The Master of the Game

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

There are wheels within wheels, big wheels and small wheels, and each wheel is cogged, so that sometimes one is up and sometimes it is down, but always, whenever one moves, they all move. Such is the world of international politics. The only difference between that larger world and the smaller one of arms control is that the turning wheels have more exaggerated motions. No book illustrates this better than the biography of Paul Nitze, who was an eccentric wheel in the system, periodically upsetting efforts to smooth the rotation in his single-minded drive to impose his own views on the process of negotiating arms reduction with the Soviet Union.

As this system is described by Strobe Talbott, the Washington bureau chief of Time magazine and author of Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control (1984), all the people involved in arms negotiation are males with a machismo ethic that would embarrass a National Football League lineman. Some are dopes, some are dupes, some are duplicitous; others are faddists, fanatics, or fakes. As the wheels go around, enemies become friends and friends become enemies. Nitze has been attacked by the Left for his unconcealed mistrust of every Soviet offer, by the Right as a naïve concessionist because he was willing to discuss trade-offs.

In fact, Nitze is hard to pin down. His relationship with Richard Perle shows the process to be anything but simple. At first, Nitze and Perle were ideological soulmates who undercut each other only in the pursuit of their own careers, but who enjoyed the debate over nuances of theory and interpretation. Ultimately, as cogwheels of contending factions in the controversy over the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), they exchanged bitter words. The game of prestige and power which Talbott describes so well became more important, and much more complex, than the negotiations with the Soviets. Nitze was “the master of the game.”

Nitze was born an old man; throughout his career he only grew older. The quintessential Eastern establishment intellectual and Cold Warrior, Nitze had the background, the wealth, and the inclination toward disputation, casuistry, and victory at all costs necessary for becoming a specialist in the diplomacy of arms control. Assertive, abrasive, independent, he forced his ideas upon other gigantic egos through the force of logic, eloquence, and his “old boy” network. He became indispensable but disliked. His inability to compromise cost him opportunities to hold higher office, but that was relatively unimportant to him, because Nitze lusted less for the trappings of power than for its exercise—and real power in international diplomacy was exercised by whoever conducted the last twenty minutes of the negotiations.

To Nitze’s lifelong frustration, those last twenty minutes were always dominated by figures who, in his judgment, lacked the requisite mixture of expertise, flexibility, and detached intelligence. These included policy experts such as Henry Kissinger and Perle, dominated by their own idée fixe, and heads of state such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who could see broad issues but whose understanding of nuances was concentrated upon the process of holding political power. Such heads of state lacked the time, the vision, and the interest to follow the detailed theoretical arguments of the nuclear stalemate. Efforts to explain to Aleksei Kosygin that combining a civil defense program with an ABM (antiballistic missile) system would cause Americans to believe that he was preparing for nuclear war were brusquely cut off with the simplistic, “Defense is moral, offense is immoral!” For Nitze, dealing with Reagan was even more difficult, given Reagan’s ideas concerning the ultimate evil of the Soviet threat.

This book is important because the...

(The entire section is 1582 words.)

The Master of the Game Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXV, October 15, 1988, p. 100.

Boston Globe. October 16, 1988, p. 106.

Chicago Tribune. November 6, 1988, XIV, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, September 15, 1988, p. 1394.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 23, 1988, p. 2.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, January 19, 1989, p. 21.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, November 6, 1988, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXIV, December 5, 1988, p. 157.

Time. CXXXII, October 31, 1988, p. 88.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, October 23, 1988, p. 5.