Defending Henry Kissinger: Niall Ferguson and “Idealist” History
One of the most lamentable features of international relations courses remains the continued, and looming presence, not
merely of Henry Kissinger the statesman but Henry Kissinger the theorist. Whatever one may think of old Heinz, he shaped
geopolitics and counselled the movements of US hegemony with ruthless, even cynical fashion. In engaging the politics of
the pirate, and the practices of plunder, he gave such practices the deceptively neat term “realism”.
This did not shore up well with a certain strand of US political tradition which sentimentalises liberty even as it
ravishes it. The realist cannot purport to be an exceptionalist, precisely because such a statement is absurd. There are
powers and non-powers, brutes and the brutalised.
Even if we accept the heavily battered realist credentials, restoring, let alone lifting Kissinger, from the darkness of
his record is a tall order. Nefarious, calculating, war-mongering, and expansively self-delusional, it is hard to go
past such works as Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001) without feeling that the fellow did not cut the mustard in a range of areas. Even weightier accounts such as
Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983), and Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger: A Biographer (1992) prove muddying and gory.
Niall Ferguson, himself an apologist of imperial projects past and current, has decided to come to the already crowded
party of Kissinger biographies with his first volume of his Life. Ferguson tends to be allergic to modesty, and duly
claims that Kissinger begged him to engage the project. This should immediately trouble the reader: reading the copy of
“embedded” journalists is to be regarded with as much suspicion as the biographer with an exclusive dinner invitation.
Such proximity, notably to an individual so prone to flattery and flattering, exerts its corrupting pull.
Ferguson’s point, rather, is do ditch the view that Kissinger was the realist history accords him, and attempt to
dislodge him from the reliquary of a certain political tradition. Flipping the ideological cards, he suggests a dominant
streak of idealism, one fed by European precedent. But what, exactly, does this act of flipping actually accomplish?
Certainly, Ferguson wishes to show a Kissinger more attuned, more sceptical about American engagements, despite being
himself instrumental in them. American adventurism in Vietnam, for instance, was questionable, though such views were
not to be expressed too loudly – Kissinger always prized the career path and hedged his bets.
Privately, he would take the Kennedy administration to task for its role behind the assassination of South Vietnam’s Ngo
Dinh Diem. “The honour and moral standing of the United States require that a relationship exists between ends and
means.... Our historical role has been to identify ourselves with the ideals and deepest hopes of mankind.” He would
also object to making use of small states as “pawns”.
Such views tend to be meaningless, largely because they never factored in Kissinger’s own actions. Whether such
behaviour can be put down to an overwhelming sense of moral cowardice, or calculation, vanishes before the bloody
details. When it mattered, Kissinger supported the most ruthless regimes in the broader cause against Communism, with an
enormous cost to human life. Democratic causes were enfeebled; elected governments, such as that of Allende in Chile,
were overthrown with his blessing.
Ferguson the biographer duly becomes Ferguson the apologist, taking his own dump on smaller states and reducing them to
geopolitical excreta that have little to do with the idealist he so desperately wishes to find: “[A]rguments 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 the 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?”
Then there is the fallback every admiring biographer tends to find about a subject he wishes to lionise. Ferguson needs
to put his finger on the reason why his subject was so detested. No, not because of his role behind the surveillance
state, failed wars, deadly policies in Latin America, pro-White government policies in Africa, and a general
destabilising disposition to states, but because people were envious. He had a way with women; he charmed in the manner
of an experienced courtesan. And he was, well, a Jew, which grated with establishment anti-Semitism.
Yet for all that, Kissinger’s official biographer cannot get away from a cluttered mind that legitimised such doctrines
as “limited” nuclear war, tantamount to suggesting that a state can engage in “mild” exterminatory practices. The
“balance of power” as Greg Grandin explained in his own biography Kissinger’s Shadow, is something “constantly tested through gesture and deed.” To be relevant, the grand state must perform with vicious
virility. Stillness is death.
Hegemons can lay waste to the earth, but eventually, some restoring balance can be attained – there will be survivors;
every cast of power needs a maniacal Dr. Strangelove. Now, if that is a form of mad idealism, then so be it. It does not
detract, nor revise, Kissinger’s role in history.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.