Niall Ferguson At The L.A. Times: ‘Think Kissinger Was The Heartless Grandmaster Of Realpolitik? What About Obama?’

Full piece here.

‘Wait — realism? Isn’t that the hard-nosed — not to say amoral — approach to foreign policy commonly associated with Henry Kissinger?

Having spent much of the last decade writing a life of Kissinger, I no longer think of the former secretary of State as the heartless grandmaster of realpolitik. (That’s a caricature.) But after reading countless critiques of his record, not least the late Christopher Hitchens’ influential “Trial of Henry Kissinger,” I also find myself asking another question: Where are the equivalent critiques of Obama?’

Perhaps this is a useful line of thought.

Wherever you happen to be coming from, I’ve often taken ‘realpolitik‘ to mean:  Tempering one’s idealism and moral/professional/political commitments with some empiricism or ‘things as they are’ regarding policy and world events (empiricism is complicated, and it ain’t always ‘(S)cience’ as I’ve come see the world).

This can offer a valuable space where some reflection, intellectual honesty, and adjustment can occur by those making decisions, and where people under such decision-makers can hold them to some account (a reasonable constraint if there ever was one).

People rarely agree on beliefs, principles, politics nor policy prescriptions, but as Kissinger noted, there’s always a necessary political component to our beliefs and principles:

“Moreover, the reputation, indeed the political survival, of most leaders depends on their ability to realize their goals, however these may have been arrived at.  Whether these goals are desireable is relatively less crucial.”

Kissinger, Henry. American Foreign Policy:  Three Essays.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.  1969.


‘There is disenchantment with Obama’s foreign policy these days. In recent polls, nearly half of Americans (49.3%) disapprove of it, compared with fewer than 38% who approve. I suspect, however, that many disapprove for the wrong reasons. The president is widely seen, especially on the right, as weak. In my view, his strategy is flawed, but there is no doubting his ruthlessness when it comes to executing it.’

The place where ideals are tested in the world, and found wanting, often requires the cold-eyed application of strategic logic, and to his credit, Obama’s at least stayed this course to some extent as Ferguson points out (though nowhere near enough, and without nearly enough criticism, for my taste).

As I see it, a Western Left activism and liberation idealism was always more the root from which Obama’s policy sprang (the kind of liberation politics and cooled street activism to which many folks have been hesitant to critize when it comes to implications for current institutional authority). The application of cold-logic and non-action out in the world often came later, often out of necessity, where the ideas and policies have failed or been challenged.

As for realpolitik, some of its inherent pragmatism is applicable now, as it’s wise to be pragmatic about what should stay and go, and what’s working now and what might work better. This seems worthy of consideration for no other reason than the reasonable transfer of power in our Republic.

On that note, some people get really angry at Henry Kissinger, with an anger perhaps reserved for heretics and apostates.  I’m figuring his roots in an Enlightenment Kantian transcendental idealism make him a target for adherents, believers and true-believers of Left-liberalism idealism out in the world.

This seems to challenge many folks where they live.

As previously posted:

On Niall Ferguson’s new Biography- ‘Kissinger: Volume I: The Idealist.1923-1968:’

FT review.

The Economist

Ferguson discusses the first volume in D.C.


-Scowcroft and Brzezinski may be offering plans: ‘George Shultz & Henry Kissinger At The Hoover Institution: ‘What A Final Iran Deal Must Do’

Israel, Iran, & Peace: Andrew Sullivan Responds To Charges Of Potential Anti-SemitismSome Saturday Links On Iran-Skepticism, To Say The Least George Shultz & Henry Kissinger At The Hoover Institution: ‘What A Final Iran Deal Must Do’ So what are our interests and how do we secure them as the fires in the Middle-East rage?  Michael Totten makes a case here in Why We Can’t Leave The Middle-East.’  He gets push-back in the comments

Henry Kissinger & George Schulz Via The WSJ: ‘The Iran Deal And Its Consequences’Inside Everyone Is A Western Individual Waiting To Get Out?-Repost-Roger Sandall At The American Interest: ‘Tribal Realism’

Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Leave a Reply