Thursday May 23, 2024 06:49 pm

HENRY KISSINGER: THE REALIST

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🕐 2024-03-19 10:20:09

HENRY KISSINGER: THE REALIST

Air Vice Marshal Mahmud Hussain (Retd)

Retired air force officer. He served as High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Brunei Darussalam from November 2016 to September 2020. He served as the Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB). Presently, he is working as the Distinguished Expert at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Aviation and Aerospace University (BSMRAAU).


He was born a German, and died an American. He lived to see the world, which he so much wanted to shape and re-shape to his own liking, for close to a hundred years. No other statesman in modern history of world politics became so much an essence of Realpolitik as he did. He was an embodiment of practice culled from the kernel of theory. He was a perfect portrait of theory up-ended in the mirror image of practice. His mystery was shrouded in the template of a mystic formed and molded in the cast of a Mephistophelian spirit. His zenith was confirmed by the unfailing vilification of his enemies who respected and admired his panache for befriending them. Eulogies were conferred on his death by China and Russia that more than confirmed that no other US statesman meant to the World Order so much as he did to his arch enemies. He died as gloriously as he had lived straddling two centuries of momentous ups and downs. His is a story of reverence and revilement sharing their moral dilemmas in equal measure. 
Kissinger was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Furth, Bavaria, Germany on May 27, 1923. Kissinger’s family was Jewish, and like any other Jewish family was subjected to racial persecution in the then German society. Kissinger himself acknowledged that the turning point in his family’s life was the coming to power of Adolf Hitler. During Nazi rule, Kissinger and his friends were senselessly beaten and harassed by Hitler’s gangs. It was a time of German retrogression in understanding the moral prometheanism of world history. For Nazi Germany, the burning historical question was how far Hitler’s view of the German predicament as one in which the individual German state was able to reconcile its state’s vision with that of the world in which both were intertwined for peaceful co-existence. The 2 European political mood of the time was anti-Germany. Much before John Maynard Keynes understood what the consequences of injustice meted out to the defeated Germany in the Versailles Treaty after the First World War would be. Europe which had so soured the nerves of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant more than a century back to produce his immortal essay titled Perpetual Peace as a utopian alternative to state’s amoral aspirations had once again come for reckoning. 
The catastrophic short-sightedness of Hitler compelled Jews not only to flee Germany but also to seek a space for their freedom. Surely, no country at that time seemed more poised and empathetic in fathoming the depth of the principles of a free world than the United States. So, it was in 1938 at the age of 15, Kissinger fled to America with his family as refugees. It was a strange story of a man who was to become famous in his life time as one who navigated world politics, had to do so by first joining a mission against his own land of birth. Hitler’s persecution of the Jews had shaped the minds and psyche of a nation as no other historical phenomenon had done in the 20th Century. The tragic thing about Jewish persecution is that history’s decadent trend has only misguided them without chastising the rational course of politics. What was Hitler to the Jews, Netanyahu is to the Palestinians. 
Henry Kissinger was a grand personality who had combined many qualities in a single character. Better regarded worldwide as someone given to the art of Mephistopheles, he was a strategist par excellence whose secret missions brought creditworthiness to US imperialism, his impenetrable flexibility gave US foreign policy a fulcrum by which to better judge the swing of the world politics to bend its past alliances and make anew future relationship, and his abiding reluctance to guard US foreign policy as a tool of unilateralism gave him something of an extraordinary intellect that his peers were shy of. Kissinger was not a man to be loved but respect he certainly owed to his generation albeit with a spike of awe. Surely no other American statesman, certainly not a secretary of state has produced so much of cognitive tension that his life has become a research proposal to be explored both for the understanding of history, and its multi-formatting characters pushing its dynamic forces to shape the human civilization through the ages. 

