Dwight Eisenhower’s televised farewell address to the nation in January 1961 is best remembered for its powerful warning to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-­industrial complex.” But the departing president remained farsighted on other issues, too. Although his tenure as president of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953 was not a particularly gratifying experience for either party, Eisenhower nevertheless became rightfully concerned that academics at the nation’s universities were losing sight of their core research function—free inquiry—in an unseemly dash to serve government ends, secure funding, and enjoy proximity to power. “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever-present,” he cautioned, “and is gravely to be regarded.” On both issues, as events would demonstrate, Eisenhower’s warnings were as prescient as they were ineffectual.

Diagnosing and criticizing the weaknesses and attendant dangers of narrowly conceived, policy-oriented scholarship is the strongest feature of Perry Anderson’s American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers. The book comprises two essays, “Imperium” and “Consilium,” first published in the New Left Review in 2013; an essay first published in The Nation in 2006; and a postscript that dwells on the year 2014. Anderson sets the stage at the beginning of “Imperium.” Since the middle of the 20th century, he explains, the combination of a stultifying bipartisan American consensus on the rudiments of Cold War foreign policy, “the provincialism of an electorate with minimal knowledge of the outside world,” and a political system that gives “virtually untrammeled power to the executive in the conduct of foreign affairs” has created “around the Presidency a narrow foreign policy elite, and a distinctive ideological vocabulary with no counterpart in internal politics: conceptions of the ‘grand strategy’ to be pursued by the American state in its dealings with the world.”

“Imperium” is a concise and bracing history of US foreign policy from the nation’s founding to the present. One of Anderson’s key points is that economic self-interest should be regarded as the principal factor shaping the nation’s diplomacy, as William Appleman Williams argued in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy in 1959. There is much to glean from Anderson’s analysis, although the relentless focus on the dark imperialist intentions of all who have shaped that strategy sometimes rings false. On Woodrow Wilson, for example, Anderson writes that he “gave voice to every chord of presumption in the imperial repertoire,” and that in 1917 Wilson “plunged the country into the First World War.” There is something to the first charge, perhaps, but in the second “plunged” fails to capture Wilson’s deep ambivalence about America’s first major military intervention in the Old World. Anderson’s critique is learned and sharp, but too many individuals and events are reduced to caricature, beholden to powerful economic and expansionist forces outside their ken.

“Consilium” is more important and deserves to be widely read. Anderson discusses the work of many of today’s best-known “grand strategists,” including Walter Russell Mead, Michael Mandelbaum, G. John Ikenberry, Charles Kupchan, Robert Kagan, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and offers some cutting appraisals. After noting that Joseph Nye Jr., recently added by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of leading global thinkers, did not “warrant consideration” because he “is insufficiently original, with little more than the banalities of soft power to his name,” Anderson distills the essence of a series of books and then skewers their authors’ pretensions. Wilsonianism’s “perfect embodiment is to be found in Ikenberry, the ‘poet laureate of liberal internationalism,’ from whom the dead centre of the establishment can draw on a more even unction.” Concerning Kupchan’s very different book No One’s World (2012)—which urges the United States to accept the reality of relative decline and prepare for an interdependent world “without a center of gravity or global guardian”—Anderson snipes that “empires, like individuals, have their moments of false modesty. The kind of retrenchment envisaged by Kupchan belongs to them.” But the essay is not all pithy evisceration: Anderson praises some of his grand strategists, observing of Robert Art’s work that “analytic precision, closely reasoned argument and lucid moderation of judgment are its hallmarks, producing realism at a higher resolution.”

Anderson encourages one to see that America’s elite universities and most influential think tanks have produced and sustained too many policy-making aspirants who claim to have identified immutable patterns in international affairs, and who believe axiomatically, as Anderson writes, that the “hegemony of the United States continues to serve both the particular interests of the nation and the universal interests of humanity.” Anderson suggests that liberal interventionists, neoconservatives, and most realists share this core assumption. Another crucial failing common to the literature is that it pays little heed to the economic context, namely “the underlying causes of the long slowdown in the growth of output, median income and productivity, and concomitant rise of public, corporate and household debt, not only in the US but across the advanced capitalist world.” Because of such ignorance, “the roots of the decline so many deplore and seek to remedy remain invisible.”

And then there is the problem of simplification, slogan-making, and cooptation. In their academic publications and media advocacy, and upon assuming a policy-­making role, grand strategists have often led with theories—sometimes attaining brand status—on America’s role in managing world-historical forces. In books like Walt Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth (1960), Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard (1997), and Robert Kagan’s The World America Made (2012), policy-oriented scholarship is too often stripped of complexity. Ideas are simplified—and their originality and importance amplified—for the easy digestion of presidential and policy-making aspirants. At the receiving end, policy-makers cherry-pick the sections that suit their purposes and ignore those that don’t. It can make for an almighty mess. Anderson identifies a problematic common theme in his grand strategic canon: “a strain of unconscious desperation, as if the only way to restore American leadership to the plenitude of its merits and powers in this world, for however finite a span of time, is to imagine another one altogether.” He has written a fascinating intellectual history of a cloistered world in which genuine insight is obscured by substantial blind spots and then sometimes weaponized.

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Like many of the thinkers pilloried by Anderson, Henry Kissinger wanted nothing less during the 1950s and ’60s than to take his rightful position in the White House—whether occupied by a Democrat or a Republican—as Aristotle to Alexander of Macedon. Yet as the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s biography makes clear, Kissinger’s career in academia and in government prior to 1968 was littered with disappointments. After failing to secure a tenured position at Harvard, Kis­singer considered leaving Cambridge in 1956 after receiving what he described as “a very advantageous offer” from the University of Chicago. It was scarcely the most traumatic of hypothetical vertical moves, yet Kissinger wrote to McGeorge Bundy, then dean at Harvard College, that he was unlikely to accept the offer because the “incommensurability” between what academic life “could be and what it is” was “particularly poignant” at Chicago. What Kissinger meant by this, Ferguson explains, is that “professors there played a far smaller role in American public life—and particularly in government—than their counterparts at Harvard.” Kissinger’s focus on securing policy work in Washington, DC, was unerring.

Ferguson is himself an aspiring grand strategist with a penchant for slogans: “Empire in Denial” to describe the United States; “Chimerica” for the interconnected economies of China and America; “Killer Apps” for what separates the West from the rest. He advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and has been strongly critical of the Obama administration. Early in the book, Ferguson insists on his impartiality: “I can predict with certainty that hostile reviewers will allege that I have in some way been influenced or induced to paint a falsely flattering picture. This is not the case.” Two pages later, Ferguson describes Kissinger as “one of the most important theorists about foreign policy ever to be produced by the United States of America. Had Kissinger never entered government service, this volume would still have been worth writing, just as Robert Skidelsky would still have had good reason to write his superb life of John Maynard Keynes even if Keynes had never left the courtyards of Cambridge for the corridors of power in His Majesty’s Treasury.” Ferguson is no admirer of Keynes—one wonders about the sincerity of the comparison—but the bar he sets by invoking him is way beyond Kissinger’s reach. Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) is an epoch-making book in a way that Kissinger’s A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812–22 and Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) are not.

Ferguson’s goal is to demonstrate that Kissinger was an “idealist,” in the first part of his career at least. (The subtitle of the second volume will reveal what Kissinger became when he joined the Nixon administration.) Few Kissinger scholars have “done more than skim his published work,” Ferguson chides; his own immersive reading reveals that “Kissinger’s intellectual capital had a dual foundation: the study of history and the philosophy of idealism.” On the former, Ferguson offers some insightful points regarding his subject’s hostility toward economic determinism, as reflected in Kis- singer’s 1959 observation that the “danger we face is that we will assume…our own materialism motivates the Soviet revolutionaries, and that because we like plenty of iceboxes this is the predominant aim of people who, after all, managed to survive under Stalin.” Kissinger deplored the scientism to which Kennedy’s “best and brightest” were susceptible—“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”—and Ferguson makes the point decisively.

