Henry Kissinger’s Lessons for the World Today
The first time I met Henry Kissinger, he tried to hijack my car – sort of. As we waited at the entrance of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel after a dinner at the Munich Security Conference in his native Germany, he gingerly descended the stairs and settled into the back seat of one of the sleek black Mercedes sedans forming a caravan to chauffeur us away. But the alphabetically strict concierge insisted that Dr. Khanna be escorted before Dr. Kissinger, and ushered him into the car behind mine. I found myself apologizing to him, for I would certainly have preferred to share the ride.
There was never a dull conversation with the original Dr. K. A couple of years ago in my native India, we chatted just before going on stage in New Delhi. It happened to be November 9, so I asked him if he recalled where he was and what he was doing thirty years earlier – precisely the day the Berlin Wall fell. Even nearing 95 years of age, he didn’t miss a beat.
I first visited Berlin just weeks after the Wall came down, sparking my love affair with the homeland he fled as a teen. At the same age he was when he arrived in New York as a Jewish refugee, I left New York to attend a German gymnasium high school near Hamburg. My parents mailed me care packages full of Doritos and letters from friends, but the cardboard box I most eagerly awaited came in April 1995, containing a hot-off-the-press copy of Kissinger’s instant classic Diplomacy. The 800-page tome immediately became my Berlin Wall of geopolitical literature, my first textbook in classical realism, my constant companion as I Euro-railed for weeks on end. (Together with Paul Kennedy’s even girthier Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, it also left little room in my backpack for anything other than a toothbrush.)
Kissinger’s own former colleagues such as historian Ernest May of Harvard criticized the book as a haphazard collection of maxims, as if to ignore Kissinger’s consistent focus since his days as a doctoral student writing about Metternich and Castlereagh: not historical events in themselves but the statesmen who made history and why, with chapters bearing the names of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Napoleon III and Bismarck, Adenauer and Eisenhower. But Kissinger’s work was much more than an avatar of Thomas Carlyle’s infamous dictum that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Instead, it taught me the correct answer to the high school debate I had just completed – “does the man make the moment or the moment make the man?” Both.
His own life reflected the constant interplay of contingency and agency. As towering a figure as he remains at his centenary, it’s important to remember that even into his 40s, Kissinger still had almost no firsthand knowledge of the world beyond America’s east coast establishment (from which he still felt somewhat ostracized) and wartime Germany. Though he was respected as a policy theorist who boldly articulated the “flexible response” nuclear doctrine vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, he had backed the wrong presidential contenders, most recently Nelson Rockefeller. The first volume of Niall Ferguson’s magisterial biography recounts the afternoon when Kissinger was almost aimlessly crossing Harvard Square and bumped into his friend Arthur Schlesinger, the liberal historian and counselor to President Kennedy, who offered him a coveted opportunity to advise the Johnson administration. From that point forward, he entered the stream of history, both being made by moments but also making them.
Any mortal would have been in way over his head for the astounding flurry of nearly simultaneous hotspots Kissinger came to juggle over the subsequent decade either as National Security Advisor or Secretary or State (or both at the same time): Vietnam, Chile, Rhodesia, Egypt and Bangladesh, to name just a few. His famous quip was well justified: “There cannot be a crisis next week; my diary is already full.”
His prestige rose even when America’s credibility suffered – sometimes as a result of his own actions such as prolonging the Vietnam War and incinerating Cambodia only to dishonorably evacuate Indochina. He and Nixon also underestimated Arab bargaining power during the Yom Kippur War: Kissinger was lionized for his tireless Mideast “shuttle diplomacy,” but the administration could also have plausibly prevented Egypt’s tilt towards the Soviet Union and the Saudi-led OPEC oil embargo, which unleashed devastating stagflation on Western economies. When one man juggles too many eggs, some will inevitably fall and crack. He certainly didn’t shape every historical moment for the better. More charitably, one could say that the moment made the man much more interesting than he might otherwise have been.
But Kissinger never saw his own statesmanship as a transcendental pursuit. To the contrary, one of the most riveting passages of his seminal 1957 academic study A World Restored clearly differentiates between the statesman and the prophet: the former navigates turbulence and constraints in pursuit of tangible objectives, whereas the prophet is messianic in his universalism. Kissinger, who in his youth aspired to become an accountant, worked tirelessly in the moment as a small “s” statesman in pursuit of geopolitical equilibrium, a stable order despite constant volatility in the shadow of the nuclear arms race. Though it was Mao who sought an opening to the US in light of the late-1960s Sino-Soviet split as much as Nixon who sought to open China, Kissinger’s simultaneous detente with the Soviet Union and delicate rapprochement with China was indeed animated by a mission to manage a dynamic but favorable equilibrium among the major powers. Exactly as he described the relationship between rivals Metternich and Castlereagh in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the goal was stability, not perfection.
Such pragmatic vision is needed more than ever in today’s truly multipolar world, one in which America consistently underestimates adversaries large and small. That is why, though Kissinger’s intellectual and political obituary has been written a thousand times, he is still sought after for the global experience and cultural sensitivity he has amassed. Such virtues are timeless and unique – and utterly absent amongst America’s current foreign policy class who spend more time Tweeting than traveling, and writing speeches rather than learning languages. They fail to see that negotiation and even settlement – whether with Russia or China – isn’t tantamount to appeasement. Rather, the legitimacy of order itself derives from its inclusion of powers and adjustment to their interests.
Today’s establishment – especially those tripping over themselves to formulate a “Biden doctrine” – would do well to heed Kissinger’s insight from Diplomacy, “A leader who confines his role to his people’s experience dooms himself to stagnation.” Those are the words of a man who learned to think about order beyond Realpolitik, perhaps even to embrace the pursuit of a sustainable global division of labor. Kissinger was nakedly ambitious and notoriously manipulative, but even at the age of 100 embodies a genuine intellectual curiosity that Washington’s petty careerists lack.
I can’t separate reading Kissinger as a teen from my decision to major in “Diplomacy & International Security” at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where Kissinger himself briefly taught in the 1970s, and to minor in philosophy. As I dove into geopolitical theory and loaded up on Kant and Hegel, I spent another year back in Germany at the Free University of Berlin, where I toiled in the library writing a 40-page seminar thesis on the great debate between Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee’s approaches to history. Only years later in Walter Isaacson’s biography did I learn that this was also the subject of Kissinger’s senior thesis at Harvard.
Today we find ourselves at the precarious intersection of Spengler’s decline and Toynbee’s adaptation. More than ever, a deeper understanding of the mechanics of a bewilderingly complex world should be a prerequisite for being handed the keys to manage it. But that is a task for a new generation.
Today’s gerontocracy of politicians and pundits invokes Kissinger’s name either to buttress the credibility they themselves lack or to make out-of-context ad hominem attacks. He’s remained aloof, almost immune, to both. His focus on the personal and political circumstances of leaders and the choices available to them in their time applies to himself as well. Last August, when asked by Laura Secor of the Wall Street Journal if he had any professional regrets, he replied, “I ought to learn a great answer to that question… I do not torture myself with things we might have done differently.”
Today’s youth don’t have that luxury. They recognize today’s revolutionary moment, and in doing so appear to have subconsciously absorbed one of Kissinger’s most moving passages written when he was their age: “Each generation is permitted only one effort of abstraction; it can attempt only one interpretation and a single experiment, for it is its own subject. This is the challenge of history and its tragedy; it is the shape ‘destiny’ assumes on earth. And its solution, even its recognition, is perhaps the most difficult task of statesmanship.”
Scholars and diplomats may debate Kissinger’s legacy for decades to come, but it’s beyond dispute that we need more statesmen who can anticipate and respond to a changing world order in pursuit of a new and more stable equilibrium.
More Must-Reads From TIME