Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's "World Order" [Part Four] by Thomas Riggins

Part four of five on Kissinger review in TLS.

Ferguson now criticizes the ideas expressed by Obama in his New Yorker interview. Obama said a “new equilibrium” could be reached if Iran would be more cooperative so it could work with the Sunni Gulf States [what about Saudi Arabia and the US being more cooperative vis a vis Iran as well] and if the Palestinian  “issue” could be “unwound’’ [all the US has to do to do this is put some real pressure on Israel to follow international norms and obey UN resolutions]. Then Israel could work towards alliances or normal relations with the Sunni states [why not with the Shia as well; all Israel’s problems stem from its oppression of the Palestinians].


Ferguson rejects Obama’s ideas because, he asks, why would the states in the region cooperate to produce equilibrium when any of them might attain “hegemony” over the others. This is a really lame objection to Obama’s ideas— it stems from the knee jerk reaction that anything Obama does or says must be criticized. There is no evidence that any of the states in the region is striving to attain “hegemony” — they are all trying to defend themselves and their internal status quo but their own internal policies generate opposition which they all try to lay on their neighbor’s doorstep. The only country trying to exert hegemony in the region is the US as the following quote from Kissinger reveals (which Ferguson thinks is directed at Obama): 

“Even were such a constellation [equilibrium] to come to pass, it could only be sustained by an active American foreign policy. For the balance of power is never static; its components are in constant flux. The United States would be needed as a balancer for the foreseeable future. The role of balancer is best carried out if America is closer to each of the contending forces than they are to each other …. America can fulfill that role only on the basis of involvement, not of withdrawal”

This is just a modernized version of the old British policy of divide and rule which was used to pacify India and other colonial regions. It is ridiculous because the US is one of the contending parties itself and it can’t be a balancer because all its policies are imbalanced in favor of Israel and its own imperial economic interests in the region. There will never be peace in the region as long as the US is actively involved. 

Why anyone takes Kissinger seriously is a mystery. Of those he has influenced it can truly said: “Devastation and destruction are in their highways. They do not know the way of peace, And there is no justice in their tracks; They have made their paths crooked, Whoever treads on them does not know peace.’’

At this point Ferguson moves from considering Kissinger’s views on the Middle East to his views on developments in Asia. Here again Kissinger (and Ferguson) demonstrate their (and presumedly the foreign policy establishment’s) complete
lack of understanding of what is happening in the world and why.

Kissinger sees two balances of power forming in Asia; one in the south the other in the east. Here is his quote: “Under contemporary conditions essentially two balances of power are emerging: one in South Asia, the other in East Asia. Neither possesses the characteristic integral to the European balance of power: a balancer, a country capable of establishing an equilibrium by shifting its weight to the weaker side.”

It is the rising power of China in East Asia that is problematic. Kissinger attempts to understand balance of power possibilities in this region by harking back  to nineteenth century European balance of power deals. He writes, “the United States is an ally of Japan and a proclaimed partner of China [they are actually rivals] — a situation comparable to Bismarck’s  when he made an alliance with Austria balanced by a treaty with Russia.” 

This was a complex secret treaty arrangement whereby Russia and Germany would remain neutral if one of them went to war with a third party— unless France was attacked by the Germans or Austria-Hungary by the Russians. This treaty was signed in 1887 and Kissinger says its later abandonment led to World War I. The question is, can such a secret treaty (that will protect Japan) be made with China? [That is all we need, a secret treaty between the US and China of which the American people will be ignorant!— and Wiki Leaks is the enemy?]. 

The only thing that would prevent this secret deal, at least on the US side is, Kissinger says, according to Ferguson, the “pernicious legacy of Woodrow Wilson.” This legacy, Kissinger writes is “an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.”  Wilson gave Americans a false sense of security in the belief that they could avoid foreign entanglements due to his views on collective security. 

