On November 29, 2023, former United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger passed away at the age of 100. The impressive age reflects the man’s longevity. His longevity, of course, takes not only the form of his time on this mortal plane of existence, but also the longevity of his thought. Henry Kissinger leaves behind a significant body of work – the seminal Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy; the insightful World Order; and a number of other written works, including On China and Diplomacy. Critics, of course, have predictably condemned Henry Kissinger’s legacy in the harshest words possible. Leaving aside that the reductive analysis of Kissinger as a “war criminal” involves choosing to wear blinders to the reality of the Cold War world – or that Kissinger himself would likely be unfazed by various threats to desecrate his grave – the legacy of Kissingerian thought will long outlive him, much to the chagrin of those critics who consider him the most ethically detestable man to ever hold the office of National Security Advisor or U.S. Secretary of State.
Born in Weimar Germany, Kissinger’s principal influences in his geopolitical thought were the nation-builders and nation-formers of 19th century Europe. Among Kissinger’s influences as public intellectual and policymaker were the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a man, who – like Kissinger – left behind a checkered, albeit significant, legacy. Otto von Bismarck was among those statespersons who thought in “geopolitical” terms well before the study of Geopolitics (by that name) was so much as a twinkle in Halford Mackinder’s eye. It was this rational geopolitics – a comprehension of national interest as a greater factor in statecraft than ideology – that drove Kissinger. It is as a champion of Realism that Kissinger is most significant historically. In some ways, Kissinger abandoned his own Realist view of foreign policy when he chose, later in life, to support the Iraq War. Yet had the Bush administration’s foreign policy taken on the worldview of a younger Kissinger, they would have likely recognized the futility of a military campaign that suffered both from poor planning and a loose rationale coated disingenuously in the Liberal Internationalist rhetoric of democracy promotion.
So too would the Obama administration – in particular then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – have benefitted from a colder and more Realist understanding of the world during the emergence of the so-called “Arab Spring.” It was during these years that the Obama administration chose, quite foolishly, to voice support for revolutions against secular governments in the Middle East in the naive hopes that these outbursts would result in democracy – and that this, in turn, would entail the emergence of governments friendly to the United States. Never mind that these revolutions saw the rise of such terrorist organizations as the Islamic State, or that the turmoil in the Middle East in the early 2010s did not appear even at the time to present long-term outcomes that would be in the United States’ favor. Rather than embrace the rhetoric of democracy promotion, this was a moment in history in which those in power could have taken a page out of Kissinger’s book in understanding the dangers of foreign revolutionary movements to the United States and allies abroad.
As for Kissinger himself, two historical events dog his legacy as a statesperson: the U.S.-backed coup in Chile that installed the brutal right wing dictator Augusto Pinochet in the hopes of putting a stopper on the spread of Communism in Latin America; and various U.S. actions in Southeast Asia that continue to appall the Human Rights-minded to this very day. Among these, a bombing campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War and, indirectly, the rise of Pol Pot’s authoritarian Communist regime.
The condemnation of these actions by Kissinger’s harshest critics, however, shows only that they fail to think in the terms that a Cold War Realist might. Even today, the United States can not afford to choose its allies or its battles abroad solely on shared moral or ideological principles. Alliances with and support for regimes with a less than stellar record on democracy or human rights at times become necessary. This was a grim, unpleasant reality that Kissinger not only operated within but also understood all too well in his various roles.
Of Kissinger’s roles that will leave the most lasting legacy, however, one stands out in particular – Kissinger’s role as a commentator on foreign policy. It is not without reason that presidents, secretaries of state, and presidential candidates throughout history sought Kissinger’s advice, even if they did not always take it. Kissinger’s insights, both political and cultural, may be gleaned in particular from his written work. Among his most insightful analyses is a remark in World Order on the culture of India in relation to colonialism; Kissinger remarks, specifically, that Indians have adopted the technologies and philosophical ideas of their colonizers while remaining underwhelmed and self-assured in the survival of their own culture. In the same volume, written shortly after the Arab Spring, Kissinger rightly turns a skeptical eye to the Obama administration’s support for the various Arab revolutions emergent in the era.
While Kissinger’s legacy as a policymaker will remain a subject of debate for some years to come, what is far less in question is Kissinger’s legacy as an intellectual. Kissinger’s work on a number of significant topics – China, nuclear weapons, the conduct of diplomacy – will continue to be read and studied by historians and foreign policy experts for years to come, often with an eye toward what lessons and experiences may prove helpful for the formulation of foreign policy in the future. As such – regardless of the outraged tone taken by his critics – Kissinger’s legacy will live on for years and centuries to come, even if that legacy – like that of Kissinger’s own idol Otto von Bismarck – may be subject to a great deal of debate. In that sense, at least, even in death, Henry A. Kissinger has had the last word – and the last laugh.