An article by: Francesco Sidoti

A diplomatic lesson from former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who died on November 29, 2023 at the age of 100, would still be useful today to shed light on the international crisis

Henry Kissinger’s passing has provoked strong reactions from across the political spectrum

From Oriana Fallaci to Christopher Hitchens, Henry Kissinger had highly influential Western detractors, including the memorable book The Price of Power by Seymour Hersh, the most respected living investigative journalist. However, the death of Henry Kissinger was marked by very significant positive assessments coming from a wide range of political sides.

The comments of influential American and Chinese observers are clear; a special case is that of Vladimir Putin, who wrote in his condolences to the family: “An exceptional diplomat, a wise and far-sighted statesman, who for many decades enjoyed well-deserved authority throughout the world. Henry Kissinger’s name is closely associated with the pragmatic policies that led to the easing of international tensions and to important US-Soviet agreements that contributed to strengthening global security.”

The praise takes us back to the Vladivostok summit between Leonid Brezhnev and Gerald Ford in November 1974, when Russians and Americans agreed to jointly manage future crises, avoiding the risk of global confrontation that had recently arisen over the situation in the Middle East. These were the years of détente, a policy that was later revised in the United States, which many regretted, as it ensured more peaceful coexistence internationally. The search for an agreement with Russia remained a constant element of Kissinger’s subsequent thinking.

Putin’s assessment is directed towards the past, but only to a certain extent: it is reminiscent of Kissinger’s latest positions on Russia. In this regard, at least four points were particularly poignant in Kissinger’s argument: responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine, the possibility of a global conflict, the search for a solution, and Russia’s place in the future international order.

As far as the responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine concerns, Kissinger stated that responsibility did not lie solely with Russia and that “it was unwise to combine the admission of all the countries of the former Eastern Bloc into NATO with an invitation to Ukraine to join it.”

Regarding the possibility of global conflict, Kissinger wrote: “The First World War was a kind of cultural suicide that destroyed the dominance of Europe. European leaders fell like sleepwalkers – as the historian Christopher Clark famously put it – into a conflict where none of them would have ever entered if they could have foreseen what the world would be like at the end of the war, in 1918.”

Regarding the search for a solution to the conflict, Kissinger wrote, still referring to the initial moment of the First World War: “Diplomacy has become the road less traveled. The Great War continued for another four years and claimed many millions more casualties. Today the world finds itself at a similar turning point in Ukraine.” And he adds, clearly referring to what is happening today: “If the pre-war border line between Ukraine and Russia could not be achieved through combat or negotiation, the possibility of appealing to the principle of self-determination could be explored. In disputed territories that have changed hands repeatedly over the centuries, consultative referendums on self-determination could be organized under the supervision of the international community.”

Regarding Russia’s place in the emerging international order and in light of the existing conflict, Kissinger wrote: “The purpose of the peace process will be twofold: to strengthen the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, particularly for Central and Eastern Europe. Ultimately, Russia must find its place in this order. For some people, the most desirable outcome would be if Russia became powerless as a result of the war. I disagree. Despite all its propensity for violence, Russia has made a decisive contribution to the global balance and balance of power for more than half a millennium. Its historical role should not be diminished. Russia’s military failures have not harmed its global nuclear capabilities, allowing it to threaten escalating the conflict in Ukraine. Even if this potential is undermined, the collapse of Russia or the weakening of its capabilities in terms of political strategy could turn an area that spans eleven time zones into an indeterminate void. Other countries may try to assert their claims through force. All these dangers will be exacerbated by the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons.”

For decades, Kissinger was the most listened to man in the United States. Back in 1974, a Gallup poll named him the most admired person in America. However, as far as I know, in the stream of Western commentary on his death, not a single significant discussion has paid due attention to this formidable “Russophile” and very complex part of his intellectual biography.

Kissinger was an unrepentant bachelor during the golden years of his international fame. It is said that in Washington he reached the apogee of envy and enemies when he was photographed shoulder to shoulder with Jill St. John, who was the first of the Bond Girls and who winked at half the world from those advertising posters for Coppertone, the sunscreen that connoisseurs still remember and collect as breathtaking relics of the good old days.

Among his boasts, Henry Kissinger includes unscrupulous assessments of sexuality and politics, as well as some witticisms that have become starting points in the literature. The most famous is the definition of power as “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” But there are two that should be placed in the middle, because they may hint at an inexpressible truth that involuntarily emerges from the unconscious, gets distorted and discarded. The first is defining himself as a “secret swinger,” and the second is the war between the genders, which he defined as “a war that no one can win, because the tendency to fraternize with the enemy is too great.”

Philosophers, historians, psychiatrists – many have ventured into acrobatic speculation about the relationship between sexuality and politics. It is a minefield between jokes and quirks. Niall Ferguson, Kissinger’s influential biographer, did not follow up on this issue. He is writing the second volume of Kissinger’s biography and may think about it in the process. We are left with doubts about this “secret swinger” Kissinger and his self-confessed “penchant for fraternization with the enemy.” It is because of these doubts that Kissinger’s thinking about Russia has remained muted, even if it is obviously a rational and reasonable legacy not only in methodological and diplomatic terms, but even from the viewpoint of basic common sense.


Francesco Sidoti