The leading advocate of world order died at a time when it all appeared to be coming undone. Henry Kissinger spent the last months of his century-long life travelling to China to temper escalating tensions with the United States, pushing for negotiations to end a war begun by Russia in Ukraine (he made his first intervention on this war in The Spectator last year), and watching as Israel and Hamas entered a new death struggle. Even more discouraging, isolationist tendencies were ascendant again in the US, and American democracy seemed crippled by divisions that shut down Congress repeatedly. Kissinger’s last book, co-authored with Google’s Erich Schmidt, warned that artificial intelligence was on the verge of supplanting human control of the planet – a challenge to consciousness ‘not experienced since the start of the Enlightenment.’
But all was not lost. Kissinger remained convinced that the leaders of the biggest states could hold it together. He had spent his tireless career building relationships, habits, and tools that would keep the world from careening into another apocalypse like the one he experienced as an adolescent, and always feared again.
Winston Churchill, one of Kissinger’s heroes, had spoken about the ‘sinews of peace’; Kissinger created what he frequently called a ‘structure’ for global stability. That structure is the master work that will outlive the statesman. It makes Kissinger the architect not only of the career endlessly dissected on his death, but also of the international politics that continue to keep our world stable and free from a third world war, despite destructive conflict in numerous regions. Kissinger’s architecture has its weaknesses, particularly the inequalities and injustices that it not only tolerates, but promotes in the name of geopolitical ‘reality’.
How did Kissinger design the world order of our time? It all began with the nuclear arms race in the 1950s.