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Henry Kissinger at 100 years of age — but never of solitude

Henry Kissinger at 100 years of age — but never of solitude
Portrait of US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Washington DC, 23 May 1969. (Photo: White House via CNP / Getty Images)

Dean Acheson, George C Marshall and Henry Kissinger were the three most important US secretaries of state of the 20th century. Acheson and Marshall shaped the US response to the Soviet Union in the rise of the Cold War, while Kissinger was both a theorist and implementer in the years between the Vietnam War and the era of detente. He has turned 100 and he continues to focus attention on big issues.

In the late 1970s, my wife and I, then recently transferred from South Africa to Washington, DC, had purchased tickets to see the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in a new production of Don Quixote. The ABT had just become the artistic home for Mikhail Baryshnikov, the electrifying Russian dancer who had left the Soviet Union to escape the stultifying cultural restrictions of his homeland. For this production, the ABT had three rotating pairs of dancers for the two leads, with Baryshnikov in one of those three pairings.

The theatre insisted they would not say which cast was performing on which day, and so a ticket purchaser could not ensure they would be able to see the new international star. Given that circumstance, we took our chances, purchased our two tickets, and on the night of that performance, off we went to the theatre. 

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Henry and Nancy Kissinger circa 1980 in New York. (Photo: PL Gould / Images / Getty Images)

As we arrived, the hall filled up in anticipation. Then, just as the curtain was about to rise, in came Henry Kissinger and his new wife, Nancy Maginnes — a New York City socialite, former protégé from Kissinger’s time at Harvard, and a staffer for Nelson Rockefeller — who took their seats in the presidential box. Every head in the audience turned to see them. It became crystal clear we would be seeing Baryshnikov that evening. 

Unlike us, someone like Henry Kissinger had certainly been given a heads-up about who would be dancing on which night. Kissinger was at the apex of his fame — even if he also had collected an impressive roster of detractors for decisions he had made while he was national security adviser and then both that job and secretary of state. 

Having left his official positions after Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 as president, Kissinger was already thinking about his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates (established in 1982), that would draw upon his unparalleled Rolodex of the rich, the famous, and the most powerful people on the planet to reach out to for business as head of the uber political risk advisory and international affairs consulting firm. Before the consulting firm and after he left the state department, he wrote a volume of memoirs and taught at Georgetown University.

In a convergence of power and fame, following his divorce from his first wife, Kissinger had become a renowned power dater, with well-covered evenings escorting famous actresses, authors and other female celebrities, often reported in major newspapers. And, of course, he was first prize as a guest for exclusive power-broker dinner parties in New York City and Washington — and elsewhere. 

An unlikely babe magnet

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American diplomat Henry Kissinger and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann attend an American Film Industry dinner in Hollywood on 31 March 1973. (Photo: Frank Edwards / Fotos International/Getty Images)

To those who wondered how it came to pass that a middle-aged, slightly pudgy wearer of thick glasses, a man who spoke with a thick German accent — despite having lived in the US since 1938 — about things like global strategic balances and nuclear forces, and who was rumoured to have been the model for Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name*) had become a babe magnet, Kissinger explained: “Power is the best aphrodisiac.” 

In a wild restatement of that observation, Kissinger became the lascivious character in John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, a man who openly lusts after a Chinese dancer, even while attending a state dinner in Beijing. Power he had — and power he continued to hold — despite having no formal government role, post-1976. Even now, at 100 years of age, his impact remains impressive, and an interview with him on his 100th birthday about the future of global affairs commands several full pages in The Economist.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The life, times & morality of Henry A. Kissinger

It is inevitable, given his long run at a pinnacle of power and the breadth of his ideas, to ask: What did Henry Kissinger achieve over his career? How should we evaluate his impact? What were the high-water marks and successes? What are the origins of a worldview he put into practice? And, crucially: What must go on the other side of that ledger? 

