Greg Grandin: Kissinger’s Shadow, The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesmen

The historian Greg Grandin’s just published Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesmen is a fascinating work of scholarship for its broad overview of the development of Kissingerist diplomacy, and its subtle criticism of the relation between history and the Elite.

Grandin contests the prevalent opinion that Kissinger’s realpolitik was an amoral realism, and holds instead that Kissinger was inspired by German idealists and French existentialists to craft a diplomacy of existentialist constructivism of constitutive power acts, a worldview where, cyclically, action provides American purpose, and American purpose provides reason for action. While Reagan’s New Right and the neocons came to power denouncing what they saw as the amoralism of Kissinger’s pursuit of détente with China and SALT agreements with Soviet Russia, Grandin argues that their constructivist idealism of action that transcends the brute facts of reality, where statesmen supposedly do not have time to consider the history behind the events unfolding, has origin in Kissinger’s realpolitik. The ‘national security state’ as we know it as a state at perpetual war to construct American purpose, thus, says Grandin, originates with the radical idealism of Kissinger.

The focus of Kissinger’s Shadow is on the writings of Kissinger as much as it is on his actual statecraft, and there the focus is predominantly on the bombing of Cambodia. But there also seems to be an implied critique of power and history and a deeper analysis of Elitism that transcends the story of Kissinger to see Elitist power as being unmoored from historical facts and reflection on these facts. The power of the Elite is manifest as Elite Power precisely in its not being limited by the norms of finite existence as the intersection of memory and identity. By contrast, we, the demos, cannot help but live in and contribute our memory and identity to a greater collective memory and identity. The demos draws its strength from this collective memory that guides action, whereas the Elite finds its power in not being beholden to a certain, what Sartre would call, facticity. This way of adding further nuance to the framing of the Elite/Demos distinction suggests that the demos might call on the Elite to acknowledge their parts and origin in the collective memory in order to compel them to rule more justly.

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