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I failed to mention one of Kissinger’s greatest achievements yestereday: détente. It is characteristic of Kissinger’s approach to foreign policy in that it was intended as a practical way of improving the U.S. international position. It resulted in strengthening the Soviets through grain sales, and the positive effect it was supposed to have on human rights within the Soviet Union (through the Helsinki Accords) turned out to be nugatory.

Biographer Walter Isaacson quotes Kissinger as saying, “If I had to choose between justice and disorder, on the one hand, and injustice and order, on the other, I would always choose the latter.” This sounds like a terrible premise, but I think there is sense in it. “Disorder” is a vague word that could mean anything, but if we take it in the sense of political disorder — riots, lynch mobs, even civil war — it is indeed a terrible thing. Kissinger was probably thinking of international disorder, which is similar but arguably worse. When international order fails, there is war, and war brings with it all kinds of injustices that can never be addressed or remedied.

It does sound strange to say that one would always choose injustice over disorder, however. Doesn’t it matter what the injustice is, or how intense the disorder will be? Without having the context for the quotation, it is not fair to judge Kissinger too harshly on it. However, his career indicates that he was always willing to sacrifice justice for America’s international position as he understood it. I am fundamentally sympathetic to the realist approach to foreign policy espoused by Kissinger: that states pursue their own interests in an anarchic system, and statesmen ignore this fact to their own detriment and that of their nations. I think, however, that one can be too easily led to believe that order and human rights are opposites, and that ignoring human rights is always (or almost always) the best position way to advance a state’s security.

Kissinger was Jewish. He grew up in Weimar Germany and the early Nazi period, fleeing to the U.S. (with his family) in 1938. He is alleged to have said that “If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be antisemitic…Any people who have been persecuted for two thousand years must be doing something wrong.” (The source for these quotations is, again, Isaacson.) He also, however, said that it would make no sense for him to be antisemitic. He may have been frustrated with the fact that Israel expected special treatment from him — which they got. Kissinger also said that “The security of Israel is a moral imperative for all free peoples,” which is something to think about given the current war.

Tomorrow: a few final thoughts on Kissinger.

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