Kissinger, an intellectual on a mission

We all know Henry Kissinger as a brilliant, yet divisive figure of American Foreign Politics. He was a bright mind with a first row seat during the great events of the Cold War.

Probably less known is the drama of his flight from his home town Furth, to escape Nazi-Germany. After some detours he arrived in New York, together with many other Jews. We join the young Kissinger on his trip; from post-war Germany to the US of the 40’s. Kissinger soon joins the American Army and within a few years finds himself back on German soil, where he eventually became responsible for the denazification.

Fergusson takes a chronological approach to describe Kissinger’s career, meanwhile placing the man in the context of the development of his thinking and writing. Having immersed himself in the philosophy of Kant and the diplomacy of Metternich, Kissinger shot to celebrity by arguing for “limited nuclear war”. Presidents from Kennedy to Obama have sought his advice since.

Fergusson’s first stop is at the heart of the Kennedy administration, to which Kissinger was a national security consultant. Fighting communism was at the center of their endeavors. It was the Cuba crisis that left a permanent impression: Kissinger judges it as an event that brought humanity on the brink of the biggest disaster ever. Saturday October 27, 1962 was probably the day the world came closest to destruction.

Kissinger articulated some important notions that still bear importance in the 21st century. Having studied Kant he was well aware of the notion of perpetual peace; but was not impressed by it. According to Kissinger stability is to be preferred above perpetual peace. Stability based on an equilibrium of forces is less prone to be at the mercy of the most ruthless members of the international community.

It was the famous magazine Foreign Affairs he used to publish his ideas. In a 1957 article he reflected on American diplomacy. “US foreign policy had reached an impasse because of our penchant for happy endings and ad hoc solutions”. Not only were Americans too eager to fall for Soviet peace propaganda, they based their actions on a naive belief that foreign policy could be conducted as a science, when it was in fact “the art of wagering probabilities …of grasping the nuances of possibilities”. Moreover, foreign policy making was bedeviled by bureaucracy. Modern-day politicians should still listen to this advice.

Kissinger also played his part in the game of national politics. As long-time supporter of the moderate Rockefeller, he was appalled to witness him being defeated by Barry Goldwater in 1964. It was a fierce campaign; with protestors calling Goldwater Hitler and media reporting about the smell of fascism. There was a tide of zealotry. Kissinger was of the same opinion. He saw the Goldwater voters as the middle class, facing an unsure future, gone rampant. Resulting in a backlash against elites. Kissinger found his first convention, so close to American democracy, a shattering experience. It also taught him that democracy cannot survive unless its bases respect for diversity on a strong sense of purpose.
The resemblance with election year 2016 is difficult to ignore. Moreover, Goldwater’s style and inflammatory language has since only been matched by Donald Trump.

All in all, it’s a thorough biography and a joy to read . Thanks to Fergusson’s delightful style and his excellent research, the book, stretching on to 900 pages, has a lot to give. Not only does one begin to understand Kissinger, his ambitions and his motives better, but the era (Vietnam!) in which ‘HK’ gained notoriety, comes to life. And part two has yet to be published!

Fergusson, who had unprecedented access to archives, sees Kissinger in his first four decades as an idealist and rejects any notion of him being a realist. This might be true, but Kissinger is first and foremost an intellectual looking for a platform to launch his ideas in practice. In which he succeeded. Fergusson, for his part, succeeds in  making the point that realism and idealism aren’t juxtaposed per se, but should be seen as the opposed ends of a spectrum along which good strategist act. Or as the character of President Lincoln (in the movie Lincoln) says: you consult your compass, and you avoid swamps.

Niall Fergusson – Kissinger, 1923-168:The Idealist, Allen Lane (882 p)

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