Let’s look at some of the major foreign policy developements during Kissinger’s period as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State (1969-1975), and what part he played in them. There was a lot going on during that short time.
The opening to China is certainly one of the most important things the U.S. did under Kissinger’s leadership. I think it was inevitable and almost certainly beneficial for the U.S. I say this with a serious reservation, because my heart is fully on the side of the ROC and I wish we could have done it without getting them expelled from the U.N. So far, we have been able to deter China from attacking (or China doesn’t think they are strong enough), but it must be a cold feeling across the Taiwan Strait knowing there is a country 40 times bigger that will attack at the first opportunity. I wish we could give Taiwan some better security guarantee than “strategic ambiguity.” I wish we had let Taiwan develope nuclear weapons. I just feel like what we’re seeing in Ukraine — where we sort of kind of promised to protect them from Russia in exchange for their giving up their nuclear weapons, and then did no such thing — is going to be repeated in Taiwan. But Taiwan’s situation is not like Ukraine’s. Ukraine has a huge flat border, which is a big disadvantage, but they also have a larger population than Taiwan and Russia’s, of course, is much smaller than China’s. Ukraine also has 20 times the land area of Taiwan. If China ever attacks Taiwan, the island could be occupied before any other nations can respond.
We mentioned Kissinger’s role in bombing Cambodia in our last post. Of course, he also received a Nobel Peace Prize (along with Le Duc Tho) for negotiating peace between North and South Vietnam. Some people think Kissinger knew the North would break the peace and just wanted to give the U.S. a plausible excuse for withdrawing. I think that is both too harsh and too generous. I suspect that Kissinger negotiated the peace sincerely, but also misunderstood the North Vietnamese badly. Apparently he did attempt to return the Peace Prize after the fall of South Vietnam, which is to his credit. Given the historical result, I don’t think the peace can be considered an accomplishment of Kissinger’s.
Kissinger supported Pakistan against Bangladesh in the liberation war of 1971. I have no idea if this was wise or moral. I would like to know more.
In the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger implicitly sided with Israel, trying to allow them to conquer more territory and promising to replace their arms losses. That seems reasonable to me, but that depends on your perspective. Kissinger basically gave the Shah of Iran a blank check, which I’m sure played a role in the Iranian revolution a few years later, but I’m not sure anyone could have foreseen that.
Kissinger appears to have played a role in the Cyprus crisis that led to Turkish occupation in 1974. I’m not sure what he actually did, but it appears to have been to the detriment of the Greek part of the island. He apparently regretted his handling of the situation, so I guess this counts as a self-acknowledged poor performance with credit for recognizing his mistakes.
Kissinger laid the groundwork for handing over the Panama Canal. That is an interesting issue, because it was much debated at the time, but hardly anyone talks about it any more. I take that to mean that there haven’t been any serious issues with the handover, so I assume it is a good thing.
Kissinger favoured normalizing relations with Cuba for a time, but changed his mind after Cuban troops went into Angola and Mozambique. I think this is an entirely sensible position.
Chile is, along with Cambodia, probably the biggest black mark against Kissinger. Again, it isn’t clear to me how much of a role Kissinger played in the coup that overthrew Allende, or the assassination of Orlando Letelier, an opponent of the new regime. This is a complicated issue that, to appearances, would require an expert to sort out, and it may be that not all documents have even been declassified yet. The situation is similar for Kissinger’s support for the Dirty War in Argentina. I will withold judgment, but I have to say that appearances do not look good for Kissinger’s role in these two issues.
Kissinger deliberately allowed Indonesia to annex East Timor, which ended with the death of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese. He also allowed Morocco to annex Western Sahara. In the case of East Timor, the U.S. probably could not have prevented its annexation in the long run. These are both cases where Kissinger probably took the pragmatic route, but also the one that was less moral.
This seems to be a theme in his career. Kissinger praised Zairean dictator Mobutu and considered him a “policy success,” which is a weird way to view one of the most corrupt dictators to have ever lived. On the other hand, it is fair to point out that Kissinger lived in a different time. We were in the Cold War, and the Soviets seemed to be advancing everywhere. Supporting a strong dictator who could keep peace and keep the Soviets at bay no doubt seemed preferable to allowing Communist takeovers, which would be far worse for the locals than a corrupt government. I’m not going to try to pass judgment one way or another here, just point out the kinds of problems he faced. It would make for an interest study to contrast him with someone who took a different tack.
In the next post, we will say something about Kissinger as a theorist.
Written by dcroxton
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