Declarations of the end of an era are made only in exceptional circumstances. Henry Kissinger’s death is one of them.The passing of America’s preeminent foreign-policy thinker and practitioner marks the end of an era.
His passing at age 100 allows for the convergence of these two views, and the opportunity for a meaningful public debate during an election year on the importance of a coherent strategic foreign policy for the country, and the leadership skills necessary to implement it.
The 1973 Nobel Peace prize, which Kissinger shared with his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho, recognised his contribution to the negotiations that ended the Vietnam war.
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.
Through his career incarnations he became highly facile in the art of pragmatism to achieve his idealistic goals for the global order. This, for what he viewed as in the best interests of the United States. Sometimes that pragmatism worked for the benefit of world peace and stability, as in rapprochement with longstanding enemies. Other times however, it extended to the dark, the callous, the duplicitous and, in the case of Richard Nixon, the ability to leverage a leader’s personal vulnerabilities for perceived greater national gain. And that didn’t always work out all so well.
His accomplishments in office were many and substantial. For starters, there was the opening to China, an opportunity created by the Sino-Soviet split, but discerned and then exploited by Kissinger and Nixon to exert leverage over the Soviet Union (America’s principal adversary at the time). That diplomatic overture not only ended decades of hostility between the US and China. It also produced a formula for finessing differences over Taiwan, laid the foundation for China’s economic transformation, and established an enduring and ever-more important relationship.
There was also détente—the relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union. Kissinger and Nixon (their close rapport is one explanation for Kissinger’s influence) structured the relationship between the era’s two superpowers. That allowed for nuclear-arms control talks, rules of the road for managing conflicts involving their respective allies, and regular summitry—all of which helped keep the Cold War cold when it could have turned hot or, worse, led to nuclear escalation.
Then there was the Middle East. The parallels to today are striking, since it was exactly 50 years ago that Egypt and Syria caught Israel off guard with a surprise attack, just as Hamas did on October 7. Kissinger and Nixon made sure that Israel had the military support it needed, but they also pressured the Israelis not to overuse military force, as that could pull the Soviet Union into the war or eliminate the prospects for diplomacy in its aftermath. Kissinger’s personal “shuttle” diplomacy helped bring about a ceasefire and a separation of opposing armed forces, setting the stage for the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord negotiated by President Jimmy Carter.
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 about 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.
The most controversial policies that he was associated with involved the war in Vietnam. Critics of the war blame Kissinger for prolonging it, and for expanding it into Cambodia, at a time when many judged it to be both unwinnable and not worth fighting. But he also drew fire from supporters of the war, owing to his role in negotiating an end to it. The terms of the “peace” allowed North Vietnam to achieve its victory over the South within two years.
Kissinger also played a controversial role in the events of 1971, when he stood by Pakistan (a US ally that had helped midwife the breakthrough with China) despite reports that its government was carrying out a massive campaign of repression, or what many judged to be a genocide, in what is now Bangladesh. Finally, Kissinger still draws intense criticism for his role in trying to topple Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile, owing to its ideological leanings.
The US tilt towards Pakistan in 1971 did not involve firing an American shot against India, nor did it affect the outcome of the Bangladesh war. In criticising Kissinger’s China policy, it is easy to forget that New Delhi was a much bigger political champion of China in the 1950s, when America was trying to isolate it. India can’t be obsessed about specific moments in history and lose sight of the larger geopolitical dynamic.
In Kissinger’s realpolitik, protecting an important Cold War ally — Pakistan — and turning an adversary like Communist China into a strategic partner were driven by a deep consideration for US interests in the 1970s. That world has now gone. There is now a robust India-US partnership no longer tied to Pakistan and aimed at securing an Asia that an assertive China has destabilised. As an exponent of power politics, Kissinger had no hesitation in accepting later that he would have done precisely what PM Indira Gandhi did in 1971—seize an opportune moment to break up Pakistan and establish India’s primacy in the Subcontinent.
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 ground 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, which 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 Kissinger
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.
After the Cold War ended in 1991, India embarked on economic reforms, and Kissinger became an ardent supporter of the US-India partnership. After India’s nuclear tests in 1998, he was among the first to urge Washington to recognise the reality of an atomic India and find a political accommodation with Delhi by putting aside the non-proliferation ideology. In an interview earlier this year, Kissinger said India’s foreign policy under PM Narendra Modi comes closest to his statecraft based on realpolitik. Kissinger’s praise is not surprising, given the profound reorientation of Indian diplomacy in recent years.
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 national interests in foreign policy, regionally and globally.
Through the end of his life, Kissinger was not shy in commenting on the attributes of effective leadership, especially as they applied to foreign affairs. Not surprisingly, those attributes reflected his belief in pragmatic idealism. In his experience, the great leaders were those who took advantage of the circumstances with which they were presented, who tempered vision with scepticism, who were willing to play parties against one another, and who were prepared to walk away from accepted practises regardless of the risk.
Most important to Kissinger, effective leaders were people who had faith in the future of their respective societies and the elevated purposes they sought to achieve. They were national figures who had a motivating vision, and “the character, intellect, and hardiness required to meet the challenges facing the world order”. To Kissinger, they were generational figures such as Thatcher, Adenauer, De Gaulle, Sadat, and Nixon.
There are places where the Kissinger leadership theme of pragmatic idealism has a direct connection to business leadership. This is most notably in the theme’s emphasis on engaging with diverse stakeholders, seeking the common ground, avoiding contention over limited points of principle, and rejecting bellicosity and belligerence.
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 to 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 practise. 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 practise.
They should look through examples of his work in which one side seizes upon anything resembling a diplomatic opportunity, 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.
The result is a lasting, worthy legacy of seriousness about the world and about the danger of a US foreign policy defined by either under-reach (isolationism) or over-reach (trying to transform situations or regimes that can be only managed, at best). Throughout his long and extraordinarily influential career, Henry Kissinger built a legacy that Americans would be wise to heed in this new era of great-power politics and global disarray.