But on the bigger matter of Kissinger being an idealist, the written evidence that Ferguson provides is both vast in quantity and slight in explanatory utility. He spends a lot of time discussing Kissinger’s Harvard undergraduate thesis, “The Meaning of History.” While it may be plausible to argue that Kissinger’s reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason “made him skeptical of the various materialistic theories of capitalist superiority that U.S. social scientists devised as antidotes to Marxism-Leninism,” to hang the central thesis of a nearly 1,000-page book on the subtheme of an undergraduate dissertation demands credulity from the reader. Ferguson clarifies that Kissinger’s idealism was not the same as Woodrow Wilson’s: “I am using the term ‘idealism’ in its philosophical sense, meaning that strand of Western philosophy, extending back to Anaxagoras and Plato, that holds that (in Kant’s formulation) ‘we can never be certain whether all of our putative outer experience is not mere imagining’ because ‘the reality of external objects does not admit to strict proof.’” Yet despite Ferguson’s best efforts, the connections he makes between this formulation and Kissinger’s policy recommendations are faint to illusory.

Kissinger’s response to the Berlin crisis of 1961 to ’62 is one such example. Serving at the time as an occasional National Security Council consultant to the Kennedy administration, Kissinger was appalled by the building of the Berlin Wall and instead favored a confrontation with Khrushchev. JFK accepted the wall as a necessary evil—“A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war”—that inadvertently mocked the supposed superiority of the communist economic system. Explaining Kissinger’s bellicosity, Ferguson says that “Kissinger was the idealist, Kennedy the realist. What Kissinger wanted was an American assertion that the universal principle of national ‘self-determination’—as enunciated by none other than Woodrow Wilson four decades earlier—should apply to Germany, and, indeed, to all of Berlin.” But Kissinger’s urging of a firm response was not primarily about idealism; it was about optics, meaning the importance of the United States making a strong statement to the rest of the world. As Kissinger wrote to Maxwell Taylor, another Kennedy foreign-policy adviser, “The Soviets have made us look like monkeys, weak monkeys and we can’t wait to demonstrate our masochism by crawling back and begging them please to negotiate, so that we can give up something else to them.” Discerning a humiliation for the United States instead of an impossible situation that Kennedy handled adroitly, Kissinger urged a reckless response for the sake of “credibility,” the diplomatic commodity he valued above all.

Kissinger was consistently reckless, and Ferguson is blind to the pattern. Throughout his career, Kissinger was quick to detect potential humiliations for America—in withdrawing from Vietnam too quickly; in the coming to power of Salvador Allende in Chile; in allowing a dependable friend, Yahya Khan’s Pakistan, to lose a fight with India, led by the unreliable Indira Gandhi—and quick to recommend the deployment of US military resources (whether ground troops, bombing campaigns, covert destabilization programs, or military aid), all in the interests of US “credibility.” The responses he counseled as Nixon’s national-security adviser helped to create catastrophes in each of the regions they affected: the destabilization of Cambodia and the rise of Pol Pot; the ousting of the democratically elected Allende government and the rise of the murderous Augusto Pinochet; a brutal war on the subcontinent during which Pakistan slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in what historian Gary Bass has described, in The Blood Telegram, as “a forgotten genocide.” Kissinger’s brutal policy advice did not stem from realism in any meaningful way, and it certainly wasn’t inspired by the idealism of Immanuel Kant. It was about demonstrating American power to the world, absent a moral core and a sense of proportion.

