of the 20th century. But the big thing to remember is that Henry Kissinger, who lived through most of the decades of the 20th century, lived through the first two decades of the 21st, dying at age 100.
He had been out of government for 46 years by the time he died, but he was never without influence. But we do need to take the measure of Henry Kissinger and understand at least some of the big worldview issues that are at stake. First of all, he was born on May the 27th, 1923 in Fürth, Bavaria, and his name when he was born was Heinz Alfred Kissinger. It was later changed when the family came to the United States. Henry Kissinger was then 15. It was then changed to Henry Alfred Kissinger. But when he was born there in Bavaria, he was born into a rather secular Jewish home at a time of great foment in world history. And of course, 1923 places his birth in Bavaria in Germany between the two World Wars, and that was a tumultuous time in Germany, and as we know, it was an explosive time as well.
Kissinger could later remember Adolf Hitler's election as chancellor of Germany. He was then a nine-year-old boy. The year was 1933, and before long, the Kissinger family would have to flee to the United States, or we should say eventually to the United States where they settled in the New York area. When you look at so many of the big worldview and ideological crises of the 20th century, so many of them emerged in Germany and especially in the first decades of the 20th century. There were huge issues that continued throughout the rest of the century, most importantly the Cold War. But before you could get to the Cold War, and that meant the great ideological and military and historical conflict between the United States and our allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other hand, before you can get to the Cold War, you have to deal with the immensity of World War I and World War II, and you have to understand that Germany was in a political tinderbox during that entire time, and there was no one more vulnerable in Germany than a Jewish family.
And that explains why the family, because it did have access to the means to leave Germany, it did leave. Coming through London, as so many others did, eventually coming to the United States and settling there in New York, Henry Kissinger grew up not in a world of privilege and power, but in a world of ethnic marginality. He eventually attended George Washington High School there in New York. He was working as a teenage boy in a shaving brush factory during the day. He went on attending school at night. That is after his first year of high school. He then went to City College of New York, and that, by the way, was one of the pragmatic metropolitan Jewish experiences of America at the time. This was a city college system in which a young Jewish boy without much in terms of financial means could actually gain an education. He majored in accounting, by the way, the City College of New York.
He was a part-time student. He continued to work in the shaving brush factory, but his college experience was interrupted by World War II. In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Army as a private. At that point, Heinz Alfred Kissinger, who had become Henry Alfred Kissinger, was sent as a United States GI to what would later become Allied-occupied Germany. His skills in understanding the German language, very convenient in terms of what the American military needed. But they also came to understand that this was an unusually intelligent young man and he was basically put into what can only be defined as military intelligence and some of the most sensitive times, especially in the immediate aftermath of World War II. He came back to the United States, he came back to New York, but eventually went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and with the means now available to him, the support, as an American GI, he entered Harvard College. He graduated in 1950 summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
He wrote an undergraduate thesis, and this tells you a great deal about where this very intelligent young man was headed. His undergraduate thesis was entitled, "The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant." By the way, some historians note that his undergraduate thesis was about 400 pages long, some say even more than that, and it brought about the change in Harvard's undergraduate policy that none of these student theses at that level could exceed 35,000 words. That's a lot less than 400 pages. But it was really clear that Henry Kissinger had a very expansive mind and he eventually stayed at Harvard, eventually earning a PhD, writing his doctoral dissertation, entitled, "Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium: (a Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich)."
Now here's what's most important, Henry Kissinger was already very much attuned to some of the biggest worldview crises of the 20th century. He also was a part of the great military crisis in the middle of the 20th century known as World War II. But let's remind ourselves that in the aftermath of World War II, when the Soviet Union began to continue occupying territory and Europe was divided between the East and the West, the ideological conflict which would last for decades known as the Cold War between constitutional democracy or democratic self-government on the American side with our allies and Soviet communism with the USSR and its allies on the other side, this became the great conflict. The big question was, how should the United States relate to the Soviet Union, if at all, how should it relate to other world actors, and how can it preserve its own national interests? What's most important is to recognize that Henry Kissinger went back to the 19th century and a European idea that became encapsulated as realpolitik, which meant reality or realism in politics.
This was contrasted with idealism. And so, Henry Kissinger basically was buying into an understanding of the way the world works that was based upon what was claimed to be a realistic understanding of how nations act. Now, the most important thing to recognize in that is that realpolitik is non-ideological by its own claim. It's not committed to any particular ideology. It doesn't say that one ideology is superior to the other. It simply says that where you have power conflicts, then you better understand how power works and it will be to your advantage to make certain that it works for you in your national interests. The juxtaposition between realism as was embodied by Henry Kissinger and idealism, as was primarily represented in a few political characters, but also many academics and many in the media, it was a real clash of worldviews and a real clash of foreign policy strategies.
