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What Henry Kissinger Can Teach Conservatives

Many of us have sensed the countercultural conservative movement swirling beneath society’s surface. Materialism, consumerism, and individualism have all become points of attrition for many of us. The general distaste for these -isms propels this movement forward. To navigate and direct the conservative undercurrent, I suggest a turn to Henry Kissinger—the hard-nosed, cynical, former Secretary of State.

Before Henry Kissinger became known as “the world’s indispensable man,” he was a student of history. His ability to see 100 years into the past, to the statesmanship of Metternich and Castlereagh, allowed him to craft tangible solutions for the unforeseeable future. The path of the future is largely marked by the successes and failures of the past, and Kissinger understood this. Yet he did not apply history flippantly. He emphasized the limits of analogy and the importance of distinction. To navigate the future, we must not only understand and apply history; we must understand and apply history well.

Second, we must reclaim the ability to hold constructive public discourse. Kissinger’s two pet projects during his graduate years at Harvard were the International Seminar and the academic journal Confluence. In both cases, Kissinger promoted healthy discussion that “went beyond left or right.” In a line from Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, “At a time when sincerity in public debate was ‘measured in decibels’ and ‘real dialogue’ was at a discount, [Kissinger the editor] had attempted to represent as many significant points of view as possible.” Kissinger’s ability to bring multiple parties to the table would pay dividends in the future decades when he negotiated ceasefires and treaties during the Cold War.

Even more important is the quality of that public discourse. When a controversial article prompted strong backlash from the public, Kissinger replied, “I will oppose what he stands for, but not in the strident fashion of so many of our apostles of hate, who are so consumed by their passion that they resemble their enemies more and more.” This leads to the third and final point: Kissinger understood how people worked. Because of his time as the leading officer in the denazification of a German city, his study of twentieth century politics, and his experience defusing potentially global conflicts, Kissinger understood that people are social creatures, defined by their social histories, and he operated accordingly. Before he entered negotiations, Kissinger went to great lengths to understand the society the parties lived in.

If this countercultural movement is to be successful, if it is to enact actual change in an increasingly intransigent world, the people must gain a historical awareness, encourage constructive public discourse, and understand that people are more than just the individual automatons—no matter how hard society tries to convince us otherwise. If we manage to reclaim these components, we collectively just might match Henry Kissinger’s contribution to modern society.


Joshua Cayetano is a Richter Scholar and a student in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. He is majoring in political science and history with a focus on Middle Eastern studies. Originally from Pacifica, California, he enjoys traveling to different countries, sitting on the beach with any good book, or playing basketball. 

Image via Wikipedia commons

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