Former-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger thinks the US is on the edge of war with Russia and China
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 99, has made a few alarming remarks regarding tensions with China and Russia. Who should listen?
Henry Kissinger, who served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, believes the US could be on the brink of war with China and Russia.
Kissinger, 99, is one of the most prominent figures of twentieth-century US foreign policy. His staunchly anti-communist politics led him to inflict brutal violence on civilian populations across Asia and Latin America. The covert bombing campaign in Cambodia that Kissinger approved away from the public eye and congressional oversight led to the dropping of half a million bombs between 1969 and 1973, leading to at least one hundred thousand civilian deaths.
The former foreign policy leader is considered a political realist, an ideology defined by its theory on state behavior and stands on four major pillars: the central force states play within international politics, the anarchic nature of the international system, the rationality of political who are motivated by self-interest, and the priority of the state to gain power that can ensure their self-preservation.
Kissinger’s particular brand of realism is also deeply interlinked with political legitimacy, which he described as “no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy.” He also said that legitimacy “should not be confused with justice.” In some sense, justice could threaten legitimacy as it is Kissinger’s belief that if enough global powers agreed that the international system was legitimate, it was. On the other hand, if one or more powers began to question the legitimacy of the arrangements, a dangerous “revolutionary” era would emerge. Throughout Kissinger’s career was motivated by these ideas, and the costs of such orthodox thinking throughout the foreign policy apparatus have been enormous and persistent throughout the twenty-first century.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kissinger, a person who led the State Department, said that the “current period [of US diplomacy] has a great trouble defining a direction” and that it is “very responsive to the emotions of the moment.” The retired leader criticized the modern diplomatic strategy of the US for what he sees as a lack of engagement with political adversaries. For those critical of Kissinger’s violent legacy, these comments are a bit ironic, given that the leader oversaw strategy during the Vietnam War, which historians call a proxy war between the US and the USSR. Notably, the Cold War was fought between the US and the USSR, two countries that refused to engage directly for decades.
Kissinger’s view on the prospects of a possible US war with Russia and China are easy to understand because realism is not a difficult ideology to break down. The US wants to maintain its status as a global hegemonic power. Russia and China wish to dethrone the US. If all states are all rational and self-interested power seekers, we have ourselves a game of chicken. Each side continues to push the boundaries of others. The US selling weapons to Ukraine in light of Russia’s war and threats, China backfilling the Russian economy and the US responding by sending the third ranking US official to Taiwan.
What realism leaves out
However, there are other interests, aside from those motivated by the desire to obtain greater global power, that informs the behavior of political actors and institutions. Realists do not pay much mind to political actors. Instead, the state itself takes on the central unit of analysis. States exist over time, and rather than being made up of individuals, for realists, the state is a unitary and autonomous entity that can speak with one voice. Realists also focus on the state’s military capabilities and how they respond to anarchy or lack of central authority to enforce rules within the international system.
China and the US are major economic partners, and a war would upend the economies of both countries and the entire world. Good shipments to the United States could plummet, and income from trade for China would decrease significantly. Economic interests motivate the actions of states and political actors in very significant ways. NATO countries have compiled with Russian red lines in their aid to Ukraine to avoid total war, which could leave many EU countries with a significant energy deficit and, more dangerous, threatens civilians with nuclear war.
The terror left in Kissinger’s wake
Although Kissinger’s formal leave from government came in 1977, he continued to serve as an advisor to many presidents and diplomatic leaders. Presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her memoir of Kissinger, even tying her legacy and that of the Obama administration to his.
When listening to leaders like Kissinger and those who speak fondly of his record, it is critical to remember the devastating consequences for humanity his realist view created. Three million Cambodians were murdered after Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge rose to power in the vacuum created by the US covert bombing campaign that led to the ousting of Prince Sihanouk.
Famously, high-profile figures, like the late Anthony Bourdain, have made their opinion of Kissinger clear. In Bourdain’s 2001 book A Cook’s Tour, while writing about Cambodia, he said that once one visited the country, they would “stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”
Years later, Bourdian doubled down on his comments in a Tweet saying “Frequently, I’ve come to regret things I’ve said. This, from 2001, is not one of those times.”
Kissinger also assisted in the coup d’état of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile, who was replaced by far-right authoritarian Augusto Pinochet. This authoritarian regime killed over 3,500 dissidents and tortured more than 29,000. Kissinger strongly supported Pinochet and even worked to undermine the Carter administration’s response to the regime murdering the former ambassador to the US under Allende’s government in Washington DC in 1976.
To refute arguments set for by those on the left, liberals would be wise to separate themselves from the legacy of an actor who has undermined the democratic will of countless populations. For liberals, there should be nothing more appalling than the overturning of a democratically elected government, even when such an event threatens their power in the international arena. As a realist, Kissinger is able to disregard such liberal constraints, but for those like Hillary Clinton and others, support for Kissinger is a red flag that speaks to the motivations and intentions of US foreign policy, across political parties, over the last fifty years.