Henry Kissinger (1923-2023)



Kissinger was a scholar, but also a statesman, propagandist of conservative ideology, a calculating and intriguing state official, a careerist and, later, advisor to several presidents

“If there is a God, Cardinal Richelieu will have many accounts to give. If not… well, his life was successful.” (phrase attributed to Pope Urban VIII, upon the death of Cardinal Richelieu).

“From European history we know that every time treaties envisaging a new disposition of forces were signed, these treaties were called peace treaties… despite being signed for the purpose of portraying the new elements of the coming war” (Henry Kissinger , Diplomacy, P. 393).

Henry Kissinger was a scholar. His first book was a typical thesis of a rigorous academic historian and extensively based on primary sources. However, he was still a statesman, a propagandist of conservative ideas, a calculating and intriguing state official, a careerist and, later, an advisor to several presidents and author of popular books on diplomacy.

How to compose these dimensions in a single individual? After all, it is impossible not to see him as Richard Nixon's Secretary of State responsible for genocidal wars such as Vietnam. Was he just a realist? An emulation of a Cardinal Richelieu?

In his academic training he was marked by the Spenglerian idea of ​​the decadence of the West, but he rejected what was inevitable in it. Still, after the end of the Cold War he wondered, uncertainly and between the lines, whether the United States had lost leadership of world values ​​and whether it should not redefine its national interests. He also rejected game theory, the prevailing positivism of his time and rational choice that does not take moral values ​​into account. He denied the principle of causality in history, objective laws and determinism of any kind.[I]

However, no one was willing to fight more wars than him, engineer coups d'état or invade other countries. He defended Western democracy by supporting dictators, saying that all these contradictions were subject to a universal logic that translated into a strategy: defending itself from the “threat of communism” that had emerged in 1917 with the Russian Revolution.

The ambiguity disappears when, paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci, we realize that in his politics we find his “philosophy” endowed with universalist pretensions: a deep-rooted belief in the superiority of Europe and the values ​​inherited from the founding fathers of the United States. Like Machiavelli, he is also immersed in the struggles of his time and does not create disinterested political treatises. Of course, his work has a different meaning from the Florentine secretary's books, simply because it aims to preserve a framework of international force relations and not to create a new international arrangement to make a national State viable. Henry Kissinger writes like an armed prophet.

In his main work, The restored world (1957) it is possible to see that his biggest problem was never an innocent academic investigation into the world convulsed by the French Revolution or the resigned figure of his idol Metternich, the chancellor of the Austrian empire. All of his thinking is focused on the historical reconstruction of periods of international balance based on the situation in which he wrote: the so-called Cold War. We see in each reflection on history a projection, more or less explicit, of his vision of the world order in which socialism and capitalism confronted each other as existing social models.

He starts with the most classic of themes: Europe. And for an idea entirely due to the French historian François Guizot. The old continent never had a single government or a fixed and unitary identity. China had unity under one emperor. Islam had a Caliph and Europe had a Holy Roman Emperor. But this was not hereditary and was elected by seven (later nine) elector princes.

Charles V, who was closest to an idea of ​​Universal Monarchy, would actually be content with an Order in balance. Three events, for Metternich, prevented European unity: the “discoveries”, the press and the schism in the Church. Later we will remember gunpowder.

In the first case, Europeans became involved in a global company. The press shared knowledge on an unforeseen scale. The Protestant Reformation destroyed the concept of a World Order supported by the papacy and the empire.

Henry Kissinger's difficulties with the revolutionary moment in history recall Gramsci's criticisms of History of Europe by Benedetto Croce: started in 1815, with the Bourbon Restoration, it avoids the main thing: the French Revolution.

Henry Kissinger sees the Revolution as a threat, diversion, destruction and, once it has happened, with consequences that can only be controlled. Thus, it appears only as an interruption of a history forged in balance. Between the system of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and that of Vienna (1815) there was a Revolution, but it did not begin a new Era. On the contrary, it ended it. It is always a system of balance that sustains years of prosperity and peace. Revolutionary periods are interregnums marked by the “abnormality” of war.

The Peace of Westphalia was the result of the Thirty Years' War, which began with the defenestration of Prague in 1618 and ended in 1648 with that treaty.

