Kissinger: U.S. foreign policy grandmaster’s contested innings
Irrespective of the divergent, albeit informed views, amongst analysts, diplomats, political historians, policy experts, scholars and others, the iconic contributions of ex-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger (May 27, 1923 to November 29, 2023); to the conception, framing, execution and defence of American policy, realpolitik, foreign relations, statecraft and geostrategic interests, through the 20th and 21st Century, are truly remarkable.
He was the 7th United States National Security Adviser (1969-1975) and for two years, concurrently, the 56th United States Secretary of State through (1973 and 1977), both tenures under the Republican Presidency of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Kissinger continued to advise U.S. Presidents, policy thinktanks and others for several decades thereafter until his demise last week.
Just how does anyone define the enigmatic Kissinger? A German-Jewish immigrant who, with his family, narrowly escaped Nazi persecution in 1938? Positive! A World War II soldier on the allied front against the Nazis? Yes! A passionate defender of America’s geopolitical interests globally? Without question! A conscientious human rights advocate who would prioritize the latter over geopolitical interests? No! A towering intellectual figure within the interlocking American foreign relations, national security and geostrategic spheres? Absolutely!
These experiential dynamics moulded Kissinger’s geostrategic assessments and policy choices, and greatly influenced the enduring projection of United States global political, economic and military power; and thus, justifies further scrutiny not least because they continue to sharply bifurcate objective analysis. Unsurprisingly, Kissinger’s proponents, advance his intellectual rigour, strategic foresight, nuanced approach, political pragmatism or realpolitik and passionate defence of American interests oftentimes upon tested Machiavellian political mechanics of: “the ends justify the means”
This proposition is exemplified partly by Kissinger’s striking role as National Security Adviser (NSA) in the Nixon (1969-1974) years where, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), now Russia, he conceived an important dénouement; via the détente initiative in 1969.
The overriding policy aims engaged military de-escalation, deeper bilateral agreements, and arms control; against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile crisis which brought the USSR and USA to the verge of nuclear confrontation in 1962 under John F. Kennedy’s Presidency (1961-1963). Kissinger negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT 1) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. SALT 1 was the precursor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty 1 (START 1), between both countries aimed at cutting the number of nuclear armaments at their disposal. Again, START 1 was superseded by the New START, ratified by Russia and the United States in February 2011.
Unfortunately, the original policy intentions of SALT 1, the de facto New START are, retrogressively, crystallized in a dangerous moratorium given complexities pertaining to the prosecution of the Russian/Ukrainian war which began on February 24, 2022.
Kissinger’s strategic ambivalence, grounded in realpolitik, was again in issue through the July and October 1971 discussions with then People’s Republic of China foreign policy lead (and later Premier) Zhou Enlai; on the status of Taiwan. The latter had split from mainland China following the 1949 civil war between the Communists led by Mao Tse Tung and the nationalists under the command of Chiang Kai-shek.
The Chinese then, since, and till this day, sought U.S. recognition of Taiwan as an integrated entity of a unified China, extrication of U.S. forces from Taiwan and cessation of defence assistance to the Taiwan government. Kissinger demurred on a definitive commitment to extract all U.S. forces from Taiwan. Instead, his flexible commitment was conditional upon improved bilateral relations between China and the U.S.
Besides, his views reflected American foreign policy confliction especially as Taiwan had proven to be a reliable American ally in WWII (1939-1945). Was America to bury its head in the sand? Watch Taiwan swallowed up by China? How would that have counter-balanced strategic threats posed by USSR? It is noteworthy that American strategic ambivalence; whether or not U.S. defends Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion; championed by Kissinger 53 years ago, remains the prevailing American foreign policy doctrine in that realm today.
Kissinger’s striking foreign policy influence was equally evident in de-escalating significant Middle-Eastern tensions in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Egyptian and Syrian forces versus Israeli forces over the Golan Heights and the Syrian Peninsula; and providing the foundations for détente under the auspices of the heroic Camp David (Peace) Accords between Israel and Egypt on Sunday, September 15, 1978.
The word heroic is used advisedly given febrile anti-Israeli opinion in Egypt and the Arab world at the time. It is therefore no surprise that then Israeli leader Menachem Begin and Egyptian leader, then President Anwar Sadat, jointly shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for the Accords brokered by ex-US President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Unfortunately, barely 3 years after Anwar Sadat’s heroic efforts at historical reconciliation with the Israelis; he was assassinated on October 6, 1981 alongside ten others; during a military victory parade in Cairo.
