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DIPLOMACY: His Legacy: Realism and Allure

7 minute read

Since 1970, TIME Diplomatic Editor Jerrold Schecter has been covering the world of Henry Kissinger. His assessment of the man who reshaped U.S. foreign policy:

After all the years of high drama, the secret missions overseas, the exhausting negotiations when everything depended upon him, it seems hard to believe that Henry Kissinger will no longer be the U.S. Secretary of State. There will never be another like him—a prospect that pleases his enemies as much as it saddens his admirers. The debate on Henry the K’s legacy is just starting and promises to grow—and grow. He is, as Psychohistorian Bruce Mazlish explains, “one of those figures, like a Churchill or a De Gaulle, who bestride their eras and dominate by the sheer weight of their character. Such figures take on mythical, as well as historical attributes, even in their own time.”

The Secretary’s secret diplomacy and his secret-swinger life-style energized the Nixon years and turned them into the Kissinger era. To critics, such as a former Cabinet rival, “most of Kissinger’s performance was theater and the rest was fiction.” His “balance of power” approach has been attacked as reflecting a static view of the world that overemphasized superpower relationships and squandered American assets without deriving strategic benefits. New York Times Columnist Anthony Lewis has accused him of conducting foreign policy with “cynical brutality.” Kissinger shrugs off attacks with a quip: “Even a paranoid can have enemies.” Some of them, apparently, are real enough. Members of a right-wing extremist group in Israel are said to have put up $150,000 for his assassination.

Discussing his record. Kissinger compares the world of 1968 with that of 1976. When he came to the White House, Berlin was a flash point for World War III, and there were 500,000 American troops in Viet Nam. There was little American presence or influence in the Middle East outside of Israel, no relations with Communist China, and cold-war jargon dominated any dialogue with Moscow.

All this has changed. He leaves with the U.S. poised for new initiatives throughout the world. The damage of the Viet Nam War and Watergate has been contained. Despite the buildup of Soviet conventional forces, the outbreak of a major war seems remote.

How much did Kissinger contribute to these changes? Was he simply a brilliant tactical negotiator, or did he begin building the “structure of peace” he sought and lay the foundations for a “permanent foreign policy”? In his behalf, Kissinger can mount an impressive case. His design for a global foreign policy included a comprehensive economic, political and military approach with long-term goals. He has sought to explain the new reality that although America is still the world’s greatest economic power and possesses massive military strength, “we no longer enjoy meaningful nuclear supremacy.” For Kissinger, this has meant the imperative of survival: building a process of negotiation and the policy of detente. It has meant playing the Russians against the Chinese while never admitting he was engaging in such a dangerous game.

The high point for Kissinger was the opening to China. He was elated with the secret trip to Peking in July 1971 —the first of nine he was to make. Later, leafing through his massive blue briefing book. Kissinger explained how his talks with Chou En-lai had produced a “conceptual overview” resulting in the Shanghai communique and a new beginning. The Secretary leaves office convinced that the Chinese hope the U.S. will preserve world order by acting as acounterweight to the Soviet Union.

Detente, oversold by Nixon in his efforts to survive, has languished. Yet the framework is there, ready to be used by the Carter Administration in more realistic fashion. The new U.S. President can make threats or promises—and carry them out—to strengthen what Nixon and Kissinger began.

One of Kissinger’s bitterest disappointments was President Ford’s decision not to press for a SALT agreement in 1976. which the Secretary believed was possible and would have been a political asset. But Ford, in the midst of his fight for nomination, was not willing to make the decisions and face the danger that Ronald Reagan would accuse him of bowing to the Soviets.

Kissinger leaves a SALT II package that has Soviet agreement—in principle —on a 10% reduction in the overall ceiling on nuclear weapons, from 2,400 to 2,200, plus a series of trade-offs limiting the range of Soviet Backfire bombers and American cruise missiles.

Standing Alone. Although he has been accused of being soft on the Soviet Union. Kissinger’s Middle East policy drove the Russians from Egypt (20.000 advisers in 1968) and weakened their influence in Syria. In November 1973, when Kissinger stood alone staring at the Sphinxon his first visit to Egypt, there were no U.S. diplomatic relations with Cairo. Soon the first Jewish American Secretary of State was being hailed by President Anwar Sadat as “my dear friend Henry.” Kissinger offered Sadat the opportunity for peace and economic development with Western backing. As Kissinger was fond of saying. “All the Russians can offer is war, but we can bring the peace.” Syria also realizes that only the U.S. can influence Israel toward a Golan Heights settlement.

While brokering Israel’s disengagement from Egypt and Syria, and pressing for a Sinai agreement. Kissinger inaugurated shuttle diplomacy (a total of 99 days) and established a new magic-carpet style of personalized negotiations.

His step-by-step approach has been the only successful pattern for Middle East talks since the troop-withdrawal agreements of 1948 and 1956.

As his triumphs multiplied. Kissinger became his own worst enemy. Although veiled by his wit (“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full”), his fascination with power often seemed to his critics far removed from the lofty goals he espoused. More important, his role in the wiretapping of newsmen and Government officials and his demands for vindication at an emotional press conference in Salzburg eroded his credibility.

Those who worked most closely with him believe that he will be best remembered for his role in limiting the impact of Watergate on U.S. foreign policy by performing as the “President for foreign policy.” He maintained negotiations with the Soviet Union and in the Middle East. After Nixon resigned, Congress reasserted its authority over the Executive and curbed the Secretary’s power to act on his own. Says Indiana’s Democratic Congressman John Brademas, who opposed Kissinger on aid to Turkey: “Personally Kissinger is charming and witty, but he does not understand the American system of separation of powers.”

Destroyed Dreams. Kissinger’s dreams of building the structure of peace in the second Nixon term were destroyed. Instead, he conducted damage-limiting operations. On dark days he would confide, “I just hope I can hold things together for my successor.”

He quickly realized, however, that a continued display of Spenglerian pessimism would only further hamper his actions. In his final year, he sought to move into southern Africa, an area he had long neglected, and tried to create a policy for dealing equitably with the developing nations.

Kissinger, who has never forgotten that 13 members of his family died in Nazi concentration camps, stressed the importance of human rights in Chile, as if to compensate for his earlier role in the “destabilization” of Salvador Allende. Those who sat with him in closed staff meetings describe “an intellectualized approach to moral values.” The Secretary would argue, “Why berate our friends? We cannot choose our allies, we must make the best of them.” He justified the use of secret means for what he believed to be higher moral ends, “not abstract principles but elements of national survival.”

As he writes his memoirs, Kissinger undoubtedly will tell his story with vision and wit, although the Viet Nam and Cambodia chapters may be difficult to compose. Interviewing Kissinger was always a jousting match in which he often spoke for history. Indeed, with his vitality and drive, he sought as Secretary of State to overpower the forces of history. The challenge fascinated him and gave diplomacy a new allure for millions. He is only half joking when he says he will be back in 1981, the year another presidential term will begin. Henry Kissinger had his failures, but his imagination—and often brutal, brilliant analysis of problems—established a new realism in American foreign policy.

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