And yet the most important thing to recognize is that Kissinger's realpolitik, or his realism in foreign policy basically was the mainstream American foreign policy position from the time of at least World War II throughout the end of the 20th century in one way or another to a greater or a lesser degree. But when it came to Richard Nixon being elected president in 1968, when he was looking for a foreign policy advisor and national security advisor who would fit his own understanding of the world, he reached out to someone who had been a protege of his political enemy. That was New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. It was Rockefeller money that basically had provided some of the support for Henry Kissinger, particularly in his doctoral work, and yet he came to the attention of Richard Nixon. And when Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969, he brought Henry Kissinger with him, making him his national security advisor, one of the most powerful positions in the White House itself.
Now when you understand the Nixon administration and the Nixon years in the White House, you understand that there was the inheritance of the entirety of the Cold War plus an endless number of complexities. But in order to understand this, let's just set the stage by remembering that at the end of World War II, especially when it came to Europe, and as we shall see by extension, the rest of the world, basically American supremacy and the victory of the Allies in World War II reset the stage, but it was basically from that point onward a main conflict between the East and the West, as represented with two polarities, Washington and Moscow. Now that Cold War dynamic which, remember, was complicated by the threat of nuclear war, it became further complicated when the so-called Third World or the array of non-allied nations, much of Africa, much of the Middle East, much of Central and South America, those countries began to line up one way or the other.
And then of course, you have to get to Southeast Asia and in particular, remember the conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, just go down the list. And so, as you look at that, you recognize that it was a battle for interest between Moscow and Washington, and that's where the idealist understanding of foreign policy basically began to take a backseat, and no one was better at putting it in the backseat than Henry Kissinger. Kissinger is known as the architect of detente, and that was a means of at least reducing the hostility between Moscow and Washington, D.C. by understanding that each of these big powers was acting in its own self-interest, and where there was a way to avoid bumping up against the other self-interest that would be to mutual advantage. But it was a real Cold War, and the United States and the USSR were going to bump up in numerous controversies, and Henry Kissinger wanted to manage them.
He wasn't seeking to bring about the end of the Soviet Union. That didn't even seem to be a possibility. He wanted to manage the relationship, so he was for such things as treaties, arms control agreements, and all the rest. But as later critics of Kissinger would say, that was not really a way of America winning the ideological confrontation. It was a way of managing the conflict. But Henry Kissinger believed that the lesson of the 20th century, or at least the first half, was that managing a conflict is far better than blowing it up. But Kissinger's realpolitik also led him to suggest that the United States should be both honest and, in its own self-interest, dishonest about the relationships it was building in its own self-interest. And that meant that Kissinger said, sometimes the United States is going to have to be allied with brutal, autocratic, totalitarian governments so long as they are our friends and not the friends of the Soviet Union, or at least friendly to us rather than unfriendly to us.
There was also the understanding there were these two big blocs as they were known. That's a borrowing from the French term. It comes down to B-L-O-C, and it meant there was a Soviet bloc and there was an American bloc, and Kissinger wanted to put as many nations at least close to the American column, if not in the American column, in terms of support and mutual agreement. But this also meant that Kissinger became something of a master of the dark arts in foreign policy, and this relates to all kinds of things that would in most situations be considered unethical. But Kissinger argued that this is a very dangerous world, and the United States is going to be involved in these things sooner or later. Better that the United States manage these affairs rather than just come in at the last minute and frankly lose our own self-interest in the midst of it.
The world's a dangerous place. That's a part of the realpolitik, Kissinger argued, and it's a dangerous place where many ideas are going to be butchered. Now, interesting, there were critics of this realpolitik and of Henry Kissinger's management of these issues. And before we get to that, we should say he became both national security advisor and US Secretary of State simultaneously, something that continued into the Ford administration. Gerald Ford's exceeding Richard Nixon after Nixon's resignation would require Kissinger to resign as national security advisor, but he continued as Secretary of State throughout the Ford administration. But going back to Henry Kissinger's critics, those critics were on both the right and the left and they were in basic agreement that Kissinger's marginalization of idealism was a dangerous thing. And so on the left, you had George McGovern, you had an incredible array of very powerful forces, particularly in academia, and they argued against the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, saying that human rights are too often sacrificed to national interests.
On the other hand, there were also very severe critics of Henry Kissinger from the right. Now, those would've included figures such as the future 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who felt the Henry Kissinger simply wanted to move the chess pieces around. He didn't understand that the point of the Cold War was to win it, not merely to manage it. So far as Reagan and the other conservatives of his era were concerned, the problem with both Nixon and Kissinger is that they were the managers of the problem with their own definition of national interests. By the way, Reagan didn't necessarily disagree with Nixon about national interest. He disagreed with Nixon about the importance of the United States and our allies winning the worldview argument against Soviet materialistic communism.
