Henry Kissinger turns 100, lights and shadows of an often misunderstood character

To his admirers he is brilliant, witty and almost omniscient, to his admirers. According to his opponents, who are not few, he is instead cynical, unscrupulous and criminal. If old age also and above all scares us the risk of irrelevance, Henry Kissinger passes the milestone of one hundred years while retaining the ability to be divisive: no small achievement for an old man.

A skilled communicator

On the other hand Kissinger, whatever judgment one wants to give on his career, was above all skilful in cultivating his own image, riding the trends of the moment with great shrewdness and fueling the myth of the American Machiavelli, of Metternich capable of introducing a old-world skill at unraveling the tangled webs of politics.

Lights and shadows

Is it true glory? Those who defend Kissinger recall his diplomatic successes: détente with the Soviet Union, the reopening of relations with China (Nixon’s idea, actually), shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, the management of negotiations in Vietnam, which – albeit unscrupulous in the times – it will be worth the Nobel.

Critics count the dead on his conscience: the bombings in Cambodia, the victims of operations in South America, those during the Pinochet coup in Chile.

The Kissinger recipe

By renouncing Manichean readings, however, the judgment is necessarily more articulated. Mario Del Pero, author of an indispensable essay on Kissinger’s foreign policy, noted in a contribution for Treccani how Kissinger’s influence tends to make itself felt in moments of crisis, when one is more willing to accept his “simple precepts and unequivocal: reduce burdens and costs of global interventionism; delegate responsibilities to allies; set aside democratizing utopias or major modernization and development projects; protects the national interest a-morally. The practical application of these (trivial) assumptions was anything but coherent or successful”.

Supremacy goal

It is no coincidence that Kissinger, protagonist of America divided by Vietnam between the 1960s and 1970s, returns to center stage right now, in a country more polarized than ever.

Kissinger’s (alleged) realism is different from realism tout court: it means pursuing the goal of global supremacy without pretense.

It is apparently a matter of reputation and credibility, which must be pursued with ease and without depriving oneself of any weapon.

Diplomacy yes, but also war. Arms control yes, but also war investments. Local conflicts are the inevitable price to pay for averting a nuclear holocaust. In the so-called linkage diplomacy everything is connected, the war is limited and the negotiation is permanent.

Theories developed to justify the facts, rather than strategies to be pursued to determine them. A very useful technique when it comes to navigating the perilous rocks of history. This Kissinger does it big time, and has been doing it for a century now.