Henry Kissinger: A diplomatic colossus who is still a key influence in US amid Syria crisis

His centrality to US foreign policy goes all the way back to 1960s but for his critics, the Kissinger realipolitik has yielded much that was little short of evil

There is a 90-year-old “war criminal” helping to frame the foreign policy of the Obama administration. Perhaps a little surprising. Until, of course, you realise that the old boy in question is Henry Kissinger, and he has been advising the White House on a subject he knows well – the Russians.

That the Americans are actively co-operating with Putin on the Syrian crisis and the eradication of Assad’s chemical weapons is as startling a development as it is a welcome one, and Kissinger, we are told, has been guiding thinking behind the scenes. Asked recently in public whether America and Russia can enjoy a fresh bout of the sort of détente with Russia he famously pioneered in the early 1970s, Kissinger replied that “it will be extremely difficult, but if they can it will be beneficial to all. Russia will gain prestige, Obama will be vindicated and Assad will be removed, and that would be the best possible outcome.” Sharp as ever, then.

Although recent developments are nowhere on the scale of the strategic arms limitations talks and treaties between the US and the Soviet Union driven by Kissinger four decades ago – the first thawing in the Cold War and the first meaningful limits placed on the nuclear arms race – it is a hopeful development. It is also one that suggests that the two superpowers are relearning the merits of another doctrine Kissinger was associated with – “realpolitik”, the recognition that where raw national interests can be made to converge through diplomacy, then lasting good can emerge.

Its apogee was the Paris Peace Accord of 1973. This, formally, ended the Vietnam War, which President Nixon and Kissinger had concluded was unwinnable. Kissinger achieved the signal honour of jointly gaining the Nobel Peace Prize for that achievement. His North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, declined the award, indicating that the accords didn’t represent real peace at all – an accurate view. The American humourist Tom Lehrer quipped that Kissinger’s award represented the “death of satire”. But it did allow the US to start to extricate itself from its agony.

It had also been Kissinger who paved the way for Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. America had treated Beijing as a pariah ever since the Communists won power in 1949; now Nixon opened up diplomatic channels and laid the foundations for China to rejoin the world community, with all the momentous consequences we see all around us today.

For Kissinger’s critics, though, the Kissinger realpolitik has yielded much that was little short of evil. Christopher Hitchens, in 2001, claimed to have amassed sufficient evidence to secure prosecutions 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”. This is somewhat more than hyperbole; the experience of General Pinochet has made the travels of Dr Kissinger a little more risky.

The charge sheet is extremely long, even considering the eight eventful years Kissinger was running US foreign policy: he and the CIA helped orchestrate the coup against the elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and his murder in 1973; he and Nixon invaded neutral Cambodia in 1970; they indiscriminately bombed civilians in that long war; connived in the Indonesians’ brutal repression in East Timor; left the Kurds to their fate at the hands of Saddam as early as 1972; the list goes on. “War criminal” and Nobel Peace Prize holder; the unique genius of Henry Kissinger.

Among the American political establishment, there is no doubt, he is held in awe, reverence even. His 90th birthday celebrations earlier this year were a glittering affair, attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, James Baker, John McCain, Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Susan Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Michael Bloomberg, former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, David Petraeus, Barbara Walters, Wendi Deng, plus Tina Brown and Harold Evans. Senator McCain summed it up: “His legacy is the stewardship of our nation in the most difficult of times and his continued important voice on national security policies. He is a man who has a unique place in the world. I know of no individual who is more respected in the world than Henry Kissinger.”

Kissinger is a sort of talisman, not for the sort of foreign policy America would like to have, and sometimes attempts – the idealism of a Woodrow Wilson or a Jimmy Carter – but the kind that they believe America has to have, hard-headed and realistic. Kissinger’s doctoral thesis – “Peace, Legitimacy and the Equilibrium” – was on the policies of Metternich and Castlereagh. These two practised great-power politics in a way Kissinger was to emulate – engagement with great powers of the time to win a stable balance of power. Then, Europe; in Henry’s time, the world. Kissinger was supremely good at that; subsequent holders of the office have been less successful.

