A man synonymous with diplomacy

Whether heralded for his strategic brilliance or critiqued for his controversial decisions, there is no denying that Kissinger’s name has become synonymous with diplomacy over the past six decades.

Santosh Mathew

Santosh Mathew

The Statesman


Some consider Henry Kissinger to be the best diplomat of the past six decades, who left an indelible mark on the most turbulent years in global politics. PHOTO: THE STATESMAN

December 7, 2023

NEW DELHI – ‘To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.’

Henry Kissinger In the complex realm of global diplomacy, there’s a question that lingers. Who exactly was Henry Kissinger? Some consider him to be the best diplomat of the past six decades who left an indelible mark on the most turbulent years in global politics.

To others, he’s a divisive figure, shrouded in the controversy of his decisions and the air of clandestine negotiations. You can love him or hate him but can’t deny his legacy of having become synonymous with diplomacy. In 1973, Mr. Kissinger had said in an interview. “The game that gives me maximum happiness is diplomacy”. He made his imprint as a diplomat, political scientist, academician, and an ardent sports fan. Whether one treads the halls of diplomacy or immerses themselves in the discipline of international relations, the enduring impact of Mr. Kissinger’s practical maneuvers and literary contributions are unique. In the realm of international studies, his works such as “The White House Years” (1979), “Diplomacy” (1999), “On China” (2011), “World Order” (2014), and “Leadership: Six studies in World Strategy” (2022) exist even today as reference books. In fact, it will be apt to say that there was hardly any training institute for diplomacy from 1968 to the present day that did not mention his name.

Notably, this year we mark the 50th anniversary of his historical peace treaty with China at the peak of the cold war. Kissinger was born in 1923, at Phulth, Germany to Jewish parents. The family took shelter in London during the mass elimination of Jews under the leadership of Hitler and reached the US in 1943. Kissinger, who got the American citizenship the same year, served in the army during 1943–1946. He is believed to have helped lakhs of refugees directly or indirectly.

What made Kissinger, the diplomat, outstanding was his ability to rewrite Monroe’s policy of non-interference, the core aspect of American foreign policy, by diluting it with practicability. Architect of the doctrine of realpolitik, he had famously asserted that “authority is the most potent remedy for rejuvenation”. He started his career as an advisor to the Republican Party during the 1960s. However, his rise to prominence came when President Nixon made him National Security Advisor (NSA) in 1968.

Later, Nixon appointed Kissinger as the 56th Secretary of State. Even though he had to resign in the wake of the Watergate controversy in 1974, Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned Kissinger and reappointed him as Secretary of State. Kissinger was not a big fan of India paralleling the strained relation between Nixon and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. At the peak of the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, a rumour abounded that the U.S Seventh fleet’s 74th task force on the pretext of evacuating American citizens from the warzone was ordered to deploy towards India by Nixon.

He was spurred on by issinger. Additionally, there were allegations that disparaging remarks, like ‘a bitch and a witch’, were made by Nixon about Indira Gandhi. It is clear, however, that the least troublesome decade of the Cold War era was that of Nixon and Kissinger. Nixon was ready to accept communist China in 1971 and get the country a permanent seat in the UN Security Council due to the constant efforts of Kissinger. ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’, which began as an experiment by sending an American table tennis team to China, and vice versa, became very famous. Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, and Chou Enlai, due to their constant travels, brought about new peace in Asia.

Kissinger was the backbone of this diplomacy, today called ‘Shuttle Diplomacy’. Kissinger was an ardent football fan, and played a crucial role in making this sport popular in the United States. Time Magazine chose Kissinger as its ‘Person of the Year’ in 1972, considering his multi-faceted personality. He was also selected for the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1973. He was chosen due to his leadership role in the Paris Accord, along with Mr. Le Duc Tho, the leader of the Communist party of Vietnam, for his efforts in establishing peace in Vietnam. But Tho rejected the Nobel Prize and reacted strongly against American dominance. Following this, Kissinger too stayed away from the prize distribution ceremony. Kissinger also played a vital role in efforts to stop the spread of atom bombs and disarmament.

He played a crucial role in disarmament treaties like Salt-1 and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). A significant criticism leveled against Kissinger is the assertion that he may be considered one of the most controversial Secretaries of State in American history. This criticism arises from his involvement in policies and actions that, some argue, had detrimental consequences. One such contentious issue is the allegation that under Kissinger’s influence, a controversial and destructive campaign, ostensibly aimed at eliminating Khmer Rouge, resulted in a significant loss of life, with an estimated 50,000 casualties. Additionally, there are claims that U.S. policies, advised by Kissinger, led to bombings in Cambodia that resulted in the tragic loss of approximately 550,000 lives.

His perceived support for Pakistan during ‘Operation Chenghis Khan’, an incursion into India, indirectly contributed to India’s involvement in the Bangladesh Liberation War. In 1989, Kissinger had proposed what came to be known as Yalta II, in which Moscow would agree to allow liberalization in Eastern Europe, and in return, the US would agree not to exploit these changes in a way that would threaten Soviet security (such as trying to take Moscow’s allies out of the Warsaw Pact). It was to be, of course, a secret deal. It was suggested to George Bush and James Baker in December 1988, with flattering references to a historic opportunity to end the Cold War. \

Kissinger explained it to Gorbachev in 1989. The Washington Post shot it down: “Some specialists on European affairs in the State Department have expressed dismay bordering on horror at Kissinger’s concepts.” Kissinger’s place in history is defined by his adeptness in realpolitik diplomacy, which saw him successfully ease tensions with the Soviet Union, negotiate an end to the Vietnam War, and actively pursue disarmament.

While celebrated for his strategic prowess, his legacy is also marked by controversy, as seen in his involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup and tacit support for Argentina’s junta during the “Dirty War.” Additionally, U.S. support for Pakistan during the tragic 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War raises questions. Kissinger’s impact on global politics reflects the intricate interplay between pragmatic diplomacy and its moral complexities.

The US has never officially been willing to concede that recent history encompasses not one but two 9/11s. There’s the one from 22 years ago that everyone is supposed to remember, overlooking the disastrous consequences of the US reaction that continue to bedevil several nations. There’s even more to overlook, though, in what happened in Santiago on 11 September 1973, when Chilean armed forces thwarted a democratic experiment in socio economic justice.

That’s because the US was inextricably implicated in the military coup it had been seeking to instigate for over three years. The intervention had begun even before the 4 September 1970, election that potentially elevated Salvador Allende to the presidency after decades of effort. Even before the election, there were indications of which way the wind of change was blowing. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” declared Kissinger, foreign policy head honcho in the Nixon administration.

Amidst the complex realm of international affairs, it’s no surprise that even the most powerful leaders turned to a singular figure for guidance. In a move laden with symbolism, President Donald Trump sought counsel from Kissinger on 17 November 2017, shortly after assuming office. Whether heralded for his strategic brilliance or critiqued for his controversial decisions, there is no denying that Kissinger’s name has become synonymous with diplomacy over the past six decades. In the words of the master of realpolitik himself, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

(The writer is Associate Professor Centre For South Asian Studies, Pondicherry Central University.)

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