And by the way, Ronald Reagan and others on the right at the time were making the argument, which I think is not only credible but true, that the best way to protect human rights is not the platform offered by the left, but rather the platform offered by the right, which was winning the worldview conflict and establishing the expectation of democratic constitutional self-government around the world. But again, Henry Kissinger's mode was management, and he thought he could make the best progress for the United States. Remember, the Nixon administration had inherited the Vietnam conflict from the administrations of Lyndon Baines Johnson and John F. Kennedy. By the time it came to Nixon and Kissinger, it was a colossal mess, and the biggest challenge to Nixon and Kissinger was extricating the United States from that conflict with some measure of national interest intact.
But just as Kissinger and Nixon had been involved in detente with the Soviet Union, they decided some other initiatives were very important. Most significantly in terms of world history, it was Nixon's trip to China, and that, dated to 1972, was the result of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon working together as a team basically, first of all, to marginalize the Soviet Union by developing a relationship directly between the United States and communist China. Now, remember that China and the USSR, the Soviet Union, shared a commitment to communism, but this is where Kissinger's understanding along with Nixon of national interest stepped in. But the American assumption was that the Chinese communists just might see an advantage in developing a relationship with the United States at the expense of the Soviet communists, and it turned out that that was precisely true.
Now obviously, that relationship between the US and China has not gone exactly to plan, but it is interesting that one of the last acts on the world stage by Henry Kissinger was going just a matter of some weeks ago to Beijing as a guest of the Communist Party leadership there. That tells you something about how historic that 1972 visit of Nixon to China actually turned out to be. At the same time, you have again, conflict from the left and the right. On the left, there are many people who said that that simply was to ignore the human rights abuses. You also had critics on the right, such as, I'll mention again, Ronald Reagan, who said the big problem with Nixon's visit to China is that China got much more out of it as a communist regime than the United States got out of it.
And again, Reagan wanted communism confronted and defeated, not split in two, as if that represented some great progress. But Kissinger was eventually also able to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War with North Vietnamese authorities in the famous Paris Peace talks, but none of that has gone down well in history. It didn't go down well in a matter of months, perhaps even a matter of weeks. Nonetheless, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the effort. However, from the left, there have been howls going all the way back to the 1970s that Henry Kissinger was a war criminal. Now, he did hang around with war criminals, no doubt, but Henry Kissinger, who had also been involved as a Jewish survivor of the Nazi years in Germany, and as an American GI who was involved in military intelligence and war crimes trials there in Germany, he understood what he said was a crucial distinction between those war criminals and frankly, the kind of rather routine war criminals who are a part of a fallen, sinful world day by day.
The amazing thing is that even as Kissinger's job in the national government and as Secretary of State came to an end with the end of the Ford administration, that's 46 years ago, he remained one of the most influential figures in foreign policy all the way through his death, just a matter of days ago, last Wednesday at age 100.
Secular Moral Realism Is Not Enough: The Theological Problem Behind Henry Kissinger’s Realism
One final worldview consideration here, when you look at Henry Kissinger and his realpolitik or realism in foreign policy, as I said, that was based upon his secular Jewish background, his experiences both in Germany between the war and later during the war, and his aspirations to be very much a part of the United States. But it is important to recognize that in American theology at about the same time, there was an understanding of moral realism, and again, that was as contrasted with a kind of philosophical idealism.
There was a moral realism that was asserted that wasn't entirely unhelpful or unhealthy. The call was for a more realistic understanding of the dark side of humanity, and of course, it turns out that the Christian doctrine of sin is the only adequate explanation for the dark side of humanity. Many of those moral realists actually became theological liberals, that was another problem. But nonetheless, the realism part of moral realism is very much a part of Orthodox biblical Christianity.
A Consequential Voice on the Supreme Court: The Mixed Legacy of Sandra Day O’Connor
But next, we're going to have to turn to another consequential life that also came to an end, this time at age 93. Former US Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor died on Friday at age 93. Sandra Day O'Connor was born in Texas, but she grew up on a massive ranch in Arizona. She was a libertarian in many ways, which was fitting in terms of the socio context.
So many people in the West are more libertarian than those in the East, but nonetheless, she grew up very much as a citizen there in Arizona, riding horses, shooting coyotes as a young girl. At age 16, she went to Stanford University, and there she excelled. She eventually also graduated from Stanford Law School at a time when very few women graduated from that kind of law school. She went back with her husband to Arizona. He also spent time in the legal service of the American military. But nonetheless, when they eventually settled as a family in Arizona, she was very anxious to be about the process of getting back to the law. She took a break of some years to raise three boys, and then she went into politics in Arizona, eventually becoming a very crucial leader in the Republican Party in the Arizona legislature.
