Why is Kissinger a political realist

Henry KissingerBut an idealist?

Many opinions have parted about Henry A. Kissinger. For decades, academic and journalistic critics have branded him as a Macchiavellian, as a realpolitician of the most unscrupulous kind.

Niall Ferguson's monumental biography aims to counter this explicitly. The title makes that clear: "Kissinger: The Idealist." This is intended to set a counterpoint to the widespread description of the academic and politician Kissinger as in love with power, ruthless and amoral, committed solely to the balance of power on the global strategic chessboard.

Ferguson describes Kissinger's intellectual career. And this story, linked to the world politics of the 1930s to 1960s, is told by Ferguson very well and with great attention to detail. He portrays an ambitious and extremely talented young man who is turning his life in the country of exile, the USA, into a success story. The young Kissinger always saw the opportunities in his new home as opportunities for freedom and self-determination. Kissinger was an anti-materialist, according to Ferguson.

"Kissinger rejected Marxism-Leninism, the materialist ideology of the Soviet Union. But he also rejected the capitalist version of materialism. He rejected the belief of his friends at Harvard in the 1950s that one only had to outperform the Soviet Union economically. Kissinger believed that the Cold War had to be won because freedom as a fundamental value was superior to communism. And he was right. "

In his source-saturated work, Ferguson undoubtedly succeeds in refuting the view of Kissinger as a pure power fetishist, and yet Kissinger's commitment to the concept of an idealist is probably the greatest weakness of his book.

In US foreign policy, the concept of idealism is associated with President Woodrow Wilson, who, after the First World War, the great catastrophe of the 20th century, believed that he could place the US and the rest of the world under the principle of international law without this to be underpinned by a robust power politics. In this sense, Kissinger is definitely not an idealist. Ferguson repeatedly refers to the idealism of Immanuel Kant, whose studies particularly shaped the first phase of Kissinger's academic life.

Constructing an idealist looks very hard

However, Ferguson does not succeed in proving what this actually means. Ferguson also disregards the fact that the American realistic school of international relations - embodied by Hans Morgenthau and George F. Kennan - originally included both a recognition of power-political realities and a foundation of values ​​in Western democracy. The construction of an idealist Kissinger by Ferguson is insofar not very meaningful, makes a lot of effort and misses the core of his own biography.

Because Ferguson's work describes the evolution of Henry Kissinger very convincingly.

"The core idea of ​​Kissinger is that an international order is required, otherwise chaos and conflict will reign. Revolutionary powers are the great threat to the international order. Napoleon and Hitler were such threats. As a young academic, Kissinger was concerned with the question of whether the Soviet Union was still a revolutionary power. And in the course of time it became clear to him that that might no longer be the case. And thus it must be possible to drag the Soviet Union into a world order designed by the USA. "

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Kissinger recognized that within this order, different powers could also have different, historically evolved properties. Kissinger was not one of those American strategists who wanted to recreate the world in the image of the USA. The special thing about Kissinger's thinking is not only to view the international order systemically - which political scientists tend to do - but to recognize its historical depth as decisive. According to Kissinger, history is to states what character is to people.

"Anyone who does not deal with history cannot understand the behavior of other states. One cannot understand Putin's behavior without knowledge of Russian history. And he constantly refers to this history. The Chinese do that too. Kissinger's argument was and is, that Americans are bad at it. Most American politicians don't think historically. Kissinger's merit is for combining depth of history with international order and international relations. In that sense, this is a book on applied history. "

His research trip to Vietnam in 1965 was the turning point at which Kissinger changed from an idealist to a power politician, a realist. One of the main accusations against Kissinger to this day is that he unnecessarily prolonged the war in Vietnam through his negotiation poker. This is an unhistorical assessment because it suppressed the room for maneuver at the time, according to Ferguson.

"One of the questions in my second volume will be whether there were easy exit scenarios from the Vietnam War. It is pretty clear that those no longer existed in 1969, when Kissinger became a security advisor. We therefore always have to ask ourselves a typical Kissinger question ask: What were the realistic alternatives at that time? Not: In retrospect, what is desirable and ideal? "

On the left, Kissinger was accused of making pacts with military regimes, for example in Chile and Argentina. Conservatives viewed his opening policy towards China and the Soviet Union as too soft and neglected - by the way, this was one reason why Kissinger no longer played a role in the Reagan administration. It will be interesting to see how Ferguson deals with the power politician Kissinger in the second volume of his biography.

Niall Ferguson: "Kissinger. The Idealist. 1923-1968"
Volume 1, Propylaeen Verlag, 1119 pages, 49 euros