The internet is abuzz with the news of Henry Kissinger's death. Amidst all the jubilation and snark, I have seen little analysis of his actual legacy. I think this might be because those celebrating his demise are well aware that his ideas and approach to foreign affairs are still making their mark on the world.
Back around 2007 I was living in Grand Rapids, and Kissinger came to town to deliver a talk. I showed up out of curiosity and to see what this man was like in the flesh that I had heard so much about. For years I had heard about his charisma and skill with romance, which seemed inexplicable until that night. When he took the stage, the man talked with a striking air of certainty and obvious erudition. While I strongly disagreed with the conclusions of his analysis, I understood in that moment why he had been such a successful diplomat and political operator.
He was more of a legend to me to that point, a figure I had seen on television since my youth. In college I took some classes on international politics, where I learned that he was more than a diplomat. Kissinger was a thinker, probably the most important modern proponent of "realism." He referred to this viewpoint with his famous statement, "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests." A modern day Bismarck, Kissinger defended the doctrines of Realpolitik in a time when international institutions and connections undermined the old certainties of nation-state politics.
When I took that class in the late 1990s, Kissinger's realism felt very antiquated, the political science equivalent of a leisure suit. The end of the Cold War opened up the possibility of a more global world where peace would be achieved by international cooperation, rather than the machinations of "balance of power."
9/11 and especially the "war on terror" shook that certainty. The Bush administration's murderously idealistic attempt to remake the Middle East not only discredited neoconservatism, it undermined the belief in globalist, idealist solutions among a lot of people. (Kissinger supported the Iraq invasion, although on different grounds than the neocons.)
As the neocons have faded, a Trumpian "America First" nationalism dominates the Republican Party. That's certainly not Kissinger's methodology, but both America First and Kissinger's more diplomatic global Realpolitik are rooted in a belief that no moral or legal considerations ought to restrain the government in pursuing the perceived interests of America. Many world leaders from MBS to Putin to Xi to Netanyahu practice Realpolitik with gusto. Kissinger may be dead, but his spirit lives on. Amid the grave dancing we ought to be paying attention to that.