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In Defense of Kissinger

Author: Robert D. Blackwill, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
January-February 2014
National Interest


In his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger concludes that the United States "faces the challenge of reaching its goals in stages, each of which is an amalgam of American values and geopolitical necessities."1 The recent debates about U.S. military options in Libya and Syria reflect the enduring tension between these intertwined, at times competing components of our external relations. No U.S. statesman can ignore this dilemma, and none will find it easy to strike exactly the right balance between the two, especially in times of crisis. All would seek to simultaneously pursue the promotion of the national interest and the protection of human rights. Kissinger, famous for advocating an American foreign policy based on the national interest, has long stressed that values and power are properly understood as mutually supporting. As he argued in a 1973 speech, since "Americans have always held the view that America stood for something above and beyond its material achievements," a "purely pragmatic policy" would confuse allies and eventually forfeit domestic support. Yet "when policy becomes excessively moralistic it may turn quixotic or dangerous," giving way to "ineffectual posturing or adventuristic crusades."2 The key to a sustainable foreign policy, in his view, is the avoidance of either extreme: "A country that demands moral perfection of itself as a test of its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security."

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