Henry Kissinger often repeated that “man is immortal, his salvation is after (hereafter). Not the State, your salvation is now or never.”[ii] The phrase is from Cardinal Richelieu, who in the Westphalian period established the idea of reason of state, after 1848 replaced by the German word Realpolitik. He was the “Prime Minister” of France between 1624 and 1642. Far from seeking alignments based on religious faith, he coldly assessed the European balance of power and calculated his alliances based on the maintenance of French power during the Thirty Years' War. This explains the dance of coalitions between countries in different conflicts.

Spain, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire were declining to second-order powers. Poland becoming extinct. Russia (absent from the Treaty of Westphalia) and Prussia (which played an insignificant role, according to Henry Kissinger) emerged as military powers.[iii]

The change of sides was driven by circumstantial interests and from “apparent anarchy and plunder” balance emerged.

The wars of the XNUMXth century were less devastating for two reasons: firstly, due to the ability to mobilize resources without the excitement of an ideology or religion and without “popular governments” capable of provoking collective emotions; secondly, the budget was limited due to the impossibility of increasing taxes much. One could add the rudimentary nature of the technology.

In his panoramic narrative of that period, Henry Kissinger projects the role that the United States would play in the second half of the XNUMXth century in XNUMXth century England. She would be the stalwart of the European balance of power because her foreign policy did not display continental ambitions in Europe, due to her island position. Its interest was restricted to limiting the power of any continental country that aspired to become the sole power.

The English national interest was in balance and its reason of state led it to limit continental powers without desiring any conquest or territorial expansion. Thus, she collaborated to prevent the hegemony of Louis XIV in Europe and, later, that of Napoleon. England was a “moderating power”.[iv]

Once again Henry Kissinger is nothing original. The comparison that conservative liberals made between French political instability and English stability arose with the Revolution of 1789 itself. Later Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, described how the English nobility knew how to mix with their inferiors and disguise themselves as considering them as equals; and he knew how to gradually change the spirit of his institutions through practice, without destroying them.

Napoleon Bonaparte reshaped Europe. In 1806 the Holy Empire ended and its last Emperor had to elevate the Austrian archduchy to imperial dignity in order to govern the remaining territories of Austria with the same title of Emperor.

The World bequeathed by the fall of Napoleon seemed like a return to the past. At the Vienna Conference, Prussia demanded the annexation of Saxony, which was repugnant to England and Austria, so much so that the Napoleonic-era diplomat, Talleyrand, began to have an influential voice in Congress and France was readmitted to the concert of nations. On the other hand, Russia demanded an expansion that had already gone from the Dnieper to beyond the Vistula and put not only Poland at risk, but Western Europe itself.

Metternich led a conservative policy that aimed to guarantee an agreement between the powers and delay the decline of the Austrian empire, threatened in the east by the Russians and in central Europe by Prussia and by the nationalisms that emerged after the Napoleonic occupations. Prussia obtained part of Saxony, but placed on its horizon the German unity that would be formed by it much later.

Metternich, according to Henry Kissinger in The restored world, developed a rationalist thought as much as his revolutionary opponents. But for him, a world in order and without convulsions would be the product of reason and not utopian projects of social change. We can find there the matrix of contemporary reactionary thought that leads to two lineages: the conservative liberalism of the XNUMXth century and the inverted or right-wing Revolution that De Maistre inaugurated.

Metternich knew that the discoveries of the Press, gunpowder and America changed the social balance. The first circulated ideas; the second changed the relationship of forces between the offensive and the defensive; the third flooded Europe with precious metals and created new fortunes. We could add the Industrial Revolution, since it created antagonism between the middle class (Bourgeoisie) and the proletarians.

It was in the 1815th century that we came to national consciousness. Europe from 1848-XNUMX was a settlement of great powers under the sign of the Restoration: England, France, Russia, Prussia and Austria. balance of power.

Metternich's system consisted of three elements: European balance of power, internal German balance between Prussia and Austria, and a system of alliances based on the unity of conservative values.[v]

The question for Henry Kissinger was always the presence of another revolutionary power in the world: in his time the Soviet Union. A world order that was not based on ideologically compatible internal structures could not be stable. France was this power in his historian's view. Although his work was perfectly based on primary documents and very well written, his Napoleon Bonaparte was always in the shadow of Stalin or any Soviet leader.

Now, for a moment we forget that Henry Kissinger observes the world from the national interest of a power that was revolutionary. And here we find one of the flaws in his liberal thinking. He preaches ends, but does not admit means.

