For nearly a decade, Henry Kissinger, the US national security adviser and secretary of state who has died at 100, was able to put into practice what he had preached in his academic career — that realpolitik diplomacy was rooted in the understanding that achieving a balance of power, as was in place between the demise of Napoleon and the tumult of 1848, required taking the interests of all parties into consideration, but not necessarily the interests of those not holding power.
Under US presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford from 1969 to 1977, Kissinger was unquestionably the dominant international statesman of his time. His every sentence was parsed around the world and his travels keenly followed. He appeared to provide a plausible US foreign policy road map for a domestic audience and a network of US allies as they both looked to Washington for assurance and leadership at the height of the cold war between two nuclear superpowers.
Yet, with the passage of time and hindsight, Kissinger became both revered and reviled. He came into office confronting three big regional problems: Asia (the Vietnam war and China under the imponderable Mao Zedong), the Soviet Union (the adversary in the cold war) and the Middle East (oil, a perennial powder keg). His successful rapprochement with China, a Nixon idea that Kissinger implemented and a staggering achievement by any standards, was offset by his secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war. Certainly in 1968 he had done his best to undermine the existing peace talks in Paris, thereby helping Nixon’s presidential campaign. Nonetheless, in 1973 he was controversially awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Le Duc Tho, his North Vietnamese counterpart — a premature accolade because hostilities did not end until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
His nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union were extremely significant, almost on a par with the Beijing breakthrough. His “shuttle diplomacy” after the brief Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt, also in 1973, was a virtuoso performance (“if this is Tuesday, it must be Damascus”, the saying went) and re-established US diplomatic relations with Cairo, a necessary prelude to the Camp David accords with Israel negotiated by then-president Jimmy Carter.
Then there were the other messier parts of a world that the realist school, which Kissinger exemplified, tended first to see as mere pieces on the cold war chess board. He was very much behind the brutal military coup in Chile in 1973, brought about by his fears that the government of Salvador Allende was conniving to establish a Soviet beachhead in South America. Nor did he try to dissuade the Argentine junta from its ruthless crackdown on its opponents.
He occasionally urged Europe to pursue decolonisation but also thought Portugal would and should hold on to Angola and Mozambique as his pawns on the chessboard (they gained independence in the mid-1970s). Nor did he evince much interest in the growing sentiment in the US against the apartheid regime in South Africa. He favoured Pakistan over India in the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 in spite of evidence from his own diplomats of genocide by Pakistani soldiers, a questionable judgment then and now. His general neglect of human rights amounted to a serious misreading of the importance of soft power.
Kissinger’s modus operandi has also come under increasing scrutiny. An inherent contradiction is that he craved publicity but preferred to conduct most of his diplomacy in secret — and not just diplomacy with other countries but the formulation of policy inside the US government. He ordered the home phones of 17 people to be tapped illegally (that is, without a judicial warrant). They include not only journalists but also members of his own National Security Council staff. Kissinger had a true cynic’s view about the use and abuse of power, once joking: “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” A later interview he gave to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, in which he described himself proudly as a “cowboy”, infuriated Nixon, who reportedly did not speak to him for weeks.
The relationship between the two men is critical to an understanding of Kissinger’s successes and failures. Nixon was no innocent in foreign policy; he had been Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president for eight years. The new president had ideas, but he had never found the man to articulate and implement them until he latched on to Kissinger. That, too, was a surprise. To the extent that the Harvard academic had shown any interest in domestic politics, his lodestar was Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal governor of New York, whom Nixon had defeated for the Republican nomination in 1968. Kissinger had also acquired something of a reputation in gossipy academia of changing his allegiances and saying different things to different people. “I wonder who’s Kissinger now” was a tag that stuck.
The basis for this odd symmetry was that Kissinger admired power, which Nixon had, and Nixon admired intellect, Kissinger’s strength, provided he could share in the glory. Kissinger himself once observed: “Power is a great aphrodisiac”. The historian David Rothkopf, seeing them both as “just as calculating, just as relentlessly ambitious”, portrayed “two self-made men driven as much by their need for approval and their neuroses as by their strengths”. Their meeting of minds meant that they took note of the Sino-Soviet split before most members of the state department and US academics had grasped its potential significance. They realised it could be exploited to America’s advantage. If Washington made friends in China, there was a chance the Soviet Union might become more accommodating on arms control and Berlin, as indeed it did.
