RIP Henry Kissinger – influential American diplomat who shaped policy on southern Africa

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Henry Kissinger (By US Department of State from United States, Public Domain | WikiMedia)

Kissinger’s diplomacy in southern Africa was marked by a delicate balancing act.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who has died at the venerable age of 100 years, dedicated his life to preserving world peace, according to Lord Robin Renwick, former British ambassador to South Africa, who knew him well.

“His mind was clear as a bell when I saw him on his birthday,” Renwick told Times Radio in the UK.

Kissinger arguably saved the world from nuclear war by defusing geopolitical crises on several occasions during the height of the Cold War. He crucially helped shape the rules-based post-war world we all live in today, including in southern Africa.

Other commentators[1] agree that his prominence is well deserved. The only modern US secretaries of state who rank with him are George Marshall and Dean Acheson, fellow architects of Cold War containment in the late 1940s.

Kissinger lost most of his family in concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and after relocating to the United States, he dedicated his life to preventing a resurgence of conflict.

His most notable achievement, together with his boss President Richard Nixon, himself a brilliant international strategist and author of some remarkable books on international affairs[2], was to recognise that after the Korean War, communist ideology alone would not be enough to sustain an anti-American friendship between the Soviet Union and communist China. Russia threatened China in all sorts of ways. Moscow wanted Mao Tse-tung to be a subordinate partner in spreading communism across the globe.

Kissinger saw that the way was open to offer an olive branch of trade and business to Maoist China. Mao accepted it. In this way, a cleavage between Russia and China was deepened, and this yielded strategic benefits for America, forcing Moscow to keep more troops than it may have needed on the Chinese border, thus easing pressure on western Europe: a kind of divide and rule situation.

Taiwan was the fly in the ointment in this arrangement, since both the nationalist Taiwanese and mainland communist Chinese agreed that it was part of China per se. Kissinger felt that the obvious way forward was simply to “manage” the US relationship with Taiwan through not recognising Taiwan as a sovereign state. Taiwan lost its veto on the UN Security Council, and China gained its own. But America continued to arm Taiwan and proceeded with the supportive hybrid relationship which exists today and which discourages China from trying to invade Taiwan. 

The trade partnership between China and America has brought great benefits to China – now the second largest economy in the world. The logic of Kissinger’s China diplomacy led to China’s admission to the World Trade Organization.

During the high water mark of Kissinger’s tenure as secretary of state under Nixon and Ford in the 1972 to 1977 era, under Kissinger’s tutelage the US was able to end America’s involvement in Vietnam, even though Kissinger was criticised for delaying the withdrawal of US troops for tactical diplomatic reasons.

But Kissinger was merely demonstrating his mastery of realpolitik, and he followed up his Vietnam triumph by orchestrating a peace deal in the Middle East following the 1973 Yom Kippur War in Israel. This was followed by a ruthless bit of diplomacy in Chile, which saw Moscow ally Allende, who had just won a democratic election, deposed in favour of the dictator Pinochet. Washington wasn’t about to allow the USSR into its backyard.

Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and a host of other South American countries took their cue, and we saw the age of the anti-communist, pro-Washington generals on stage. Kissinger had achieved a master stroke in his lifelong pursuit of global peace by preventing a situation where Moscow may have had to be confronted in the region by America militarily.

Kissinger’s realism towards southern Africa

In keeping with his pragmatic approach, Kissinger shaped US policy in southern Africa in the seventies. 

Kissinger’s diplomacy in southern Africa was marked by a delicate balancing act. While he maintained strategic relationships with anti-communist governments in the region, such as apartheid South Africa, and white Rhodesian administrations, he faced criticism for not taking a stronger stance against racial oppression – a realpolitik approach which may have prolonged the policy of apartheid.

An example was the discreet support that Washington gave to Pretoria following the MPLA’s power grab in Angola with the help of Cuban forces. A great book by John Stockwell, In search of enemies, lays out the extent of secret American backing for MPLA rivals like Jonas Savimbi, and also for Presidents Vorster and Botha.

However, Kissinger also played a key role in the diplomatic initiatives that led to the end of Ian Smith’s white-minority rule in Rhodesia. His behind-the-scenes efforts contributed to the negotiation process that eventually led to the establishment of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. When South African premier John Vorster told Ian Smith that he would have to deal with the black opposition, the shadow of Kissinger was at his shoulder. Kissinger’s involvement in southern Africa during the 1970s left a lasting impression on the region’s political landscape.

Was it Richard Nixon or Kissinger who was of the opinion that South Africa was just a bigger version of Rhodesia? Who knows, but in retrospect, opinions on Kissinger’s diplomacy in southern Africa remain divided. Some commend his pragmatic approach in navigating the complexities of the Cold War, while others criticise his perceived prioritising of geopolitical interests over human rights.

What is certain, however, is that if it weren’t for Kissinger’s broad peace goals being achieved, Nelson Mandela may not have been freed. Two of Kissinger’s cherished goals came together when the Berlin Wall came down – the realisation of global peace and the removal of the communist threat, embodied for white South Africa in the Moscow-supported ANC.

All it then took to close the deal was for American banks, at a nod from Washington, to threaten not to extend South African government debt, and some astute persuasion by ambassador Renwick, who was reporting directly to Margaret Thatcher and was very close to President De Klerk. Mandela was freed and the rest, as they say, is history.


[1] See, for example, The Spectator, 30 November 2023.

[2] Nixon was a prolific writer, especially on international affairs. Kissinger also produced a broad literary output.

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