Davos EXTRA: The Legacy of Henry Kissinger

The Free Thinkers Society invited Niall Ferguson to share his redemptive perspectives on the life and legacy of Henry Kissinger in a nightcap session to punctuate our launch day at Davos.  Kissinger died just a few months ago after multiple celebrations commemorating his 100th birthday. Professor Ferguson published an extensive biography of the early life of Kissinger (up to his ascension to become Nixon’s National Security Advisor in 1969). Niall revealed at the seminar that he is halfway through writing the second and final volume and hopes to have it completed by year-end 2024.

At a time of extraordinary change and extreme volatility, the Free Thinkers wanted to put into action Niall’s frequent exhortation to study history to learn and prepare for the future. So we put that advice into action by taking a late night deep dive into the life and legacy of one of the dominant figures of 20th century diplomacy.

Niall opened by recounting Kissinger’s chess-like approach to grand strategy, resolutely focused on the overarching goal of preventing World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union. He described Kissinger’s core belief that a truly great statesman must forswear any desire to be loved or popular. The central priority of statesmanship is to foresee potentially bad outcomes and take all necessary steps to avoid them. If successful, the truly bad outcome (e.g., WW III) does not occur, but it is rare for anyone to become beloved or popular for a non-event. In that context Kissinger was forced to make many difficult decisions and adopt painful policies that subordinated all other interests to that defining strategic priority of his age.

Niall spoke extensively about Kissinger’s notorious opening to China in 1972 – the most important accomplishment of his career, but not his most challenging one. The Chinese leadership were ready for rapprochement with the US because they were desperately fearful of their escalating tensions with the Soviet Union. They took the initiative and Kissinger skillfully navigated the execution of this grand milestone in the history of US diplomacy. One of the greatest achievements was pulling off Kissinger’s own earlier trip to China in absolute secrecy – an essential step to prepare the way for President Nixon’s historic visit in 1972. Kissinger’s great gift was being able to read into the thinking and motives of his diplomatic counterparts, giving him the ability not only to predict their actions but also to address their own strategic needs and priorities in ways that optimized the interests of the United States. Niall downplayed many of the events that history has laid at Kissinger’s feet as less consequential than his accomplishments on this level of grand strategy. He discounted the destruction and death caused by the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, maintaining that William Shallcross has acknowledged that he was “wrong” about the extent of the casualties in his book Sideshow. He also alleged that the US government did not orchestrate the Chilean coup or the assassination of Salvador Allende, but rather the Allende government was toppled by its own malfeasance. Yet even if Kissinger owns responsibility for these foreign policy disasters, Niall argued that these countries were “pawns” in the great game being played by the United States and the Soviet Union in the latter half of the 20th Century.  The bottom line is that a catastrophic World War III has been successfully avoided for 80 years.

Niall’s two-volume history of Kissinger is likely to be the best-researched account of his historical legacy. Niall recounted extensive conversation with Kissinger himself, explored countless sources, and delved into the newly public minutes of the Soviet Politburo as well as the historical records of over 100 countries. It is also designed to spark sharp controversy – a robust defense of Kissinger’s legacy defies conventional wisdom that lays the disasters of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Chile squarely in Kissinger’s lap. Niall has invested a decade of intense effort in his effort to rehabilitate Henry Kissinger; our session felt like an early sparring session for the intellectual jousts that will surely follow publication of Volume 2.

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