Today, we mourn the passing of Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, a man who made a great contribution to peace and stability throughout the world. Dr. Kissinger was a life-long friend of the people of Korea and we shall always remember him and his wise counsel.
As a renowned realist scholar of international relations, Dr. Henry Kissinger served as National Security Adviser to President Richard Nixon and as Secretary of State during the Gerald R. Ford administration. Dr. Kissinger made many contributions toward international order and peace during the Cold War era from the 1950s to the 1980s. He emphasized the importance of history in foreign policy and viewed international relations with a deep understanding of history and philosophy. Dr. Kissinger offered at least four insights that we would be well advised to study: history is the key to understanding rivals and allies; one must confront the problem of conjecture with its asymmetric payoffs; many foreign policy decisions are choices between lesser evils; and leaders should be wary of the perils of a morally vacuous realism.
Dr. Kissinger’s Contribution to Averting a Third World War
In the first half of the twentieth century, we experienced two devastating World Wars, but from 1945 to the present, we have enjoyed an unprecedentedly long peace in world history. Although many lives were lost, the two atomic bombs ended the Second World War. Since then, there has been the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, as well as crises such as the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis, but the world as a whole has been stable for a long period. This is in large part due to the U.S. contribution towards the establishment of a liberal international order, and Dr. Kissinger’s role in the process is noteworthy.
In the Second World War, having fought side-by-side with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, the United States and Western allies had a delusion about the Soviet Union. But when the war ended, the Soviet Union began its communist expansion and played a decisive role in North Korea’s invasion of South Korea by providing tanks and various armaments to North Korea. As a result, the West recognized the nature of the Soviet Union and the Cold War was set in swift motion.
In the early years of the Cold War, there were serious tensions between the Communist bloc and liberal democracies. Although a balance of terror was achieved through the nuclear forces amassed by the two sides in the late 1960s, the United States and Soviet Union realized the danger of major conflict which could be caused by an excessive arms race and proxy wars around the world. The United States and Soviet Union began to adopt a strategy of coexistence.
This was the birth of ‘détente’, which meant ‘easing tension’ or ‘rest.’ With détente beginning in the late 1960s, a major clash between the United States and Soviet Union did not occur. Dr. Kissinger helped President Richard Nixon by mapping out and implementing détente. Under détente, the United States and Soviet Union were able to achieve arms control like the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). This began with the understanding that nuclear competition between the United States and Soviet Union would lead to mutual annihilation. The Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev joint summit statement in 1985 confirmed that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Dr. Kissinger’s Contribution to South Korea’s Freedom
As the Second World War was coming to an end, on August 9, 1945, a week before Japan’s surrender, the Soviet Union unilaterally broke the Japan-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. The Soviet Union started a war against Japan, which was on the verge of surrender, and took over half of the Korean Peninsula. Four years later in 1949, President Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang government were exiled to Taiwan and mainland China fell under communist rule. Despite the fact that the communist forces were on the road to rapid expansion in the vast Eurasian landmass, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced the Acheson Line which declared the United States’ intention to defend the Far East centered on Japan and the Philippines, thereby excluding South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in the Far East. This is evaluated as a critical mistake which invited North Korea’s invasion of the South.
Dr. Kissinger, who was a graduate student at Harvard, visited Korea in 1950 and analyzed the outbreak process of the war. He submitted a memo entitled “U.S. Strategy” to William Elliot, political adviser to President Harry S. Truman, and Paul Nitze, Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. In this report, he stated that the U.S. “policy of physical containment” to deter Soviet provocations in all regions would be too defensive and inadequate in deterring Soviet aggression. His report, which suggested that the United States should focus on key regions by using its superiority in power to counter the Soviet threat served as the basis for future countermeasures to communist provocations.