Escape from Nazi Germany

Kissinger’s life began in the sleepy Bavarian town of Furth. From there, Kissinger, a football-mad teenager, and his family had been lucky enough to have escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938, just before World War 2 began and Hitler’s Final Solution crashed down over Europe’s Jews. For an observant, thoughtful young person, such experiences must have left a deep imprint on his understanding of how easily stability and order could come crashing down and how chaos and evil could replace them instead.

After high school, Kissinger entered City College of New York but was drafted into the army during World War II. After the war ended, he was assigned to a position within the military’s denazification programme of his former homeland, the now Allied-occupied Germany. Thereafter, supported by the programme of university financial aid for veterans, he entered Harvard University and, under the mentorship of the redoubtable Professor William Elliott, wrote his 400-page-long senior seminar paper, thereby setting the record for the longest such paper in Harvard’s history. That result generated a new rule at Harvard that limited the length of all future senior seminar papers. 

His chosen subject with its title, The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant, was a stab at the topic that eventually turned into a pillar of his worldview. Kissinger finished his MA and PhD at Harvard, with a PhD dissertation entitled Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich).  

The concept of ‘legitimacy’

In that dissertation, h grappled with the concept of “legitimacy,” arguing that in an international context this meant, as he wrote, “Legitimacy as used here should not be confused with justice. It means no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy.” 

In other words, an international order accepted by all of the major powers is, by definition, a “legitimate” one. In contrast, an international order unacceptable to one or more of the great powers of the time is a “revolutionary” one and thus is dangerous. 

As Kissinger had described it in his book  A World Restored (effectively a reworking of the dissertation), by replacing the turmoil and revolutionary ardour of the Napoleonic era, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Europe’s leading nations of Britain, France, Austria, Prussia and Russia had mutually agreed to restore the balance of power that became the “Concert of Europe”. 

This new conservative order — and the geopolitical stability it created — was legitimatised by its acceptance by the European great powers. As Kissinger moved into the actual practice of diplomacy and foreign policy in 1969 onward, he had defined the crucial task for US power would be to conserve — or establish — a stable international order — and it would be his task to achieve this. 

Such an order paid scant regard to public sentiment or opinion, or to abstract moral principles. In effect, legitimacy was thus the determinant of morality in the international order. His view about power and order/stability became the guiding principle for his most consequential achievements — but also served as the lodestar for those decisions and actions which have subsequently generated the most heated and vociferous criticism. 

Before Richard Nixon appointed Kissinger as his national security adviser in 1969, in his efforts to move beyond academic life, Kissinger had hitched his wagon to the political fortunes of the then New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, effectively becoming that figure’s foreign policy adviser. Rockefeller was the man many people had expected would become the 1968 Republican presidential nominee. 

But when that bid shrivelled, Kissinger began repositioning himself towards another prime contender, Richard Nixon. Earlier, while Kissinger was not on the professorial track to rise to the top tier of academia at Harvard, he had headed the famed Harvard International Seminar, a programme that had brought dozens of influential individuals, and those who would become so, together for intensive explorations of global issues.

Kissinger had by then already become famous — or, perhaps notorious for many — with his 1957 volume, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.  There he created an analytical framework for decisions about employing nuclear weapons in contemporary warfare. In this, he was criticising the Eisenhower administration’s “massive retaliation” nuclear doctrine, instead advocating the employment of tactical nuclear weapons to achieve victory.

The Vietnam War

By becoming Nixon’s national security adviser, and then eventually serving as both the national security adviser and secretary of state, Kissinger was now the lead for the negotiations (already begun during Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson) to unwind the long-running US engagement in Vietnam’s war. Rather than simply a goal to end the US’s role in the conflict, Kissinger’s goals were to win time for the South Vietnamese regime to achieve some measure of independent success and simultaneously to limit the role of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong in any future settlement — while keeping the pressure on the latter two forces via the threat of a continued bombing campaign against the North and the ongoing presence of US ground troops. 

