By Lucas Musetti
“I’m here at a moment when the opportunity to build a constructive, peaceful world order is very great.”
These are the words that Henry Kissinger said on October 10 during a brief photo opportunity in the Oval Office just before sitting down for a discussion with President Trump.(1) There was no subsequent press release or reporting about what exactly was discussed at the meeting, though the president did say “we’re going to learn a lot.” Trump praised Kissinger as “ a man of immense talent, and experience, and knowledge” and no matter how you feel about the two men, these words are hard to contradict.
Dr. Kissinger served as the 56th Secretary of State and before and briefly during this appointment, he served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.(2) He served two presidents, Nixon and Ford, and has advised many more informally. He became a naturalized American citizen while serving in the US Army during World War Two, worked in intelligence and counterintelligence, and was awarded a Bronze Star. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and served as a professor there. He was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho for negotiating a cease-fire in the Vietnam War and when the ceasefire failed and the war continued, he tried to give it back unsuccessfully. (3) For the work he has done, some consider Kissinger the most effective Secretary of State in the 20th Century, and possibly in all of American history.
However, he also is considered by many to be a war criminal for his role in the bombings of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. (2) He was seen as supportive of invasions and despots around the globe and created conditions that prevented America from intervening in genocidal actions in Cambodia and East Timor and may have even helped cause the inciting incidents for these acts. In East Timor and Western Sahara, he advised the American ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to stymie any efforts to address the incursions from Indonesia and Morocco and render the UN “utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook.” (4) For these and many other acts, his reputation remains linked with some of the darkest aspects of American foreign relations in the second half of the last century.
I want to be clear that I personally regard Dr. Kissinger both with respect and aversion bordering on contempt. I think he skillfully navigated more complex aspects of American foreign policy than I can fully comprehend without knowing what intelligence he was receiving at the time, but I also think he purposefully let foreign civilians hang out to dry and tarnished America’s reputation in many parts of the world as he tried to open our relationships with more powerful countries while trying to keep communism from spreading. I do not endorse the majority of Kissinger’s actions, but I have to acknowledge that he has acquired deep, keen insight on issues around the globe, and specifically in East Asia, which is exactly what President Trump needs now.
That being said, I am very concerned about Kissinger saying it is time to develop a ‘peaceful world order.’ The fact that he sees now as the opportunity to create a new world order involuntarily conjures ideas of dystopian novels to my mind. In the same photo op that brought around these comments, Trump was specifically asked if he still had confidence in his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The President answered simply “yes” and then the photo op ended. However, with reports that Tillerson called the Chief Executive a moron and Trump (jokingly?) challenging TIllerson to an IQ test, I am unsure if the President will be taking advice from his appointee much longer. (5) Let’s not forget that he also gave his stamp of approval to Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon shortly before their dismissal.
The fact is that Kissinger is not extremely popular internationally, though there have been Democrats and Republicans who have sought his advice or endorsement domestically, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (6) If Trump does decide to work closer with Kissinger to try to reshape the world order, he could continue to alienate more of the countries who still want to see Kissinger arraigned at the Hague. The fact is, we really need to know what was discussed between Trump and Kissinger, because we cannot treat this ‘world order’ comment from Dr. Henry Kissinger as an off-hand remark. He is too smart and skilled for us to afford to make that assumption. For everything that people say about Tillerson, he has been a moderating force in the international community for the Trump Administration. Most recently, he pushed forward with negotiations with North Korea, even as the President made his “Rocket Man” overtures and condemned the negotiations.(7) After Trump insulted the Prime Minister of Australia, Tillerson met with the Foreign Secretary to reaffirm the ties between the two nations.(8) Tillerson is playing a crucial role at maintaining the balance with America and the world, but if Trump moves to reshape that balance with Kissinger, there is likely little that Tillerson can do to combat this master of international affairs.
“Remarks by President Trump in Meeting with Dr. Henry Kissinger.” The White House. October 10, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/10/10/remarks-president-trump-meeting-dr-henry-kissinger.
“Henry Kissinger.” Biography.com. July 28, 2016. https://www.biography.com/people/henry-kissinger-9366016.
Contrera, Jessica. “Bob Dylan, Bill Murray and Henry Kissinger: When honorees don’t want their prize.” The Washington Post. October 23, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/10/23/bob-dylan-bill-murray-and-henry-kissinger-when-honorees-dont-want-their-prize/?utm_term=.fc9124777054.
Zunes, Stephen, and Jacob Mundy. Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010. P. 62
Rucker, Philip. “Trump proposes ‘IQ tests’ faceoff with Tillerson after secretary of state calls him a ‘moron’.” The Washington Post. October 10, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/10/10/trump-proposes-iq-tests-face-off-with-tillerson-after-secretary-of-state-calls-him-a-moron/?utm_term=.647b2ef37c02.
Keneally, Meghan. “Hillary and Henry: Clinton’s Relationship With Kissinger.” ABC News. May 18, 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/hillary-henry-clintons-relationship-kissinger/story?id=39195203
Watkins, Eli. “Trump: Tillerson ‘wasting his time’ with NK.” CNN. October 01, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/01/politics/donald-trump-rex-tillerson-north-korea/index.html
McGeough, Paul. “Tillerson cleans up Donald Trump’s mess in Australia.” The Sydney Morning Herald. February 07, 2017. http://www.smh.com.au/world/us-stresses-cooperation-with-australia-20170207-gu7vl2.html.