Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Judging Henry Kissinger

| Nov. 30, 2023

Did the Ends Justify the Means?

How should one apply morality to Henry Kissinger's statesmanship? How does one balance his accomplishments against his misdeeds? I have wrestled with those questions since Kissinger was my professor, and later colleague, at Harvard University. In April 2012, I helped interview him before a large audience at Harvard and asked whether, in hindsight, he would have done anything differently during his time as secretary of state for U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. At first, he said no. On second thought, he said he wished he had been more active in the Middle East. But he made no mention of Cambodia, Chile, Pakistan, or Vietnam. A protester in the back of the hall shouted out: "war criminal!"

Kissinger was a complex thinker. As with other postwar European émigrés, such as the international relations theorist Hans Morgenthau, he criticized the naive idealism of pre–World War II U.S. foreign policy. But Kissinger was not an amoralist. "You can't look only at power," he told the audience at Harvard. "States always represent an idea of justice." In his writings, he noted that world order rested on both a balance of power and a sense of legitimacy. As he once told Winston Lord, his former aide and the ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989, the qualities most needed in a statesman are "character and courage." Character was needed "because the decisions that are really tough are 51–49," so leaders must have "moral strength" to make them. Courage was required so leaders could "walk alone part of the way." In the case of Vietnam, he believed he had a mandate to end the Vietnam War. But, he said, he did not have a mandate to end it "on terms that would undermine America's ability to defend its allies and the cause of freedom."

Evaluating ethics in international relations is difficult, and Kissinger's legacy is particularly complex. Over his long tenure in government, he had many great successes, including with China and the Soviet Union and the Middle East. Kissinger also had major failures, including in how the Vietnam War ended. But on net, his legacy is positive. In a world haunted by the specter of nuclear war, his decisions made the international order more stable and safer.


One of the most important questions for foreign policy practitioners is how to judge morality in the realm of global politics. A true amoralist simply ducks it. A French diplomat, for instance, once told me that since morality made no sense in international relations, he decided everything solely on the interests of France. Yet the choice to reject all other interests was itself a profound moral decision.

There are essentially three different mental maps of world politics, each of which generates a different answer as to how states should behave. Realists accept some moral obligations but see them as severely limited by the harsh reality of anarchic politics. To these thinkers, prudence is the prime virtue. At the other end of the spectrum are cosmopolitans, who believe that states should treat all humans equally. They see borders as ethically arbitrary and believe that governments have major moral obligations to foreigners. In between are liberals. They believe that states have a serious responsibility to consider ethics in their decisions but that the world is divided into communities and states that have moral meaning. Although there is no government above these countries, liberals think the international system has an order to it. The world may be anarchic, but there are enough rudimentary practices and institutions—such as the balance of power between countries, norms, international law, and international organizations—to establish a framework by which states can make meaningful moral choices, at least in most cases....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr..“Judging Henry Kissinger.” Foreign Affairs, November 30, 2023.