AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Henry Kissinger, perhaps the best-known Secretary of State in American history, turned 100 years old this past weekend. It was a moment for reflection both on the man’s legacy and on America’s place in the world he helped shape.
When Kissinger’s public career largely ended in the 1970s, his legacy seemed clear to both liberals and conservatives. For liberals, he was a ruthless and amoral practitioner of realpolitik whose actions led to countless deaths in Southeast Asia and Latin America. For conservatives, he was an appeaser, whose détente rescued a Soviet Union on the brink of starvation, recognized Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and abandoned America’s commitment to the KMT on Taiwan in favor of rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.
Time has failed to clarify his legacy. On the one-hand, the authoritarian and military regimes he backed in Indonesia and Latin America have largely evolved into democracies, including Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and the Philippines. On the other hand, Marxist regimes which took hold under his tenure in Indochina and Africa have often survived to this day. South Africa is a democracy, if an imperfect one. Mozambique and Ethiopia, less so.
Ironically, it is the realist case that has been undermined more than the moral case has been vindicated. The willingness of a Communist regime in Vietnam to cooperate with the U.S. against China indicates that perhaps the realists had it wrong and that the expense of two decades of war could have been avoided.
The limitation of the realist approach is also revealed in the legacy of Kissinger’s two other great strategies of realpolitik: One, the détente with the USSR and the recognition of the legality of the Eastern European Communist regimes, and two, the decision to open relations with the People’s Republic of China.
At the time, both of these strategies were viewed through the lens of a Soviet Union which was at least the equal of the United States. This was not as an absurd view as it now appears. Both the United States and its allies had been wracked by unrest during the 1960s. Along with the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Britain had the Aden Emergency which saw them driven out of Arabia, while France, Germany, and Italy faced unrest which bordered on revolutionary. With Communist insurgents on the march in Africa, where they seized power in Angola, Ethiopia, Libya, and Mozambique, to any observers, holding the status quo seemed like the best that could be done given the power of anti-war Democrats at home.
While the Ford administration made much of the provisions for human rights monitoring and NGOs in the Helsinki Accords, and veterans of those movements were quick to credit that agreement, and consequently themselves, for the fall of the Iron Curtain, it seems unlikely Kissinger would have opted for the approach if he believed the Soviet Union had a mere 15 years left to live, much less persuaded a Republican administration to go along.
Rather, détente appears to have been an attempt to buy time. It was an effort to freeze the Cold War in Europe, where it was far from clear that an Eastern European economic collapse would predate a Western European political one. It is often forgotten how close Greece came to leaving NATO, that France actually did leave, that Britain had to appeal to the IMF, and an Italian Prime Minister was murdered while Communists became the largest party in Rome.
The opening of U.S. relations with China also seems to have been based on the same assumptions. Under Carter, when actual normalization took place, there may have been hopes that economic reform and engagement would produce the same outcome with Deng Xiaoping as it did with Augusto Pinochet. Perhaps without the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and a different outcome to CCP power-struggles in the 1980s, it might have.
But Kissinger engaged with Mao and Zhou Enlai, not Deng Xiaoping, and it seems implausible he could have held such hopes at the time. Rather, as Kissinger’s own contemporary words assert, the opening was intended to counter the Soviet Union. It was a classic balance-of-power move, where Kissinger hoped to prevent closer Sino-Soviet ties and limit Moscow’s ambitions.
It is unfair to single out any international statesman for potentially overestimating the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.
The more relevant criticisms come from Kissinger’s career and views after he left active politics for the private sector. Especially when it comes to the People’s Republic of China, Kissinger, it is alleged, played down the threat, urging Americans to first ignore China’s rise, and more recently to accommodate an Asia whose “natural state is Sino-centric.”
Two points are important to note here. First, there are three Kissingers, and each was engaged in a different profession. The first, the academic Kissinger, should be evaluated on the quality and insight of his writing. We should assume the views express the honest beliefs of Henry Kissinger.
These reveal a strong faith in the natural corrective nature of the balance of power system, a realism which borders on idealism. Kissinger genuinely believes that provided no one panics or risks a war when one is not needed, the system will negate the need for a war.
The alternative, he would say, would be a war which resolved no issues for either the victors or the vanquished, such as the First World War. Combined with a Whiggish belief in the ultimate superiority of “enlightened” if not outright “liberal” models of society, Kissinger believes that more liberal, democratic, systems will triumph over time absent war.
Hence, he thinks that avoiding war ensures the triumph of the systems he values. There is an element of elitism that flows through Kissinger’s work which implies his definition of “liberal democracy” is extremely oligarchic and may share more with George Soros or the Davos set than with most Americans, but there is no reason to believe that Kissinger the academic would not have pursued the course he did in office, or advocate doing everything in America’s power to avoid a war with China which would gain it nothing.
The second Kissinger is the statesman. Kissinger was an appointed official, initially as National Security Adviser, a White House staffer. His influence, which both his critics and Kissinger himself have been apt to exaggerate at the expense of Nixon and Ford, was dependent on the support of those presidents for his policies.
Kissinger aggressively pursued a vision which he shared with Nixon as National Security Adviser, then fought a slow rearguard action as Secretary of State under Ford to limit the damage of the post-Watergate liberal backlash. If his policy appeared as a fighting retreat against ascendant opponents at home and abroad, that is precisely what it was. It is unclear whether an alternative approach would have been possible with two-thirds majorities of Democrats in Congress, even if, as those like Ronald Reagan argued, such approaches would have been desirable.
The third Henry Kissinger is the private consultant who has continued to market Henry Kissinger™ as a fount of wisdom so that governments will pay him to influence policy. Kissinger has maintained close ties with Beijing, and even if Beijing does not employ him directly in a contractual capacity, Kissinger’s client list is a “who’s who” of companies with business in China who are directly threatened by a Sino-American conflict.
However, personal financial incentives are probably unneeded for Kissinger to adopt the outlook he has. For someone who has always seen the international system through an elitist lens, he would be inclined to internalize the fears of war among the global economic elite as war posing an existential threat to the world as a whole. Just as the outbreak of the First World War marked the end of the world for the old aristocracy and social order of Europe, a Sino-American conflict, no matter who won, would mark the end of the Davos-WTO-WEF world which for Kissinger is the same thing.
For Kissinger, a world without Davos, without global elites who are more powerful than governments, is a new dark age of tyranny by local demagogues. But what he sees as tyranny may well be seen by parents concerned about the content Disney or TikTok are producing as liberation.
The debate over Kissinger’s views on China is missing the key context of what precisely China is a threat to. If the question is whether the Davos set, the WEF, and WTO can coexist with a rising China, the answer is absolutely that they can. China’s elite will happily join those organizations, and the CCP has no true desire to displace the children of American and European elites, whose presence at the same schools and colleges acts as a status symbol for the new rulers. Kissinger is not wrong when he says China’s rise poses no threat to that system, but that a war would.
The problem is that the same argument can be made, and has been made by Kissinger biographer Niall Ferguson, about why a German victory in the First World War would have been better for Britain than the British “victory.” Writing from the perspective of an admirer of the British Empire and upper classes, Ferguson can argue that for the aristocrats and monarchs of Europe, which group of monarchs was on-top would be less important than the survival of monarchy.
Kissinger’s arguments about the need to be open to a “natural” “Sinocentric” order in Asia are akin to Ferguson’s suggestions that Britain should have accepted German domination of Europe.
These arguments assume that the interests of nations were identical with the interests of their elites. Ferguson is at least honest enough to own up to this premise, and has spent a career arguing that Britain was its elite. The experience of Hitler and Stalin completes the otherwise difficult task of making Wilhelm II and Nicholas II look tolerable. But these arguments amount to saying little more than, “It could be worse.” And the answer is yes, it could.
However, the new Davos elites are far more international than even their widely intermarried aristocratic predecessors. The latter at least feigned commitment to own national cultures and care for the interests of their compatriots. The new elites flaunt their contempt, and it is impossible to discuss ESG and DEI initiatives without considering the degree to which they are intended to offend a large number of ordinary people to show off that the rich and powerful can afford to do so.
The younger Dr. Henry Kissinger had a lot to say about diplomacy, and the dangers of war, but also understood the necessity of resisting Napoleon and Hitler, the latter of whom drove Kissinger’s family to flee to the United States. At 100, Kissinger seems to identify more with the German aristocrats whose nostalgia for the monarchy led them to indulge Hitler, and British aristocrats whose contempt for the post-war order led them to not just to embrace appeasement but make a fetish out of being Pro-Nazi.
There is much to learn from Henry Kissinger’s career. He was among the best of the elites. But we must keep in mind that his “realism” was driven by ideological idealism, both about how the world worked, and what should be valued, so much so that history’s rendering of his record should call into question the necessity rather than just the morality of his policies. And in our ultimate assessment of Kissinger’s legacy, we must ask ourselves not whether he is wrong, but whether Kissinger’s priorities are the same as ours.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.