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Ferguson had privileged access to Kissinger’s private papers and thus brings some compelling new material to light. But his insistence that “idealism” was the compass of Kissinger’s life and career up to 1968 is forced and unpersuasive, and Ferguson is too prone to defer to the views of his subject. The 15-year-old Heinz Kis­singer and his family fled near-certain death in Nazi Germany in 1938, eventually settling in New York City. Following Kissinger’s lead, Ferguson contends that too much has been made of this childhood trauma. He criticizes Jeremi Suri’s Henry Kissinger and the American Century for attributing Kissinger’s skepticism about the effectiveness of democracies in the face of authoritarian challenges to the failings of the Weimar Republic. The “defect of this argument,” writes Ferguson, “is that Henry Kissinger was not yet ten years old when the Weimar Republic died, an age at which even quite precocious children are unlikely to have formed strong political opinions. His earliest political memories were of the regime that came next. Did growing up under Hitler somehow prejudice Kissinger against democracy?” In the sense that the Nazi Party rose to power through a series of electoral successes, why not? The Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig blamed mass democracy for facili­tating the rise of Hitler and preferred the more restricted suffrage of the Habsburg Empire. It seems dubious to discount the possibility that the terrible wrenches of Kis­singer’s adolescence had little bearing on his subsequent views and career.

These interpretive choices notwithstanding, the first 200 pages form the richest part of the book and detail a remarkable ascent. Kissinger served with great distinction during World War II, and was awarded a Bronze Star for breaking up a Gestapo sleeper cell in April 1945. Just a few days before, he and other members of the 84th Infantry Division happened upon a concentration camp in Ahlem, Germany, where the prisoners who were still alive often resembled the dead. Ferguson reproduces a powerful two-page article that Kissinger drafted—titled “The Eternal Jew,” an ironic reference to a Nazi propaganda film—which has the following searing lines: “That is humanity in the 20th century. People reach such a stupor of suffering that life and death, animation or immobility can’t be differentiated any more.”

Kissinger returned home to study government at Harvard University as one of the many beneficiaries of the GI Bill, which offered a free college education to returning veterans. It was at Harvard that his policy ambitions truly emerged. Kissinger was a highly motivated and entrepreneurial doctoral student, establishing a quarterly journal, Confluence, and, with his supervisor and mentor William Yandell Elliott, an “International Seminar” that brought “young leaders” from across the world to Cambridge for the summer—­which vastly expanded Kissinger’s international contacts, and was partly funded by the CIA. Ferguson’s account of Kissinger’s 1954 PhD dissertation—published three years later as A World Restored—differs from that of most scholars in that he does not view it as a paean to balance-of-power diplomacy and the virtues of Metternich; rather, the “true hero of A World Restored is not Metternich but Castlereagh.” Kissinger’s thesis, we are told, sets out “simultaneously an idealist methodology, a conservative ideology, a philosophy of history, and a tragic sensibility.” Jamming in “idealist methodology” makes for a curious and unnecessarily convoluted interpretation, however. Though Kissinger was attentive to Metternich’s flaws—“He excelled at manipulation, not construction”—the thesis first and foremost pays homage to his brand of realism. It is an impressive book in many respects, though—the finest Kissinger has written.

Kissinger’s second book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, grew from a Council on Foreign Relations study group on nuclear weapons that he directed. The book, which argued that “limited” nuclear wars were fightable, containable, and winnable, was an unlikely commercial success, selling 70,000 copies in hardback, but it also aroused strong criticism. Writing in The Reporter, Paul Nitze, an influential and hawkish member of the foreign-policy establishment, criticized Kissinger for misunderstanding weapon types, miscalculating blast effects, and underestimating how difficult it would be to impose “limits” on a nuclear exchange. It was a strongly critical review, but Nitze was surprised when Kissinger and the Council on Foreign Relations threatened The Reporter with a libel suit—an episode that Ferguson does not mention, but that surely reveals Kissinger’s vanity and sensitivity to criticism. The book transformed Kissinger into something of an academic celebrity, but as Ferguson correctly points out, “the core of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy…fails to convince.” As Kissinger devoted more of his time and energy to turning heads in government, his mentor Fritz Kraemer warned him that he was “beginning to behave in a way that is no longer human [menschlich]…. You see too many ‘important’ and not enough ‘real’ people.” Ferguson admonishes Kraemer for his statement, but the description chimes with most of the scholarship on Kissinger in this period.

