Even though former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger hung up his political and diplomatic hat decades ago, the 100-year-old veteran statesman continues to influence Washington’s approaches to major international challenges.
Often when crisis strikes, US decision-makers will ask themselves what Kissinger would have done were he still secretary of state. Nor is it just US officials who seek the benefit of his expertise, as Kissinger’s theoretical and practical influence can also still be felt in international diplomacy across the globe.
Kissinger is the most widely revered living statesman, despite the many criticisms that have been levelled against his ideas and policies during the time he served under US presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (1969-1976). His ideas and their impacts on US policy and international affairs have been the subject of numerous historical works and studies on international relations. The continued importance of Kissinger’s legacy rests on its academic and practical weight and on its relevance to contemporary US and international contexts.
During his time as a member of the Nixon administration, Kissinger performed political and diplomatic feats that no other US diplomat has accomplished to this day. He steered US-Soviet relations to an unprecedented thaw and paved the way for Nixon’s trip to China, which the US had treated like a pariah state after the Communists took power in 1949. Soon after the restoration of US diplomatic relations with Beijing, the latter was able to rejoin the international community.
In 1973, Kissinger won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his success in securing the ceasefire that brought an end to the US debacle in Vietnam. After the guns fell silent in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy facilitated a durable ceasefire and ushered in the beginning of the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks that culminated with the Peace Agreement in 1979.
Kissinger is one of the most prolific authors in the US political and diplomatic community. In addition to an account of his diplomatic career, his works cover US foreign policy challenges, transformations in the international order, and contemporary international issues such as the potential impacts of artificial intelligence on the future of humankind.
His most recent work appeared in July 2022. Called Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, it discusses the personalities and grand strategies of six world leaders that he personally dealt with: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Al-Sadat, Margaret Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew. The book was timely, coming as it did at a time when today’s world leaders are struggling to contend with a succession of unprecedented crises amidst an increasingly gloomy and ominous international environment.
The neoliberal interventionist current that prevailed in US foreign policy following the end of the Cold War, as epitomised by the disastrous US military interventions in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), and the failure of successive US administrations to build viable states in the target countries, has gradually brought Kissinger’s realist school back into favour.
This trend prioritises considerations of national interests, security, and the balance of power over the dissemination of liberal ideology. The resurgence of this approach has sparked a renewed interest in Kissinger’s ideas as applied to the challenges and international crises the US must now grapple with.
Current developments and trends in the international order, in the light of the decline of US hegemony and the rise of Beijing’s revisionist approaches to the international order, have also encouraged an examination of the realist school that Kissinger articulated in practice when working to strike a balance of power between the US and the former USSR during the Cold War.
To many, the undeniable success of his strategies as tested on the ground is of particular relevance to the current period in international relations, which, according to many US political analysts, closely resembles the Cold War era. If the international climate then was characterised by the superpower rivalry between the US and the USSR, today we are watching the intensifying rivalry between the US and China. The latter is strengthening its strategic alliance with Russia and posing a challenge to US global might and influence.
The failures of US foreign policy towards the Middle East under both Democratic and Republican administrations have inspired a number of books about Kissinger. An important one is Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy (2021) by Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and former US president Barack Obama’s special envoy for Middle East Peace.
The aim of the book is to examine the lessons that can be learned from Kissinger’s legacy in shaping a Middle Eastern order during the Cold War period that lasted for three decades and succeeded in establishing peace in the region. The question is how these lessons can now be applied at a time when the Middle East is plagued by numerous crises, peace processes are faltering, and the influence of non-Arab powers are posing threats to regional security and instability while US influence has declined in tandem with Washington’s shift of focus towards the Indo-Pacific region.
Kissinger’s influence on US foreign policy stems not just from his personal reputation and his policy successes, but also from his unique capacity for building networks of personal relations that have endured long after he left government in 1977. In addition to past and current US officials, his friends and acquaintances include many journalists, major newspaper owners, foreign ambassadors and heads of state, and film and other celebrities.
Kissinger’s diplomatic and academic legacy, marked by major strategic shifts in US foreign policy approaches during the Cold War and his own prolific intellectual output, has earned lasting respect for him and his ideas the world over. Not only are politicians and scholars in the US and elsewhere closely reexamining many of his works today, but they also eagerly await his assessments of current affairs and how to deal with the world’s major challenges.
This is not to say that Kissinger and his ideas have not also come under attack. Indeed, there is a considerable body of opinion that holds him responsible for prolonging the war in Vietnam to the detriment of US national interests and for the perpetration of crimes against humanity during it.
The writer is an expert on US affairs at Al-Ahram’s Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly