Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room” also on Apple and Spotify. He is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
America is the “shining city on a hill,” a moral force for good whose ideals should be spread worldwide, according to the idealistic interpretation of US foreign policy.
Backers of that view cite President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s push for the creation of the United Nations, President Harry Truman’s signing of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe in the wake of World War II and President Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on a human rights-first foreign policy.
Then there is the ‘realist’ school of US foreign policy, which puts America’s interests first, whose most recent exemplar is former President Donald Trump’s ‘America’s First’ foreign policy. No matter how poorly it was executed by Trump himself, this school argues that the US isn’t the world’s conscience or policeman and should take care of its own interests above all others.
Henry Kissinger, who died at age 100 on Wednesday, was the apotheosis of the realist school of American foreign policy that puts perceived American interests first. And just as there are two schools of American foreign policy, there are also two schools of thought about Kissinger himself.
One might be termed the Christopher Hitchens school. Hitchens was a prolific writer and author who argued that Kissinger was a “war criminal” who should be tried for war crimes. In 2001, Hitchens published a book arguing this case, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.”
The other school is how “The Blob” sees Kissinger. The Blob is the term coined by Ben Rhodes, former President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor, to describe the American foreign policy establishment whose badge of honor is membership of the Council on Foreign Relations. The Blob generally regards Kissinger as a foreign policy guru who got the big ideas right, such as his establishing relations between the US and communist China after decades of mutual hostility.
So, which view is truer to history?
To answer that question, we need to look at his actual record in office during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, which has been partly obscured by Kissinger’s long post-government life as a foreign policy oracle whose advice was sought out by many American presidents.
Any sober assessment of Kissinger’s actual record must surely conclude that Hitchens was more right than not.
In 1971, Kissinger acquiesced as the Pakistani military killed hundreds of thousands, though the estimate is disputed, in what is now the country of Bangladesh, despite warnings from his own State Department officials that something akin to a genocide was unfolding.
Two years later, Kissinger pushed Nixon to overthrow the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. According to documents declassified by the National Security Archive Kissinger later told General Augusto Pinochet, who mounted the military coup that overthrew Allende, “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”
In Argentina in 1976, Kissinger secretly gave the green light to the military junta then in power to carry out what’s known as the “Dirty War” to kill between 10,000 to 30,000 of its political opponents, according to an account later posted on the CIA’s website.
Kissinger was the key US player in ending American involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973. As a result of his peace deal with the North Vietnamese, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize, but his legacy in Vietnam is decidedly mixed.
Kissinger stepped up the secret American bombings of Vietnam’s neighbors Cambodia and Laos, causing untold misery in those countries that also helped to enable the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Cambodia is still ruled by the party of Hun Sen, an autocrat who was once part of the Khmer Rouge. (Sen stepped down in August, handing power over to his son.)
Kissinger excluded the South Vietnamese from his peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Within two years of the Paris Peace Accords being concluded in 1973, the communist North Vietnamese had seized all of South Vietnam, and Vietnam today remains, at least nominally, a communist country, though now on friendly terms with the US.
This has some echoes in how Trump excluded the Afghan government from the US 2020 deal with the Taliban that eventually removed thousands of US troops from Afghanistan, who were helping to keep the elected Afghan government in power.
In the Economist, Kissinger wrote that this withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “self-inflicted setback” though he had done something similar during his peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese, which was to exclude a major party to the war, the government of South Vietnam, which was soon defeated once the US withdrew its forces from Vietnam.
Kissinger deserves credit for his “shuttle diplomacy” to ease the hostilities between Egypt, Syria and Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but it was the one-time peanut farmer from Georgia, President Jimmy Carter, not Kissinger with his Harvard PhD in diplomatic history, who through his sheer force of will created the lasting peace between Egypt and Israel five years later at Camp David.
Kissinger and President Richard Nixon did open the door to China — in order to undercut relations between the communist Chinese and the leaders of the Soviet Union — re-establishing American relations with the Chinese in 1972. In many ways, this was Kissinger’s greatest achievement as it helped China to rise and become the US’ largest trading partner. The US and China are now the world’s two largest economies.
Yet China hasn’t liberalized as it has prospered. It has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years, putting into internment camps some more than a million Uyghurs, according to a UN report last year, extinguishing democracy in Hong Kong and creating a repressive mass surveillance state. The Biden administration concluded in its 2022 National Security Strategy that China is now “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.”
Kissinger traveled to China in June to perform a valedictory victory lap, where he was greeted as a returning hero by the Chinese regime, which he has often visited as the chairman of his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates.
In some quarters, Kissinger is celebrated as a great diplomat, but his real legacy was creating a world that often sees, with good reason, that the United States will sometimes act in an amoral and duplicitous manner, and it is far from the “shining city on a hill” that it aspires to be and often imagines itself as.
Of course, being clear-eyed about national interests is the responsibility of any leader, but for Kissinger, the ends almost always justified the means. Other American policy makers, from FDR to George Marshall to Carter, showed that the national interest and a higher moral purpose are not incompatible.
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