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Kissinger at 100

Age hasn’t diminished the influence of the great diplomat and geopolitical theorist

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attends a luncheon at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 1, 2022. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Kissinger at 100
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When anyone lives to celebrate a 100th birthday, it is notable. Living to a century while still commanding public attention, influencing policy, and writing bestselling books is another matter altogether. Such is the case with Henry Kissinger. He turns 100 years old tomorrow, May 27.

There are many people who have served in senior policy roles. There are vanishingly few who, like Kissinger, have continued to draw public interest and shape ideas for decades after leaving office. Recall that Kissinger's last full-time government position ended in January 1977, almost 50 years ago, when his service as Secretary of State came to a close after President Gerald Ford’s election defeat.

Kissinger’s accomplishments just during his eight years in government still appear remarkable a half century later. 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.

Since leaving office, much of his continued influence comes from his many books. A gifted and disciplined writer, he has maintained a steady and prodigious output, including three volumes of memoirs, a magisterial history of diplomacy, and numerous other books on topics such as China, leadership, and nuclear weapons. His writing shows his unremitting quest for learning, as he engages with new realms such as artificial intelligence, the subject of his recent book co-authored with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

He continues to fascinate. This month the Economist published an interview with him, in which Kissinger offered sober warnings about managing the risks of a war between China and the United States, suggested the contours of an eventual settlement to the Ukraine War including NATO membership for Ukraine, and cautioned about the destabilizing effects of artificial intelligence on international security.

While Kissinger will never be accused of excessive humility, to his credit he sometimes admits where he was wrong.

To admire Kissinger, as I do, is not to always agree with him. The main deficiency in Kissinger’s statecraft is its diminution of the role of morality and ideas in international politics. Kissinger has long viewed the world instead through the lens of power balances. As such, he could be quite acerbic in dismissing support for human dignity and liberty as foreign policy goals.

For example, as secretary of state when he met with the foreign minister of a Latin American dictatorship, Kissinger complained of the memo prepared by his own staff that “Well, I read the briefing paper for this meeting and it was nothing but human rights. The State Department is made up of people who have a vocation for the ministry. Because there were not enough churches for them, they went into the Department of State.” (He did not mean it as a compliment either to pastors or to human rights).

While in government, Kissinger similarly downplayed any efforts by the United States to confront the Soviet Union on its vicious repression of its own people, including Jewish and Christian dissidents. This distilled the difference between him and Ronald Reagan in their respective views of the Cold War, and of the Soviet Union’s vulnerability. Kissinger saw the Soviet Union as a rival power to be managed while Reagan saw the Soviet Union as a vile idea to be defeated.

While Kissinger will never be accused of excessive humility, to his credit he sometimes admits where he was wrong. Earlier this year in a speech at the Reagan Library, he paid tribute to Reagan for seeing the moral stakes in the Cold War: “His abiding vision had both a moral and strategic clarity, and he refused to accept that leaders had to choose between the two. … Great leaders take their societies from where they have been to where they have never before imagined going. Ronald Reagan did just that.” It was a gracious and eloquent gesture by Kissinger.

This appreciation of values also comes out in Kissinger’s Economist interview. Mindful of his own experience as an immigrant to the United States almost 90 years ago, he roots America’s international power in our domestic strength and ideals. He worries that our younger generation is being taught a distorted version of American history that privileges our nation’s misdeeds over its virtues, and that this hinders America’s ability to confront international challenges. Says Kissinger: “in order to get a strategic view you need faith in your country.”

Such is the wisdom that comes from a century of life.

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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