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Opinion: The one lesson to take away from Henry Kissinger’s journey

Opinion by David A. Andelman

(CNN) — Twelve years ago, invited to speak at a small gathering at New York’s cultural center 92nd Street Y, I ran a gauntlet of protesters who’d gathered for the arrival of the featured speaker on the main stage. It was Henry Kissinger and I watched in wonder as they gathered to protest “a talk given by the renowned war criminal.”

They were back three years later when Kissinger was speaking there again. This time demonstrators were targeting “his history concerning Timor-Leste (East Timor), West Papua, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, Bangladesh, Angola and elsewhere.”

The events they were protesting were decades in the past — at the peak of the Vietnam War and innumerable other crises that then-US Secretary of State Kissinger had done his best to drive to some rational conclusion.

Most of the demonstrators were only barely alive when these events were unspooling, when Kissinger was without question deeply affecting the outcome of each.

But the catalog of their grievances only testifies to the broad scope of people, places and events that he has influenced in the course of a remarkable career.

If there is one lesson, however, to take away from his years in office and the decades since, it is the sweep of his utterly rational and dispassionate view of the world and all that makes it tick. He called it “weltanschaüng” or worldview.

Kissinger’s death at the age of 100 was announced Wednesday. It is reasonable to look back and examine his heritage and how he has impacted — for better or on occasion, for worse — the world that has served as his canvas.

From interwar Germany to the heart of American politics

Kissinger touched or impacted virtually every crisis or opportunity we face today — and along the way changed the world as few other people who’ve never been elected to office.

Born in Germany not long after the end of World War I, his Jewish parents had the foresight to leave Germany in 1938, just as Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was intensifying.

Five years later Kissinger became a naturalized American and at the end of World War II, entered Harvard where he would eventually graduate, win his PhD and become a distinguished professor of government and, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my teachers.

Throughout his academic career, however, he was carefully laying the basis of his eventual emergence as a leading authority on strategic policy for presidents of both parties — Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — before eventually gravitating toward Republicans, beginning as an advisor to New York governor and eventually vice president Nelson Rockefeller.

So it was hardly surprising that Nixon would name Kissinger his national security advisor.

The long shadow of Vietnam 

Kissinger could best be described, perhaps, as an omnivore — observing and understanding, influencing, even transforming innumerable events and his world writ large. The question then becomes, with such a sweeping stage to play on, with so many convergent events and crises, how could some of his actions be justified, then or now?

“It had to do with the credibility of the US, on which global order depended,” Michael Mandelbaum, professor emeritus of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me.

Overshadowing it all was the war in Vietnam and the vast commitment of American lives and military power to a conflict that seemed to have little real justification — even to many at the time — which Kissinger pursued in as unrelenting a fashion as the peace talks he engineered that led to its denouement.

There are many who have used Vietnam as a talisman of how not to pursue other vast and expensive — in money and American lives — foreign entanglements, particularly Afghanistan.

But Kissinger and then-US President Richard Nixon had already inherited a deep involvement in Vietnam when they arrived in office, a legacy of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson who would do anything to avoid defeat.

While some have suggested that it was Kissinger who sought to slow the process toward peace during Nixon’s presidential campaign, tapes that emerged in the wake of Watergate suggested that Nixon really turned to another aide, H.R. Haldeman to “monkey wrench” peace talks.

Notes at the time did suggest, however, that Kissinger — who was part of Johnson’s channel of communication with the North Vietnamese — may well have tipped off Nixon’s campaign team to Johnson’s thinking.

Mandelbaum, author of “The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower,” pointed to a comment from a small volume Kissinger published just as he was taking office in 1969: “The commitment of 500,000 Americans [roughly the number of troops stationed there] has settled the issue of the importance of Vietnam. For what is involved now is confidence in American promises. However fashionable it is to ridicule the terms ‘credibility’ and ‘prestige,’ they are not empty phrases; other nations can gear their actions to ours only if they can count on our steadiness.”

Steadiness was indeed a theme that ran throughout Kissinger’s era and the world with which he intersected after he left office. The complex four-government effort to win a peace of any sort in Vietnam spooled on across four years in Paris.

Finally, it was Kissinger who proclaimed on October 26, 1972, that “peace is at hand,” The New York Times running the entire transcript of his news conference across two full pages of the paper.

This would finally lead to the American withdrawal and within two years, the North Vietnamese takeover of the whole country. Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi appeared to have “won.”

