Kissinger, The European Roots Of Pure American Cynicism
A diplomatic genius for some, a war criminal for others, Henry Kissinger has just turned 100. An opportunity for Dominique Moïsi, who has known him well, to reflect on the German-born U.S. diplomat's roots and driving raison d'être.
PARIS — My first contacts — by letter — with the "diplomat of the century" date back to the autumn of 1971. As a Sachs scholar at Harvard University, my teacher, renowned French philosopher Raymond Aron, had written me a letter of introduction to the man who was then President Richard Nixon's National Security Advisor.
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Aron's letter opened all the doors. Kissinger invited me to meet him in Washington, before canceling our appointment due to "last-minute constraints." I later learned that these constraints were nothing less than his travels in preparation for Washington's historic opening to China.
In the five decades since that first contact, I've met Kissinger regularly, at the Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg conference, Davos Forum or, more intimately, at his home in New York. As a young student of international relations, I was fascinated to read his doctoral thesis on the Congress of Vienna: "A World Restored."
Kissinger's fascination with the great diplomats who shaped European history — from Austria's Klemens von Metternich to Britain's Castlereagh — was already present in this book. He clearly dreamed of joining their club in the pantheon of world diplomacy. Was his ambition to "civilize" his adopted country, by introducing the subtleties of Ancien Régime diplomacy?
Yet from Asia to Latin America, in his fight against communism, wasn't he closer to Theodore Roosevelt's "Carry a big stick" than to European equilibrium a la Bismarck?
Our relationship was always complex. He felt that I was more "liberal" in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word than he was. So much so that he once told me, as I hugged him, that he must be a victim of "Stockholm Syndrome," that surprising emotional relationship that sometimes grows between a hostage-taker and his victim.
Tactile and charming, Kissinger was both the most intellectual and the most political of diplomats. In 1977, on behalf of Raymond Aron, I invited him to a colloquium in Paris on "Leninism" to mark the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution.
As he entered the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (MSH) -- where the meeting was being held -- he rushed to shake the hands of everyone there like a politician on the campaign trail, starting with the building's doorman. Kissinger knew how to flatter.
And no one remained immune to his praise. Aron himself was proud to show me the dedications "To my maestro..." that his "admiring disciple" always sent him when his books were published. He used to read them to me with a certain tinge of sadness, as if aware of the distance existing between the global figure Kissinger had become and the man who was merely "The Engaged Spectator."
His greatest weakness was undoubtedly his desire to remain as close as possible to power.
Hubert Védrine, France's most "Kissingerian" foreign minister, was also particularly happy to receive compliments from the wise old man. Playing off his own emotions to catch those of others was one of Kissinger's great strengths. I had lunch with him in Paris in Sept. 1995, a few days after my father's death, which to my ignorance coincided with the death of his own father. We embraced, and cried together for a few moments.
Former United States Secretary of State Kissinger speaking at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore.
Opening to China
His greatest feat, which he shared with Nixon, was of course the opening up to China. And even today, in the interviews he gives to the press on "How to avoid World War III," one senses that his desire to preserve his "beautiful work" is no less important than his concern to save humanity from itself.
The more Kissinger appeared like an old Buddha, the more the Chinese flattered his ego and the more he saw it as his mission to prevent the gulf between the world's two giants from widening too much.
His greatest weakness was undoubtedly his desire to remain as close as possible to power, and those who embodied it. Both in the U. S. and around the world. It was clear that for a man fascinated by the diplomacy of the Ancien Régime, democratic considerations were not a priority.
Weren't the people, in all their passions and excesses, from Salvador Allende's Chile to the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, a factor of disorder — and therefore of risk?
In 2017, during a meeting at his New York Club, he wanted to reassure me about the newly elected American president. "Trump is indeed unpredictable," he told me. "But he's not an ideologist. He doesn't believe in anything except himself."
Three years earlier in 2014 after the Russian takeover of Crimea, his words were equally reassuring. "The alternatives to Putin are much more worrying than he is," he told me.
Of course, he has stopped repeating this remark since February 24, 2022.
Key to longevity
Over time, his concern for the future of the State of Israel has only grown, as if, like Raymond Aron, he became "more Jewish" with age. I was in Jerusalem in 2012 when he received the "President's Prize" from Shimon Peres. His acceptance speech concluded with a veiled warning. Could Israel survive in the long term if it saw itself as bigger than it really was? The Palestinian question obsessed him more than he let on.
To remain at the center of the world's attention at the age of 100 remains the feat of a man who knows that the halo of light he maintains around himself is the key to his longevity.
A complex hero, Kissinger will be remembered as one of the most perfect embodiments of the American dream: a German-Jewish immigrant who, by dint of his intelligence and willpower, became the "Prince of Diplomats." A man who proved unable to halt America's decline; and perhaps, through his sheer cynicism, a man who may have actually helped accelerate its downfall.
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