History was Kissinger’s playground. He was its inveterate student. He believed that if a statesman understood history properly, he was able to absorb its insights to maneuver the courses of action toward avowed destination. He defined history as the ideals of states and statesmen who act on the strength of their own historical interpretation, and cannot be judged in any other way. Unlike Hegel and his “Universal History”, his historical formula was couched in subjective reflection of one’s own ideals. That is why, he saw Cold War as an elegant example of two rival ideas. On the one hand, it was an espousal of the Enlightenment so earnestly 3 protected by the American vision, and on the other, it was the longing for the theories of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin by the communist leaders. As an American, Kissinger’s duty was to demonstrate that American vision held the superlative edge over that of its opponent. The only way he could do so was through practice. That is how he saw foreign policy as the ground for laboratory tests upon the reading of History. 
Kissinger was a brilliant writer. His books have become a great treasure for the students of History, Politics and International Relations. His massive tome Diplomacy is an incredible gem of a text book for any generation of students to understand the inter-state politics since the days of Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The sheer number of his books speaks in volume the merit of his intellectual depth, physical stamina and moral commitment both as a historian and a statesman. The titles of the books and their enormity indicate the breadth of his knowledge and a yearning to share his practical experience as a source of lessons for future generation of students and statesmen. A general list of his books gives us an indication of his intention as a writer to do his duty as a historian —- Diplomacy, World Order, On China, Does the 21st Century Belong to China, The Age of AI, White House Years, Years of Renewal, Years of Upheaval, The Vietnam War: A History, Does America Need a Foreign Policy, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Crisis: The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises, American Foreign Policy, The World Restored, On World Order, Leadership and many others. As a writer, Kissinger never allowed his personal likes or dislikes to contaminate his intellectual integrity. For a man who was so close to practical politics, maintaining neutrality in his writings was a mark of character integrity as an academician. 
Kissinger will always be remembered for his subtle and well-defined work during Cold War. Very early in his life, he was recruited by the Republicans to work as the foreign policy advisor to Nelson Rockefeller in 1960, 1964 and 1968. When Richard Nixon appointed him as National Security Advisor, he was undoubtedly one of the most important foreign policy theorists ever produced in the United States. It is said that Kissinger had shown signs of brilliance in International Relations from his student days. It was at Harvard that he excelled as a student. Legend has it that his doctoral dissertation titled Peace, Legitimacy and the Equilibrium : A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich, was and still remains to be the longest dissertation, over 400 pages, ever submitted at Harvard University. In fact, the lesson that he had grasped as a student was to accompany him the rest of his life as a professional diplomat. 
 In his doctoral dissertation, Kissinger first introduced the concept of “legitimacy” which he was to invoke repeatedly in his subsequent works with particular emphasis in his latest book titled World Order. According to him, legitimacy should not be confused with justice. Legitimacy is an institutional framework created by the major powers through an international agreement about how to conduct foreign policy within permissible aims and methods. A World Order accepted by all of the major powers is “legitimate”whereas a World Order not accepted by one or more of the great powers is “disequilibrium” and hence “chaotic”. So, there is a difference between major powers and great powers. It is incontrovertible for World Order to pre-dispose balance of power in the requirement of world peace. However, world peace does not mean abrogation of war or conflict but a persistent effort in adjusting the scale of great power matrix to maintain a balance of power in the international system. This is the crux of Realpolitik and the bedrock of Realist paradigm. Kissinger wrote that after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the leaders of Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia agreed to cooperate in maintaining the balance of power to ensure peace in Europe by “three partitions” of Poland. In this case, the moral question about partition was irrelevant, and the agreed decision of the major powers was legitimate. Along similar lines, the post-Cold War II division of Europe and East Asia by great power is legitimate. Kissinger’s Ph.D. dissertation received the best prize under the Harvard Department of Government which was later published in 1957 as A World Restored: Matternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822. 
The ambivalent thing about Kissinger is that he posits a remarkable contrast in his personality between being a realist as a practitioner and an idealist as a scholar. In that sense, he was akin to his teacher Hans J. Morgenthau. No other great American stateman had read as much as he did of History. He was a voracious reader of Philosophy and a part of his education came from his favorite philosopher Immanuel Kant. His senior under-graduate thesis, titled The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant, gave him the instruction on important lessons to employ in his own experience. More than a quarter of a century after its publication, Kissinger was still citing Kant in clear understanding of a conflict between “two moral imperatives”. These imperatives involved first, the commitment to upholding individual freedom in a state, and second, the will to coexist with adversaries. Though duly categorized as a realist, in reality his career is as much a struggle toward seeking idealism. He was instrumental during Nixon administration in ending the Vietnam War despite disgrace and humiliation associated with US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. He understood that History was against the side of US government, and it was wise to accept defeat to start afresh immediately a work to regain its moral legitimacy as the world power. He initiated US 5 rapprochement with China that set the beginning for the debacle of the erstwhile Soviet Union. 
He admired the ideals of the leaders who were politically his opponents. In choosing his leaders he admired profusely, he selected six from his list for his excellent book Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy. His chosen six leaders are: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher. In discussing about their qualities what becomes novel and unprecedented for reflection are the attributes of humility, will, equilibrium, transcendence, excellence and conviction. His deep observation of these leaders and an insightful reflection on their character reveals a matured and thorough-bred statesman whose concerns cannot merely be answered by the principles of realism. It has to have a touch of strong idealism. 
Kissinger was not without defamatory critics. His ability to executive diabolical feats was something that gave him the terms like killer, mass murderer and monster. People associate him with controversial US bombing of Cambodia, 1973 Chilean coup d’état, Argentina’s Dirty War and Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. But the most conspicuous example surrounds his behavior during the Bangladesh Liberation War resulting in genocide. Gary Bass’s account on the bloodbath in Bangladesh has repudiated whatever Kissinger had to say in defending Pakistan’s role for a political solution of the problem. There is a limit to injustice, and once that limit is crossed then moral compunction should take over. People often deny Kissinger the benefit of such hindsight while denigrating his role in the 1971 war. In Bangladesh, the United States acted on the discretion of carefully chosen strategies keeping its national interest in sight. Befriending China overriding the Soviet Union was not a simple task, and Kissinger did it. At the end, Bangladesh crisis represented a major step in the transformation of the Cold War from a rigid bipolar structure into a more complex regional equilibrium involving Bangladesh as a growing element both for India and the Soviet Union. Bangladesh achieved independence and the United States recognized Bangladesh in less than four months after independence. Since then, the US-Bangladesh relations have never been ambivalent.
For a man like Kissinger who entangled himself with so many affairs, it is unlikely to keep a clean slate for every dish. He was a towering personality, and a man of his stature was not free from the pain that was inflicted upon the Jewish people in his country of birth. This naturally pulled him toward the nature of a realist. But he was patient and serene also. His deep friendship with man like Sadat, Adenauer and De Gaulle had given him the perception and volatility of a versatile 6 personality capable of finding hope and peace amidst dark periods of World Order. He combined the practitioner’s role for pragmatism with the academician’s panache for theories to reach the approaches to Realpolitik. In doing so, he knew where the yardstick of idealism lay. He pioneered the policy of détente. When he won the Nobel prize for negotiating the peace process of Vietnam War, we leave behind his other roles in containing nuclear weapons and setting the mode of rapprochement in World Order. 
For Kissinger, in ideal terms, no state can be weak or small. Most significantly, his life illustrates that the best determinants of a nation’s fate are neither its material wealth nor other elements of power but rather the quality of its leaders and their ability to unite its people.