MAINSTREAM commentators believe Henry Kissinger is the most knowledgeable and experienced diplomat of our time.
He has indeed made his mark as a professor of 19th-century diplomacy (his magnum opus, Diplomacy, occupies 900 pages on my desk). In addition, he served as the US national security adviser and secretary of state in the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations (his book on this period, Years of Upheaval, occupies 1,200 pages on my desk). After leaving public service in the late 1970s, he established a consulting firm that served the private sector for 40 years.
What was his contribution to international politics? He is known as one of the fathers of realpolitik. This refers to a pragmatic approach to foreign policy, with self-interest as the guiding principle and with little to no ideological or ethical considerations.
This Wild West philosophy is related to realism, in which anarchy prevails with no overarching decision-maker and where states are left to fend for themselves. National interest is the guiding principle for survival and is determined by ruling elites. Alliances are formed with countries based on the value they offer. Those who threaten or challenge the “national interest" are undermined — sometimes through propaganda, sanctions or military power. Hence Kissinger's saying, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests."
This framework was the perfect approach and working environment for Kissinger, whose overarching task was to protect and promote the American national interest — in other words, to maintain the American empire through economic, political and military instruments.
In this way, Kissinger sustained American dominance for several decades through sharp analyses and cunning relationships with a long list of shadowy parties. And the countries and people on the receiving end of this amoral realpolitik paid a heavy price.
The most well-known examples include the bombing of Cambodia in an attempt to win the war in Vietnam. This barbaric form of warfare later led to the emergence of the violent Khmer Rouge. On the home front, the secret assault on Cambodia caused widespread paranoia among government officials, ultimately resulting in the Watergate scandal.
If that wasn't enough, Kissinger's diplomatic meddling resulted in instability in the Middle East and Latin America. Southern Africa was not spared; Kissinger colluded with Ian Smith and John Vorster to bolster white minority rule for America's benefit.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Kissinger's consulting company advised Russians and Eastern Europeans to undertake massive privatisation, which led to the emergence of the so-called oligarchic class.
Kissinger was a strong supporter of the two Gulf wars and his company played a questionable role in the Union Carbide chemical leak in India, which led to the deaths of thousands.
The lesson for us is that regional or major powers that adhere to realpolitik may seem to gain advantages at first glance, but self-interest ultimately leads to widespread instability for which citizens on the receiving end pay a high price.
♦ VWB ♦
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