What does Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy have to teach the world?
FOR THE MAN who pushed his own ideas so hard, Henry Kissinger was surprisingly misunderstood. Many see him as a supreme exponent of the amoral realism that is ruining America. Certainly, like any diplomat, he lied for his country (and sometimes himself). Even worse, he was willing to see tens of thousands of people killed if he thought the national interest demanded it. But what distinguishes Mr Kissinger, who died this week aged 100, is not just his actual policy, but the fact that his use of diplomacy was put through with ideology. It’s a style that still holds valuable lessons today.
The Kissingers who could be in the Biden White House (and they are) are facing a daunting challenge. The conflict between China and America is becoming increasingly toxic. Bitter wars are rising in Ukraine and Gaza. Political divisions are tearing Western democracies apart. Intractable global issues, such as how to prevent climate change and reduce the risks of artificial intelligence, are piling up.
Talking to The Economist in April, Mr. Kissinger himself almost appeared. But his main theme cut to the heart of his ideology. His life’s work, he said, was spent to prevent a repeat of the wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 that had devastated his childhood in Germany and much of the world as well. Today that means keeping the peace between China and America.
Its mechanism is still under investigation. It begins with a rigorous analysis. In his later years, Mr. Kissinger was often criticized for being soft on China. But his concern was seeing the idea that he was a rising power like Kaiser Germany, bent on expansion. China, he said, saw the rules-based order as American rules and American order. He wanted room for change, without overturning the system completely.
A different analysis leads to Mr. Kissinger’s next order, to live and let out. Drawing on his study of 19th century European diplomacy, he argued that stability required states to accept each other’s differences. The main threat to peace comes not from realists, he thought, but from zealots and proselytisers who are quick to criticize and want change over a point of principle. So Mr. Kissinger suggested that China and America talk, quietly at first, to build trust and avoid issues, such as trade and Taiwan, where differences cannot be reconciled.
Analysis and tolerance are underscored by Mr. Kissinger’s call for military restraint. America’s assessment of China may be wrong or it may be out of date. The effort could be with a founder. If so, the last thing that will keep the peace is the threat of war and the willingness to carry it through.
Many of Mr Kissinger’s critics hold him responsible for massacres in Cambodia and Bangladesh in the 1970s, as well as helping to overthrow elected governments. He said that everything had to be peaceful between America and the Soviet Union. The idea that he was engaging in need is a broad and unknown claim. However, as the world’s response to Israel’s strikes on Gaza shows, it may be impossible today how willing people are to sacrifice their lives in search of stability.
In other ways, too, Kissingerian diplomacy is more difficult now than when he was traveling around the Middle East as secretary of state. Secret meetings on the back channel will be plastered on TikTok. The world cannot be ordered so easily according to a hierarchy of Soviet and American supported allies and clients. It is multifaceted. For all that, it would be sad if Mr. Kissinger’s view of diplomacy died with him. A dangerous world desperately needs the subtle interplay between interests, values and the use of force. The search for stability must go on without him. ■