Henry Kissinger, the Centurion’s Last Salute


When Henry Alfred Kissinger turned 100 on 27th May this year, I wrote this tribute in salute to a man who is undisputedly the greatest statesman and diplomatic centurion of the 20th and perhaps even the 21st century. I reproduce here a slightly amended version of that tribute as the world salutes the great diplomat on his final exit salute.

His distinctive deep baritone with a heavy German inflected accent testifies to a man of world historic mission and accomplishment. Henry Alfred Kissinger has in one lifetime graduated from an outstanding scholar and global diplomatic icon into a foreign policy institution and veritable oracle of statesmanship. As he passed on this week at the age of a hundred plus, the world of international affairs and global diplomacy is likely to stand still in tribute to a man whose career embodied and traced the major outlines of United States foreign policy in the 20th century and part of the 21st century. His Teutonic energy remained intact at 100 just as his intellect and analytical insight remained razor sharp. Age and experience only converted his measured elocution into oracular echoes from this world and all ages. Either as National Security Adviser or Secretary of State and, at one point, a combination of both, the strategic footprints and foreign policy compass of the United States still carry the unmistakable imprints of Alfred Heinz Kissinger.

Henry Kissinger’s towering influence has saw the United States grow from a rising global power in the post World War II era to the major bulwark of a rising West and now the undisputed dominant global military and economic power. His is a career that saw the United States rise from a competitor for global pre-eminence into the champion of a unipolar world and now the pillar of the survival of Western predominance.

Kissinger remained in the forefront of the management of American foreign policy, power and influence in a bipolar world characterized by the Cold War between the West and the United States on the one hand and the old Soviet Union and the East bloc countries on the other. It is perhaps to the glory of his strategic foresight and sagacity that by the late 1980s, the United States emerged triumphant as the pre-eminent champion of a unipolar world of free markets and liberal democracy with an obvious technological and industrial advantage. The indices of America’s power have only been widely imitated but not yet equaled or surpassed.

His was a diplomatic influence and intellectual prowess that saw the United States through major wars in Indochina and the Middle East. It spanned the era of nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic  missiles and lethal biological weapons. From a world in which global power was a contest of two dominant power blocs, the Kissinger era also witnessed “the rise of others”, the emergence of smaller equally lethal powers with considerable regional and geo strategic influence and ambition  in Asia , Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Oceania. We now have China, India, North and South Korea, Iran and Israel as armed contestants for regional eminence occasionally brandishing military (including nuclear) capabilities to cause their neighbourhoods considerable insomnia.

In many ways, Henry Kissinger’s career path was a very American story. From his early days as a junior officer in the German army, his family fled from Nazi Germany and the evil of the holocaust and emigrated to the United States. The young German  Heinz Alfred Kissinger, a German Jew became the American Henry Kissinger, the Harvard scholar of modern European history. He soon became part of the pursuit of the American dream of upward mobility through hard work and higher education. Twenty five years of study and academic ascendancy in Harvard revealed his outstanding knack for diplomacy and unique analytical skills in international affairs. He was noticed through the strength of his research and writing by the US establishment. He came to be engaged as a consultant by the State Department under the Kennedy presidency. Specifically, it was the US ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, who initially hired Kissinger as a consultant to assist the State Department with the Vietnam situation which was America’s central foreign policy challenge at the time.

Subsequent interactions with President Kennedy earned him the job of National Security Adviser, a position that placed him in the centre of the raging Vietnam policy vortex. A war was raging between North and South Vietnam mostly along ideological lines placed the United States at the center of global attention because of the ideological underpinnings of the conflict. Because of the material and human costs of the war, what to do with the Vietnam war became a major political and domestic policy issue in the United States. Protests and demonstrations raged in major urban centres as young Americans protested against a war they considered unjust and wasteful and so far from home. Young people intent on dodging the Vietnam draft fuelled the protests as images of war casualties and Prisoners of War were broadcast through the novelty of television and inter continental radio broadcasts.   .