Notwithstanding the political shift from the Democratic President Carter; to the Republican President Ronald Reagan; the seriousness America attached to the Camp David Accords; American foreign policy continuity imperatives; the value of Sadat as a pivotal Middle Eastern strategic ally; was demonstrable in the fact his funeral was attended by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Jimmy Carter; Secretary of State Alexander Haig; Defence Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Henry Kissinger.
Notwithstanding, poignant countervailing points are adduced against Kissinger by his opponents who contend inter alia that he systematically turned a blind eye to corruption and extreme human rights violations all to the greater aspiration of realpolitik and the defence of the American geostrategic interests.
In Argentina, Kissinger actively supported the extremist military forces of Jorge Videla who ousted the democratically elected administration of Isabel Peron in 1976 under a vicious “National Reorganisation Process”. The latter conducted by military forces loyal to Videla witnessed large-scale human rights abuses, crimes against humanity, extra-judicial murders and the disappearance of an estimated 30,000 political opponents.
Visceral criticisms extracted from the Washington Post implicates Kissinger, as President Nixon’s NSA through 1969-1973, in the carpet bombing of swathes of Cambodia which American officials at the time, asserted were havens for South Vietnamese communist rebels. Yale University scholar, Ben Kiernan, assesses that approximately 500,000 tons of US bombs were unleashed on Cambodia during this period killing approximately 150,000 civilians.
In his 2001 opus, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens asserts that Kissinger deserves prosecution “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offences against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture” and called Kissinger “a stupendous liar with a remarkable memory.”
Take Congo’s post-Independence leftist premier leader, Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in a coup d’état facilitated by Joseph Mobutu, later Mobutu Sese Seko, on January 17, 1961, with proactive American assistance. Mobutu was to rule Congo (now Zaire) for 32 years from 1965 until his death in 1997.
Throughout his ferocious dictatorship, Mobutu benefitted from American economic, diplomatic and military support. Presumably, as a quid pro quo for Mobutu’s efforts at curbing communist forays into Zaire. Paradoxically, Kissinger was to describe Mobutu as “courageous, politically astute” and “relatively honest in a country where governmental corruption is a way of life” according to Schmitz F. David in United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships 1965-1989. The very same Mobutu according to the historian Kisangani, F. Emizet (2016), as far back as 1970 had stolen 60 per cent of the country’s budget making him one of the most corrupt African leaders!
Controversially, Kissinger, with Luc Duc Tho, Vietnamese General and Diplomat, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1973 on “Ending the War in Vietnam.” Tho rejected the award on the premise that the war had not ended in South Vietnam. The contentious award provoked the resignation of two Nobel Committee members prompting Kissinger to donate “the entire proceeds to the children of American service members killed or missing in action in Indochina”
Henry Kissinger’s proponents and opponents will undoubtedly debate his legacy for a longtime to come. However, the incontestable point is that he never for once proclaimed any notion of ideological purity nor sanctimony in his overarching pursuit of America’s geopolitical interests, even if that entailed accommodating extremely vicious dictatorships.
He was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who advanced pragmatism, realpolitik and vigorously challenged perceived or real threats of communism globally.
His intellectual rationale for the policy choices he made over the years, his strategic vision; and nuances in responding to global superpower dynamics; arguments for same; plus, pivotal issues pertaining to diplomacy, leadership and related polemics are well documented in his articles, speeches and books over more than 50 years.
No doubt, his compelling characterisation of realpolitik, which was the connecting thread in his consistent defence of American interests is demonstrably encapsulated in his opus, World Order (2014), viz: “America’s foreign policy has reflected the conviction that its domestic principles were self-evidently universal and their application at all times salutary; the real challenge of American engagement abroad was not foreign policy in the traditional sense but a project of spreading values that it believed all other peoples aspired to replicate.”
The Grandmaster’s exited the crease with 100 runs of unimpeachable beliefs spreading American values, underpinned by patriotic fervour! The burden of impactfully shaping foreign policy in truly aspirational, civilized, meritocratic, progressive and thinking societies, now rests on current and succeeding generations of mandarins, and visionary leaders.
They will do well to learn from, develop, and adaptively apply Kissinger’s intellectual robustness, vision, statecraft and unyielding determination to secure an enduring strategic, economic, military and political advantage for his country; in their domestic settings.
Major strategic gaffes which encumbered his career? You bet! Nevertheless, Kissinger’s uber commitment to projecting and defending American interests was unquestionable.
Ojumu is the Principal Partner at Balliol Myers LP, a firm of Lagos-based legal practitioners and author of The Dynamic Intersections of Economics, Foreign Relations, Jurisprudence and National Development.
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