From the War Room to Wall Street

In bringing together sellers and buyers, markets and investors, autocrats and capitalists, Kissinger Associates played an outsize role in the rapid advancement of neoliberalism around the world.

Henry Kissinger (second from right) at the Global Economic Panel in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in April 1989. (Nationaal Archief NL / Wikimedia Commons)

The scourge of the international investor is uncertainty: the inability to predict the social, political or economic future in a country halfway around the world increases the risk of invest- ing there, and therefore raises the cost of borrowing for or insuring a given venture. How, then, does a firm hedge against an unknowable future in some far-flung corner of the globe? It turns to the expert, the consultant, the analyst, who provides the intelligence that will assure the board of directors, calm the skeptical lender, and still the shaking hand of the insurance broker.

In fact, risk consulting has itself become a multibillion dollar industry, metastasizing within a larger financial economy sick with securities and derivatives of increasing complexity. But even as the risk consulting industry has grown, there was, for decades, one expert par excellence to whom the titans of industry turned: Henry Kissinger.

After leaving the State Department in 1977, Kissinger maintained his position as a commentator and a confidant to those in power. But while the continued clamor from the political classes for his advice and counsel has no doubt stroked his voluble ego, it is the handsomely paid advice he provided to the business class that made Kissinger a rich man. The former secretary of state founded his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, in New York City in 1982, waiting what he considered to be a prudent five years after leaving office before peddling his expertise to business leaders.

When Kissinger was in power, his promotion of US business interests was straightforward: he encouraged the sale of massive amounts of US-manufactured arms to Iran and Saudi Arabia, for instance, and supported the overthrow of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, which happened to be in the interest of Pepsi-Cola and the telecom giant ITT. Once out of office, his hands were no longer on such direct levers of power. But he did possess a vast store of expertise on global affairs, a unique window into the workings of the US government and its global counterparts. And for that, it quickly became clear, corporations across a range of industries would pay well.

Among Kissinger Associates’ clients in the 1980s and 1990s were massive banking and insurance firms like AIG, American Express and Chase Manhattan. But Kissinger also worked with consumer giants like Heinz, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Revlon; automobile manufacturers like Volvo and Fiat; telecom companies like ITT, GTE, Bell Telephone of Belgium and Ericsson; as well as global mining, petroleum, engineer- ing and construction companies like Freeport-McMoRan, Hunt Oil, and Union Carbide.

According to biographer Walter Isaacson, in the early 1990s, a company might typically pay Kissinger Associates a retainer of some $200,000 for a yearly contract. For this fee, Kissinger and his team would be available for regular telephone consultations about current events, and would provide a full briefing — always orally and in person, never leaving a paper trail — two to three times a year. If a company sought more specialized help, such as opening doors for government approval in some foreign country, that would cost an additional $100,000 a month, plus expenses. This was a very lucrative venture. To open the office in 1982, Kissinger had borrowed $350,000 from a consortium of banks including Goldman Sachs, and though the term of the loan was five years, he repaid in full within the first two. By the early 1990s, the firm’s revenues were close to $10 million a year.

But beyond padding Kissinger’s personal portfolio, his consulting work was crucial in spreading the advance of neoliberal economic policy around the globe. The auspicious beginnings of Kissinger Associates in 1982, a year of serious global financial crisis — and therefore opportunity for capitalist interests — demonstrate just how implicated Henry Kissinger was in advancing this new set of economic priorities.

After the Mexican government announced in August of 1982 that it would be unable to make payments on its outstanding foreign debt, and some forty other countries followed suit and announced their own defaults, there were widespread fears of a systemic collapse of the financial sector. In response, the IMF and the US government devised rescue packages that would restructure the commercial debt of countries like Mexico. Much of this debt was owed to the largest banks in the United States, such as Chase Manhattan, JP Morgan, Citicorp, and American Express — many of which were clients of Kissinger Associates.

In addition to advising these firms directly during the debt crisis, Kissinger used his public platform, including newspaper columns and interviews on major news networks, to advocate for debt relief structures that would be particularly advantageous for his clients. He argued, for example, that the banks themselves shouldn’t have to shoulder the full weight of the defaults; rather, the governments of the United States and the other creditor nations should have to carry some of the burden of restructuring. This was a classic tenet of neoliberal policy: privatize the profits, but socialize the risk. Throughout the 1980s, Kissinger advocated it loudly in the media, without disclosing his financial ties to firms that would profit from such a strategy.

At the same time, Kissinger helped to advise firms on how to take advantage of the various economic reforms upon which this kind of debt relief became conditional, making sure that his clients were well positioned as structural adjustment resulted in the selling off of state assets and the opening of new markets to foreign investment.

