Reading Time: 8 mins read
Henry Kissinger. The famous man didn’t make much of my world – the less developed fringe and the least important in his grand geopolitical model; and I, in turn, didn’t think much of him. Even all these years later, it seems I’m no less kindled about Kissinger. So much so that within just a few minutes of hearing about his passing on 29 November 2023, aged 100, I’d penned a pointed poem which I published on WhatsApp, as placeholder for a more elaborate critique.
was important, even as expected panegyrics had begun to pour in from his admirers, to remind the world what this man had wrought when at the commanding heights of US foreign policymaking. I am glad that in the days since his death, a few obituaries have played to that imperative, without descending into unnecessary obloquy.
a superior intellect. His record at Harvard University, where he studied and later taught, and his impressive oeuvre on diplomacy, attest strongly to that fact. However, although he did much for the historicisation, theorisation and practice of diplomacy, he also did much that mangled our world. This is something that his establishment biographers and other hagiographers often fail to emphasise, or even mention.
In this piece, I will run through Kissinger’s record, but also point out potential lessons for Nigeria’s foreign policy, in what has come to be described as the ‘Kissinger Doctrine’.
Kissinger was both a master and a relic of realpolitik diplomacy. As many critical experts have argued, he perceived this planet purely as a playground for competing hyper-powers, with America, his America, destined for the dominant position. He was called the ‘American Machiavelli’ in some circles (others too, including Alexander Hamilton and Donald Trump, have attracted the tag), because he was arguably influenced by the famous Florentine who favoured a ruthless exercise of power, with little concession to morality. Kissinger was also influenced by the wily Anglo-Irish statesman, Viscount Castlereagh, as well as the latter’s equally scheming Austrian counterpart, Prince Metternich (his 1954 Harvard doctoral dissertation was a study of these two statesmen). As the seventh US National Security Advisor (1969 to 1975) and 56th Secretary of State (1973 to 1977), Kissinger prosecuted America’s hegemonic foreign policy objectives with poise, grit and great skill, but also with utter ruthlessness.
In a terse but well-worded obituary he wrote in 2021 for his fourth successor as Secretary of State, George P. Schultz, Kissinger invoked the Aristotelian concept of phronesis (practical wisdom) and the Hebrew word chokhmah (divine wisdom), both of which he said the deceased possessed. The first of these attributes, which implies wisdom in determining ends and matching them with means, was abundantly displayed in Kissinger’s own deportment at the department he headed. It was an attribute which, following Aristotle, Kissinger deemed “indispensable for statesmen.” The second attribute, which “stresses the importance of choosing worthy ends,” as Kissinger himself described it, was in dubitable evidence: manifest for the major movers he really cared about, but sorely lacking for the less important players in global affairs.
Since the announcement of Kissinger’s death, there has been a rehash of the longstanding praise for his foresighted effort in facilitating the US rapprochement with China, his deftness in achieving détente with the old Soviet Union, as well as his creative diplomacy in helping Israel and Egypt reach an accord after the Yom Kippur war of 1973 – one which stabilised the Middle East for a while. These manoeuvres, amongst many others, helped to defuse broader tensions at that phase of the Cold War.
Alongside his many accomplishments, however, Kissinger is criticised for his various other foreign policy postures, in particular his push for America’s dastardly bombing of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and its broader atrocities in the Indochina wars; for his backing of Indonesia’s invasion, occupation and genocide in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony which had declared its independence in 1975 but which the Indonesian president, Suharto, still considered a part of his country; and his cynical support of brutal dictatorships in Latin America, particularly in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and elsewhere. This were all part of America’s support for the so-called ‘Operation Condor’, a campaign of political repression and state terrorism that swept the region from 1975 to 1983, ostensibly to stamp out left-wing movements. Also, his betrayal of the Bangladeshi people as they fought for freedom from Pakistan; his betrayal too of the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas fighting for independence from the Baathist regime in Iraq; his support of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974; and his myriad other moves using Third World countries as pawns in his ‘grand design’ and aggressive pursuit of America’s foreign policy objectives.
Asia, South America, the Indian subcontinent, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere, Henry Kissinger’s key concern was to curtail Soviet influence and advance American interest, whatever the cost to the local populations. And the cost was astronomical: in millions of lives lost, in physical destruction of target countries, in economic and political devastation, etc.
, Gary Grandin, chronicling the atrocities committed by America in the Indochina wars, through Kissinger’s advice, writes that “the United States dropped 790,000 cluster bombs on (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), releasing just under a trillion pieces of shrapnel—either ball bearings or razor-sharp barbed darts” on those countries; that “(m)ore bombs were dropped separately on Cambodia and Laos than combined on Japan and Germany during World War II;” that “U.S. pilots flew, on average, one sortie every eight minutes and dropped a ton of explosives for each and every Laotian, delivering a total of 2.5 million tons in nearly 600,000 runs;” that Agent Orange, the herbicide and defoliant used by the US military as part of its chemical warfare programme in the Indochina wars, hit a third of Cambodia’s rubber plantations; and that “there are 80 million unexploded cluster bombs in Laos that are still maiming and killing hundreds of people, often children, every year.”
, about a quarter of the population was wiped out during Suharto’s invasion and occupation of the country, which was perpetrated with US approval, based on the logic of Kissinger’s grand strategy.
case against Henry Kissinger, a case many have made, including the late Christopher Hitchens who scripted the searing polemic, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, later made into a TV documentary in 2002.
, led by the Nobel economist Professor Thomas Schelling, for his role in the US bombardment and invasion of Cambodia. These guys gathered up in the spring of 1970 and stormed Washington DC to express their outrage.
Le Duc Tho, the latter rejected the award, and some members of the Nobel committee resigned in protest.
who wrote a book about Kissinger’s atrocities in Latin America, told the Associated Press recently that he doesn’t “know of any U.S. citizen who is more deplored, more disliked in Latin America than Henry Kissinger.”
geopolitical players in what we now call the Global South. As historian Nancy Mitchell told The Guardian earlier this year, he had “contempt for all developing countries,” and was particularly unconcerned about their nationalist or developmental aspirations.
reported, was “befogged by deception, secrecy and browbeating.” His intervention fuelled the war in Angola. In Rhodesia, he only paid lip service to the demand for Black majority rule. He visited South Africa immediately after the 1976 Soweto massacre, the first US Secretary of State to do so in three decades, imparting prestige on the apartheid regime which helped to prolong its life. Elsewhere in Africa, in order to contain the Soviet influence, Kissinger cuddled brutal regimes such as Mobutu’s in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s in the Central African Empire.
declassified documents show that although he recommended American relief intervention in the Nigerian civil war, especially for the devastated Biafran side, he nonetheless denied that any genocide of the Igbos had taken place. This in part explains America’s ambivalence about the war, contrasting sharply, say, with its decisive stance in the 1956 Suez Canal crisis.
There’s long been a view, previously expressed and recently revived in TRT Africa, that the February 1976 coup attempt in Nigeria, which claimed the life of General Murtala Mohammed who championed an activist and non-aligned, Africa-centered foreign policy for Nigeria, was backed by the American CIA. It is instructive that the Nigerian government, in April 1976 – just two months after the coup attempt – abruptly cancelled a visit to Nigeria planned as part of Kissinger’s ‘Africa Shuttle’ that year. The ostensible reason was that it was an inconvenient time for Nigeria, coming so soon after the coup attempt. But, as the New York Times speculated at the time, the cancellation came at a time that US-Nigeria relations had become strained, as they supported different factions in the Angolan civil war, among other differences. It was frostiness between a potential regional power that was, at the time, becoming increasingly self-aware and a global superpower aggressively pursuing its self-serving geopolitical interest.
Notwithstanding Nigeria’s tense relationship with Kissinger, or perhaps because of it, there are lessons to be learnt from his career. The very first thing is for Nigeria to recover its self-awareness as a country with the potential, even a manifest destiny, to become a real regional power in Africa, similar to America in the global arena. There has been, since the 19th century, a notion that America has some “special virtues,” a “manifest destiny” (a term coined in 1845 by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan) – or, as some put it, an “irresistible destiny” – to reshape the world. Kissinger believed in the American exceptionalism, and he pursued its ends with “missionary” zeal. We could emulate his vision and vigour to pursue Nigeria’s manifest destiny in the African and even global context, without necessarily adopting his destructive tactics.
Today, there’s scant perception of any Nigerian manifest destiny because the country is led by largely ill-equipped, poorly educated and unimaginative political Lilliputians. They have wrecked the country and reduced its stature, allowing other regional players to take centre stage. Today, South Africa – a country Nigeria once propped up as its Black population struggled against apartheid – wields a far greater diplomatic clout than Nigeria. Though Nigeria has three-and-a-half times the South African population, and though we claim to be the largest economy in Africa, South Africa operates an annual budget nearly foru times Nigeria’s. It was South Africa, not Nigeria, that the newly formed BRIC countries invited in 2010 to join the group. South Africa is the only African member of the G20, not Nigeria, though the African Union has now joined as an institution. And, in the latest edition of the exclusive Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index rating only the top 65 countries in the world, South Africa ranked 26th: Nigeria did not even make the list.
its dominance of the West African sub-region is in doubt. We have gone from Jaja Wachukwu claiming African leadership for Nigeria in a 1960 House of Representatives speech to foreign policy activism and global confidence under the military, and from there to the current whimper of an inconspicuous Nigeria with a muffled global voice.
If there is anything we can learn from Kissinger’s doctrine and his diplomatic enterprise, it is clear vision and self-assertion. We can do it, however, and we can attain real leadership position in Africa and the Global South, without accepting the more destructive legacy left by Henry Kissinger.
Support PREMIUM TIMES’ journalism of integrity and credibility
Our Digital Network
Projects & Partnerships