Commentary Magazine

Diplomacy, by Henry Kissinger

The World Stage

by Henry Kissinger.
Simon & Schuster. 912 pp. $35.00.

Good diplomats rarely write well about diplomacy. Ambassadorial memoirs include some of the worst books ever published. Castlereagh, Talleyrand, and Metternich, the three men who created the 1814-15 Vienna settlement, rightly praised by Henry Kissinger as one of the most durable works of peacemaking in history, left nothing apart from their voluminous papers, and for their views on their craft we are dependent on a few bons mots. By contrast, John Quincy Adams produced twelve volumes of Memoirs, and Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe is another Leviathan. But both are composed more of venom, spleen, hurt pride, and vindictive narrative than diplomatic adages—and, if truth be told, neither man was a negotiator of world class. In modern times, the writings of John Foster Dulles and Anthony Eden are unilluminating, George Kennan’s books uneven, and the one outstanding memoir is Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation. But even that tells you what, where, and when, rather than how.

That leaves us with two authors—Harold Nicolson and Henry Kissinger. Both engaged in diplomacy with a passion for the art and with a view to writing about it later. Both studied carefully that perennial sourcebook of diplomacy, the Vienna Congress: Nicolson’s The Congress of Vienna (1946) and Kissinger’s A World Restored (1957) are the two best short accounts of it. Nicolson was brought up to the job. His father was head of the Foreign Office and as a lad he personally delivered the British ultimatum to the German ambassador in July 1914; later he served under the last of the old-world Foreign Ministers, the Marquess Curzon. His writings on diplomacy are notable for their clarity and sense.

Kissinger, by contrast, came to diplomacy via academia and had to teach himself the silken ropes. Unlike Nicolson, however, he went right to the top where he acquired experience unique in his generation. He well knows how it feels to make lonely decisions. As Secretary of State, he also invented his own grandee diplomatic style, rather in the manner of the old cardinals like Wolsey or Richelieu. He had more aides than Richelieu had monsignori, and where Curzon took a private train, Kissinger had his circus pile into two or three big jets. Even Richard Nixon, no slouch when it came to display, once complained to me of the size of Kissinger’s traveling entourage. But all this was deliberate. No man living, and few dead, have thought more carefully about the externals, the impedimenta, of negotiating.

Now, having already produced his two gigantic volumes of memoirs—and very good value they are—he has delivered himself of a scarcely less formidable study of diplomatic history and practice. The book’s structure is complex. He begins by stating the fundamental dilemma of American foreign policy: the conflict between its instinctive idealism and its acquired respect for the realities of the world. In his next chapter he illustrates this by contrasting the two titans of the first decades of the century: Theodore Roosevelt, unashamed advocate of Realpolitik, and Woodrow Wilson, obstinate and tragic exponent of American idealism. It is Kissinger’s contention that, with certain qualifications, Wilsonian idealism has triumphed in the 20th century as America, the strongest power, has committed itself, and persuaded others to commit themselves, to a world order based upon the United Nations Charter.



However, to say all that does not make a big book, and Kissinger is determined to provide one. So we go on a long historical tour, in which the author gives himself the pleasure of recounting, and pondering upon, the great diplomatic moments of the past. First he examines, in turn, efforts by Richelieu, William of Orange, and Pitt the Younger to conduct foreign and war policies based upon the concept of the balance of power. Then he takes another look at the Congress of Vienna: the notion of the neatly balanced major powers acting in concert to preserve civilized, undemocratic order. Next he has a look at “two revolutionaries”—Napoleon III and Bismarck: the one an overambitious buffoon running a fragile nation which broke in his hands, the other a “genius” in the business of matching aims to power—“Few statesmen have so altered the course of history.”

Kissinger now turns to the decades leading up to World War I, showing how the balance of power in Europe turned dangerously rigid and how, in consequence, the powers constructed competing military alliances which in conjunction became what he calls a “doomsday machine.” The implication here is that if Bismarck, or someone like him, had continued to run Germany, the war would have been avoided.

