Kissinger on Kissinger: Reflections on Diplomacy, Grand Strategy, and Leadership
“The greatest virtue of this small book of reflections is to show that Henry Kissinger’s greatest legacies to his country are his patriotism, his conception of prudent but effective statecraft, and his unparalleled understanding of how the world works.”
It has been more than 40 years since Henry Kissinger served as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is 95 years old, yet U.S. Presidents and governments around the world still seek his counsel. He is America’s most famous elder statesman.
In 2015 and 2016, Kissinger sat for a series of interviews with his former aides Winston Lord and K. T. McFarland. The result is this book: an oral history of Kissinger’s reflections on the Nixon administration’s statecraft.
In the book’s Foreword, Winston Lord calls Kissinger “one of the most outstanding national security figures of the postwar era.” He is certainly one of the most consequential. He was President Nixon’s top foreign policy advisor during the last years of the Vietnam War, the pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union, the opening to China, the Yom Kippur War, and the beginning of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Historians commonly refer to the “Nixon-Kissinger” foreign policies, but Kissinger during these interviews makes it abundantly clear that Nixon made all the crucial decisions. Kissinger certainly had input—more input than any other advisor—but in each instance, he notes, “[t]he final decision was always the president’s.”
Kissinger describes their relationship as complementary. Nixon’s thinking about foreign policy derived from his experience as a senator and as vice president under Eisenhower. He had traveled the world and met many world leaders. Kissinger describes his own thinking as “more historical and philosophical” based on his years as an academic and consultant.
Remarkably, Nixon never met Kissinger prior to offering him the post of National Security Advisor in 1969. Kissinger, in fact, had been a close advisor to Nelson Rockefeller, one of Nixon’s political rivals, and Kissinger had also provided advice to Hubert Humphrey who lost the 1968 presidential election to Nixon.
Both Nixon and Kissinger approached the world conceptually. They sought, in Kissinger’s words, to conduct American foreign policy with “strategic blueprints rather than reactions to discrete events.” Both were consummate realists who viewed international relations as a struggle for power among nation-states. Both read voraciously and produced important and insightful books on international relations and history.
Kissinger believes that Nixon, unique among U.S. presidents except for Theodore Roosevelt, approached foreign policy in grand strategic terms. Kissinger calls Nixon a “seminal” foreign policy thinker. To Nixon, Kissinger remarked, “foreign policy was the structural improvement of the relationship of countries to each other in a way that the balancing of their self-interests would promote global peace and the security of the United States.”
Kissinger believes that the Nixon administration’s greatest accomplishment was opening relations with China while simultaneously pursuing détente with the Soviet Union in the midst of the Vietnam War where both China and the Soviet Union supported our enemies. The geopolitical goal was for the U.S. to have better relations with China and the Soviets than they had with each other.
A second important accomplishment was to lessen Soviet influence in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. Kissinger noted that even prior to the war, Nixon wanted to “expel Russian military domination and influence in the region.” The U.S. needed to persuade a major Arab state that it could only achieve its diplomatic goals with American, not Soviet, help.
The outcome of the Arab-Israeli War provided an opportunity to implement that strategy, which Nixon seized upon. Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” after the war produced three agreements between Israel, Egypt, and Syria in an 18-month period and began the process that led to the Camp David Accords in the late 1970s.
Not every strategy was successful. The Paris Peace accords that ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War only delayed the communist takeover of our ally South Vietnam. Kissinger unequivocally denies that the administration’s intention was to provide for a “decent interval” until a final communist victory.
We know that Nixon promised South Vietnamese leaders that the U.S. would respond militarily if the North violated the peace terms, but Watergate prevented Nixon from fulfilling that promise, and Congress prevented President Ford from aiding the South thereafter. Kissinger laments that “Congress . . . prohibited the use of American military force in, over, or near Indochina . . . [and] we lost the capacity to enforce the agreement.”
By that time, Kissinger notes, Nixon had become a “villain” and “it became fashionable to accuse presidents and Cabinet members of representing immoral systems . . .” Kissinger’s conclusion on the outcome of Vietnam: “It’s a national tragedy, which we have not yet overcome.”
Kissinger, as he frankly admits, is not known for engaging in self-criticism or self-doubt. The reflections in this book do not encompass every aspect of the Nixon administration’s foreign policy and his role in formulating and implementing that policy.
What he does acknowledge is that foreign policy is the realm of the possible and that the best statesmen can do is to “attempt to reconcile what is considered just with what is considered possible.”
The greatest virtue of this small book of reflections is to show that Henry Kissinger’s greatest legacies to his country are his patriotism, his conception of prudent but effective statecraft, and his unparalleled understanding of how the world works.