The legacy of Henry Kissinger

Kissinger's death marks the end of a foreign policy era.

BERLIN GERMANY JANUARY 21 Former United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger attends the ceremony for the Henry A Kissinger Prize on January 21 2020 in Berlin Germany The annual prize is awarded by the American Academy in Berlin for outstanding service to transatlantic relations The 2019 edition of the award was given to German Chancellor Angela Merkel Photo by Adam BerryGetty Images
(Image credit: Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Henry Kissinger, who died on November 29, 2023, at the age of 100, was “one of the most prominent and controversial figures” in 20th-century US foreign policy, says Martin Pengelly in The Guardian. He served as president Richard Nixon’s secretary of state and Gerald Ford’s national security adviser and “remained influential” after his time in office thanks in part to his geopolitical consultancy and his authorship of books on international affairs. 

He advised a dozen presidents and won a shared Nobel prize for negotiating the end of the Vietnam War. The obituaries examining his legacy were as divided as he was divisive in life. Some praised him as “a statesman, a master diplomat, an exponent of power politics deployed to the benefit of America”. For many others, he was a war criminal with a “contempt for human rights”.

Kissinger’s advice led to many foreign policy mistakes, not least the “ferocious US bombing of neutral Cambodia” during the Vietnam War, which was the context for the rise of the “barbaric” Khmer Rouge, says The Times. He also played a role in encouraging Pinochet’s overthrow of Allende in Chile, abandoning the Iraqi Kurds to Saddam Hussein and condoning violent repressions by US allies such as Pakistan and Indonesia. 

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But there was often a broader geopolitical strategy at play and without Kissinger there would have been “no Nixon visit to China, no breakthrough in detente with Soviet Russia, and no peace treaty between Egypt and Israel”. Through his “hard-nosed negotiations and manipulative control of the US foreign-policy machine”, it's arguable that the Western world was made “a better and safer place for several subsequent decades”.

In short, Kissinger’s “prodigious mind” was often behind the events that helped cement and protect America’s position as the global superpower in the 20th century – exemplified by the fact that he arranged Nixon’s visit to China, “which wrong-footed the Soviet Union and helped China gradually to move towards economic liberalisation”, says Charles Moore in The Telegraph. His advice, both in and out of office, provided an antidote to the tendency of Western politicians to be “swayed by the… public mood”, even as it underplayed “people’s wishes for a better and freer life” and conceded “too much to hostile nations (such as China and Russia) whose power he overrated”.

Indeed, China and Russia’s rulers seem to have been more keen to celebrate Kissinger’s legacy than many in the US, says James Politi in the Financial Times. US president Joe Biden praised Kissinger’s “fierce intellect and profound strategic focus”, but his statement was “brief and hardly laden with praise”. In contrast, Russia’s Vladimir Putin called him a “wise and far-sighted statesman”; and Beijing heaped “unstinting” praise on the late diplomat, who Xi Jinping called an “old friend” of China. Indeed, the influence of Kissinger’s ideas has been “waning” in the US for quite some time, says The New York Times. As Chinese policy turns more aggressive, the Kissingerian policy of “engagement” has been replaced with one of “wariness”. Kissinger’s death marks the “end of an era” in US-Sino relations.

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

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