Between 1969-75, Kissinger served as National Security Adviser to President John F. Kennedy. For Kennedy, the quest for peace and triumph in Vietnam could only lead through a decisive victory in the war. And because Vietnam was far away, superiority on the ground could only be assured through intense and massive superiority in the air. This in turn meant intense bombardment of the Vietnamese countryside. Therefore, Kissinger was confronted with the dual task of pursuing peace through diplomatic engagement while working for United States’ victory through a decisive military conquest of North Vietnam.

The irony of Kissinger’s Vietnam legacy is that he was praised for the diplomatic negotiations that led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accord in 1973 which led to the ceasefire. He even received the Nobel Prize for peace on his role in resolving the Vietnam war.  But he  knew about and kept a secret of US bombing of Cambodia. He never believed in South Vietnam as a possible ally except as a strategic bulwark of the US’s larger fight against communism. 

After Kennedy and under Richard Nixon’s presidency, Kissinger was to combine the roles of National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. He became very close to Nixon and the latter became so enamored of Kissinger’s  sweeping intellect and capacity for deft analysis of global tends.  The president came to entrust him with the management of complex negotiations and covert outreach to major allies and adversaries. He superintended the end of the Vietnam war and of course the chaotic US evacuation from Saigon on April 29, 1975. 

Easily his most significant assignment and achievement under Nixon was the opening up of links between Washington and Beijing. Kissinger saw opening of links with China as one of the most effective diplomatic coups to deny Moscow of a major ally in the unfolding bipolar world order. Rapprochement with China would also open up great economic opportunities for American industry in the years ahead. After a seemingly endless series of shuttle diplomatic missions initially through allies and proxies, Kissinger visited Beijing severally to prepare the grounds for Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China from 21st to 28th February, 1972. The president met with Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung in the presence of Kissinger and his deputy, Winston Lord.

As for engagements with the Soviet Union, Kissinger believed and worked for constant diplomatic engagement. He prepared the grounds for the grand Washington summit of 1973 between Richard Nixon and the then Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Kissinger was present alongside Alexei Kosygin, then Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers. The summit was mostly about inconsequential matters like oceanography, marine rights, agriculture and other tangential issues. In Kissinger’s playbook,  summits and meetings with Soviet leaders was a strategy in the ancient rule of keeping your enemies close and under watch in order to follow their thought processes in order to second guess them when necessary.

In the Middle East, Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy was instrumental to the signing of the peace accord between Israel and Egypt in 1979. He was able to achieve this feat as spinoff from his friendship with Anwar Sadat who trusted him as an honest broker . He also enjoyed the confidence of Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Yizshak Rabin who also trusted Kissinger as a person of Jewish descent. This peace accord formed the backbone of the Middle East peace process for over four decades and has subsisted till the present without fundamental distortions.

The burden of history placed the design, execution and management of U.S foreign policy in most of the years of the East-West Cold War in the hands of Henry Kissinger and  his ideological and intellectual disciples in the White House and the Department of State. While engaging in the various encounters in which the US was embroiled, Kissinger and his successors had to contend with balancing between the pre-eminence of the United States and the maneuvers of an ambitious and powerful adversary, the Soviet Union. From 1945 to 1989, the world order was governed by confrontations and threats thereof  between the United States and a counterveilling Soviet Union  in theatres of trouble around the world. The management of this precarious bi-polarity as a US  foreign policy burden fell on the broad shoulders of Dr. Henry Kissinger.

In the process, he evolved what has been described as the Kissinger doctrine in the evolution of US foreign policy. Broadly, the major elements of this doctrine can be distilled into the following:

 The overriding primacy of US national interest as defined by the prevailing conditions,

Deterrence as a principle of discouraging adversarial intentions towards the United States and its allies and their interests around the world,

Championing of nuclear non-proliferation to prevent the acquisition and development of nuclear capability by rogue states,

 United States nuclear pre-eminence in the world

An overriding technological advantage of the United states as a foreign policy tool.

