Opinion: The principle that animated Henry Kissinger’s foreign policies

Editor’s Note: Fareed Zakaria hosts “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” airing at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET Sundays on CNN. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

Henry Kissinger, who died this week at 100, may have been the most famous foreign policy practitioner in modern American history. But he practiced foreign policy for just eight of those 100 years. He left office as secretary of state nearly half a century ago. And yet, admired or despised, he managed to hold the world’s attention long after his power waned. What explains this remarkable run? He was that rare breed, a doer and a thinker, someone who shaped the world with ideas and action.

First, his accomplishments. Kissinger presided over a pivotal moment in the Cold War, when it looked to much of the world like America was losing. The United States was in fact losing a hot war in Vietnam — the first major defeat in its history — on which it had staked its reputation over four administrations. The Soviet Union was on the offensive, building up a massive nuclear arsenal and gaining allies across the world. At home, America was recovering from being convulsed by internal strife after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and riots in over a hundred American cities.

By the end of his eight years in office, things looked different. The Vietnam War was over. The Soviet Union’s forward momentum had been thwarted by a diplomatic coup, the opening of relations between Washington and Beijing. That one stroke moved China, the world’s second-most important Communist power, cleanly out of the Soviet camp.

Simultaneously, relations with the Soviet Union softened, and negotiations yielded major arms control agreements. In the Middle East, Moscow’s long-standing ally Egypt expelled its Russian advisors, moved into the American orbit and began negotiating with Israel, a process that culminated some years later in the first peace treaty between an Arab country and Israel. Kissinger was the motive force behind each of these four achievements.

Everything Kissinger did was surrounded by controversy. The right blasted him for the opening to China, which was seen as a betrayal of Taiwan, which until then was the only China that Washington recognized. Conservatives also hated the “detente” with Moscow. And many liberals believed that, with an obsession with credibility, Kissinger dragged out the Vietnam negotiations for far too long, agreeing to a deal in 1973 that was not so different from one that he could have accepted in 1969, which would have spared the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.

Kissinger was especially sensitive to this last criticism. I once made it on television, and he angrily called me up reminding me that he began American troop withdrawals as soon and as fast as possible and then sent me a letter detailing what he gained in his negotiations.

It particularly irked him that the liberal elites who had been enthusiastically in favor of the Vietnam War in 1967 became his most vicious critics within a few years. (His own views on Vietnam were always more skeptical about America’s prospects for victory.) He liked to say that getting out of a war that the United States had committed itself and its honor to for two decades was not as easy as switching off a television set.

He presided over terrible failures as well. His support for Pakistan, as it tried to brutally crush a rebellion in what became Bangladesh, was an abomination — and a failure. The bombings of Cambodia and Laos caused untold human suffering and distorted the politics of the region for decades. His disregard for human rights in places like Chile and Indonesia left a long shadow over America’s reputation.

It is striking, however, the degree to which these policies are almost always attributed to him personally. In most other administrations, the president is lauded or lambasted for his administration’s policies. Yet it is odd that in this case, it is the secretary of state who is branded a war criminal, not the man who actually made all the decisions: his boss, the president.

Kissinger was the first Jewish secretary of state and also the first immigrant to ascend to that office. 13 members of his family died in the Nazi death camps. That background shaped his worldview, though he spoke about it rarely. He grew up in Germany as Hitler came to power and watched perhaps the most advanced and “civilized” nation in the world descend into barbarism and mass murder.

He developed a lifelong obsession with order. He was too suspicious of democracy and human rights, but it was because he had seen demagogues like Hitler rise to power through elections. He often remarked, sometimes attributing it to Goethe, that between order and justice he would choose the former, because once chaos reigns, there is no possibility for justice.

I met him first three decades ago and over the years got to know him quite well. We had both been graduate students in the same department at the same university, and many of his colleagues had been my professors. He was a complicated man — warm, witty, proud, thin-skinned, sometimes paranoid but always deeply curious and intellectually serious about the world. He was the only celebrity I ever met who, when the lights dimmed, retreated to his library to read the latest biography of Stalin or reread Spinoza.

He once famously attributed his success in America to being seen as a lone cowboy pursuing his mission. The image of Kissinger as cowboy might seem odd, but he was right about being a solitary figure on the American strategic landscape.

In a country of optimists, Henry Kissinger was a European pessimist. He began his career worrying about nuclear weapons and ended it worrying about artificial intelligence. Over the years, in our conversations, he would speculate gloomily that Japan was going to become a nuclear power, that Europe would fall apart, and that Islamic extremism would triumph. In our last lunch, just a few weeks ago, he worried about Israel’s ability to survive in the long run.

From start to finish, over a century, Henry Kissinger’s abiding fear was that disruptive forces once set in motion could easily rip off the thin veneer of civilization and stability, pushing the world into the abyss — like the one in which he came of age.

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