In his 2010 meeting with Dr. Chung Mong Joon, founder of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Dr. Kissinger stated that, “The relationship between Korea and the United States has a long history, and the American people are well aware that more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers died in Korea during the Korean War. The United States has also stationed American troops in Korea for a long time. No country can defend every corner of the world at the same time. However, South Korea can trust the U.S. security commitment.”
Dr. Kissinger’s Achievement in U.S.-China Rapprochement
One of Dr. Kissinger’s key achievements was the opening up of China and its integration into the international community. The core premise was to balance the Soviet Union by improving relations with China, which was in the midst of ideological and border disputes with the Soviet Union. In 1956, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev started a movement to degrade Joseph Stalin with a speech criticizing him. This led China to criticize the Soviet Union for its ‘revisionist’ stance of seeking ways to coexist with capitalism and reject orthodox communism. The ideological dispute between the Soviet Union and China developed into a border dispute in 1969.
Dr. Kissinger was instrumental in normalizing relations between the United States and China, and in arranging President Nixon’s visit to China. It laid the foundation for the establishment of diplomatic ties between these two countries in 1979. Although there are critical views on U.S. diplomacy under Dr. Kissinger, the United States began to improve relations with China, which led to China’s rapid growth. It was only a matter of time for China – one of the birthplaces of the four major civilizations of the world with the world’s largest population and a vast territory – to emerge as a great power. China’s development took place within the international order and the system made by the United States. China may believe that it has inherited responsibility for maintaining the order which allowed China to participate in and develop itself.
On July 1, 2021, President Xi Jinping stated during the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party that “we are now marching in confident stride toward the second centenary goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects.” This statement could be interpreted as China’s intention to become a great power surpassing the United States unnecessarily provoking Washington. Due to the fact that China has undergone political and social change as well as increased mutual interdependence with the world through its development, however, China may also be limited in taking unilateral actions which violate the existing norms of the international community. Even as U.S.-China relations deteriorated in recent years, Dr. Kissinger was a consistent advocate for dialogue who was deeply respected in both capitals.
In an interview with Dr. Chung Mong Joon in 2010, Dr. Kissinger worried that “a clash between China and the United States would be a disaster not only for the two countries but also for the world.” And he said, “If there is a conflict between China and the United States, the position of countries surrounding China will be very complicated, so it is important for the United States and China to make every effort to smooth out the bilateral relationship, and I think the Chinese leaders also want this.”
Dr. Kissinger’s Insights into World Order
Dr. Kissinger pointed out in his 2014 book, World Order, that it is necessary to move forward in the direction of creating a common order rather than confrontation. Dr. Kissinger recalls a meeting with President Truman, where President Truman stated that his proudest achievement was the moment “we defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations.” According to Dr. Kissinger, Truman wanted to be remembered not so much for America’s victories as for its conciliation, and that every U.S. president since Truman has aimed to uphold and spread the American values of conciliation. Dr. Kissinger says that today’s “rules-based” system faces challenges. The frequent exhortation for countries to “do their fair share” and play by “twenty-first-century rules” reflects the fact that non-Western nations, who should play the role of “responsible stakeholders,” have begun to question the validity of these rules and have stated their desire to modify them.
According to Dr. Kissinger, there has never been a truly global “world order,” and the current order of our time is based on the Treaty of Westphalia, conceived in Western Europe about 400 years ago. However, Islamic countries and China, which did not participate in the establishment of this order, do not sympathize with it and are challenging it on all sides, sometimes in the name of world order. Dr. Kissinger says that nearly every country considers itself to be “rising,” driving disagreements to the brink of confrontation. Dr. Kissinger poses a question: “Can regions with such divergent cultures, histories, and traditional theories of order vindicate the legitimacy of any common system?” He answers that “order in this sense must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed.” Dr. Kissinger further suggests that “Any system of world order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just – not only by leaders, but also by citizens.” To sustain such a system, it must reflect freedom and framework of order. Dr. Kissinger points out that freedom cannot be secured or sustained without a framework of order to keep the peace and argues that order and freedom should be understood as interdependent.