Once again, let us return to the example of a greater thinker: Alexis de Tocqueville. For him, all civil and political revolutions had a homeland and were limited to it. Not the French Revolution. She is unique because she acted as if she were religious, inspired proselytism in other countries; considered the citizen in an abstract way; I wanted to replace traditional rules and customs with a simple and general norm based on reason and natural law. He finishes off his beautiful critique of the Revolution's deviations with an attack on men of letters (intellectuals): devoid of administrative practice, they created ideal plans for the complete reorganization of society. No experience tempered his enthusiasms: “Political passions were thus disguised in philosophy and political life was violently confined to literature.”[vi]

Like Marx, Tocqueville was marked by the democratic experience of the United States during the Jacksonian democracy.[vii] But while he noted the danger of demagoguery and tyranny of the masses, Marx showed how the pure form of democracy, devoid of census limitations, was nevertheless a bourgeois heavenly kingdom above earthly inequality and class struggle.

In any case, the mantra of every conservative is contained there: the Revolution is an evil because it wants to radically reorder society, aiming at a universalist utopia that can only degenerate into tyranny. But before 1789 the United States had already made its Revolution. It is true that its short-term impact has never been as global as the French one. But didn't the country's consolidation lead it in the XNUMXth century to impose its values ​​by force on a global scale?

Thomas Jefferson wrote that Americans' obligations were not limited to their own society: “We are acting for all mankind".[viii] The Monroe Doctrine, the annexation of much of Mexico, the aggressions in Latin America, and the support for military coups everywhere did not derive solely from consideration of the national interest of the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt revitalized the Monroe Doctrine by advocating the exercise of a “worldwide police power,” an expression he revisited in some of his speeches. It would not be surprising to find the same perspective applied to the Middle East in the Bush Doctrine of Preventive War. What matters is that the same confidence is found in the United States that its political values ​​are not just superior. They can be imposed on other countries by force if necessary.

Well, it was Robespierre who said that people don't like armed missionaries. This lesson Henry Kissinger never learned.

The Soviet challenge

The Russian Revolution posed a similar challenge to the French Revolution of the XNUMXth century. Although the new Soviet government did sign the Brest Litovsky Peace with Germany and against the initial views of Bukharin and Trotsky, Kissinger wrote that Soviet Russia merely combined its revolutionary crusade with Realpolitk, staying far from supporting the existing order. Interestingly, he considered the USA to be practical and idealistic at the same time and the leadership of this country as vital for the new international order of the Cold War to be justified in moral and even messianic terms. American leaders would have made unprecedented sacrifices and efforts in the name of “fundamental values ​​(…) rather than national security calculations” (p. 547). The instrumentalization of historical situations to corroborate a previously established thesis is evident. For him, the moral value of any American action is an unquestionable a priori fact; on the other hand, any revolutionary practice against that pre-established opinion is morally reprehensible in advance. The “revolutionaries” (in the negative sense he attributes to the word) are always the others…

This does not mean that Kissinger fails to recognize the intrinsic rationality of his adversary. In your work Diplomacy, he does not repeat the ideological mistake of equating Hitler and Stalin, although both were monstrous for him. The differences allow him to justify the anti-fascist alliance of the Second World War years.

The Soviet Union in the face of World War II

Poland was a state created from the spoils of the former defeated empires: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. After the Russian Revolution, the Red Army tried to expand the revolution to Warsaw, without success. Thus, Poland increasingly moved towards a government with a strong influence from the Army and an ally of the Westerners. Certainly, it could not be expected that a post-WWI reconstructed Germany would accept the Polish corridor between it and East Prussia.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and annexed it in October. On September 17, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, arguing that the Polish government did not control its territory and that it could not be subject to a border with Germany. Following the same logic, he faced the Winter War with Finland, conquering Finnish Karelia, and annexed in August 1940 the Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia[ix] and Estonia). Such a policy seemed more pragmatic than ideological to Henry Kissinger.

Stalin was associated with Richelieu when the latter allied himself with the Sultan of Turkey three centuries earlier. After all, “if ideology necessarily determined foreign policy, Hitler and Stalin would never have joined hands”[X]. How to explain the Ribbentrop – Molotov pact of August 23, 1939?

The pact was seen as a result of the Stalinist thirst for territorial conquests. Stalin would have shared Poland with Hitler, for example. When you read authors as different as Dahms or Keegan, for example, the Soviet leader appears in the same way. The reason for the pact is not explained and he is presented as a person easily deceived by Hitler, who would have betrayed him in 1941. Khrushchev's autobiography contributed to this portrait of Stalin. We will see that this is not exactly Henry Kissinger's reading.

Stalin would have dispersed his army far from his fortified borders. Well, fortified borders (as the Maginot and Mannerheim lines showed) wouldn't be very useful in that War. The agreement and occupation of part of Poland generated international criticism of the Soviet Union. On December 14, 1939, she had been expelled from the League of Nations for attacking Finland.

The Soviets explained the pact in another way. The action of France and England was not, at that time, consequently anti-German. The Munich conference was assessed by the Soviet government as an attempt at an anti-Soviet alliance. The Soviet Union called for sanctions against Germany in 1936 during the militarization of the Rhineland and condemned the Anchluss and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, while France and England accepted the facts. Western governments hoped that Germany, having occupied Subcarpathian Ukraine, would decide to invade Soviet Ukraine. Then Japan could occupy Siberia, forcing the Soviet Union to face a two-front war alone. When Hitler donated Subcarpathian Ukraine to Hungary, the reason for a war disappeared and rapprochement with the Soviets became possible.

It was possible and even likely that many Western leaders would prefer that Germany wage war against the Soviet Union and that both armies would weaken. A Soviet defeat would mean the end of the internal communist threat in many countries. Many historians have ignored the class interests involved in international relations. The reason of state is important as an instrument of the predominant ideology in the country. These questions and many others remain the subject of historiographical controversy.

When Italy, Germany and Japan signed a Pact on September 27, 1940, Stalin was placed in the difficult situation of accepting rapprochement with Germany. If he did so he could guarantee his country's independence and participate as a junior partner in the spoils of the British Empire after the destruction of England. If he didn't, he could be attacked by Germany after that possible defeat.

Talks between Hitler and Molotov did not progress and Germany ended up invading Soviet territory, partly due to Stalin's indecision in conceiving that it could happen so soon. Kissinger attributes Stalin's mistake to the irrationality of Leader. It would be logical to wait for Germany to be successful in the west and only then attack the east. Kissinger saw a coherence in Soviet foreign policy that consisted of managing external alliances in order to avoid or postpone a war and at the same time pit capitalist countries against each other. Stalin was seen for his “meticulous study of power relations”, as the “servant of historical truth”, “patient, perceptive, ruthless”.[xi]

This would explain a series of diplomatic treaties since 1922 with Germany (Rapallo) and attempts at rapprochement with the United States, fascist Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, the Ribbentrop – Molotov Pact, Yugoslavia (1941) and, even on April 13, 1941 with Japan. This agreement allowed Stalin to move his Eastern Army six months later to resist the German occupation.[xii]

While he saw Stalin as a realist, he always believed in the moral supremacy of the West. Communists would be unable to understand the importance that legality and morality had for the allies. The Soviets would not care about the type of regime existing in the West and expected the United States and England to do the same in relation to Eastern Europe.

Soviet Andrey Gromyko[xiii] he did not fail to extol the qualities of Henry Kissinger, but said that despite liking to cite historical examples, his arguments offended logic and history and were purely opportunistic; he was duplicitous and ignored principles.

The crisis of counterrevolutionary thought

At the very moment that Metternich reflected on the world convulsed by the French Revolution, the novel emerged as a literary form as unstable as that world. His solitary reading in small-format books, made mass by revolutions in machines and printing materials, was accompanied by a representation of average characters and their daily lives.

Balzac and Stendhal no longer presented tragic heroes, as a reader of Lukács would say. Although the characters could have a devastating end, their greatness was no longer that of a great collective hero, but that of isolated people in a world in which no one else could permanently establish themselves in a job or vocation. The nobility restored after a revolution that had condemned a King was so fake as that created by Napoleon Bonaparte as it had lost its historical function.

Henry Kissinger presents a touching reflection on that era of large print runs. For him, “acquiring knowledge through books provides a different experience than the internet. Reading is relatively time-consuming; To facilitate the process, style is important.” Reading books rewards the reader with concepts and the ability to recognize comparable events and project patterns for the future. Style draws the reader into a relationship with the author, or the subject, merging substance and aesthetics.[xiv]

The computer makes a much greater variety of data available and style is no longer necessary to make it accessible, nor is memorization. Although the criticism of the loss of mnemonic capacity is as old as the invention of writing, for him there are new problems that concern the impact of the computer revolution on the maintenance of social order.

