“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.” ~The New York Times

Michael Gerson wrote an entire column based on the first part of this quote without so much as mentioning Nixon’s response. For Gerson, Kissinger’s quote reflects the basic weakness and limitations of foreign policy realism, as if the apparent indifference or callousness of the remark can be divorced from the real-world implications of a potential conflict with the then-USSR. I suppose I could argue that Gerson would prefer that the U.S. start WWIII for the sake of high ideals, but that wouldn’t really be fair to him. As he often does, Gerson has struck a pose of moral outrage without thinking through any of the implications of what he’s discussing. It is fair to point out that this is typical of a lot of foreign policy “idealists,” who seem to think that the phrase “let justice be done, though the heavens fall” is not an example of absurd extremism but a how-to guide for policy-making.

The scenario Kissinger and Nixon were discussing here involved intervening militarily against a major, nuclear-armed power because of outrageous crimes taking place in the other country. One reason why realists typically look askance at such humanitarian interventionism is that they are concerned primarily with the national interest, and another is that they also try to pay attention to possible consequences of intervention. If a government is committing horrible crimes, but intervening to stop those crimes could quickly lead to global thermonuclear war in which some large part of the world is annihilated, it is not only prudent to not intervene, but it would be insane to argue for intervention.

It is an exaggeration to say that Jackson-Vanik was “a pivot point in the Cold War.” Arguably far more important as a matter of human rights monitoring and support for dissidents were the Helsinki Accords, which was one of the embodiments of detente policy. Kissinger didn’t much care for Helsinki, either, but as Secretary of State under Ford he was involved in the negotiations. Helsinki represented one of the successes of detente, and its success is hard to separate from the generally realist approach of the Nixon and Ford administrations to U.S.-Soviet relations. I’m not interested in defending Kissinger or Nixon personally, and as Prof. Walt notes Kissinger supported military interventions then and later that most realists opposed, but if we’re going to judge foreign policy realism based on the effects of detente policy we need to look much more broadly at what it actually achieved.

Update: For whatever it’s worth, Kissinger has written a response to Gerson that is worth reading.