The death of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger on Nov. 29 has generated much analysis on US foreign policy and America’s role in the world.
Kissinger belonged to the realist school of international relations that emphasizes power, the articulation of a national interest by an elite, and the creation of a strategic equilibrium to establish order in the relations among states and the different political entities and groups. This philosophy originates in the series of European wars that dominated the continent for centuries. Kissinger was attempting to make the US assume a foreign policy rooted in the diplomatic tradition of realism or realpolitik. In other words, Kissinger was trying to Europeanize US foreign policy, which was often based on ideals and principles, not goals and the observation of legal agreements.
The most interesting thing about Kissinger is that he was regarded as a man of high intellect. His renowned undergraduate thesis, “The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant,” completed at Harvard College in 1950, is still viewed as a leading research thesis. His doctoral dissertation submitted in 1954 to Harvard, titled “Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium: A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich,” was a thorough investigation of the 1815 Congress of Vienna that addressed how to preserve a European balance of power in a revolutionary age following the Napoleonic Wars, and as nationalism gained momentum. Kissinger’s lengthy memoirs totaling thousands of pages, such as his first volume, “White House Years,” are written as literature where the art of how to script a novel is obvious. He portrays his characters as displaying both the glories and foibles of human nature.
Notably, he subscribed to the significance of leadership in shaping the course of history. Many leaders who dealt with him were awestruck by his cerebral talent. But the reality of world politics is not that simple. Kissinger’s practice of diplomacy made him encounter great leaders. He acknowledges that they were more intellectual than him, and wiser in their thoughts than what he always entertained in terms of ideas and concepts. He appreciated the leadership qualities in a few people he had audiences with. He underlined the credibility of a leader when asserted an analytical framework in which he examined the world around him and the goals of his nation, striving to contribute to the understanding of a certain subject even if he did not know much about it. The leader is someone who defines goals larger than himself or his country.
It was King Faisal who combined idealism and realism in his approach to foreign policy compared to Kissinger.
Kissinger hailed King Faisal as a great leader. It was Kissinger who was awestruck by King Faisal and not the other way around. It was King Faisal who projected a strategic perspective that countered Kissinger’s mastery of geopolitics. It was King Faisal who combined idealism and realism in his approach to foreign policy compared to Kissinger, who stuck strictly to even a few arcane concepts of realpolitik.
This is what Kissinger said about King Faisal in his memoirs: “Faisal combined religious intensity and diplomatic shrewdness. Religion gave him the inner strength to face perils and seek to overcome them with serenity. It also provided cohesion to a country moving toward modernization. By his reputation for piety, Faisal combined exaltation and anonymity, great influence and aloofness from the fray. Faisal managed the extraordinary feat of positioning himself exactly into the calm eye of the hurricane, though he never forgot the storms raging around him.
“Faisal deserves his reputation for rectitude. He was as honorable as he was subtle. He weighed his words scrupulously. He never spoke idly; each sentence had its significance, even though it took slower minds a while to catch on. We were fortunate that toward the US Faisal maintained a feeling of genuine friendship — which we reciprocated — balanced by doubt about our acumen and ultimate steadiness. He was a man of his words; indeed, he delivered more than he promised. In 30 years in high office, he had seen enough of the volatility of American politics not to entrust the future of his country (in the US). He always hedged his bets, wherever possible, in favor of the US, but not if that jeopardized the interests of Saudi Arabia.
“King Faisal brought off a tour de force. Under his leadership, his country was taken seriously but reserved the right to define its role. He made possible a revolution in world economics and an upheaval in the world balance of power by lending Saudi Arabia’s weight to the use of the oil weapon and turning the Kingdom into a major factor in world affairs. All these tendencies emerged when I sat down with Faisal for talks.”
It is right to state how King Faisal overwhelmed the persona of Henry Kissinger. He learned from him the values associated with spontaneity of action in world politics. He understood from King Faisal how to act as a statesman. Kissinger was praised for his skill in reaching a compromise among many contending players in international relations. Perhaps, such cleverness was acquired from King Faisal, when Kissinger described him as “all for compromise.”
• Faisal Al-Shammeri is a political analyst. X: @Mr_Alshammeri