In fact, the way this victory was finally structured led to the creation of a nation that is today a bulwark of capitalism — and as the US seeks to diversify away from China, at least in economic terms, a most valued partner if not outright ally.

As it happened, a larger number of initiatives worked seamlessly together during Kissinger’s eight years across two presidencies (Nixon and Gerald Ford), occupying the role of National Security Advisor, then adding the title of Secretary of State.

While Kissinger was pressing Vietnam on a peace conference, he was moving in other directions that would send diplomatic shivers through Hanoi’s ranks.

He was at the same time opening moves toward détente with the Soviet Union and the first steps toward full diplomatic relations with China. Both were Hanoi’s only major backers.

The world as a jigsaw puzzle 

For Kissinger, it was all a vast jigsaw puzzle with each piece playing a critical, but distinctive role toward a single end — America’s emergence as the world’s supreme power.

So, it was Kissinger who, in a deeply shrouded secret mission to Beijing, arranged for President Nixon to become the first American president to visit Chairman Mao Zedong and his premier Chou Enlai, en route to establishing diplomatic relations with China.

At the same time, Kissinger was embarking on a campaign of détente with the Soviet Union that would lead to sharp reductions in strategic nuclear weapons arsenals whose maintenance and expansion were a huge burden on the American budget – and a deep threat to global stability, even survival.

Then there was the Middle East. In October 1973, Israel was invaded on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, by a coalition of Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria, which were ultimately defeated by Israeli forces only at great cost.

Kissinger, understanding the stakes in terms of diplomacy, access to the vast Arab oil reserves, and simple humanity, began a series of diplomatic trips, shuttling back and forth tirelessly between Israel and its neighbors in an effort to cement a lasting peace.

And his efforts did succeed, to a degree. Never again was Israel invaded outright by any national army, though his efforts never did result in total peace in this unstable region.

Along the way there were other issues into which Kissinger felt it necessary to insert himself — a civil war in East Pakistan that led to its breakoff as the nation of Bangladesh; supporting Indonesian actions to prevent independence of the island of East Timor; a host of interventions in Latin America including CIA-backed military coups to remove the Socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and Argentina’s Isabel Perón; and across Africa where he cemented relations with Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and pressed for black majority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Many of these stances seem in retrospect to have been deeply misguided, especially his moves in Latin America and Africa.

But at the time, at the height of the Cold War’s confrontation and competition between the US and the Soviet Union, they were hardly misguided. It is only in recent years that much of the rest of Kissinger’s world has threatened to go careening off the rails he so carefully established.

Today, America is deeply at odds with both China and Russia. There is still no peace in the Middle East, though notably Israel has never again been attacked in a full-fledged war. Russia and China are both making deep inroads across Africa.

The business of being Kissinger 

Kissinger continued to keep his hand in so many of such issues — largely through the private consulting operation he launched in 1982 and eventually grew into a multi-national colossus, providing advice and generating a constant stream of more than 100 books and writings.

Not surprisingly, in many circles, Kissinger and his global view are still deeply appreciated. In 2015, Foreign Policy magazine labeled him “the most effective secretary of state in the last 50 years, with a rating nearly twice as high as number two, James Baker and quadruple the score of number three, Madeleine Albright.

Indeed, while Kissinger worked formally for only two presidents, hardly a single leader of either political party has failed to consult with him, as have innumerable world leaders, to each of whom he has never ceased to preach the indispensable value of “weltanschaüng.”

Kissinger still believed profoundly in the necessity of understanding the fundamentals of any opponent’s ambitions and sensibilities, something that appears to have eluded many contemporary leaders, especially in the United States.

When it comes to China, for instance, he told The Economist recently, that American officials “say China wants world domination… The answer is that they [in China] want to be powerful. They’re not heading for world domination in a Hitlerian sense. That is not how they think or have ever thought of world order.”

When it comes to Russia and Ukraine for that matter, in a remarkable essay last December in The Spectator, Kissinger observed, “The preferred outcome for some is a Russia rendered impotent by the war. I disagree. For all its propensity to violence, Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium. Its historical role should not be degraded.”

In an interview on CBS Sunday Morning around the time of his 100th birthday, he was asked “if one of your aides called Beijing and said, ‘Dr. Kissinger would like to speak with President Xi,’ would he take your call?”

“There’s a good chance that he’d take my call, yes,” Kissinger replied.

What about Vladimir Putin? “Probably, yes.”

What if an American president asked, “Henry, would you fly to Moscow and talk to Putin?”

“I would be inclined to do it, yes,” Kissinger said. “But I would be an adviser, not an active person.”

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