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Richard Falk on Kissinger’s Foreign Policy

Photograph Source: Gerald R. Ford Library – Public Domain

International relations scholar Richard Falk once summarized Christopher Hitchen’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001). Falk reminded readers that Hitchens listed six major crimes carried out by Kissinger: 1) The deliberate mass killing of the civilian population in Indochina. 2) Deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination in Bangladesh. 3) The personal suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation—Chile—with which the United States was not at war. 4) Personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus. 5) The incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor. 6) Personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, DC.

In this exclusive interview for Counterpunch, Richard Falk describes the life of Henry Kissinger including his early work involving atrocities such as Operation Menu, nuclear proliferation, and his war crimes in Indochina and Chile. Falk argues that four main character traits defined Kissinger: greed, careerism, impatience, and skepticism. Falk maintains that Kissinger undoubtedly understood, that in capitalist America, partisan and economic power merged despite the pretenses of being the protectors of the free world.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on the life of Henry Kissinger? How will history remember him in your estimation? How should he be remembered historically?

Richard Falk: Kissinger will be long remembered by foreign policy elites as the supreme realist of the Cold War Era and an influential advocate of a nationalist, flexible inflection given to geopolitical priorities and ideological tensions. His influence can be traced back to a book formulating the case for ‘limited nuclear war’ as threat and potential operational policy if Europe were ever confronted by the supposedly superior conventional forces of the presumed Soviet adversary. This book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (Council on Foreign Relations, 1957) did more than any other writing at the time to affirm a war-fighting role for nuclear weapons as an addon to deterrence. It also provided an intellectual infrastructure for the continuous development, deployment, and evolving strategic doctrine articulating the relevance of this infernal weaponry of mass destruction.

Militarist realism, with such a nuclear twist was also valuable for furthering hegemonic ambitions of the American deep state that exposed the undisclosed motivations for so strongly supporting the nonproliferation treaty and implementation regime of selective enforcement. Israel’s acquisition of the weaponry was facilitated while countries in the Arab world, notably Iraq, Syria, and most of all Iran, supplied pretexts for coercive threats and instances of military interdiction if their nuclear energy programs crossed the nuclear threshold or propagandized as such.

Kissinger’s critics will revile him as a war criminal who facilitated the worst imperial tendencies in American foreign policy. In some ways, Kissinger is the exemplar of an establishment public intellectual who was a faithful servant of ruling-class America throughout the Cold War and rewarded by appointments as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Among his criminal activities were his support for a punitive extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos, not with any prospect of succeeding in the lawless war, but to induce Hanoi to accept a negotiated outcome that could be viewed as ‘peace with honor.’ In a bizarre turn, this highly destructive extensive of the combat zone led the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Norway to give the award in 1973 to him jointly — with his Vietnamese counterpart, Lu Duc Tho, who took the unprecedented step of declining the coveted prize rather than share the occasion with Kissinger.

Another notorious Kissinger initiative involved the regime-changing complicity in the 1973 Pinochet coup that took over the government of Chile from its left-leaning elected leader, Salvador Allende. Pinochet presided over a dictatorial, market-oriented government under the influence of conservative economists familiarly known as ‘the Chicago boys,’ basically an acceptance of the world according to Milton Friedman.

In surveying Kissinger’s long life, four separate character traits stand out:

1) A greed for and subservience to power as exhibited in foreign policy domains of superpower; Kissinger was associated with the sexist ethos of a patriarchal mentality: ‘the greatest aphrodisiac is power.’ It was attributed to Kissinger but whether he originated the adage or not it exhibited his dismissive attitude toward women, in my view.

2) A careerist outlook with respect to the substantive range of orientations acceptable to the defense and ideological elites, but with a right-leaning sense of world history; his opportunism was illustrated by a political comfort zone large enough to encompass both a Republican moderate such as Nelson Rockefeller and an unscrupulous reactionary such as Richard Nixon; he was also on call to such Democratic Party militarists who sought him out for his worldly ‘wisdom,’ and to gain credibility with militarists in and out of government. It is doubtful that he would have responded to phone calls from Bernie Sanders or AOC, although maybe he would be responsive to Donald Rumsfeld or Donald Trump.