The 1990s brought a bonanza of privatization and deregulation in so- called “emerging markets” in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. Kissinger’s clients in manufacturing, telecommunications, engineering, mining and petroleum turned to him to open doors in places where he had particularly valuable contacts: Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping, for example, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas were among his personal acquaintances. Kissinger could, therefore, bring AIG’s Hank Greenberg to lunch with Deng in Beijing, for example, while AIG was building a new headquarters in Shanghai. Or he could have Robert Day, the chairman of Trust Company of the West — a huge Los Angeles-based investment firm — visit him at his vacation home in Acapulco, from which they could pop over to Mexico City in Day’s private jet, where Kissinger was working on a deal for the company to invest in the formerly state-owned Mexican telephone system. (In the end, they were outbid by Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire who rode the privatization of Mexican telecoms to a spot near the top of the Forbes billionaire list.)

Mexico alone sold off thousands of state-owned enterprises in the 1980s and early 1990s, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs, but proving to be what the World Bank hailed as a “model” for other developing countries. And in this model, Kissinger was a constant presence.

Kissinger’s associates were, then, not just friends in high places: they were finance ministers and heads of state committed to the economic liberalization of their “emerging” countries, as well as the founders and CEOs of multinational firms poised to take advantage of that liberalization. In bringing together sellers and buyers, markets and investors, autocrats and capitalists, Kissinger played an outsized role in the rapid advancement of neoliberalism around the world. This role is one of the crucial and often overlooked aspects of the way in which the spread of neoliberalism over the last four decades has advanced: through the concerted action of states and their representatives.

Even as an individual, Kissinger always carried the imprimatur of government — out of power, he remained Secretary Kissinger. He advocated in his own interest, to be sure, but has advised his clients on the intentions and policies of the US government, as well as governments overseas. In fact, many of the staff of Kissinger Associates over the years — such as Brent Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger, L. Paul Bremer, Timothy Geithner and Bill Richardson — have cycled in or out of the firm as they left and then returned to government positions. This closeness to the state is a large part of what Kissinger Associates sells, and tracing the history of the firm helps us to trace how the role of the state in the management of global capitalism has changed over the years.

Tracing this role is not easy, as the current client list for the firm remains a closely guarded secret. The question of just who were the former secretary’s associates surged into the spotlight when George W. Bush named Kissinger the chair of the inde- pendent commission created to investigate the September 11 terrorist attacks. Congressional Democrats insisted that to prove there were no conflicts of interest, he had to disclose the client list for Kissinger Associates; he resigned the post rather than do so. Despite this secrecy, however, the firm has publicly entered into a number of “strategic partnerships” in recent years. These include links with some of the country’s biggest financial firms, including, since 2002, AIG and the Blackstone Group, the private equity house run by Pete Peterson, who had been secretary of commerce under Nixon. This followed the announcement in 2000 of a partnership with Hakluyt & Company, a management consultancy created and run by former spies with the British intelligence agency MI6. Hakluyt has been implicated in spying on environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace on behalf of clients like Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum.

Perhaps because of the scrutiny that Kissinger Associates and strategic partners like Hakluyt experienced following the uproar over the 9/11 Commission, Kissinger partnered in 2004 with the public relations firm APCO Worldwide, which handles PR for clients involved in sensitive political or reputational crises. Around the same time, Kissinger also announced a partnership with the DC-based corporate law firm Covington and Burling, which has represented clients such Philip Morris, Halliburton, Chiquita and Blackwater (Xe). To best serve corporate clients, then, Kissinger Associates is now partnered with some of the world’s biggest and most important investing, insurance, intelligence, PR and law firms. As the global economy has become more complicated, so, too, has Kissinger’s business.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kissinger Associates has been closely tied to more recent geopolitical and economic crises, as well. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the 2008 financial crisis, Kissinger Associates snapped up Lehman’s former head of sovereign risk, Jami Miscik, and installed her as president and vice chair. But it wasn’t just her background at Lehman that made her Kissinger material. Prior to her time at the failed investment firm, Miscik spent more than two decades in intelligence, culminating in her appointment as the CIA’s deputy director of intelligence from 2002 to 2005 — during which time she was responsible for the intelligence with which the Bush administration made the case for the war in Iraq.

These, it should be noted, were not ordinary stints in government and finance: they were positions in two of the most disastrous episodes in recent geopolitical and economic history. But where others saw crisis and challenge, Kissinger demonstrated that he saw opportunity, installing Miscik to sit at the nexus between government and finance that is Kissinger Associates.

The times are nothing if not uncertain; and where there is uncertainty, Kissinger’s company is indispensable to the interests of global capital.