Kissinger left behind a tortured and deadly legacy

Over decades, his pursuit of national self-interest has produced its own set of disasters

Henry Kissinger exercised more than 50 years of influence on American foreign policy before his death at the age of 100 on November 29.

As a scholar of American foreign policy who has written on Kissinger’s service from 1969 to 1977 as national security adviser and secretary of state under the Nixon and Ford administrations, I have seen how his views and actions played out for good and, mostly, for ill.

When he entered government as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, he espoused a narrow perspective of the national interest, known as “realpolitik,” primarily centered on maximizing the economic and military power of the United States.

This transactionalist approach to foreign policy produced a series of destructive outcomes. They ranged from fomenting coups that put in place murderous dictatorships, as in Chile, to killing unarmed civilians, as in Cambodia, and alienating potential allies, as in India.

In his dissertation turned into a book, Kissinger argued foreign policymakers are measured by their ability to recognize shifts in political, military, and economic power in the international system – and then to make those changes work in their country’s favor.

Political values

In this model, the political values – democracy and human rights – that make the US a distinctive player in the international system have no role.

This perspective, with its self-declared realistic agenda, along with Kissinger’s place at the top of the foreign policy establishment for the better part of a decade, made him into something of a foreign policy oracle for American policymakers of all stripes.

Yet his record reveals the problems with the narrow conception of national interest devoid of values. His time in government was characterized by major policy decisions that were generally detrimental to Washington’s standing in the world.

When Nixon took office in 1968, he had promised an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.

The American bombing campaign in Cambodia. Image: Social Media / YouTube

But he faced a problem in trying to gain control of the conflict such as the porousness of Vietnam’s borders with Cambodia, through which supplies and soldiers from North Vietnam flowed into the South.

To address this, Nixon dramatically escalated a bombing campaign in Cambodia that started under his predecessor, President Lyndon Johnson. Nixon later initiated a ground invasion of the country to cut off North Vietnamese supply routes.

As William Shawcross details in his defining book on the subject, Kissinger supported his boss’s Cambodia policy.

Despite the fact that it was not a party to the conflict in Vietnam, the American bombing of the Southeast Asian nation is estimated to have exceeded the total tonnage of all the bombs dropped by the US during World War II.

The campaign killed tens of thousands of Cambodians and displaced millions.

Social instability

The destruction caused by the bombing, as well as partial American occupation in 1970, were crucial to creating the political and social instability that facilitated the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which is estimated to have killed two million Cambodians.

In 1970 and 1971, Nixon, with Kissinger’s advice and encouragement, supported Pakistan’s dictatorial President Yahya Khan in his genocidal repression of Bengali nationalists and war against India.

That conflict is estimated to have killed at least 300,000 and possibly more than a million Bengalis. Khan targeted for complete elimination of the Hindus in what would become Bangladesh.

Kissinger with President Gerald Ford. Photo: Library of Congress via

In frustration at pressure from New Delhi over the subsequent refugee crisis, Kissinger agreed with Nixon that India – a fellow democracy bearing the burden of millions of refugees from East Pakistan – needed a “mass famine” to put the country in its place.

The duo went so far as to send an aircraft carrier battle group to threaten India after it suffered a series of cross-border attacks by Pakistan.

Nixon and Kissinger’s policy during that period of unvarnished brutality and aggression played a significant role in pushing India toward an alignment with the Soviet Union.

They injected distrust of Washington into the foundations of Indian foreign policy, dividing the world’s oldest and largest democracies for decades.

Iraqi regime

In 1972, Kissinger agreed to a request from the Shah of Iran to provide military aid to Kurds in Iraq who were seeking an independent homeland.

Iran’s goal was to put pressure on the Iraqi regime controlled by Saddam Hussein, while Kissinger sought to keep the Soviets out of the region.

The scheme was predicated on the Kurds’ belief that the United States supported Kurdish independence, a point the Shah noted.

But the US abandoned them on the eve of an Iraqi offensive in 1975, and Kissinger coldly noted that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

Ultimately, the Iraqi defeat of the Kurds would empower Hussein, who would go on to destabilize the region, kill hundreds of thousands of people, and fight unprovoked wars with Iran and the US.

Kissinger at a book launch for On China in 2011. Photo: Flickr

After Kissinger left government service in 1977, he founded Kissinger Associates, a geopolitical consulting firm. Publicly, he consistently advised American policymakers to bend policy to accommodate the interests and actions of important foreign powers like Russia and China.

These positions were consistent with his demonstrated willingness to trade away the rights of others to gain an advantage for the US. His positions also presumably enabled Kissinger Associates to maintain access to the foreign policy elites of those countries.

In May 2022, he publicly argued that Ukraine, a victim of unprovoked aggression by Russia, should cede portions of its internationally recognized territory seized by Russia – as in Crimea – or by Russian proxies such as the Donetsk People’s Republic.

China policy

Kissinger also maintained that Washington should accommodate China, arguing against a concerted effort by democracies to counter the rising power and influence of Beijing.

Foreign policy is a difficult field, fraught with complexity and unanticipated consequences. Yet his vision does not offer a solution to American challenges abroad.

Over decades, Kissinger’s pursuit of national self-interest has produced its own set of disasters, a reality the American public and foreign policy leaders are well-advised to bear in mind.

This story has been updated to reflect Kissinger’s death on November 29, 2023.

Jarrod Hayes is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.