DANIEL VAUGHAN: Henry Kissinger (1923 - 2023) - A Geopolitical Titan

December 1, 2023

There are very few men who can claim to have shaped the world around them, according to their beliefs and analysis. Even fewer have done that while being below the level of President, Prime Minister, King, or Emperor. Henry Kissinger is the rare man who stood in the stream of history and changed the course of numerous nations, including his own.

Kissinger introduced, popularized, and exemplified the notion of "realpolitik" (a German term meaning real politics) in America. Real politics focuses on power, practicality, and a country's national interests rather than ideals or moral principles. He drew heavily on history to drive this home, showing how nations are independent actors, often acting in their own self-interest and not broader notions of humanity, as liberalism depicts.

This is where Kissinger was often blasted for being amoral, or Machiavellian. He'd analyze a situation and determine how to avoid the worst possible scenario, instead of pursuing higher morality and ideals. In the mid-20th century, this meant opposing the spread of anti-American USSR-led communism at all costs. Or dividing the communist states against each other, as when. Kissinger and Nixon led the opening of China.

In real terms, he didn't believe in final victories. While the American defeat of Nazism and Germany happened, that's never the end of the story. The United State's decision to rebuild Germany helped prevent another dark force from taking over the middle of Europe. Kissinger took lessons like this and pushed to balance powers against themselves to prevent all-out war, especially of the nuclear variety.

There's a notion in international politics, especially in Europe, that systems make the world safe. So they point to the European Union, the United Nations, and more that have prevented war from breaking out.

Kissinger always pointed out, "Empires have no interest in operating within an international system; they aspire to be the international system." The more powerful a country is, the more likely it will eschew systems made by others and reshape the world into its image.

The United States has done this by building court systems, trade associations, and more. The US has an interest in them because this is our order. That's why China is so bent on bucking these systems and installing its own, like the Belt and Road initiative.

Kissinger also said, ""Intellectuals analyze the operations of international systems; statesmen build them." The FDR-Truman-Churchill-Stalin alliance built the post-WWII order. That started fracturing as the West turned against Stalin and communism. 

George F. Kennan built the containment strategy for the USSR in the aftermath of WWII. And Henry Kissinger split communist China from the Soviets by opening up China. He did many other things as well, helping topple some governments and building others. 

Even though Kissinger died at the age of 100, it's still too early to tell whether or not his contributions to world geopolitics, especially his China strategy, will pay off in the end. Historians paint some events as inevitable, but that's rarely true. Kissinger was right in that humans do build our solutions, and problems. 

For around 30 years, it seemed like Kissinger was right. China was liberalizing and booming in growth. It was friendly with the West while the USSR crumbled to the wayside. But that has faded as the US and China have entered great power competition with each other. 

Kissinger's great move helped end the USSR but built a successor in the form of modern China. If the US and China end up in a war, which brings global conflict, Kissinger will be remembered as setting the stage for a global war. Testing alternatives is impossible because this is where we are now. 

Kissinger's hope is that the US and China avoid war. This ends up as an unpleasant moment, and peace prevails. Again, the man died at 100 and it's still too early to know the end results of his actions, thoughts, and processes. That is a stunning accomplishment, when measured on that level alone.

The loss of men like Kissinger always hurts the world around them. Because even if you disagree with them, you must grapple with their criticism and ideas. That's true of Kissinger, Kennan, Bismarck, Metternich, and more. They sharpen the conflicts around them and force people to grapple with reality, good or bad.

Even more troubling is that there's no real successor to Kissinger on this front. He was truly a one-of-one. Some academics can match his arguments, but they lack government experience. And those with government experience rarely have the degree of knowledge and wisdom Kissinger possessed. 

We're in a world that Kissinger played a significant role in building. And it seems like we only have people available now who analyze that system, or try to tear it down, but don't know how to build it. Kissinger saw this as a bad thing. And so should we.

But, looking around, there are no Kissingers on the world stage now. There's no one with the wisdom, knowledge, and insight he possessed. The world is poorer that he passed away, and poorer still that no one like him is left.

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