From the beginning of his long post-academic career, Kissinger’s chosen path to high status and great influence passed through the sedate meeting rooms of the Council of Foreign Relations and the conference halls of the World Economic Forum. He accessed the inner sanctums to the White House where he was notable as an advisor to Democrats as well as Republicans naming him as the exalted ‘super-K’, even in his waning years.

3) As he makes clear in his self-serving memoir, Diplomacy, Kissinger was impatient with his staff if they called his attention to inconsistencies between his foreign policy views and the relevant norms of international law or of proclaimed as American values. To the extent that he professed positive goals, they were best identified with words like ‘balance’ and ‘stability,’ and the phrase ‘balance of power,’ although in practice he seemed mainly an advocate of ‘a preponderance of power’ at least for the United States.

4) Kissinger’s world view was skeptical to the point of derision with respect to the UN or international law; perhaps, his childhood escape from Nazi Germany explains his fatalistic outlook, which made it naïve to seek peace, much less justice, and highly dangerous as exposing his country and civilization of choice to danger; the best we can hope for is to live in a world of states, with the geopolitical actors sensitive to the limits of their power and the retaliatory intentions and capabilities of their adversaries. For Kissinger, the Thucydides Melian Dialogue is not an intriguing historical incident in the history of ancient Athens, but an eternal insight to the human condition concisely expressed: “The strong do what they will, the weak do what they must.”

Daniel Falcone: In recent years, the progressive left anxiously waited for Kissinger to expire as it generated a host of memes in anticipation of his passing, usually expressing disappointment when someone else had died other than him. He’s largely considered a war criminal. Can you comment on the far-reaching impacts of his policies, human rights abuses, and criminality?

Richard Falk: Kissinger’s behavior needs to be interpreted from the perspective of opportunism, careerism, and pervasive amorality. For elites, and not only in the US, Kissinger was regarded as the most influential and effective diplomat of modern times, partly because he was seen as so successful in protecting the national interests of the US as understood in the Cold War Era. Kissinger was also admired because he projected a deep understanding of how the world works, stripped of all the sentimentality embedded in the ‘American Exceptionalism’ branding that claims special virtue and innocence. For Kissinger the US was a country with the power and responsibility to shape history to its liking, but only if it remains prepared to sustain its role as global hegemon, which means a criminal disrespect for the sovereignty of states that succumb to hostile forces within their borders (Chile under Allende) or impede a major undertaking in American foreign policy (Cambodia during the Vietnam War).

The opposition to Kissinger and Kissingerism came, as your question suggests, from progressive sectors of public opinion that cared about the well-being of people more than the power-seeking and wealth-aspiring agendas of geopolitical actors and transnational corporations. It should not be overlooked that Kissinger was a coveted star performer at Davos where the rich and powerful gathered every year at the World Economic Forum. He clearly understood, that in capitalist America, political and economic power were fused despite the pretensions of being the defenders of ‘the free world.’

Among Kissinger’s most distasteful behaviors were those associated with a few salient events that expressed his geopolitical orientation relating to statecraft—whatever benefits the ruling elites in the US is permissible, regardless of what the lawyers or moralists have to say, although it should be done discreetly to avoid a backlash from public opinion at home and abroad and from foreign political forces that were casualties of intervention, whether covert or overt.

Ending the Vietnam War was viewed by Kissinger as a lost cause in terms of its objectives of denying control of the country to Vietnamese nationalism dominated by Communist forces of the National Liberation Forces (NLF) led by Ho Chi Minh. Kissinger’s objective was to end the war in a way that created ‘a decent interval’ between an American withdrawal and the NLF takeover in a unified Vietnam so that it could be claimed to be a diplomacy based on ‘peace with honor’.

