Wednesday, October 07, 2015

"There are a number of people who will never forgive [Barack Obama] for being half-black" (the late Stanley Hoffmann)


Plus some thoughts on Zbig Brzezinski, Henry the K,
the brothers Kennedy, and some fellow Frenchies

Harvard Prof. Stanley Hoffmann speaking on European-American relations at the Salzburg Global Seminar in 1984

by Ken

The New York Review of Books is remembering a frequent contributor, the late Stanley Hoffmann, longtime professor of international relations at Harvard. who died on September 13, with online publication of a "conversation" drawn from a never-published December 2011 interview with Michal Matlak ("a PhD student in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and a regular contributor to the Polish magazine Liberal Culture").

I've plucked out a few excerpts from those excerpts.


About Brzezinski, and the radical change he underwent, Hoffmann recalled:
He was always fascinated by and worried about the Soviet Union and nothing else. I liked him very much. But then he was a great supporter of the Vietnam War which I thought was a disaster and unwinnable. Now he has completely changed. I don’t think he remembers that he was such a supporter of the war. I was quite surprised at a conference which took place in Berlin about ten years ago to hear Zbig explaining that what the US did in Vietnam was a form of colonialism. He would never have said that earlier. In other words he was wise enough to change his mind. We are exactly the same age.

Zbig is a complicated guy. There was this permanent battle that went on between Zbig, representing the hard line on Russia, and Cyrus Vance, who wanted more accommodation, more flexibility. And the relations between the two of them were just awful. The story of my department was, for years, the battle between Zbigniew and Henry Kissinger. The difference has been that Kissinger never took Zbigniew seriously, and Zbigniew could not tolerate Henry, because Henry was there always before Zbig in occupying the high positions.
As for Henry the K, Hoffmann said: "I could write a book on Henry, which I will not. Everything is very complicated with Mr. Kissinger."

He did comment on something Kissinger "was very good at":
There was very recently, in The New York Times, a long front-page review by him of a new and very long biography of George Kennan. And what I found remarkable about Henry’s article was that it said nothing. I went through all of it and you don’t know at the end what he really thought. And he was very good at that.


After some conversation about "politicians who are able to combine moral ends with Realpolitik, Hoffmann was asked about another possible "successful idealist."
You knew John F. Kennedy. Did he belong to the same group of successful idealists?

Although I knew Kennedy a little, I did not like him, for purely personal reasons. He was very much an opportunist, very intelligent. I knew all three of the Kennedys. The youngest one, Teddy, who died about three years ago, was my student. He was not a genius, but he was a good person. He spent much of his time as a member of the Senate helping people get visas to the United States. He saved people. And he never really thought much about himself, because he didn’t think he was quite smart enough to reach the heights. But I liked him. The other two, Bobby and John Kennedy, struck me as hard-nosed, calculating machines.

So you don’t see in their politics a strong connection to human rights?

I think that the one who developed [this connection]—just before he was murdered—was Bobby Kennedy. He started as an aide of [Republican Senator Joe] McCarthy, so he travelled a great deal, so to speak. John F. Kennedy, I couldn’t quite figure him out. In any case his assassination was a disaster, because his successor, LBJ, did some very good things in some areas relating to human rights, but foreign policy was not his domain. But who are we to pass judgment on everybody?


About President Obama, Hoffmann expressed admiration for his two books, saying, "He writes well and he is a very good speaker."
[Y]ou have lots of people, including Newt Gingrich and some others, who still wonder whether Obama is really an American. It requires a certain amount of chutzpah for somebody like Obama to be president because he knows there are a number of people who will never forgive him for being half-black. And for the time being America is ungovernable. The Constitution—and all the additions that have been grafted on it—make effective government almost impossible. For almost every important measure you need a 60 percent majority in the Senate. It is almost impossible to get this. So nothing works.


Stanley Hoffmann was by birth French. (He had vivid memories of the Nazi occupation of his homeland.) And he had interesting things to say about Europe generally, and in particular about several of his countrymen, including --

• Mitterrand, about whom he wrote a book, and whom he described as "not an admirable politician," "highly intelligent, but also a narcissist."

• De Gaulle, of whom he said, "I have learned more about politics by studying de Gaulle than by studying Mitterand." He admired De Gaulle's being "very flexible when it came to the personalities with whom he worked." "[A]fter the liberation, some of the people who were most useful to France were not politicians or ex-politicians; they were business people, technicians, civil servants, who were totally indifferent to the battles between socialists and Christian democrats."

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At 10:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps one can get some insight into the opaque Henry K by reading a passage by George Kennan whose biography Henry K apparently wrote: "We will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans the better."
Policy Planning Study 23 (PPS23), Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1948

John Puma

At 12:15 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Interesting, John. I'm sure our Henry has always thought that's what he was doing. Of course you still have to define "immediate national objectives." I doubt that George K and Henry K would in all cases -- or even in many cases -- have defined them the same way. One person's INO is another person's "idealistic slogan."


At 3:33 PM, Blogger John said...

To Ken,

I would hardly insist that H.K. and G.K had identical "immediate national objectives." They clearly had their own objectives. From observing H.K., I suggest that it was hardly a coincidence that the way he went about realizing them was very similar to G.K.'s proposed strategy to employ "straight power concepts."

I doubt H.K. ever considered a biography of Gandhi.

John Puma


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