The Fabled Secretary Of State At 100

The Fabled Secretary Of State At 100
Dr Henry Kissinger, the legendary American secretary of state, completed a century of his life this year on 27 May. He has now outlived all his contemporaries and, although a hundred years old, his cognitive abilities remain unimpaired. Born in a German Jewish family, he had to flee his homeland in 1938 when he was 15-years old to escape Nazi persecution. He performed brilliantly as a student and rose to become professor at Harvard University in the department of Government.

Writing in an Op Ed in the Washington Post on his father’s 100th birthday, his son David Kissinger remarked that “Since 2020, he [father] has completed two books and begun work on a third. He returned from the Bilderberg Conference in Lisbon earlier this week just in time to embark on a series of centennial celebrations that will take him from New York to London and finally to his hometown of Fürth, Germany.” On 18 July, he made a surprise visit to China, one of many as a private citizen, where the foreign minister hinted that Beijing was nostalgic for the days when he was running U.S. foreign policy.

Kissinger’s longevity is not attributable to any special healthy diet or lifestyle. His son disabused us of that notion. Paradoxically, the former secretary of state’s favourite food are German-Viennese dishes, bratwurst and wiener schnitzel – neither of which is considered heart healthy food. Besides, he has mostly led a stressful, hectic life. He had a triple bypass procedure in 1982, 41 years ago, when such procedures were not as common as today. What can then explain his long-life span? According to his son, it is his relentless curiosity and unquenching thirst for new knowledge.

He is now gravely concerned with the long-term safety of mankind against the unrestrained progression of artificial intelligence (AI). Writing in Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius cited Kissinger in a speech last November, calling on the “leaders of the United States and China, the world’s tech giants, to begin an urgent dialogue about how to apply ethical limits and standards for AI.”

Kissinger found his calling when in 1969 he was appointed US national security advisor and later secretary of state by President Nixon. He became extremely interested in US foreign policy and had a major share in shaping it. He pursued a policy of Realpolitik based on the thesis that national policies are guided by the need of the time and national interests, not by any moral or ethical considerations. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating the end of the Vietnam conflict. As is often the case with powerful transformational figures, Kissinger has been a controversial politician. Many of his policy decisions have been bitterly criticised as they were perceived as immoral or unethical.

At age ninety-five when most people are in wheelchairs, Kissinger “became obsessed with the philosophical and practical implications of artificial intelligence. He is upset and appalled as he watches the polarisation and bitterness affecting the current political climate. In his day, his political opponents, Edward Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, remained personal friends. Similarly, while the cold war was raging, Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, was a frequent guest at Kissinger house, where the two adversaries, temporarily put politics aside, enjoyed a game of chess and friendly banter. Today, in contrast, the political polarisation is so intense that opposing politicians become personal adversaries. President Biden’s sole surviving son, for example, who is still recovering from drug addiction, is being relentlessly pursued by the Republicans to politically hurt his father.

Of all the US secretaries of states, Kissinger is fondly remembered in Pakistan for the role he played in 1971 during the East Pakistan conflict and for orchestrating the famous US tilt in favor of Pakistan. His initial interest in Pakistan arose from his efforts towards opening China to US exports and establishing America’s diplomatic relations with China. Pakistan, which had a close relationship with China, was ideally suited to enable and facilitate this mission.

The story of Kissinger’s secret trip to China reads like a cloak and dagger affair, taken straight out of a spy thriller. Fresh from a trip to India, Kissinger arrived at Islamabad, as tensions between India and Pakistan over East Pakistan were running sky high. He was lodged in the presidential guest house in Rawalpindi. The following day, a fake story was disseminated; the American diplomat had come down with a common ailment--Delhi belly or stomach upset. Pakistani authorities told the outside world that he had been moved to Nathiagali for rest and recuperation. Yahya Khan even organised a fake motorcade, ostensibly carrying Kissinger to the hill station. However, high officials were seen coming and going to inquire about the health of the ailing American national security advisor. Kissinger’s deputy, Harold Saunders, was left in Islamabad to fulfil his official appointments. Thereafter, every effort was made to conceal his whereabouts.

Author Gary Bass, in his book The Blood Telegram, has provided a fascinating account of Kissinger mysterious journey to China. A PIA 707 jet, with Yahya’s personal pilot at the control, whisked Kissinger and his small party from Rawalpindi towards China in predawn darkness. Years later, Kissinger nostalgically recalled his historic trip that soon changed the geopolitics of the world. The experience of flying over the majestic peaks of Himalayas, “thrusting toward heaven in the roseate glow of a rising sun, was so extraordinary that it jolted me back to my childhood, when everyday was a precious adventure in defining the meaning of life.”

The mission to China was a smashing success and the US delegation attained its objective in great secrecy. Back in the US, Kissinger remarked to Nixon that “We have laid the groundwork for you and Mao to turn a page in history.” Unfortunately, Kissinger’s initial optimism did not bear up. That aside, he never forgot the help he received from Pakistan in making his trip a reality.

While Nixon and Kissinger were celebrating their success in forging an opening to China, a tragedy was unfolding in East Pakistan that was to upend the geopolitics of South Asia. A combination of Bengali nationalism and a long-standing sense of deprivation was exploding under the charismatic leadership of Mujibur Rehman, a fiery speaker, in East Pakistan. The myopic, blinkered generals, Yahya Khan and his coterie, ruling the country were blind to what was happening there and tried to suppress the popular movement by force.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Hindus, were streaming out of East Pakistan, and pouring into India. Kissinger and President Nixon were closely monitoring the unraveling situation, with their sympathies firmly with Pakistan. Nixon branded Indira Gandhi, who they concluded was planning an attack, a warmonger. According to the author Bass, Nixon and Kissinger used highly pejorative, inflammatory language in private about Indians and their prime minister. On 25 March 1971, Yahya formally launched his disastrous military action against the Bengali nationalists.

As the military action in East Pakistan was collapsing in the face of strong public opposition, the rout aided by India, Kissinger got worried that India’s real intention was to dismember West Pakistan as well. Emotionally fraught and anxious to save West Pakistan, he warned Nixon that Pakistan’s defenses could not last even two weeks. On December 12, Nixon and Kissinger moved and warned the Soviet Union, an ally of India, to restrain India by noon that day or they would “initiate unspecified unilateral measures.” In addition, the US ordered the nuclear carrier Enterprise to sail at once to the Bay of Bengal in a show of force. These measures did work. A unilateral ceasefire was declared by India on 17 December 1971, the day after Pakistan army in East Pakistan surrendered. In the end, Kissinger stood by Pakistan at a time when it most needed his help.