Henry Kissinger was never a man of consensus. Although influential like few others in diplomacy and unavoidable in the international relations curriculum, his performance has always been questioned both from a practical and theoretical point of view.
In June, shortly after Kissinger’s 100th birthday, an article in Foreign Policy magazine highlighted a dilemma involving the reputation of the former US Secretary of State, who died this Wednesday (29). “Although he is hailed as a foreign policy thinker of unique depth, wisdom and intuition, his long career is not as impressive as his admirers seem to think.”
Signed by Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, the text puts several reservations on Kissinger’s achievements, starting with his academic phase, from 1954 to 1969, when he also taught at Harvard.
“Although several of his books received widespread attention, his theoretical contributions during this period were not significant. None of his early works deserve the label classic, and few are widely read or discussed by scholars today,” writes Walt.
This is without prejudice to recognizing that Kissinger had “a formidable intelligence” and remembering that his name appears on scholarships and research centers at several universities.
For Walt, the other phases of Kissinger’s career – first as a statesman, then as an author and analyst – did not change this situation, although they may have kept him away from more ambitious flights in theoretical production.
“But the fact remains the same: Judged only as an academic, Kissinger is not a member of the pantheon.”
Matias Spektor, professor of international relations at FGV, agrees with Walt’s diagnosis, including with regard to Kissinger’s enormous influence.
“He sold millions of copies of books. You can’t minimize that. But his great legacy is the practice of diplomacy. His writing and his practice were very influential, but also very controversial, and the critics are fierce on both counts. “
And it is not difficult to understand the ferocity of critics in the academic world as well. Representative of a theoretical current known as realism, Kissinger considered that international politics was limited to the relationship between great powers.
In his first major book, “The Restored World” (1957), he analyzes how Metternich, prime minister of Austria-Hungary during the 1815 Congress of Vienna, sought to reestablish the political order prior to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
They are great leaders acting to solve the problems of the time and find an acceptable balance between them. Everything else would be secondary, says Spektor, author of the book “Kissinger and Brazil” (Zahar, 2009).
According to the FGV professor, researchers have already shown that “The Restored World” contains historiographical inaccuracies, which perhaps explains why the work does not have that much weight – although it is not irrelevant. Likewise, the book “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy”, still from Kissinger’s academic phase, did not reach the highest levels of university prestige either.
The reservations, however, do not prevent Spektor from including Kissinger in the bibliography of his introductory course at FGV. “Even though I know the limitations of the work on the great European concert, I will pass on a chapter because, above all, it is very well written. It is a very attractive entry into international relations.”
Not to mention, of course, that Kissinger is a living example of how a realistic diplomat should behave, whose pragmatism leads him to consider the interests of his State above all else. That’s why David Magalhães, professor of international relations at PUC-SP and Faap, states that it is crucial to separate the actor from the author.
“Kissinger is basic bibliography. If we go through the important subjects, the introductory ones, whether on the history of international relations or on theory, he ends up appearing.”
Magalhães says that Kissinger, born in Germany, brought to the USA the mentality of realism in international relations, in which the State should not be linked to either ideologies or moral values.
Therefore, it has nothing to do with the more well-known line in the USA of defending the self-determination of peoples, wanting to export democracy and advocating for a global order based on international law.
“He understands peace through the balance of power, not through arrangements of international law or abstract conceptions. Peace exists as a result of an armistice”, says Magalhães.
For him, even though “Kissinger’s hands are full of blood for what he did as a statesman”, he is an author of the greatest relevance. “It is necessary to know this realistic tradition, even if it is to criticize it later.”
In his courses, Magalhães usually recommends “Diplomacy”. Published in Brazil in 1994 by Saraiva, the book tells the history of international relations from the point of view of realism, showing how the author himself is part of this current.
A privileged view, from someone who followed this universe for decades and managed to put many of his ideas into practice — even though their impact was less than the former.
“I hope that the idea of canceling the author Kissinger just because you disagree with his premises does not reach international relations chairs. To question it, you need to know him”, says Magalhães.
Facts from the life of Henry Kissinger
1923: Heinz Alfred Kissinger is born in Fürth, Germany
1938: Fleeing Nazism, he moved at 15 with his Jewish family to the USA, where he adopted the name Henry
1943: Receives American citizenship and serves in the Army as a German interpreter
1954 – 1969: Professor and director of a research center at Harvard University, where he had completed his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees
1956 – 1968: Consultant in different government agencies, first the Department of Defense, then the National Security Council, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and finally the Department of State
1969: Takes over as National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon (Republican). Participates in the organization of Strategic Arms Limits Talks, conferences and treaties between the USA and the Soviet Union to reduce tensions in the Cold War
1969 – 1973: Defends bombings in Cambodia, in extension to the Vietnam War; more conservative estimates speak of at least 150,000 civilian deaths
1970: With Kissinger’s support, the CIA under Nixon helped the military in Chile destabilize the Salvador Allende regime from inauguration until the 1973 coup. It also supported the 1976 coup in Argentina, when a military junta overthrew President Isabel Perón
1971: Secretly visits China to pave the way for Nixon’s historic visit the following year, in an effort to separate the communist country from the Soviet Union
1972: Returns to China and brings together Nixon, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, on a trip that marks the opening of the Asian country to the world
1973: Becomes Secretary of State. Receives the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the Vietnam War with the Vietnamese Le Duc Tho, who refuses the award
1974: Nixon resigns under pressure from the Watergate scandal, but Kissinger remains in government under President Gerald Ford
1977: Leaves the position of Secretary of State with the victory of Democrat Jimmy Carter
1982: Open your successful consulting company
2002: Appointed by George W. Bush to lead the commission that investigated 9/11, he resigned from his post a month later alleging a conflict of interest with clients of his consulting company.