Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Was Henry Kissinger Really a Realist?

| Dec. 05, 2023

America's most famous 20th century statesman wasn't exactly what he claimed to be.

Henry Kissinger's death last week produced a predictable flood of commentary, ranging from steadfast admiration to passionate criticism. I published my own assessment of his career on the occasion of his 100th birthday a few months ago, and I stand by what I wrote back then. Here I address a narrower but still salient question: Was Kissinger really a realist?

The issue is not merely one of academic interest. If Kissinger's world view, his actions in government, and his subsequent career as a pundit, sage, and well-paid consultant are regarded as synonymous with foreign policy realism, that judgment will influence how others regard the entire realist tradition. But if he was either not a true realist or a highly idiosyncratic one, then realism's core insights can stand independent of however one might judge the man himself or the decades he spent in the public eye.

To be sure, it is not hard to see why the realist label seems to fit him well (and it was a characterization Kissinger did little to dispel). From the very start of his career, he was primarily concerned with relations among great powers and the challenge of constructing stable orders in the absence of a central authority and the inevitable clash of competing interests. He fully appreciated the tragic nature of politics and was wary of naïve idealism. As many critics have noted, he gave scant attention to humanitarian considerations and certainly did not think human rights, the need to preserve the lives of innocents, or the niceties of international or domestic law should stop a great power from pursuing its own selfish interests.

Kissinger was also a ruthless bureaucratic infighter and accomplished practitioner of the darker political arts. He had clearly read his Machiavelli, who taught that to preserve order a prince "must learn how not to be good." Machiavelli also thought successful leaders "must have a mind disposed to adapt itself according to the wind," and when necessary be "a great feigner and dissembler." Such characteristics fit Kissinger to a T. It is easy to see, therefore, why so many people regarded him as the quintessential American embodiment of foreign policy realism.

Yet it is impossible to be sure if Kissinger was a true realist at his core. Although he wrote thousands of pages about international politics and foreign policy, none of his books present his own distinct theory of international politics in any detail. You can learn a lot about how states behave from Kissinger's voluminous works, but you can't find an explicit statement explaining why they compete for power, how much power they want, or which causal forces matter most in the calculations of political leaders....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M.“"Was Henry Kissinger Really a Realist?" Foreign Policy, December 5, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt