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Black and white portrait of Henry Kissinger

The career of Dr Henry Kissinger, the former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State who died aged 100 last month, is a cautionary tale of how an obsession with ‘realism’ can blind academics and statesmen to the human costs of their policies.

Evaluating Kissinger’s legacy is particularly tricky, given his tireless self-promotion. Famously vain, as National Security Advisor under President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford, Kissinger cultivated an image of himself as the mastermind at the heart of American diplomacy.

Kissinger remains highly divisive, with both his greatest fans and most vocal detractors viewing him as an epoch-defining figure. His official biographer Niall Fergusson praised him as a “colossus who bestrode a century”; the historian Greg Grandin, one of his many unofficial biographers, attacked Kissinger as an embodiment of the darker side of the ‘American Century’ whose bleak view of human nature had kept “the great wheel of American militarism spinning ever forward”.

The skewed lens of Kissinger’s Cold War ‘realism’ also led the master negotiator to argue for the expansion of the Vietnam War through the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos and the illegal wiretapping of journalists who sought to uncover the scandal.

Dr Tom Ellis, Department of History

Kissinger would probably wish to be remembered as the diplomat who achieved what many thought impossible – brokering a rapprochement between the United States and Mao’s China. Kissinger was not the first American to breach the ‘Bamboo Curtain’; citizen diplomats had already blazed that trail, and Sino-US contact was often frustrating and sporadic during his tenure, only flowering into an alliance after he left office.

Yet, in implementing President Nixon’s strategy, he did help reconfigure America’s policy towards the world’s most populous nation – a shift with far-reaching consequences. In 2022, US trade with China was estimated at approximately US$758.4 billion, over 74% of which were imports. Kissinger is remembered fondly in the PRC, with Chinese political commentator Shi Shusi likening him to a “giant panda…rare and friendly”.

The opening to the PRC was part of a realist policy of triangulation: playing China and the Soviet Union, the two biggest powers in the communist world, off against each other. Meanwhile, a policy of ‘détente’ involving cooperative agreements with the USSR would enmesh America’s main competitor in a web of interlinked agreements. The communists would be apprehensive about breaking any one agreement for fear of jeopardising their whole relationship with the US.

However, the skewed lens of Kissinger’s Cold War ‘realism’ also led the master negotiator to argue for the expansion of the Vietnam War through the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos and the illegal wiretapping of journalists who sought to uncover the scandal.

To Latin Americans, ‘realism’ often looked like the previous century’s imperialism. Kissinger helped foment a right-wing coup against Salvador Allende, the democratically elected President of Chile, ushering in the murderous dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Kissinger consistently dragged his heels when Congress attempted to force the State Department to take Human Rights seriously.

The Machiavellian principle of ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ led to secret US support for Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge was a useful thorn in the side of the Vietnamese communists. During Kissinger’s tenure, the US looked the other way while American allies Indonesia and Pakistan conducted genocidal campaigns in East Timor and Bangladesh, respectively.

Within Kissinger’s calculus, East Timor was just a ‘little speck of an island’ and the Bangladeshis’ plight paled in significance to maintaining Pakistan as a bulwark of American influence in South Asia.

By the time Kissinger left office in the late 1970s, his structure for peace was a smouldering ruin. Conservatives attacked détente as appeasement, as the US confronted an ‘arc of crisis’ stretching from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan. While the moralistic foreign policy rhetoric of Presidents Carter and Reagan appeared to repudiate Kissinger’s realpolitik, there were important continuities, most notably the relationship with China and the tendency to downplay or overlook atrocities committed by allies.

Out of power, Kissinger parlayed his position as a valued confidant of presidents, premiers, and dictators into a profit through his geopolitical consultancy firm, 'Kissinger Associates Incorporated'. Vladimir Putin was repeatedly photographed listening attentively to the elder statesman. Kissinger helped launder the Russian President’s jingoistic fantasies for Western audiences with statements that Putin was a ‘great patriot’ with eminently reasonable concerns about Ukraine falling into the West’s orbit.

For academics, it might be tempting to view Kissinger as inspirational – the deep thinker who translated an encyclopaedic knowledge of diplomatic history into a high-flying policy career. But he is also a cautionary tale of how clear-eyed “realism” can itself become an ideology as blinkered as the most visionary “idealism,” an ends-justify-the-means credo with tragic and bloody consequences.