It was perhaps inevitable that Henry Kissinger would be as controversial in his death as he was during his life. His obituaries reflect the extremities of passion he, his work, and his writings generated across the world and across segments of opinion. From academia to the policy world, from public intellectuals to diplomats, from journalists to international affairs enthusiasts - everyone has a verdict ready for a personality that towered over the world of diplomacy and statecraft for the last several decades. In this day and age when everyone has an opinion on everything, pronouncing a verdict on Kissinger is perhaps one of the easiest things one can do. And we are relishing it and how.
Henry Alfred Kissinger has been reviled and celebrated in equal measure but there can be no denying that he remains one of the most influential Western diplomats, who shaped the architecture of the Cold War. The way he shaped it has continued to structure global politics to date. Just in July, China invited the centenarian to open a line of communication with the Biden administration, underlining not only that Kissinger retained an unusual influence on world politics, but also the irony of Beijing, seemingly at the height of its power, having to rely on a diplomat who had left office 46 years back.
In the US, Kissinger's impact was above party politics. His views were sought after by all administrations and he had the ear of all top leaders. In recent years, how much he was taken seriously is another matter altogether. But even at the ripe age of 100, his star power had not diminished and he retained the ability to dazzle with his one-liners and astute observations. His uncanny ability to remain in the news allowed him a larger-than-life aura that he sustained till the very end. In one of his last public appearances, he nonchalantly asked his successors, Hillary Clinton and James Baker, whom they considered the greatest secretary of state since World War II.
Power, for Kissinger, was "the ultimate aphrodisiac" and that search for power whether for himself or for the US - his adopted country - led him, at times, in directions that he himself struggled to rationalize. But a search for stability and order devoid of the constraints of ideology or morality remained the premise around which he had built his own diplomatic and intellectual empire. As he argued, "the management of a balance of power is a permanent undertaking, not an exertion that has a foreseeable end".
During the Cold War, this management saw him leading to the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, the opening up to China, his shuttle diplomacy resulting in the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Paris Peace Accords which concluded America's Vietnam misadventure. But this also led to America turning a blind eye to serious human rights abuses by various military regimes and often pandering to military strongmen in various parts of the world, from Chile and Argentina to Pakistan. For many, Kissinger's complicity in such policy choices made him perhaps the world's foremost war criminal.
Kissinger's statecraft derived from his realpolitik worldview may at times seem out of fashion but it continues to inform policy choices in more ways than it is explicitly acknowledged. As a student of Bismarck and Metternich, Kissinger was categorical that foreign policy, to be effective, should be "based not on sentiment but on an assessment of strength." Global challenges required a thorough engagement with the ever-evolving balance of power, not an idealistic pursuit of norms in a void. He was clear that "a country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security."
It was this realism-inspired partnership of Kissinger with President Richard Nixon that according to George C Herring resulted in "a foreign policy that was sometimes bold and imaginative in conception, sometimes crude and improvised, sometimes brilliant in execution, sometimes bungling; a policy dedicated to the noble goal of a 'generation of peace,' but frequently ruthless and cynical in the use of military power." The world is still being shaped by the transformative changes ushered in the global order during that time.
Kissinger recognized the need to break the Sino-Soviet alliance and it was his outreach to China that essentially changed the trajectory of the Cold War by shifting the balance of power in America's favour. The Cold War may have ended in the early 1990s but it was Kissinger who sowed the seeds of that end in the 1970s. The Middle East of today also owes its origins to Kissingerian diplomatic outreach as he worked to make the US indispensable to regional security.
When Xi Jinping says "China and the United States' relations will forever be linked to the name 'Kissinger,'" and when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, while travelling in Israel, says that "few people were better students of history - even fewer people did more to shape history - than Henry Kissinger," they are merely stating the obvious. The Kissinger overhang on contemporary global politics is huge. The US and the world are still coming to terms with the consequences of the choices America made under Kissinger.
In perhaps his last public remarks in October, he suggested that given the challenges of today, the US "must develop a concept of where we are going and how we intend to get there across party lines and through political differences. Such is the requirement of leadership." It may sound a tad academic but Kissinger seems to be alluding to a palpable lack of strategy in American foreign-making today where engagement with long-term structural trends seems to be giving way to ad hoc tactical policy prescriptions.
And that in the end might be his biggest legacy - using diplomacy effectively to achieve tangible outcomes while remaining alert to its limits in shaping global order.
This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.
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Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...Read More +