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Toomas Hendrik Ilves: Henry Kissinger a towering figure of the last century

Henry Kissinger (May 27, 1923-November 29, 2023), pictured in 1973.
Henry Kissinger (May 27, 1923-November 29, 2023), pictured in 1973. Source: SCANPIX / AP

Henry Kissinger, the longeval though controversial US diplomat and political scientist who died on Wednesday at the age of 100, was the most powerful foreign minister worldwide in the last century, and had an ability to spot trends far before others had, former President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves says.

However, many people also disliked Kissinger intensely, mostly over his so-called hyper-realist approach to foreign policy. This seemed to have little use for some aspects of ethics, while US interests trumped everything, Ilves, who personally met Kissinger, continued.

Kissinger was Secretary of State 1973-1977. The Department of State is the branch of the US executive responsible for its foreign policy and foreign relations, in other words the nearest equivalent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Estonia, or the Foreign Office in the UK.

Speaking after the news broke of Kissinger's passing early on Thursday morning, Estonian time, Ilves told ERR that: "He was Secretary of State half a century ago, and was likely the most powerful foreign minister of the last century. I have always taken a very keen interest in him, as he was a political scientist, and his chosen field was the history of diplomacy."

Former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

One of the policy changes Kissinger, and the presidents he served, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (Kissinger was also National Security Advisor 1969-1973), are most closely associated with is the period of  rapprochement with the People's Republic of China, in the early 1970s. Kissinger met both with Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and with Zhou Enlai, Mao's dapper premier.

Ilves said that opening up diplomatic channels between the two countries, channels which had essentially been non-existent following the communist takeover of mainland China from 1949, was a major achievement of Kissinger's.

"The US had simply been ignoring China, for 20 years. Then came the opening up of relations, which may well have been inevitable, but at the time was viewed as utterly unbelievable. And it is that which has brought China to the point at which it is today," Ilves told ERR.

Ilves said that Kissinger is still a figure of scorn and even hatred for many, one of the reasons being the role he played in the latter stages of America's war in Vietnam. Kissinger was instrumental in the widening of the conflict to include the carpet bombing of targets in Cambodia, though he also was jointly awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with Vietnamese diplomat and politician Le Duc Tho, for helping to establish a ceasefire and US withdrawal from Vietnam.

Kissinger did not seem to put a high priority on human rights during this era, Ilves said.

"He was that much of an 'über realist.' If you want to know how that would translate into present-day foreign policy, it would essentially equate to selling out on Ukraine," Ilves said.

"This realpolitik he practiced was highly cynical, one whereby values ​​don't matter, where we only pay attention to our US interests. While this would entail world peace more broadly, once things get serious, the means we would use to attain foreign policy goals are irrelevant. It is this approach that he is known for, nowadays."

While many people would not claim that Kissinger was the best of people, intellectually speaking, he was certainly a towering figure, who could foresee trends long before others had, the former president went on.

"He saw things more in strategic terms than others do. One of his last acts, one I find extremely interesting, is that this hyper-realist announced, in May or June of this year that, in his opinion, the only solution for Ukraine is for it to join NATO," Ilves went on.

"On the whole this is not a position generally considered to be one held by these 'realists,' who perhaps might be more inclined to say that Ukraine is 'little Russia' or is a part of Russia in any case."

"In this aspect, respect [for Kissinger] rose," Ilves said.

The German-born Kissinger had no family or other ties to Estonia, the third president following the restoration of independence, went on.

Prior to the restoration of independence, Estonia had even been seen by Kissinger as somewhat of a troublesome issue, which needed dealing with.

"It is a matter of history that something like this remained. I don't mean to be too harsh, but this was also [German chancellor] Helmut Kohl's stance. However, I have been told that once Kissinger met an Estonian, and asked them 'how many of you are there anyway?' When he heard the answer Kissinger said: 'What? The amount of noise you make, it seems as if there are 40 million of you!"

Born in Fürth, Germany, on May 27, 1923, as Jews, Kissinger's family fled Nazi Germany when he was aged 15, arriving soon afterwards in New York.

Kissinger has been charged by some activists and others with being an apologist for war crimes committed by American allies during his tenure in high office. In addition to Vietnam, this included the US involvement in the 1973 Chilean military coup, the "green light" shown to Argentina's military junta in respect of the "Dirty War," and US support for Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War, despite reports of genocidal acts there.

His longevity meant he remained in the public eye far beyond this era, in the 1990s famously appearing in an ad spot for British publication The Economist. One of his last public acts was to address the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which he did via video link-up in January of this year.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves was President of Estonia over two consecutive terms, 2006-2011 and 2011-2016.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: ERR Radio News, interviewer Mall Mälberg.

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