The titan of American foreign policy for much of the 20th century, Henry Kissinger, lies dead at the ripe age of 100. Social media has erupted into a chorus of glowing eulogies in his memory. Mainstream media is scrambling to set the dominant narrative around his life, activist groups are commemorating his life and works, foreign heads of state are sending their regards; there is no shortage of energetic discussion surrounding the life of this man. What, then, is the most accurate characterization of this diplomat and his life? Will the Kissengerian school memorialize him accurately?
Some on the left, predominantly the New Left of the 60s and 70s, have characterized the actions and diplomatic dealings of Henry Kissinger as those of a war criminal. The deaths of combined millions, whether in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, East Timor and more are laid at his feet. Accounts of Kissinger’s plans for prolonging the war in exchange for becoming Nixon’s foreign policy advisor, his greenlighting of the expanded bombing operations in Cambodia, his nonchalant dismissal at the Bangladeshis being murdered to ensure the strengthened position of Pakistan and China, all point to the validity of this claim. But the New Left bemoaned any actions taken against third world nations, especially those done in the interest of the United States and of perceived American imperialism. Therefore it is hard to take these criticisms seriously.
Those Who Have No Home
Rather, I find a much more compelling criticism of Kissinger's deeds to come from a nationalist perspective. His opening of China, and his near half-decade long push for offshoring to China particularly invalidate any claim that Kissinger acted on behalf of the American nation alone. What is often hailed as Kissinger’s greatest success has turned out to be the birth of America’s greatest Thucydidean adversary. It was he who began the process of Detente between the two powers on his secret trip in 1971, leading to President Nixon’s breakthrough 1972 Summit. These maneuvers were intended to create a Sino-American alliance to counter the Soviet Union, America’s primary enemy at the time. Some defend Kissinger’s actions regarding China, qualifying them by saying that it would have been impossible for him to foresee China industrializing to the point of becoming a serious threat to America. China’s economic situation in the early 70s was dire — Mao’s economic policies had devastated the nation, it was still almost completely agrarian, and most African nations boasted a higher GDP per capita.
With the reign of Deng Xiaoping and China’s economic liberalization, Kissinger’s vision of a China integrated into a globalized world order, led by the United States, seemed likely. Deng’s proclamation that “China is with the United States”, as well as the rapid increase of economic ties between the nations appeared to be telltale signs that this integration was on a steady course. Kissinger’s continued involvement in organizations which oversaw economic investments and offshoring to the Chinese, such as China Ventures, Inc., are signs that he, throughout the latter half of his life, continued to support the rise of China and America’s role in facilitating it. Even just months before his death, Kissinger had repeatedly called for the United States and China to take steps towards a friendlier relationship, seeing their cooperation as pivotal to the stability of the world order.
The Global Citizen
What shines through in Kissinger’s warm attitude toward China is just how globally-minded it was. Kissinger’s rhetoric on the subject of global stability and mutually-beneficial partnership are simply not in the vocabulary of a nationalist. Take the deeds of Erasmus Peshine Smith in Japan, for a counterexample.
Peshine Smith was sent to advise the Meiji Regime in its course of modernization in the early 1870s. Japan, being an isolated and economically backward nation, could not withstand the pressure of British imperialism, so there was a real possibility for the Japanese to go the way of the Indians, an outcome detrimental to America's burgeoning power in the Western Pacific and Asia. Smith’s objective, then, was to foster between the US and Japan feelings of mutual respect and hostility toward their shared rival, much like how Kissinger’s objectives in China were to create a Sino-American counterbalance to the Soviets. The methods, however, could not be further apart. Peshine Smith applied the homegrown American System, the same one which produced America’s rapid economic rise, to the nation of Japan, with similar results. No American industry was transferred to the Japanese in this process. In fact, for a time Peshine Smith had to renounce his American citizenship in an effort to prove that there was no contact between himself and the American government.
And so, in contrast to the strategy of Erasmus Peshine Smith in Japan, Kissinger’s quest for American-Chinese cooperation came from a place of pursuing the interests of the globe, and a quest for personal power-broker status. What is so ironic about Kissinger’s actions regarding China is that they were only necessary because of the American cooperation with and industrial subsidization of the Soviet Union just decades prior! American statecraft in recent times has consisted of the creation of future threats to counter the old ones which were built up by the previous generation of the same cadre.
The Americans Forgotten Along the Way
A common refrain seen on social media, sung from the Bronze Age faction in particular, is that Henry Kissinger was the greatest American Secretary of State of all time, with none coming close to his status and achievement. This short-sighted view of American history and our historical figures can only be attributed to a lack of American ancestry or lack of feelings of national affection and patriotism. For those who can only name a single Secretary of State, here are a few from our past who have defended American interests from a nationalist’s position.
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams served as Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825. During his time as Secretary, the Latin American republics were beginning to declare their independence, and a power struggle quickly ensued between the United States and the British Empire over the future of these fledgling states. Adams was given the difficult task of paving the way for American recognition of these republics without incurring a declaration of war from Spain, an outcome unthinkable for a nation recovering from a major war against the British, as well as anathema to furthering American interests in the hemisphere. Adams had to simultaneously block British investment and economic interests in these newly independent nations as well as foster ties between the United States and the Latin Americans. His efforts were largely successful, at least in this early phase of relations, and laid the foundation for the United States to continue to counter foreign influence in its own great space.
Daniel Webster served twice as the Secretary of State, both under the Tyler and Fillmore administrations. His foreign policy built off that of Adam’s, as his focus lie primarily with keeping foreign powers out of Latin America. He advised Fillmore to sign several trade deals with the Central American states, successfully curbing British influence in the region. It was under Webster that the Perry Expedition to Japan was authorized, and Japan established trade relations with the United States as a result.
William Seward served as Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869. Seward sought to expand US influence in North America and the Pacific, with the Alaska Purchase being one of his major achievements to this end. Seward sought to purchase other colonial possessions in the North American realm, such as Greenland, the Virgin Islands, parts of the Dominican Republic and the Danish West Indies. Perhaps the most important effort of his career was his ability to keep the British and French from significantly intervening in the American Civil War, ensuring that America would become reunited and maintain its course to becoming a world power.
The brief profiles of these great American Secretaries of State should serve as reminders that American statecraft has existed long before Mr. Kissinger, and will continue on long after. Any of these men could have, and would have, operated on a level equal to, or likely much better, than Mr. Kissinger if they had lived in his time. These statesmen felt only one identity, one attachment: that of the United States. The same, I believe, cannot be said of Henry Kissinger, and so I will not shed a tear for his passing.