When in New York, I make sure to visit one of the city’s most illustrious monuments: Henry Kissinger, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Having had the honor of knowing him for the past 35 years, I was worried that I might find him diminished in his advancing age. I could not have been more wrong. Nothing escapes him, even now, from Ukraine to the rise of artificial intelligence. He remains the greatest diplomat of the twentieth century, thanks to his talents as a historian, a strategist, and a statesman. Whether you like him or not, Kissinger is a unique figure of our times. I must confess that his indifference to human rights, particularly in China, has bothered me immensely in the past. Despite my urging, he refused to press Beijing, with whom he maintained (overly) close ties, to free Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Yet I eventually came to terms with our different roles. He is a statesman of great responsibility, while I am an intellectual whose weight is measured in manuscripts.
Kissinger is also controversial in terms of his political legacy, from the bombing of Cambodia in 1970 (Richard Nixon decided, Kissinger advised) to U.S. support—at least through inaction—of General Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende. As for the Middle East: Was it necessary to force Israel to withdraw from Sinai? (That agreement was signed in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, but Kissinger helped lay the groundwork for it.) Yet no one can deny that Kissinger ’s manipulation led to peace between Israel and Egypt. And what of his support for abandoning Taiwan to develop diplomatic relations between the United States and China? It may not yet be obvious, but this strategic U-turn organized by Kissinger was little more than a recognition of the facts. Reality—not idealism—was the only thing that mattered. As he has often said and written, both in the past and today in New York City, peace can be achieved only through the recognition of governments, regardless of how terrible the regimes controlling them may appear to us. He adds that we may vocally support human rights in China and the Arab world—but when all is said and done, the Chinese and the Arabs are the only ones who can make decisions about it.
With this in mind, how does Kissinger apply his realpolitik to the war in Ukraine? His observations (which he shared with the Economist) have caused a stir, probably because he is now a free spirit, unhampered by the pursuit of power or public opinion. Thanks to his unique position, he is the only one to voice openly the concern that Ukraine will soon have the most capable military in Europe, with the least experience in strategy. Kissinger is also one of the few commentators to highlight how profitable the war has been for the U.S. arms industry. The observation conjures the “military industrial complex,” condemned by outgoing President Eisenhower in 1961. Kissinger’s eyes twinkle behind his thick, tortoiseshell glasses. What drives him is the creation of an exit strategy from the crisis. He has often written that one should never enter a war without knowing how to get out of it.
He sees negotiating with Russia as an obvious necessity, while Ukraine’s refusal to cede even an inch of its territory is little more than a combative stance. According to Kissinger, Vladimir Putin will never surrender Sevastopol, Crimea’s main city, which is completely Russian and home to Moscow’s main naval base. As for what Ukraine can be offered in return, he suggests NATO membership, which the Ukrainians are not currently requesting.
In reality, Kissinger sees the war in Ukraine as a minor concern compared with the risk of conflict between the United States and China. The coexistence of these two leading world powers defined the career of “Dear Henry,” as the American press nicknamed him. A clash would be a dramatic development, though Kissinger does not believe that it will happen. The Chinese do not want to replace the United States; they want their status to be recognized and to be treated with dignity. Aggressive, anti-Chinese sentiment, currently more American than European, is the result of a breakdown in communication. The absence of dialogue and high-quality spokespeople is, in Kissinger’s mind, the real source of misunderstanding and presents the greatest risk of an otherwise avoidable conflict.
As for Taiwan: in his memoirs (and in his remarks to a South Korean delegation in January), Kissinger shared one of his favorite anecdotes. During a meeting between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon, the Chinese leader was questioned on Taiwan. He replied: “Taiwan is China, but we are in no hurry. Perhaps in a century!” If a new Kissinger asked Xi Jinping the same question, he would probably receive the same answer: “In a century.” Kissinger believes in the virtues of great statesmen—and their advisors. They are the ones who make history, from Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Volodymyr Zelensky.
Kissinger has therefore remained unchanged, as has his self-appreciation. Yet this character trait is easy to forgive, as any vanity is softened by an unparalleled sense of humor tinged with a German accent—even after 85 years in the United States. Before we part ways, and probably to show me that his memory is as sharp as ever, Kissinger reminds me that in 1995 I gave him a medal of the Paris suburb of Boulogne–Billancourt, where I was then deputy mayor in charge of cultural affairs. I knew that he was particularly fond of awards, but I never told him that I had created the medal specially for him. It would have been improper to let him leave without at least a small token of recognition.
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