Kissinger’s 4 lessons

tags: Henry Kissinger

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of the forthcoming book Kissinger, 1923–1968: The Idealist. Follow him on Twitter @nfergus.

... As Kissinger observed in the first volume of his memoirs, “High office teaches decision-making, not substance. . . . On the whole, a period in high office consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it.” Since nearly all scholarly attention has been focused on Kissinger’s time in office, his own intellectual capital—the ideas he developed between the early 1950s and the late 1960s at Harvard, at the Council on Foreign Relations, and for Rockefeller—has been insufficiently studied. Properly understood as an innovative critique of realpolitik, his ideas offer at least four key insights into foreign policy that Obama, not to mention his successor, would be well advised to study: history is the key to understanding rivals and allies; one must confront the problem of conjecture, with its asymmetric payoffs; many foreign policy decisions are choices between evils; and leaders should be wary of the perils of a morally vacuous realism.


After the philosophy of idealism, the most important thing Kissinger learned at Harvard was the centrality of history to understanding problems of national security. “No significant conclusions are possible in the study of foreign affairs—the study of states acting as units—without an awareness of the historical context,” he wrote in his doctoral dissertation, published in 1957 as A World Restored: “The memory of states is the test of truth of their policy. The more elementary the experience, the more profound its impact on a nation’s interpretation of the present in the light of the past.” After all, Kissinger asked, “Who is to quarrel with a people’s interpretation of its past? It is its only means of facing the future, and what ‘really’ happened is often less important than what is thought to have happened.” To the political scientist, states might “appear . . . as factors in a security arrangement.” To the lawyer, they might seem like interchangeable parties in an endless succession of international lawsuits. In fact, Kissinger wrote, all states “consider themselves as expressions of historical forces. It is not the equilibrium as an end that concerns them . . . but as a means towards realizing their historical aspirations.”

A recurrent theme in Kissinger’s early writing is the historical ignorance of the typical American decision-maker. Lawyers, he remarked in 1968, are the “single most important group in Government, but they do have this drawback—a deficiency in history.” For Kissinger, history was doubly important: as a source of illuminating analogies and as the defining factor in national self-understanding. Americans might doubt history’s importance, but, as Kissinger wrote, “Europeans, living on a continent covered with ruins testifying to the fallibility of human foresight, feel in their bones that history is more complicated than systems analysis.” ...

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