Kissinger has now reached the time of Wilson, and we have two chapters on the Treaty of Versailles, followed by one on the recovery of Germany. Then he shows how Hitler, a “demonic personality,” brought about “the collapse of the house of cards which represented the Versailles international order.” There follow two chapters leading up to the Nazi-Soviet pact and the opening of World War II.

At this point, Kissinger reintroduces America to the world stage, concentrating first on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “role in moving his isolationist people toward participation in the war,” which he thinks “serves as an object lesson on the scope of leadership in a democracy.” He has an interesting chapter showing the three contrasting approaches to peace of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin; after this comes one demonstrating the inevitability, given Stalin’s aims, of the cold war. He then takes us through the last half-century: containment, its successes and limitations; the Korean war; the postwar German problem; the Suez crisis; the Hungarian revolt; Berlin; and three poignant chapters on the tragedy of Vietnam. The historical section concludes with chapters on Nixon’s foreign policy, detente, and the end of the cold war.



In summarizing the bulk of Kissinger’s book, I am anxious to demonstrate two points: first, the range of his historical interests; and second, the ingenuity with which all these different episodes are tied into his central theme of showing how men of good will, the heroes of history, have sought to contain the demons or fools by mixtures of Realpolitik and idealism.

Kissinger is a born teacher and carries the reader willingly along on his bumpy ride through four centuries of complex war- and peace-making. He has an eye for color, incident, and character; he summarizes well; and he keeps a neat balance between narrative and reflective analysis. He has read widely and intelligently, and I found myself both learning a lot and stimulated into reexamining some well-known historical turning points. For those who have the leisure, the entire book is very much worth reading.

But to get the gist of Kissinger’s thinking on diplomacy one only has to read the first two and the last two chapters. The final one, “The New World Order Reconsidered,” is particularly valuable. Kissinger’s deepest diplomatic instincts are those of a civilized European. He regards the Vienna settlement, which endured for a century, as the most successful in European history because “it combined legitimacy and equilibrium, shared values, and balance-of-power diplomacy.” At the same time, as an American guru, he recognizes that the idealist goal of a stable world order based on liberalism and democracy has to be the guiding principle of United States policy. His job, then, as he sees it, is to chart the pitfalls in pursuing this goal, and to show how they can be circumvented.

Thus his final chapter is a checklist of warnings. In general: “The domination by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principal spheres—Europe or Asia—remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, cold war or no cold war.” On Russia: America should encourage that country “to concentrate—for the first time in her history—on the development of her national territory, which, extending over eleven time zones, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, gives no cause for claustrophobia.” On Western Europe: recognition that “Both the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union are indispensable building-blocks of a new and stable world order.” Eastern Europe: tie the ex-Communist states into NATO by a wider grouping, and then, “If Russia remains within its borders, the focus on security would shift over time. . . .” On China: play down violations of human rights and emphasize, instead, “tacit cooperation on global—and especially Asian—strategy.” On Japan: prevent its arming dangerously, and so frightening China, by maintaining “a substantial American military presence in Northeast Asia.” The Western Hemisphere: build on NAFTA through GATT

All this advice is reasonable, and there is much more to the same effect. Kissinger is always worth listening to, and a sensible man in the White House will make a habit of consulting this remarkable man.

But is there a sensible man in the White House—or, for that matter, in Foggy Bottom? What the world needs today is not great guidance in sorting out its problems but effective leadership in applying that guidance. British, French, German, American—and now Russian—dabbling in the Balkans has been a depressing exercise in ineptitude punctuated by braggadocio, cowardice, stupidity, and futile point-scoring. So far only the Russians have emerged with any marks for diplomatic cunning. It makes one shudder at what would happen if the West were confronted by a real crisis.

Wisdom of the kind Kissinger imparts in this book is valuable—and I hope President Clinton will find the time to read it—but it is not enough by itself. Until we find a new generation of heavyweights to replace Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the post-cold-war world will continue to drift alarmingly. For wisdom has to be translated into action by will.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

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