In the February 5, 2022 American Purpose video "The Right, Russia, and Ukraine" with David Frum after about 03:00, Frum discusses the US Republican Party's general support for the US' support for Ukraine, despite strong opposing rhetoric from a few members (my transcription, with help from closed captions):

Henry Kissinger used to have a saying that he liked to deploy a lot, that "the policy" he would say "is better than the arguments". And I think that is sort-of where we are now. And what the Ukraine crisis is revealing is while there are tremendous stresses on the Republican party as a party of defensive democracy abroad, that with President Trump off the scene at least for the time being, the impressive news is how, on this issue, how much the Republican Party has reverted to the historic norm.

Not everybody! Senator Josh Holley today, representative Nancy Mace, they have pursued the "television angle". But the contrast of what you are hearing on some places on television and some places on social media contrast to where Majority - sorry, future Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is, where the leaders of the House intelligence and House Armed Services - the ranking members I should say not the leaders, I'm projecting a little bit into the future - but the Republican members of Intelligence, Armed Services, even Kevin McCarthy in the House has attacked President Biden for being too weak, not for being too strong.

I've included enough of a block quote to establish just what Frum means by the applicability of Kissinger's saying to the situation.

Based on the level of David Frum's scholarship and commentary overall, and of Henry Kissinger's extensive presence and influence on US policy, this is not just a random reference to an off-hand comment.

Question: When and in which context did Henry Kissinger say "the policy is better than the arguments"? Are there notable examples?


2 Answers 2


There's nothing that a search engine turns up. Also, the 'quote' doesn't make much sense. Policy is made from arguments. They are its bedrock, it's foundations. Kissenger, for all my differences with this man, is not a stupid man and wouldn't, in my judgment, make such a fatuous statement. But intelligence isn't everything.

However, Niall Ferguson wrote an official biography of Kissinger, so you might have some luck finding something there: he had access to Kissinger's private papers.

According to Ferguson, Kissinger was an admirer of Kant and an "idealist" who believed that policy should be governed by moral principles - and so not a realist.

This to me is some kind of joke, given Kissinger's record on Vietnam. There is also Kant's record on racism, he didn't, despite the rhetoric of his utopia of ends, think at first, that these darkly coloured people should be counted as men. But at least to his credit, he was pestered into changing his mind.

Whereas Kissinger, I think, has never changed his mind about his tole in Vietnam. Kissinger, to my mind, and many others, was responsible for one of the worst genocides in the 20th century, and should be hauled to the Hague on war crime charges.

  • Your first paragraph exactly sums up why I thought that this is a question that needed asking, thanks! It's also possible that Frum's "...that he liked to deploy a lot..." should really be followed by "...at cocktail parties..." and even "...as an ice-breaker..." rather than in scholarly discourse. That might explain why it doesn't show up in search engines. Of course it could also be that Frum is mis-remembering or just making stuff up.
    – uhoh
    May 9, 2022 at 10:17
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    +1 The man loved his quips, a regular Oscar Wilde. But I did not see anything indicative of this particular phrase. Which honestly doesn't convey very much information without giving the context in which it was said. So, while Frum may be a clever guy, he signally failed to communicate very well in the OP's quote, assuming too much of his audience. This supposed Kissinger quote is not equal to McLuhan's "The medium is the message" in terms of conveyed or implied info. May 10, 2022 at 16:51

I think the best way to describe this is as a top-down versus bottom-up approach to national policy.

The bottom-up approach is by far the most common way to make policy decisions. It tends to restrict our choices as we go: we pick up disparate little bits like Christian morality, a sense of honor, national precedent, the facts of the case, the period of time we're in, and we're eventually left with only a few choices we can choose from, given all this data.

Realpolitik, or top-down approach, says, "We want this end result. How can we get there?" We then try to trace the path necessary to get to the result we want. We choose what fundamentals we're using as baselines and only use assumptions that fit our chosen path.

In the Biden-in-Ukraine example, the bottom-up approach would be to say that the US has taken on a leader-of-the-world role, Russia is invading Ukraine for bad/false reasons, we have a tendency to want to protect the small from the bullying of the large, and we have made a treaty with Ukraine that we'd defend them against invasion if they gave up their nukes. Given all of these things, we would have very few choices other than to go to war with Russia.

Biden does not want to go to war for a variety of reasons. So if we start from the premise that we do not want to go to war with Russia (ie, Realpolitik), then we can figure out where we need to go from there. We have to disregard our treaty with Ukraine as too constrictive, but since we want to keep at least a little of the world-view of us as the leader of the free world, we'll organize a coalition of countries to engage in economic sanctions and psyops in hopes that we at least fulfill the intent of the treaty. We want to appease the military-industrial complex for their lost profits from not going to war, so we ship a bunch of our old vehicles to Ukraine and buy new ones. We want to avoid personally embarrassing Putin and avoid Cold War part II, so Biden will act through NATO and not phrase this as the US vs. Russia. We need to speak with diplomats to see where the line is between acts that are completely okay and ones that definitely will be seen as acts of war, and to hash out the murky details in-between.

Laid out like this, realpolitik seems craven, bordering on sociopathic. But at the end of the day, history will judge Biden based on what he does, not what morals and precedents he upheld.

  • 4
    Thank you for the explanation, but I'm looking here for some answer to "In which context(s) did Henry Kissinger say "the policy is better than the arguments"? Are there notable examples?" and I'm not seeing it yet.
    – uhoh
    Apr 26, 2022 at 22:08

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