After a visit to the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris in the 1970s, journalists asked Henry Kissinger what it was like in the majestic Hall of Mirrors, to which he responded it was "wonderful" as he was "surrounded by genius."
For supporters, Henry Kissinger is indeed a diplomatic genius who continues to master the art of discerning the politically achievable like no other. For critics, he is a war criminal. For most, he and his political legacy fall somewhere in between.
More interested in the future than the past
During Kissinger's time first as a foreign policy adviser and later as secretary of state to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he contributed to ending the Vietnam War, entering a détente with the Soviet Union, opening US relations with China, overthrowing a democratically elected leader and redrawing the borders of several countries. After leaving office, he went on to offer "geopolitical consulting" to scores of undisclosed international leaders with his Kissinger Associates consulting firm.
Even 100 years after he was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger to a Jewish family in the Bavarian city of Fürth, Kissinger is seen as an international foreign policy heavyweight and contributes his views on geopolitical issues.
He has often warned of the dangers artificial intelligence pose for the world. Putting AI into the same league as the danger from nuclear weapons, he warns his younger peers that this is a "totally new problem." Quite a warning by a man who has seen it all.
'The ends justify the means'
On Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kissinger created a furor by calling for a negotiated peace in November. His appeal came at a point when Ukraine's Western allies had only just started substantively ramping up their military assistance to Kyiv.
While Kissinger argued imminent talks were necessary to avoid another devastating world war, Kyiv accused him of "appeasing the aggressor."
Ken Lieberthal, who worked with Kissinger on several occasions over the past decades, said the centenarian has "a clear view of what needs to be done" and "how to get from here to there." Kissinger's approach requires "an unsentimental assessment of capabilities," Lieberthal explained. A devoted proponent of Realpolitik, Kissinger himself described his thinking about conflict in an even more straightforward manner: "the ends justify the means."
Ukraine's criticism leaves Kissinger unfazed. When it comes to dealing with Russia, Kissinger, who masterminded America's détente policy in the 70s, can point to having been at the edge of war with Russia himself. Later he described detente as "a strategy for conducting the conflict with the Soviet Union" that bought both sides time for diplomacy and avoiding a hot conflict.
In a rare change of mind, he now backs Ukraine's future membership in NATO after he concluded that "the idea of a neutral Ukraine in these conditions" was "no longer meaningful."
But his willingness to see principles of international law and human rights not as paramount, but simply one factor in his policy equations has human rights advocates around the world on edge as soon as they hear his name. US Senator Bernie Sanders, a leader of America's political Left, said he was "proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend" calling him the "most destructive secretary of state in modern history" over his policies in Asia in the 1970s.
Leadership like 'traversing a tightrope'
Kissinger has described his often controversial take on strategic leadership as "traversing a tightrope" that is "suspended between the relative certainties of the past and the ambiguities of the future."
Kissinger has written extensively on his decision-making process. It saw him initially hide the bombing of Cambodia from the US public. The US aimed to defeat the Viet Cong there but ended up enabling the murderous rise of the Khmer Rouge, which is estimated to have killed more than 2 million people. He had aimed to secure a cease-fire that would end the Vietnam War. Both, he and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their plan. Only Kissinger accepted the award, and he tried to return the Prize when the attempt at a negotiated peace spectacularly failed with the fall of Saigon. Decisions he took along the way cost tens of thousands of lives in Vietnam, Cambodia and neighboring Laos.
Whenever Kissinger speaks publicly, which he still does to this day, there is no doubt that he is aware and unafraid of the grave consequences action entails. National Archive documents from the 70s, released 40 years later, proved that he pressed Nixon into overthrowing the democratically elected President Salvador Allende in 1973 because he felt Chile's "model effect can be insidious" for US interest in the region. By doing so, Kissinger effectively enabled the rise of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet whose government killed and tortured thousands of people.
A lasting effect US policy toward China
"He always thought in terms of a kind of balance of power," Lieberthal said of Kissinger's support for interventions in what should have been democratic processes.
According to Lieberthal, Kissinger was driven by the calculation that "dominance by one country would produce efforts by others." Avoiding the instability such a chain reaction could produce led Kissinger to broker Nixon's historic recognition of China in 1972, a policy that continues to bind the US to a commitment that "Taiwan is part of China."
The tensions currently playing out in the Taiwan Strait and the fear of a war over Taiwan mark the extension of Kissinger's US foreign policy leadership from the 70s into the present day. Kissinger can claim to have recognized the trajectory of China toward a global power and systemic rival decades ahead of most of his peers.
An American legend with German roots
While Kissinger celebrates his 100th birthday on Saturday (27.5.2023), politicians and scholars around the world will continue to debate the importance and impact of the policies passionately advocated by an American legend whose accented English continues to reveal his German roots.
Edited by: Sean Sinico