In the U.S., we have a tradition called OJT, or on-the-job training, which means you get thrown into a job that you’re not prepared to do, you learn and adapt, and sometimes win kudos for a job well done. OJT is part of the American myth, but unlike other myths, it can be real. OJT provides an end-run around the fossilization of a society by development of various mandarin classes, and hierarchies that enforce exclusivity by credentialing processes that become increasingly bizarre and irrelevant over time. The admission requirements for dental school are an interesting example.
In the spirit of OJT, as with President, we might say about the job qualification for Secretary of State: There are none written in stone, and many written in grease paint. And so, Secretaries have traditionally been drawn from this country’s version of the jirga, the council of elders, who, it is assumed, by their positions in society, and vague qualities of “experience” and wisdom”, as demonstrated by the exercise of “judgment”. The use of quotation marks is not stylistic, but intended to convey the relativity of these qualities. This experience of having exercised judgment is frequently confused with character, or being trustworthy of the job and capable of representing the national interest without collision with personal moral quirks. For example, we would not like to unexpectedly discover that our Secretary of State places the interests of another state above our own, even when the morality is ambiguous. Many Secretaries of State have been lawyers, even though the relationship of the many of the most profound strategies of international relations use the pretense of law as a cloak, rather than a foundation.
Henry Kissinger may be unique, at least among U.S. Secretaries of State, in that he has both taught the skill and held the office. The rarity of this distinction is in itself interesting. The qualification of membership in the “jirga” is at odds with an academic background in the subject. To be an “elder”, one has to have exercised judgment in public life, while academe emphasizes detachment. While being a professor is almost an anti-qualification, the bridge is books and papers, and a social network composed of a fusion of academe and think tanks. Kissinger had both, with the book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, and the support of Nelson Rockefeller.
Kissinger’s practice of Realpolitik has left a controversial moral legacy. Ironically, he discusses the moral issue at length, and without apparent bias, in his book, Diplomacy, which in the twenty years since publication has deservedly acquired the status of a monument. Since the U.S. has been a superpower since the Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet sailed the globe in 1907, it has enjoyed the luxury of foreign policy options not affordable to other nations. U.S. Foreign policy is composed of varying proportions of Wilson’s idealism, and the pragmatic security-through strength of Theodore Roosevelt. In any instance the proportions of the moral high road versus the current exigency are the set by the executive branch with some consideration, or manipulation, of the opinions of the electorate.
Kissinger pays homage to Wilson’s moral vision, but emphasizes that it is empty, and even harmful, if ineffective. He offers the timing of U.S. entry into World War I. Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for an early entry. Kissinger argues that Wilson’s reluctance and delay cost lives. Perhaps, in his tenure as Secretary, his reasoning became too indirect for moralists to accept. But Kissinger’s record is attractive to other governments as a proficient, effective example of Realpolitik in practice. With the exception of the principled nations of Western Europe, there are few examples of Wilsonian-analogous thought. These days, Realpolitik is embraced enthusiastically, even by many nations that are internally democratic. And so Kissinger has a consulting business, with a very select clientele: heads of state. One of them is Vladimir Putin.
Kissinger emphasizes that Putin is not a friend, but a client who wants to know how things work. (Note for open source intelligence: this is a very important tidbit.) One would be a fool to pay Kissinger’s consulting rates, and not read his books. Putin is no fool. Ergo, he read Diplomacy.
Next: But what did he get out of the read?