Later, she would become a judge. She would become basically what in most states would be a state district court judge, and then she joined the Arizona Court of Appeals. When he was running for president for the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan made a pledge that his first Supreme Court nomination, were there to be a vacancy, would be a woman. And then Justice Potter Stewart retired from the bench and there was a position open, and Ronald Reagan was faced with a campaign promise that many of his senior staff did not want him to keep. And it wasn't as much that they didn't want a woman on the court as the fact that they did very much want a known conservative constitutional authority on the court, and they had a long list of those. There wasn't a woman on the list. One of the strict constructionists, the more conservative justices on the court, one of the two votes against Roe v. Wade in 1973 was William Rehnquist, who would eventually become chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.
And Rehnquist was also from Arizona. He had gone to law school with Sandra Day O'Connor. It is thought that he is the one who gave the name to Ronald Reagan. Eventually, President Reagan announced that he would nominate Sandra Day O'Connor to be an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. There was controversy immediately, very little of it about the fact that she was a woman, very much because she was undeclared on the issue of abortion. And conservatives had learned, going all the way back to the Supreme Court Roe very. Wade decision in 1973, that quiet's not enough. They wanted someone who would be assured to be a vote for the reversal of Roe v. Wade when the opportunity came. Ronald Reagan would note in his diary in July of 1981 that Sandra Day O'Connor had told him that she found abortion to be "personally repugnant".
That was good enough for Reagan, and in that sense, President Reagan made a dramatic mistake. Anti-abortion leaders, pro-life leaders were very clear in 1981 that they did not think that Sandra Day O'Connor would be a safe pro-life vote, and indeed she was not. When the court had the grand opportunity to reverse Roe v. Wade in the Casey decision in the early 1990s, Sandra Day O'Connor became one of the votes against reversing Roe. She did allow for some restrictions beyond what Roe had allowed, but there is no doubt that her central legacy in this score was keeping Roe very much in force and indeed making it appear that it would be unlikely that Roe would ever be reversed. On issues related to affirmative action and many other things, she actually was a moderating vote that ended up giving the victory to the liberals. She was not a liberal in the same sense as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would later become on the court, the second woman nominated to the court.
But she was not a conservative, she wasn't a strict constructionist, she wasn't an originalist. She believed that it was the role of the judge to look at the evidence and understand the social needs and make an informed decision which would be as limited as possible. Now, that's not a ridiculous idea of the court if the court is to operate as a legislature. But of course, in our system of government, the court is not to act as a legislature. The judiciary is not in theory to be about measuring public opinion and the limits of the politically possible. The role of the court is to adjudicate things according to the text of the law, and that is exactly the conservative argument that would eventually lead to the reversal of Roe v. Wade in 2022 rather than in 1992. By that time, Sandra Day O'Connor would've retired from the court. She did indeed retire from the court in 2006.
That was a complicated story as well. Her husband apparently was already suffering from what would later be diagnosed as dementia. She believed that she needed to spend more time with him. She couldn't stay on the court, but she didn't want the court to have two vacancies at the same time. The chief justice at the time, William Rehnquist, was suffering from cancer, but he told her he wasn't going to retire, so she decided that she would. But just weeks after she announced her retirement, the chief justice died, meaning that there were two positions open on the court, which is exactly what she had hoped to avoid. Sandra Day O'Connor, by the way, during the time she was on the court, often ruled in ways that pleased conservative. She was often an additional vote for a conservative decision, but on the most crucial issues, she often ended up on the other side. The point is that she acted according to her own judgment, and that is actually not what conservative jurisprudence is about.
When it came to issues of religious liberty, there are many who would say she was very helpful to the cause of religious liberty, at least in some cases. But again, she was a moderating voice, so it's very hard to tell at times how far she would've taken an argument on her own. And when it came to parental rights, her impact on the court was decisively for parents. So again, that's a very good thing. It's a reminder to us that when these judges are found in the middle, that means that often they're in agreement with us and often they're in disagreement with us. But the unpredictability of that is based in the fact that if you have someone who believes the role of the judge is to make informed and right decisions, given the realities of the time and the judge's own understanding of what is right, then you're going to end up with someone who's doing something very different than a conservative who believes that the role of the judge is to apply the law exactly as the law is written, exactly as the law or the Constitution is meant to be understood.
Sadly, Sandra Day O'Connor would also eventually suffer from dementia. She died last Friday, December the 1st, 2023, and she will be long remembered in history as the first woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court. I began by saying we'd talk about two consequential lives and then a controversial life, but time doesn't allow us to talk today about George Santos. The consequential wins out over the controversial. We'll get to now former Congressman George Santos tomorrow, but in the meantime, let's remember that there is much wisdom to be learned by looking at consequential lives, including the lives of Henry Kissinger and Sandra Day O'Connor.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com.
You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.