HENRY A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III, now octogenarians, returned to the public spotlight recently to remind us of the timeless virtues of diplomacy, negotiations, and statecraft in a complex and troubled world. Their message was important in this election year. After wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the pursuit of terrorists on every continent over the last decade, these two celebrated Americans recalled that we can sometimes get our way not just by force but with diplomacy. No two public figures better exemplify the American tradition in that ancient art than Baker and Kissinger, both honored by Harvard University during the past two weeks.
They share a unique position in our modern history. Both transformed the international landscape in historic ways. Kissinger’s opening to China in 1972 remains one of the most important pivot points of the last half century in ending the isolation between Beijing and Washington and setting the foundation for the extraordinary relationship between the two great powers of the 21st century. Baker masterminded the dramatic and peaceful end to the Cold War in reunifying Germany as a member of NATO.
Neither could have succeeded without the deep experience and strategic dexterity of their presidents. Richard Nixon and Kissinger were an unusual team who painted in bold, sweeping flourishes. By growing closer to Mao and Chou En-Lai and strengthening American resolve in both Asia and Europe, they maneuvered the Soviet leadership to give up the illusion of a communist victory in the Cold War.
Baker profited from the closest relationship between a president and secretary of state in American history. He had been best friends with George H.W. Bush, his Houston tennis partner and godfather to his daughter, for 35 years. That alliance made Baker an exceptionally powerful secretary of state as he assembled and steered the Gulf War coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein and then shifted to oversee the American triumph in the fall of the Soviet Union.
They could not be more different. Kissinger is one of the great intellectual figures in American diplomatic history. He was a brilliant Harvard professor of the 1950s and ‘60s whose scholarship on European statecraft prepared him well for his chessboard struggles with Mao, Brezhnev, Ho Chi Minh, and other giants of the communist world. His 1994 book, “Diplomacy’’ is considered one of the finest ever written on that vast subject by an American. At 88, he has been consulted by every president from Eisenhower to Obama and still enjoys global cachet. His recent book on China has been influential in this country and around the world.
Baker, nearing 82, has a different but no less important legacy. He managed five presidential campaigns and the 2000 recount in Florida. He was an impressive and protean figure in Washington, serving as White House chief or staff and treasury secretary for Ronald Reagan and then secretary of state for Bush. Baker was not a scholar of international politics, but he combined a sharp, lawyerly mind with canny political smarts to become a brilliant negotiator. He went toe to toe with Gorbachev and Saddam Hussein and maneuvered the Israelis and Palestinians to their first peace conference at Madrid. Always the best prepared person in the room, he is widely viewed, by Democrats and Republicans alike, as the most effective public servant of his time.
Neither was perfect. Nixon and Kissinger should have ended the Vietnam War well before 1973. Bush and Baker’s decision not to intervene in Bosnia in 1991 missed an opportunity to end that vicious war at its start. But their lasting impact has been, by a long stretch, on the positive side of history.
America rightly honors its great generals who protect the nation and win our wars. We should also recognize our great diplomats who outwit our enemies, open new roads to the future, and win the peace. Baker reminded Harvard students that diplomacy is a “national asset,’’ needed now more than ever. Harvard and our country are right to pause and honor two unusually accomplished secretaries of state, who have truly earned a legacy of American purpose and achievement on the world’s biggest stage.Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.