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America’s most influential diplomat

Remembering Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., on Aug. 19, 1972. Associated Press

America’s most influential diplomat
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A few months after turning 100 years old, Henry Kissinger has died. No other American secretary of state has loomed as large in the public mind and as long on the global stage as Kissinger.

He served eight years from 1969-1977 as National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State. For a time he even held both positions simultaneously, the only person to have ever done so.

Some statesmen possess strategic vision, others are wily bureaucratic operators. Kissinger is one of the very few who was both.

He took office during a time of tremendous domestic unrest and global upheaval. The United States was mired in the costly Vietnam War, losing ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and facing dramatic and uncertain shifts across Asia and the Global South. Kissinger conceived and then implemented a series of diplomatic masterstrokes that, while at times costly and mistaken, overall improved America’s geopolitical position and stabilized the international order.

As I wrote for World Opinions earlier this year in a tribute to Kissinger on his 100th birthday, “Along with the presidents he served, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he stabilized America’s geopolitical position in the midst of our morass in the Vietnam War and growing Kremlin assertiveness. Kissinger helped engineer a deft opening to China that brought Beijing into alignment with the United States to counter the more powerful Soviet Union. In the Middle East he helped solidify American support for an imperiled Israel while wooing Egypt from the Soviet orbit into partnership with the United States.”

Though his last government position ended in 1977, for the next almost half century Kissinger became a globetrotting elder statesman, well-paid business consultant, and prolific author. All of his books can be read with profit; I particularly recommend Diplomacy as a modern masterpiece. Each successive president sought his counsel, so much so that Kissinger advised a total of 12 U.S. presidents, from Kennedy through Biden.

Kissinger brought to his statecraft and writings a deep historical consciousness and a tragic sensibility. In the views of many, including his legions of critics, Kissinger embodied an amoral realpolitik, the use of power for its own sake with a callous indifference to morality. But this obscured a deeper moral concern that undergirded his statecraft.

Kissinger brought to his statecraft and writings a deep historical consciousness and a tragic sensibility.

Having come of age during the chaos and penury of Weimar Germany and seen how the political and social breakdowns fueled the rise of Hitler and Nazi barbarism, Kissinger knew that disorder can lead to injustice and tyranny. Indeed, while he and his parents found refuge in the United States in 1938, 13 of his immediate relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. As a New York Times obituary notes, this unspeakable trauma led him to reflect afterwards of the Nazi death camps that “The intellectuals, the idealists, the men of high morals had no chance.” The survivors he met “had learned that looking back meant sorrow, that sorrow was weakness, and weakness synonymous with death.”

This is in part why Kissinger came to prioritize the balance of power and preservation of order as moral goods in their own right. In part because he knew the alternative from Judges 17:6: “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

Most conservatives have long regarded Kissinger with some ambivalence, and rightly so. His preoccupation with order often led him to diminish human freedom, and to seek cooperation with Soviet communism when conservatives such as Ronald Reagan instead rightly advocated confrontation. In his later years Kissinger maintained close ties with the Chinese Communist Party leadership despite its manifest hostility to the United States.

Kissinger could also be a difficult person. Though almost all who knew him respected him, not as many felt deep affection for him. In Les Gelb’s acerbic recollection, Kissinger was “devious with his peers, domineering with his subordinates, obsequious to his superiors.”

Despite his flaws, he always maintained an abiding love of the United States. He appreciated how exceptional America was, that a German Jewish refugee such as he could rise to the pinnacle of power in service of his adopted nation.

And while Kissinger was often misunderstood, he believed that the task of statecraft entailed making difficult choices among bad options for the long-term good, even if it meant short-term unpopularity or even opprobrium. The eminent historian and Kissinger biographer Niall Ferguson captures this in his Wall Street Journal tribute. In Kissinger’s first book, “A World Restored” (1957) about the Congress of Vienna negotiations that settled the Napoleonic Wars and established a stable balance of power in Europe, Kissinger noted that statesmen tend to have a “tragic quality,” because “it is in the nature of successful policies that posterity forgets how easily things might have been otherwise.” Then: “The statesman is therefore like one of the heroes in classical drama who has had a vision of the future but who cannot transmit it directly to his fellow-men.”

No doubt, that is how Henry Kissinger saw himself.

William Inboden

William Inboden is professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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