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Henry Kissinger: An Appreciation

One incidental feature accounts for the public mourning for a man whose activities were widely abhorred.

Credit: rblfmr

The avalanche of media commentary triggered by Henry Kissinger’s death cannot easily be parsed. On the one hand, we are told that Kissinger was a great statesman, perhaps the greatest of the age. On the other hand, critics charge him with having orchestrated murder on a genocidal scale, among many other transgressions. More than a few observers leave the impression that he was both at once: a paragon of statecraft and a war criminal. Yet virtually none have succeeded in spelling out why during the course of his long life he remained the subject of endless fascination. 

The bill of indictment assembled by his critics, beginning with pointlessly prolonging and expanding the Vietnam War, need not be recounted here: It is long, detailed, unseemly, and irrefutable, its homicidal impact affecting such faraway nations as Cambodia, Pakistan, and Chile. 


Yet ordinary citizens who take their cues from those worthies who presume to tell the rest of us what to think might conclude that history has already decided to forgive Kissinger for his offenses. Whatever his flaws and shortcomings, Kissinger’s place in the annals of American diplomacy appears secure. He is our Metternich and our Bismarck, credited with achievements that greatly outweigh his failings. 

Allow me to suggest that such a verdict says less about Kissinger’s actual record of performance, which was decidedly mixed, than about the attitudes and expectations that implicitly prevail among present-day American elites. With few exceptions, they found him irresistible.

Let us note that obligatory professions of the nation’s eternal devotion to principle—freedom, democracy, human rights—ornament American statecraft. Yet Kissinger dared to disregard and even mock such hypocrisies. In his view, to allow ideals to interfere with the exercise of power was the hallmark of amateurs. As for moral principles, he treated them as either expendable or subject to modification at a moment’s notice. 

So how to explain the plaudits that have marked his passing, even among many liberals?

For one thing, Kissinger was a bona fide celebrity and thereby judged by different standards than ordinary folk. Over the course of decades—it helps to live to 100—he succeeded in making himself a darling in quarters where the rich, famous, and influential congregate. Everywhere from Washington D.C. and New York to Cambridge and Hollywood, his company was sought after. To dine with Henry at some exclusive restaurant was proof of one’s membership in some privileged inner circle. Among those hungering to be known, to be counted among his intimates was a testimony to having made it.


He cut a raffish figure, his appeal stemming in considerable part from his carefully cultivated image as a diplomatic swashbuckler. Despite his German accent, unfashionable horned-rimmed glasses, and less than elegant figure, Kissinger projected an air of someone uniquely able to discern and to unpack complexities hidden from the plain folk. He dazzled members of Congress, journalists, the well-to-do, and any number of B-list personalities that he pretended to take into his confidence. That he was a prolific writer and was possessed of a morbid wit also helped.

Yet ultimately, the source of his notoriety lay in the brazen shamelessness that defined his operating style. Kissinger was a first-class liar. He could seduce, deceive, manipulate, and betray with equal facility, all pursuant to advancing his version of the national interest. 

The middle years of the Cold War provided the perfect venue for him to display his talents. By the late 1960s and early ’70s, the grand strategy charted in the aftermath of World War II had run its course, with the folly of Vietnam bearing witness to that fact. To view international politics as an arena of ideological competition pitting the Free World against the Red Menace had become self-defeating. 

In collaboration with President Richard Nixon, Kissinger devised an alternative frame based on cold-blooded geopolitical calculations. The abandonment of South Vietnam, the “opening” to China, détente with the Soviet Union, and nakedly callous treatment of Third World nations deemed insignificant, all testified to this strategic reorientation. 

Together, these moves set in motion a train of events destined to culminate in the collapse of communism, the demise of the bipolar order, and America’s abbreviated run as sole superpower. Whether the outcome will ultimately work to the benefit of the United States remains to be seen. But in his heyday, while serving as Nixon’s chief henchman, Kissinger wielded power with boldness, audacity, elan, and at least nominal success. He seized the initiative and made things happen. He was never boring.

This may explain why his passing elicited a certain weren’t-those-the-days response. However we may wish to characterize American statecraft today, terms like audacity and elan don’t fit the bill. As Washington wrestles with problems in Russia, China, and the Middle East, terms like pedestrian, reactive, and too-little, too-late more accurately describe U.S. policy. 

Kissinger’s present-day successor as secretary of state is by all appearances a decent fellow. As he flies hither and yon in imitation of Kissinger’s famous shuttle diplomacy, Antony Blinken displays notable energy. Yet despite all the take-offs and landings, the summit meetings and the interviews, nothing much of real substance results. 

Blinken can be counted on to recite reassuring cliches about the imperative of American global leadership. He knows his script and follows it even if little of what he says or does seems to matter. Worse, he is boring.

Henry Kissinger was never boring. More than any other single factor, that may explain why in certain quarters he is so greatly missed.


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