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30 November 2023

Henry Kissinger’s real triumph

The former diplomat, who has died at age 100, profited for decades by telling clients what they wanted to hear.

By Ben Judah

Editor’s Note: This piece was first published in May 2023 at the time of Henry Kissinger’s 100th birthday. It has been updated to reflect that the former US secretary of state died on 29 November 2023 at his home in Connecticut.

The centenary of Henry Kissinger, hailed as a genius or decried as a war criminal with equal fervour, unfolded on 27 May in a who’s who of hagiographic tweets, interviews and op-eds from across the establishment, culminating in a gala dinner at the fusty Yale Club in New York. Such commentators almost entirely avoided the real story about Kissinger, who last held office 46 years ago.

This is a pity because Kissinger – a less impressive US national security adviser than Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski or, when it comes to actually winning wars, even Jake Sullivan, the present holder of the office – was one of the most important business and marketing stories of the last four decades. Through expert media handling he made himself a brand and turned that brand into a company: Kissinger Associates, the highly profitable global consulting firm.

Brands take constant management and the centenary tribute placed by Kissinger’s son David in the Washington Post depicted his father as he wanted to be seen. The impression was of a free-floating academic and shadow diplomat, always ready to offer the United States of America his free counsel. In fact the picture is rather different: since 1982 Kissinger had been the world’s leading consultant, a business figure, not a diplomatic one, whose paid counsel was available to, among others, American Express, Fiat, Rio Tinto, Lehman Brothers, Merck, Heinz, Volvo, JP Morgan, and a slew of clients in Russia, China and the Gulf.

This was why Kissinger, at 100, having left office aged 54 in 1977 when he ceased to be secretary of state at the end of Gerald Ford’s administration, truly mattered. Through Kissinger Associates he was a pioneer of the contemporary form of the Washington revolving door: the global consultancy. Where Kissinger blazed a trail, others have followed, creating leading firms such as Albright Stonebridge, the work of the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, or WestExec Advisors, the work of the current secretary of state, Antony Blinken.

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Judging by the guest list of the centenary dinner, the hard work of Kissinger Associates paid off handsomely for its namesake. Knotting media, business and politics together – in a way that never interested Brzezinski, for example – meant that he came to symbolise the establishment. This explained his curiously bland and forgettable commentary, as witnessed in his latest book on artificial intelligence, and which was on full display in May.

[See also: The dark reality of Ron DeSantis’s disastrous campaign launch]

For the last 41 years Kissinger specialised in interviews, in which obvious truisms, such as “China is rising”, or “Russia is revanchist”, were delivered with oracular grandeur. They were then sprinkled with a little bit of late 18th-century history just over the event horizon of the reader, for example an allusion to the Austrian statesman Metternich. The result is a forgettable blur.

This was by design. Because the actual Kissinger genius over the last few decades was not these anodyne comments but the ability to listen – and therefore say exactly what the client, the sponsor or the establishment wanted to hear. This was in sharp contrast to committed public thinkers on geostrategy such as Brzezinski or George F Kennan, who often said what Washington didn’t want to hear. The result was that Kissinger, far from practising what his associates such as the political scientist Graham Allison call “the moral idealism of realism”, had blown with the wind. Kissinger supported the Iraq War when it was the establishment line, the “reset” with Russia when it was popular and then, contrary to all his previous writings, the admittance of Ukraine into Nato.

It should come as no surprise that powerful US corporations, with the intense local knowledge that Kissinger lacked, sought him out. Why boards hired an “expert” such as Kissinger to deliver undergraduate commentary about the Chinese “thinking in centuries” or about Vladimir Putin being a “character out of Dostoevsky” often had nothing to do with his insight. An outside expert is usually hired not to inform but to bless a decision or to help a partner win an argument. In the case of Kissinger, this was usually related to business investment in China and occasionally in Russia. Meanwhile, across the world, powerful interests have sought him out to explain Washington.

Despite Kissinger’s foresight often being comically wrong, such as his projection of a positive future for Russian-American relations weeks before the 2008 Russo-Georgian War or his misidentification of China’s authoritarian turn under Xi Jinping, clients sought him out regardless. That his interviews mostly read like auto-generated prompts is in fact the strategy. The less you say the lower the risk of damaging the brand.

Brand management was the reason behind Kissinger’s intense efforts to shape – through journalists and historians – the story of his eight years in government. As a result, Henry Kissinger’s true biography remains unwritten. If Kissinger: The Global Consultant is ever published it will be an essential work of history – the best guide to how power and business operated and intermixed in the era of globalisation. Until then the myth and the last interviews – as much advertorial as analysis – is just noise.

Ben Judah is the author of “This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now”, published on 15 June by Picador

[See also: Why Larry Summers is moving left with age]

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