Henry Kissinger: Author, Statesman, or War Criminal?

Rolling Stone, a publication with ambitious politics, ran the headline, “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies.” The magazine added that the architect of Richard Nixon’s foreign policy headed the list of the worst mass murderers in history, noting that a nation that honors Henry Kissinger should drown in shame.

My doctoral colleagues in New York welcomed me with a similar attitude in the 1990s. When I told them that I lived on the East Side of Manhattan they laughed and said that one of my neighbors was a war criminal. This is how the liberal New School for Social Research, founded by Jewish immigrants from Nazi Germany such as Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, Leo Strauss, Hans Morgenthau and many others, saw Kissinger. He also was a Jewish immigrant.

Kissinger’s Personas

Kissinger had different faces, public roles, and career paths. Analyzed thoughtfully, it becomes apparent that all of the above are features of the same character.

Kissinger wrote magnificent books, 15 of which are noteworthy monographs. Some of them, such as “Diplomacy” (1994), “On China” (2011), and “World Order” (2014) are required reading for any international relations program. Personally, I would highlight two of his earlier writings that are unfortunately not available in Bulgarian: “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy” (1957) and his doctoral dissertation at Harvard, “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822” (1957).

Some of these books present Kissinger engaging in a dramatic debate about the existential risks of nuclear confrontation. Others portray Kissinger as a theorist and hint at the future development of his theories.

Kissinger was a great writer and, under other circumstances, not unlike Winston Churchill, he could have been a Nobel laureate in literature.

Kissinger’s Realism

In these and other works, Kissinger is a historian, not a theorist. People widely and mistakenly assigned Kissinger to the so-called realism school of thought in international relations theory. But Kissinger is a realist only in the intuitive sense of the word, where a realist assesses what is feasible in the exercise of foreign policy. This is completely different from the tradition of realism that began with Thomas Hobbes and continued with Carl Schmitt in the 20th century, and later, with the fundamentalist works of Hans Morgenthau.

Starting in the late 1960s, realism entered a new phase of neorealism mainly through the works of writers such as Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer took now infamous positions on the Ukraine conflict, but otherwise is brilliant historian and theorist.

Beyond this intuitive approach, Kissinger is a practical realist in a Realpolitik sense (akin to Otto von Bismarck), and so it is incorrect to include him within a theoretical paradigm. This does not change the fact that as a historian and a practical realist, Kissinger shared the view that the structure of world affairs is the result of effective communication (diplomacy) between great powers.

In his early books, Kissinger argued that the most important thing in international relations was “legitimacy.” And he clarified “legitimacy” as what great powers agree on.

This thesis is already a part of his dissertation and remained unchanged until he took a controversial position on the most catastrophic conflict of the moment — Russia’s war with Ukraine. In this war Kissinger seeks but fails to find the great powers of the Congress of Vienna, which could decide a path forward and give us “a world restored.”

This explains why, from the annexation of Crimea until his death, Kissinger promoted conflicting theses, and in general sounded confused.

Is Kissinger a War Criminal?

At my university , there was a popular story that talked of Kissinger’s way of solving a major international problem. According to doctoral students and professors, he would solve any such problem with a single gesture. “Just kill them all,” he would say. This might have been a joke, but behind it lay a multitude of decisions that reflected this reality.

In 1970, Kissinger was the primary instigator for invading Cambodia. Nixon complained that bombing was not effective, yet Kissinger personally ordered “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia.” Kissinger later added “anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?”

The result was a death toll of between 150,000 and 500,000. Due in part to the ensuing chaos, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975.

In 1971, authorities in Pakistan began the ethnic cleansing of the Bengali population. This led to a war between India and Pakistan, a war that Pakistan lost quickly and decisively. Throughout this crisis and its millions of refugees, Kissinger supported Pakistan’s military dictatorship. White House records show that Kissinger was only interested in Pakistan’s role within U.S. diplomacy with China and considered everything else immaterial.

The story is similar to events in 1970 Chile, 1976 Argentina and its junta, in 1975 East Timor, etc. When Kissinger was informed that the Russians were persecuting Jews, Kissinger said that if the Russians were building gas chambers for their Jews, that was not an American problem.

Historians dealing with Kissinger’s legacy have estimated that 4 million people died as a result of his foreign policy from 1969 until 1976. Some people died as a result of tacit support, but a larger number of people were victims of his direct orders to intervene, invade and bomb, and other foreign policy “initiatives.”

So, if we imagine that Kissinger was operating not during the 1970s but during World War II as a member of the German government, he would be sitting at Nuremberg next to Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Popular until His Death

What made Kissinger so popular in the U.S. and the world is a mystery. It is true that he was a talented author and historian. It is true that his diplomacy was effective in advancing the United States’ national interest if the national interest was defined by Kissinger himself. It is also true that he never respected the postwar order in international relations and its basic institutions, despite the fact that the United States itself created these institutions.

During his last years, people continued to love Kissinger. He complained, vainly, that all the presidents had invited him to the White House except Joe Biden. But at least two questionable viewpoints undermined his lasting favor and authority.

First, he initially opposed the expansion of NATO, then changed his mind, then did not have a clear position. Second, he had an unsettled, changing and ultimately unethical position regarding Ukraine after the Crimea annexation and especially after the war began in February 2022.

This is a characteristic moment that has often been overlooked. Kissinger was not all that compelling outside a Cold War context and the period of détente in which he is credited with playing a significant role. After 1990, the world entered a period of international risk-taking rather than a clash of great powers. This was also a period of many internal conflicts and civil wars.

In this new system Kissinger’s beliefs were, to put it charitably, inaccurate. He had a chance to say something meaningful about the Russian invasion, but his otherwise clear mind seemed stuck in a different historical framework.

A significant part of his speeches, comments and analyses were trivial and opportunistic. One of his biographers said that Kissinger told his consulting firm’s countless number of clients exactly what they wanted to hear.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply