Henry A. Kissinger, the U.S. statesman who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 100, left behind a legacy of remarkable achievements and controversies. His diplomatic feats in the early 1970s shaped the global order for decades, but also raised ethical questions that still resonate today.
As national security adviser and secretary of state under President Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Kissinger engineered the historic rapprochement between the United States and China, the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union, and the peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He was the architect of the policy of “detente” — the reduction of tensions with the Soviet Union — while also competing with Moscow for global influence. He later claimed that his greatest accomplishment was the negotiation of the disengagement accords between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria after the 1973 war, which he achieved through his innovative “shuttle diplomacy” that sidelined the Soviets. As a result, the United States emerged as the dominant power in the Middle East, a role it has maintained ever since.
Mr. Kissinger’s successes, as well as his failures, were rooted in his adherence to a realist approach to foreign policy. Inspired by the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, who created the post-Napoleonic order in Europe and was the topic of his Harvard Phd dissertation, Mr. Kissinger believed that peace was best secured by balancing the interests of great states. “We moved toward China to shape a global equilibrium,” he wrote. “It was not to collude against the Soviet Union but to give us a balancing position to use for constructive ends — to give each Communist power a stake in better relations with us.” Accordingly, he simultaneously orchestrated Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in 1972 and signed a landmark agreement with Moscow to limit strategic nuclear weapons.
In 1978, a Post editorial captured what many of President Jimmy Carter’s critics felt was lacking in Mr. Carter’s foreign policy: “the sense of design, of architecture, of knowing what he was doing, that Henry Kissinger conveyed widely, even to detractors.”
He had many of those. In his relentless pursuit of what he saw as U.S. interests, he was accused of appeasing dictators and abetting war crimes. He facilitated and condoned some of Nixon’s worst excesses, such as the secret bombing of Cambodia. He also backed a U.S. attempt to overthrow Chile’s elected socialist president and supported Pakistan’s brutal crackdown on Bangladesh.
Although he realized even before joining the Nixon administration in 1969 that the United States could not win the war in Vietnam, Mr. Kissinger prolonged it for years in order to preserve U.S. “credibility” with the Soviets. The 1972 deal he negotiated to withdraw U.S. troops was meant to save American prestige by providing a “decent interval” between that withdrawal and the inevitable fall of South Vietnam. When the end came in 1975, Mr. Kissinger rightly offered to return the Nobel Peace Prize he had received.
Mr. Kissinger’s significance is not diminished by acknowledging his mistakes, but rather confirmed by them. His diplomatic achievements shaped some of the most consequential events of the late 20th century: the dissolution of the Soviet Union; the emergence of China as a global force, driven by the unprecedented alleviation of poverty; the intricate involvement of the United States in the Middle East. Mr. Kissinger’s era was one when the secretary of state could forge grand agreements that seem out of reach for U.S. leaders today. That era seems far gone. In his later years, Mr. Kissinger offered insights on foreign affairs, but also grappled with the potential — and dangers — of artificial intelligence.
Mr. Kissinger’s legacy offers lessons that are still relevant today. One is that U.S. foreign policy that disregards democratic values can accomplish a lot — but also overlook a lot. Fifty years later, the United States is still trying to establish its relationship with the Chinese regime that Mr. Kissinger introduced to the West. Beijing’s exploitative economic policies and appalling human rights violations are incompatible with U.S. interests and values. Yet opening China was a crucial step in creating modern prosperity; drastic disconnection would harm economies on both sides of the Pacific and hinder the global climate effort. Today’s leaders need to strike deals when ethically and pragmatically feasible — but with prudence and moral discernment. Security also stems from maintaining ties with those who share U.S. values, partly by honoring and revitalizing the global institutions that previous generations built. In the long-run, the character of the regimes that the United States engages with matters, not just how the power dynamics seem to balance out at the moment.