Global Independent Analytics
Danny Orbach
Danny Orbach

Location: USA

Specialization: Modern Japanese History, Modern Chinese History, Military History, History of Counterinsurgency, History of Disobedience, Dynamics of Atrocities in Wartime

What the Nonrealistic Left Keeps Getting Wrong About Kissinger, A Pragmatic Idealist

Very few writers can explain the strategy of the early cold war with such clarity and acumen.

Niall Ferguson’s new biography of Henry Kissinger, Kissinger- The Idealist, evoked angry responses by critics of the controversial statesman. But what can this criticism teach us about the contributions and shortcomings of this book and his subject?

Niall Ferguson, a well-known scholar of global history, never stopped annoying his colleagues with his habit to constantly challenge common knowledge. Was Germany the guilty party in the First World War? In his book, The Pity of War, Ferguson claimed that the war was ultimately Britain’s fault. Did British imperialism impoverish India? Ferguson’s Empire insinuates that it had made it better off in some respects. Civilization- The West and the Rest especially angered critics from the Left, as it challenged post-colonialist views and argued that the West beat the “rest” not by chance, but due to differences in social and institutional culture. In many of these cases, Ferguson’s ideas are debatable, and critics have often found inaccuracies in his books. That, however, does not diminish from the originality of his arguments, which are often backed by rich data, quantitative reasoning and critical analysis of existing research.

Ferguson’s newest book, Kissinger – The Idealist, is the first part of an intended two-volume biography of the controversial American statesman. Kissinger, as Ferguson writes in his introduction, always evoked strong feelings among critics and observers. Was he a realist, a sober secretary of state who brought reconciliation between the US and China and found a way out of the Vietnam War, or a criminal who brought about the death of millions throughout the Third World? In this volume, Ferguson outlines the lesser known parts of Kissinger’s life, from his unhappy childhood in Nazi Germany to his appointment as national security advisor in 1969. The book’s coverage includes new information on Kissinger’s activity as a counter-intelligence operative in occupied Germany, his student days at Harvard, his involvement in academic politics and (at great length) his early career as a cold war strategist and a proponent of “limited nuclear war” – a position he ultimately abandoned. 

Left-wing critics, for whom Kissinger was always a bête-noir, did not receive this book with enthusiasm. In some cases, their reviews were mere angry rants bereft of serious arguments or were nitpicked criticism on minor points. Other critical reviews, however, had a bit more substantial points. Greg Grandin, an expert historian, writing in The Guardian, had several points of criticism on Ferguson’s book, the main one being that it is an uncritically positive coverage of Kissinger with a tendency to whitewash his crimes. The first exhibit Grandin brings the following paragraph from the book’s introduction:

Arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries – and there is no other way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor – must be tested against this question: “how, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected US relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China, and the major western European powers?” The US won the cold war, and that means that the “burden of proof” is on critics to show how different policies “would have produced better results.”

On which Grandin writes the following:

The logic is wobbly. How can it be simultaneously true that Cambodia and Bangladesh were strategically marginal and that the outcome of the cold war depended on their destruction? How, exactly, might one prove that a counterfactual past, infinite in its potential variations, would have been better than the present?

But is Ferguson’s logic really “wobbly”? In strategy, events in the marginal country may give rise to amplified effects and shock waves elsewhere. Ferguson did not write that “the cold war was dependent on the destruction” of these countries. This is Grandin’s addition. He did write, though, that US policies in these countries might have had repercussions on the relations with the Soviet Union, China or the European powers, which is self-evident. The most glaring mistake of Kissinger’s critics, and of critics of US policy in general, is to compare these policies to abstract ideals of justice, instead of suggesting solid alternatives that make strategic sense. Intellectuals may theorize about abstract notions of justice. But statesmen, who operate in the real world, must serve the interests of their countries. The counterfactuals that Ferguson suggests, and Grandin mocks, are in fact indispensable for understanding the options they had at the time, from the limited point of view of the contemporaries, and not from the retrospective “know it all” position of later critics.