That was not an easy case to put at the time. Some US politicians, Democrats and Republicans, thought the administration was too soft with Moscow and criticised Kissinger for continuing to talk about detente while Soviet military power seemed to be steadily increasing. They distrusted his concept of “linkage”, whereby what happened in one part of the world might be tied to what happened elsewhere. Kissinger was none too popular among the leftish intelligentsia either, for it had taken several bloody years to get out of Vietnam, including the bombing of Cambodia, which itself may be regarded as a war crime.
Yet in the end it was not foreign policy that brought Kissinger down. It was Watergate. Kissinger, as previously noted, was not innocent of wire tapping; Nixon’s commitment to it was total, leading to the president’s resignation before an almost inevitable impeachment. Kissinger stayed on as secretary of state under Ford, who succeeded Nixon, but when Ford lost the election to Carter in 1976, the mood had changed. Carter wanted a moral foreign policy and new advisers.
Heinz (as he was originally called) Alfred Kissinger, the son of a school teacher, was born in the Bavarian town of Fürth on 27 May 1923. It was a place historically hospitable to Jews but not so under Adolf Hitler’s regime in the late 1930s. The family left for America, via London, in 1938, but Kissinger never lost his heavy German accent. His brother was once asked why, in contrast, he spoke like an American. “Because I’m the one who listens” was the tart response.
Kissinger was educated at George Washington High School in New York before moving to City College of New York. He became a naturalised American in 1943 and joined the US Army as a private. One of his first tasks at the end of the second world war was to assist in German reconstruction. He revisited Bavaria and was then assigned as administrator in the North Rhine-Westphalia town of Krefeld. He used the name Mr Henry, he said, because he did not want the Germans to think that the Jews were coming back to take their revenge. He drew heavily on his sense of German history and his belief that the Germans like order, though preferably peaceful.
He went to Harvard, where he could have spent the rest of his career, in 1947. His doctoral thesis in 1954 was subtitled “A Study in the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich”, a first blueprint for his career in government. His professorship at Harvard was enough to attract the attention of politicians such as Rockefeller. His 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy raised his profile.
He remained a hugely recognisable figure around the world after he left government, not least because of his establishment in 1982 of Kissinger Associates, a consultancy which mostly advises US and other multinational companies. True to Kissinger form, its client list has never been officially released. Few government doors were closed to him anywhere. He consulted, or was consulted by, every president since Nixon, including Donald Trump, whom he sought, unavailingly, to educate if not influence. He also wrote newspaper opinion pieces, was in demand on the conference circuit and composed several books. The most admired, by common critical consensus, is Diplomacy, published in 1995, while the most recent co-authorship in 2021 is about the future of artificial intelligence, demonstrating an ability to keep up with the times. The most personal are the three volumes of memoir beginning with The White House Years, including accounts of his clandestine negotiations in China.
Kissinger was married twice, first in 1949 to Anne Fleischer. The couple had a son and a daughter but divorced in 1964. Ten years later he married Nancy Maginnes, the well-known New York philanthropist and socialite.
Throughout his life he had an endearing love of football that went back to his early days in Fürth. Even when he was involved in high-level negotiations, the results from Germany’s Bundesliga had to be telexed to him. At a café in São Paulo in the ‘70s, he persuaded Pelé, at the end of his playing career in Brazil, to turn out for the New York Cosmos. He was recruited to help the US bid to host the 2022 World Cup, but that failed.
There is no single epitaph to sum up his life and times. Realpolitik and protecting the national interest involve concessions and compromises, of which he had a fine understanding. They may also entail new, extraneous or unpredictable factors, such as human rights and climate change — not issues that bothered Castlereagh and Metternich, nor, until he had long left his positions of power, Henry Kissinger.