Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The Impact of Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger – longtime scholar and diplomat – died on Wednesday, November 29. Several Belfer Center foreign policy and security experts share their thoughts on the impact Kissinger has had on the U.S., the world, and on themselves.

 

GRAHAM ALLISON,  Douglas Dillon Professor of Government

“Henry Kissinger was America’s greatest living statesman, Harvard’s most accomplished living graduate, and the model practitioner of statecraft as Applied History. For me personally, he was the most generous and tolerant continuing education professor for a student who first enrolled in his legendary course at Harvard 58 years ago. Over the last several years, I’ve had the good fortune to Zoom with him every couple of weeks and never left a session without having been further enlightened.

Many commentators have celebrated—and criticized—Kissinger as a master practitioner of realpolitik, which of course he was. But for Henry, the much more important lesson he attempted to teach successive generations of those seeking to follow in his footsteps was the moral idealism of realism. For him, realism was not just about raw politics advancing the interest of a single state. The larger purpose was the construction of a viable order to prevent catastrophic war. That was the focus of his first book, A World Restored. That was his aspiration in finding a path to victory over the Soviet Union without hot war. That was his aspiration in searching for ways in which the U.S. and China can compete peacefully while coexisting.

As we mourn his passing, we can fortunately be inspired by the lessons he taught us and the writings he’s left for us from which we can continue to learn.”


FREDRIK LOGEVALL, Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs and Professor of History

“It’s a mixed legacy in policy terms. On the one hand, Kissinger understood the vital importance of negotiating with adversaries, something that U.S. policymakers historically have often been reluctant to acknowledge, much less undertake. The result was notable achievements, above all détente with Soviet Union and the opening to China. As well, his shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Yom-Kippur War yielded real and lasting results. On the other side of the ledger, Kissinger’s absolute emphasis on great-power politics and tendency to see smaller countries as mere pawns led him to espouse policies with often disastrous consequences. Here I would point as an example to the massive carpet-bombing campaign in Cambodia, launched in early 1969 in the forlorn hope of eradicating enemy sanctuaries and sending a message to Hanoi and Moscow of America’s unyielding resoluteness. The bombing was kept secret from the American press and public, but not from the Cambodians who were on the receiving end.”


MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN, Director, Belfer Center

“Henry Kissinger shaped, informed, and animated American foreign policy for decades. His influence was as significant outside government as it was inside, and his ability to impact events was as astonishing in his 100th year as it was in earlier decades, when he sat in both the White House and the State Department. 

I feel privileged to have gotten to know this extraordinary statesman, scholar, and strategist since we first met during the time of the Iraq war nearly twenty years ago. We at Harvard and in the world beyond will discuss and debate his consequential and sometimes controversial legacy for a long time to come, which is as it should be.

Today, the world is facing an era of great power competition and wars in both Europe and the Middle East. This geopolitical landscape seems to beg for the best of Kissinger’s scholarship and practice. Few better understood the dynamics and dangers of great power politics than Kissinger. He used this knowledge to produce outcomes that changed the course of history, both in the U.S. recognition of China and in détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the Middle East, fifty years ago, Kissinger’s vigorous and creative diplomacy helped allow peace to emerge from violence.  As we face current challenges that have more than echoes of the past, we will be able to draw on the lessons – both positive and negative – from Kissinger’s career and scholarship.

Kissinger’s legacy can also be more personal in nature.  For me, I will remember his endless intellectual curiosity and willingness to take on complex issues – such as artificial intelligence – late in life and take that memory as an exhortation to never shy from a steep learning curve.”


RANA MITTER, S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations 

“There are few events that  change the trajectory of history completely.  The U.S. opening to China in 1971-72 was one of those events. Henry Kissinger not only shaped that event through his secret diplomacy, but also used his historian’s skills to inform our understanding of why it mattered for a half-century after the original impact. He will remain a central figure in the story we tell about the turbulent relationship between China and the U.S. in the last century and our present one.”


JOSEPH S. NYE, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor

“Henry Kissinger’s greatest successes as a statesman were the opening to China, détente with Russia, and management of the crises of the Middle East. He would add ending the Vietnam War which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, but that is contested. On China, Kissinger and Nixon had the vision and temerity to guide world politics away from Cold War bipolarity and reintegrate China into the international system. 

On the other side of the ledger, Kissinger’s failures of moral statesmanship include Chile, the India-Pakistan war of 1971, and the bombing of Cambodia that led to the accession of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. For a man who extolled the importance to a long-term vision of protecting freedom, these were three failures, but not enough to match the three successes.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: O'Sullivan, Meghan, Graham Allison, Rana Mitter, Fredrik Logevall and Joseph S. Nye.“The Impact of Henry Kissinger.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 30, 2023.

The Authors

Meghan O'Sullivan

Graham Allison headshot

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.