Donald Trump is pivoting his way across the political landscape. Rolling out Supreme Court picks to appease the right, reaching out to GOP donors, trying to woo House Speaker Paul Ryan. And on Wednesday, he met with elder statesman Henry Kissinger, who has become the Republican Jimmy Carter — the man every nominee has to meet to get a blessing from history.
But this time is different.
For one thing, this time Kissinger’s Republican preference cannot be taken for granted. Kissinger has criticized Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States and let it be known he would prefer a different nominee.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has quoted the nice things that Kissinger has said about her as proof of her competence. And according to David Corn of Mother Jones, they have even vacationed together with their spouses at a beachfront villa.
For another, it’s not even clear that Trump needs Kissinger’s support. Trump, being Trump, breaks all the rules.
So why has Kissinger — an often polarizing figure — resurfaced in this election? His historical stature. The 92-year-old was national security adviser and secretary of state to both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1970s, dominating U.S. foreign policy.
He helped open up China and bring the Vietnam War to a conclusion (for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize). Under Nixon and Ford, he advanced the policy of détente between the United States and Soviet Union, ushering in a brief period of relative stability in global affairs. He was the embodiment of the charismatic style of diplomacy — shuttling, often with great fanfare, from one country to another — and is generally regarded as the supreme realist.
Historian Niall Ferguson burnished his reputation with a biography last year that suggested he was a moral man forced to “make a choice between greater and lesser evils.”
Not everyone sees him that way. The novelist Joseph Heller called him “an odious schlump who made war gladly.” Many on the left charge him with sacrificing human rights for narrow Cold War goals.
On his watch: Indonesia was permitted to crush independent East Timor; Indochina was bombed back to the Stone Age, facilitating the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge; thousands were butchered in Bangladesh while the United States looked the other way; and a democratically elected Marxist was deposed in a bloody coup in Chile. So it is no surprise that Bernie Sanders has said that Kissinger tars Clinton by association.
But what’s surprising is the level of conservative animosity that is sometimes shown toward Kissinger, too. When Ronald Reagan ran for the Republican nomination in 1976, he denounced Kissingerism as soft on communism. Ideological conservatives were appalled that the United States would recognize China or that it would permit the Soviet Union to stockpile nuclear weapons in exchange for arms limitation agreements that, said the right, no red would ever honor.
When Reagan ran again in 1980, this time more from the center, he was forced to heal this rift. He held a press conference with Kissinger to assert that their views, while different, were “compatible.” The comparison with Trump is obvious.
Kissinger found a way back into the heart of the Republican establishment. Under George W. Bush, some regarded him, in the words of journalist Bob Woodward, as “a powerful, largely invisible influence” over policy. And while academics still debate precisely what he stands for, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that some of the answer is “being at the center of power.”
That’s reflected in his sometimes vacillating point of view. In 2005, he argued that crushing the insurgency in Iraq was critical to the success of Bush’s Middle East mission. In 2014, he wrote that this turned out to be impossible. He should’ve spotted the parallels with Vietnam much sooner than he did and sounded the alarm.
Kissinger styles himself in the grand tradition of European-style diplomats who are essentially nonpartisan and who see themselves as servants of the state — regardless of who holds the throne. Hence, it is no surprise that the invisible friend of Bush could quickly become a friend of Clinton.
Indeed, foreign policy under Clinton/Obama has followed a cynically Kissingerish course. The war in Afghanistan was escalated and Libya bombed. Yet a fledgling democracy in Egypt was abandoned, and the administration avoided intervention in Syria for as long as possible. Kissinger has had his reservations about the administration’s record. He has criticized the lack of a plan for the Middle East, arguing that the Iran nuclear deal will “reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region.”
In a sense, Kissinger is made for Trump: Trump likes to be associated with bright people, and Kissinger likes to have the ear of the powerful regardless of their limitations. However, Kissinger embodies the two things Trump is running against: the past and the establishment. And Kissinger may decide that Trump is simply too controversial to be associated with.
The man will soon turn 93: He would be forgiven for giving this election a miss. The diplomatic thing may well be to say nothing about it at all.