Grandin has yet another interesting line of criticism:

The irony is that it has been Kissinger’s sharpest critics who have most appreciated his acute sense of self, who have treated him, however disapprovingly, as a fully dimensional individual with a churning, complex psyche. In contrast, Ferguson, tone deaf to Kissinger’s darker notes, condemns him to a literary fate worse than anything that Hitchens could have meted out: Kissinger, in this book, is boring.

In effect, through his criticism, Grandin inadvertently puts a finger on a significant strength of Ferguson’s book. Instead of engaging in cheap psychologizing, exposing his subject’s “complexities” and “darker notes” with laborious interpretations, he lets Kissinger speak for himself. In fact, the long quotes from the former secretary of state’s letters, diaries and essays, which Grandin found “uninteresting,” are to my mind the ingredient that makes this book tick. In Ferguson’s account, we hear the voice of Kissinger at length and can form a judgment for ourselves. Ferguson’s judgment of Kissinger might have been positive. However, reading his book, one may interpret Kissinger’s long excerpts in an altogether different vein. To me, at least, Kissinger as reflected in the book, though brilliant, is also selfish, ruthless and an unpleasant individual. Indeed, a good author should supply the reader with enough detail and narrative to reach a range of different conclusions, even if they differ from the author’s opinion. Ferguson is doing just that.

Moreover, Ferguson’s superb story-telling, and his insistence to “let history speak” – is opening up a breathtaking historical vista for the readers. This is not only a book about Kissinger but also about the Twentieth Century in which he lived. Every chapter opens a window to a different world: the horror of German Jews under the Nazi regime, the fury of the battlefield during the Ardennes Campaign in the Second World War, the occupation of Germany in which Kissinger himself played a fascinating role as an intelligence officer, life in 1950s Harvard, the corridors of power in Washington of the early cold war. At the high points of the narrative, the reader of Ferguson’s Kissinger can truly feel he or she is walking in the streets of occupied Germany, speaking with politicians on US campaign trails, or taking part in the tradition-rich, glamorous Harvard commencement ceremonies.

However, a good history book is never about narrative alone. It is also, and mainly, about analysis. Here, Ferguson’s book has strong and weak points. As a historian well-versed in philosophy, literature, and the theory of history, no one is better equipped than Ferguson to analyze Kissinger’s worldview through his academic essays. The analysis of Emmanuel Kant’s influence on Kissinger, or the political-historical presumptions underlying his Ph.D. thesis on the Congress of Vienna, are to my mind the high points of the book. The chapters about Kissinger’s involvement in the debates of the early cold  war, especially on nuclear strategy, are also superb. Very few writers can explain the strategy of the early cold war with such clarity and acumen.

And yet, the weakest point of the book lies in its main argument, also reflected in the title: The Idealist. Even after reading Ferguson’s narrative, I am still not fully convinced that the word idealist is fit to describe Kissinger. True, “idealist”, as defined in this book, is not the starry-eyed dreamer associated with this term in the popular imagination. It is a person who believes in the power of ideas, rather than material forces, in the shaping of history. Except the most dogmatic Marxist, almost all observers would agree that ideas do matter. As one of Ferguson’s critics wrote, some of the ideas pushed by Kissinger had a significant influence on American politics and public discourse, even if some of them (such as the missile gap between the US and the Soviet Union, or the concept of limited nuclear war) were false or harmful.  Kissinger was also an idealist, in the sense of being a convinced cold warrior. He truly believed that the values of US capitalism, such as democracy, liberty, and economic freedom, are superior to the values of communism, and that the cold war was essentially a war of ideas. All of Kissinger’s cunning diplomatic maneuvers, ruthless proposals, and careful policy calculations, were essentially designed to meet idealistic ends. And yet, such a definition significantly reduces the meaning of “idealism” to its bare essentials. Usually, it is associated, for better or worse, with people who are ready to forgo at least some realize calculations for the sake of ideals. In other words, people who believe in ideas that influence the means they employ, and not only their remote ends. If we accept such a definition, Kissinger, at least since the beginning of his public career in the 1950s, was a realist all along – but a realist with an ideological vision in mind. Our judgment of his public career should be influenced by sober and measured evaluation of the means he employed, and whether they were justified by his ideological ends.

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