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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC Member

Henry Kissinger was the last Secretary of State to serve under two presidents, namely Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The ambitious Secretary of State, not lacking in vanity, had very difficult and sometimes conflicting relations with both the former and the latter. Not only did he outlive both of his White House bosses and all of his predecessors who spearheaded the foreign policy office but he also outlived most of those who served as secretary of state after him—from Cyrus Vance and Alexander Haig to Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. According to a 2015 Foreign Policy poll, Kissinger is considered the most effective U.S. secretary of state in the recent half-century.

He outlived all his countless political, ideological and academic opponents, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, his most consistent, longstanding and persistent opponent. He raised many disciples and followers, gave birth to countless imitators, epigones and enviers, becoming even in his lifetime a recognized classic of political realism in IR theory. His word meant a great deal not only in Washington D.C. or Brussels, but also in Moscow and Beijing. So, it should come as no surprise that it is still difficult for all of us to imagine world politics without the “eternal” Henry Kissinger.

But there is little doubt that Kissinger’s departure will be a particularly sensitive loss precisely for the contemporary American political establishment. “Based on the common national interests, it’s just impossible.” And not only because during his long life he consistently and persistently defended precisely the American common public interests, as he perceived and interpreted them, but also because he possessed a number of important qualities of statesmanship that are critically lacking in the current generation of U.S. leaders.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of Henry Kissinger was that he understood the limitations of America’s resources and capabilities. He therefore tried to set only achievable goals for the U.S. foreign policy, those not fraught with the risk of a dangerous imperial overstretch. Like Otto von Bismarck a century earlier, Kissinger firmly believed in the multilateral balance of power as a reliable basis for international stability, and so he was always willing to seek mutually acceptable compromises with his geopolitical adversaries. He consistently avoided excessive risks, advocating stability and predictability in the U.S.-Soviet relations and preventing a repetition of the acute crises between the two superpowers that characterized the turbulent era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Ten years ago—in the fall of 2013—Henry Kissinger spoke at the Russian International Affairs Council. Even then, there was a sultry pre-storm atmosphere in global affairs, distant rumblings of thunder could be heard, and the first flashes of lightning could be seen on the horizon, although a real thunderstorm, as it seemed to many, was still a long way off. At our meeting, Kissinger looked focused and confident, his comments and answers were clear, insightful, often paradoxical and witty as always. But there was a certain melancholy and underlying sadness in Kissinger’s speech that I had never noticed before.

At the time, it seemed to me that the ninety-year-old Secretary of State was simply sad about his life coming to an end, which would have been—humanly—quite natural and understandable. Now, a decade later, it appears that he was already sad in 2013 about the closing era whose inevitable end he had intuitively sensed much earlier than many other politicians and academics. The era of gimmicky multi-move combinations and secret shuttle trips, the era of “grand bargains” and gentlemen’s agreements, the era of a detailed balance of concessions and skillful consolidation of marginal advantages—that Belle Époque of classical diplomacy in the second half of the 20th century was irrevocably receding into the past. New times were impending—blatantly tough, extremely contrasting, deliberately unpredictable and much more dangerous.

On July 30, 1894, Otto von Bismarck, the elderly first chancellor of the German Empire and a prominent statesman of the 19th century, was dying in his estate near Hamburg. As he was passing away, he whispered in his deathbed delirium: “I am dying... proceeding from the common national interests, it’s impossible....”

A very similar phrase may well have been uttered by Henry Kissinger, the 56th U.S. Secretary of State, in his home in Kent, Connecticut, while he was on the verge of dying on November 29, 2023. Indeed, several generations of politicians, diplomats, international experts and journalists—not only in the U.S., but in other countries as well, got used to the fact that Kissinger was, is and will always be. He was born when Vladimir Lenin was still writing his last articles, sending messages to his associates. He died when Ilya Sutskever had already created his multimodal linguistic model of artificial language intelligence GPT-4.

Henry Kissinger was the last Secretary of State to serve under two presidents, namely Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The ambitious Secretary of State, not lacking in vanity, had very difficult and sometimes conflicting relations with both the former and the latter. Not only did he outlive both of his White House bosses and all of his predecessors who spearheaded the foreign policy office but he also outlived most of those who served as secretary of state after him—from Cyrus Vance and Alexander Haig to Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. According to a 2015 Foreign Policy poll, Kissinger is considered the most effective U.S. secretary of state in the recent half-century.

He outlived all his countless political, ideological and academic opponents, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, his most consistent, longstanding and persistent opponent. He raised many disciples and followers, gave birth to countless imitators, epigones and enviers, becoming even in his lifetime a recognized classic of political realism in IR theory. His word meant a great deal not only in Washington D.C. or Brussels, but also in Moscow and Beijing. So, it should come as no surprise that it is still difficult for all of us to imagine world politics without the “eternal” Henry Kissinger.

But there is little doubt that Kissinger’s departure will be a particularly sensitive loss precisely for the contemporary American political establishment. “Based on the common national interests, it’s just impossible.” And not only because during his long life he consistently and persistently defended precisely the American common public interests, as he perceived and interpreted them, but also because he possessed a number of important qualities of statesmanship that are critically lacking in the current generation of U.S. leaders.

Let us say straight off that the reputation of the 56th Secretary of State is by no means untarnished. One way or another, he bears some responsibility for a great many things. For the escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam in the late 1960s. For the Pakistani ethnic cleansing in the territory of future Bangladesh in 1971. For the military coup in Chile in 1973. For the barbaric bombing of Cambodia in 1972-1974. For Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. For Operation Condor, when since the mid-1970s the ruling dictatorial regimes of some Latin American states, with the support of U.S. intelligence agencies, carried out mass kidnappings, torture and executions of opposition leaders. Kissinger undoubtedly bears much of the blame for many other tragic events in the world during the years when he was at the helm of U.S. foreign policy. It is no coincidence that in 1973 the North Vietnamese politician and diplomat Le Duc Tho refused the Nobel Peace Prize, which he would have to share with Kissinger for signing the Paris Agreement on ceasefire and restoration of peace in Vietnam.