Dr. Kissinger’s Reflections on South Korea-China Cooperation
Dr. Kissinger recalls his first visit to Beijing undertaken in 1971 to re-establish contact with China after two decades of hostility. He mentioned that “China was a land of mystery.” Premier Zhou Enlai responded, “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not seem so mysterious as before.”
In July 1985, Dr. Kissinger stopped by Seoul on his way to China to meet with the founder of Hyundai Group, Asan Chung Ju-Yung, who was also then the Chairman of the Federation of the Korean Industries, to discuss China’s modernization policy and future. At that time, in South Korea, there was significant interest in China in the absence of bilateral diplomatic relations. Their discussion was as follows:
Kissinger: “… if the modernization policy continues for the next three years, Chinese communism may survive only as an idea. However, there is also a problem with this point of view. That is, if China continues to maintain its communist system and moves only to adopt a market economy, social unrest may arise from dissatisfaction and conflicts. In that case, the wave of unrest could be enormous, not only in China itself but also globally. I think the Korean economy should also take this into consideration.”
Chung Ju-Yung: “Dr. Kissinger, I have a different view. I often think that Americans don’t know much about China. Thousands of years before the dawn of the United States, the Chinese people have gained the world’s best experience and skills in politics, in diplomacy, and especially in business. I do not believe that living under the communist system for only half-a-century can change the temperament of best merchants, who are rooted in thousands of years of experience deep in their blood. As you said, there will be some confusion and setbacks in the process, but what I can assure you is that within the next few decades, China will emerge as the world’s largest economy, second only to the United States.”
Dr. Kissinger’s Ceaseless Endeavors
Born in 1923, Dr. Kissinger’s curiosity and passion never diminished. He also studied artificial intelligence (AI), which is a core future technology, including co-authoring the bestselling book, The Age of AI: And Our Human Future. Dr. Kissinger became concerned about the future of AI after witnessing an AI program called AlphaGo defeat the world’s greatest Go player. Dr. Kissinger noted that AI presents both a convenience and danger to mankind at the same time and that AI can make bigger mistakes than humans due to the fact that it is driven by outcomes and depends less on history or philosophy. He warned that if we do not plan ahead to manage AI, the history of human civilization could end.
In 2010, when Dr. Kissinger visited South Korea at the invitation of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Dr. Chung met with Dr. Kissinger to discuss various issues extensively. The contents of this discussion are in Dr. Chung’s book, entitled Communications with World Leaders. In that meeting, Dr. Chung asked, “Is Afghanistan becoming the second Vietnam for the United States?” Dr. Kissinger replied, “The impact of Afghanistan on jihadists in Pakistan, India and around the world is enormous. It is fundamentally important to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of terrorism and guerrilla warfare because the victory of Islamic jihadists will provide tremendous momentum for the global Islamic jihadist movement.” Regarding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, his recent article in the Economist pointed out the strategic mistakes made by the United States of failing to understand Afghanistan’s reality and of neglecting to elicit cooperation among neighboring countries, such as China, Russia, and India.
When Dr. Chung visited Washington, DC, in January 2009, Dr. Kissinger invited him to the Alfalfa Club – a gathering of 200 influential figures in the U.S. political and financial circles – where he met then President-elect Barack Obama. In August 2014, Dr. Kissinger and his wife Nancy invited Dr. Chung to their summer house in Connecticut. In July 2015, Dr. Kissinger invited Dr. Chung to his New York home for a dinner, attended by the Chairman of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former Wall Street Journal editor Karen House. In November 2019, they met again in New York where Dr. Kissinger stated that North Korea’s denuclearization is in China’s interest and that the role of the United States is important.
Different evaluations can be drawn about Dr. Kissinger’s efforts for international order and peace. However, Dr. Kissinger’s passion and insight for maintaining world order is something that future generations should emulate and follow. This commemoration of his efforts may contribute to the study of international relations.