On Henry Kissinger’s passing, Xi Jinping published a letter, extolling this ‘old friend of China’ as a man of ‘outstanding strategic vision’, whose exploits not just benefited the relationship between China and the United States, but also ‘changed the world’. Xi’s tribute reads like an indictment of the current lamentable state of Sino-American relations (clearly by design). Xi presents Kissinger as a model statesman that China would like to have in place of the current US foreign policy elite.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, too, sent a rare letter of condolences, praising Kissinger as an ‘outstanding diplomat, wise and farsighted statesman’, who pursued ‘a pragmatic foreign policy’ and helped broker détente. Andrei Kortunov, a foreign policy hand with the Russian International Affairs Council, contrasted Kissinger’s many talents with their ‘critical shortage’ among current US leaders.
Such commentary mythologises and simplifies Kissinger as an ideal interlocutor who Beijing and Moscow could deal with. If only such statesmen were still around! The reality was much more complicated. Henry Kissinger’s exploits in 1969-76, when he served as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and (later) Nixon’s and Gerald Ford’s secretary of state, were notable for leaving his interlocutors – the Chinese and the Soviets – angry and resentful.
It could not have been otherwise. Kissinger crafted and pursued a policy that served American national interests, and that meant undermining America’s adversaries, and playing them one against the other.
Among those who felt most resentful about Kissinger was, ironically, Mao Zedong. Mao’s turn towards the United States was born of a necessity. He feared a Soviet invasion, and thought that by realigning with the United States, he might address China’s strategic vulnerabilities.
Mao felt that he could play Kissinger, whom he derisively described as ‘a stinking scholar… a university professor who does not know anything about diplomacy’. But in the end, he felt cheated by what he saw as American card-playing in order to build up leverage with Moscow.
‘We see that what you are doing is leaping to Moscow by way of our shoulders’, Mao lamented ruefully in a conversation with Kissinger in October 1975. Kissinger,