Kissinger ‘frustrated by state of Sino-US ties’
Biographer says Obama should have sought advice from legendary diplomat on improving relations, Andrew Moody reports.
China’s leaders are more likely than United States President Barack Obama to seek out advice from Henry Kissinger, Niall Ferguson said.
The professor of history at Harvard University, who has recently published the first volume of a biography of the former secretary of state, believes that it is one of the reasons US foreign policy is in such a mess.
“Kissinger has been to the White House, but my understanding is that he has been asked for favors, rather than advice, despite the fact that he is clearly highly regarded by the Chinese leadership and only this year had a one-to-one meeting with President Xi Jinping,” he said.
“It is remarkable to my mind that President Obama thinks he doesn’t need Kissinger’s expertise, but he apparently believes he can do grand strategy all by himself.”
Ferguson, 51, was in London to promote Kissinger: The Idealist, 1923-1968, which takes the foreign policy guru’s life up to the point he entered the White House and wielded political power for the first time.
In a review for the Financial Times, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten joked that he hoped Ferguson did not suffer the same fate as another biographer, Rohan Butler, whose 1,000-word first volume took the life of the French statesman Choiseul only to the point his career actually begun, and then died before he could continue.
“I think this first volume in this case is worth 1,000 pages,” Ferguson said, laughing. “I don’t think you can possibly see how he becomes national security adviser to Richard Nixon if you don’t see his evolution as a strategic thinker and public intellectual.
“As Kissinger himself said, you have to live off your intellectual capital in office because you don’t have time in government to acquire any more. You basically run down what you have learned so far.”
Ferguson, a Scot who is a renowned public intellectual himself and who has now lived in the US for 12 years with an academic post at Stanford as well as Harvard, was courted by Kissinger to be his biographer.
“I met him at a London drinks party. Not that I was in the habit of going to such parties, but as I used to write occasionally for The Daily Telegraph (the party was given by then owner Conrad Black) I had got on the invitation list for this one.
“He did this thing that was so flattering to young academics. He said he had read one of my books and we talked about it and that became the beginning of our correspondence.”
Ferguson said Kissinger was soon diverted at the party when supermodel Elle Macpherson entered the room but some months later asked him to write his biography.
Ferguson initially declined, but Kissinger was able to deploy all his famous diplomatic skill to win him around.
“He wrote back (when Ferguson declined) saying, ‘ What a pity. I have just found 45 boxes of documents that I thought had been lost’, and, of course, I fell for that,” he recalled.
The project was subject to a legal agreement in 2004 giving Ferguson editorial control; but to what extent was the book authorized? A previous biography by Walter Isaacson of Kissinger had been particularly critical of its subject and was certainly not authorized.
“The term ‘authorized’ is a dodgy one for me because it implies the subject has editorial control over the text. I said to him very clearly at the outset that if you give me access to your private papers I am not going to be bound by you on what I write. That was the commitment we agreed upon. If you are going to use the term, it definitely does not mean approved. I know there are parts of the book he doesn’t like.”
The book opens with how the initially idyllic childhood in Furth, Bavaria, of the then Heinz Kissinger, the son of a senior staff member at a public school, turned into a nightmare with the rise of Hitler. He managed to flee with his immediate family to New York in 1938.
“They got out in the nick of time. They avoided by a matter of months the pogrom organized against the Jews. It was very violent in the town they lived. If he had stayed in Germany like the majority of his wider family, including his grandmother, he and his brother and parents would have been killed like them.”
The biography also follows his return to Germany with the US Army and witnessing the horrors of the Ahlem concentration camp, and deploying his German skills to help in the denazification strategy.
“I think this was the most formative experience of his life, seeing with his own eyes the horrors the Nazis had perpetrated.” After the war, Kissinger took advantage of the GI Bill and went to Harvard to study, eventually becoming one of country’s leading foreign policy academics. The book ends as he becomes national security adviser at 45 to Nixon in 1969.
With his thick Bavarianedged accent, Kissinger was seen as something of an outsider by some in Washington.
“I think it would be a mistake to think — as some have suggested — there is an affectation about his accent. I have lived in the US for 12 years now, and although I might have a few Americanizations in my voice, I still retain my accent. It is not so incomprehensible you retain the accent of your teenage years.”
Kissinger, who had only visited 10 US states by the 1960s, does, according to the author, see some of his fellow citizens as a foreign race. This was particularly the case when he attended the Republican convention in 1964 that nominated Barry Goldwater for the presidential race.
“I think he was stunned by Middle American republicanism. It was something quite different to the European conservatism he was attracted to,” Ferguson said.
Vietnam remains the defining point in Kissinger’s career. Some, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, have held him responsible directly for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Ferguson’s book makes clear his efforts to stop the war from 1965 onward.
“I think that is where the book makes an important contribution. From that point, Kissinger is trying to end the war and extricate the US from the mess.” Ferguson said Kissinger feels frustrated by the current ambivalent state of US-China relations.
“He believes there is only one way forward for these relations and that is that they need to be close and amicable,” he said.
Kissinger still defines the role of the US secretary of state, appearing on the cover of Time no fewer than 15 times and casting a shadow over his successors.
“With all due respect to John Kerry, it is hard to imagine someone today getting that superstar status. He used to be the miracle worker of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, and, of course with China,” Ferguson said.
“Nowadays the job is almost the consolation prize for the failed presidential candidate, and neither Kerry nor Hillary Clinton has exactly made a major contribution to the theory of international relations.”
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Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard, was chosen by Henry Kissinger to write his biography.