It is in reality difficult to unequivocally categorize Henry Kissinger as a personality devoted to justice; in fact I think it is difficult to unequivocally categorize him as devoted to anything.
Today we turn our attention to a man who has been relevant in global politics before most people in the world were born. He marked his 100 years birthday just last week (on Saturday, May 27, 2023) and that makes him the first living personality to be inducted into our pantheon of The Unforgettables: an apotheosis of a living human being.
He is called Henry Kissinger and he is generally and officially described as an academic and education manager, a diplomat, director (of many and very different organisations), writer, theorist, thinker, geopolitical consultant, soldier, spy, politician, statesman, public intellectual and Nobel Prize Winner.
He also means many things to different people and the list of words used so far are those drawn from the printable words that the editor of this publication would allow us use. I leave you to imagine and then find out what other words people like his very many critics and feisty opponents (like Christopher Hitchens) have used and are using to describe Henry Kissinger.
One of my many favourite descriptions of Henry Kissinger (and indeed anyone) are the one by Nicholas Thompson that described Henry Kissinger as “one of the worst people to ever be a force for good” and the one by Thomas Meany that noted that Henry Kissinger “was a far less remarkable figure than his supporters, his critics—and he himself—believed”.
Controversy, not to be confused with infamy, is also an index of greatness and I guess when you live for 100 years during which you travel to and live in many countries and do many public things, you are more likely to be different things to many people.
On a very personal note, my own teacher and later boss and mentor, Prof Fulvio D’amoja, once gave me a list of fifteen contradicting papers and about five or six books written about Henry Kissinger to read. I eagerly and dutifully read all and more, after which I took an outline of my proposed writings to him but the great Fulvio D’amoja said to me “my dear Kila, please don’t show me your outline, please don’t show your piece, it is yours, I suspect you are going to meet him one day, I just wanted you to know Henry Kissinger very well before you meet him, we shall talk about him one day over a good bottle of wine…”
Henry Kissinger was born, as Heinz Alfred Kissinger, in 1923 in Fruth, Bavaria to a German Jewish family, his father Louis Kissinger was a schoolteacher and his mother Paula was a homemaker. At about fourteen years after his birth, his native Germany became unbearable for the young Kissinger and his family. It was the era of the Nazi regime that will be remembered mostly for its anti-Semitic policies and practices. History shows that the young Kissinger was bullied, beaten and ostracized like many Jews in Nazi Germany.
It appears he made his own situation worse by insisting on following his passion for playing and watching football. His father did not dare the Nazi, yet he was rusticated from his school teaching job for being a Jew. In 1938 the Kissinger family gave up and left for the USA via London. In a script that only history can write the boy Heinz Alfred Kissinger that wanted to be an accountant but was denied admission into a sixth form went to America where he not only became Henry Kissinger the American, he also went on to get a PhD from Harvard, became a professor of Government after he served in the US army to fight and defeat Nazi Germany as a soldier and a spy.
When over seventy years after the war, he chose to comment on how his German experience of his youth has affected his policies and person, Henry Kissinger, the now former Secretary of State and recognised global leader that had contributed immensely in shaping the political, economic and in some instances physical physiognomy of more than half of the known world, simply quipped that “Germany of my youth had a great deal of order and very little justice; it was not the sort of place likely to inspire devotion to order in the abstract.”
It is in reality difficult to unequivocally categorize Henry Kissinger as a personality devoted to justice; in fact I think it is difficult to unequivocally categorize Henry Kissinger as devoted to anything. If my life depended on saying what he was committed to, I would probably say Henry Kissinger was committed to victory (defined as vanquishing opponents and or complications) and success (defined as achieving plans and or objectives).
Once his foundational disposition is explained this way, it will be easy for more people to understand and contextualise why and how Henry Kissinger’s handle on policies and practices are guided by realpolitik and balance of power as essential elements of national interests and a beneficial world order.
There is always a group of students who cannot help but burst out in laughter in our classes of international relations when we introduce the concept of Henry Kissinger’s “Ping-Pong Policy”, they tend to turn thoughtful and sometimes even awed when we move into the details and gravity of how Henry Kissinger conceived, encouraged and lead secret negotiations with Communist China right in the middle of the cold war. Henry Kissinger’s intellectual position and practical role in the escalation, then de-escalation in the Vietnam War and negotiations that lead to the Paris Peace Accord in 1973 is a legacy worthy of a whole seminar in our classrooms and beyond. Details of the secret meetings with North Vietnamese representative will make the most willing students of diplomacy sit up in a class.
It is safe to say that the USA, and most of the western framework for diplomacy and policies in the Middle East was conceived and guided by Henry Kissinger and it was built around national interest and a controlled and gradual peace. It is worth mentioning here that Henry Kissinger never saw war as inherently bad or something to be automatically avoided, it appears he sometimes saw it as necessary tool for peace and order.
The special treatment and considerations that the USA and most of the West give to Israel exists and it will be intellectually dishonest to go mute on it but it is not as simple as some activists, observers and even scholars make it. There is really nothing simple or clear cut about Henry Kissinger, as we say “there are more numbers after six than seven…”
There is an anecdote about a meeting with Henry Kissinger and an Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, who is said to consider Henry Kissinger a wayward nephew. Henry Kissinger, to set the ground rules, started the meeting by saying “Golda, you must remember that first I am an American, second I am Secretary of State and third I am a Jew. ” Golda Meir responded, ”Henry, you forget that in Israel we read from right to left”.
At 100, Henry Kissinger has not only outlived many of his critics and most of his enemies and the curses rained on him, he is still granting interviews and he is still being consulted.
In case you are wondering, some students have already asked me if I am for or against Kissinger and my answer then and now is that Henry Kissinger should not be loved or loathed, Henry Kissinger should be studied.
Join me on twitter @anthonykila if you can, to continue these conversations.
- Anthony Kila is a Director at the Commonwealth Institute of Advanced and Professional Studies (www.ciaps.org)