In short, the kernel of the Kissinger doctrine in foreign policy is the concept of ‘order through pre-eminence’. The United States must strive to maintain its dominance of the post -World War II world order by remaining the dominant military, technological and economic power in the world. In addition, a powerful America must remain the principal guarantor of the world order through these instruments of global power. Kissinger’s foreign policy construct was anchored on strength, not weakness. It was the pursuit of world order and peace through the instrumentality of undisputed and overwhelming American power and strength.

For him, the guiding beacon of United States foreign policy must always be the national interest defined on a dynamic scale. The national interest must translate into a grand vision to be pursued through an appropriate grand strategy. These principles and concepts became ingrained in the post -Kissinger days and became the guideposts of subsequent White House foreign policy regimes. It has therefore become convenient to characterize some subsequent National Security Advisers and Secretaries of State such as the late Zbigniev Brezinsky as “Kissingerians”  as a way of acknowledging his clear tradition in the evolution of US foreign policy.

Kissinger’s prodigious intellect has witnessed a vast output of publications that capture not just his experience  on the job but also his insights into the discipline of foreign relations and diplomacy. His major books include: On China, World Order, Leadership, White House Years, Diplomacy , Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Years of Upheaval, Years of Renewal, The Age of Artificial Intelligence. As a result, Kissinger remains the most cited and quoted authority on US foreign policy and global affairs in the modern era.

In his career in and out of government, Kissinger’s global Influence and reach remains strong among those he met at work. Among this select group, his collateral and residual influence as an expert remained strong. In the course of his high profile diplomatic shuttles to project and protect the influence and interests of the United States over these decades, Kissinger was rewarded with ‘friends in high places’. This wide network of leaders included.

Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, president Richard Nixon, France’s President Charles DeGaul, Israel’s Golda Meir and Yishak Rabin, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and many others.  

In his post -White House years, Kissinger has spent the last 46 years as a consultant and emissary to the apex of power all over the world. He has remained relevant for as long as America’s global influence has been evolving.  He has continued to consult for successive occupants of the White House and the Department of State in addition to other world leaders. His advice continues to be sought by leaders and statesmen the world over in an increasingly complex international setting. In turn, he has never ceased to be relevant in the changing times. He has kept abreast and continues to proffer clear headed analyses and solutions to increasingly complex global problems.

On the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kissinger has condemned the invasion but advised that the best way to end the war is to let Russian return to the pre-war territorial boundaries while Ukraine is allowed to join NATO as a matter of urgency. In his view, Ukraine in NATO is the best check on Putin’s future escapades. On the possible big power face -off between the United States and China,  he recently said “Both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger” In his assessment, while America seeks pre-eminence it can show off, China seeks an acknowledgment of its power to attain equilibrium with the West and be respected for its achievements. His fear is that the equilibrium of power between the two major powers may be tilted by advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the next decade. He reckons that AI could interfere with decision making on matters of war and peace among technologically advanced nations. In that eventuality, the persistent war of nerves over recurrent issues like Taiwan could push the United States and China over the brink.

As we celebrate the life achievements of this great statesman, perhaps his only personal regret would be that he passed on at a moment when his Jewish ancestral homeland is enmeshed in a war that is ultimately a summary of the ultimate clash of civilisations. Regrettably, Kissinger will be absent from the negotiating tables when the resolution of Israel’s Gaza war is turned into a restless peace.

As we celebrate the passing of this great man, Kissinger’s ultimate legacy to humanity may be his recognition that the critical determinant of world history is the calibre of leadership that great nations emplace to drive world affairs. That makes the difference between war and peace and between progress and retrogression.

Perhaps Kissinger has left us with the wisdom that human history is ultimately a perennial contest between heroes and villains, between victors and the vanquished and ultimately a celebration of the prevalence of superior power over the morality of power itself.

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