Kissinger and Realpolitik: From Enlightenment to Barbarity

Editor’s Note:

With this article, The Socialist completes its three-part series examining the continuing influence of Henry Kissinger’s pernicious conception of international “diplomacy,” today known as Realpolitik. In the first two installments, Mateo Pimentel (“Seeing Red”) and Steve Rossignol (“Lest We Forget”) recount an infamous history of Kissinger’s dastardly and imperial geopolitics. Kissinger’s doctrine is manifest in Richard Nixon’s Vietnam War policies and the military coup that removed Chile’s democratically elected communist president, Salvador Allende. Kissinger also inspired Gerald Ford’s crushing of the East Timor independence movement, which led to the deaths of 1.5 million people.


Today’s conception of Realpolitik has a long pedigree, which is traced to the early-19th-century German political writer Ludwig von Rochau. Von Rochau wishes to explain how the Enlightenment political goals of insuring human dignity and liberty might be achieved peacefully in a world of emerging nation states whose governance often contravenes them. The doctrine is manifest in the policies of the first Imperial Chancellor of the German Empire and famous Prussian militarist Otto von Bismarck. Realpolitik adds a pragmatic dimension to a growing narrative of the emerging German state as the cultural and moral focus, indeed the vanguard, of a broader Enlightened European civilization.

By the mid-20th century, Realpolitik evolves into a geopolitics that continues to appreciate “real-world” power relations that advance the political designs of nation states, while peacefully maintaining a preferred world order. However, the expansion of fascism and the emergence of a rapacious colonial capitalism increasingly indicate that unless a strong enlightened morality accompanies a political will to stand by such principles among skilled leaders, Realpolitik can be reduced to a foreign policy of cowardly appeasement and expediency.

Two examples from the mid-20th century come to mind. The first is Munich Agreement of 1938. This agreement, proposed by British Prime Minister Sir Neville Chamberlain, intended to “appease” Adolph Hitler’s indignation over the national alienation of ethnic Germans (the “Sudetenlander”) resulting from the creation of the Czech state under the Versailles Treaty, while maintaining “peace in our time.” Unfortunately, it enabled the sacrifice of the whole of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, and emboldened Hitler to launch World War 2 in Europe in 1939. Conveniently, the promised “peace in our time” protected profits from British business ventures with German capitalists flowing to Ethyl, a British subsidiary of America’s Standard Oil.

Another example is the 1945 accommodation between the Western Allies and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference that betrayed the British pledge to defend the independence of Poland, the very basis upon which the British and French declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939. Thus, the Western “Cold War” strategy to contain Soviet Russia became a complicity in the repression of Polish independence for the next 45 years. During the Conference and conveniently for anti-communist oligarchs in the West, Stalin refused a demand from President Roosevelt and the wealthy capitalist apparatchik Henry Morgenthau Jr. that the Soviet Union accede to the Bretton Woods Agreement. Bretton Woods was intended to institutionalize a post-war global capitalist financial and market system. Unfortunately, the resulting geopolitical and economic isolation of the Soviet Union carved the fault lines of the Cold War in Europe.

From the late 1960s and following Kissinger’s appointment as Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Realpolitik refers to policy not guided by steadfast ideological or moral principles, but by a dissolute and accommodating expediency. As the US and the Soviet Union emerge from World War 2 as the two preeminent global powers, the employment of prudent political accommodation by the US when dealing with its Cold War adversary gradually declines. While Kissinger carefully maintains that his conception of geopolitics is not Machiavellian, historical facts regarding US Cold-War foreign policy in Chile, Vietnam, East Timor and beyond indicate otherwise.

With the end of the first Cold War between the US and the USSR and China, and the rise of an increasingly institutionalized and supranational global capitalism (read “NAFTA” and the “TPP”), the concept and practice of Realpolitik is again transformed. With the US continuing as the preeminent global superpower driving and defending capitalism’s growing globalization, the need for skilled, not to say principled, diplomacy becomes largely irrelevant, if not diverting. The rush to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, launched before all practicable diplomatic efforts to maintain peace were exhausted, represent the newest phase in the evolution of Realpolitik, now fully red in tooth and claw.

Gregor Peter Schmitz, in his article “Obama Returns to Kissinger’s Realpolitik” in Der Spiegel, reminds us of the doctrine’s vicious tenacity and adaptability. Schmitz cites Barack Obama’s mentor Rahm Emanuel, who describes Obama’s foreign-policy as, “probably more realpolitik, like Bush. …You’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.” Steve Rossignol, in his contribution to this series, warns of current dangers; as the US capitalist presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, promise an even less restrained version of Kissinger’s geopolitics.

Fortunately, America is today being offered a strikingly different vision of international relations; one reminiscent of Von Rochau’s original, more enlightened conception. In an interview with Roland Dodds, the Socialist Party USA’s (SPUSA) presidential candidate Mimi Soltysik provides an example. Responding to a question concerning the current situation in Syria, Soltysik explains that


The situation in Syria is obviously pretty complex. I think we see Syria in the context of our total approach to foreign policy. Imperialism is not the answer. As a matter of fact, we’d instantly reduce the current military budget to fifty percent of its current total, with an eye toward reducing it to ten percent of its current total. We’d block the U.S ability to operate as an imperialist power. Perhaps it’s time we stop creating the conditions that contribute toward the development of fundamentalist organizations like ISIS…. Perhaps it’s time we stop supporting states who consistently violate international law, who are among the world’s human rights violators.


For Soltysik, socialist enlightened humanitarianism matters in international relations, and that is reflected as well in SPUSA’s Platform.


The United States is the sole remaining global superpower.  The U.S. government uses its overwhelming military power to consolidate its strategic hold over the entire world and to defend and advance the interests of U.S. owned corporations as they exploit the working people and natural resources of the entire planet.  We stand in total opposition to U.S. imperialism and the current “war on terror” which is just another subterfuge for U.S. imperialism.


The SPUSA’s advocacy for international peace and cooperation is opposed to the militaristic Realpolitik of the current two capitalist presidential candidates. Reaching accommodations with repressive colonialism, such as Israel’s occupation of Palestine, undemocratic military juntas, such as those governing Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Neo-Nazi factions in the Ukraine is unacceptable. The reimaging of economic sanctions and drone attacks as anything but Realpolitik by other means, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum, is exposed as a Machiavellian fraud.


J. Richard Marra

lives in Connecticut. He received his Doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1977, majoring in Musical Composition and the History of Music Theory. While on the Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, he completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in the Philosophy of Science. He is a member of the Socialist Party USA, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Philosophy of Science Association. His articles have also appeared on the websites of the Secular Buddhist Association and The Hampton Institute. He is a 2014 recipient of the SPUSA's Eugene V. Debs Award. To read other essays by J. Richard Marra, please visit

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