And yet the sheer magnitude of Kissinger’s personality cannot but command respect. Above all, he fully possessed a quality that is traditionally defined in the world of politics as the ability to “think strategically.” Henry Kissinger did not think in terms of the usual U.S. four-year electoral cycles, but presaged much longer time periods stretching decades ahead. This is why, for example, Vietnam, which had been the most implacable adversary of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, eventually became one of America’s key partners in Southeast Asia.

Second, as a convinced political realist, Kissinger never allowed his ideological preferences (which he certainly had) to determine practical decisions and foreign policy priorities. Kissinger hardly had any particular liking for the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, but when he went on a secret mission to Beijing in the summer of 1971, the Secretary of State was well aware that dividing the world into “liberal democracies” and “illiberal autocracies” would inevitably doom the United States to strategic defeat. Kissinger’s plan of pitting the two leading communist powers against each other and claiming the leading position in the U.S. — USSR — China geopolitical triangle was successfully realized, largely predetermining the dynamics of world politics in the last quarter of the previous century.

Third, Kissinger had a huge respect for his opponents. Not only did he abstain from any insulting or disparaging remarks about Leonid Brezhnev, Andrey Gromyko, or Anatoly Dobrynin; on the contrary, he always emphasized the strengths of his Soviet opponents. During the negotiations with the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, he even agreed to take part in a wild boar hunt in Zavidovo, although he had never been an avid hunter and looked somewhat comical in that role.

But perhaps the most important characteristic of Henry Kissinger was that he understood the limitations of America’s resources and capabilities. He therefore tried to set only achievable goals for the U.S. foreign policy, those not fraught with the risk of a dangerous imperial overstretch. Like Otto von Bismarck a century earlier, Kissinger firmly believed in the multilateral balance of power as a reliable basis for international stability, and so he was always willing to seek mutually acceptable compromises with his geopolitical adversaries. He consistently avoided excessive risks, advocating stability and predictability in the U.S.-Soviet relations and preventing a repetition of the acute crises between the two superpowers that characterized the turbulent era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Returning to Bismarck, let us recall that exactly twenty years after his death, the wayward and short-sighted Emperor Wilhelm II plunged Germany and the rest of Europe into a world war that eventually ruined the European balance of power, putting an end to four European empires, as well as undid many of the great chancellor’s most remarkable achievements. In this sense, Henry Kissinger was even less fortunate as the dismantling of his historical legacy already commenced during his lifetime.

Kissinger witnessed a profound and, perhaps, irreversible crisis of the entire strategic arms control, whose foundations he had laid down more than half a century ago. He also witnessed a new and dramatic escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza Strip, despite his investing much energy, persistence, and personal political capital into the conflict’s resolution. He saw the gradual formation and strengthening of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership, which he always tried to prevent at the height of his career. Most importantly, he lived long enough to see the system of international relations, to the preservation and strengthening of which he had devoted his long professional career, running amok and disintegrating.

Ten years ago—in the fall of 2013—Henry Kissinger spoke at the Russian International Affairs Council. Even then, there was a sultry pre-storm atmosphere in global affairs, distant rumblings of thunder could be heard, and the first flashes of lightning could be seen on the horizon, although a real thunderstorm, as it seemed to many, was still a long way off. At our meeting, Kissinger looked focused and confident, his comments and answers were clear, insightful, often paradoxical and witty as always. But there was a certain melancholy and underlying sadness in Kissinger’s speech that I had never noticed before.

At the time, it seemed to me that the ninety-year-old Secretary of State was simply sad about his life coming to an end, which would have been—humanly—quite natural and understandable. Now, a decade later, it appears that he was already sad in 2013 about the closing era whose inevitable end he had intuitively sensed much earlier than many other politicians and academics. The era of gimmicky multi-move combinations and secret shuttle trips, the era of “grand bargains” and gentlemen’s agreements, the era of a detailed balance of concessions and skillful consolidation of marginal advantages—that Belle Époque of classical diplomacy in the second half of the 20th century was irrevocably receding into the past. New times were impending—blatantly tough, extremely contrasting, deliberately unpredictable and much more dangerous.

Otto von Bismarck made his last trip to Moscow, to attend the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896. He was desperate to prevent a looming rupture between Russia and Germany and to avert an imminent catastrophe in Europe. Henry Kissinger had traveled to Beijing four months before his death in the hope to slow down the ongoing deterioration of U.S.-China relations and stabilize this central axis of global politics and economy. The German chancellor’s attempts, as we know too well, ended in failure. The efforts of the American Secretary of State are yet to be evaluated by historians.

I would hate to think that Otto von Bismarck’s personal tragedy would be repeated in a new version, and that Henry Kissinger’s rich foreign policy legacy will—in two decades from now—be finally squandered and wasted by his hapless and short-sighted successors. Nevertheless, since things are a lot more dynamic now than they were in the 19th century, the monumental figure of the 56th U.S. Secretary of State may end up in a distant dusty corner of the constantly replenished but rarely visited wonder-room of history much faster than did the figure of the first Chancellor of the German Empire. Such a posthumous fate would not only be an obvious injustice but also a major political blunder: it is too early to make a museum piece of Henry Kissinger’s rich and diverse Realpolitik. It might do us great service in the 21st century, since humanity has not yet come up with another reliable basis for building a sustainable international system in an increasingly diverse world.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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