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Even at 100, Henry Kissinger’s Legacy Is Frightening

Henry Kissinger's foreign policy neglected human rights, supported repressive regimes, and prolonged the Cold War. In 1971, Kissinger supported Pakistan’s policy of genocide and mass rape in Bangladesh, and opposed India’s intervention to liberate this nation.
Henry Kissinger

Washington DC, USA, January 6, 1983 Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, chairman of President Reagan’s Bipartisan Commission on Central America, presides over a meeting at the State Department © mark reinstein /

May 29, 2023 02:39 EDT

As the world commemorates the 100th birth anniversary of Henry Kissinger, it is crucial to examine the lasting impact of his foreign policy decisions. Often hailed as a master strategist and diplomat, Kissinger’s legacy is far from the pristine image painted by his supporters. Beneath the veneer of sophistication and realpolitik, his approach to international relations left a trail of disastrous consequences that continue to shape the world today.

One of the most glaring stains on Kissinger’s record is his involvement in the Vietnam War. Serving first as the national security advisor and then as the secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger played a pivotal role in prolonging an unwinnable conflict. His adherence to a policy of gradual escalation, coupled with secret bombings in Cambodia and Laos, only exacerbated the suffering and destruction in Southeast Asia. The infamous quote, “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer,” perfectly captures his  callousness and ends-justify-the-means approach to diplomacy. 

Kissinger’s pursuit of realpolitik, while espousing lofty ideals of stability and balance of power, often came at the expense of human rights and democratic values. Nowhere is this more evident than in his support for authoritarian regimes. For example, his embrace of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is a dark stain on American foreign policy. Kissinger’s complicity in the overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende and subsequent support for Pinochet’s brutal regime exemplify a disregard for the principles the United States claims to champion.

Havoc in the Middle East and trouble with China

Another critical failure of Kissinger’s foreign policy was his approach to the Middle East, particularly during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While he brokered the historic Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, his focus on short-term gains and strategic interests contributed to the perpetuation of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Kissinger left a lasting legacy of conflict and mistrust in the region by placing geopolitical considerations above the principles of justice and self-determination.

Moreover, Kissinger’s infamous doctrine of “triangular diplomacy” with China and the Soviet Union, although hailed as a masterstroke of realpolitik, had its own detrimental consequences. 

At the time, the United States faced challenges on two major fronts: a Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union and a hot war with Vietnam, which strained its military and economic resources. Kissinger recognized an opportunity to shift the balance of power by engaging with both the Soviets and the Chinese. By playing them off against each other, he sought to create a more favorable environment for the United States.

Kissinger sought to stabilize relations between the US and China. Engaging with China was a pragmatic move to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. By then, both these communist countries had fallen out with each other. By establishing diplomatic ties with China and prioritizing relations with Beijing, the US effectively isolated the Soviet Union and weakened its influence in the international arena. However, this led to unintended consequences.

Firstly, Kissinger’s pursuit of détente with China created a sense of uncertainty and threat perception in the Soviet Union. The growing closeness between the US and China forced the Soviet Union to divert significant resources towards its military buildup, thereby intensifying the arms race and heightening Cold War tensions.

Secondly, Kissinger’s engagement with China also provided the Soviet Union an opportunity to strengthen its own alliances and partnerships. In response to the US outreach to China, the Soviet Union deepened its ties with other socialist states and expanded its influence in regions such as Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. 

Furthermore, Kissinger’s China policy also had economic implications. By opening up trade and investment opportunities with China, the US inadvertently contributed to China’s economic rise. This economic growth eventually transformed China into a major global power, challenging US dominance and creating new geopolitical complexities in the 21st century. 

Kissinger himself recently told The Economist that the world is “in a classic pre-World War I situation.” The looming specter of artificial intelligence, and the development of weapons that seem inspired by science fiction make the situation more precarious still. “We are on a path to great-power confrontation,” Kissinger argues, because “both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger”. The Economist, however, chose not to ask him if the current impasse could be a result of his own policies.  

Kissinger’s controversial legacy cannot be solely attributed to his policy decisions. His style of diplomacy, shrouded in secrecy and backdoor negotiations, fostered an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. By conducting diplomacy as a closed-door game of chess, he sidelined democratic institutions and undermined transparency. The infamous wiretapping of his staff members and leaks to the press further eroded trust and tarnished the integrity of the American government. 

As we reflect on Henry Kissinger’s 100th birth anniversary, it is crucial to recognize the enduring impact of his encounter with Indira Gandhi, which stands as a pivotal moment in history. The complex dynamics that unfolded during their interactions not only impacted the bilateral relations between the United States and India but also had far-reaching repercussions for the volatile region as a whole.  

Misunderstanding India and promoting Pakistan

During the early 1970s, India found itself facing a precarious situation. It was grappling with political unrest and had a strained relationship with neighboring Pakistan. Against this backdrop, Kissinger’s visit to India in 1971 aimed to address these pressing issues. 

At the heart of the Indo-US discord lay the India-Pakistan War of 1971, ultimately leading to Bangladesh’s creation. Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts were driven by a desire to maintain a balance of power and avert a larger conflict in the region. He favored his Cold War ally Pakistan. Gandhi opposed Kissinger. She wanted justice for the genocide, rape and terrible atrocities committed by Pakistani occupying forces in Bangladesh.

The encounter between Kissinger and Gandhi revealed a stark disparity in their approaches to international relations. While Kissinger favored realpolitik based on strategic interests, Gandhi championed self-determination and human rights. Their clash resulted in strained relations between the world’s two biggest democracies that lasted for decades.

After this war, India moved closer to the Soviet Union. The Cold War came to the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan became even more of a US lackey while India came to rely primarily on the Soviet Union for its defense equipment. Only in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union did India-US relations normalize.

In Pakistan, Kissinger’s support during the 1971 war emboldened the military regime and perpetuated a culture of military dominance in the country’s politics. This had long-term implications for democracy and stability in Pakistan Subsequent military regimes suppressed dissent and undermined civilian governance, knowing fully well that the US would stand by them.

The encounter between Kissinger and Gandhi also exacerbated South Asian tensions. With the security of US backing, Pakistan sought revenge for defeat in 1971. It abetted and funded insurgency in India, first in Punjab and then in Kashmir. Dispute over the latter became far more toxic and Kashmir remains a flashpoint even today.

While Kissinger may be remembered as a master tactician by some, his legacy is one of disastrous consequences. This centurion is responsible for devastation in Vietnam, perpetuation of authoritarian regimes and unending chaos in South Asia. As we reflect on his life’s work, let us not forget Kissinger’s moral compromises that caused immense human costs and still haunt the world today. He was a narcissist who operated alone, disregarding the constraints of institutions of values.

His worldview and approach to international relations can be summed up in one single quote from an interview with the journalist Oriana Fallaci in November 1972: “Americans like the cowboy … who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else … This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style or, if you like, my technique.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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