Remembering Henry Kissinger

December 1, 2023

Any chapter in the long and extraordinary life of Henry Kissinger could serve as a starting point for a discussion of the state of the world. As Niall Ferguson, Kissinger’s biographer, notes, today’s world faces a set of interlocking crises that eerily resemble those confronted by the formidable ‘Super-K’.

Kissinger was also a regular commentator on contemporary British politics. Despite criticizing the “stagnation” of the European Union, Kissinger initially opposed Brexit. Perhaps most insightful, however, is his quip that if he were British, he might have backed leaving the European Union. He later grew more sympathetic, criticizing the EU’s approach to Britain as an “escapee from prison” and expressing optimism about what Brexit could mean for the Special Relationship. Kissinger was equally active in Ireland, having talked Harold Wilson out of a full withdrawal from Ireland in 1975. But while there is much to be learned from the life of Kissinger the statesman, the UK has much to learn from Kissinger the scholar.

Much of Kissinger’s allure was his transformation from diplomatic historian to diplomatic practitioner. In particular, Kissinger was an assiduous student of British diplomatic history, including the life and career of Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s Foreign Secretary from 1812 to 1822, whom he wrote about in his first book ‘A World Restored’. He much admired the work of the Policy Exchange alumnus John Bew, who now serves as the Prime Minister’s Special Adviser for Foreign Affairs (and who was previously also Kissinger Fellow in the Library of Congress). In particular, however, it is Kissinger’s way of thinking about international relations that is especially important as the UK charts its course in the world. 

“High office”, he once mused, “consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it.” Kissinger arrived with such capital in spades. For twenty years prior to assuming office, Kissinger incubated a philosophy of history, or a “conceptual structure”, which would later guide him in his professional life. That “structure” revolves around a concept of entropy: the inevitability of decline. The basic idea is that as societies move further away from a “moment of inspiration” in which a political order is conceived, its underlying concept becomes less coherent. Eventually, societies and countries find themselves prisoners of a world that they did not create. Their agitation is the motor of history, and the source of a policymaker’s essential choices.

In the face of resistance, a policymaker—in foreign or in domestic policy— can give into change, gradually adjust his system, or resist change altogether. Those choices, which any politician must grapple with, have enormous implications for the future. For Kissinger, that decision must be motivated by a desire to preserve the essential structure of an order. While the content of a “structure” may change beyond recognition, the whole ‘house of cards’ can never fall: a conflict that consumes and destroys worlds and societies. Kissinger stared into this darkness twice: first, as a survivor of the Holocaust and as a veteran of the Second World War, then in his intellectual experience as a scholar of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath.

In the UK, we face similar choices today, both in foreign and domestic politics. On a range of issues—from geopolitical change to the Culture Wars—British policymakers must decide whether they fold, adjust, or resist. At stake are a number of “orders”: social, political, and international. Thinking in those terms puts in perspective exactly what is at stake: and shows the benefit of having a system of thought.

In our approach to international affairs, there is a general propensity to muddle from crisis to crisis—an approach that already in 1958 Kissinger decried as “amateurism.” It is essential to make an effort to see the interrelation of sets of events and ideas: that holds true in the domestic and international spheres.

A holistic world-view allows for the possibility of taking the initiative, of an active rather than a solely reactive approach to world affairs. Having a coherent worldview allowed Kissinger to undertake so many of his great successes: a sense of the importance of credibility led to a careful, face-saving withdrawal from Vietnam; a sense of societal memory led him to restrain Israel from taking the chance to destroy Egypt’s Third Army, paving the way for future peace; and a sensitivity of the balance of power allowed him to detect, then exploit the Sino-Soviet split, breaking the Communist bloc in half. By reflecting on these elementary components of international relations and transposing them onto the world, Kissinger was able to think about global affairs in the context of a larger world order. Today, we face the challenge of authoritarian states trying to revise the world order who have a coherent worldview and work together accordingly. It behooves us to do the same.

In addition to thinking systematically, we should also think systemically about our foreign policy, seeing policy in the context of a much larger world system. As in Kissinger’s own time, the essential goal of the West is to preserve a liberal, rules-based international order led by the United States. We are today in the foothills of a comprehensive challenge to that order: in Europe, as Russia seeks to break Ukrainian resolve and to sow division in Western societies; the Middle East, as Iran leads the effort to expel the United States from the region and to cripple Israel; in Asia, where China harbours a long-term desire to incorporate Taiwan; and elsewhere, where the fiction of a ‘Global South’ is being spun into a broader coalition of anti-westernism. Ultimately, it is the United States that will decide for the West in these critical moments. As the UK continues to chart a new course in the aftermath of Brexit, the central question must be: What role do we play in world order?

Beyond the mystique and the intrigue, Henry Kissinger was a brilliant theorist of statecraft. The source of his brilliance was his system. This allowed him to take the question of world order seriously and ultimately, to leave an enormous mark on it. As we head deeper into uncharted waters, for the first time in living memory facing a world order in peril, we would do well to learn from him. His extraordinarily active mind, the apocryphal source of his longevity, will be much missed.

Jay Mens is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and an Ernest May Fellow for History and Policy at Harvard Kennedy School

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