The only thing “pernicious” here was the US’s failure to join the League of Nations and make it robust enough to have prevented Italian and German aggression, not Wilson’s ideas. Here is a quote from Kissinger illustrating his critique of Wilson (the ellipses are due to Ferguson):

“Collective security … is a legal construct addressed to no specific contingency. It defines no particular obligations except joint action of some kind when the rules of peaceful international order are violated. In practice, action must be negotiated from case to case …. The idea that in such situations countries will identify violations of peace identically and be prepared to act in common against them is belied by the experience of history …. An alliance [by contrast ] comes about as an agreement on specific facts or expectations. It creates a formal obligation to act in a precise way in defined contingencies. It brings about a strategic obligation fufillable in an agreed manner. It arises out of a consciousness of shared interests, and  the more parallel those interest are, the more cohesive the alliance will be.” 

This quote shows why we need a supra-national organization to enforce world order, an ideal that Bertrand Russell advocated for many years. One of the reasons world order collapsed the way it did in the wake of World War I may have been the weakness of the League of Nations not the concept of collective security. 

There are design flaws in the UN which prevent it from being an effective supra-national origination that could maintain world order. These have to do with the Security Council with its veto wielding five permanent members who think of the UN as an organization to further their particular national (i,e, class) interests. The US, especially, as the number one rogue nation, ignores the UN and world opinion in general whenever it decides its own interests trump what the majority, even when the overwhelming majority of humanity, thinks it is violating what is right and decent (its treatment of Cuba [recently modified for the better], its oppression of the Palestinians, its unilateral interventions in other countries, its support of fascist regimes repressing their own people, its use of the veto to defy world opinion, are only the most prominent examples that come to mind.) This behavior is due to the use of alliances and treaties so beloved of Kissinger rather than honestly working within the UN framework as it was envisioned to maintain a peaceful world order through collective security. [The larger explanation for US behavior is to be found in Lenin’s Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, but that is a different review all together.]

Ferguson says that in all of Kissinger’s works there is a recognition that realpolitik doesn’t always work and that successful foreign policy can’t be based solely on pragmatism. Kissinger says that we must make “conjectures” when we engage in making foreign policy we “need to gear actions to an assessment that cannot be proved when it is made.” In other words Kissinger advocates a foreign policy based on pragmatism plus folly. It was surely folly to assess that the Vietnamese would welcome the US and reject Ho Chi Minh, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, that we could transplant “democracy” to the Middle East and to Afghanistan, that Fidel would be overthrown by his own people if we invaded at the bay of Pigs, that Allende was a soviet style communist— the list goes on.

Ferguson thinks Kissinger is a mixture of idealist and realist, and more similar to the idealism expressed in Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace than the realism of Machiavelli. I don’t think anyone reading Kant would conclude that Kissinger was anything other than the thug and goon type of statesman Kant was horrified by and who was portrayed so accurately by Christopher Hitchens in The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

In our next, and last, installment we will look at Kissinger’s views on American “idealism” as expressed more in his actions than his words.

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  • Thanks for the comment Norman. I really don't take Ferguson seriously but think, since many people do, that
    the PA blog is a useful educational tool to "refute" his ideas which still need to be addressed for the benefit of the "unenlightened." I remember your article, and others I read about his book, and how horrible an apology for the British Empire it was. Nevertheless, his malign influence is still with us.

    Posted by Thomas Riggins, 01/27/2015 5:39pm (3 years ago)

  • Excellent points Tom, but actually I would ask wny anyone would or should take Ferguson seriously who is not on the right, which is where he is and has been for a very long time. He has been a fan of British and American imperialism and a propagandist for both for a very long time. He crossed the Atlantic to involve himself in U.S. politics and served, believe it or not as an "advisor" to the McCain campaign in 2008. He has thrown everything he could at Obama since 2008.

    As for the old "realism vs. idealism" question cold war academics liked to play with, the influences on Kissinger were pretty clear and direct, Metternich's concept of "the forces of order vs. the forces of movement" and Bismarck's strategy of playing various "enemies" against each other. This meant improving relations with the Soviets and establishing relations with the Chinese to both play them against each other and potentially to find ways to use them against the Vietnamese, the Cubans, and revolutionary movements through the world through the concept of "linkage" By the way 9 years ago I did a review for PA on Ferguson's book Empire. I titled it "Why Can't We Be Teenagers In Love with the British Empire." Since then, he changed in that he got worse
    Norman

    Posted by norman markowitz, 01/26/2015 3:23pm (3 years ago)

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