Events

Triangular Diplomacy and Regional Conflict: Re-Evaluating the Kissinger Years

April 15, 2003 // 3:30pm5:00pm

Jussi Hanhimaki, Wilson Center Scholar, presented in front of a group of Cold War enthusiasts his research in a CWIHP seminar entitled "Triangular Diplomacy and Regional Conflict: Re Evaluating the Kissinger Years." His research, acclaimed as a "shrewd and solid historiography," by William Burr from the National Archives, provides a new interpretation of the Kissinger years using recently declassified documents, papers and notes from both U.S. and foreign archives. Prior to 1996 the Nixon White House files were classified, but now, Dr. Hanhimaki argued, we have almost complete access to Kissinger's papers and documents, his notes and White House tapes. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the recent work done by scholars, historians and the Cold War History Project, we have access to translated documents which allow us to understand the ‘other side's' interpretation of the Cold War.

Henry Kissinger is one of the most important and influential individuals in American foreign policy; he was the architect of some of the most successful American foreign policies as well as the most controversial. He served Nixon as National Security Advisor during the first Nixon Administration and both as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor for Nixon's second term, and served two Presidents—Nixon and Ford. Kissinger has been described as ‘a Great American success story,' an ‘American icon,' ‘celebrity,' and ‘writer.' However, the debate between the two identities of Henry Kissinger is still not concluded. Was he a realpolitik genius or "Mr. Henry," a man bent on self-aggrandizement?

Dr. Hanhimaki reminded the audience that in order to really understand Kissinger and his motivations, his actions need to be considered within the context of his time in the White House. Despite the controversy and debates, he was and remains a great American personality.

His eight year long career (from 1969-1977) in public office can be divided into two parts—the first spanning the years he was National Security Advisor, from 1969-1973, and the second, from 1973-1977. He was responsible for years of triangular diplomacy (between the U.S., China and the U.S.S.R.), the Opening of China and Nixon's 1971 visit, detente and a softening of relations with the Soviet Union, the SALT I accords, and the 1973 agreement in Paris, which ended American involvement in Southeast Asia. For ending the Vietnam War by negotiating a peace deal, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This award was shrouded in controversy; Kissinger's co-author of the peace settlement declined the award, and Kissinger himself did not attend the award ceremony. Kissinger was also responsible for the American involvement in October War in the Middle East, the end of or ‘failing' of the Opening of China in the Spring of 1973, the American involvement in Angola, the failure of the SALT II accords, and the Halloween Massacre of November 1975. He was removed from his post as National Security Advisor in 1975 as he became a political liability.

Kissinger was successful with pulling diplomatic "rabbits out of a hat," as Hanhimaki called it, but he could not, as Nixon later stated, was unable to build lasting "structures of peace." Hanhimaki, addressed the controversial question of how and why was Kissinger unable to accomplish this very important task.

There are three possible explanations, Hanhimaki argued. The first is that Kissinger's methods were problematic and flawed, that there were fundamental incompatibilities between his operating style and American domestic politics. Kissinger favored back channel, clandestine talks. This, however, was the age of Nixonian abuses of power: Watergate, White House wire-taps, what Hanhimaki calls the "White House horrors of the Nixon years." The American public could not, and would not, accept these methods, and this is why his policies ultimately failed.

The second theory of Kissinger's failing is more personal and the current favorite amongst scholars. He was accused of failing to sell his policies to the American people in the ‘heartland.' While Kissigner's policies were solid, his negotiation skills excellent, he was a capable architect, and understood American power in the 1970s, he was, in the end a poor statesman, said Hanhimaki.

The third theory, which is Hanhimaki is and explained fully in his manuscript, attributes the failure of Kissinger diplomacy to an overall failure of his policy approach and an inability to see issues or conflicts without the ‘spectacles' of the Cold War power structures. Kissinger saw a strong linkage between small, disparate, regional conflicts and his triangular diplomacy, and mainly focused on how these conflicts affected the Soviet Union. The only regional conflict that Kissinger was able to handle successfully, Hanhimaki alleges, was the conflict in the Middle East, and this was because he was able to interpret it with out these 'spectacles.' Because Kissinger took a regional approach, this explosive situation was diffused.

This argument is bolstered by recently available Soviet and Chinese documents. These documents showed that to this ‘other side' ideology mattered and influenced their behavior. The structure of realpolitik that Kissinger used as a guide to his foreign policy, did not hold true in all cases, and this oversimplification and misinterpretation of events hampered his effectiveness.

William Burr from the National Archives made some comments, both critiquing and praising Jussi Hanhimaki's conclusions. He called the research "worthwhile and timely," a "balanced study," and a "decisive discussion." Hanhimaki's analysis of Kissinger and Chinese relations were called "first rate, especially regarding the Chinese decision to freeze rapprochement." In Burr's opinion, Hanhimaki analysis of detente, had limited concrete results, yet was ‘persuasive.' Burr suggested that that perhaps the U.S.'s goal was more gradual and evolutionary.

Burr suggested some other questions that had not been addressed fully, such as the nature of the Nixon-Kissinger relationship, especially regarding their intellectual relations and Kissinger's personal liability in U.S. actions committed while he was in office. Overall, however, he bestowed a high complement saying that the research was "first rate."

Event Summary drafted by Jennifer Kremen
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