Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, who had recently turned 100, died recently but his death stirred up memories of his achievements in foreign affairs but also the horrors of human suffering his policies caused in various parts of the world, including Chile, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and parts of Africa.
Kissinger’s thinking — he was the closest of all the politicians to then President Richard Nixon and the duo was sometimes referred to as “Nixinger” — was guided by what some strategists called hard-core realpolitik.
Kissinger was influenced by the thinking of Klemens von Metternich, the 19th century conservative Austrian chancellor; Metternich was the subject of Kissinger’s 1954 doctoral dissertation at Harvard.
Path-breaking meeting with Mao
Realpolitik was for Kissinger the art of conducting diplomacy or political policy suited to given circumstances and factors rather than following ideological, moral or ethical premises; realpolitik can also be used pejoratively to imply political policies that are perceived as being coercive, amoral or Machiavellian.
Kissinger’s balance sheet shows some positive achievements in China’s opening to the US following Kissinger’s secretive mission to Beijing in 1971 quietly flying from Pakistan which he was visiting then. The momentous visit cleared the way for then President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and the latter’s path-breaking meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong.
But Kissinger’s China visit also had a flipside: in his zest to get China on board against the powerful Soviet Union which had increased its global influence, Kissinger appeared eager to accommodate China.
Many believe that Kissinger did not extract enough concessions from China which, while reaping the economic and other benefits, quietly also built up its military might; Washington today sees China as a major rival. Kissinger last visited Beijing in July 2023, when he was received by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Kissinger, who served as a National Security Advisor under Nixon and, later, as Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford, also had blemishes in his record. In 1970, he had reportedly plotted with the CIA to remove the democratically-elected leftist Chilean President Salvador Allende; Kissinger contended in an internal memo written after the 1976 coup in Argentina that military dictators were to be encouraged.
Context of Cold War
Then there was Kissinger’s support for Indonesia’s military regime which took control of East Timor in 1975. The Indonesian invasion took toll of over 100,000 East Timorese lives; Indonesia ended its occupation of East Timor in 1999.
Kissinger was seen as a devil incarnate in Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, which had faced a military crackdown in 1971 by the West Pakistani army. India, which intervened to lend support to the rebels in East Pakistan and helped create Bangladesh, had major differences with both Nixon and Kissinger, both of whom spewed scorn and contempt for then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Years later, Kissinger would regret his remarks, explaining that they were uttered in the heat of the moment in “context of the Cold War”; he emphasised he had high regards for Mrs. Gandhi, reminding he had supported India’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council.
But Mrs. Gandhi never forgave Kissinger for his support for the Yahya Khan regime in West Pakistan during the 1971 war; she argued — and some American officials also echoed the view — that the Nixon/Kissinger duo could have prevented killings in East Pakistan.
With India’s growing economic clout and its strategic importance in US plans to contain China’s growing global assertiveness, Kissinger also reached out to Indian leadership; he had a cordial meeting in Washington DC with visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this year.
Then there was the Vietnam imbroglio. Kissinger hoped that the secret bombing campaign of 1969-70 in Laos and Cambodia would deter the rebel movement from infiltrating into South Vietnam. The result was the killing of thousands of civilians; the Khmer Rouge regime committed the horrifying genocide and South Vietnam fell to the rebels.
The Cambodia fiasco weighed heavily on his reputation, with social media fiercely critical of him and often calling him a war criminal.
Indeed, the late celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain who travelled extensively across Southeast Asia, was shaken by the carnage of civilian life in Cambodia, and posted an acerbic social media message in 2001.
There was also outrage felt by many around the world when Kissinger received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for helping end the US involvement in the disastrous Vietnam War. Christmas 1972 saw heavy bombing raids carried out over the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi by American B-52 bombers.
Understood the worth of humour
All over the world, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. The man who ordered the bombing was at the same time spearheading ceasefire negotiations. The armistice took effect in January 1973, and the same autumn Kissinger was awarded the Peace Prize together with his counterpart Le Duc Tho. The latter refused to accept the Prize, and two members left the Nobel Committee in protest.
Kissinger, appearing unfazed by the worldwide criticisms, had this to say: “I’ve been thinking about these problems all my life … the recommendations I made were the best of which I was then capable,” he commented.
Nevertheless, Kissinger played a major role in world affairs, and he displayed an incredible amount of energy in international negotiations.
I remember a very brief conversation I had with him some years back at a New York event where EU Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyne was the chief guest.
As he passed by my seat, I introduced myself to him; upon hearing my last name, Kissinger smiled and inquired: “Are you related to (conductor) Zubin Mehta?” “No, I am not … but we have something in common … like Zubin I like classical German music and speak German too,” I replied.
He had an amused look as he slowly moved towards the VIP seats ahead. That one-minute interlude made me realise that this man, fiercely criticised for his excesses in power, understood the worth of humour to break an impasse in international negotiations.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based journalist who specialises in foreign affairs/diplomacy, UN, US bilateral relations, global economics