Foreign Policy

Kissinger: The Uses of Power


Kissinger: The Uses of Power, by David Landau, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1972, Pp. 270, $5.95.

Such books as this are a difficult task for me to review. This is because the men in focus deal with matters that are by their very nature inimical. Yet these men act and produce consequences for everyone. And it won't do imply to declare of them that they're immoral and beyond worth of serious notice. They matter to us a lot. And they could be less immoral than simply dangerous (as well as instructive). Those claiming to know what's right and wrong with men and nations must comprehend the role and function of men like Kissinger.

Landau's book reads smoothly. It reveals to us almost all of what we need to know in order to understand the actions of the Kissinger/Nixon team in foreign affairs. More than that, the book tells us a good deal of why one's view of man and of nations, believed to be important and worthy of propagation, must be nurtured from within the mind, in a highly personal, individual fashion. Politics just won't yield to anything else.

The most significant portion of this book is Part I, the Prologue. Here, Kissinger's thinking is put before us: his most basic ideas, the sources of his political behavior unfold. (Landau's program is to reveal Kissinger in the context of America's Vietnam policy, after sketching the outlines of the man's basic convictions. There is too much of "Landau on Vietnam" in Part II of the book; other sources, better than his, can do more for an understanding of the US/Vietnam debacle.)

If ever there is a profound influence of philosophy in any powerful man's life, Kissinger exemplifies it well. The personal background of the man links him with German intellectual history, and he did the most to explore that history and visibly draw from it his own stance. Although Kissinger is Harvard educated and has no formal educational ties to Germany, the tendencies to view matters from the perspective of a tradition-bound man-of-intellect are evident in his personal and intellectual development. Much of what Kissinger/Nixon have done recently can best be understood in this light.


Broadly, Kissinger owes his fundamental philosophical outlook to Hegel. Not a passive/revolutionary determinist(!) of the Marxist variety, nor an active agent in the tradition of heroic romanticism, Kissinger is the man who sees the function of the international politician as the valiant pragmatist, the actor with a paradoxical sense of prevailing skepticism: action is necessary, "right" is unascertainable in the planning stages (right is hindsight and historical), and the overriding purpose is restrained survival and the avoidance of catastrophe. The business of the man who plays this part is perpetual rearguard action; no positive commitment—the game itself requires the aura of fierce, ideological anti-ideologism; the moral sentiments—and that is all that they can be for a pragmatist/Hegelian—must not take a determining hold; primarily careful balancing, confident but unselfconscious tightrope action is called for. Here is Kissinger himself:

When Alexander insisted on the major part of Poland, not on grounds of expediency but as a moral "right," he was not raising the issue to a more elevated plane, but posing a dilemma which might unleash a new round of violence. For a "right" is established by acquiescence, not by claim, and a claim not generally accepted is merely the expression of an arbitrary will.

…[I]t is the essence of a moral claim that it cannot be compromised, precisely because it justifies itself by considerations beyond expediency. (p.28)

…This is the paradox which the fanatic, however well-intentioned and however sincere, introduces into international relations. His very claim to moral superiority leads to an erosion of all moral restraint. (p. 29)

…True conservatism implied an active policy.…(ibid.)

The statesman manipulates reality; his first goal is survival; he feels responsible not only for the best but also for the worst conceivable outcome. His view of human nature is wary; he is conscious of many great hopes which have failed, of many good intentions which could not be realized, of selfishness and ambition and violence. He is, therefore, inclined to erect hedges against the possibility that even the most brilliant idea might prove abortive and that the most eloquent formulation might hide ulterior motives.…To the statesman gradualism is the essence of stability; he represents an era of average performance, of gradual change and slow construction. (p. 33)


I am not recommending this book. Not, at least, for outright purchase—there are many better works on American foreign policy, something that Landau deals with far too broadly and with too many underlying assumptions of his own that are undiscussed. But if one can, he ought to pick it up and read the first 70 or so pages, parts where Kissinger's personal and intellectual growth is outlined. For anyone with an understanding of the relationship between an individual's (especially intellectual's) moral/philosophic premises and the likely consequences these will have in his actions on any front whatever, such a reading will be of value. For my part, the issue is this: when one's vision is set by Hegel and the fear of ideology, when he is basically committed to an active/defensive stance, and when he has absolutely no concern with individuals and their rights, the job of diplomat-at-large is well suited; but then that job itself, as that of the taxcollector and the vice squad chief, has little to justify it. Yet, it must be coped with, it must be put into perspective and it needs be defined in relation to one's goals—just in case one may land it and seeing no one trustworthy enough to possess such powers, might move to dismantle it with finess and success. At least if one has as his goal the overall dismantling of nation/state reality and diplomacy; the goal, in short, of a free world.

REASON associate editor Tibor Machan is assistant professor of philosophy at State University College in Fredonia, New York.