The agreement in Paris that was eventually reached would draw down the bombing of the North and allow for a further reduction in US participation in the fighting, yet theoretically would also keep South Vietnam alive to fight another day. Not surprisingly, while Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (the North Vietnamese negotiator) were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this, the latter declined to accept his medal as the Paris Agreement represented an incomplete end to US participation in the war. 

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From left, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and US President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) listen to Congressman and vice president-designate (and future US President) Gerald R Ford (1913-2006), with Nixon’s Chief of Staff Alexander Haig (1924-2010), as they talk in the White House’s Oval Office, Washington DC, 13 October 1973. (Photo: White House Photo Office / PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

Kissinger’s furious US critics on the left charged that he had needlessly kept the fighting from ending to generate a fig leaf of success while thousands more soldiers and civilians in Vietnam continued to perish. Meanwhile, his critics on the right argued he had traduced prior sacrifices in arranging a staged withdrawal. By 1975, the South Vietnamese government collapsed after virtually all US personnel were withdrawn, after a decade and a half of participation in the hostilities there.

Meanwhile, in 1970, following the beginning of a secret bombing campaign the previous year in the border jungles of Cambodia that was designed to hamper North Vietnamese movements of supplies and personnel, the decision was taken to invade a portion of Cambodia adjacent to South Vietnam to interdict the movement of North Vietnamese troops and materiel there. This action triggered mass protests in the US and also led to the collapse of Cambodia’s fragile neutrality. 

In that heretofore neutral nation, the fighting brought a fanatical Khmer Rouge and its army to power, and they carried out a slaughter of the country’s middle class (and anybody with an education or even people who wore glasses). Thereafter, waves of desperate migrants attempted to flee that new regime’s butchery. For many, the violent collapse of Cambodia became yet another failed demonstration of the Kissingerian impulse to conduct a foreign policy of conserving power, but one sans any real sense of morality regarding the consequences of actions taken.

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President Richard Nixon meets Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on 21 January 1974 in the Oval Office. (Photo: National Archive / Newsmakers)

Simultaneously, Kissinger was searching for ways to a more stable global balance of power between the great powers, the US and the Soviet Union, and, increasingly, China as well — putting into action the framework he had explored in A World Restored. It became clear to both Kissinger and Nixon (despite the latter’s growing preoccupation with his domestic scandals) that a way could be found to harness the growing acrimony between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in Beijing — heretofore public allies — to build a US relationship with China that would serve as a counterbalance against the Soviet Union and its nuclear strength.

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Henry Kissinger leaves the Elysee Palace, Paris, France, after a meeting with President Pompidou to discuss the Soviet Union. (Photo: Keystone / Getty Images)

Ping-pong diplomacy

Carrying out two trips to Beijing (one in near-total secrecy) and employing the impact of what became called ping-pong diplomacy (in honour of the first sports exchange between the US and China), and then with an astonishing visit to China by President Nixon, Kissinger achieved his most consequential foreign policy achievement — a cautious rapprochement between heretofore bitter antagonists that could be a counterweight and check on the USSR, despite the facts that US troops were still engaged in combat in nearby Vietnam, and the US’s continued support for the Nationalist government’s rule of Taiwan. Even more astonishing was that this realignment had taken place as China was still in the final throes of the chaotic “Cultural Revolution”. 

This achievement eventually led to full diplomatic relations between the two nations, the cessation of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and US support for China’s assumption of a seat at the UN, including permanent member status in the Security Council. Until very recently, the creation of this triangular balance between China, the US and the Soviet Union had led to Kissinger’s achievement of a more stable international system. It encouraged spectacular growth in US-China trade and investment as China came to embrace capitalist economic models. It also included US support for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization as part of China’s increasing buy-in of the international rules of economics and trade. 

For most observers, this great change in the international system was seen as largely a result of Kissinger’s skills and imagination (together with his Chinese interlocutors), even as some of Kissinger’s critics now argue this opening with China has also led to developments that mean a more unstable international system — as China is increasingly eager to supplant the US as the 21st century’s leading nation, with its economic fortunes continuing to rise.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A new world order emerges as Trump once again ignores history

One part of Kissinger’s management style as secretary of state should also be noted that was particularly visible in his dealings with China. He concentrated power and decision-making within a very small circle of trusted aides such as Winston Lord, largely leaving the bulk of the State Department’s staff — including many senior, experienced diplomats — out in the cold and often unaware of the negotiations and discussions the secretary was engaged in. As a result, while he could move swiftly and adroitly, he largely failed to inspire loyalty among the thousands of experienced hands within the department itself.

Problematic choices

In other parts of the world, the Kissingerian vision led to policies and actions that sought to preserve his vision of global stability and balance, but often at the expense of those who would seek changes in their respective nations. Among more problematic choices, in the South American nation of Chile, Kissinger’s policies led to active US support of a military coup in 1973 that overthrew the elected socialist leader, Salvador Allende, and led to a violent, repressive regime ruling for decades. A military coup in Argentina, three years later, similarly received the blessing of the secretary of state. 

In the war between India and Pakistan, the “tilt” towards Pakistan meant violent repression of East Pakistan that triggered a successful Indian invasion that created the nation of Bangladesh. By the same token, Kissinger’s handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Yom Kippur War as well as a Greek coup that led to an abortive union with Cyprus and the subsequent Turkish invasion of the eastern half of the island also came under intense scrutiny and criticism. 

In Africa, Kissinger’s leadership sought to build a tighter relationship with Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, as well as a more forgiving attitude towards Portugal’s rule of its African empire — largely in exchange for the continuity of strategic bases in the Azores. Still, Kissinger did play a key background role in bringing pressure on Ian Smith’s isolated minority government (via South Africa’s BJ Vorster) to move towards majority rule in what was then Rhodesia, presumably in the larger interest of greater stability in southern Africa.  

Meanwhile, in that search for a balance of stability among the great powers, Kissinger’s efforts led to the successful conclusion of negotiations for the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (or Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) with the Soviet Union, an agreement that limited strategic missile defensive systems in both nations to two sites only — one for the two capital cities and one for clustered intercontinental ballistic missile silos. The two nations eventually each limited their deployment of such systems to one each, around Moscow and a missile field in North Dakota respectively. 

As the Nixon administration ended (complete with that bizarre moment in which the president, at the end of his tether, beseeched Kissinger to fall to his knees to pray with him, Kissinger moved on to other pursuits.

In subsequent years, the former secretary of state has continued to produce significant volumes on international affairs, well into his 90s. Among them are On China, World Order, and The Age of AI: And Our Human Future.

Views on the future

On the occasion of his centenary year, The Economist conducted a major interview with him to get his analysis of what the future holds for the international order.

As the Economist described the man, “Nobody alive has more experience of international affairs, first as a scholar of 19th-century diplomacy, later as America’s national security adviser and secretary of state, and for the past 46 years as a consultant and emissary to monarchs, presidents and prime ministers. Mr Kissinger is worried. ‘Both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger,’ he says. ‘We are on the path to great-power confrontation.’

“…Mr Kissinger is alarmed by China’s and America’s intensifying competition for technological and economic pre-eminence. Even as Russia tumbles into China’s orbit and war overshadows Europe’s eastern flank, he fears that AI is about to supercharge the Sino-American rivalry. Around the world, the balance of power and the technological basis of warfare are shifting so fast and in so many ways that countries lack any settled principle on which they can establish order. If they cannot find one, they may resort to force. ‘We’re in the classic pre-World War One situation,’ he says, ‘where neither side has much margin of political concession and in which any disturbance of the equilibrium can lead to catastrophic consequences.’

