Opinion | The mixed legacy of Henry Kissinger
By Tom Fowdy
On 30th November, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger passed away at the age of 100. Kissinger was a huge figure in the Foreign Policy community and world, having been a highly instrumental American diplomat. Despite this, his legacy is mixed. While he receives praise for his fundamental role in the normalization of China-US relations, spearheading Beijing's opening to the world, he has also been harshly condemned for his aggressive legacy in Cambodia, Chile, and other countries whereby he actively disadvantaged or undermined their populations. For someone who supports China, but thus opposes the US, the feeling of passing is an unusual one, yet that appreciation continues to echo out of Beijing.
The Richard Nixon administration of which Kissinger was an official, followed a foreign policy of realism, which is an approach to international relations based on core national interest, as opposed to a blanket assertion of values. A realist is someone who believes that attaining the long-term "greater good" sometimes requires "bending" moral rules or acting harshly and selectively if needs be. The philosophy is first associated with Machiavelli's famous text "The Prince" which proposes a strategy of governance based on the idea of "how things are" as opposed to "how we would like them to be" in other words, a self-interest depiction of human nature.
This idea of "realism" was most notably developed into a theory of international relations by E.H Carr in his book "the twenty years crisis" which condemned an attempt to use "utopian" ideologies, i.e Liberalism, in building international society, as he argued states were primarily driven by their own self-interests and this is what led to the failure of the League of Nations and therefore the outbreak of World War II. The realist school of international relations therefore follows this principle of "self-interest", which became a key aspect of the US Cold War strategy, especially under Nixon and Kissinger. In particular, they saw it as necessary to terminate democratic regimes if they brought socialists or communist sympathizers to power, such as in Chile, and thus to support authoritarianism to this end, or to commit war crimes such as in Cambodia.
But by doing such, realism brings with it "the enemy of my enemy, is my friend logic" and thus doesn't view lines or tribal or ideological lines. Although it became imperative of Americans to resist all Communism, the Nixon administration with Kissinger produced the unique theorem that it was in the American interest to befriend some Communist states with the long-term objective of opposing others, and herein is where US normalization of China emerged. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was America's primary strategic adversary, and Washington had been locked in a struggle for "containment" to prevent the spread of Communism around the world. Naturally, this had also made China under Mao Zedong an adversary of the US, particularly as it was a revolutionary force, that was initially an ally of the USSR.
However, by the late 1960s, China's relationship with the Soviet Union deteriorated in what was known as "The Sino-Soviet Split". The process of destalinization in the USSR had made Mao insecure as it threatened his personal power, unleashing instability on the domestic and international stage and ultimately viewing the Soviet Union as an ideological competitor. The US under Nixon and Kissinger saw this split as an opportunity to strategically corner the USSR by formulating a relationship with China and subsequently integrating Beijing into its own political order, exploiting the sentiment of pro-reform politics in the country and thus the beginning of China's "opening up" thus steering the country away from the Communist path.
Thus Kissinger was able to secure through his diplomacy a set of "common interests" between the two powers which would open up decades worth of engagement and therefore became the icon of China-US normalization. This was undoubtedly one of the most significant geopolitical decisions of the 20th century which enabled China's rise. Yet today, in the US, this has become resented and his critics claim that Kissinger is responsible for enabling China to become a "competitor" and therefore setting the stage for the current struggle between the two powers. Throughout the rest of his life after all and even months before he died, Kissinger became an advocate of good relations between the two countries, a wise and responsible statesman, yet his critics have seldom seen it that way.
It would be in the decades after Kissinger left office, that a new ideology began to grip the American Foreign Policy Establishment. This philosophy, known as "NeoConservatism" was the opposite of realism, in that it advocated explicit aggression in foreign affairs with the fundamental goal of evangelizing and re-creating the world in America's value image. The NeoConservatives began to take prominence in the 1980s with the rise of Ronald Reagan, and his subsequent victory in the Cold War and the ushering of American unipolar hegemony, placing NeoConservatism as the conventional approach of US foreign policy doctrine. Now America was victorious, its destiny was to forcibly strive to promote democracy overseas in ways which even contravened the national interest.
Thus, the new NeoConservative consensus would see the US launch a series of catastrophic wars throughout the world from the 1990s to the present day, including some very well-known disasters such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. Not only was invading these countries never truly in the US interest, but they pursued what early realists had denounced as "utopianism". The current Biden administration for one, is very NeoConservative in its aggressive enablement of wars to force America's vision on certain areas of the world. The only administration that truly defied the trend of NeoConservatism was that of the Trump administration in its more selective "America First" policy, yet the destructive path it chose on China and the influence of such figures within his administration, such as Mike Pompeo, Matthew Pottinger and John Bolton, meant its impact was negligible.
It is because of this opt for increased aggression that Kissinger's legacy has become controversial in some parts of Washington D.C, that's because he premised foreign policy on acceptable reason and mutual interest rather than a full-blown crusade for democracy, despite his mistakes. Kissinger thus spent his final years warning against the excessiveness of US foreign policy in targeting such countries, especially China, where he believed the only reasonable way forward was co-existence and managing differences, yet for some this has been slammed as unacceptable even as he has received warm praise for his legacy in Beijing.