By Nicholas Kristof
Henry Kissinger was the wisest of U.S. foreign policy leaders and the most oblivious, the most farsighted and the most myopic, the one with the greatest legacy — and the one we should most study to learn what not to do.
I knew Kissinger only slightly (he worked to charm journalists, just as he believed in engaging other adversaries) but see lessons both in his accomplishments and in his catastrophes.
Kissinger was intellectually brilliant and knew it. He had a capacity to see around corners, perceive possibilities for change and then work tirelessly to achieve them. His deep familiarity with history, particularly of Prince Metternich’s “concert of Europe” early in the 19th century, informed his success at balance-of-power strategies and is a pretty good example of why studying history isn’t just for nerds.
China early in the Nixon administration was isolated and chaotic, with Red Guards rampaging through the country. But Kissinger saw opportunity and nurtured it in ways that led to the unimaginable: a presidential visit and eventually normalization of relations and an explosion of trade. Russia felt sufficiently outmaneuvered that it then invited Richard Nixon to Moscow and signed a landmark arms control agreement.
Likewise, Kissinger saw that the Yom Kippur War of 1973 created not just a military crisis but also a diplomatic opening, and he engaged in furious shuttle diplomacy that eventually helped lay the groundwork for peace between Egypt and Israel that transformed the Middle East.
Yet for someone so savvy about diplomacy, he was blind to the force of nationalism, and many of his worst mistakes involved his dismissal of small countries as pawns to be sacrificed — along with the people in them.
“I can’t believe that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point,” Kissinger once said, so he amplified the bombing at a horrific human cost. He saw the world through a great-power prism and didn’t appreciate that Vietnam and Cambodia weren’t just dominoes and that the Viet Cong were motivated not by orders from Moscow but by a deep yearning to take control of their own nation.
Kissinger made a similar mistake in Bangladesh during the 1971 war there, siding with Pakistan as it massacred Hindus and Bengalis alike. It was unsuccessful as well as unforgivable. Many hundreds of thousands died, but Bangladesh still triumphed — humiliating the United States and weakening its position in South Asia.
Something similar happened in East Timor. And in the streets of East Timor or Bangladesh or Vietnam, Kissinger doesn’t look like a foreign policy genius, but like a bumbling American who never understood the lives of people he shrugged at slaughtering.
One of the greatest mistakes America has made in the post-World War II period has been the repeated failure to appreciate the force of nationalism — and Kissinger exemplified that. Our disasters in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and so many other places reflected in part our obliviousness to nationalist grievances. It’s an odd blind spot for a country like our own that emerged because Britain disregarded our own nascent nationalism.
For millenniums, military strength was virtually the only currency in international affairs. As Thucydides put it in describing a massacre by Athenians at Melos: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” That was Kissinger’s ecosystem, and he mastered it.
Yet that was already beginning to change. After all, what undid the Soviet Union was not missiles but economics, communications and civil society — advanced in part by the Helsinki Accords, which Kissinger helped achieve in 1975, creating a whisker of space for dissent in the communist bloc.
The foreign policy agenda in Kissinger’s era was largely about borders, arms control and alliances. Now it is far broader, encompassing climate change, human trafficking, computer chips, narcotics, human rights, epidemics, economics and so much more; what was once 2D chess has become 3D chess, requiring a far larger toolbox to achieve results.
One of the strengths of the United States for most of the past century around the world has been our soft power — the admiration for our democracy and freedoms, the yearning for our bluejeans and movies and video games, the respect for our universities. Kissinger’s indifference to human rights and democracy sometimes strengthened our hard power temporarily while compromising our soft power.
So I see Kissinger as far too complicated to fit the caricature of either heroic statesman or war criminal. What his admirers miss is that hundreds of thousands of people died unnecessarily because of his missteps, and his blunders in Vietnam, South Asia and elsewhere damaged America’s standing. What his critics miss is that he reduced the risk of war among the superpowers and in the Middle East, while greatly advancing arms control. In some ways, he made the world safer.
How can we apply the lessons of Kissinger, as he did the lessons of Metternich?
In the case of China, one of the countries that Kissinger cared about the most, I think the lesson is the importance of continuing to engage Beijing and working out creative ways to defuse the Taiwan issue, because of the prime importance of avoiding a superpower war. But I think another lesson is that we should not ignore oppression in Tibet and Xinjiang, for human rights matter, and Tibetan and Uyghur nationalist aspirations will endure.
In the Middle East, perhaps a lesson is that Palestinian nationalist aspirations for statehood will fester until they are realized and that “war for peace” (as Kissinger termed it, or as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applies it) consumes lives without actually advancing peace.
Yet there’s also a lesson about seeing hope even in the darkest times, of having the imagination to see 10 moves ahead how warring parties might someday exhaust themselves and be ready to shake hands. That means trying relentlessly to put pieces in place even in the bleakest moments, as Kissinger did painstakingly during and after the Yom Kippur War, so that eventually a path to peace might emerge from the fog.
Speaking of Hope
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