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When foreign policy realism isn't realistic

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Early in his service as President Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger paid a visit to his homeland. The West German government suggested to the press that Kissinger intended to visit some relatives. "What the hell are they putting out?" Kissinger vented to his aides. "My relatives are soap."

Blunt, and true. Kissinger had left Germany in August 1938 as a 15-year-old refugee, three months before Kristallnacht. His granduncle, three aunts and other relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.

So it is appalling to hear Kissinger, an epic life later, telling Nixon on a scratchy recording from March 1, 1973: "Let's face it: The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. It may be a humanitarian concern."

Some commentators have attempted to provide a psychological explanation for this incident, having to do with the struggles of a Jew in an anti-Semitic White House. But this effort is not necessary. Kissinger's words were not the expression of a quirk but of an argument. In 1969, he had publicly declared: "We will judge other countries, including communist countries, on the basis of their actions, not on the basis of their domestic ideologies." This is a common assertion of a school of foreign policy called "realism" - that only the external behavior of regimes really matters, that their internal conduct does not concern American interests. It is a view currently popular, even ascendant, among foreign-policy thinkers. Kissinger was merely being unsentimental in its application.

In response to the recent release of the recording, Kissinger said his words "must be viewed in the context of the time." That context was a debate over the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974. The Soviet government - which both practiced anti-Semitism and resented the brain drain of Jewish departures - had imposed heavy fines on emigres. Sen. Henry Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik, supported by American Jewish groups, responded with legislation that linked normal trade relations with the Soviet Union (and other "non-market" economies) to the freedom to emigrate.

Kissinger believed that detente with the Soviet Union was of overriding importance and that human rights issues should only be raised quietly, on an unrelated diplomatic track. "The Jewish community in this country, on that issue," he told Nixon, "is behaving unconscionably. It's behaving traitorously."

But Jackson-Vanik turned out to be a pivot point in the Cold War. After an initial drop in emigration, the legislation exerted two decades of pressure on Soviet leaders, eventually resulting in higher emigration levels. It pressed one of the West's most powerful ideological advantages against the Soviet Union by demonstrating the weakness of a system that must build walls to keep its people from fleeing. This emphasis on human rights inspired not only Jewish refuseniks but other groups and nationalities that inhabited the Soviet prison.

Jackson-Vanik was both a rejection of Kissinger's realism and a preview of Reaganism. It asserted that oppressive regimes are more likely to threaten their neighbors, placing human rights nearer the center of American interests. It elevated standards of human dignity that were direct threats to regimes premised on their denial.

Henry Kissinger is not a simple villain, because he is not a simple anything. Complexity is his creed. In other circumstances, he was a friend to the state of Israel. He skillfully navigated a difficult patch in the Cold War. In later writings, he has recognized the role of idealism in sustaining American global engagement.

This 37-year-old quote does not characterize an entire career. But it illustrates the narrowness of foreign policy realism. It has a sadly limited view of power, discounting American ideological advantages in global ideological struggles.

Realists often hold a simplistic view of great-power relations, asserting that any humanitarian pressure on Russia or China will cause the whole edifice of global order to crumble. This precludes the possibility of a mature relationship with other nations in which America both stands for its values and pursues common interests.

And from this historical episode, it is clear that repeated doses of foreign policy realism can deaden the conscience. In President Nixon's office, a lack of human sentiment was viewed as proof of mental toughness - an atmosphere that diminished the office itself. Realists are often dismissive of Manichean distinctions between good and evil, light and darkness. But in the world beyond good and evil, some may be lightly consigned to the gas chambers.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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