“Mr Kissinger is reviled by many as a warmonger for his part in the Vietnam war, but he considers the avoidance of conflict between great powers as the focus of his life’s work. After witnessing the carnage caused by Nazi Germany and suffering the murder of 13 close relatives in the Holocaust, he became convinced that the only way to prevent ruinous conflict is hard-headed diplomacy, ideally fortified by shared values. ‘This is the problem that has to be solved,’ he says. ‘And I believe I’ve spent my life trying to deal with it.’ In his view, the fate of humanity depends on whether America and China can get along. He believes the rapid progress of AI, in particular, leaves them only five-to-ten years to find a way.

“…The urgent test is how China and America behave over Taiwan. Mr Kissinger recalls how, on Richard Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972, only Mao had the authority to negotiate over the island. ‘Whenever Nixon raised a concrete subject, Mao said, “I’m a philosopher. I don’t deal with these subjects. Let Zhou [Enlai] and Kissinger discuss this.”…But when it came to Taiwan, he was very explicit. He said, “They are a bunch of counter-revolutionaries. We don’t need them now. We can wait 100 years. Someday we will ask for them. But it’s a long distance away.””

Beyond the US-China relationship, Kissinger also turned his attention to the present difficulties with Russia. As the magazine wrote, “Mr Kissinger begins his analysis by condemning Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. ‘It was certainly a catastrophic mistake of judgment by Putin at the end,’ he says. But the West is not without blame. ‘I thought that the decision to…leave open the membership of Ukraine in NATO was very wrong.’ That was destabilising, because dangling the promise of NATO protection without a plan to bring it about left Ukraine poorly defended even as it was guaranteed to enrage not only Mr Putin, but also many of his compatriots.

“The task now is to bring the war to an end, without setting the stage for the next round of conflict. Mr Kissinger says that he wants Russia to give up as much as possible of the territory that it conquered in 2014, but the reality is that in any ceasefire Russia is likely to keep Sevastopol (the biggest city in Crimea and Russia’s main naval base on the Black Sea), at the very least. Such a settlement, in which Russia loses some gains but retains others, could leave both a dissatisfied Russia and a dissatisfied Ukraine.”

But looking more broadly, Kissinger “…stresses that humanity has taken enormous strides. True, that progress has often occurred in the aftermath of terrible conflict — after the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic wars and the second world war, for example, but the rivalry between China and America could be different. History suggests that, when two powers of this type encounter each other, the normal outcome is military conflict. ‘But this is not a normal circumstance,’ Mr Kissinger argues, ‘because of mutually assured destruction and artificial intelligence.’

“‘I think it’s possible that you can create a world order on the basis of rules that Europe, China and India could join, and that’s already a good slice of humanity. So if you look at the practicality of it, it can end well — or at least it can end without catastrophe and we can make progress.’”

Kissinger concludes his analysis by reaching back to the ideas he first explored in his senior thesis. As he told his interviewer, “Immanuel Kant said peace would either occur through human understanding or some disaster. He thought that it would occur through reason, but he could not guarantee it. That is more or less what I think.” 

Right about here, one might recall Albert Einstein’s response to the question about the weapons of World War 3, to which Einstein reportedly said that he didn’t know, but the war after that would be fought with bows and arrows, and sticks and stones.

Henry Kissinger has been thinking about and working in the business of international relations and foreign policy for longer than pretty much any of its current practitioners have been alive. Agree with him or disagree with him; believe his actions have been enormously consequential, or castigate him for his decisions and choices and the dire outcomes they led to; nevertheless, his ideas about history should not be ignored — nor should his warnings about the future be forgotten. DM

* Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern — the film’s director and the primary scriptwriter — always insisted Henry Kissinger was not their model for Dr Strangelove. Rather, the character was a combination of physicist Dr Herman Kahn, rocket scientist Werner von Braun, and Dr Edward Teller, the “Father of the H-bomb,” who collectively inspired the unforgettable cinematic character played by Peter Sellers. Still, the legend of Dr Kissinger as Dr Strangelove remains an evergreen popular one.


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