To promote such an outcome the Nixon/Kissinger team wanted to increase pressure on Hanoi to negotiate with deference to these face-saving US objectives. In furtherance of such a course of action, Kissinger masterminded ‘the secret bombing’ of Cambodia, which led to a pro-American coup, followed by an extremist takeover of the country by the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in the blood-stained ‘killing fields’ as well as ‘the Christmas bombing’ of North Vietnam, as diplomatic chess moves were designed to obscure a lost end game.

The anti-Allende intervention of 1973, preceded by the 1970 elections by Kissinger’s alarmist reminder to Nixon that the success of a Marxist government in Chile would negatively impact American economic and political interests throughout the Western Hemisphere. Kissinger reportedly urged economic policies after Allende’s victory in 1970 that would make the Chilean economy ‘scream’ for help, setting the stage for the Pinochet coup. When subsequently informed of the dictator’s policies of torture and ‘disappearance’ of opposition figures, Kissinger apparently shrugged his shoulders to indicate an awareness of the wrongdoing, but continued to rely on his policy leverage to make sure that American foreign policy would not weaken its support for Pinochet, using words to the effect, ‘whatever we may think of Pinochet he is better for America than Allende’. Even more pointedly was Kissinger’s incredibly brazen pre-coup remark: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

As previously discussed, Kissinger’s advocacy of nuclear weapons as weapons of war in the context of Europe, coupled with his disregard for the limitations of the use of force derived from international law, the authority of the UN, and a consensus among international law experts. The fact that there was so little pushback to these views in elite circles suggests the American foreign policy establishment shared, and even welcomed, Kissinger’s views unconstrained by law and morality.

Kissinger’s diplomatic successes resulted from applying the 19th century worldview of Bismarck, which stressed the importance of stability and balance, both illustrated by détente arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and normalization with China based on the compromise on Taiwan forming the basis of the Shanghai Communique. The best exposition of Kissinger’s view of superior statecraft was a book adapted from his Harvard thesis, A World Restored: Bismarck, Metternich, and Castlereagh (Houghton-Mifflin,1957).

Daniel Falcone: Author of Killing Hope, the late William Blum once lamented on how Kissinger’s exploits in Angola (Great Powers Poker Game) were seldom reviewed. Can you discuss the Kissinger record as it relates to your own work?

Richard Falk: Although I am not as familiar with Kissinger’s role in relation to the right-wing coups in Angola and Mozambique, I can comment on the general and latter question. (Much of Falk’s work focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where he studied Kissinger’s role, a legacy reflected in the war in Gaza).

From an early stage of his career, Kissinger represented for me a negative archetype of global policy advocacy, and I was appalled by the media enthusiasm for his foreign policy influence during the Ford and Nixon presidencies when he held the top positions in the State Department. In retrospect, this enthusiasm arose because Kissinger did have the ability to explain the Cold War consensus in a clear and coherent manner that seemed to add elements of gravitas with the help of his German accent and supposed deep knowledge of balance of power geopolitics. In a sense, Kissinger’s success arose from his limitations—he was thought at Harvard to be neither learned nor smart enough to succeed in academia but more intelligent and literate than the typical journalist or policy wonk. It is little known that Kissinger after completing his graduate studies at Harvard had what must have been the disappointing fate of reportedly not receiving a single offer to join a university faculty.

I often thought of Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom I knew quite well, as ideological siblings, with Kissinger taken with bigger ideas of world order as historically construed from a European historical viewpoint that was passionately anti-revolutionary. Brzezinski was more tactical and pragmatic, although also a brilliant opportunist, a willing, rarely critical executor of US imperial power, perhaps most dogmatic in his anti-Soviet and pro-Shah geopolitics. Brzezinski came across as self-satisfied and arrogant, while Kissinger cultivated a façade of European erudition tempered by a sardonic, and sometime self-deprecating wit, which endeared him to the media. Both were treated as prodigies of and championed by the Council of Foreign Relations, which served as a filter for top echelon foreign policy jobs in Washington.

