By Miljan Vešović
Not long ago, I heard a story about the famous British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. Russell lived to a ripe old age of 97, his life spanning everything from Victorian era to counterculture movement. When he was a college kid, Russel was invited to a dinner party where the guest of honor was famous British 19th Century statesman and long serving Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. Russell, who was a scion of a prominent British aristocratic liberal family, recounted how he was in awe of Gladstone and how he couldn’t wait to meet him.
“This brandy is very good, but I don’t know why they serve it in a wine glass” was, however, the only thing Gladstone said during the dinner, apart from introductory formalities. Russell was thus left disappointed and deprived of opportunity to get some wisdom from his political hero.
The only time I saw Henry Kissinger in person was even less eventful than Russell’s encounter with Gladstone. Several years ago, I was a young member of a delegation at a large international conference and was rushing to catch up with the rest of the delegation and get to a meeting on time. While I was walking fast down some long corridor, I saw Kissinger with his entourage approaching from an opposite direction. He, of course, walked slowly and was helped, but still looked very agile and in a very good shape for a 90-something year old.
I had an idea to introduce myself and perhaps ask for a photo (I absolutely hate taking photos, but still, it was Kissinger after all), but the rest of the delegation was vanishing from my eyesight and there was a meeting to get to. Then I thought well, the conference lasts two days, I may bump into him again and anyway, there will be other opportunities. However, Kissinger left that same day and, although I, during my career, had a privilege to meet several prominent states(wo)men (former politicians usually attend receptions, dinner parties and conferences much more frequently than current ones), I never saw “Dr. K” in person again.
Ever since Henry Kissinger died, a week ago, there has been a lot of articles or social media posts about him where a lot can be read about how the author of the opinion piece was a “friend” or “a trusted associate” or a “confidante” of Kissinger or how, if the author was a political opponent, they had many opportunities to confront Kissinger and never hesitated to challenge him to a discussion about this or that.
Yes, even in Montenegro, which, as far as I know, was never particularly interesting to Kissinger, you can still stumble upon such material.
The other common way to eulogize Kissinger is to implicitly claim a supernatural telepathic access to his mind while he was alive – the access that enables authors to determine, with incredible precision, what the late former US Secretary of State thought about every possible situation or international crisis or political concept.
Since this author has not yet been blessed with telepathic abilities and, as described above, only saw Kissinger in person for five seconds almost a decade ago, he will refrain from such analysis. However, from the period (1969 – 1977) when Kissinger was in power, as well as from numerous books and articles he published, it is possible to determine broad contours of his worldview and methods he used when conducting diplomacy and making policy.
First of all, for all the talk about him being a cold-hearted practitioner of Realpolitik, Kissinger was a devout Atlanticist and a firm believer in Western values. However, he did it with a twist. At least in the short term, he didn’t believe in universal applicability of Western values of democracy, human rights and free – market economy. He stated that democratic transformation of states like Russia or China “could not be achieved through pressure and confrontation in a timeframe that is related to single (US) presidencies”. Immediate diplomacy, he concluded, “must deal with the issues that affect the short and medium – term prospects of peace like proliferation, environment and the operation of peaceful order”.
In one of his final works, “World Order”, Kissinger presented and explained the four systems of historic world order –European concept after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the religious supremacism of political Islam, the “central empire” philosophy of China and United States – led democratic idealism. Naturally, as an American citizen and statesman, Kissinger was a proponent of the democratic idealism concept.
However, and without any intention to compare the two in any other aspect, Kissinger’s solution of how to advance the interests of the US and US-led alliances was akin to Stalin’s concept of “Socialism in One Country”, developed after Lenin’s death, as opposed to Trotsky’s concept of world revolution. Kissinger clearly recognized that the system based on democratic values was superior to any other. However, he didn’t consider it applicable everywhere. Therefore, he defined his task as US statesman as preservation of democracy where democracy is applicable, and finding ways to peacefully coexist with states where it was (in his opinion) not.
In that regard, it can be concluded that Kissingerwasan even firmer believer in “American exceptionalism” than presidents like Carter who believed in universal applicability of democratic idealism. In Kissinger’s view, American system cannot be, in the short or medium term, replicated in states like Russia precisely because America is so exceptional and it takes time to achieve what America achieved.
