Henry Kissinger was a man of his time and lived over 100 years straddling the global stage with ease that few others could.
Born a Jew in Bavaria, Germany, in 1923, his parents migrated to the US in 1938 to escape Adolf Hitler’s anti-Jewish atrocities. He served in the military as an intelligence officer during World War II and then found his way to Harvard University.
He towered over other influential European immigrants to the US who included Hans Morgenthau, Hannah Arendt, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Madeline Albright. These intellectuals dominated post-World War II thinking on world affairs, favourably contrasting the US and its Conceptual West allies against its global power rival and ideological counterpart, the Soviet Union.
That power rivalry, called the Cold War, was one of the outcomes of World War II. The others included the creation of the UN to replace the moribund League of Nations, the technological explosion related to the atomic bomb, and heated anti-colonialism that competed with the Cold War for world attention.
Champions of both forces, the Cold War and anti-colonialism, could moralise about the rightness of their respective positions only to adjust and find appropriate points of convergence. Using the reason of the Cold War, the US adjusted and discarded several practices because it could not win against 20th Century anti-colonialism.
Kissinger, caught in that adjustment, never understood anti-colonialism partly because he was a mover in the racialized world order that privileged the Conceptual West. He believed in exercising power in the American national interests and avidly sought opportunity to do so.
He subsequently grew into a diplomatic colossus on behalf of America that became a 20th Century global colossus. He loved global order and imagined himself a latter day Prince Metternich of Austria who, with England’s Castlereagh, shepherded post-Napoleon’s Europe to restore the old pre-French Revolution order.
His book, A World Restored, was a yearning for order in the nuclear age. He, in the process, ignored the reality of the forces that Napoleon had unleashed and could not be returned and cocked in the bottle of pre-revolutionary order. He similarly ignored the forces of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism that World War II had spurred and could not be cocked in the bottle of Cold War order.
Being a historian who wrote many books, historians will have plenty of time to diagnose what his life meant, the flips, flaws, and triumphs. In failing to understand the force of anti-colonialism in global affairs, he was like Metternich trying to reverse the forces that the French Revolution had released.
Kissinger was brilliant, swift to seize opportunities, and was flexible enough to switch positions to advance perceived objectives.
He worked for the Council of Foreign Relations in the volatile early 1950s, dominated by emerging nuclear competition and anti-colonial liberation wars. In Kenya, the Mau Mau War intruded itself into the world stage and disrupted existing international order.
Kissinger systematically inched his way up to the centre of American power advising several politicians. His 1957 book, Nuclear War and Foreign Policy advocating limited use of tactical nuclear weapons, gave him the notice he craved for. In 1968, although he was a New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller man, he reportedly sneaked information to the political rival Richard M. Nixon camp; Nixon was grateful.
Nixon won the 1968 election with roughly the same margin that he had lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and he sought to reshape the world his way. He disliked those connected to Kennedy, like Kenya’s Tom Mboya on whom he partly attributed his 1960 presidential election loss.
He considered Mboya one of the African leaders who knew how to destroy but not how to build. He appointed Kissinger National Security Advisor in 1969 to help build his desired world order. In June 1969, Kissinger reportedly told Apartheid South African officials that “The whites are here to stay”.
Kissinger was not sentimental and could be mischievous. He achieved mixed results practising the ‘realpolitik’ of exercising economic and military muscles rather than dwelling on political wishful thinking.
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He succeeded in big Cold War issues in Europe but failed badly where the Third World and colonial issues were involved. In Indo-China, he promoted the bombing of Cambodia while seeking ways of extricating the US from its misadventures in Vietnam which had embarrassingly turned into a virtual civil war in the streets of American cities.
Among his ways was to open the China diplomatic route for Americans partly to pressure the Soviet Union and bring the Vietcong to give the US an exit tunnel from Vietnam. His ‘détente’ policies led to US-Soviet agreements on limiting nuclear weapons. He also had two achievements in the Middle East, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
First, his shuttle diplomacy to disengage the Israelis and the Egyptians, made him appear like a diplomatic wonder boy. Second and of long lasting impact on global geopolitics and economies, he persuaded Saudi Arabia to help turn the US dollar into the world currency for payments of oil and other commodities, the petro-dollar.
Despite achievements, however, Kissinger failed in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Believing in limiting ‘democracy’ if democracy threatened perceived US interest, he in 1973 orchestrated the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende for being socialistic. The stupidity of the voters, he reportedly quipped, should not be allowed to jeopardise American interests.
Although Allende’s replacement, Augusto Pinochet, was a murderous brute, he was an American brute saving the West. Kissinger, despite encouraging Apartheid South Africa to invade Angola in order to prevent the MPLA from winning, failed. The MPLA embarrassed both the South Africans and the Americans.
The American/South African defeat in Angola forced Kissinger, as Secretary of State to adjust strategy in order to seem concerned with African concerns. He toured Africa talking about American support for liberation. In Kenya, Munyua Waiyaki, his counterpart as minister for Foreign Affairs, received Kissinger and together they flew to Nakuru to see President Jomo Kenyatta.
In the small plane, Kissinger saw a bird near the window and winced and when Munyua asked him what the problem was, Kissinger said ‘nerves.’
In Nakuru, Kenyatta engaged him in the cultural diplomacy of using symbols to pass serious messages. He gave Kissinger a shield and a spear and then asked Kissinger to dance. It took time before Kissinger understood what Kenyatta’s dancing message was.
Munyua and Kissinger had something in common; both were brilliant and mischievous. When Munyua went to Washington, to seek spears and shields by talking to Congressmen about Kenya’s defense needs, Kissinger demanded an explanation.
Munyua then schooled Kissinger on what the dance was all about. Since Kenya was the only friend of the US in the region and yet it had no defences, he wanted spears and shields to defend common interests.
To buttress the seriousness of the matter, Munyua told Kissinger that Kenyatta beats ministers and since he did not want beatings, he had to return to Nairobi with jet fighters and simulators. Kissinger then understood the message and Munyua got jet fighters and training opportunities.
When the two met later in New York and Kissinger wondered about the supposed beating, they laughed at what Kissinger said was Munyua being ‘Kikuyu’. Kissinger then went to Zambia to make a policy statement about supporting majority rule in Southern Africa.
His tour of Africa, to see Kenyatta as the legendary Mau Mau chief and to make statement on shifting American policy was a forced adjustment to the reality that America was losing. It was a Cold War knee jerk reaction to unexpected geopolitical defeats in areas the US had assumed it had controlling influence.
He was trying to undo the implications of his June 1969 assertion about whites being in Southern Africa “to stay”; the 1974 military coup in Lisbon disabused him. He had hoped to redeem American prestige, lost in Vietnam, in Angola only to receive another humiliation at the hands of Cubans.
Kissinger was blessed with longevity and opportunity and was tragic in greatness. Although he was a man of his times, he did not fully understand his time. He achieved many things like helping to save the US from itself in Vietnam, creating the petro-dollar as global currency, befriending Communist China, and trying to reduce nuclear armaments.
He seemingly was obsessed with balancing power among the big powers and misread two lessons from the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna.
First, big powers do not believe in the ideals they profess as they pursue perceived national interests. Second, it is difficult to contain released world forces demanding place in world affairs.
Kissinger did not believe in democracy for Third World countries lest the stupidity of the voters jeopardize American interests. His attempt to stem anti-colonial forces as part of his Cold War strategy backfired on him and the US.
Being a historian, Kissinger should have known better than to ignore anti-colonialism as a force of history.