My own work was less colored by cynicism, careerism, or ambition. I was thrilled to be offered a faculty position at Ohio State University’s College of Law upon my graduation from law school, which at the time more than satisfied by my professional and lifestyle expectations. I became intrigued by how international law might become a policy tool that would bring together a prudent approach to national interests in the nuclear age with a foreign policy respectful of self-restraint, the authority of the UN, and grounding of international law in what was best for the peoples of the world. I attribute my seeming inherent empathy for the vulnerable and marginal, to my exposure to Buddhism and other religions during my undergraduate studies. My transformative political experience was associated with a wartime visit to North Vietnam in June 1968, toward the end of the Vietnam War, which deepened my growing tendency to identify with victimized others, whether domestically or globally, whether for reasons of race, religion, class, or sexual or gender orientation.

Kissinger was increasingly celebrated for his professional trajectory while I was gradually marginalized, with turndowns from mainstream media and end of invitations from prestigious venues, including in the academic world, which became almost systemic when I crossed the red line by voicing criticisms of Israel’s designs and treatment of Palestinians. I never second-guessed my preferential trajectory, nor envied Kissinger’s ascent to the pinnacles of state power and societal prestige. I can look back from the age of 93 with no sense of shame about past action, Faustian Bargains, and compromises. I have been the beneficiary of many blessings from friends and those I had the pleasure and honor of working with over the years, including some wonderful former students. Of course, there were disappointments along the way, but overall, my career choice of teaching/scholarly writing/citizenship engagement has brought me a sense of profession fulfillment that I couldn’t have imagined 65 years ago.

Daniel Falcone: Noam Chomsky in conversation with David Barsamian once said,

“On May 27, the New York Times published one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever seen. They ran an article about the Nixon-Kissinger interchanges. Kissinger fought very hard through the courts to try to prevent it, but the courts permitted it. You read through it, and you see the following statement embedded in it. Nixon at one point informs Kissinger, his right-hand Eichmann, that he wanted bombing of Cambodia. And Kissinger loyally transmits the order to the Pentagon to carry out ‘a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.’ That is the most explicit call for what we call genocide when other people do it that I’ve ever seen in the historical record.”

What are your reactions to this vignette? 

Richard Falk: There are now official documents released on the details of Kissinger’s role, and they show his distasteful side more vividly than even critics imagine. He was the author of the plan Chomsky describes as genocidal. The plan was named ‘the menu,’ with meals specified to correspond with the phases of the plan, starting with ‘breakfast,’ which was the secret part. Revealingly, it was a secret to be kept from Congress and the American people, and neither the Cambodians nor Laotians. Kissinger was deputized to command other relevant cabinet members to proceed with this a genocidal campaign, as the Chomsky quote suggests, and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the secret is kept at least until the vaguely cannibalistic ‘breakfast’ is over. This anecdote, which became the reality of ‘the killing fields’ in Cambodia remove all doubt that Kissinger lived and died as a war criminal.

Daniel Falcone: Could you discuss the ways in which Kissinger saw the world in racial and class terms and how his geopolitical theory could possibly translate into a Nobel Peace Prize? 

Richard Falk: Fredrik Heffermehl, a Norwegian author, who has just published a book devoted to an extended criticism of how the Norwegian NPP Committee has abandoned the vision of the donor to give the coveted prize to those who work against war and militarism. As alluded to earlier, Kissinger is the poster child of such a critique. I should admit that I have ‘a dog in the fight,’ or at least a puppy. I am mentioned as one of more than a hundred who Heffermehl believes deserved the prize, which is a compliment I don’t deserve but maybe because of this, enjoy receiving!

My sense is that the NPP Committee has been in recent years stung by such criticisms of bias, which in my view was less shaped by race and class factors since at least the end of the Cold War than earlier. Yet it is now no more responsive to Nobel’s vision, than it was earlier to media salience of the media and possibly geopolitical priorities of the Global West, which upon scrutiny reflect class/race factors. Of course, choosing a war criminal and militarist like Kissinger as a NPP winner was a repudiation of everything that Alfred Nobel hoped the prize would encourage. It seemed a hijacking of the NPP, at least temporarily.