Dr Kissinger’s death at 100 has been reported around the world. Obituaries and editorials debate his legacy. It is an unusual achievement to have remained relevant and controversial right to the end of such a long life. Through his high offices and then his advice and writing, Dr Kissinger shaped history. Now as he passes into history, his pen will finally rest on his desk but he will remain a powerful figure in the decision making and writings of others.
Dr Kissinger first came to Ditchley in 1962 when he was still at Harvard for an early conference on nuclear weapons targeting in Europe. The conference was chaired by former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, one of Kissinger’s political heroes. In those days Ditchley kept private transcripts of the discussions and, 55 years later, I was able to share with Dr Kissinger what he and others, all long passed, had said. He was a little abashed to find that he had disagreed with Acheson on several points and that the Kissinger tendency to speak in short essays was already well established. His contributions stood out for their length, but also their force and cogency.
At our first meeting in 2016, arranged by Jami Miscik, American Ditchley Chair and at that time, CEO of Kissinger Associates, his voice was clouded by age as well as his trademark accent, but his thinking was as sharp as ever and buttressed by a prodigious memory of a lifetime of conversations. He talked in essays still. But something else struck me as unusual in someone who had been so well known for so long. He had not lost the power to listen, and he listened because he was still eager to learn. That vital ingredient for relevance was underlined by his growing interest in the impact of AI, bringing his experience of geopolitics to Eric Schmidt and Dan Huttenlocher’s understanding of technology in their book together. Already in 2016, he was working on his final book, Leadership, published in 2022. He had just finished the chapter on Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore, another of his political heroes for his transformation of Singapore’s fortunes through leadership, organisation and order, the latter the quality in international relations that Dr Kissinger valued above all others.
My guess is that World Order will be the Kissinger book that politicians, diplomats and professors will still be reading in 200 years’ time. Its weighing of interests and legitimacy will remain at the heart of the dilemmas of international relations and political leadership, no matter what technological revolutions we experience. Dr Kissinger has been called Machiavellian on more than one occasion. But his Machiavelli, he liked to claim, was the Machiavelli of the Discourses on Livy, not the shorthand of the Prince. World Order is Kissinger’s Discourses.
Like Machiavelli, he believed that one could cause more harm and suffering through an attempt to push the world to justice, than through realpolitik based on national interests. That realpolitik could necessitate actions inconsistent with democratic values and mean harm to innocent people. Whether those actions were necessary and the suffering justified, are questions with which historians will continue to wrestle. The raw statistics do not give a clear verdict on the results. If we look back at the numbers of people killed in conflict (see our worldindata.org), then seen from the perspective of the triumphant and prosperous years of “the end of history” from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, the Kissinger years of power look violent and dangerous. If you look back from those Kissinger years, though, from Vietnam, to Korea, and, of course, to the Second World War, then the perspective is different with the ruins of the slaughterhouse still clearly visible in the rear-view mirror. If you have lived through a human tragedy on a continental scale, then your perspective will be different. We don’t know what our current times will look like in retrospect: a barbaric period now passed, or a lost age of progress and relative calm.
With that in mind, in December 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, Ditchley worked with Dr Kissinger on a conference on World Order: what can and should it mean today? As in the book, we explored how democratic nations might balance aspirations for democratic freedom, with the maintenance of global stability. Dr Kissinger began the conference, as you would expect, with the then very unfashionable argument, that the US and China must find a way to live together, despite their competition and divergent values. We cannot allow competition to become a Cold War, partly because we are bound together economically and existentially by the necessity of climate action, but mainly because cold war is only a few degrees away from real war.
Competition with China is a necessity and Ditchley, in its small way, is working with governments to try to make that competition coordinated, coherent and smarter, for example through technology policy and support to AUKUS. But Dr Kissinger must have been encouraged in the last days of his life to see Secretary Kerry concluding an agreement with the Chinese in advance of COP28 and President Biden meeting President Xi Jinping in San Francisco. The reinstatement of a military hotline to avert misunderstandings makes the Pacific much safer. These small but important steps underline that, right to the end, Dr Kissinger had a point worth making on China and the need to keep lines open.
Ditchley’s last face-to-face discussion with Dr Kissinger was an evening in his honour in New York in March 2022. There were thoughtful tributes from former British Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair. Given the timing, Dr Kissinger’s focus was on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Whatever happened next, he judged that President Putin had made a fatal mistake, not just a crime, revealing not Russia’s strength but its weakness, and achieving not Russia’s dominance of Eastern Europe as he had hoped, but instead cementing its dependence on China. Russia had to be opposed and the West was right to support Ukraine but, after the fighting stopped, the vast land mass of Russia, its nuclear arsenal, and its long-suffering but patriotic population would still be there. He hoped that somehow, we would find a way to reincorporate Russia into the European balance of power where it belonged and wanted to be, rather than just viewing it as a weakened vassal of China. For Dr Kissinger, order was all about balance. Too weak a Russia could make China too strong and could be just as dangerous as too strong a Russia as an ally of China.
Announced that night, we now have a Kissinger bedroom at Ditchley, where I am writing now. It is one of the beautifully restored grand rooms endowed by American Ditchley and friends. We have already had our first American Kissinger critic refuse to sleep in it, which is perfectly fine, our house tradition after all being to respect each other's principles. I fear Dr Kissinger would have been wryly amused rather than offended. There is a framed letter from him to Ditchley’s chairman, Lord Hill, on the wall by the mahogany door just behind me. He wrote:
Ditchley seems an imposing setting to the first-time visitor. And yet…it conveys “an effect of splendid naturalness” that encourages profound reflection and intimate conversation… I am confident that Ditchley will continue as a vital venue for the discussions that sustain freedom, order and peace.
Kissinger’s room faces Churchill’s on the other side of the house, another great contested historical figure. The surrounding rooms are named for other great Americans linked to Ditchley: Harry Hopkins, the man who made the New Deal happen and who saved Europe by making the moral and practical case for American support in World War II to President Roosevelt; Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who served Presidents Carter and Kennedy and led American Ditchley; and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan from Texas, a great orator who called for the impeachment of President Nixon and delivered Ditchley’s bicentenary Annual Lecture in 1976. Now she is also what the culture of the times would not let her be, a great heroine of the African American gay community.
What debates such a diverse group would have. Now Henry Kissinger joins them, and I imagine, despite their many differences, that he would be welcomed for his insight, his wit, and most of all for grappling with the world as it is, whilst not losing sight of what it might be.