Secondly, for all his fame, Kissinger only spent 8 years (1969-1977) as a policymaker. During those 8 years, he had to play the cards that were dealt to him. When he, in 1969, assumed position as a National Security Adviser (later Secretary of State) to President Richard Nixon, Soviet Union was at its most powerful since 1945. On the other hand, USA was internally divided, bogged down in its first “forever war” in Vietnam, and NATO was badly shaken by De Gaulle’s partial withdrawal in 1966. The left-wing anti-war opposition in US grew stronger by the day, and there was little appetite in the West to fight the Cold War, let alone a hot one.
Nixon’s and Kissinger’s solutions are well known – “peace with honor” in Vietnam after escalating the conflict and bombing Cambodia; thawing of relations with China and exploiting the Sino-Soviet split to get favorable conditions for “détente” with Soviet Union; laying groundwork for lasting peace between Israel and Arab states after Yom Kippur War, thus stabilizing the oil – rich region of the Middle East and diminishing Soviet influence there. America badly needed a cool-down of overheated Cold-War dynamics and Kissinger provided one. “While we should never give up our principles, we must also realize that we cannot maintain our principles unless we survive”, said Kissinger explaining his Cold-War reasoning.
His actions as NSA and SecState, however, earned him condemnations from all parts of political spectrum. The liberalsstill despise him for his ruthlessness and Machiavellian readiness to turn a blind eye to suffering of innocent (from opponents of military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina to civilians in North Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor and Bangladesh) for “greater good”. The Reaganites disliked him for being too conciliatory towards Soviet Union – they discarded “détente” and re-escalated the Cold War rivalry. The Trump-inspired isolationist “MAGA” movement criticizes Kissinger for his worldliness and his perceived“softness” on China.
Progressives label him a “war criminal” – which is rich indeed coming from people whosomehow still fail to make themselves admit that Hamas is a terrorist organization.
Kissinger is not particularly liked in parts of Western Balkans as well. During the 1990s, he advocated for “tri – state solution” in Bosnia and Herzegovina (formation of independent Serb, Croat and Muslim states) and opposed the independence of Kosovo. He called Bosnia an “artificial creation” that “never existed as a country”. We now of course know that his views on the topic were both morally and factually wrong.
However, Kissinger was more than capable of changing an opinion. Ukraine is the best example – for years Kissinger argued that Ukraine should not be admitted into NATO and should be “Finlandized” (turned into a neutral buffer zone between Russia and Europe) instead. Nevertheless, after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Kissinger became a supporter of Ukraine’s membership to NATO. He explained the volte face in typical pragmatic fashion – keeping Ukraine away from NATO made sense as an incentive to Putin’s Russia not to invade. When Putin invaded anyway – security of Ukraine and Europe had to be defended, and the best way to defend it was to admit Ukraine into NATO.
However, the issues of Kosovo or Ukraine also showcase the limits of Kissinger’s pragmatic approach. His mastery of geopolitical chess was unbeatable when opponents were willing to follow the rules of the game as well. In 1970s, Soviet Union and China weren’t incentivized to destroy the world order – Soviets still believed they could win the Cold War under existing rules of the game, and China needed stability and relativeopenness towards United States in order to jumpstart its (then) badly needed economic development.
Today, the situation is different. Leaders like Putin (or Vučić in the Balkans) need instability in order to keep the home front obedient. To use the chess analogy again – when they lose a game, they don’t want a rematch – they take the hammer and smash the table, the board and the pieces to bits. “Achesonian” containment probably works much better against such actors than “Kissingerian” pragmatism.
What, however, set Kissinger apart from all contemporary decisionmakers and/or practitioners of diplomacy were not his successes or failures, or even his ideas. It was the unparalleled encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs, the ability to stay relevant 50 years after the height of his power (when Kissinger was born, telephone was still considered a relatively modern invention – four years before his death he was writing extremely knowledgeable articles about AI) and the level of individual influence he achieved that was almost unheard of in current, heavily bureaucratized, policymaking institutions.
That is why, unlike probably any other US Secretary of State in the last 100 years, Kissinger can “join the club” and stand shoulder to shoulder with Richelieu, Metternich, Palmerston, Gorchakov, Bismarck and other masters of foreign policy. That is why being in the same setting with Kissinger was akin to playing football with Tom Brady or soccer with Messi. Diplomats, especially 20th and 21stcentury ones, are not celebrities. Kissinger most definitely was.