While serving with Marine Forces Africa, I flew with the commanding general from Germany to Liberia on his plane. I spent that time reading Henry Kissinger’s book “Diplomacy.” It was done mostly to look smart, but I was quickly hooked by his matter-of-fact style and vicious insights into the mindsets of European leaders.
Two concepts quickly became embedded into my mind: détente and realpolitik, the former a French word meaning the easing of hostility or strained relations, the other German meaning a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.
Understanding Kissinger’s mindset requires delving into the crucible of European politics that shaped him. He was a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1938. I have read that during Nazi rule, Kissinger and his friends were harassed and got into fights with Hitler Youth gangs. He would also defy the segregation imposed by Nazi racial laws and would sneak into soccer stadiums to watch the games. An independent streak that would serve him well through his 100-year life.
It was the Cold War and the rebuilding of a European order that saw Kissinger’s rise to prominence. With the U.S. victory in World War II, Kissinger could deploy his knowledge of European history to give new power to the case studies in statecraft found in “Diplomacy.” Klemens von Metternich, the conservative Austrian statesman and diplomat who led much of the efforts to rebuild European order after the defeat of Napoleon, was one of Kissinger’s top models. For Metternich, the true objective of statecraft was to preserve order rather than to seek improvement.
We can see this argument very much alive in U.S. politics today if we look a little closer. Kissinger’s realpolitik success was his ability to see what was needed and to work determinedly to bring it about. It certainly helped that he had the confidence of President Richard Nixon and the firepower of the U.S. military to back him up. In fact, he retained that presidential level of confidence all the way until his final days in 2023. I was not shocked to see Ukraine’s president meeting with Kissinger this year to gather more support for the stagnated war with Russia.
Kissinger, as the master practitioner of realpolitik, took statecraft to a new level as he played a prominent role in United States foreign policy. With Nixon, he pioneered the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, opened relations with China, engaged in what became known as shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East to end the Yom Kippur War, and negotiated the Paris Peace Accords, ending American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kissinger received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize under controversial circumstances for his work on a ceasefire in Vietnam, with two committee members resigning in protest. Another accomplishment mirrored in our modern days was when President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize while simultaneously expanding U.S. wars abroad.
It was the Philadelphia meeting of the DNC in 2016 that really brought Kissinger’s legacy to life for me. I will never forget this quote of his: “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” Still relevant today. Nor will I ever forget arguing with fellow delegates about what role his influence should play in the Democratic Party of 2016 or that of today. One of my favorite authors and chefs, Anthony Bourdain, held no punches in his analysis of the man. “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”
The Kissinger who modeled himself on Austria’s Metternich will live forever in the American imagination. A man drunk on power and influence, or a man who successfully guided us through the Cold War with a relaxing of tensions not possible before him? The truth is in the eye of the beholder. One of my best friend’s dad worked closely by his side during the Cold War years. He recounted a very different, more professional, and cordial Kissinger than Bourdain did. “It was an honor to witness history while doing my job for almost 33 years, including protecting Dr. Kissinger for a time when he was President Nixon’s National Security Advisor in the White House!”
We now live in a world where we can only engage Kissinger’s ghost. The spectre of his life work, the books he wrote, the wars he ended, and the wars he started or at least fueled. In New Hampshire, I believe we can all learn something from both of his best-championed concepts: realpolitik and détente. We can recognize the power and popularity of both sides of the political aisle here. We can work to reduce tensions and increase goodwill. As we reflect on everyone who has passed in 2023, please let me leave you with some philosophical words from the man himself. “Accept everything about yourself – I mean everything. You are you, and that is the beginning and the end – no apologies, no regrets.”