Editor’s note: Legendary diplomat Henry Kissinger passed away on November 29. Below, five FPRI experts examine the extraordinary legacy of the former national security advisor and secretary of state.
Henry Kissinger’s geopolitical insight was to see beyond ideological labels to understand that, though both were communist totalitarian regimes, China and the Soviet Union were strategic competitors, and that one could be played against the other. This gave the United States the leverage it needed to gain an upper hand in the Cold War. In reframing the relationships among the superpowers, his strategy was brilliant. Kissinger was, alas, not quite so insightful in his assessment of the internal weaknesses of our adversaries, and missed how we could use these weaknesses to bring down the Soviet Union, and thus end the Cold War completely. He also missed the long-term implications of a stronger China, and—like most other grand strategists—overestimated the likelihood that engagement with the West would moderate the Chinese Communist Party. We’re still living with the results of this miscalculation today. But give Kissinger credit for injecting hard-headed calculation into US strategic thinking, especially at a time when academics insisted on thinking how the world ought to work, rather than how it really does.
Henry Kissinger’s place in American life has always been complicated. In a country famous for its studied innocence, even ignorance toward history, he approached diplomacy with a deep and complex understanding of historical connections. In a country that aspires to high ideals of human rights and democracy, he pursued a realpolitik that often disregarded those ideals at the expense of innumerable human lives. He embodied the American Dream of immigrant success while claiming to reject dreams and dreamers. He held a mirror to our great power aspirations and we did not always like what we saw. A paradox to the end, he remained a sought-after geopolitical adviser for generations of leaders, even as he has not held a position of national responsibility in fifty years. He leaves us dealing with a world he helped build, facing questions that he raised but could not answer. We will continue to struggle with his legacy.
In the late nineteenth century, Lord Palmerston was still a controversial figure. By the twentieth, he was considered by many to have been one of Britain’s greatest foreign ministers. Kissinger’s reputation will follow a similar path. Of all the memoirs written by former American secretaries of state and national security advisors during the past few decades, his are certainly the most vast and the most intellectually stimulating, revealing the elaborate historical and philosophical milieu that surround difficult foreign-policy decisions. Kissinger will have the final say precisely because he wrote so much better for a general audience than did most of his critics.
Walter A. McDougall
Henry Kissinger was a giant of statecraft. To be sure, he will remain a controversial figure, but historians will surely record that his tenure as Nelson Rockefeller’s chief adviser on nuclear weapons and foreign policy, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor (side note: Kissinger was selected over the other finalist for that post, FPRI’s own Robert Strausz-Hupe!), Nixon’s and President Gerald Ford’s secretary of state, and as the influential chief of his consulting firm Kissinger Associates made his career more impactful on American foreign policy than that of any other individual … and he remained in the forefront of policy debates for sixty-plus years. I would rank him among the top-three twentieth-century secretaries of state, together with Charles Evans Hughes and Dean Acheson, and among the top-five in our nation’s history together with John Quincy Adams and William Henry Seward. To use his own favorite adjective about himself, Henry was “complicated” … and brilliant.
The passing of Henry Kissinger at age 100 has unleashed armies of fierce critics and devout allies who share one thing at least: they had plenty of time to hone their obituaries. For some, Kissinger was a skillful chess master who unlocked the Cold War with the China gambit. For others, he was a war criminal with his hands drenched in the blood of innocents from Cambodia to Pakistan. Both these positions emphasize Kissinger’s agency, his virtuoso performance, and his capacity to steer the ship of state.
But Kissinger’s heroism and villainy were often a reflection of the deeper international system. Kissinger helped open US relations with China, but this was the culmination of a profound structural shift, the Sino-Soviet split. Kissinger negotiated America’s exit from Vietnam after tortuous negotiations and further ruinous death and destruction, including an expansion of the war into Cambodia. But Kissinger didn’t start the Vietnam War and instead inherited an almost impossible situation, including extensive communist infiltration into Cambodia. One wonders how different the world would be with a different US national security advisor. Even Jimmy Carter—who supposedly replaced Nixonian realpolitik with liberal idealism—ended up providing tacit support for the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Kissinger seems larger-than-life and he certainly mattered: nudging and cajoling, and maneuvering and sometimes even controlling events. But he was also in many ways a man of his time, trying to steer through powerful underlying currents.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.