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Kissinger’s “century”: Journey of his life

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Its May 27th, 1923 and the location is the city of Furth in Northern Bavaria of Germany. Let us examine the backdrop of this important date in retrospect. The world fresh from the first great war mostly oblivious to the impending cataclysm was a hotbed of ideas and individuals. To put things into perspective, Mussolini and Stalin weren’t a year old as the premiers of Italy and USSR, respectively. Adolf Hitler was half a year away from the famous Beer Hall Putsch which would fame him as the worldwide usurper.

The Lausanne treaty which disintegrated the 600 years old Ottoman Empire was awaiting its implementation. Technically, Ottoman Empire was alive. Sun Yat-Sen’s Kuomintang forged an alliance with Chinese Communist Party only to fight one of the bloodiest civil wars of all times, couple of decades later. What makes this date special?? It was on this day the former American Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, political theorist and unarguably one of the most prominent diplomats of the 20th century who completed 100 years of his life – Henry Alfred Kissinger was born.

Kissinger, a Jew fled the onslaught of Nazi Germany alongside his family in 1938 to the United States. An academic excellence, he received his education from Harvard University. Kissinger worked closely with Hans Morgenthau – who is considered to be the father of international relations. He had already started writing on the ideas of realpolitik, and even published a book named “A World Restored” which studied balance of power politics in post-Napoleonic Europe alongside excelling in study of world order post the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648 which promulgated the modern nation-state system.

Kissinger was the first man to use the word “legitimacy” in terms of acceptance and not justice as it is commonly confused for, by mentioning European politics and the five great powers post the Concert of Europe 1815. By 1968, Kissinger was already becoming popular due to his proximity to the Presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller. It was around this time he met Richard Nixon. Nixon became the President of United States in 1969. Kissinger was appointed as the National Security Advisor.

It was his stint as the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under Nixon that made him an international figure. With the Vietnam war raging, Kissinger favoured a negotiating strategy to sign an armistice between the Communist North Vietnam and US backed South Vietnam. Talks materialised and culminated in the Paris Peace Accords. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the Nobel peace prize making it the most polemical as the committee members felt that peace was still not restored in Vietnam. The prize was later returned back by Tho as the peace accords had visibly failed after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Kissinger also openly supported Pakistan in the Bangladeshi war of liberation in 1971 often running contrary with India and Indira Gandhi. America withdrew on the accounts of strong Soviet backing to India. He pioneered the policy of détente’, relaxing tensions with the Soviet Union and negotiating the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT 1 Treaty) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev. Alongside, he also fostered close relations with other European allies. Kissinger’s highest point came during his 1972 visit to China.

This was the start of the famous “ping-pong” diplomacy. On the backdrop of the Sino-Soviet rift of the late 60s, Kissinger was received by Mao where he later laid the grounds for Richard Nixon’s visit to China, apparently the first by a US president.

The term “shuttle diplomacy” which means negotiating by a third party to solve disputes between two countries was also given fillip during Kissinger’s time. It was on display in the middle-east especially during the Yom Kippur War between Arabs and Israel of 1973 and the arrangement of Camp David Accords of 1979 which established peace between Israel and Egypt regarding the dispute of the Sinai Peninsula. Kissinger worked closely with Shah of Iran before the Islamic Revolution threw the Persian monarchy in 1979.

In Latin America, Operation Condor – series of CIA backed coups and assassinations of left-wing socialist leaders between 1975-1989 was launched. The most barbaric ones being the Chilean and Argentinian military coup under General Augusto Pinochet and General Jorge Videla, respectively. This step was seen more of an extension of the Truman doctrine which stated containing the communist take-overs in the Cold War era.  After the Watergate scandal which was a major humiliation and brought the downfall of Richard Nixon, Kissinger’s influence also diminished but he continued to play a major part in US foreign relations.

Kissinger has remained politically active throughout and is regarded having the potent-most diplomatic opinions in geopolitical issues that has grappled the world since. From the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Yugoslav wars, US-Iran relations to the ongoing Russo-Ukraine crisis; his views are taken very seriously across the globe. Kissinger caused a stir in 2022 when he remarked that Ukrainians should prepare to cede some territories in order to reach a peace deal with Moscow invoked global criticism.

He is one of the major propagators of the idea of “Finlandization” referring to policy of strict neutrality of the smaller country vis-à-vis its powerful neighbour as seen in Finland’s relation with Soviet Union post World War second. He rendered the same advice to NATO and Ukraine back in 2014. The delicate balance of operation of policies was tested by the Ukrainian President in his series of “NATO-romance”, which as predicted by Kissinger infuriated Russians resulting in a full-scale mobilisation of troops from her side.

Considering his acumen in Chinese affairs, he has remained relevant and keeps giving insights on how to evade the conflict and approach the supercharged contemporary state of affairs between USA and China.

A realist with a dash of Machiavelli, Kissinger has never been new to controversies. Being a Jew, in a conversation with President Nixon he remarked – “the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy, and if they put Jews into gas chambers in Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern”. Kissinger is often criticised on his role in curbing democratic institutions for diplomatic gains. Scholars for his actions in Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 term him as a “war criminal”.

He is also accused of turning a blind eye to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; an estimated 2 million people died in the pogrom. With his own flaws and faults, Kissinger has remained one of the tallest figures in the 20th century especially during the Cold War era. In a recent visit to China, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed him as an “old friend”. At 50 in 1973, Kissinger was a friend to Mao, at 100 in 2023, he is a friend to Xi; which shows the longevity of his influence which is truly stupefying, to say the least.

His books “Diplomacy”, “World Order”, “On China” are no less than bibles of international relations and shows glaring glimpses of the astute and intellectual head that Kissinger carries. In-fact, one his books “Leadership” was released last year (Kissinger was 99!!). Kissinger’s list of most influential statesmen would fondly mention France’s Richelieu, Austria’s Metternich, British’s Castlereagh and Prussia’s Bismarck. For the world, it can safely conclude – “America’s Kissinger”!!!!

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