The Kissinger who emerges during the 1950s and ’60s is not an entirely impressive character, despite Ferguson’s efforts to establish his status as a foreign-policy intellectual with few peers. Beyond A World Restored, Kissinger’s published work up to 1968 has not aged well. It is similarly difficult to discern a pattern of acuity in his policy advice throughout the period. During the Kennedy years, he counseled reckless escalation on Berlin, which could have led to a very dark place. He was a public supporter of the Americanization of the Vietnam War. As a negotiator under Lyndon Johnson during the failed Paris peace talks, conducted via third-party intermediaries in 1967, Kissinger consistently exaggerated North Vietnam’s eagerness to talk and his ability to fashion a breakthrough. An unimpressed Ferguson writes that “Kissinger’s conduct as a negotiator in 1967 was Stockholm syndrome avant la lettre.” But by way of establishing some extenuating circumstances, Ferguson notes that “Kissinger’s prime motive for being in Paris in 1967 was the fact that [his future wife, Nancy Maginnes] was studying at the Sorbonne that year.” This revelation humanizes Kissinger, I suppose, but it scarcely places him in a positive light. In dismissing those scholars who characterize Kissinger as ruthlessly ambitious, Ferguson cites his close advisory relationship to Nelson Rockefeller, whose centrism meant he always stood little chance of securing the GOP nomination. Ferguson doesn’t bother to consider whether the Rockefeller alliance was merely one more instance of Kissinger displaying poor judgment.

Unintentionally, then, Ferguson’s “idealist” more closely resembles an opportunist—often desperate, sometimes hapless, and occasionally highly effective, as he was in 1968 when angling for a foreign-policy job in the next administration. After Rockefeller lost the GOP nomination to Richard Nixon, Kissinger wrote to W. Averell Harriman, who was then leading the peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris: “I am through with Republican politics. The party is hopeless and unfit to govern.” The two met in Paris in September, but unbeknownst to Harriman, Kissinger was feeding information on the negotiations to the Nixon campaign. Richard Holbrooke, a member of Harriman’s team, was appalled by his duplicity: “We trusted him. It is not stretching the truth to say that the Nixon campaign had a secret source within the U.S. negotiating team.” Kissinger also offered the Hubert Humphrey campaign a large, incriminating file on Nixon that he had compiled while advising Rockefeller. This multipronged charm offensive had one goal in mind—to secure Kissinger a high-level job—and it worked. As Humphrey remarked later, “If I had been elected, I would have had Kis- singer be my assistant.” That is an interesting counterfactual for Ferguson—a fan of such thought experiments—to contemplate.

But Nixon won the election, and he appointed Kissinger as his national-security adviser with the intention of marginalizing the State Department and concentrating decision-making in the White House. This partnership reaped significant achievements that ran contrary to Nixon’s anticommunist reputation, such as détente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China. But it also promoted policies that were callous and cynical, not to mention tactically deficient—born of delusion, arrogance, and contempt for non-Western peoples. Ferguson appears to partly understand this. But rather than explain his subject’s actions, he suggests instead that Kissinger was unexceptional because his predecessors were just as culpable: “You will search the libraries in vain for The Trial of John Foster Dulles,” and “no great polemicist has troubled to indict Dean Rusk as a war criminal.” Ferguson’s complaint is not entirely groundless—Perry Anderson would likely agree—but there is also a measure of false equivalence.

The second volume of the biography could be tricky for Ferguson, not least because his own moral judgments are set at a high pitch. He describes Johnson’s policy advisers as “unscrupulous pragmatists,” contrasts them unfavorably with Kis­singer the unsullied “idealist,” and describes the US role in deposing South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, in November 1963 as a “genuinely criminal act.” Ferguson quotes Kissinger’s response to Diem’s ouster in the form of a draft statement for Nelson Rockefeller:

The government of an allied country—which had been established originally with strong U.S. support—has been overthrown by a military coup encouraged by our government [and a] thinly disguised military dictatorship has been established…. I do not like our country to be thought of in terms of the cynical use of power. Our strength is principle not manipulativeness. Our historical role has been to identify ourselves with the ideals and deepest hopes of mankind. If we lost [sic] this asset, temporary successes will be meaningless.

In an unlikely turn of events, Henry Kissinger may well be hoisted by his official biographer’s petard. Or perhaps his opportunism will continue to shine through?