How one chooses to celebrate Kissinger’s Century depends on where you sit in the “Kissinger wars”. To his detractors, Henry Kissinger was an imperialist who pursued US global supremacy with unmatched ruthlessness and cynicism. To his supporters, he was a diplomatic genius and a peacemaker.
In The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens famously called for his prosecution “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offences against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture”. For him, the Kissinger Doctrine was dangerously straightforward: the US reserved the right to intervene anywhere in the world in defence of its interest, including by conspiring against democratically elected governments.
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This manifested itself in a number of ways: in Kissinger’s support for Pinochet’s violent overthrow of Allende’s socialist government in Chile and for the 17-year-long dictatorship that followed; in his approval of the equally brutal Argentinian military junta of Jorge Videla; in his enabling of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the campaign of state-sponsored terror that followed; in his secret support for Pakistan as it committed shocking atrocities in Bangladesh; and in his encouragement of Nixon’s secret bombing campaign against neutral Cambodia and Laos, which killed an estimated 150,000 civilians. So wide-ranging was US interventionism under Kissinger that, in 1976, a 33-year-old Joe Biden accused him of trying to promulgate “a global Monroe Doctrine”.
Of all the offences committed by Kissinger, the Indochina bombing campaign is perhaps the most damning. In Kissinger’s Shadow, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Greg Grandin chronicled the scope of the destruction. The United States, Grandin wrote, dropped “a trillion pieces of shrapnel — either ball bearings or razor-sharp barbed darts” on Indochina. In Laos, American pilots deployed “a ton of explosives for each and every” citizen, which continue to maim and kill Laotian men, women and children to this day. As a portrait of Kissinger’s “grand strategy”, it is hard to disagree with Hitchens’s conclusion that his actions reveal a “a callous indifference to human life and human rights” — and to democracy, one may add.
With his reputation largely (and questionably) untainted by Watergate, Kissinger went on to found, in 1982, his own lucrative geopolitical consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, which he continues to run. We know relatively little of the work it carries out. Several attempts have been made, at the congressional level, to get the company to hand over its secretive “client list” — but all have failed. In 1989, Senator Jesse Helms unsuccessfully demanded to be shown it before he would consider confirming Lawrence Eagleburger (a Kissinger protégé and an employee of Kissinger Associates) as Deputy Secretary of State. In 2002, Kissinger chose to quit as chair of the 9/11 Commission rather than hand over the list for public review.
It is no secret, however, that Kissinger has used his extensive knowledge of and close relationship with foreign governments — including, one must assume, the several dictatorships he helped come to power — to advance the interests of some of the world’s largest corporations, including American Express, Coca-Cola, Daewoo, Heinz, Ericsson, Fiat and Volvo. As Grandin writes: “Kissinger Associates was an early player in the wave of privatisations that took place after the end of the Cold War — in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Latin America — helping to create a new international oligarchic class.”
Yet for every historian professing Kissinger’s alleged evil, there is another extolling his diplomatic genius. Perhaps the most illustrious representative of this second grouping is Niall Ferguson, who has published the first half of his authorised two-volume biography. For those such as Ferguson, Kissinger’s crimes were justified in the name of the Holy War against communism — which the United States, after all, won. As he wrote in his first volume: “Arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries — and there is no other way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor — must be tested against this question: how, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected US relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China, and the major Western European powers?”. The burden of proof, Ferguson suggested, is on critics to show how different policies “would have produced better results”.
More convincingly, Kissinger’s defenders focus on his diplomatic achievements, which are hard to dispute. America’s détente with the Soviet Union; the normalisation of US-China relations; an Arab-Israeli truce following the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the Paris Peace Accords to end the Vietnam War — all brought more peace to the world, and all were masterminded by Henry Alfred Kissinger.
So, was Kissinger an arch-imperialist or an arch-peacemaker? In a sense, he was neither. Both sides of the Kissinger wars tend to overemphasise his influence on US foreign policy during the Seventies, ignoring the deeper systemic trends at play. Insofar as Kissinger’s aggressive interventionism is concerned, this should be situated within the grander picture of the “structural” violence that has characterised the American Empire — both before and after he was in office. On some level, then, Kissinger simply did what he knew was expected of him. After all, virtually every post-1945 American statesman could be accused of crimes against humanity — which is, of course, the very reason such accusations largely don’t stick.
Similarly, Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts also need to be situated within the wider “realist” consensus that dominated US policymaking during the Cold War. This framework took for granted that the US should pursue its interests, even ruthlessly so, but was also aware that the “multipolar” reality of the Cold War meant striking some kind of balance between America and other established (the Soviet Union) or ascending (China) powers, especially in the age of nuclear weapons.
From a different perspective, however, one could also argue that both camps are right: Kissinger was both an imperialist and a realist — an “imperealist”, one might say. Indeed, throughout his career, Kissinger has consistently warned against the dangers of America’s tendency to view itself as a unique nation endowed with a quasi-religious “manifest destiny” to spread its values — first and foremost democracy — to the rest of the world. Instead, he argued for an approach based on a hard-headed assessment of balancing the US’s national interests with those of other powers.
This, from Kissinger’s perspective, was even truer in the post-Cold War world. In his 1994 memoir, Diplomacy, he argued that in an international system characterised by five or six major powers, order could only emerge from a reconciliation of different national interests, with an acceptance of the legitimacy of opposing values. However, he recognised that America’s emergence as the single, most powerful global power made this unlikely; rather, it risked empowering those factions in the US establishment who aspired to unilaterally dictate the global agenda under the pretence of remodelling the world in America’s image.
This, of course, is exactly what happened. Since the Nineties, American foreign policy has been characterised by a perverse mix of aggressive imperialism, predicated on the view that the rise of any alternative power represents a vital threat to US supremacy, and moralistic democracy-versus-authoritarianism Manicheism. Particularly worrying is the fact that this zero-sum paradigm continues to dominate US foreign policy despite the emergence of two civilisational super-states — China and Russia — which openly challenge “Western values” and the US-led global order. This inevitably sets the world on a path of global conflict. Biden’s foreign policy, in this sense, is neoconservative through and through.
It is therefore no surprise that Kissinger has grown increasingly at odds with the consensus in Washington. In recent years, he has repeatedly railed against America’s confrontational approach towards Russia and China, warning against the risk of a new Cold War — one that is now all but underway. In 2016, for example, he advised Donald Trump to accept Crimea as part of Russia as part of a negotiated settlement, and last year he suggested that incautious policies on the part of the US and Nato were partly responsible for sparking the invasion of Ukraine (though he also recently argued that, at this point, it would be in Russia’s interest for Ukraine to join Nato). Meanwhile, in a recent interview with The Economist, he called on America to rethink its policy vis-à-vis Taiwan and repair its relations with China. “We are at the edge of war with Russia and China on issues which we partly created, without any concept of how this is going to end or what it’s supposed to lead to,” he explained last August.
The fact that even the words of a heavyweight such as Kissinger today go unheeded in Washington simply confirms the fact that he was much more a product than an architect of modern America. For better or for worse, Henry Kissinger’s century was the American century — and they are both coming to a close. Yet here, too, the US establishment would do well to meditate on Kissinger’s final warning: that America’s increasingly desperate attempts to preserve its dying hegemony won’t save the country. Rather, they will only accelerate its decline — and plunge the world into chaos.
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