Declarations of the end of an era are made only in exceptional circumstances. Henry Kissinger’s death is one of them.
Kissinger was born into a Jewish family in Germany, and fled to the US in 1938 after the Nazis seized power. He rose to one of the highest offices in the US government, and became the first person to serve as both secretary of state and national security adviser.
Kissinger advised a dozen US presidents, from Richard Nixon to Joe Biden. For advocates of realpolitik – a quintessentially pragmatic, utilitarian approach to foreign affairs – Kissinger was both author and master.
Across many years, his viewpoint remained largely unchanged: national security is the centrepiece of sovereignty, as both a means, and end in itself. From this perspective, Kissinger’s transformative diplomatic involvement in seminal events in the 20th century, and iconic insights in the 21st have shaped swathes of western geopolitics.
His fierce ambition was a key part of his vision, namely to rework the bipolar structure of the cold war, bent on establishing both US power, and arguably his own role in it.
Kissinger had no qualms backing the military dictatorship behind Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in the 1970s. He supported the CIA in overthrowing president Salvador Allende of Chile in 1970, advocated sustained bombing in areas of North Vietnam, and encouraged the wiretapping of journalists critical of his Vietnam policy. He prioritised security over human rights, and commercial control over self-determination.
None of this was surprising. Kissinger’s entire approach to foreign policy was unsentimental at best, and brutish at worst. Peace, and the power to conclude a peace, could only be hewn coarsely from the unforgiving fibre of state relations, he believed.
To his critics, Kissinger’s actions in Vietnam, Chile, Indonesia and beyond significantly challenged his legacy of negotiation and diplomacy, and – in the eyes of some – were tantamount to war crimes.
Peacemaker or polariser?
Kissinger’s legacy will remain a mixed one. It incorporated truly ground-breaking efforts in opening up talks between the US with China and the Soviet Union, alongside visibly polarising outcomes for US foreign policy in its relations with South America and south-east Asia.
As secretary of state to presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger’s geopolitical achievements established him as an elder statesman of the Republican Party. This rested on a trinity of endeavours: pulling the US out of the Vietnam War, establishing a host of new diplomatic connections between the US and China, and cultivating the first stages of détente (improved relations) with the Soviet Union.
Vietnam remains the most contentious of these areas, with accusations that Kissinger blithely applied bombing and destruction in Cambodia to extract the US from the Vietnam war. The peace was fragile and hostilities continued for years afterwards without the Americans.
Nixon and China
Kissinger’s reputation is on sturdier grounds with the grand strategy to permanently open relations between the US and both China and the Soviet Union. This facilitated a reduction in east-west tensions that materially benefited the US. It also saw Kissinger effectively playing the two communist powers against each other.
Concentrated through the lens of the cold war, the majority of Kissinger’s interactions were based on an approach that balanced caution with aggression, and pragmatism with the acquisition of power.
This was sometimes directly, but often through the use of proxy wars, including Vietnam and the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and Arab states, which descended into a power play with the Soviets, as did the 1971 India-Pakistan war. The image of Kissinger entirely comfortable with the high-stakes poker game between superpowers is an arresting one.
Post-cold war geopolitics did not diminish Kissinger’s overall approach. He counselled generations of US decision-makers to remember the virtues of allying with smaller states as well as superpowers for reasons of power and commerce, and a commitment to retain lethal force in the US foreign policy toolbox.
For scholars of international relations, Kissinger’s numerous books, from the iconic Diplomacy and Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, to Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy are an inventory of hard-headed views on the unrelenting demands of classic and modern statecraft and the challenges of crafting not just foreign policy, but grand strategy.
They are also a masterclass in European history, with a powerful message regarding sovereignty and the supreme role of the national interests in foreign policy, regionally and globally.
Kissinger’s relentless dedication to realpolitik as the fiercest approach to managing international affairs is at odds with the many elements of his personality. Nowhere is this more evident than in his writing, with “characteristics ranging from brilliance and wit to sensitivity, melancholy, abrasiveness and savagery”.
Kissinger’s final impact is on the hardware and software of global diplomacy: guns versus ideas. A pragmatic, even cynical approach tackling the imbalance of power between states impelled Kissinger to promote seemingly paradoxical approaches: ground-breaking diplomatic approaches to ensure peace, easily reconciled with a ruthless reliance on military power.
This, in turn, gave his counterparts little option other than to cooperate, which they generally did, from the North Vietnamese to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, to China’s prime minister Zhou Enlai.
In his later years, seemingly immune to his foreign policy bungles, Kissinger’s celebrity diplomat status remained undimmed, somehow confirming the sense that international relations routinely transcends domestic politics, and in doing so, remains both a high stakes game, and a distinctive area of practice. His passion for foreign affairs never dimmed, commenting on the October 7 Hamas attack just a few weeks before his death.
For every one of Kissinger’s brilliant moves, there was a bungling countermove. Students of foreign policy need therefore to consider both Kissinger’s scholarship and his practice.
They should look through examples of his work in which one side seizes upon anything resembling a diplomatic opportunity, and commandeers its potential to produce a win, and then calls that a victory. Such victories however could be fleeting and left behind tensions that frequently came home to roost.