If you were on the fence about whether artificial intelligence was among the most pressing questions of our time or a fad that tells us much more about those who take an interest in it than about the likelihood of a techno-apocalypse, you probably won't be persuaded by Henry Kissinger's recent contribution to the debate.
The best thing that can be said about the essay in The Atlantic by our 56th secretary of state is that it is very much of a piece with the millions of published words attributed to him. It doesn't really tell us anything, and eventually arrives at the inevitable conclusion that "the U.S. government should consider a presidential commission of eminent thinkers to help develop a national vision [sic]" of AI. I wonder who he thinks ought to head it up.
Few if any of Kissinger's not infrequent public utterances offer a concrete view or even what could loosely be described as "content"; they are the intellectual equivalent of perfume ads, glossy nonsense meant to evoke a vision. You are not actually meant to assign much significance to the individual words and phrases; indeed if you read with any care your head will explode ("Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them? Were we at the edge of a new phase of human history?"). It also explains why he admits that instead of reading or reporting on his subject like a normal writer, he has instead summoned a gang of "acquaintances" to do his non-thinking for him. ("Aware of my lack of technical competence in this field, I organized a number of informal dialogues on the subject, with the advice and cooperation of acquaintances in technology and the humanities.") This is, after all, exactly what a real world-class statesman would do.
For decades now, Kissinger has successfully peddled an image of himself as the grand strategist and master of diplomacy, the far-seeing student of history, the polymath, the seer, the visionary, the rueful cynic, the mordant wit, the amoral cosmopolitan and man about town. We need to stop buying what he wants to sell us. The truth is that Kissinger is to foreign affairs what Hugh Hefner was to human intimacy or Bernie Madoff is to retirement savings: an obvious cynic and fraud.
Many of Kissinger's loudest critics — the late Christopher Hitchens is a good example — actually do him what he would no doubt consider a solid by inflating his significance. In reality, Kissinger is not even a proper war criminal; he just wishes he were one, which is why at one point he actually inflated the number of civilian casualties from the American bombing of Cambodia. It also explains why he has gone out of his way to make little bon mots about genocide: e.g., "If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern." How droll. I mean, really, look at this guy. Think of the amount of ice water that must be running through his veins! He is so ruthless in his pursuit of American interests that he, a Jewish man, can conjure up the possibility of a second Holocaust and then shrug off his sinister hypothetical as irrelevant, the kind of thing only a bed-wetting Fifth Avenue champagne socialist would care about.
From the time he began "consulting" on the Vietnam war for the Nixon administration while still on the Harvard faculty through his White House appointments to an endless series of meaningless academic chaired posts to his present tenure at the crony-financed shakedown machine known as Kissinger Associates, he has successfully fooled the world into thinking that he understood better than anybody else alive crises and developments as varied as the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of China and Islamic terrorism, the war in Iraq, the internet, and now the end of humanity itself. Few people have profited so much from being so wrong about so many subjects of consequence. That, I suppose, is a kind of achievement.
Or is it? In fact, Kissinger belongs to a whole international class of jet-setting incompetents who have somehow captivated millions with their reckless stupidity for nearly half a century now. Like James Earl Carter and Bill Clinton, he has never found a cause or idea to which he does not wish to give the impression of having applied his not very interesting mind.
The truth about Kissinger is that he is not a Machiavellian villain but a boring old fraud.