Kissinger also has an abiding appeal because he is so emblematic of the American dream. This is not so much despite his German-Jewish background, but because of it. He was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Bavaria in 1923, about 100 miles from where an upstart Adolf Hitler was attempting his “beer-hall putsch”. According to the US constitution, Henry could never have been President, but he could still do everything but. His family fled Nazi persecution in 1938 – as a child in New York he would cross the street if he saw a group of kids coming towards him, having been beaten up so many times back home.

The family settled in New York, and he lived out the American dream. “When you think of my life, who could have possibly have imagined that I’d wind up as Secretary of State of the greatest country in the world?” he once said. “I mean, when I couldn’t even go to German schools… When I think I was a delivery boy in New York.” That thick Germanic accent, in a voice so earthy you could grow spuds in it, is a reminder of the dream. The only trace of his Bavarian origins, bar the accent, is a lifelong affection for the Fürth football team, from his hometown.

Young Henry – he’d dropped the “Heinz” – soon began to shine academically; his progress to Harvard interrupted by wartime service: He spent 1945 hunting down members of the Gestapo. By the 1950s he had begun his long march into the upper echelons of academia.

Despite his long intimate association with Richard Nixon, Kissinger in fact goes back so far as to have been a consultant to the National Security Council under President Kennedy, though he did not last long in post after he said “I wouldn’t recognise the Baluchistan problem if it hit me in the face” during an official visit to Pakistan. (Oddly, for such a diplomat, Kissinger cannot resist himself; Bangladesh dismissed as a “basket case”, and “it’s a pity they can’t both lose” about the Iran-Iraq war).

Henry and Dick first met at an elegant New York cocktail party hosted by Clare Boothe Luce, playwright, politician and one-time US ambassador to Italy, in 1967, at her home on Fifth Avenue. Nixon had been impressed by Kissinger’s analysis of superpower politics, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, and told him so. Kissinger, was not so impressed with Nixon: “not fit to be president”. Nonetheless, Kissinger was chosen to run Nixon’s foreign policy, and so was a remarkable partnership formed; it ended with Nixon’s resignation in 1974. The night before Nixon quit, Kissinger joined him in a tearful session; “Henry,” he said, “you are not a very orthodox Jew, and I am not an orthodox Quaker, but we need to pray.”

With a reputation as a ladies’ man, Kissinger has been married twice. His first marriage, to Ann Fleischer, was stormy, and ended in divorce, after 15 years, in 1964 (his two children are from that union). Ten years later his aphrodisiacs worked on the striking Nancy, with whom he is still together. In between there were reportedly many girlfriends.

According to some this “swinger” image was a conscious effort to humanise him and secure pictures in the society gossip columns. Kissinger said “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac… They are women attracted only to my power. But what happens when my power is gone? They’re not going to sit around playing chess with me.” Oddly, they still are, and he is still a player in the great game.

A Life In Brief

Born: Heinz Alfred Kissinger, May 21 1923, Fürth, Bavaria, Germany.

Family: Son of a schoolteacher and a homemaker. Kissinger has one younger brother, Walter. He first married Ann Fleischer. They divorced in 1964. The couple had two children, Elizabeth and David. He is now married to Nancy Maginnes.

Education: City College of New York and Harvard University (MA & PhD).

Career: After returning to the US from his Second World War deployment,  Kissinger enrolled into Harvard, planning to become an academic. He became a faculty member in the Department of Government, receiving tenure in 1959. His 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy became a landmark text book. He went on to serve as the National Security Adviser in the Nixon administration. In 1973, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his Vietnam War ceasefire agreement with Le Duc Tho. He was appointed chair of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America and then of the President’s Foreign Intelligence under Reagan and Bush. His memoirs have been highly regarded, with the first of the trilogy, The White House Years, winning the National Book Award for History in 1980. He also written over 13 books on foreign policy.

He says: “We can’t be the world’s policeman but we can be the world’s last resort.”

They say: “He was the 20th century’s greatest 19th-century statesman.”  Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic

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