Kissinger: Beyond Good and Evil*

The Chilean ambassador to the United States wrote that Kissinger’s “historical brilliance never managed to conceal his profound moral misery.” Kissinger was a war criminal and an enemy of democracy whenever it posed a challenge to the interests of the empire. But because he was one of the most brilliant theorists and practitioners, an examination of his role is fundamental to understanding the imperial logic of which he was a servant, but not the architect.

It pains me to be aggressively critical of anyone on the day of his death, a moment which should be reserved for those of who were fond of the person. Even so, when the person had great international relevance, there is a lower risk of those who grieve his loss coming across what we say or write. I therefore allowed myself greater license on the day of Henry Kissinger’s death, but all the while maintaining a modicum of necessary elegance. As such, I wrote in a social media post, in the frustrated hope that my subtlety would be effective, “Henry Kissinger was a brilliant man. What the world lost with that was another five hundred.”

I would like to state two things that, I think, should be obvious. One is that Kissinger was not only a man of superior intelligence, but also one of the most brilliant and well-informed strategists and diplomats, whose role was indispensable in understanding the Cold War.

But intelligence and knowledge are not moral categories. Juan Gabriel Valdes, Chile’s ambassador to the United States, wrote that “a man has died whose historical brilliance never managed to conceal his profound moral misery.”

Kissinger was involved in some of the United States’ most criminal decisions since the end of World War II. After Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, where the options he championed can be measured in millions of deaths, it is quite legitimate to refer to him as a war criminal. In addition, he was an enemy of democracy whenever it seemed to pose a challenge to the empire’s interests, which is to say that he didn’t really believe in democracy, since he didn’t trust that American interests should ever be subject to the “irresponsibility” of a sovereign people’s wishes. He was actively complicit in crushing democracy in Chile, Argentina, and — in general — throughout Latin America. He was, as well, the defender of supporting dictatorships that were seen as being on the right side, including the ignoble apartheid regime in South Africa.

Referring to what the world suffered by his brilliance (rather than what it gained) amounts to saying that intelligence is not always used to benefit the common good, something we all know. It also means recognizing that the enemy — as I think of Kissinger — may have impressive intellectual and cultural assets. I am not speaking of a dexterity available in anyone who is unscrupulous and of medium intelligence, but rather of genius. And having admiration for the enemy’s genius is the best way to avoid a state of moral primitivism; a moral primitivism that reduces all political differences to conflicts between good and evil, which is how all superpowers have dressed their imperial motives, particularly those that Kissinger served.

After outlining just some of Henry Kissinger’s crimes, and highlighting one that was particularly close to us (Kissinger’s active support of Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor), former Portuguese Ambassador to Indonesia Ana Gomes concluded her commentary this way: “For those who claim that realpolitik is an effective way to mold a state’s foreign policy, the establishment of a democratic Portugal and independent East Timor are stark demonstrations of the weakness of that argument. In diplomacy, as in life.”

The only problem with Gomes’ anti-realpolitik position, with which I generally agree, is that this example doesn’t fully support it. Portugal is not a world power, and its interests were never really seriously in play. The fact that it was only given license to reengage in East Timor once the Cold War ended — which meant its American ally ceased to be engaged — only refutes the argument; just as the acceptance of East Timor does once Soviet engagement was no longer a concern.

Unlike Miguel Esteves Cardoso,* I don’t believe that men like Kissinger are “patriots.” Rather, they work to advance the specific economic interests of a national elite, and one of the problems with Kissinger’s perspective on the world is that this elite is increasingly less “national.” If we focus on the moral question, it is easy to see that Kissinger was not just the enemy of America’s enemies, but rather the enemy of all those who died in the name of the private interests he served, many of them young Americans, almost always the poorest, and disproportionately Black. Because these are never the groups that any empire serves.

It’s only natural that if you regard as the leader of the free world a nation that has the second highest prison population in the world (almost tied with China, a dictatorship with four times as many people), that continues to use the death penalty, is incapable of guaranteeing minimal levels of social dignity and safety to a significant portion of its people, and that repeatedly disrespects the democratic practices of other countries, then you would also look on whomever worked to strengthen the might of the United States as a political and moral model who served (even with dirty hands) the greater good. This is not my view.

There are no benign empires, even when they proclaim themselves to be liberators. There aren’t even democratic empires. There are democratic parent-states, such as the United Kingdom, which was a democracy at the same time it was squashing the freedom and dignity of Indians. The same could be said of France in Africa. At best, we could say that democracy in the parent-state might make those in power more sensitive to the discomfort felt by its citizens as they reflect on the behavior of the empire overseas. When empires export democracy, they do so conditionally, blocking anything that is contrary to their own interests — as the United States did, for decades, in Latin America.

My issue, however, is with the prominent role that is attributed to Kissinger. He was not the architect of American imperialism, which preceded him, but its servant. I have nothing against the idea of having moral positions in politics — I am far from a cynic — but I am firmly against personalizing historical phenomena as advocated by some historians. Kissinger was not the person responsible for the United States’ war crimes. The country was responsible, and the foundation for its actions was an internal political consensus that had an imperial (and falsely moral) role in world affairs as its core principle.

Bernardo Teles Fazendeiro referred to Kissinger as “the dark side of an American policy.” Without that side, we would be left with nothing but rhetoric about freedom that, in reality, did little to shape policy. The supposed moral superiority of the United States was little more than an instrument of power and Kissinger’s pragmatism a symbol of that instrumentalization, demonizing enemies while negotiating with the demons without any qualms. The same pragmatism that served to quash democracies was also useful in negotiating nuclear agreements, softening relations with China, bringing about the end of the war in Vietnam, and facilitating Arab-Israeli peace accords.

Because he was one of imperial logic’s most brilliant practitioners and theorists, Kissinger’s life is fundamental to an understanding of it. It’s interesting, in fact, to note that many who refuse to venture beyond a strictly moral evaluation of Kissinger’s life refer to him in advocating for a different position on Ukraine — a position that he eventually reneged on in the face of political and moral pressure, an indication that he was not only an intellectual, but also a politician. And interesting, too, how many of those who vilified him for that position ignore it in their obituaries of him. As if that position had not been, in the logic that gives precedence to all world powers, consistent with how he thought throughout his life.

*Editor’s Note: The original Portuguese version of this article is available with a paid subscription.

**Editor’s Note: Miguel Esteves Cardoso is a Portuguese writer, critic, and journalist.

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