My memories of Henry Kissinger

American diplomat Henry Kissinger
American diplomat Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger’s powers of persuasion are legendary. I first encountered them in 1977 when he rang me up to persuade me to stay over in America to attend Nelson Rockefeller’s funeral in New York’s magnificent cathedral overlooking the Hudson River.

The service had everything reminiscent of Rockefeller’s liberal Republicanism. Martin Luther King Jr, jazz bands, as well as every living president. Kissinger always believed that he owed a great deal to Rockefeller. Although he moved to the right of the Republican Party and will always be associated with Richard Nixon, he was fundamentally an intellectual. But an intellectual fascinated by power and rooted in history. Writing about an alliance in 1805 amongst countries, he analysed the personalities.

“Pitt now found himself in much the same position vis-à-vis Alexander as Churchill would find himself vis-à-vis Stalin nearly 150 years later. He desperately needed Russian support against Napoleon... On the other hand, Pitt had no more interest than Churchill would later have in replacing one dominant country with another, or endorsing Russia as the arbiter of Europe.”

His German heritage, of which he was deeply proud, so much so that he never tried to lose his accent, ensured throughout his 100 years that he was both an American and a European.

His greatest single diplomatic achievement was transforming President Nixon’s wish to reopen American relations with China into a strategic shift that even under present strains is certain to last well beyond present difficulties.

The fact that he never retired was a manifestation of a brain that never stopped thinking or taking the lessons of history and fashioning them to modern realities. In short, Kissinger was a great man and he made his errors of judgment and mistaken policies part of a legacy that had within it real personal triumphs based on long negotiations that would have taxed the patience of most politicians, let alone academics.

Initially, he spent too much time trying to convert his critics. I disagreed with his policies towards Latin American dictatorships, the clandestine bombing of Laos and his attitude towards South Africa and Rhodesia, but we never spent time on these, agreeing to disagree.

In later life he focused much of his time and effort on keeping up relationships of importance with world leaders. Of course, vanity was an element in this, as was the fact that he had been a teacher of undergraduates, but he discovered a new skill. He became a good listener and his advice began to be treasured by many powerful leaders around the world.

Just before the vote in the UK Referendum on whether to leave or remain in the European Union, I thought it important to talk through some of the problems in Canada and the US. My last visit was to Kissinger. He told me that on his desk was a letter that had to be signed that evening about joining the “great and the good” of American foreign policy experts in recommending to the British people that they vote to remain. We talked the problem through and it became clear that his mind was already made up. He would not sign the letter. His words to me were simple and quotable: “I do not want a world in which there is not an independent British voice.”

Today, another American Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, follows the Kissinger model of shuttling between the Middle East capitals during Arab Israeli conflicts. There are advantages and disadvantages in this approach and many of Kissinger’s greatest attributes came together to provide initial peace settlements. I do not know what he would be manoeuvring to achieve at this moment but I think he would be trying to turn Gaza into an opportunity to move immediately from settling the hostage question to direct talks between the two crucial powers, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Kissinger never lost an overarching concern about the dangers posed by the possession of nuclear weapons. We have seen that knowledge and commitment surface over Ukraine. In his many meetings with Vladimir Putin and, more recently, with President Xi, there is no doubt, despite Kissinger’s discretion about what was actually said, that he has been an influence on both men. President Xi’s overt warning to Putin not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine is one of the few rays of light on a very dark scene. It appears to have been accepted by Putin, despite frequent disagreeing public statements from the former President of Russia Medvedev.

Kissinger described tensions with China as “the biggest problem for America, the biggest problem for the world”. But to him, it was a resolvable problem.

Lord Owen served as UK Foreign Secretary from 1977 to 1979. He was a co-founder and later leader of the SDP

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