Henry Kissinger's One Real Foreign Policy Innovation
On Henry's 100th birthday, here's the one thing Kissinger has done that is truly novel.
Over the weekend former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger turned a century old. His birthday was the source of hosannahs from some of his hagiographers, fury from some of his bitterest critics, and attempts at even-handedness from those somewhere in the middle. For example, Outside the Beltway’s James Joyner commented, “Whatever one thinks of the justness of Kissinger’s foreign policy positions, he’s an incredibly energetic, curious, and prolific man even by the standards of Secretaries of State.”
It can be hard to assess a man who started his career as a professor of international relations and wound up being one of the most powerful policymakers in history.1 Kissinger was an avowed practitioner of realpolitik who in his writings made the moral case for practicing foreign policy in an amoral manner. He was simultaneously responsible for the U.S. détente with the Soviet Union, the U.S. opening to China, and the illegal bombing of Cambodia. He was a classic immigrant-turned-intellectual who nonetheless was the ultimate starfucker.
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Cards on the table: in the end, I do not think too highly of Henry Kissinger. After reading Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s The Final Days it is hard not to feel queasy reading the passages embarrassing to Richard Nixon and realizing that Kissinger had to have been their source. After reading Kissinger’s third memoir Years of Renewal, it is hard not to be amused by Kissinger’s attempt to retcon support for human rights when negotiating the Helsinki Final Act. After reading Gary Bass’ The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, it is impossible to buy into his reputation as a bloodless, brilliant soldier for realpolitik. Kissinger’s bigotry and misogyny were on full display in his approach to South Asia during Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971.
Kissinger is writing and speaking a lot about artificial intelligence as of late. To some people, like his son, this suggests Kissinger’s miraculous ability to be “indefatigably active” well into most people’s dotage.
To the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World, this activity is a reminder of Kissinger’s one true innovation throughout his career.2 Kissinger invented the for-profit third act of a career in public service.
Prior to Kissinger, most ex-Secretaries of State retired to write their memoirs, speak at the Council on Foreign Relations, and maybe become a college president. Kissinger wanted more, and he blazed the trail for his successors. As I noted in The Ideas Industry:
The traditional route for ex-policy principals was to take a sinecure at a think tank. A successful for- profit consultancy, however, is far more lucrative than a think tank fellowship. Henry Kissinger pioneered this approach in 1982 when he and Brent Scowcroft founded Kissinger Associates to offer advisory services for corporate clients. In this century the number of these Washington firms specializing in political consulting and strategic communications has mushroomed. They include Albright Stonebridge Group (founded by three former policy principals in Bill Clinton’s administration), RiceHadleyGates (founded by three former policy principals in George W. Bush’s administration), The Scowcroft Group (founded by the two- time former national security advisor), and Teneo (founded by former Clinton administration officials). Almost all of their work is “bespoke” research— work directly contracted by a client— and therefore not directly accessible in the public sphere. Nevertheless, it is an important part of the Ideas Industry. This research often informs the public discourse of the actors who procure the research.
Kissinger’s consultancy helps to explain almost all of his post-1977 career. His selling point to clients was his access to the corridors of power. This meant ensuring he was able to speak with his successors at Foggy Bottom and the White House. That was why he tended to be respectful towards Democratic administrations and positively sycophantic towards GOP administrations.
It also meant ensuring that he maintained his access to leaders in Russia and China. That was painfully evident over the last decade. Kissinger resisted joining the tide of Russia and China hawks until well after the center of gravity had shifted within the U.S. foreign policy community. Like all good practitioners of realpolitik, however, Kissinger perceived the shifts in the balance of power within the policymaking community, and turned hawkish in response.
Kissinger’s interest in AI makes sense in this new geopolitical environment. Unable to tend to his personal networks in Russia and China, Kissinger found a new place to put down roots: Silicon Valley. That’s good for both the supply and demand side of his consultancy.
Henry Kissinger will pass from the scene at some point. As the Washington Post noted, “one thing that… observers can agree on is that when Kissinger does die, it will be a raucous day on Twitter.” When that day comes, remember this point: what Henry Kissinger figured out before anyone else was how to monetize his career in public service, and he excelled at that.
Happy Birthday, Henry!
Imagine anyone trying to be both national security advisor and Secretary of State at the same time. It’s a completely bonkers idea, and yet Kissinger did this for three and a half years.
This is not to say that Kissinger has not done either amazing and/or appalling things during his career. But none of these activities were new. He was neither the first academic to move into policymaking (see: Wilson, Woodrow) nor the first policy principal to implement policies that contributed to genocide (see: Jackson, Andrew, or FDR if you want to be cheeky).