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“The most fundamental problem of politics is not the control of wickedness, but the limitation of righteousness.”

“For men become myths, not by what they know, nor even by what they achieve, but by the tasks they set themselves.”

“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

For 30 years if not more, Henry Kissinger, who died this week aged 100, shaped the course of US foreign policy and in one sense defined global politics. A Nobel Prize Laureate who advocated mass bombings and won an unlikely reputation as a swinger, Kissinger’s legacy remains as mixed as ever. Not everyone will celebrate his life, and not everyone should, but that should not prevent us from trying to understand his career.

His preoccupation was not so much pursuing power as engaging with and remoulding it. It is not that he refused to consider moral values but that he believed that the specificity of a situation demanded we be pragmatists when applying them.

This was the cornerstone of his thinking and by extension the thinking of the American foreign policy establishment in his time. When Vietnam was raging and the likes of Arthur Schlesinger Jr were criticising the US government’s reaction to the Communism in South East Asia, Kissinger went along with the Christmas bombings on the assumption that this would bring the Vietnamese down on their knees.

But there was nothing really ground breaking about his policies. Worse, he was hardly consistent in them. As early as 1965, Kissinger concluded that the war in Vietnam was a lost cause. Three years later, however, he quietly passed information from the Paris Peace Talks to Richard Nixon. Moreover for a strident advocate of realism, which recognises that states ultimately operate on power, he failed to see that no number of bombings could force the Vietnamese to come for negotiations. This is because he thought the world would kowtow to US interests, to its exertion of power, to its definition of the world.

Was Kissinger a realist? He is touted as one. That, however, does not necessarily make him one. Realism as a foreign policy doctrine came to the US through Europe, specifically through Germany. Kissinger, an émigré in New York, had a hand in implanting it to the US foreign policy establishment. But the greater contribution came from Hans Morgenthau, another German Jewish émigré, through his book Politics Among Nations. Morgenthau believed military power alone could not deter states. Kissinger did. As Thomas Meany has noted in an astute summing up of Kissinger’s legacy, published not after but long before his death, in 2020, Kissinger’s willingness to sacrifice the most fundamental realist tenets for a career in the establishment distanced him from Morgenthau.

In that sense he was less a Metternich than a Talleyrand, an establishment figure who was not above advising different administrations and presidents. He also had a soft spot for philosophers over practitioners. One of his earliest essays to Foreign Affairs, Force and Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age, for instance, begins by quoting Kant.

Hobnobbing with leading thinktanks including, most prominently, the Rand Corporation and frequenting himself in academic circles, he slowly cast himself as a defence intellectual. Peter Sellers channelled three figures for his performance as Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s film: Wernher von Braun, Herman Kahn and Edward Teller. He may well have channelled a fourth: Kissinger. Like those other figures, Kissinger felt no compunction about championing policies that had negative consequences for people who lived far away. As one historian has noted, “He viewed the world from 30,000 feet.”

This explains his curt dismissal of institutions, individuals and ideals which he could not align with his thinking. There was no room for alternatives in his world. He hence dismissed the Non-Aligned Movement as having no relevance. What mattered in his scheme of things was the pursuit of power, and he sought to position the US along those lines. He had a name for this: the doctrine for the graduated employment of force.

“We refused to defeat the Chinese in Korea because we were unwilling to risk an all-out conflict; we saw no solution to the Indo-Chinese crisis without dangers we were reluctant to confront. A doctrine for the graduated employment of force might reverse or at least arrest this trend. Graduated deterrence is thus not an alternative to massive retaliation but its complement, for it is the capability for “massive retaliation” which provides the sanction against expanding war,” he said.

The way about this was not through all out nuclear warfare but an exercise of capability. He simply felt the newly decolonised countries of Asia and Africa lacked this capability, that they relied more on rhetoric. To this end he criticised Nehru’s foreign policy and held a dim view of Indian politics, which continued into his tenure as secretary of state, and served to draw a wedge between Delhi and Washington. In his view, the world existed for the US to determine its course, to impose its will upon “lesser” nations.

“Cultures which escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking have retained the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost completely internal to the observer… [E]mpirical reality has a much different significance for the new countries than for the West because in a certain sense they never went through the process of discovering it,” he said.

If countries and ideas were not worthy enough, he did not consider them and if he did, only when they had some relevance to his scheme. In that regard Kissinger embodied the swagger or arrogance of American power better than anyone else.

Such a worldview could easily fit the Cold War; hence his strategic manoeuvres over China. What of the world after it? Kissinger may have had an answer but by then the old realist tenets were going out of fashion. From maintaining US power realist scholars had become advocates of balance of power: among this crowd one can include John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. For a while he flirted with the neoconservative crowd. Yet he found himself out of favour with them too, although he supported the US’s ventures in Iraq. And when the neoconservatives themselves lost credibility, he became the subject of critique of a different crowd: those who believed not so much in US power as in its ability to change the world through its values. Samantha Power, for one, was not above receiving a prize named after Kissinger and criticising Kissinger in the same year, 2016.

“In Kissinger’s view, America’s tragic flaw has been believing that our principles are universal principles, and seeking to extend human rights far beyond our nation’s borders… I would like to put forward a simple thesis that should no longer be at all controversial: it is now objectively the case that our national interests are increasingly affected not just by what happens between states, but also by how people are treated within states,” she said.

Henry Kissinger differed from the liberal interventionist crowd as much as he did from the neoconservative crowd because both, in their own way, believed in the moral aspect to their interventions. He would have differed even with Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s distinction between authoritarianism and dictatorship: a distinction the Reagan administration drew up to justify its support for right wing regimes in Latin and Central America. Kissinger would not have bothered with such hollow binaries, he would have championed support for either type of government if that served American interests.

Yet this hardly made him a Trumpian America Firstist. In his last public interventions, he cautioned against isolating Russia and confronting China. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to him in this regard came from Wang Wenbin of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“Dr Kissinger, who has long been showing care and support for the growth of China-US relations, visited China more than 100 times… He will be greatly missed and fondly remembered by the people of China for his personal commitment and extraordinary contribution to China-US relations,” he said.

Nobel Laureate, war criminal, advocate of bombings and a persistent believer in the pursuit of power, Kissinger was these things and more. His death follows other deaths: Gorbachev last year and George Schultz two years ago. If ever there is a passing that symbolises the passing of an era, the deaths of these individuals should surely be it. In that sense, Kissinger was the ultimate pragmatist and the quintessential cynic. We may not agree with all his views – I do not – but there is no denying that at a specific time and place, he found himself at the top, in the corridors of power and chose to wield influence to serve his ends and beliefs. Power, he once argued, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. He saw it as such right till the end. We must desist from romanticising his legacy but we must critically engage with it.