For the government there is a risk of “considering moments of decision as a series of isolated events and not as part of a continuum historic". The connectivity of all aspects of existence destroys privacy, inhibits the development of personalities with the strength to make decisions alone, and changes the human condition itself.[xv]

In a world where the social terrain is unstable, how can we stabilize a conservative order? The old family patterns of social hierarchy in public environments, corporations or universities were undermined by the industrial revolutions. Without intellectual traditions, ideas have no focus or direction.[xvi]

There is, however, a type of revolution that went beyond the conservatism that Henry Kissinger so admired in Metternich. It is not the simple ability to operate a “Passive Revolution”, incorporating popular impulses devoid of their initial radicalism in a conservative architecture, but to undertake true counter-reforms with a revolutionary form.

Its origins were already in De Maistre and his questioning of the French Revolution. Fascism gave it historical body. Norberto Bobbio in his Right and left strangely argued that communism and fascism were approaching not according to the “left – right” dyad, but “extremism – moderation”. The emphasis shifts from the purpose to the means. That is why we find authors like Niestzsche or Sorel simultaneously invoked by the extreme left and the extreme right.

Moderate socialists and equally moderate liberals or conservatives could join together in coalition governments or at least in the acceptance of a common democratic order in which permanent electoral competition between them would take place.

However, there is a crucial difference between the extremes. Both (in the years between the two world wars) advocated violent methods to destroy the social order and engender a new one. However, communists could never permanently ally with fascists. And fascism can never insinuate itself into real socialist regimes. On the contrary, the alliance between communists, socialists and non-fascist conservatives was possible in World War II.

However, fascists did not always come to power through a coup d'état. The March on Rome was a march that led the king to invite Mussolini to the government. His “revolution” has since been made from above. In both Germany and Italy, many conservative institutions were maintained, even though they were subject to the authority and ideology of the leader. But they were not modified internally. The Army, the Church and the Monarchy (in the Italian case) continued to collaborate passively or actively with the fascists.

Therefore, the far-right revolution is not an outgrowth in the history of liberalism, but one of the possible results of the social order it defends. Extermination techniques were all used against colonized peoples before being applied to the European continent.

What, therefore, would be the social order based on “modernity” after two hundred years of revolution?

To the disillusionment of conservatives of Henry Kissinger's time, this new order, however, cannot maintain any stable political regime or even a society. We are, therefore, subject to new revolutions.

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History of the PT (Studio). [https://amzn.to/3RTS2dB]


Giddens, A. Runnaway World. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Grandin, Greg. Kissinger's Shadow. Rio de Janeiro: Amphitheater, 2017.

Gromyko, A. Memoirs. New York, Doubleday, 1989.

Keegan, John. The Battle and History. Rio de Janeiro: Bibliex, 2006.

Kissinger, H. Diplomacy. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves, 1997.

Kissinger, H. WorldOrder. London: Penguin, 2014.

Kissinger, H. The Restored World🇧🇷 Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1973.

Tocqueville, A. The Thinkers: Tocqueville. São Paulo, April Cultural, 1979.

Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 19 June 1802, in: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-37-02-0515. Accessed: 29/04/2017.


[I] Grandin, Greg. Kissinger's Shadow. Rio de Janeiro: Anfiteatro, 2017, p. 32.

[ii] Kissinger, H. WorldOrder. London: Penguin, 2014, p. 22.

[iii] Kissinger, H. Diplomacy, P. 74.

[iv] Kissinger, H. Diplomacy, p.75.

[v]  Kissinger, H. Diplomacy, P. 137.

[vi] Tocqueville, A. The Thinkers: Tocqueville. São Paulo, Abril Cultural, p. 355.

[vii] Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States (1829–1837).

[viii] Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 19 June 1802, in: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-37-02-0515. Accessed: 29/04/2017.

[ix]  On October 5 of the previous year, Latvia had signed a mutual assistance pact with the USSR.

[X] Kissinger, H. Diplomacy, P. 390.

[xi] Kissinger, H. Diplomacy, P. 391.

[xii]  Kissinger, H. Diplomacy, P. 430.

[xiii] Gromyko, Memories, p. 287

[xiv] Kissinger, H. World Order, p.350.

[xv] Kissinger, H. World Order, P. 353.

[xvi] Giddens, p. 63.

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