Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Solving the Mystery of Henry Kissinger's Reputation

| June 09, 2023

The former secretary of state is a genius—just not at what you might think.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has celebrated his 100th birthday several times over the past month, including at private events at the Economic Club of New York and the New York Public Library attended by dozens of A-list VIPs. The spectacle is eloquent evidence of Kissinger's unique status. Few equivalent statesmen have received quite the same treatment while they were alive—not diplomats Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and George Shultz, nor even some former presidents.

Whatever one thinks of him, Kissinger has led a remarkable life. He is a refugee from Nazi Germany who eventually rose to the pinnacle of power in the United States, and who has remained a major influence on U.S. foreign policy for nearly seven decades. After a century on the planet, his admirers now hail him as the greatest strategic thinker the United States has ever produced. His name adorns fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Library of Congress and endowed chairs and research centers at several universities, not to mention his eponymous consulting firm. I cannot think of anyone who still commands the same level of public attention in their 101st year.

Yet there is a conundrum at the heart of Kissinger's extraordinary life.  Although he is now routinely hailed as a foreign-policy thinker of unique depth, wisdom, and insight, his long career is not quite as impressive as his admirers seem to think.  He is undeniably a man of formidable intelligence and exceptional achievement—something even his harshest critics would concede—but the question is whether the reputation he has earned after a century is fully warranted.

This is the "Kissinger conundrum": Given his overall track record, why is Kissinger now regarded with a sense of awe, and treated as if his grasp of world affairs far exceeds everyone else's?

To understand this puzzle, it is useful to divide Kissinger's professional career into three sections. The first phase is his scholarly career at Harvard, where he taught from 1954 until 1969. The second phase is his service in government, first as then-U.S. President Richard Nixon's special assistant for national security affairs and subsequently as secretary of state and national security advisor for Nixon and Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford. The third phase—by far the longest—is his career as an author, pundit, and sage, much of it conducted as the head of Kissinger Associates, the consulting firm he founded after leaving government....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Solving the Mystery of Henry Kissinger's Reputation.” Foreign Policy, June 9, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt