How is a statesman to advance his nation’s interests? For as long as states have existed, diplomats have grappled with this question. And among US diplomats, Henry Kissinger is most associated with the realpolitik approach, arguing that the job of the statesman is to manage relationships—with allies and adversaries alike—to maximize his nation’s security, prosperity, and power.
In Kissinger’s view, America’s tragic flaw has been believing that our principles are universal principles, and seeking to extend human rights far beyond our nation’s borders. This “messianic” belief, as he has characterized it, has repeatedly led American statesmen to make decisions that have undermined our interests and weakened our standing in the world—from pursuing costly humanitarian interventions to abandoning leaders who, while perhaps repressive, helped safeguard our security.
“No nation,” Kissinger wrote in Diplomacy,
has ever imposed the moral demands on itself that America has. And no country has so tormented itself over the gap between its moral values, which are by definition absolute, and the imperfection inherent in the concrete situations to which they must be applied.
The implication here is that the importance we place on how America’s actions affect people beyond our own borders often stands in direct opposition to the policies that are in the best interest of the people within our borders. Effective statecraft, Kissinger and fellow realists have argued, is best achieved by staying focused on managing the relationships between nations.
I would like to put forward a simple thesis that should no longer be at all controversial: it is now objectively the case that our national interests are increasingly affected not just by what happens between states, but also by how people are treated within states. Even if we all agree, with Kissinger, that states intrinsically seek to maximize their self-interest, it is precisely our self-interest that requires us to get better at improving human security in the service of national security.
The way governments treat their own citizens matters; it matters because it can have a direct impact on international peace and security—and on our respective national security interests. Consider Russia, where the mothers of soldiers killed fighting in eastern Ukraine have…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.