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Opinion: Henry Kissinger — a realist without illusions

Few immigrants have influenced the course of America’s role in the world as profoundly and for as long as Henry Kissinger, who died last week at age 100

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Henry Kissinger smiles as he walks to a helicopter at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.

Henry Kissinger smiles as he walks to a helicopter at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, Saturday, Aug. 19, 1972. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger died Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, his consulting firm said. He was 100.

Associated Press

Few immigrants have influenced the course of America’s role in the world as profoundly and for as long as Henry Kissinger who died last week aged 100. Brilliant, strategic, bureaucratically agile and indefatigable, Kissinger played a crucial role in public office and out.  

Each of the 12 U.S. presidents from John Kennedy to Joseph Biden sought his counsel and listened to his advice, as did leaders around the world. He used his immense prestige to the very end including traveling to China, a country he visited more than a hundred times, to meet with Xi Jinping in July this year.

Ever the realist

The Spanish-American War in 1898 was a watershed event in U.S. diplomatic history. Before it, the U.S. spent a century acquiring, exploring and developing a continent greatly expanded by Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase while hewing to George Washington’s counsel to avoid entangling alliances.

Since the U.S. intervention against Spain over Cuba, U.S. foreign policy has been a struggle between the realist tradition guided by strict national interest and the idealist tradition advanced by Woodrow Wilson of making the world safe for democracy. Henry Kissinger was perhaps the longest standing and most articulate advocate of the realist orientation.

Shaped by his early years in Nazi Germany, Kissinger escaped with his family as a teenager to the United States and returned to Germany with the U.S. Army and its occupying forces. Those sobering experiences influenced his view of the nature of power and the desirability of freedom as an essential element in a stable and prosperous society.

His Harvard education as an undergraduate and graduate student and nearly two decades as a professor brought him into contact with a wide variety of those engaged in public service and diplomacy from across the world. Rarely has anyone combined the roles of scholar, adviser and practitioner with as much success. 

Strategic and tactical

Kissinger was a remarkable blend of a policy maker both strategic (weighing the long-term and separating what matters most from what matters least) and tactical (how to best travel from point A to point B).

He was like a chess player who thinks several moves ahead — constantly probing for advantage but equally resisting moves that would involve excessive risk. In an impatient world he considered patience a virtue. 

The lens through which he viewed the world was wide and long. Invariably he measured almost every decision whether it involved defense, the economy or diplomacy as having geopolitical consequences. Most of our interactions during the years we served together in the Ford White House involved economic issues. He would occasionally acknowledge his limited understanding of economics declaring “Mr. President, as my colleagues will assure you, I am not an economist” quickly adding that the issue, such as grain sales to the Soviet Union, had major geopolitical consequences and that this consideration should receive its due weight.

Secretary of State and National Security Adviser

In August 1973, William Rogers resigned as Secretary of State and Nixon nominated Kissinger to replace him while retaining his position as national security adviser. The unusual arrangement had never been tried before nor since. It concentrated much bureaucratic power in a single set of hands, contributed to delays in dealing with the myriad number of foreign policy issues that deserve attention, and demonstrated that combining the roles of advocate and broker is not optimal.  

Part of the task of drafting option papers for the president is to record accurately the votes of the departments, agencies and offices involved in advising the president. In collecting the votes on an international economic policy matter, the national security staff was recorded as supporting option one and the Department of State as supporting option two.

During the two hours before our office submitted the options paper I frantically sought to reach Kissinger, then closeted with his team at the State Department preparing for his upcoming Middle East shuttle diplomacy mission. Finally, I received word confirming that the conflicting votes were correctly recorded.

At the following day’s meeting with the President, a fellow cabinet officer observed: “Henry, you seem to have difficulty making up your mind.” Kissinger responded: “My staff at the National Security Council favors option one. My staff at the State Department favors option two. I must keep them happy. Now I will reveal the correct answer.” The room erupted in laughter.

After a little over a year, Gerald Ford wisely ended the dual role arrangement in October 1975 in the so-called Halloween Massacre when he replaced Kissinger as national security adviser with Kissinger’s deputy, Brent Scowcroft, while retaining Kissinger as Secretary of State. Kissinger and Scowcroft had earned one another’s respect, worked well with one another and the new arrangement subtly and significantly improved the development and execution of the President’s policies.

Détente with the Soviet Union, the Opening to China and Middle East Stability

Kissinger’s association as a policy maker with a wide variety of issues left a controversial legacy. Critics have dwelled on the bombing of Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia, a prolonged engagement in Vietnam, the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile and support for Pakistan in its brutal treatment of what is now Bangladesh.

His legacy while in office, however, will undoubtedly rest on three singular policies. First, détente with the Soviet Union involving arms control negotiations supplemented by initiatives involving trade along with cultural, economic and educational exchanges. The Helsinki Accords in 1975 advanced the engagement of the USSR with the Western powers in a way that contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.  

The second, and perhaps most consequential, involved the opening to the People’s Republic of China half a century ago. Nixon reportedly was the most enthusiastic about the initiative. Its success depended heavily on Kissinger’s skillful engagement with his Chinese counterparts.

Finally, Kissinger’s Middle East shuttle diplomacy following the Yom Kippur War helped to stabilize the region and provide a path to the Camp David Accords negotiated by Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter.

Henry Kissinger’s legacy is complex. His deep knowledge of history and the 20th century was simply unrivaled. He invariably began by seeking to understand the perspective and incentives of his counterpart and then to fashion an outcome that advanced U.S. interests in a sustainable way. 

He treasured the freedom he found in his adopted land and saw the United States as an unrivaled force for good. At the same time, he recognized that the world of policy invariably involves a large element of ambiguity. Understanding that ambiguity and skillfully threading a path that would preserve peace and enlarge freedom was his constant task.

Roger B. Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University, served in senior economic policy positions in the Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses.