Henry Kissinger

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Quincy Wright (review date July 1958)

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SOURCE: A review of “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822,” in The American Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 4, July, 1958, pp. 953–55.

[In the following review, Wright offers a positive assessment of A World Restored, concluding that Kissinger skillfully explores and interprets international relations in the post-Napoleonic period.]

This book [A World Restored] is less a history of Europe's defeat of, and reconstruction after, Napoleon than an interpretation of that history in universal terms. The author recognizes that history does not repeat itself exactly, but he insists that the problems of different periods, the methods of dealing with them, and the motivation of the actors may be similar. Consequently, “generalization” may be “abstracted from the uniqueness of individual experience.” He seldom makes explicit an analogy between the post-Napoleonic and post-Hitlerian periods, but the alert reader is continuously aware of an implicit analogy. The Russia of Tsar Alexander and that of Stalin were similar in manifesting “the indeterminacy of a [revolutionary] policy of absolute Moral claims.” The France of Napoleon and the Germany of Hitler were similar in manifesting “the [revolutionary] claims of power, as the France of Talleyrand and the Germany of Adenauer were similar in repudiating revolution and supporting moderation, restoration and unity. The Britain of Castlereagh and the United States of Roosevelt, each in its time on the periphery of world politics with a tradition of isolation, were similar in marrying the conception of equilibrium to that of collective security, maintained by recognition of the self-evident advantages of peace.” The Austria of Metternich and the Britain of Churchill, each in its time conservative and in the center of world politics were alike in seeking stability in a world of nationalism (self-determination) and liberalism (human rights) through “equilibrium maintained by an agreement on a legitimizing principle.”

Dr. Kissinger demonstrates his scholarship both by his critical bibliography and by his skill in digesting materials in a lucid text. He is familiar with the official sources, the memoirs, the biographies, and the histories. Like his great predecessor in the field, Sir Charles Webster, in his The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh (London, 1925, 1931), he pays high tribute to the British foreign minister, but he is more impressed by the diplomatic skill and intelligence of Metternich. Though the latter's task—to maintain an absolute monarchy over a polyglot of peoples in an age in which “legitimacy” was changing from the principle of hereditary right to that of liberal, democratic nationalism—was in the long run impossible, he succeeded for a generation, always aware that time was against him. His “policy was diplomacy in its purest sense, a virtuoso performance of an essentially instrumental kind, whose very skill testified to its ultimate futility.”

The central theme of the book, like that of Hans Morgenthau's Politics among Nations (New York, 1950), is the difference between policies of revolution (imperialism) seeking expansion, reform, or the realization of an idea and policies of conservatism (status quo) seeking tranquility and stability. The latter depends on moderation, renunciation, respect for law, and continuous negotiation to maintain equilibrium, the former on power, personality, pugnacity, and propaganda. Kissinger also emphasizes the close relation of the state's foreign policy to its domestic constitution. The latter, resting on tradition or public opinion, is likely to obstruct a foreign policy seeking stability. Metternich's task of persuading his emperor and Castlereagh's of persuading his government and parliament were often more difficult than their tasks at the international conferences. Woodrow Wilson faced the same problem. This consideration leads the author to a discussion of the relative values...

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of the methods of education and propaganda, of bureaucracy and administration, of diplomacy and politics, and of law and adjudication in the conduct of international relations. Though recognizing that the statesman must also be an educator, Kissinger finds a basic incompatibility between bureaucracy and statesmanship. He also notes that public opinion is more attracted by the prophet or conqueror than by the statesman of stability.

The book will be read with profit by both students and practitioners of international politics. It skillfully distills history to illumine the philosophy, the science, and the art of international relations. Many of the author's aphorisms deserve reflection. “The conditions of victory are commitment, the condition of stability is self restraint” (p. 138). “It is not balance which inspires men but universality, not security but immortality” (p. 317). “Disputes over policy never concern a disagreement over the wisdom of safety but over its nature, nor about the desirability of security but about the best means to accomplish it” (p. 325). “The effort to identify the legitimizing principle of the international order with a parochial version of justice must lead to a revolutionary situation” (p. 328).

John W. Holmes (review date 1966)

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SOURCE: “The Troubled Partnership. A Re-appraisal of the Atlantic Alliance,” in International Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1966, pp. 222–23.

[In the following review of The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance, Holmes tempers praise for Kissinger's analysis of divisions within the Atlantic alliance with skepticism for his proposed remedies.]

There is far more good sense in this book [The Troubled Partnership] than in all the many other examinations of the present state of the Atlantic alliance put together. Henry Kissinger has always had a better nose for political realities than his fellow gamesmen in the American academies, and the particular virtue of this study is his comprehension of European as well as American perspectives. He is rightly troubled by the refusal or inability of his countrymen to see themselves through French eyes and reminds them of their share in the present critical situation. “The single-mindedness with which the United States has always guarded its freedom of decision is as significant a symptom of this dilemma as France's excessively theoretical claims to independence.” He criticizes the stubbornness with which Washington has tried to impose its patterns on Europe—the prescription of European federation as essential for the dumb-bell partnership, the insistence that Britain and France hand over their nuclear weapons, and finally the lamentable MLF proposal which created wide fissures in the Alliance.

Dr. Kissinger wisely insists on the prior necessity for agreement on policies before technical schemes for unified forces can become relevant. He emphasizes the need to concentrate on agreeing over real issues like the future of Germany rather than divisive debates or theoretical aspects of the Alliance. He has some sensible things to say about the nature of the Cold War and a pragmatic approach to relations with the Soviet Union. He has an ingenious theory for transforming East Germany over a period of fifteen years into a neutral state on the Austrian pattern which is unlikely to be acceptable but is worth thinking about.

He is not content, however, to psychoanalyse our problems; he suggests remedies which are less persuasive than his analysis. “If the Atlantic Alliance is to retain any vitality, it requires a common foreign policy—or at least an agreed range of divergence.” He has a more realistic approach to the problems of consultation and common policy-making than most Atlantic constitution-mongers, but he concludes with a plan for a directorate of the five great powers plus one rotating representative of the lesser powers from which he sees blossoming an “Atlantic Commonwealth.” It is not an argument to be dismissed easily, but he leaves one asking not only whether it is futile to expect France, the United States and others to accept this discipline but also whether it is really as essential as he thinks. Why should we place such emphasis on uniting this intangible community we call the West when our main effort should be to avoid a confrontation with the East and the South? Dr. Kissinger is the wisest of the Atlanticists, but like most of them he is too Europe-minded.

Zvi Ganin (review date December 1980)

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SOURCE: A review of White House Years, in American Jewish History, Vol. 70, No. 2, December, 1980, pp. 255–61.

[In the following essay discussing White House Years, Ganin focuses on Kissinger's analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict and his role in Middle East peace negotiations during his tenure as national security advisor to President Nixon.]

Since World War II few international disputes have elicited such acute interest and vast literature as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obviously, the four Arab-Israeli wars have captured the greatest interest of journalists, those writers of “instant history” who rush their manuscripts to print before the public eye is attracted to another war. But another facet of the Arab-Israeli conflict—less visible and dramatic, yet of equal importance—has been the secret and continuous diplomacy intended at mitigating or resolving this conflict. The United States has been actively engaged in such diplomacy since the Truman era. Memoirs of American and Israeli statesmen, beginning with those of President Truman himself; journalistic accounts; and of greatest significance, the recent publication of selected State Department documents for most of the Truman era have all supplied historians with the basic contours of American Middle Eastern policy in general and of American-Israeli relations in particular. Yet our understanding of the post-Truman era still has wide gaps concerning the intricacies of government machinery in Washington and of the divergent approaches of the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. We need to know much more about the particular attitudes of Truman's successors in the Oval Office, about bureaucratic and personality feuds, and about the influence of Congress as well as domestic politics. In short, how, by whom, and under whose influence was American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict really shaped.

In studying the formulation of American policy toward the Zionist idea of a Jewish state (during the FDR and Truman eras), as well as the State of Israel since 1948, one is struck by the prominent role of the White House staff in influencing major presidential decisions at crucial junctures, such as the decision to support the November 29, 1947 UN partition resolution, and Truman's prompt recognition of Israel in the teeth of vehement resistance from the State Department and the Pentagon. David K. Niles (1892–1952), FDR's and Truman's assistant for Jewish affairs, is perhaps the best example of a White House staffer's role in presenting different policy and personnel options to the President, and in helping to abort policies suggested by the State Department. But, as this reviewer has demonstrated on another occasion, Niles' position at the White House was inferior to Henry Kissinger's. In fact, Niles' office was not even located there but in the Old State Building instead. Most unfortunately, Niles died in 1952 without having had a chance to write the memoirs of his fascinating activities at the White House.

Henry Kissinger's memoirs, written from the vantage point of the Nixon White House years, were eagerly anticipated by all those interested in understanding the inner workings of American foreign policy. May it be said at the outset that our expectations have been fully justified. This is indubitably a seminal book, lucidly written by a gifted historian and political scientist, now transformed into a statesman, who has admirably succeeded in digesting, analyzing and presenting an enormous amount of the major developments in American foreign policy in a perceptive, coherent and engrossing fashion.

Kissinger's White House Years includes 1476 pages of text and covers the period of his tenure as national security adviser to President Nixon, from November 1968 to January 1973. The book is organized chronologically and is divided into four parts dealing with the major foreign policy issues that confronted Nixon and Kissinger. Obviously, more than half of the book is devoted to the three burning issues of the time: the Vietnam quagmire, US-Soviet relations and the opening up of Communist China. Only four chapters (out of thirty-four) are concerned with the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet they are significant enough to merit the following observations.

Students of Jewish history tackling Kissinger's personal account of his involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict would pose several questions. To begin with, how did Kissinger's Jewish background as a refugee from Nazi Germany affect his understanding of the Zionist quest for a sovereign Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, as well as of Israel's unique strategic problems? As a trained historian and political scientist, did the Harvard professor bring with him to his post a different conceptual approach for handling and solving this intractable conflict? And finally, what new light does he shed upon President Nixon's attitude toward American Jewry and toward the Arab-Israeli conflict?

A moving passage in Kissinger's volume, so reminiscent of countless Mary Antin-like paeans to America as a haven for persecuted Jews, reveals Kissinger's deep feeling of gratitude and identification with his adopted country which made possible his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of policy making in Washington. He writes: “America acquired a wondrous quality for me. When I was a boy it was a dream, an incredible place where tolerance was natural … I always remembered the thrill when I first walked the streets of New York City. Seeing a group of boys, I began to cross to the other side to avoid being beaten up. And then I remembered where I was” (p. 229).

In the annals of American Jewish history, accounts of gratitude and “a special feeling of what America means, which native-born citizens perhaps take for granted” (p. 229) have of course been common. What is then particularly intriguing is Kissinger's treatment of Zionism. One would usually expect a presidential adviser to display an aloof and detached attitude—reminiscent of the early careers of Sam Rosenman and David Niles at the White House. Instead, Kissinger's brief elucidation of Zionism (p. 342) and of the effect of the Nazi holocaust upon a Jewish yearning for statehood is both sensitive and sympathetic. Moreover, he reveals a deep understanding of Israel's strategic vulnerability, its lack of geographic depth and its “cardinal and ultimate objective … what for most other nations is the starting point of foreign policy—acceptance by its neighbors of its right to exist” (p. 343). Dean Acheson's candid and unsympathetic treatment of Zionism in Present at the Creation (pp. 231–232), so typical of the historical attitude of the State Department's top echelon, serves as a useful contrast.

Kissinger's Jewish origin also had an effect upon the scope of his functions at the White House. Initially Nixon was concerned “that it might cause [Kissinger] to lean too much toward Israel” (p. 348). Until the end of 1971, Kissinger was therefore excluded from conducting diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Furthermore, in order to increase his own dominance in foreign affairs, Nixon fostered constant rivalry between the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser. To complicate matters even further, since Secretary Rogers and the State Department were excluded from most foreign policy issues, a bizarre arrangement was devised by Nixon: as a sop to Rogers, the Middle East, and particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict, was allotted to the State Department (p. 589). Henry Kissinger would be called only in such times of crisis which perforce mandated Nixon's personal intervention and decision making.

This bizarre arrangement of bypassing the Secretary of State (so reminiscent of President Wilson's and FDR's practices) was, however, inherently untenable. Because Kissinger held the key to the nerve center formulating American foreign policy, especially through his direct and secret communication line with the Soviet Ambassador (“the Channel”) (p. 138–147), it was inevitable that he would be drawn time and again into the vortex of the Arab-Israeli dispute in which Soviet Russia was deeply involved in supporting the Arab side.

Nixon's predilection for bypassing Secretary of State Rogers, his former close friend of the Eisenhower administration, inevitably resulted in a breakdown of relations between Rogers and Kissinger. But the ensuing feud evolved not just over jurisdictional and bureaucratic matters, so common in official Washington. Henry Kissinger also began to oppose State Department strategy and certain basic assumptions regarding the handling and solving of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ever since Loy Henderson's tenure as head of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs of the State Department (1945–48), when the idea of establishing a Jewish state in partitioned Palestine was seriously discussed at the highest levels in Washington, Loy Henderson and most members of the State Department, as well as of the Pentagon and the intelligence community, consistently considered the creation of the Jewish state inimical to American interests in the Middle East. After 1948 (and to some degree until this day), the State Department has considered the Arab-Israeli conflict to have had a cancerous effect, mainly responsible for destabilizing the Middle East, for the growth of Arab radicalism and for Soviet penetration into this vital area. This conflict has worsened, it has been claimed, after the Six Day War in which Israel occupied Arab territories. Once occupied Arab territories would be returned, so the State Department has maintained, “the influence of radical Arabs would dwindle and with it the Soviet role in the Middle East” (p. 558).

Kissinger, who came to the White House with no prior experience in Middle Eastern affairs, was unencumbered with the State Department's traditional conviction that this conflict was of central importance and had urgently to be resolved. He thus felt free to undertake an independent analysis of the nature and ramifications of the Arab-Israeli conflict upon Soviet-American global competition. He quickly concluded that the State Department's basic assumptions were too rigid and simplistic. Instead, he developed a more sophisticated and realistic appraisal of the sources of Arab radicalism, in which the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israel's very existence, constituted just one element. Kissinger fully grasped—and started to educate President Nixon accordingly—that even were the conflict to be resolved, the basic malaise of Arab society, in its painful encounter with Western capitalism, would still continue to spawn radicalism and instability.

In practice, Kissinger also opposed the State Department's two-tiered, urgent strategy of seeking a comprehensive peace settlement as an instrument for reducing Soviet influence in the Middle East. Such a peace settlement, entailing Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 5, 1967 borders, according to the State Department's design, would have to be imposed on Israel. Thus Eisenhower and Dulles had imposed withdrawal from Sinai in 1956–57. This strategy of a “comprehensive approach involving all the parties,” Kissinger cogently maintained, “would inherently favor the radicals by giving the most intransigent governments a veto over the entire process” (p. 559). This does not mean that Kissinger favored Israeli territorial aims or that he disregarded Arab grievances. His approach was the opposite of that of the State Department, as he candidly explains: “My aim was to produce a stalemate until Moscow urged compromise [on Egypt] or until, even better, some moderate Arab regime decided that the route to progress was through Washington” (p. 1279). Only then would he support putting pressure on Israel.

But Nixon rejected Kissinger's strategy, and in 1969 he gave free rein to Rogers in pursuing the comprehensive, imposed peace strategy, conducted simultaneously in the four power talks and in Soviet-American secret contacts. These talks produced the famous Rogers plan, approved by Nixon and announced in December 1969, in which Washington had in fact prescribed the precise political and territorial terms for resolving most of the issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict. America's main instrument for coercing Israel into accepting the Rogers plan would be a withholding of weapon deliveries, particularly the Phantom fighter-bombers which Israel had urgently requested.

Since 1969, Kissinger reveals, Nixon had been conducting an intricate and devious game with both Israeli officials and leaders of the American Jewish community (pp. 372, 559). Essentially, Nixon was conducting a policy reminiscent of FDR's dual-track Palestine policy. Secretly, he was approaching the Arab-Israeli conflict as just a pawn on the global chessboard, giving his blessing to the State Department's various diplomatic initiatives, and constantly hoping to reach “a trade off with the Soviet Union between the Middle East and Vietnam” (p. 559). Moreover, being fully cognizant of the opposition of most of American Jewry to his candidacy, he felt no obligation to Jewish voters. Yet he realistically respected American Jewry's political clout. Thus Nixon would simultaneously leak to his advisers on domestic politics and Jewish affairs his reservations about State Department strategy and the concomitant diplomatic moves—which he had previously approved.

Nixon's deviousness and mistrust of the State Department, and the divergent approaches of the White House, so evident since David Niles' era, had sometimes allowed Zionist diplomacy in the pre-State era, as well as Israeli diplomacy since 1948, a narrow margin of maneuver. Thus after 1967, relying on a strong base of Congressional and public support, Israel succeeded in thwarting the State Department's strategy of a comprehensive, imposed peace settlement.

Still, despite undeniable domestic support for Israel's quest for peace and security, one is struck, in reading Kissinger's account, with Israel's isolation in the world arena and its diplomatic weakness vis-à-vis the Arab states (particularly Egypt), whom both the State Department and Kissinger were trying to lure away from the Soviet orbit with promises of American pressure on Israel to withdraw from Arab territories. As Kissinger candidly put it, “Nobody could make peace without us. Only we, not the Soviet Union, could exert influence on Israel” (p. 378). So in Kissinger's grand design, the Arab price for getting back their lost territories would entail “reversal of alliances,” switching from the Soviet orbit into the American one, thus insuring the establishment of Pax Americana in the Middle East. Kissinger's design in relation to Egypt was indeed implemented after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The old and familiar pattern of asymmetry in American-Israeli relations wherein a weak Israel is expected to pay for Arab “reversal of alliances” was suddenly reversed in the Black September 1970 crisis in Jordan. In one of the most dramatic and engaging chapters (xv), Kissinger relates in great detail King Hussein's desperate plight. Almost overwhelmed by the Syrian armored invasion and the fedayeen revolt, it was Kissinger's turn frantically to request Israeli military intervention to rescue America's oldest ally in the Arab world. For the first time in American-Israeli relations, the Jewish state was perceived in Washington not just as a burden and an irritant to American-Arab amity, but rather as a strategic asset, capable of aiding and safeguarding vital American interests.

Kissinger's White House Years is of course not the definitive study of American involvement in the quest for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict during Nixon's first administration. So long as the secret files of the State Department, the National Security Council, those of Nixon and Kissinger and the Israeli archives are closed, the overall picture is far from complete (and even when secret files will be made available, as Kissinger perceptively observes [p. xxii], the peculiar nature of modern diplomacy will tend to obfuscate rather than to clarify formulation of policies and execution of diplomacy). Nevertheless, for our understanding of the vantage point of the national security adviser, of the divergency of approaches within the bureaucracy, of the clashes and feuds of personalities, and most important, of both Nixon's and Kissinger's influence on the shaping of policies, Kissinger's memoirs are superb. Enriched by acute insight, perceptive analysis and a fine sense of humor—tinged with sad irony and a recognition of the severe limitations of human capacity for peaceful coexistence—this volume will prove indispensable for scholars and laymen alike for many years to come.

Colin Welch (review date 14 September 1985)

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SOURCE: “Doctor at Large,” in The Spectator, Vol. 255, No. 8201, September 14, 1985, pp. 24–5.

[In the following review of Observations: Selected Speeches and Essays, 1982–1984, Welch favorably discusses Kissinger's insight into the relations between America and its European allies, yet negatively emphasizes the inconsistency in Kissinger's political theories.]

Thrown together as they are in order of emission, Dr Kissinger's Observations amount to no single coherent whole, with all perceptions and arguments directed to one massive conclusion. Yet a noble unifying leitmotiv does underlie all his peregrinations—the prosperity and survival in freedom of America and her allies. And he offers something not less valuable than a coherent thesis: an insight into the workings of a mind at once fair and broad, lucid, powerful, benign and prodigiously well stocked. (How little justice, incidentally, does the photograph on the dust-jacket do to this Metternich of our days! Instead of the customary koala bear, itself a travesty, if a lovable one, we see a grim-featured, scowling, ill-shaven blend of the late George Brown and some Mafia godfather or New York cabbie.) This mind addresses itself successively to ever-changing circumstances and problems new or newly perceived, tirelessly exploring and reflecting, reaching conclusions pro tem, only to modify, reject or replace them later. We are confronted not with reasoning completed but with reasoning in progress, and, God willing, more to come.

Nowhere in these pages, for instance, will you find Star Wars discussed. Be patient: the great mind is still at work. And the necessity for some such bold initiative is already clearly adumbrated in the Doctor's conviction that the deterrent strategy of mutual assured destruction is in fact mad or dead, the phantom of past prudence stalking abroad as present illusion. What killed it is the capacity, actual in Russia, latent in America, of each super-power by a first strike to take out the other's retaliatory weapons. This has caused an inevitable switch, again actual in Russia, latent in America, from offence to self-defence. And until America's latent power becomes actual, we do indeed live in mortal danger.

Whatever dross and inconsistencies survive amidst the Doctor's gold will be welcome to those who find the vagaries of imperial minds more stimulating and productive than the truisms of wiseacres. He speaks at one point of the Iranian professional classes, rendered disaffected ‘by the inflation inseparable from industrialisation’. We rub our eyes: what would Gladstone have made of that? A little later, the Doctor correctly points out that ‘prices in 1914 were essentially unchanged from 1812’. Did no industrialisation take place in that epoch? But there: the Doctor disarmingly confesses himself no economic buff, and seldom finds himself, for reasons some find ‘compelling’, spouting to captive audiences of bankers and economists. A pity in many ways, though they might be disconcerted by odd modish hints that neo-mercantilism, development economics, ‘North and South’, Brandt and Heath, have somehow rendered Adam Smith obsolete.

A highly perishable part of speeches is flattery of audiences. We British in particular are lavishly buttered up, yet the result is not wholly nauseating. I suspect here no insincerity, but rather a tendency towards romantic schwärmerei which, incongruous and generally suppressed, bursts forth in innocent wonder, say, like that of the children in Millais' Bubbles, at India's disproportionate influence in the Fifties and Sixties, and in admiration of our past diplomatic mastery and sober guardianship of the European balance of power. Indulgently it overlooks our lapses in the Thirties, when our squeamish distaste for Mussolini's antics prevented the creation of any balance against Hitler, and in the Forties, when our attitude to Stalin was unforgivably almost as goofy as Roosevelt's. It expresses itself still in rapturous praise of Lord Carrington: ‘vigor, intelligence, vision and humanity’, ‘wise and thoughtful’. It still rates the role of Callaghan and Crosland in the 1976 Rhodesia negotiations as ‘enormously valuable, indeed indispensable’—though, if one is minded gratuitously to make a fool of oneself in remote parts, I would have thought the assistance of other fools at least dispensable.

Yet it is wearing thin. Traces of exasperation begin to appear. European leaders are chided for their ‘deferential’ and ‘plaintive’ pleas to the Soviets to resume the dialogue the Soviets themselves broke off, for officiously up-grading their delegations to Andropov's funeral, for seeking a neutralist position somewhere between the two superpowers, for their vain pretence or ‘charade’ of ‘moderating’ a supposedly intransigent and bellicose America, for their rushed criticism of American actions in Grenada, for fêting the PLO all over Europe, for undercutting what America is trying to do in Central America (to her an area of vital interest), for being in too many ways bad allies, nagging, hindering, frustrating, paralysing and demoralising. If the Alliance cannot be expected to agree on everything, Dr Kissinger warns that its survival is not compatible with agreeing on nothing—a state of affairs to which ‘we are perilously close to drifting.’ The dunce's cap here dished out fits us as well as any: we should be warned.

How should allies behave when the vital interests of one ally are threatened? Dr Kissinger reasonably cites America's support for Britain during the Falklands adventure as an example of how to behave, America's betrayal of France and Britain at Suez as an example of how not to behave. Strangely, he does not cite nor seem to resent the cold aloofness and sour carping which was all American got from most of her allies during her Vietnam ordeal. The ill-effects of Suez are surprisingly real and fresh to him: the wide-spread instability and revolutions which followed Nasser's triumph, the opportunities thus created for Soviet intrigue and arms aid, above all the humiliation of two American allies, the shattering blow delivered to their role as world powers and the enormous additional burdens thus imposed on America. The Vietnam debacle he views with more complacency, as a sort of blessing in deep disguise. Vietnam revealed the ‘limits’ of America's resources, showed her ‘no longer dominant’, accustomed her to live in ‘a world of incomplete solutions and relative power’, made her ‘considerably wiser’. Alas, much similar guff was talked after Suez. France and Britain too had learnt their ‘limits’ and become ‘wiser’: the message to them was ‘never again’! Yet what in reality should they have learnt except that you can't easily push open a door without turning the handle? And what should America have learnt from Vietnam? Less perhaps about ‘limits’ than about the folly of fighting with one hand tied behind your back? It is a generous nature which laments the misfortunes of others, while regarding its own as a necessary chastisement. But defeat is defeat, and the revelation of ‘limits’, especially of false ones, not always salutary. On the very next page, the Doctor declares that ‘the Soviet Union must learn—through the West's vigilant resistance—that encroaching on the global equilibrium will not be tolerated.’ Supposed ‘limits’ too well known to us and the Soviet Union alike, cannot encourage ‘vigilant resistance’.

There are inconsistencies here. Is there another in the Doctor's continuous advocacy of increased conventional forces, especially in Europe? It runs through his utterances like another leitmotiv. There is wisdom in it, doubtless, but surely not all wisdom? At one point, perhaps inadvertently, he laments his allies' unwillingness to develop conventional forces ‘strong enough to provide an alternative (my italics) to nuclear weapons’. My hat! Hirohito's conventional forces were formidable enough, but they proved not an ‘alternative’ to nuclear weapons but a pressing invitation to use them. Europe, says the Doctor, ‘could relieve its nuclear anxieties by the simple expedient of augmenting its conventional forces.’ Elsewhere he hopes that NATO will become strong enough to ‘repel any level of conventional attack by conventional means.’ Hirohito's anxieties (if any) proved entirely justified, nor was it he who chose the level at which he was finally attacked.

The Doctor's awareness of some inconsistency here is, I suspect, revealed in his reasoned assaults on the no-first-use doctrine. Were this doctrine to prevail, it would in his view suggest to our enemies that we would prefer conventional defeat to nuclear response, leading thus straight to nuclear blackmail, conventional adventures and perhaps catastrophe. Adequate conventional forces are thus necessary for the defence of Europe, but not sufficient. If the Doctor wishes Europe well, as he unmistakably does, he cannot wish for us the role of expendable pikemen, so to speak, in a gunpowder age. He wishes us indeed, for our own good, to stand on our own feet. If we are to do so, logic demands not only augmented conventional forces but adequate means of nuclear retaliation and (yes) defence of our own. Is the Doctor's mind working in this direction? Why not? He reminds us repeatedly that we have the men and industry to do all that is necessary. Only the will is so far lacking.

Greg Russell (review date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Kissinger's World Restored and Statesmanship in Search of World Order,” in The Political Science Reviewer, Vol. 22, 1993, pp. 293–326.

[In the following essay, Russell discusses Kissinger's philosophical exploration of statesmanship as defined by the political actions of Metternich and Castlereagh in the post-Napoleonic era.]

Philosophical thinking about statesmanship is indispensable for establishing the basis of legitimacy and order in world politics. Legal or moral choices in a state's external relations achieve meaning only within a normative framework where the claims of power and ethics are harmonized in national self-expression. This paper examines the philosophy of statesmanship inherent in Henry Kissinger's account of how Metternich and Castlereagh brought order to Europe after the Napoleonic Wars at the Congress of Vienna. Kissinger's analysis, in A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822, focuses on the possibilities of statesmanship and the philosophical blend of prophesy, daring, and self-control that characterized classical diplomacy at its height. What makes Kissinger's book a lasting contribution—in diplomatic history and political thought—is his profile of the statesman as both a willful creature and tragic prisoner of history, situated at an uneasy juncture where the logic of political necessity flows from a deeper understanding of the relation between authority and freedom in the lives of men and nations. Kissinger did not approach these leaders as a nineteenth century schoolboy would have pondered Plutarch's Lives, imagining that he would find models worthy of emulation; he studied them because they gave him a perspective from which he could more effectively examine the problems of his own time.1

Part of this philosophical perspective can be found in Kissinger's appraisal of Metternich's approach to political problems as an example of the rationalist model of the philosopher-statesman.

Statesmanship was the science of the interests of states, and subject to laws entirely analogous to the laws of the physical world. The statesman was a philosopher who understood these maxims, who performed his tasks but reluctantly, for they deflected him from the source of the only real enjoyment, the contemplation of truth; he was responsible only to his conscience and to history—to the former because it contained his vision of truth, to the latter because it provided the only test of its validity.2

Austria's foreign minister regarded his political maxims as universal and eternal principles expressive of an underlying metaphysical order. Philosophy, in a time of permanent revolution, was the only means of rescuing universality from contingent claims. Metternich's great successes “had been achieved by a remarkable diplomatic skill which had enabled him to control events by defining their moral framework.” Diplomacy, however, “is not a substitute for conception; its achievements … will depend upon its objectives, which are defined outside the sphere of diplomacy and which diplomacy must treat as given.” This was for Kissinger a reminder that creativity in statecraft is not exhausted in the necessary tension between organization and inspiration. Noting that the multi-lingual Habsburg Empire presented virtually insurmountable problems, Kissinger remarked:

Any real criticism of Metternich must … attack not his ultimate failure, but his reaction to it. It is Metternich's smug satisfaction with an essentially technical virtuosity which prevented him from achieving the tragic stature he might have, given the process in which he was involved. Lacking in Metternich is the attribute which has enabled the spirit to transcend an impasse at so many crises in history: the ability to contemplate an abyss, not with the detachment of a scientist, but as a challenge to overcome—or perish in the process.3

The task of the statesman, therefore, is not only to maintain the perfection of order, “but to have the strength to contemplate chaos, there to find material for fresh creation.”

The first part of this essay assesses Kissinger's distinction between the “insular” and “continental” statesman, with an emphasis on relating system-wide equilibrium to domestic structure. A second line of analysis illustrates that Kissinger's comparison of legitimate and revolutionary international orders drew upon competing philosophical orientations on the interplay of authority and freedom in man's political existence. Final remarks address the requirements of rational statesmanship and the common fate of mankind.


It is significant that Kissinger begins a work of diplomatic history with an ethical reminder of the imperfect relation between intentions and consequences in foreign policy behavior. Those ages, he suggested, which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. “Whenever peace—conceived as the avoidance of war—has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community.” The most generous ideals combine with a maximum incentive to mollify the most aggressive state and to accept its demands, even when they are unreasonable. Such situations could only produce massive instability and insecurity. By contrast, the goal of stability based on an equilibrium of forces is realizable only when “the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace.”4 Stability, according to Kissinger, has commonly resulted not from a quest for peace but from a generally accepted legitimacy.

Kissinger examines two ways of constructing an international order: by will or by consensus, that is, by conquest or by legitimacy. For twenty-five years prior to the Congress of Vienna, Napoleonic Europe was convulsed by an effort to achieve order through power, and to contemporaries the lesson was not its failure but its near success. Legitimacy, as used here, should not be confused with justice; “it means no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy.”5 Kissinger acknowledged that war might occur in a legitimate order; he insisted, however, that such a war would be limited, and that diplomacy would be an option. In other words, wars would be fought in the name of the existing structure and the resulting peace would be justified as a better expression of the “legitimate,” general consensus.

Few periods illustrate so clearly the dilemma posed by the appearance of a revolutionary power than the aftermath of the wars of the French Revolution. The basic property of a revolutionary power “is not that it feels threatened—such feeling is inherent in the nature of international relations based on sovereign states—but that nothing can reassure it.” Diplomacy, the art of restraining the exercise of power, cannot function in such an environment.

But it is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing … to push its principles to their ultimate conclusions. … The characteristic of a stable international order is its spontaneity; the essence of a revolutionary situation is self-consciousness. Principles of obligation in a period of legitimacy are taken so much for granted that they are never talked about, and … therefore appear to posterity as shallow and self-righteous. Principles in a revolutionary situation are so central that they are constantly talked about … and it is not unusual to find both sides invoking their version of the “true” nature of legitimacy in identical terms.6

A new philosophy asserted that it would recast the existing structure of obligations, and Revolutionary France set out to champion the claim. “What can make authority legitimate?” had been defined as the key question of politics. Disputes among the great powers no longer concerned the negotiation of differences within an accepted framework, but the validity of the framework itself; the political contest had become doctrinal. The balance of power which had operated so intricately throughout the eighteenth century suddenly lost its flexibility, and the European equilibrium was endangered by the revolutionary ardor of a conqueror who proclaimed the incompatibility of his political maxims with those of other states. Although Napoleon succeeded in overthrowing the existing concept of legitimacy, he could not replace it with an alternative. Napoleon imposed upon Europe a kind of negative unity, where force had replaced obligation, where opposition to a foreign occupier culminated “in a consciousness of otherness which was soon endowed with moral claims and became the basis of nationalism.”7 When Napoleon was defeated in Russia, the problem of constructing a legitimate order confronted Europe in its most concrete form.

The issue facing the statesmen at Vienna was not reform against reaction—“this is the interpretation of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Instead, as Kissinger argues, the problem was to create an order out of which change could be brought about through a sense of obligation rather than through an assertion of power. Regardless of what one thinks about the moral content of their solution, it excluded no major power from the European concert and testified to the absence of unbridgeable schisms. Moreover, the settlement did not rest on mere good faith—which would have put too great a strain on self-limitation—or on a pure evaluation of power, which (owing to the difficulties of measurement) would have made the calculation too uncertain. Rather, there was created a structure in which forces were sufficiently balanced, so that self-restraint could appear as something more than self-abnegation, but which took account of the historical claims of its components so that it could find acceptance. There existed within the new international order no power so dissatisfied that it did not prefer to seek its remedy by working within the framework of the settlement rather than by overturning it.

Europe's ability to salvage stability from seeming chaos was largely the work of two great men: of Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, who negotiated the international settlement, and of Austria's minister Metternich, who legitimized it. When the fate of empires is at stake, the convictions of their statesmen are the medium for survival. Success in foreign policy depends on the correspondence of these convictions with the special requirements of the state. The very success of Metternich, as Kissinger explains, made inevitable the collapse of the state he had fought so long to preserve. Metternich was a product of an age in the process of being transcended; he was born in the eighteenth century “of which Talleyrand was to say that nobody who lived after the French Revolution would ever know how sweet and gentle life could be.” Like the century that formed him, “his style was better suited to the manipulation of factors treated as given than to a contest of will, better to the achievement through proportion than through scale.”8

Metternich refused to come to terms with the new age “not because he failed to understand its seriousness but because he disdained it.” Kissinger comments:

He might achieve victory but not comprehension and for this reason he came to use the proudest claim of the Enlightenment, the belief in the universality of the maxims of reason, with increasing self-consciousness as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle. Had Metternich been born fifty years earlier, he would still have been a conservative, but there would have been no need to write pedantic disquisitions about the nature of conservatism. … But in a century of permanent revolution, philosophy was the only means of rescuing universality from contingent claims. It was for this reason that Metternich fought so insistently against the identification of his name with the period, an attitude seemingly so inconsistent with his vanity.9

“To individualize an idea,” Metternich insisted, “leads to dangerous conclusions, as if an individual could be a cause; a wrong conception for when it does apply it indicates that a cause does not exist but is dissimulated.” The dilemma of Metternich's conservatism, as Kissinger realizes, is “that it must fight revolution anonymously, by what it is, not by what it says.”10

Metternich found a fitness in the universe which corresponded to man's highest aspirations, a well-ordered mechanism the understanding of which insured success and whose laws could not be violated with impunity: “States, just as human beings, often transgress laws, the only difference is the severity of the penalty.” The Austrian statesman described his philosophy of human nature and society as part of a universe governed by eternal laws. “Society has its laws just as nature and man. It is with old institutions as with old men, they can never be young again. … This is the way of the social order and it cannot be different because it is the law of nature … the moral world has its storms just like the material one.” Metternich resorted to these truisms of eighteenth century philosophy to oppose revolution and liberalism, not because they were wicked, but because they were unnatural. The essence of existence was proportion, its expression was law, and its mechanism an equilibrium. Metternich's own reflections may be cited to indicate why the conservative statesman was the supreme realist and his opponents the visionaries:

My point of departure is the quiet contemplation of the affairs of this world, not those of the other which I know nothing and which are the object of faith. … In the social world … one must act cold-bloodedly based on observation and without hatred or prejudice. … I was born to make history not to write novels and if I guess correctly, this is because I know. Invention is the enemy of history which knows only discoveries, and only that which exists can be discovered.11

Statesmanship, as understood by Metternich, involved understanding the “science of the interests of states.” The Napoleonic Wars did not seem to him like the wars of earlier centuries—set battles with finite objectives which left the basic structure of national obligations intact. He knew it to be impossible to satisfy the Corsican parvenu by compromise or to moderate him by concessions. “All nations made the mistake,” he wrote in 1807, “to attach to a treaty with France the value of a peace, without immediately preparing for war.” Peace was illusory for a revolutionary system, “whether with a Robespierre who declares war on chateaux or a Napoleon who declares war on Powers.” This belief was reinforced by Metternich's conviction that the principle of solidarity of states superseded that of revolution. Isolated states are “the abstractions of the so-called philosophers.” He claimed that the “great axioms of political science” follow

from the recognition of true interests of all states; it is in the general interests that the guarantee of existence is to be found, while particular interests—the cultivation of which is considered political wisdom by restless and short-sighted men—have only a secondary importance. … Modern history demonstrates the application of the principle of solidarity and equilibrium … and of the united efforts of states against the supremacy of one power in order to force a return to the common law. … 12

Similarly, Castlereagh's icy pragmatism epitomized the Britain of his time. No man more different from his great protagonist, Metternich, could be imagined. Metternich was elegant, facile, rationalist; Castlereagh solid, ponderous, and methodical; the former was witty and eloquent, if somewhat pedantic; the latter cumbersome in expression, although effective in debate. Yet, partly by design and partly through shyness, Castlereagh concealed his inner self, bearing his own burdens and thinking his own thoughts. Neither official nor private papers gave him away, and his speeches tended to be opaque rather than clear or philosophical. Yet it was this man, more than any other, who forged again a European connection for Britain, who maintained the coalition, and negotiated the settlement which in its main outlines was to last for over fifty years. The Concert of Europe grew out of the necessities of the greatest war in which Britain had ever engaged and was meant to protect her from her ancient adversary across the Channel.

As Kissinger notes, however, the war had not been fought by Britain against revolutionary doctrine, but against a universal claim; not for freedom, or the validation of a state's own historical experience, but for independence. It was this aspect alone that enabled Castlereagh to obtain for it the consent of his countrymen. Unlike the Continental powers, at war for the defense of a social order, Great Britain took up arms for the creation of “great masses” necessary to contain France. “The power,” Castlereagh wrote in 1813, “of Great Britain to do good depends not merely on her resources but upon a sense of impartiality and the reconciling character of her influence. … To be authoritative she must be impartial: to be impartial she must not be in exclusive relations with any particular Court.”13 Eight years later, when Metternich was crafting a doctrine of universal interference to combat world revolution, Castlereagh reminded him that the Napoleonic Wars were joined by Britain on the basis of material considerations separate from vague enunciations of principle.14 Since the equilibrium was viewed by Britain in political rather than social terms, its operation depended on a balance among states of roughly equal power, not on a principle of legitimacy. The British nightmare was a continental peace which excluded Britain.

The Liverpool Cabinet was a more uncompromising opponent of Napoleon's continued rule than even the Austrian government. This opposition, however, had nothing to do with the legitimacy of the Bourbons; it stemmed from the belief that no peace with Napoleon could be permanent. Napoleon's escape from Elba, Castlereagh figured, was secondary “to the more vital question whether Europe can return to that moral system by which … the interests of mankind are to be upheld or whether we shall remain … under the necessity of a system of military policy; whether Europe shall in the future present the spectacle of an assemblage of free and armed nations.”15 While Metternich considered revolution “unnatural,” Castlereagh looked upon the outward projection of the French Revolution as unsettling. Doctrines of government had to be subordinated to international equilibrium. Great Britain, the island power, was absolutely secure in its constitution; ideological currents across the Channel, however potent, could not seriously threaten that constitution. The doctrine of non-intervention was simply the reverse side of the belief in the uniqueness of British institutions. Castlereagh embodied these insular convictions in replying to a proposal by the Tsar for European intervention against the revolution in Spain in 1820:

When the territorial balance of Europe is disturbed, [Britain] can interfere with effect, but she is the last Government in Europe which can be expected … to commit herself on any question of an abstract character. … We shall be found in our place when actual danger menaces the system of Europe: but this country cannot and will not act upon abstract and speculative principles of precaution. The Alliance which exists had no such purpose in view in its original formulation. It was never so explained to Parliament; if it had, most assuredly the sanction of Parliament would never have been given to it.16

The essential fallacy of Castlereagh's political philosophy, according to Harold Nicolson, was that by exaggerating the general need for “repose” he sought to enforce static principles upon a dynamic world.17 Obsessed by the long periods of struggle against French militarism, he identified liberal thought with revolution and revolution with war. He failed to realize that an alliance based upon the maintenance of the existing order could not preserve its unity in a Europe where interests and ambitions were in a constant state of flux. When Castlereagh began to transform the coalition against Napoleon into an international organization to preserve the peace, he ended up separating himself from the Parliament and people of Britain. The conception that stability might reside in commitment and not in a mechanical balance, in precaution and not in defense, was so far beyond the imagination of the British Cabinet that no one protested against Article VI of the Quadruple Alliance. Drafted by Castlereagh, the treaty provided for periodic conferences “by the High Contracting Parties … for the consideration of the measures which shall be the most salutary for the repose and prosperity of nations. … ”18 George Canning argued that this “new and very questionable” method of diplomacy would “necessarily involve us … deeply in all the politics of the continent, where as our true policy has always been not to interfere except in great emergencies and then with commanding force.”19 Castlereagh, as Nicolson explains, refused to face the fact that both Metternich and Alexander, Czar of Russia, were fundamentally averse to democratic or constitutional thought; whereas he desired to use the Grand Alliance to protect the small nations, they desired to exploit it for purposes of repression. Above all, Castlereagh underestimated the mood of isolationism in British public opinion which induced men of all parties to regard as “foreign” and “un-English” a policy of continental commitments and negotiation. “He failed,” wrote Sir Charles Webster, “to associate his ideas with the deepest emotions of his age.”20


The statesmen at Vienna sought to replace the Napoleonic reliance on force with a set of international arrangements that depended on a “sense of obligation.” There had to be a “consensus on the nature of a just arrangement”; otherwise, there would be no possibility of a stable international order, which alone guaranteed peace. A revolutionary period in politics or world affairs is a symptom of the fact that the self-evidence of the goals of the social effort has disintegrated, that a significant segment of society holds values which either cannot or will not be assimilated. It is not the adjustment of differences within a political system which is now of issue, but the political system itself. As a result, stability and reform, liberty and authority, come to appear as antithetical, and political contests turn philosophical and ethical instead of empirical.21 The challenge of stipulating the normative foundations to world order—the requirements of legitimacy and justice among conflicting states—rests ultimately with visions of permanence and change in human nature and history. Kissinger writes: “The statesman lives in time; his test is the permanence of structure under stress. The prophet lives in eternity which, by definition, has no temporal dimension; his test is inherent in his vision.” The confrontation between the two is tragic, “because the statesman must strive to reduce the prophet's vision to precise measures, while the prophet will judge the temporal structure by transcendental standards.”22

In an important chapter analyzing the political thought of Metternich, Kissinger compares the ethical underpinnings of conservative and revolutionary concepts of political legitimacy. Both perspectives may be viewed as answers for two complementary questions: What is the meaning of authority? What is the nature of freedom? Political obligation in a stable social order is associated with the concept of duty—the assertion of the self-evidence of social maxims in a world where an alternative to the status-quo is virtually inconceivable. Political obligation in a revolutionary period is associated with a concept of loyalty, whereby submitting the individual to the general will of society takes on a symbolic and even ritualistic significance because, as Kissinger notices, alternatives seem ever-present.23 “An ethic of duty involves a notion of responsibility,” whereby actions are judged according to the orientation of the will. This may also be considered “an ethic of motivation,” involving political actions of the individual in conformity with a standard of morality which—no matter how rigid—must become individually accepted in order to be meaningful. “An ethic of loyalty involves a notion of orthodoxy,” in the sense of providing a basis for group identity. Kissinger describes this also as an “ethic of relation to group standards which may be validated in any number of ways: by rationality, tradition, charisma, etc.” It does not exclude the individual from the social code, but it does not require it. The language and universality of duty is epitomized by Kant's categorical imperative, “Act so that the maxim of your act might be made a universal principle.” This command speaks to an obligation which is objectively necessary without any regard to personal advantage, desire, or a more ultimate goal. The language of loyalty and contingency is evident in the maxim “My country right or wrong.”24

“The world is subject to two influences,” Metternich wrote, “the social and the political. … The political element can be manipulated; not so the social element whose foundations must never be surrendered.”25 How, then, could a conservative rescue his positions from the contingency of conflicting claims? Kissinger analyzes different dimensions of the conservative remedy by comparing Metternich's political thought with that of Edmund Burke. On the one hand, Burke's conservatism rejected revolutionary change in the name of historical forces, inasmuch as change undermines the temporal aspect of society as well as the social contract. It was “wise Prejudice,” Burke avowed, “to venerate and demonstrate loyalty to the nation; one should approach to the faults of the state as the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement. … It is to be looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of a particular state is but a clause in a great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher nature … according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.26

Burke's inclination toward conservatism led him to give long-established political institutions the benefit of the doubt and to regard the task of reason—properly conceived—to be the elucidation of the implications of a tradition for a particular concrete situation. As he expressed it, “When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment, we have no compass to govern us. …”27

On the other hand, Metternich's conservatism led him to fight revolution in the name of reason, to deny the validity of questions about the nature of authority on epistemological grounds. To Burke, history was the expression of the ethos of a people; to Metternich, it was a “force” to be dealt with, more important than most social forces, but of no greater moral validity. The disorders brought on by revolution were symptoms of a trans-national period and their violence a reflection of the ignorance of their advocates: “Revolutions are temporary disturbances in the life of states. … Order always ends up by reclaiming its own: states do not die like individuals, they transform themselves.” The statesman's role was to guide this transformation and to supervise its direction. The difference, then, between a conservative and a revolutionary order was not the fact of change but its mode:

A consideration the liberal spirit usually ignores … is the difference in the life of states, as of individuals, between progress by measured steps or by leaps. In the first case, conditions develop with the consequence of natural law; while the latter disrupts this connection. … Nature is development, the ordered succession of appearances; only such a course can eliminate the evil and foster the good. But leaping transitions wind up by requiring entirely new creations—and it is not given to man to create out of nothingness.28

At this juncture, it is well to recall that the vital core of Metternich's policy was the idea of the balance of power. The idea of stability, a balance between extremes, was applied to man as much as to the forces of nature, and was a scientific statement of the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean. The ineluctable laws of the universe compelled men and things to seek repose as the only possible escape from dissolution. A disturbance of the balance would mean civil war within a state and external war between states, just as it would mean calamities in the physical world or moral anarchy in the nature of man. Metternich, while arranging in 1820 the series of congresses designed to defeat revolutions in Germany and Italy, authored a “profession of faith” which coupled an analysis of the nature of revolution with a philosophy of history. His censure of the revolutionary era profiles the presumptuous man, the natural product of a too-rapid march of the human spirit towards seeming perfection:

Religion, morality, legislation, economics, politics, administration, all seem to have become a common good and accessible to everyone. Science appears intuitive, experience has no value for the presumptuous; faith means nothing to him and he substitutes for it the pretense of a personal conviction, to arrive at which, however, he dispenses with analysis or study, for these seem too subordinate activities to a mind which believes itself capable of embracing at one blow the whole ensemble of issues. Laws have no values for him because he did not contribute to their preparation and it is below the dignity of a man of his quality to recognize limits traced by ignorant and brute generations. Power resides in himself; why submit to what can have use only to men deprived of … insight? That which was appropriate for an age of weakness is no longer adequate for that of reason. … [All this] tends to an order of things which individualizes all the elements which compose society. … 29

It was the task of statesmanship to distinguish the form and substance of this contest and to create the moral foundation of an order on which only time could confer spontaneity. Civilization was the degree to which change could come about “naturally,” to which the tension between the forces of destruction and conservation was submerged in a spontaneous pattern of obligation.

Epistemological nuances did not prevent Metternich from repeating Burke's remark that a man has an interest in putting out the flames when his neighbor's house is on fire. Revolution was a kind of disease, and measures of public health ought to be international in scope. A Neapolitan or a Spanish Bourbon, a Dom Miguel in Portugal, was to be supported not because of his political virtue, nor because of the divine right of kings, but because the right of hereditary succession was a guarantee of other rights that underlie the whole social order. Metternich never thought that the principle of legitimacy belonged of itself to the moral order. Kingship was not the only form of government; hereditary monarchy was not the only form of kingship. The monarchical principle was to be defended because in Europe of the nineteenth century it happened to be the constituted source of authority—the visible symbol of the rule of law. To Burke, a revolution was an offense against social morality, the violation of the sacred contract of a nation's historical contribution. To Metternich, however, it was a violation of the universal law governing the life of societies, something to be combatted not because it was immoral, but because it was disastrous.30

Metternich's conception of freedom and authority is examined by Kissinger in the context of two philosophical orientations typical of the Western political heritage. Individual liberty can be understood either as the absence of restraint or as the voluntary acceptance of authority. The former position sees freedom residing outside the sphere of political authority; the latter treats freedom as a quality of authority. The negative version of freedom is the expression of a society transcending its political structure, a society—as in Locke—that exists prior to the state and whose political organization resembles a company of limited liability organized for the pursuit of discriminate goals. Men, Locke wrote in the Second Treatise, agree

to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it. … When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politick, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.31

Only consent can morally oblige a man to join his own force to the common executive power of society to assist it in defending the body politic from external threats.32 Insofar as man's liberty is an activity that occurs outside the governmental sphere, “politics has a utilitarian, but not an ethical function; it is useful, not moral.” The Lockean concept of freedom presupposes a society with a conservative character, whatever form its political landscape may take. Were this not the case, says Kissinger, no society could operate a system whose strength resides in its social cohesiveness, in the things “which are taken for granted.” Burke's conservatism, for the same reason, had little or no applicability to the British domestic scene, but was directed against its misapprehension by foreigners.33

The Anglo-Saxon version of freedom was without a natural home on the Continent. Lockean philosophy, prior to 1789, was the testimony to an accomplished revolution; his optimistic conclusions about a rights-oriented society constituted a doctrine of reconciliation which lacked the élan of a call to action. Leo Strauss and others have pointed to the close connection between the admonition (from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding) to rest content within the modest limits of our knowledge, to let probability “govern all our commitments,” to eschew universal knowledge and improve life within the frame of observation and experience, and the commonsense, utilitarian conclusions to be drawn from the Second Treatise.34 Britain was the example of a cohesive society that could regulate itself through custom and thereby reveal disputes to be peripheral. The social upheaval ushered in by the French Revolution prompted Continental powers to embrace a different ethical justification for freedom. European societies containing fundamental schisms relied upon law, the definition of a compulsory relationship.35 Thus Kant and Rousseau, not Locke, were the representatives of the Continental version of liberty which sought freedom in the identification of the will with the general interest and considered government freest—not when it governed least—but when it governed justly. In Kant's terms, “Every action is right which in itself … is such that it can coexist along with the Freedom of Will of each and all in action, according to a universal Law.”36 An action is wrong if it hinders the exercise of freedom of will according to universal law and any compulsion or restraint which is necessary to remove this hindrance is right.

Kissinger demonstrates that Metternich's differences with his liberal antagonists revolved around the concept of freedom in an “ethical state.” To Metternich, a constitution was much more than a written document, as marriage was much more than a marriage contract. “Rights,” according to the Austrian statesman, could not be created, they existed. Metternich seized upon a fundamental contradiction—or at least, a paradox—of democratic theory, by suggesting that ideal constitutions simply endow with arbitrary existence that which has eternal validity. To make a constitution was to give legislative shape to revolution. In Metternich's unhappy judgment:

Things which ought to be taken for granted lose their force when they emerge in the form of arbitrary pronouncements. … The mania of law-making is a symptom of disease which has ravaged the world for 62 years. … Natural, moral or material forces are not fit subjects for human legislation. What would one say of a Charte which side by side with the Rights of Man exhibited the laws of gravitation? … Objects mistakenly made subject to legislation result only in the limitation, if not complete annulment, of that which is attempted to be safeguarded.37

The view of human nature insisting on man's potential for self-government was then attenuated—within the same body of democratic theory—by an understanding of human nature limiting the scope of this government. This leads of necessity to the point in justifying universal rights. Anglo-Saxon countries were able to surmount this dilemma, Kissinger says, in that the relation between state and society had a utilitarian and juridic, not an ethical, foundation. In an ethical state, however, constitutional checks and balances (i.e., explicit limitations on government) become insignificant. What counted for Metternich's statism was an ethical sanction to political rule, one in which self-restraint, not constitutional dicta, preserves the balance between order and freedom. Metternich's intellectual failure, Kissinger concludes, was in fighting liberalism in the name of the very universality it claimed for itself. It is almost impossible for a rationalistic philosophy to survive the demonstration that the same premise can lead to two diametrically opposed conclusions.38

In comparing Metternich and Castlereagh, Kissinger recognized their differences, but maintained that each was committed to upholding the European equilibrium. That had never been the intention of either Napoleon or Czar Alexander, whom Kissinger considered revolutionaries. They believed Europe could be united by an act of will; Napoleon, the conqueror, aimed at universal dominion; Alexander, the prophet, hoped for a reconciled humanity. But the perfection of power and its ideals implied uniformity; Kissinger wrote, “Utopias are not achieved by a process of levelling and dislocation that erodes all patterns of obligations.”39 The statesman remained suspicious of all such designs, knowing that the survival of the state depended on its being prepared at all times for the worst contingency. The statesman knew that he could not escape time, that his duty was to reflect always on accident and contingency. Metternich's application of universal principles of statecraft “was in reality the tour de force of a solitary figure.” The eighteenth century had been persuaded that knowledge was power; events in the nineteenth century proved the inadequacy of that maxim.

The statesman must … be an educator; he must bridge the gap between a people's experience and his vision, between a nation's tradition and its future. In this task his possibilities are limited. A statesman who too far outruns the experience of his people will fail in achieving a domestic consensus, however wise his policies; witness Castlereagh. A statesman who limits his policy to the experience of his people will doom himself to sterility; witness Metternich.40

The Austrian statesman was determined that a French Revolution and a Napoleon would never plague Europe again. The former was “the volcano which must be extinguished, the gangrene which must be burnt out, the hydra with jaws open to swallow the social order.” He had seen it engender hysterical expectations drowned in blood, and the ensuing champion turn into a tyrant whose ambition and zeal spelled the death of millions. Hans von Srbik provided a concise definition of Metternich's political creed: “ A world doctrine which saw the new century and its forces as hostile, a doctrine heir to the international attitude of pre-Revolutionary days, which was at the same time a classic expression of the ultraconservative thought of the Restoration era.”41 Kissinger qualifies this verdict by emphasizing that Metternich was a conservative, not a reactionary.

Desmond Seward, in a new biography of Metternich, contends that Kissinger “goes too far in portraying Metternich as a survivor of the Enlightenment waging a lonely battle in an uncomprehending century, as a contemporary of Kant and Voltaire.” For example, Kissinger glosses over the mental climate of the Restoration, dismissing Metternich's religious attachments. “Metternich was not irreligious,” Kissinger wrote, “but he admired the Church more for its utility and its civilizing influence than for its truth.”42 An excessive emphasis on Metternich's rationalism, Seward claims, obscures a natural philosophical kinship with Edmund Burke. The Irishman could find no better advocate for such maxims as “People will not look forward to posterity who have no time for their ancestors” and “You can never shape the future by the present.” Metternich adopted many of Burke's ideas reformed; “where Burke had seen revolution as violating Britain's historical constitution, the Austrian saw it as destroying the traditional structure of Christian Europe.”43


Few reviews of Kissinger's work as a diplomatic historian have examined the vital connection between A World Restored and the philosophy of history and human destiny shaping his realist worldview.44 As a graduate student at Harvard University, he was captivated by Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. The deep strain of pessimism and fatedness that permeates each page of Spengler's classic struck a responsive chord in the young doctoral student. In a concluding passage of his undergraduate honors thesis, Kissinger wrote that “life involves suffering and transitoriness,” and that “the generation of Buchenwald and Siberian labor camps [could] not talk with the same optimism as its fathers.” Spengler, as John Stoessinger points out, provided no conclusive answers for Kissinger. What troubled him about The Decline of the West was its utter acceptance of the inevitability of historical events—in short, the author's total submission to historical determinism.45 Spengler's experience of history revealed the growth and decline of organic cultures, “the endless unfolding of a cosmic beat that expresses itself in … a vast succession of catastrophic upheavals of which power is not only the manifestation but the exclusive aim.”46

Any philosophy of history, Kissinger asserted, leads straight to metaphysics, and involves an awareness of the mysteries and possibilities not only of nature but of human nature. Levels of meaning within history can be understood by the “reaction of various thinkers to the problems of human necessity and human freedom, in their capacity to experience depths inaccessible to human reason alone.” Spengler exempted progress as a category of meaning for history. For example, the life of nations poses the problem of motion, “which results from the irrevocability of our actions and prevents us in the eternal flux of things to … observe that which is in the act of observing itself, to ever causally determine the inner-connectedness of events.”47 Life is hereby animated by an inner destiny that can never be fully defined; history reveals a majestic unfolding that may be intuitively perceived but never causally classified. Spengler's intuitive vision arises from man's consciousness of his mortality as well as his loneliness in a world where he can never grasp the total meaning of others. What history demonstrates phenomenally is found in Spengler's vision of the world-as-experience: “A boundless mass of human Beings, flowing in a stream without banks; up-stream a dark past wherein our time-sense loses all powers of definition and restless or uneasy fancy conjures up geological periods to hide away an unavoidable riddle, down-stream a future even so dark and timeless.”48 Yet Kissinger insisted on the power of the individual to affect his destiny. Spengler, he maintained, failed to grasp that inevitability is a poor guide and no inspiration. Man lives with purposes and through his hopes glimpses a reality beyond mere phenomena. The moral dimension of human nature, Kissinger explained, derives from

an inward necessity, from the personal in the conception of the environment, from the unique in the apprehension of phenomena. Consequently, objective necessity can never guide conduct, and any activity reveals a personality. Reason can help us understand the world in which we live. Rational analysis can assist us in developing institutions which make an inward experience possible. But nothing can relieve man from his ultimate responsibility, from giving his own meaning to live, from elevating himself above necessity by the [moral] sanction he ascribes to the organic immanence of existence.49

Kissinger's search for meaning in history evokes a dual feeling of inevitability coupled with an inward doubt. On the one hand, the inevitability follows from the unfolding of a chain of events which the mind arranges into a causal sequence. The individual can never really be certain that another development was possible, that an inexorability did not shape all endeavors. On the other hand, skepticism is “a token of rebellion against this view, an assertion of the specificity of the individual, a demand by the soul for freedom.” However one may think about the necessity of events, “at the moment of their performance their inevitability could offer no guide to action.” Spengler's analysis was deficient and could provide no postulate of action because necessity constitutes an attribute of external reality. The experience of freedom enables man to rise beyond the suffering of the past and the frustrations of history. According to Kissinger, this capacity for self-transcendence, or spirituality, represents “the unique which each man imparts to the necessity of his life.”50 The dialectical interplay between fate and freedom was affirmed by Alfred North Whitehead in the following terms:

As soon as high consciousness is reached, the enjoyment of existence is entwined with pain, frustration, loss, tragedy. Amid the passing of so much beauty, so much heroism, so much daring, Peace is then the intuition of permanence. It keeps vivid the sensitiveness to the tragedy; and it sees the tragedy as a living agent persuading the world to aim at fineness beyond the faded level of surrounding fact. Each tragedy is the disclosure of an ideal:—What might have been and what was not; What can be. The tragedy was not in vain. This survival power in motive force marks the difference between the tragic evil and the gross evil. The inner feeling belonging to this grasp of service of tragedy is Peace—the purification of emotions.51

Foreign policy is a form of art and not a precise science, something that many professors have great difficulty grasping. Hans J. Morgenthau, to whom Kissinger and other realist thinkers owed a considerable intellectual debt, contrasted the rationality of the engineer with the wisdom and moral strength of the statesman. To be truly successful and truly “rational” in political action, knowledge of a different order is needed. This is not the knowledge of single tangible facts but of eternal laws by which man moves in the social world. The key to human nature is not in the facts from whose uniformity the sciences derive their laws. “It is in the insight and the wisdom,” Morgenthau wrote, “by which more-than-scientific man elevates his experiences into the universal laws of human nature.”52 The Aristotelian truth that man is a political animal is true forever; the truths of the natural sciences are true only until other truths have supplanted them. The statesman recognizes in the contingencies of the social world the concretizations of eternal laws. Edmund Burke, in his “Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians,” pointed to the unsolvable contrast between what the statesman needs and wants and what he is able to obtain.

A statesman differs from a professor in a university; the latter has only the general view of society; the former, the statesman, has a number of circumstances to combine with those general ideas, and to take into his consideration. Circumstances are infinite, are infinitely combined; are variable and transient; he who does not take them into consideration is not erroneous, but stark mad,—dat operam ut cum ratione insaniat, he is metaphysically mad. A statesman, never losing sight of his principles, is to be guided by circumstances; and, judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment, he may ruin his country forever.53

The achievement of the wisdom by which insecurity is understood and sometimes mastered is the fulfillment of human possibilities. Where the insecurity of human existence challenges the wisdom of man, there is the meeting-point of fate and freedom, of necessity and chance. Without assurance of victory and with the odds against him, man persists in the struggle, a hero rather than a searcher for scientific truth.54

Kissinger's choice of a topic for his doctoral dissertation was influenced by Morgenthau's intellectual perspective in Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. A connection is evident from the reasons stated by Kissinger in the Preface:

The success of physical science depends on the selection of one crucial experiment; that of political science in the field of international affairs, on the selection of the crucial period. I have chosen for my topic the period between 1812 and 1822, partly, I am frank to say, because its problems seem to me analogous to those of our own day.55

The distinction between “legitimate” and “revolutionary” international orders underscores the elements of continuity and change for either a bipolar or a multipolar arena within which radical ideologies compete for the allegiance of mankind. It must be emphasized, however, that Kissinger never limited his analysis to what international theorists designate as structural realism—i.e., treating international structure and the balance of power as the primary variables for explaining foreign policy conduct. Distinguishing between organization and inspiration in statecraft, between the requirements of bureaucracy and statesmanship, is also a task for ethics and philosophy. For the international thinker, “the structural problem of foreign policy is … to try to guarantee the relative security and … also the relative insecurity of all the parties.”56 At the same time, “some common sense of values must be found so that the participants will not constantly attempt to overthrow the international order.” Kissinger also identified a normative component in theorizing about international relations: “The application of these principles depends on the conception of a sovereign unit, on what the sovereign units are capable of doing to each other, and on what these units want to do to each other.” If there is a change in the “idea of the legitimate unit,” then events will lead to a transformation of the international system and a period of upheaval; this is one of the problems of the contemporary period.57

Like Hegel, Kissinger believed that certain statesmen, by virtue of their inspiration, stood at history's fateful junctions and, through an act of vision and courage, earned the right to immortality: “Men become myths, not by what they know, or even by what they achieve, but by the tasks they set for themselves.” Moreover, the inspiration of the statesman is always tested by the restraints imposed upon him by organization—the need for winning domestic support for his policies. “It is the inextricable element of history, this conflict between inspiration and organization. … Inspiration is a call for greatness; organization a recognition that mediocrity is the usual pattern of leadership.”58 Kissinger likened the statesman to one of the heroes in classical drama who has had a vision of the future but who cannot transmit it directly to his fellow man and cannot validate its “truth.” Nations learn only from experience; they “know” only when it is too late to act. By contrast, statesmen “must act as if their intuition [were] already experience, as if their aspiration were truth.” The moral predicament of the statesman arises from the effort to escape time and the need to survive in it.

It is for this reason that statesmen often share the fate of prophets, that they are without honor in their own country, that they always have a difficult task in legitimizing their programs domestically, and their greatness is usually apparent only in retrospect when their intuition has become experience. The statesman must therefore be an educator; he must bridge the gap between a people's experience and his wisdom, between a nation's tradition and its future.

Can a statesman meet both the challenges of inspiration and organization?

Kissinger's tragic perspective on politics left little room for optimism. His assessment of America's national purpose in the world, particularly the self-righteous accent of American exceptionalism, was never far from the melancholy conclusion of his undergraduate thesis: “No civilization has yet been permanent, no longing completely fulfilled.”59 Americans, Kissinger wrote in The Troubled Partnership, “live in an environment uniquely suited to a technological approach to policy-making.” American history brings the confident conviction that “any problem will yield if subjected to a sufficient dose of expertise.” Europeans, by contrast, “live on a continent covered with ruins testifying to the fallibility of human foresight.”60 An end to the Cold War brings the recognition that, for the first time in American history, “we can neither dominate the world nor escape from it.” Geography no longer assures security, and “our prosperity is to some extent hostage to the decisions on raw materials, prices, and investment in … countries whose purposes are not necessarily compatible with ours.” The most fundamental challenge to American foreign policy in a new age, however, “is not to our physical resources but to our constancy of purpose and our philosophical perception.” America can “no longer wait for dangers to become overwhelming” insofar as “they will appear ambiguous when they are still manageable.” Creative thinking about foreign policy means coming to grips with an almost overwhelming paradox of the contemporary world:

At the moment when we still have great scope for creativity the facts are likely to be unclear. … When we know all the facts, it is often too late to act. This is the dilemma of statesmanship of a country that is irrevocably engaged in world affairs—and particularly one that seeks to lead.61

The relationship between philosophy and statecraft in any one period raises obvious questions about the validity of historical analogies. As humans we are prone to reason by analogy, and indeed, historic reasoning cannot help arguing by analogy. On the one hand, a historic event is a unique occurrence which never happened that way before and will never happen in this way again. On the other hand, it is typical insofar as it shows certain similarities to other occurrences, and when we ask ourselves the meaning of a contemporary occurrence, we can only understand that event and judge it by resorting to the accumulated treasure of historic knowledge. Since the problem of reasoning by analogy is inherent in human thought, it is only natural that historians can be led astray by preferences concerning the importance of similarities and dissimilarities. For example, some who defended American intervention in Vietnam reasoned by analogy with Munich and Hitler; others, opposed to this course of action, invoked analogies with the Sicilian expedition of Athens or events leading to the fall of the Roman Empire. Montaigne clearly pointed to the existential difficulty of reasoning by analogy.

As no event and no shape is entirely like another, so also is there none entirely different from another, an ingenious mixture on the part of nature. If there were no similarity in our faces we could not distinguish one man from beast; if there were no dissimilarity we could not distinguish one man from another. All things hold together by some similarity; every example is halting, and the comparison that is derived from experience is always defective and imperfect. And yet one links up the comparisons at some corner. And so do laws become serviceable and adopt themselves to every one of our affairs by some wrested, forced, and biased interpretation.62

Yet the conduct of foreign policy requires in each instance a comparable situation. Kissinger suggested that one could talk endlessly about the “balance of power” or “legitimacy” or the “impact of personalities”; however, as new cases arise, that knowledge will be empty if one does not understand what the elements of power are, how legitimacy is conceived, and what the impact of structure on events can be.63 This requires an intuitive feeling, which can be partly taught from history but which is partly philosophical inspiration. Metternich's period, often by the most cunning raison d’état, built upon the common adherence to legitimate principles as the basis for imposing restraints upon the political will of national actors. Part of those restraints that institutionalize an equilibrium derive from philosophical judgments about the nature and destiny of man, in addition to the responsibility that freedom brings in moments of change or revolution in world history. Bismarck's diplomatic legacy, after all, illustrates that an international system where the balance of power becomes an end in itself is poised for self-destruction.

The lessons Kissinger discovered in the diplomacy of Metternich and Castlereagh were never far-removed from his own intellectual self-assessment. “I think of myself,” the Secretary of State said in 1974, “as a historian more than as a statesman.” As a historian, Kissinger was conscious of the fact that every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed. History is a record of efforts that failed, of aspirations that were never realized, of wishes that were fulfilled and then turned out to be different from what was expected. We always tend to think of historical tragedy, Kissinger explained, as failing to get what we want, “but if we study history we find that the worst tragedies have occurred when people got what they wanted … and it turned out to be the wrong objective.” The historian lives with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy; the statesman, however, has to act on the assumption that problems must be solved. And Kissinger may have been more philosopher, than either historian or statesman, in speaking to the predicament of men and nations: “Each generation lives in time, and even though … societies have all suffered a decline, that is of no help to any one generation, and the decline is usually traceable to a loss of creativity and inspiration and therefore avoidable.”64

Profound thought and concrete action ought to coincide in one and the same individual: the statesman. The philosopher is responsible for the truth of his thought, whose effects are incalculable, but he is not tied to the situation of the day. The statesman is responsible for the effect of his actions and bound by the effect of his words in a particular situation. Both have their weaknesses: the philosopher does not act, and the statesman limits his thinking to close quarters. But philosophy and politics, as Karl Jaspers suggested, “should get together.” In particular, Jaspers' analysis of the rational requirements of statesmanship points to the confluence of power and ideals, moral choice and political necessities in defending national and international interests.

Of all encompassing importance is the distinction between two ways of thinking. Intellectual thought is the inventor and maker. Its precepts can be carried out and can multiply the making by infinite repetition. … Rational thought … does not provide for the carrying out of mass directives but requires each individual to do his thinking, original thinking. Here, truth is not found by a machine reproducing at will, but by decision, resolve, and action whose self-willed performance, by each on his own, is what creates a common spirit.65

The rational attitude views the statesman with the concern of sensing our common fate in him. The statesman must always be sensitive to the facts in keeping all means of power and force in mind and at hand; if he does not know where he stands, he may end up in the absurd position of a leader being removed by a handful of men, saving his life but dooming his country with the words, “I yield to force.” By the same token, the statesman stands at the frontier of humanity, at the place where someone must stand so that all may live. These few men, neither isolated nor deified, “but rooted in the real will of those who recognize themselves in them, might come to power because they dominate men by their character from within, not by force from without.”66

Jaspers' defense of the rational statesman brings the spectator to the intersection of philosophy and statesmanship. The statesman is guided by moral-political ideas in the framework of a historic situation. He must work within the continuity of history—“the seeming grandeur of noisily manifested temporary power”—to found things that will endure. No such vision of the statesman, whom Jaspers contrasts with politicians of élan vital, is conceivable without some concern for how the life of reason relates to the structures and processes of government and society. This brings one back to the question of where rational analysis begins. We find in our immediate circle both the opinions and the terminology expressing ideas of right and wrong; the political thinker's duty is to find the path leading from this vocabulary and these customs toward the objective element. This inquiry is guided by the postulate that there is such a thing as human nature, and that its rational articulation constitutes advice for the organization and self-interpretation of society. Eric Voegelin was right in arguing that there is no sense talking about good and bad institutions, or making concrete suggestions about this or that social problem unless we first know what purpose or end these institutions are supposed to serve.67 The link between rationality and politics can be summarized as follows: For there to be any rational discussion of politics, there first has to be agreement on the common good. There can be no agreement on the supreme good, however, if one does not have a conception of human nature. This conception implies the immutability of human nature, and this is linked to a certain conception of man's participation in a transcendent reality, a transcendent Nous.

Discussing the reciprocal relationship between freedom and responsibility for those statesmen who “venture into the public realm,” Hannah Arendt alluded to the moral sphere of political action.

Caught up in our modern prejudices, we think that only the “objective work,” separate from the person, belongs to the public; that the person behind it and his life are private matters. … [However] we must change our views and forsake our habit of equating personal with subjective, objective with factual or impersonal. Those equations come from scientific disciplines, where they are meaningful. They are obviously meaningless in politics, in which realm people on the whole appear as acting and speaking persons and where … personality is anything but a private affair.68

What Arendt describes as the subjective element of personality—the creative process by which an individual subject offers some objective work to the public—closely resembles the Greek daimon, the guardian spirit that accompanies every man throughout his life. This daimon, this personal element in man, can only appear where a public space exists; that is the deeper significance of the public realm, which extends far beyond what is ordinarily depicted as political life. To the extent that this public space is also a spiritual realm, there is manifest in it what the Romans called humanitas. This designation signified the very height of humanness because it was valid and true without being a datum of verifiable science.69

The statesman's ethos is part of the ethos that bears a people and the individuals in it. We evade the issue by separating politics and ethics and shift the making of great decisions away from the common ethos into “just politics,” for which others are held responsible—that is, if we despise these others because “politics is crooked.” It is an undesirable and cowardly fate for man to live outside of, and without responsibility for, the politics by which he lives in fact! The imagined sanctity of a free private existence and of a world of the spirit distinct from politics seems possible under certain relatively stable political conditions—but it only seems so. For precisely because of its untruthful concern with politics, irresponsibility will see the despised politics shatter, destroy, and unmask its existence.


  1. Stephen R. Graubard, Kissinger: Portrait Of A Mind (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), xv.

  2. Henry A. Kissinger, “The Conservative Dilemma: Reflections On The Political Thought Of Metternich,” American Political Science Review 48 (1954), 1021–22.

  3. Henry A. Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 323.

  4. Ibid., 1–2.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid., 3.

  7. Ibid., 4.

  8. Ibid., 8.

  9. Kissinger, “The Conservative Dilemma,” 1020.

  10. Kissinger, A World Restored, 9.

  11. Ibid., 10.

  12. Ibid., 13.

  13. Quoted in Harold Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1946), 58.

  14. See Sir Charles Webster, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh (London, 1925 and 1931), II, 554.

  15. Kissinger, A World Restored, 32.

  16. Webster, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, II, 240.

  17. Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna, 258.

  18. See Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 5th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), 435 n.1.

  19. Quoted in Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna, 262.

  20. Ibid., 259.

  21. Kissinger, “The Conservative Dilemma,” 1017.

  22. Graubard, Kissinger: Portrait Of A Mind, 38.

  23. Kissinger, A World Restored, 192.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Ibid., 191.

  26. Edmund Burke, Selected Writings and Speeches, ed. Peter J. Stanlis (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1963), 470–71.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Kissinger, “The Conservative Dilemma,” 1024.

  29. Ibid., 1025–26.

  30. Kissinger, A World Restored, 194.

  31. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (New York: Mentor Books, 1965), 254–55.

  32. See the analysis of Dante Germino, Machiavelli to Marx: Modern Western Political Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 135–47.

  33. Kissinger, A World Restored, 194.

  34. See Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 220 ff., and Lee Cameron McDonald, Western Political Theory, Vol. II: From Machiavelli to Burke (New York: Harcourt-Brace-Jovanovich, 1962), 337–38.

  35. Kissinger, A World Restored, 194–95.

  36. Immanuel Kant, Philosophy of Law, trans. W. Hastie (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1887).

  37. Kissinger, A World Restored, 198.

  38. Ibid., 200.

  39. Ibid., 316.

  40. Ibid., 322, 329.

  41. Quoted in Desmond Seward, Metternich: The First European (New York: Viking, 1991), 85.

  42. Kissinger, “The Conservative Dilemma,” 1022 n.13.

  43. Seward, Metternich: The First European, 86.

  44. For a notable exception, see Peter Dickson, Kissinger and the Meaning of History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

  45. John Stoessinger, Henry Kissinger: The Anguish of Power (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 7–8.

  46. Henry A. Kissinger, “The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant,” (B. A. Honors Thesis, Harvard University, 1951), 18, 348.

  47. Ibid., 14–15.

  48. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. C. F. Atkinson, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926–28), I, 105.

  49. Kissinger, “The Meaning of History,” 341–42.

  50. Ibid., 348.

  51. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 369.

  52. Hans J. Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 219–220.

  53. Burke, Selected Writings and Speeches, 313.

  54. Morgenthau, Scientific Man, 223.

  55. Quoted in Stoessinger, The Anguish of Power, 9.

  56. In a conversation with Walter Laqueur, Kissinger remarked:

    A statesman must strike a balance between capability and intention. He cannot rely on the goodwill of another sovereign state, because that would be an abdication of foreign policy. He cannot base his policies on physical preeminence alone, because unless he is willing to establish a world empire, this will only tend to unite his enemies and force him to attempt a cynical and dangerous policy of divide and rule. …

    See Henry Kissinger, For The Record (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981), 116–17.

  57. Ibid.

  58. Kissinger, A World Restored, 317, 322.

  59. Kissinger, “The Meaning Of History,” 326.

  60. Henry Kissinger, The Troubled Partnership (New York: Anchor, 1966), 23.

  61. Kissinger, For The Record, 74–75.

  62. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, ed. Jacob Zeitlin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936), III, 270.

  63. Kissinger, For the Record, 114–15.

  64. Secretary Kissinger Interviewed for New York Times, The Department of State Bulletin 71 (11 November 1974), 629.

  65. Karl Jaspers, The Future Of Mankind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), ix, 7.

  66. Ibid., 237.

  67. See the comments of Eric Voegelin in World Technology and Human Destiny, ed. Raymond Aron (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1963), 223–24.

  68. Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 72.

  69. Ibid., 73.

Michael Howard (review date May/June 1994)

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SOURCE: “The World According to Henry. From Metternich to Me,” in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 3, May/June, 1994, pp. 132–40.

[In the following review of Diplomacy, Howard discusses Kissinger's analysis of “power politics” in Europe and America from 1648 to the twentieth century as a medium through which political leaders have established an international balance of power. Howard concludes that Kissinger's model of conduct is outdated for modern society and remains mere nostalgia.]

Henry Kissinger has never written anything less than magna opera, but this 1,000-page blockbuster [Diplomacy] must certainly qualify as his maximum opus. Its title is modestly deceptive. The term “diplomacy” is normally applied to the techniques and tactics employed in the conduct of international relations, and about these Kissinger is well qualified to write. He is dealing here, however, with a great deal more than techniques and tactics. His topic is the grand strategy, indeed the philosophy, of great power relationships, from the days of Richelieu until our own times.

The proper title of this book would be something like Power Politics, but that is a term that Kissinger seldom allows to pass his pen. Instead he refers frequently, and bewilderingly, to “geopolitics.” He does not use this term as did its European inventors, Rudolph Kjellen, Halford Mackinder and Albrecht Haushofer, to mean the influence of spatial environment on political imperatives. For Kissinger “geopolitics” is simply a euphemism for power relationships. His use of it is reminiscent of the term “behavioral sciences,” which was coined in the United States a generation ago to describe what had hitherto been known as the social sciences, but sounded to suspicious congressmen too much like socialism to qualify for governmental support. In the same way, power politics is a concept (though not a practice) so blatantly un-American that no foundation is likely to underwrite its study. “Geopolitics,” on the other hand, sounds conveniently value-free, though the implementation of some of its theories by German and Japanese statesmen during the first half of this century proves that it is not necessarily anything of the kind. Kissinger would have done better to have come clean and admitted that his subject was neither diplomacy nor geopolitics, as those terms are generally understood, but the subject that he has spent his life studying and much of it practicing: the politics of power.

The subtext of his book, however, explains why he could not do so. Americans do not take kindly to the idea of power politics, even when they are most blatantly engaged in it. From Wilson to Clinton, the rhetoric of American foreign policy has been to deny the need for anything so crude and to denounce the very idea as a European perversion. But for Kissinger, steeped as he is in the European history of the nineteenth century, power politics is both natural and necessary. The statesmen he most respects—Richelieu, Metternich, Bismarck, even Stalin—were those who recognized this and practiced it most openly. For power politics is not simply Machtpolitik, the accumulation, threat, and if need be use of armed force as an instrument of policy. It is based on the recognition and acceptance of the limits of one's own power. Statecraft, from the days of Richelieu to those of Nixon, has consisted in the identification of national interests, the realistic assessment of available resources, and the alignment of both in an appropriate relationship within the context of the interests and resources of rival states. If the resources are sufficient, a state may realistically aspire to hegemony, the destruction or subordination of all rival powers. But if they are not, as for the states of Europe from the seventeenth until the twentieth centuries they were not, the statesman must strive to enhance the power of his own state through explicit or implicit alliances. In Lord Palmerston's oft-quoted words, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies; there are only permanent interests.

Kissinger has said this often, and here he says it again, definitively and at considerable length. For him the European practice, particularly as defined by British nineteenth-century statesmen, was not an aberration, but the norm for the conduct of international relations in any era. The American abjuration of power politics in the nineteenth century was a luxury that only their oceanic isolation enabled them to afford. In the twentieth, however, it was a disaster, whether it took the form of isolationism, as it did in the 1920s and 1930s, or ideological crusade, as it did in the 1950s and 1960s. Richard Nixon, claims Kissinger, was the first American president, with the solitary exception of Theodore Roosevelt, to understand power politics and so to guide the United States back into the mainstream of international relations. (It is a claim to statesmanship for Nixon that could be made as convincingly for Louis XIII of France, Francis II of Austria or William I of Prussia, the patrons of Richelieu, Metternich and Bismarck, respectively, but let that pass.) But the United States cannot be Europeanized. The policies of its statesmen, however much they may be guided by a perception of the national interest, must always be made acceptable to an ideologically motivated electorate. That is the problem Kissinger faced when in office, and one to which, in the latter part of this volume, he constantly returns.


About a third of this book is devoted to European politics before 1941, from the emergence of the states system after the Thirty Years' War in 1648 to its collapse with the triumph of Hitler. Some academics may lament the absence of more rigorous analysis, others the narrow focus on political elites and the little consideration given the social and economic transformations that provided the context for their policies, but it is a magisterial narrative, well-spiced with Kissingerian insights and ironies. The author is of course at his best on his familiar ground of post-Napoleonic nineteenth-century Europe. Whatever the philosophes may have said in the eighteenth century about the balance of power, the princes of Europe then still fought for aggrandizement or survival as nakedly as their predecessors. It was not until Metternich that a statesman appeared who had not only internalized the concept but was given the opportunity to create a new international structure that explicitly embodied it. His less perceptive successors allowed it to collapse. Bismarck recreated it, although on a far less stable basis. Again his successors allowed it to collapse. The First World War came about not because of the unstable power balance created by competing alliances (though it is not quite clear whether Kissinger accepts this), but because the German Empire was no longer interested in maintaining a power balance. The Second World War followed because the victorious allies were incapable of, or uninterested in, restoring that balance. The withdrawal of the United States, the pariah status of Russia and the dithering of Britain, whose leaders had forgotten the lessons so sagely taught by their predecessors, left a vacuum that could all too easily be filled by the expansion of German power. When U.S. leaders came to pick up the pieces, their effort was in the belief that the balance of power, far from having prevented those wars, had been their cause. So they set about creating a new world order based on different, and erroneous, principles.


Like Metternich, Woodrow Wilson had the opportunity, or so he believed, to create a new international system based on a coherent ideology. The ideology, like that of the balance of power, derived from the eighteenth-century philosophes, who assumed an underlying harmony in nature that was distorted and broken only by human error and misperceptions. International conflict was at best the result of what Marx called “false consciousness”; at worst of the sinister activities of monarchs, aristocrats, or, a little later, “military-industrial complexes,” all of whom, as Kant pointed out at the end of the eighteenth century, had a vested interest in war. For the Wilsonians peace was not a precarious condition maintained only by a constant and conscious balancing of power and interests, but the normal state of mankind, or at least it would be if only the artificial barriers to its maintenance could be swept away.

In this view American democracy was a microcosm of humanity, and nations could and should govern their relations by the same kind of consensus as the Americans did themselves. There should be an international town meeting—the League of Nations—to establish that consensus, and a posse comitatus to enforce it against offenders. As in domestic affairs, the security of one was the security of all. Separate pacts, alliances and military guarantees were as unacceptable on the international plane as they were on the domestic. Peace, in short, was indivisible.

When in 1919 the congress of the United States was called upon to ratify the covenant setting up the League of Nations, it understandably recoiled from a universalism that would have committed the country to undifferentiated and global intervention. But, having no tradition or understanding of power politics, it relapsed into the opposite extreme of isolationism. When the power balance in Europe collapsed in 1940, President Roosevelt saw that the necessities of the power balance demanded American intervention to prevent a German victory, but his electorate still did not. When the issue was decided for them by the actions of their adversaries, the American people went to war, not to restore a balance of power, but to punish the aggressors, enforce their surrender and put their leaders on trial. When peace was eventually reestablished, a new world order was created under American leadership based on Wilsonian principles, except that this time the United States locked itself into the United Nations and tried to provide it with teeth.


When the Soviet Union revealed itself to be, not a loyal partner in upholding the American concept of world order, but a potential adversary, such statesmen as George Marshall, Dean Acheson and George Kennan accepted the concept of “containment,” which was effectively an update of the traditional balance of power. But in order to gain public support their rhetoric had to be universalist. In fact Stalin, in Kissinger's view, had no serious global ambitions. He was an old-fashioned realpolitiker concerned with the cautious expansion of Soviet power, and he expected his adversaries to be playing the same game. He made it clear to the British that he would have no objection to their establishing military bases in Western Europe pari passu with the establishment of Soviet power in the eastern half of the continent. If the Western allies had been similar practitioners of realpolitik, Kissinger suggests, a deal might have been struck immediately after the war along the lines that Churchill himself favored: a Soviet pullout from Germany in exchange for the Finlandization of Eastern Europe. As it was, the American leadership could mobilize the domestic support necessary to achieve even the most limited objective of a power balance in Europe only by proclaiming a crusade, as it did in the Truman Doctrine. The global implications of this crusade were to be made suddenly explicit by the purely adventitious attack across the 38th parallel by the forces of North Korea in a region in which American statesmen had explicitly and understandably stated that they had no interests to defend.

The United States now found itself committed to a conflict that was not only global but to all appearances permanent. But it was one, Kissinger points out, to which the American people were temperamentally well suited. They were pledged to the defense, against the forces of an evil empire, of a world that, if left to itself, would be free, harmonious and democratic. Any administration, whether that of Truman or Eisenhower, that adopted anything less than a posture of total and undifferentiated hostility to the communist world was subjected to the unremitting attacks of its opponents. Young John Kennedy in particular, after the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco, had to show both his domestic and Soviet adversaries that he was prepared to live up to his rhetoric and defend the frontiers of freedom wherever they might be and whatever the cost, and he unwisely chose to do so in Vietnam.

It would be hard to find—apart from Korea—a region where the United States had fewer interests to defend, but it was there that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations believed that American resolution was being tested and that the decisive battle had to be fought. But Vietnam was a battlefield where Wilsonian ideals were as irrelevant as U.S. military power. Realpolitikers like Hans Morgenthau joined hands with pacific isolationists like Noam Chomsky to castigate a policy from which even America's closest allies tried to distance themselves. After five years it was clear that the Vietnam involvement was as much a domestic as a military disaster. In consequence, the American people, without quite knowing what they were doing, elected a president who, much as he admired Woodrow Wilson, shared few of his ideals, and Nixon selected as his adviser Henry Kissinger, who shared none of them.

Kissinger has already told us in his memoirs how he tried to manipulate the balance of power to extricate his country from the Vietnamese morass. Although his success in doing so was, to put it mildly, limited, he nevertheless transformed the international scene. He treated the Russians not as criminals but as adults with legitimate interests of their own. He brought the Chinese into play as independent actors in the international system, and he destroyed the specter of “Arab nationalism” by regaining Egypt as a Western-oriented power. This he has already dealt with very fully in the two volumes of his memoirs. Here he summarizes the process succinctly and dispassionately, with remarkably little reference to the part he played. It was hardly his fault that the Nixon era ended in such humiliating disaster, and neither he nor his successors could prevent the Russians from exploiting the American loss of nerve that resulted from Vietnam, Watergate and the U.S. humiliation in Iran. But not only did Soviet triumphalism eventually provoke the Reaganite reaction in the United States, but, Kissinger suggests, it produced the over-extension of Soviet resources that led directly to economic and ultimately political collapse. In spite of the Wilsonian rhetoric and the mistakes to which it led, suggests Kissinger, the United States had actually been applying a doctrine of containment throughout the Cold War, and ultimately it worked. Whatever the flights of Wilsonian poetry in presidential addresses, fundamentally the Americans had been talking the humdrum prose of power politics, and the Soviets always knew it.

Now, Kissinger believes, we are back in a multipolar world. He had tried to create one in the 1970s, with China, Europe and Japan as potential great powers, together with the Soviet Union and the United States, making possible a Metternichian or Bismarckian balancing game. Then only China had been willing to play, or rather China produced in Chou En-lai the only statesman who was willing to play; the Europeans were still too disunited and the Japanese too modest.

Today Kissinger sees better hope of true multipolarity. American military supremacy, though unchallenged, is of limited value in the modern world. Europe and Japan have drawn level as economic powers, and China is likely to do so during the coming century. Without accepting the “declinist” thesis that some of his more apoplectic Harvard associates have attributed to Paul Kennedy, Kissinger sees the need for the United States to learn to function as one power in a complex system that it can neither escape nor dominate. The hopes of yet a third new world order in which the United States will be able to impose its pluralist-democratic ideology on a grateful world will go the way of those entertained by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. Once again America must define her interests and bring them into balance with her resources. “The fulfillment of American ideals,” Kissinger concludes, “will have to be sought in the patient accumulation of partial successes.” The Clinton administration, which in spite of its necessary rhetoric wants to involve itself as little as possible with the anarchic world beyond the oceans, can only take comfort from such cautious minimalism.


But if the universalist philosophy of Wilson has been an ignis fatuus, a flicker of marsh gas only leading deeper into the quagmire, does that of Metternich furnish the United States today with more reliable guidance? Power politics (or, as Kissinger insists, geopolitics) certainly provided a necessary framework for statecraft in Europe between its two Thirty Years' Wars, that of the seventeenth century and that of the twentieth century, but how relevant is that experience likely to be to the world of the twenty-first?

My own judgment is: not very. We would not be wise to regard that limited slice of world history as a universally applicable norm and try to project its values onto the far more diverse yet interdependent world of tomorrow. The prescriptions of Richelieu could be as irrelevant as those of Woodrow Wilson, if not more so. During the two centuries between 1650 and 1850 Europe consisted of what political scientists call “perfect states,” whose rulers owed no allegiance upward nor, more to the point, downward. They were absolute in their power to conduct foreign, if not domestic, policy. In their largely self-sufficient agrarian economies, transnational interests were minimal. The conduct of foreign policy was in the hands of small elites who, as Kissinger points out, were often interrelated and shared common values; shared more with each other, indeed, than they did with the peoples ruled over by the dynasties they served. For such elites power politics could be conducted as a game of skill. Even if they lost, the consequences were seldom catastrophic, and certainly not for them.

This system was badly shaken by the wars of the French Revolution, but not destroyed: it staggered on for another half-century. By 1900, however, it had ceased to work. Political developments within their own countries had destroyed the capacity of the old elites to play nicely balanced games of power politics. Kissinger points out how even within the most autocratic of European states, the Russian Empire, the government was running scared of nationalist public opinion. In Germany the Bismarckian system collapsed less because of the lack of diplomatic skill on the part of his successors than because of an increasingly unmanageable Reichstag. As for Britain …

Kissinger is curiously blind to what was happening in Britain in the nineteenth century, and to its consequences. He quotes with understandable approval the statements by Castlereagh, Palmerston and Disraeli about national interests and the balance of power, while regarding their nemesis, Gladstone, as something of an oddball. But Gladstone was the voice of the future, his adversaries that of the past. He was the true avatar of Woodrow Wilson, and he was not alone. He represented a rising tide of liberal internationalism in British public opinion, which by the twentieth century was to become dominant. Edward Grey, Britain's liberal foreign secretary in 1914, knew all about the balance of power and tried, by his alliances with France and Russia, to preserve it. But his efforts had to be almost as covert as those of Roosevelt in 1940: the parliamentary majority to which he was responsible abjured the whole concept of a balance of power. When it supported British entry into the war in 1914, the rationale was not to preserve the balance of power but to protect the neutrality of Belgium and vindicate the rule of law. And the war aim of the British Liberals was the creation of a League of Nations, an idea proposed by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham and powerfully propagated in the United States by emissaries of the British Union for Democratic Control. The idea of the League may have been, in Kissinger's words, “quintessentially American,” but it was far more popular in Britain between the wars than in the United States. If British statesmen between the wars failed to pursue “the national interest” in the traditional fashion laid down by their nineteenth-century predecessors, it was not simply because they were more clumsy and shortsighted. It was because public opinion made it impossible for them to do so.

I make this point, not out of any British chauvinism, but because it indicates a deep flaw in Kissinger's analysis. The model for the conduct of international relations that he holds up for our admiration had simply ceased to work by the beginning of this century, not because of unskillful statecraft, but because the hermetic system in which it had been effective had ceased to exist. The more democratic societies became, the less possible it was for the system to survive. The Wilsonian illusions that Kissinger regards as uniquely American in fact originated outside America and have now spread far beyond, and it is arguable that the more widely they are spread, the less illusory they become. Further, in a world that is now so inter-dependent, it is questionable whether the concept of a purely “national” interest makes sense any longer. Finally—but this takes us into very deep waters—there is now a question mark over the primacy of the state in the international system and its capacity to control those huge economic, social and demographic movements known as transnational flows. Given the prevalence of something like international anarchy, where would a new Metternich begin?

Kissinger's own sagacious prescription is that of all wise old men: surtout, pas trop de zèle. It cannot be said that his book furnishes any profound guidance to those who have to pick their way through the new world disorder, but that was hardly its purpose. It is history, on a splendid and massive scale: a magnificent survey, not only of the world in Kissinger's own lifetime, but of that ancien régime from which he derived his values and to which he now looks back with such understandable nostalgia.

Charles Powell (review date 13 June 1994)

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SOURCE: “No Diplomat,” in National Review, Vol. 46, No. 11, June 13, 1994, pp. 63–65.

[In the following review of Diplomacy, Powell positively assesses Kissinger's ability to connect the evolution of American foreign policy throughout modern history to America's future as a world power while questioning several of Kissinger's conclusions about the future of Europe.]

[Diplomacy] is a magnificent book. It makes one yearn for the days when the United States had a foreign policy in place of the present mixture of wishful thinking, woolly platitudes, and obsession with tomorrow's newspaper headlines.

Despite its title, the book is not actually about diplomacy, an activity practiced by indisputably superior beings but ultimately on a par with Japanese flower-arranging and Scrabble. Or to put it more kindly, diplomacy is essentially tactics, whereas this book is about foreign-policy-making, grand strategy, and statecraft, all of them arts in which Henry Kissinger is an acknowledged black-belt.

Indeed I doubt that anyone has ever seriously accused Henry Kissinger of being diplomatic. I have a memory of attending a meeting with him at the White House in 1971, a meeting from which Dr. Kissinger was promptly called to attend to something important. A kindly secretary served us coffee to pass the time. The Great Man eventually returned and resumed his flow, only to be brought up short by the sight of our coffee. “Who gave you that?” he demanded accusingly. “It's a terrible mistake to give people coffee. You can't get rid of them.”

There is a lot of history in this book, but it illuminates the future more than the past, and that is where its brilliance lies. The fascination is in the maxims it derives, the connections and the linkages it establishes, and the consequences for today's world it draws from past events. It is history with a view, in the grand manner of Arnold Toynbee, rather than the meticulous but excruciating detail of Lewis Namier. And it is written with a verve and panache far removed from the more pallid style of most modern historians.

The latter are exacting revenge by magnifying the book's occasional factual lapses: indeed the draft created by the curling of lips in some academic quarters is currently knocking ten minutes off Eastbound transatlantic flights. But the most readable and entertaining histories are those seen through the eyes of great men; and it would be hard to rival this volume's majestic sweep.

There are clear winners and losers, among both statesmen and countries. The report cards are fascinating. Some of those the author admires are predictable enough: Richelieu (“the father of the modern state system”), Metternich, Bismarck (“few statesmen have so altered the course of history”), and Theodore Roosevelt (“no other President defined America's world role so completely in terms of national interest”).

Others are more unexpected: William of Orange, Disraeli, and Ronald Reagan (“… was to develop a foreign policy of extraordinary consistency and relevance”). Some equally startling parallels are drawn, for instance between Lord Salisbury and President Bush: “Both men bestrode a world which was receding by the time they came to power, though that fact was not obvious to either of them.” Among the dunces is no less a figure than Napoleon (“unable to establish any order among his multitude of aspirations or any relationship between them and the reality emerging all round him”). This boy must try harder, as my Latin teacher used to say.

The message is clear: there is no way either the meek or the improvisers will inherit the earth. In Dr. Kissinger's Pantheon, the highest grades go to those who—or whose advisors—do careful groundwork, practice rigorous analysis, and are capable of sustained strategic thinking. “A statesman's test is whether he can discern from the swirl of tactical decisions the true long-term interests of his country and devise an appropriate strategy for achieving them.”

His judgment of nations is no less searching and makes uncomfortable reading in particular for anyone who nurtures a belief that the old nations of Europe are still significant players on the world stage. Britain and France both fail the test. After Suez, each went its own way: “De Gaulle frequently behaved obstreperously in order to make ignoring him painful; Macmillan made it so easy for the United States to solicit Britain's views that ignoring him would have been embarrassing.”

But the results were not dissimilar. France emerges as a long-term loser: “France has lacked the power to impose the universalist aspirations it inherited from the French Revolution or the arena to find an adequate outlet for its missionary zeal … the prickly style of its diplomacy has been due to attempts by its leaders to perpetuate its role as the center of European policy in an environment increasingly uncongenial to its aspirations.”

Britain fares little better. There is sneaking admiration for that nation's “convenient form of ethical egotism: what was good for Britain was considered good for the rest of the world.” And quite right, too, in a surprisingly large number of cases!

The true but scarcely heroic nature of the special relationship is accurately diagnosed: “a common language and cultural heritage combined with great tactfulness to enable British leaders to inject their ideas into the American decision-making process in such a manner that they imperceptibly seemed to be part of Washington's own.” But the consequences of the increasing disparity of power are mercilessly exposed: “Great Britain opted for permanent subordination to American policy.” Not much room for sentiment here; and although admiration is expressed for Margaret Thatcher's personal qualities—and his review of her own book in the New York Times Book Review attributed to her an extraordinary degree of influence over American policy—she is allocated only a very modest walk-on part in world events. It didn't seem like that at the time.

In the end Britain and France are dismissed in the same breath: “none of Europe's erstwhile practitioners of raison d’état are now strong enough to act as principals in the emerging international order.” Only Germany is seen as still a force, but more a problem than part of a solution. Germany's awkwardness lies in the “unassimilable greatness” Bismarck achieved for it. “Germany has become so strong that existing European institutions cannot by themselves strike a balance between Germany and its European partners.”

While admiring the brutality of the reasoning, I question the conclusions on two grounds. First, they underestimate the continued instinct for a world role—albeit a lesser one—in Britain and France. Nationhood is stirring strongly beneath the smoke-screen of federalism which is now blowing off Europe's battlefields. It's too soon to write obituaries for the old nation-states of Europe.

Secondly, there is a blind spot for the European Community (or European Union, as we have now to call it). Indeed, revealingly, it does not even get into the index. Irritation with the EC has deep roots in Henry Kissinger's thinking, dating back at least to Europe's ungracious response to his unilaterally proclaimed Year of Europe in 1973. But if the European Union succeeds in embracing the countries of Eastern Europe, it will surely constitute a major masse de manoeuvre which will make its mark in the next century.

The central theme of the book, however, is the evolution of United States foreign policy. This is presented in terms of an unending struggle between morality and national interest, with the balance swinging between the two according to the predilections of successive Presidents. Sometimes both tendencies are present simultaneously, most notably when John Foster Dulles abandoned “colonial” Britain and France over Suez while failing to support the Hungarian popular uprising against Soviet colonialism: only one of the occasions when American moralizing has caused the United States' Allies to grind their teeth in rage and frustration. More recent examples lie particularly in the field of trade policy, where the United States' ability to feel itself put upon by the rest of the world is limitless, leading to unilateral protectionist measures like the infamous Super 301. But such mundane matters as trade and economic diplomacy were never high on Henry Kissinger's agenda, and they do not feature significantly in this book, depriving it of an important if less than glittering dimension.

Nonetheless Henry Kissinger's recipe for the future is healthily hardnosed. In the post—Cold War era “the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it.” It will face a “collapsing world order [which has] spawned a number of states pursuing their national interests, unrestrained by any overriding principles.” In this new world, America's primary objective should be to avoid “the domination by a single power of either of Eurasia's two principal spheres, Europe or Asia.” It should seek “partially overlapping alliance systems, some focusing on security, others on economic relations.” “Integrating Russia into the international system” will be a key task. But we should do it with our eyes open. “Once Russia recovers economically its pressure on neighboring countries is certain to mount … Russian reform will be impeded not helped by turning a blind eye to the reappearance of historic Russian imperial pretensions.” This means that NATO, which has been marking time since the end of the Cold War, must be reinvigorated, both as an obstacle to Russian expansion and as the principal institutional link between America and Europe. It should not shrink from admitting the nations of Eastern Europe to full membership, over Russian objections if necessary. Self-righteous posturing must be eschewed. In dealing with China, for instance, “the problem is not America's advocacy of its values but the degree to which all aspects of Sino-American relations are made dependent on them.” The tactic of with-holding American trade is seen as far less likely to influence China than trading with it would.

Wisely, Dr. Kissinger allocates the United Nations no significant role. As President Nixon points out in his last testament: “Can anyone seriously suggest that a collective body such as the UN, nearly one-third of whose members have populations smaller than that of the State of Arkansas, could be ‘assertive’?” Rather, it is the United States which must lead; but its interests must shape its commitments rather than the other way round. There is also a healthy reminder of the self-imposed limitations on the exercise of American power: “America must be careful not to multiply moral commitments while the financial and military resources for the conduct of a global policy are being curtailed.” One recalls the delicious if possibly apocryphal story of Henry Kissinger telephoning Lawrence Eagleburger in the early stages of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, when it seemed to be failing, and asking: “Larry, what happens when the United States cannot win against a country of 100,000?”

“Well, Henry, I suppose we try one of 20,000.”

The conclusion is that America will have to learn to operate in a balance-of-power system, not a million miles removed from that of nineteenth-century Europe. As Yogi Berra said, it's déjà vu all over again. The traditional Wilsonian rhetoric is tolerable as a means of persuading the great American public to swallow the castor oil of a foreign policy based squarely on America's national interest, but not as a guide to decision-making. One hopes that the message will be heard, because the need for American leadership is as great now as it ever was. Those who believe unreservedly in basing foreign policy on national interest and self-confidence in Western values are currently eclipsed, and not only in the United States. This wholly admirable book should become the rallying point for their resurgence.

Fred Halliday (review date 21 July 1994)

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SOURCE: “Lying Abroad,” in The London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 14, July 21, 1994, pp. 7–8.

[In the following essay, Halliday offers a comparison between the treatment of international policy in Diplomacyby Kissinger, True Brits: Inside the Foreign Office by Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Mandarin: The Diaries of Nicholas Henderson by Nicholas Henderson.]

The conduct of foreign policy has of late fallen into disrepute. The confusions of the post-Cold War world have made diplomacy seem especially futile. Economic decline has turned attention to the cost of overseas display, and the disappearance of a single external object of confrontation has reduced the public sense that external commitments matter to the country. In apparent reflection of this, and for all their differences of focus, these three books share a common defensive tone.

In the British case, the conventional justification for diplomacy—that it helps governments to foresee and manage change—appears especially thin. In the Thatcher years there was a semblance of diplomatic success amid the triumphalism: in retrospect, it is evident how many events were incompetently managed. Two wars, over the Falklands and Kuwait, could have been prevented if those responsible for judging the consequences of our actions had been more alert and taken appropriate pre-emptive measures. On South Africa, the greatest political issue involving the Third World, and the club of former colonies in the Commonwealth, this country stubbornly resisted the one policy which, combined with resistance from within, was to bring the Pretoria regime to its senses—namely, sanctions. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in November 1989, the British Government continued for months to insist that it would take a decade or more to achieve German unity—little wonder that some in Bonn observed an uncanny resemblance between the name of our Foreign Secretary and the German word for ‘obstacle’, Hurde. (The memoirs of Germans involved in the reunification negotiations, whether Horst Teltschik for Bonn in 329 Tage or Ulrich Albrecht for East Berlin in Die Abwicklung der DDR, show British diplomacy in a particularly sorry light.) To this catalogue may be added the Government's obstructive posturing on European integration, its confused policy on the former Yugoslavia and its pseudo-populist sneering about ‘abroad’ (take John Major's especially silly remark that he would not choose to spend a weekend in any of the countries he has visited over the past few years—even though he spends summer holidays in Portugal). An additional element of seediness came with the revelations of the Scott Inquiry, and the evident surprise of ministers and officials alike that they should be accountable, in public, for what they have said and done.

This malaise is not, of course, unique to our own time. It derives some of its potency from more long-term, in some cases enduring, problems. One is the growth of diplomacy within international organisations, much of it concerned with economic and technical issues, that may make less call on the skills of the traditional diplomat. Another is the speed of contemporary communications, which reduces the initiative of embassies even as it deluges them with reports and faxes. Nor has the role of ambassador ever been devoid of ambiguity, though the 17th-century description of ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad’ was, as Henderson points out, meant ironically. The issues of foreign policy, moreover, are not free from passion and contempt; indeed, the role of the irrational is even greater in forming attitudes to international than to domestic matters. Hatred, fear, grandiloquence, greed and naivety do much to determine the views of public and politicians alike. Where, as in Britain, we have the contribution—the equivalent of an ideological open drain—of a press committed to promoting contempt towards the rest of the world, these traits are accentuated.

Given all this, it is not surprising that these three books should strike a rather apologetic note. Ruth Dudley Edwards begins her portrait of life in the Diplomatic Corps with the words: ‘Of all British Civil Service departments, the Foreign Office has the most negative public image.’ Her task is both to show how useful the Foreign Office is to British interests, and to dispel the charges, of élitism, amateurishness and pomposity, conventionally levelled against it. Apart from re-affirming the prejudice of the diplomats themselves that domestic public opinion is a nuisance, her most striking lapse is to endorse the in-house explanation of why the UK has so much trouble with the other members of the European Union: all the others, it seems, have unpleasant memories, of Fascism or wartime occupation, to disturb them. This is a strange endorsement to come from someone like Dudley Edwards, who has Irish connections. It also overlooks what may after all be the greatest British problem with ‘Europe’—its own unresolved memory of empire.

Nicholas Henderson, a former Ambassador to Warsaw, Bonn, Paris and Washington, begins by acknowledging in his turn the ‘mystification’ and ‘misrepresentation’ attaching to the role, but takes a different tack. His memoirs are a defence of the traditional role of the ambassador, as someone who mediates between individuals. For this reason, and perhaps also because he has wisely supposed that his potential readers will be more interested in tales about former British politicians than about foreign dignitaries, much of the book is taken up with the visits of politicians from the UK to embassies abroad and with the various forms of ‘unburdening’ that seem to take place on such occasions. We hear about the preparations involved when the Queen presented President Giscard d'Estaing with a dog (including teaching it to obey simple commands in French), and much about the comings and goings of Edward Heath. Margaret Thatcher, Roy Jenkins, Prince Charles and the like—plenty of material here for a comparative study of the discourteous and the bibulous, with suggestions of an inverse correlation between the two. At one point in Henderson's career, however, the role of ambassador acquired particular significance: during the Falklands crisis of 1982. Then, he was propelled into a central role in dealing with the White House and the US media. As we now know, much more was offered by way of American support than appeared at the time.

Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy is a very different kind of book, a study of two hundred years of international politics and of attempts to manage it. In essence, this is a set of lectures on the history of international relations combined with a vindication of his own period in office: a reiteration, not much revised, of the arguments already provided in his two volumes of memoirs. In his perspective, ‘diplomacy’ is not the profession of ambassadors or lesser diplomats, but grand strategy, the vision that statesmen must have in the face of a dangerous world, transcending obstructive bureaucracies and benighted domestic politics. Kissinger's message is above all an appeal to US politicians to conceive of foreign policy as a means to establish a global order, and a plea that the twin strains of idealism and pragmatism in US foreign policy should be brought closer together. His historical survey, of balance-of-power politics in 18th and 19th-century Europe, is intended as an introduction to what he foresees as the predominant issue of the 21st century: the need to maintain the balance of power with policies that combine power and flexibility.

There are some interesting comparisons to be made between these books. Kissinger dedicates his book to the men and women of the US foreign service, but he obviously has little time for the US State Department: ‘for the most part staffed by individuals who have dedicated themselves to what is, in American society, a rather unorthodox career so that they may promulgate and implement their views of a better world’. Henderson is not entirely taken with Kissinger, ‘in poor form: bitter at the attacks on him from his own side and indignant over William Shawcross's vendetta against him’, or suffering, like Heath, ‘from post-power frustration’. His observations of Henry and Nancy Kissinger are among his better examples of the higher gossip:

I am reading Kissinger's book with intense pleasure and admiration. I asked him to what he attributed the great improvement in style compared with earlier books. He could offer no explanation—about the only thing I found he could not explain—except perhaps that he had not read a book for eight years. Not only is he immensely interesting to talk to but I am intrigued by the contrast between him and his wife, Nancy. She is much taller than he is and evidently has a highly sensitive nervous system, where I wouldn't think that he has any nerves at all. She is very conscious of her surroundings and likes looking for antiques. I would guess that he is oblivious to them.

Sir Nicholas does not figure in Dr Kissinger's account.

Dudley Edwards and Henderson offer what are, in contrasting vein, justifications of the diplomatic profession, largely unrelated to any broader assessment of how successful this profession has recently been in meeting the international challenges it faces. They thus take up the defence of the Foreign Office against the recurrent disparagement of it. This criticism, however, cannot be sidestepped, since it arises from elements deeply rooted in our political culture.

It rests on two different, and contradictory, propositions. One is that the Foreign Office is not ‘doing its job’ properly, however that job may be defined. The second is that there is no need for this ‘job’ to be done at all, either because relations with the rest of the world could be better conducted without a separate institution such as the FCO, or because all such relations are corrupting, and lead to people speaking in alien tongues, having long dinners and living in palatial houses. In this sense, the railing at the Foreign Office (like railing at Chatham House or, for that matter, at the LSE) derives from a more general attitude, pervasive in British politics. That many of those who denounce the Foreign Office are, by the standards of its working day, layabouts who have long lunches and dinners in and around a neo-Gothic palace in Westminster does little to blunt the charge.

The central problem with the Foreign Office is the degree to which it reflects the broader nature of the administration of the British State. The most common criticism made of it, that it is élitist and arrogant, endures despite the fact that its social and gender bases have been broadened by new recruitment, to which Ruth Dudley Edwards draws attention. Anyone who wants to see Whitehall conceit at its worst should attend the daily press briefings of the Foreign Office News Department, a ritualised exposure to the most obstructive side of the British élite. But the point which critics of the Foreign Office miss is that these attitudes are common to the state as a whole, and can be found as much in the ministries dealing with domestic issues as in the diplomatic service.

Nothing has brought this out more clearly than the Iraqgate affair. In the papers released by the Scott Inquiry, the evasions of the Foreign Office are more than matched by those of the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Intelligence Services and, not least, Downing Street itself. Such is the common culture. Small wonder, then, that Whitehall appears to have closed ranks over the affair. My own recent chance encounters with civil servants have quickly elicited the party line in five nice variants: the public questioning of civil servants and ministers was ‘quite unfair’; this was hardly the first time we had sold arms to dictators; the very setting up of the enquiry, with the powers it had, was a mistake, and ‘called into question the judgment of the Prime Minister’; the reinterpretation of policy guidelines was not the business of Parliament anyway: the publication of the Report would create a stir for a week, and it would all then blow over. The expostulations of David Gore-Booth at the Scott Inquiry, in themselves characteristic of our robust Man in Saudi Arabia, merely voiced what others in the ‘policy-capable’ strata have been thinking, so revealing the untroubled conscience of our rulers. Some years ago, I found myself in conversation with a Soviet diplomat who expressed admiration for the effortless way in which the British state handled its affairs (particular awe being expressed at the news management of Bernard Ingham). In reply it was only possible to offer some historical perspective: ‘You must understand that while you have only been in power since 1917, they have been there since 1066.’

For Henry Kissinger, however, the inner workings of the US Government and of politics generally are merely the background to the workings of grand strategy, or a distraction from them. Kissinger has served as both analyst and politician, so it seems fair to assess his writings from both these points of view. Their strengths are evident: a broad historical sweep, a good sense of the complexities of a particular crisis, a fascination with the personality of his interlocutors and with differences in national politics. Equally evident are his weaknesses: the use of what purports to be academic history to justify or obscure his own record, an obtrusive vanity and, most seriously, a strange lack of interest in ideas. At one point, rather kindly, he cites a book of mine to bolster his argument, but overall there is rather little reference to what others have written on international affairs over the past half-century or so.

Kissinger's record, first as National Security Adviser to Nixon, then as Secretary of State to Nixon and Ford, is one he is happy to defend: by commission, with regard to China and the strategic negotiations with the USSR; by omission, when it comes to the encouragement of the anti-Allende coup in Chile and the bombing of Cambodia. The drama of his secret mission to China, and the aura of scheming with which he, and his detractors and defenders alike, chose to envelop his period in office have served to set his record in a particular light. Yet one may wonder how particular a light it was. Kissinger's big successes were ones open to any reasonably alert diplomat. The main purpose of his intense negotiations with Russia and China in the early Seventies—the isolation of North Vietnam—failed to work out, when Hanoi reunited the country by force of arms in 1975. In Europe, his interventions were misguided: he remained long suspicious of the Ostpolitik of Brandt and failed to see how the situation on the continent was changing.

Ironically, the initiative which had the greatest long-term impact was the one on which, in his preoccupation with grand strategy, he procrastinated, and that he appeared least able to understand: the Helsinki Final Accords of 1975, which get a mere two pages in this study. It was this agreement above all, rather than the negotiations on nuclear weapons, or the dialogue with China, which paved the way for the final weakening of Communism. It was ideas, and long-run internal social change, that undermined the Soviet bloc, not the management of the Cold War. Time and again Kissinger cites ‘over-extension’ as the main cause of the Soviet collapse, echoing Paul Kennedy's thesis, and his own analysis in A World Restored, of the propensity of revolutionary states to overreach themselves. But it is open to question how far the commitment to the arms race and its Third World allies was the central factor in the Soviet demise. If what Kissinger alleges about overreaching is true of some revolutionaries, notably Napoleon and Khomeini, there have been many others who have known how to keep within their limits: Robespierre, Lenin and Mao among them.

It is in this repetitious assertion of the primacy of grand strategy that Kissinger's greatest weakness as an analyst emerges: one searches in vain, in the eight hundred-plus pages of Diplomacy, for any reflection, revisionist or otherwise, on what the momentous collapse of Communism means for international relations. Indeed, the absence of any reflection on how the world of grand strategy intersects with that of economics, ideology and society marks this off as a work of limited intellectual scope. One conspicuously absent authority is Karl Polanyi, whose The Great Transformation, published in 1944, aims perceptively both to locate international politics in their social and economic setting, and to provide an alternative account of the most successful of Kissinger's grand strategies, the 19th-century balance of power. Polanyi shows that beneath what appeared to be a strategic balance there lay other mechanisms, such as the gold standard and the management of international trade, and that it was the breakdown of these, rather than the follies of monarchs and generals, that led to the war of 1914–18. It is Polanyi's lessons, rather than those of Kissinger, which are likely to be pertinent to the 21st century.

Where Kissinger is strongest is in his exasperation at the vacuity of much of the criticism directed at foreign policy in the US, which counterpoises a high-minded isolationism to imperialism, and sees foreign policy uniquely in terms of how its exercise may corrupt the Republic. In Kissinger's own case this same narcissism takes the form of lamenting what Vietnam did to the US, without showing much regard for what the US did to Vietnam: in the case of too many liberal critics it denies any autonomy to the world of international relations at all, and culminates in the current idea that both sides somehow ‘lost’ the Cold War. The root cause of the discrediting of diplomatic activity in recently years has been the lack of agreement as to what action can be taken where action is possible, but much of the criticism of the UN and indeed of the US on this score has been vacuous. The UN has achieved a great deal in a number of countries over the past few years. The US, far from imposing some new hegemonic order, has, if anything, failed to fulfil the expectations which many around the world had of it.

The establishing of a link between domestic and international politics is what specialists in international affairs, both diplomats and academics, often fear the most: in this Kissinger, Henderson and Dudley Edwards, who reflects the attitudes of the FCO, are at one. Yet it is this link also which presents the greatest challenge for the academic study of international relations, and, today, the greatest challenge for the conduct of foreign policy. The difficulty in the post-Cold War world is not that of deciding whether foreign ministries have a job to do, but of finding a policy that commands domestic support in the country the ministry is meant to represent. This is as true for the USA and Russia as it is for Britain! The chronic social and economic problems faced by developed countries, exacerbated by the chauvinism of press and right-wing political movements, and allied to the disappearance of the overriding logic of colonialism or of the strategic nuclear threat, mean that there is now a reduced willingness at the level of popular opinion to conduct costly, longer-term foreign policies.

This is woefully clear when it comes to reorganising the world economy, or confronting the problems of ecological degradation; but it is evident also with regard to Yugoslavia. Much of the criticism of governmental inaction has focused on the timidity of individual politicians, or on the perfidy of other countries; and there may be much truth in these charges. But the overriding reason for the failure to adopt, and to implement, a more vigorous preventive policy has been the reluctance of public opinion throughout the developed world, and especially in the USA, to bear the costs which such a policy would entail. The roots of the failure of foreign policy and the current disparagement of diplomacy lie within, not between, states.

Frank J. Parker (review date 29 October 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Diplomacy, in America, Vol. 171, No. 13, October 29, 1994, p. 25.

[In the following review of Diplomacy, Parker offers a positive assessment of Kissinger's survey of international diplomacy and his treatment of European politics between World War I and World War II. Parker also negatively discusses Kissinger's lack of depth in analysis of events occurring after the Kennedy administration, concluding that Diplomacy is not a definitive source of political commentary.]

Henry Kissinger is popularly perceived, if not always in the minds of academics and fellow diplomatic practitioners, as the world's leading expert on diplomacy. In the Nixon-Ford era, he served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and later Secretary of State, and along the way received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this nation's highest civilian award, and the Medal of Liberty. Yet Kissinger has been afforded little opportunity to practice his professional diplomatic skills during the last decade and a half. The splendid intellectual underpinnings of his excellently written memoirs should, nevertheless, enhance his overall reputation.

Diplomacy serves nicely as a copious overview of diplomatic theory and practice throughout the ages and also as Kissinger's personal statement of his principles and tactics. Both functions are carried out with skill and thoroughness. Kissinger has surveyed the art of diplomacy from the time of Cardinal Richelieu in France in the 17th century to the current period in which the Cold War has been declared over and the search for a stable New World Order has begun. He has drawn numerous comparisons from different periods of time to emphasize that history provides a multitude of examples applicable to current world problems. The 30 pages of his chapter entitled “The End of Illusion” are mesmerizing. No doubt, the author's escape from the Nazis in Germany in 1938 gave him the motivation to reflect on this subject in depth. The allure of Hitler is examined with care and occasionally with admiration. Even in the worst of people, Kissinger can recognize and salute the strains of genius.

The material dealing with Europe between the two world wars, the strongest in the book, is followed by the weakest, those pages dealing with the Stalin Era in the Soviet Union. The sure touch displayed elsewhere seems to abandon the author at this point. Stalin and his thugs are treated by Kissinger as if they were just so many more European politicians and statesmen. They were anything but. Deeply Asiatic in roots and ideology, Stalin approached the West with a level of hostility and contentiousness that Kissinger fails to capture. The historical background that so well serves so much of this text is abandoned here. A reader seeking information on this topic could well study with profit Stalin Against the Jews, by Arkadii Vaksberg, recently translated from Russian into English.

When Kissinger reaches the period starting with the ascendancy of President Kennedy, however, he shifts more toward political commentary; less attention is devoted to the explaining complicated negotiations that took place during this Administration. Since Kissinger was so involved in many of the events discussed, it is surprising how many major diplomatic events of the recent past (the move to majority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Cuban missile crisis and the subsequent blockade and the conflicts in Central America) receive only passing attention, if any at all. It appears the author felt his reflections on lessons that we should have learned from our debacle in Vietnam stand as a proper commentary on a number of other subjects he chose to ignore. Perhaps he assumed everyone has read his two excellent volumes of memoirs, White House Years and Years of Upheaval, which deal with his service in the Nixon and Ford Administrations.

Diplomacy can best be described as a vulgarization of high merit; it is not a closely reasoned, exhaustively researched treatise that seeks to explore the intricacies of its subject matter in order to arrive at conclusions of inventiveness and originality. Rather, this book often reads more like careful notes for classroom lectures. Rarely are footnotes used to elucidate a difficult point, suggest added reading material or add tangential or relevant factual material. There is no bibliography and the few maps that are included provide little assistance. All in all, though highly competent, Diplomacy falls short of meriting consideration as a true classic of political commentary.

Francis Fukuyama (review date September/October 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 5, September/October, 1997, p. 216.

[In the following review, Fukuyama favorably discusses Kissinger's A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon, yet asserts that Kissinger fails to recognize the political idealism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]

Alongside Hans Morgenthau's Politics among Nations (1948), the classic statement of political realism, [is Kissinger's A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon]. Although ostensibly a work about European history, Kissinger lays out the general principles of the balance-of-power diplomacy that would characterize his own policies as national security adviser and secretary of state. Academic realists, most prominently Kenneth Waltz, later sought to boil international politics down to an abstract, highly reductionist model. Kissinger never suffered from this kind of physics-envy; he (and Morgenthau) were always conscious of the fact that foreign policy was made by statesmen who operated in a specific historical, cultural, and political context that shaped their goals and limited their options. Kissinger's depictions of Metternich, Castlereagh, and Talleyrand reflect that consciousness and an attuned sensitivity to the nuances of character. This book lucidly argued his case that international peace was best guaranteed not through law or international organizations but through a distribution of power that moderated the ambitions of the strong. The book's greatest failing was its inability to appreciate the fact that history for the past two centuries has been on the side of the idealist Alexander I and not the amoral calculator Metternich.

David C. Hendrickson (review date September/October 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of White House Years, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 5, September/October, 1997, p. 223.

[In the following essay discussing Kissinger's White House Years, Hendrickson refutes general negative criticism of Kissinger's methods during his tenure of office under Nixon, finding only minor fault with Kissinger's techniques and praising his approach to American foreign policy as well as his ability as a diplomat.]

Of all the memoirs written by American diplomats, the two volumes of Kissinger's [White House Years] are in a class by themselves. Kissinger, as was said of Alexander Hamilton, was “host within himself,” a virtuoso in diplomacy the likes of which are seldom encountered in this American world. Centered on a narrative of Kissinger's work as national security adviser and secretary of state, these monumental volumes (which end with Nixon's resignation in 1974) show Kissinger as a gifted portraitist, an infinitely subtle negotiator, a formidable thinker, and a wit. It is de rigueur to criticize Kissinger—his methods, it is said, were devious, his character at once megalomaniacal and insecure, his realpolitik ill suited to the nation's ideals. Inevitably, perhaps, he is beheld with the same ambivalence—a compound of “aloofness and respect, of distrust and admiration”—with which he himself regarded Richard Nixon. Kissinger may be faulted persuasively on the score of excessive interventionism; certain of his policies, like the destabilization of Chile and the reckless armament of Iran, were ill-advised. There is, withal, much to admire in these memoirs and in the diplomacy they recount. In his and Nixon's approach to the relations among the great powers—the Soviet Union, China, Western Europe, and Japan—the foundations of a new structure of peace were thoughtfully laid. Kissinger brought a philosophical deepening and a restored sense of purpose to American policy at a time of immense anguish. That was no mean accomplishment, however customary it may now be to belittle it.

Richard Bernstein (review date 17 March 1999)

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SOURCE: “An Architect of Diplomacy Seeks Détente with History,” in The New York Times, Vol. 148, March 17, 1999, p. 17.

[In the following review, Bernstein offers a positive assessment of Years of Renewal, praising Kissinger's use of historical detail, characterization, sense of purpose, and ability to combine theory and action. Bernstein emphasizes Kissinger's detailed accounts of events that transpired during the Ford administration.]

It should come as no surprise that the third volume of Henry A. Kissinger's ambitious, all-embracing memoir of public service, Years of Renewal, turns out to be a distinguished and important work. Mr. Kissinger had already written two intellectually powerful volumes of memoirs covering the five years he served as national security adviser and Secretary of State in the Nixon Administration.

The new book, which covers the three years of the post-Watergate Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, brings the entire memoir to roughly 3,800 pages, not counting notes and indexes, which makes it an ocean liner, a megalopolis of an account. (By contrast Dean Acheson's Present at the Creation was a scanty 800 pages.) But Mr. Kissinger's history of his own time in office is a work whose breadth, clarity of vision and historical scope amply justify its size. It is an event, a likely classic of its genre.

No doubt one of Mr. Kissinger's purposes in writing at such length and in such detail is to seize the historical ground. This, after all, is not any ordinary writer. Like Richard M. Nixon himself, Mr. Kissinger has taken critical hits from all directions: from conservatives for being too accommodating to the evil Soviet empire, from liberals for being a coldhearted practitioner of realpolitik with, as he somewhat bloodlessly summarizes this position, a “preference for order over justice.”

Mr. Kissinger uses his 3,800 pages to make his case against his critics and detractors, trying, as he works through the years, to demolish the various “myths” that, in his view, have accumulated around him (among the more important of them is that he did not attempt to negotiate a solution to the war in Cambodia and is indirectly responsible for the triumph and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge).

But Years of Renewal is far more than an elaborate self-justification. Among its qualities is its sheer informativeness about the way policies were debated, formulated, and carried out (or, just as often, frustrated) in the Nixon and Ford years. The volume covers vital episodes like the early arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union (and the concurrent pursuit of detente), the beginning of what later came to be called the Middle East peace process, and the collapse of United States policy in Indochina in 1975. He treats the last of these with an elegiac eloquence that makes it both the emotional and political centerpiece of the entire book.

Like its predecessors, the new volume is laced with anecdotes, for example, about Leonid I. Brezhnev's interrupting the SALT negotiations with “periodic and very futile attempts at making a toy artillery piece fire off a small explosive charge.” There are sharply observed sketches of major figures from Mr. Ford (much admired by Mr. Kissinger) and Senator Henry M. Jackson (grudgingly admired) to Mao Zedong (overly admired) and various others from Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus to Kenneth D. Kaunda of Zambia.

Mr. Kissinger leaves nothing out, providing copious, comprehensive, sometimes minute-to-minute accounts of the major international events of the mid-1970's and those that seem a bit less major today—the Cyprus crisis, the investigations into illegal domestic intelligence gathering by the Central Intelligence Agency, the seizure of the Mayaguez by Khmer Rouge soldiers in Cambodia, the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, the European Security Conference summit in Helsinki in 1975—rescuing some of them from the vapors of historical forgetfulness.

In all Mr. Kissinger demonstrates that he is not only a formidable diplomat but an engaging storyteller as well, and he treats episodes of diplomacy as narratives, complete with interesting characters, plenty of dramatic tension and, obviously, high stakes.

If ever there was a historical actor aware of the relationship between theory and action, it was Mr. Kissinger, and one of the striking features of his entire memoir is the way he relates the myriad details of practical action to an overarching purpose. Brought from Harvard into the highest counsels of power in 1968, in the midst of the turmoil over Vietnam, he was already imbued with an idea about the proper conduct of foreign policy. Specifically, he says, he wanted to steer the United States away from what he calls Wilsonian moralism toward a foreign policy based on the twin pillars of self-interest and balance of power.

This Aristotelian self-presentation, the statesman seeking a middle road between two extremes, will probably not sweep away Mr. Kissinger's critics. Liberals, for example, will find that he offers no definitive evidence that the cutoff of military aid to South Vietnam was ultimately responsible for the debacle of 1975, rather than the perplexing failure of the South Vietnamese to fight with half the ferocity and determination of the northerners.

On the Soviet Union and detente, Mr. Kissinger slips into a certain vagueness over his contention that detente was actually a clever tool to be used ultimately to provoke a Soviet defeat, rather than a tacit admission of the permanency of Soviet superpower status. But whether or not one is convinced by Mr. Kissinger here, the arguments that he makes, and the evidence that he marshals to support them, make for a powerful case.

Overall, Mr. Kissinger describes American foreign policy in the Nixon and Ford years as a historic success, altering the balance of power in favor of the democratic West and to the insurmountable disadvantage of the Soviet Union. But this does not contradict another striking feature of Mr. Kissinger's work: its undercurrent of frustration, the abiding sense that it conveys of the tragic in human affairs. Many of his accounts, from the temporary collapse of detente in 1974 to the Congressional cutoff of aid to anti-Communist Angolan forces, involve failures in foreign policy that he attributes to human error.

The most important adversary in Mr. Kissinger's world was what he calls the McGovernite Congress that came to power in the wake of Watergate. In passages of controlled anger Mr. Kissinger makes his case that the cutoff of aid in Indochina represented nothing short of criminal irresponsibility, and that the advice of the mainstream media that he somehow negotiate a diplomatic solution under the circumstances amounted to a kind of sentimental wishful thinking.

“We were being urged,” Mr. Kissinger writes, “to abandon a military solution for a political one at the precise moment when the elements on which a political compromise might have been based were being systematically destroyed. In their absence, the demand for a political solution amounted to a discussion of the modalities of surrender.”

There are extraordinary scenes depicted in this book: Anwar el-Sadat struggling with what he saw as Israeli stonewalling, or Mao worrying aloud that American policy consisted of a Machiavellian plan to instigate a Soviet-Chinese war and then turn against the weakened victor. But there is perhaps nothing more dramatic than a simple, dignified letter cited by Mr. Kissinger to make his point about United States policy in Cambodia. It was the refusal of the American offer of evacuation ahead of the Khmer Rouge army, written by the former Cambodian Prime Minister, Sirik Matak. “We are all born and must die,” he wrote. “I have only committed this mistake of believing in you.”

One could go on almost as long as Mr. Kissinger does citing the absorbing passages in this compendious but energetic, unflagging memoir, which seems likely to stand as a major work of contemporary history.

Ruth Walker (review date 25 March 1999)

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SOURCE: “Recovery from Vietnam and Watergate,” in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 91, No. 82, March 25, 1999, p. 21.

[In the following review of Years of Renewal, Walker favorably discusses Kissinger's resistance to “Wilsonianism” and his detailed portrait of Gerald Ford as president.]

What is the appropriate role for the United States to play in the world? That question lies at the heart of the third volume of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's memoirs, covering the final days of the Nixon administration through the transition after the 1976 presidential election, when Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford and Dr. Kissinger said farewell to Foggy Bottom.

Kissinger, in his day reviled by the left as too hard-line against US adversaries and by the right as too accommodating toward them, was no Realpolitiker in the classic sense. But he clearly saw—and sees—a need to counter the Wilsonianism that he believed pervaded the State Department. Even when it was unfashionable to do so, he represented the idea that there was something called “American national interest” that was worth defending.

Kissinger describes this period as “Years of Renewal” because it represented a time of recovery from the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. Specifically. It was a time for the US to play its role as a great power without feeling guilty about it.

Kissinger's personal glimpses of the enigmatic Richard Nixon are among the most fascinating parts of the book: the Nixon who could never say no to someone's face, but could sometimes manage a memo: the Nixon who memorized speeches to be able to appear to be giving them extemporaneously: the Nixon whose “single most important quality was the ability to make bold decisions,” though “he was not by nature daring.”

But it is Gerald Ford who is the hero of this book, along with, of course, Kissinger himself. No one will read it without an increased appreciation for the nation's one unelected president, who, in Kissinger's view, was able to play such a healing role because he showed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue without all the baggage that typically accompanies the journey.

“Having never felt obliged to participate in the obsessive calculations of normal presidential candidates. Ford was at peace with himself. To a world concerned lest America's domestic torment impair its indispensable leadership during what was still the height of the cold war, he provided a sense of restored purpose. On his own people. Ford's matter-of-fact serenity bestowed the precious gift of enabling the generations that followed to remain blissfully unaware of how close to disaster their country had come in a decade of tearing itself apart.”

Still, Kissinger makes plain, both presidents he served held office under peculiar constraints: Nixon with Watergate closing in on him, and Ford lacking both foreign-policy experience and the electoral mandate that would have given him more authority. As a result, Kissinger had a higher profile, especially in relations with foreign governments, than is usual for a secretary of state.

“Wilsonianism,” Kissinger acknowledges of the mind-set he has so often resisted, “was not merely the idiosyncrasy of a few American intellectuals. It was the instinctive expression of a society founded and shaped by immigrants who had affirmed universal principles of liberty and justice to distinguish their society from the values and practices of the Old World. An international order based entirely upon national self-interest would not be sustained by a people who thought of their country as the ‘shining city on a hill.’”

Years of Renewal will prove a valuable contribution to the foreign-policy discussion within that “shining city.”

Philip Zelikow (review date May 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of Years of Renewal, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 3, May, 1999, p. 123.

[In the following review, Zelikow asserts that Kissinger paints a contradictory portrait of his own statesmanship concerning his opposition to Wilsonianism, his efforts in Indochina, and his emphasis on American moral obligation and honor. However, Zelikow applauds Kissinger's skill at finding purpose in dense amounts of historical fact, his ability to use intuition and empathy to adapt his policies, and his effort to persevere in policy-making during the tumultuous last year of his tenure as secretary of state.]

In 1979 Henry A. Kissinger published his memoir White House Years, dealing with the first term of the Nixon administration, in which he was the president's national security adviser. In 1982 came Years of Upheaval, dealing with the year and a half of Nixon's foreshortened second term, in which Kissinger was both national security adviser and, from October 1973, secretary of state. Now Kissinger has finally completed the trilogy with Years of Renewal, dealing with the two and a half years in which he served President Ford, first in the same two jobs and then, from November 1975, only as secretary of state. In this new volume Kissinger also reflects at length, and with more distance, on the time with Nixon that so deeply shadowed everything Kissinger would do afterward.

No American statesman has done more to document and explain what he did and why he did it. Not only has he now produced nearly 4,000 pages of memoirs, but Kissinger has also set the standard for recording every policy-related utterance while in office. His phone conversations were monitored and meticulous notes were made of his meetings, internal and external. Kissinger eventually installed a taping system to relieve weary staffers and transfer the burden of drafting transcripts to a night shift. (This taping system, analogous to the one Lyndon Johnson used, was quite separate from Nixon's own, about which Kissinger says he was ignorant until shortly before it was disclosed to all in 1973.) The products of these extraordinary efforts—which extended beyond the usual official practice of tracking conversations with foreigners to include contacts with anyone, including government colleagues and the president—are quoted frequently in Years of Renewal but without any notation of the source.

Kissinger argues, correctly, that for all its preoccupation with secrecy, the Nixon administration is the most thoroughly documented and recorded presidency in American history. But why did they do it? Kissinger writes:

So too for Kissinger's even lengthier memoranda, these memoirs.


Every account of Kissinger allows that he is very intelligent. Those hostile to him then add other adjectives like vain or devious. His admirers use those adjectives too—but return to the intelligence.

What really were Kissinger's extraordinary gifts? Kissinger himself argues that he (and Nixon) stood out against a background of utopian zealots, both liberal and conservative, because of their realistic analysis of national interests. (Kissinger grants Nixon great strategic insight but portrays him here as given to constant musing, throwing off sparks of brilliance and foolishness in almost equal measure. It was thus left to Kissinger and H. R. Haldeman, the priests at the oracle, to interpret the rumblings and judge what should actually be done.)

In the author's preferred paradigm of intelligence—one of utopian crusaders vs. cool realists—Indochina is a prime example. Kissinger writes that he and Nixon “never blamed our predecessors for the mess” in Vietnam, but he certainly blames them now: “Wilsonianism had involved the United States in Indochina by means of universalist maxims which had proved successful in Europe and were now applied literally in Asia. … Wilsonianism rejects peace through balance of power in favor of peace through moral consensus. It sees foreign policy as a struggle between good and evil. …” Kissinger says that he and Nixon knew instead that these ideals were worthy but impractical and saw “foreign policy as a continuing process with no terminal point” in which they would be guided by “a concept of the national interest,” and a “realistic assessment of our own and others' interests.”

This self-portrait is largely false, however much Kissinger may believe in it. Yet its falsity actually makes Kissinger more interesting.

To begin with, the Wilsonianism he describes is a cartoon originally drawn by Wilson's popularizing worshipers and polemical detractors. Kissinger's use of this label blurs together Wilson and William Jennings Bryan, Harry S Truman and Henry Wallace, John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson. And it hardly seems to fit the principal architects of Indochina policy, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara. As the former said to the latter about Vietnam in October 1963, “You're going to have an authoritarian regime, and the question is whether they make asses of themselves.” Not terribly Wilsonian—and not so objectionable to the younger Kissinger, who privately wrote to Bundy in 1965 that the administration's course in Vietnam was “just right—the proper mixture of firmness and flexibility.”

Kissinger offers himself as a model of cool analysis of the national interest. In this book he proudly quotes his first foreign policy report to Congress: “Our interests must shape our commitments, rather than the other way around.” Yet nowhere was this credo followed less than in Indochina, the problem that consumed more blood and treasure than any other on Kissinger's watch and drove so much of his agenda with his main adversaries, Russia, China, and Congress.

Little analysis of the American national interest in Vietnam and Cambodia can be found in Years of Renewal. At the time Kissinger frequently invoked fears about the loss of American credibility. But that argument's force has faded over the years, as history has revealed few ripples beyond the watershed of the Mekong, and it is barely mentioned here. Vietnam had its greatest effect on America not in causing foreign dominoes to fall but in changing the way Americans thought of themselves.

Instead, Kissinger stresses again and again the need to maintain the national honor of the United States. Discussing the war's agonizing denouement, he emphasizes that “neither the Ford nor the Nixon administration ever invoked a legal obligation to assist Vietnam. What we insisted on was something deeper—a moral obligation.”

This is not the rhetoric of a dispassionate geopolitical chess player. A chess player does not sacrifice half his pieces to defend a vulnerable rook out of moral obligation. But then, Kissinger never was an especially dispassionate person. As a supervisor and colleague he was hot-tempered; as a statesman and friend he was often sentimental, even if the sentiment was filtered through his usual sardonic mask.

Where his emotions are touched so deeply, Kissinger's memoir-writing is at its worst. His chapters on the fall of Cambodia and Vietnam are fierce indictments of those who opposed more U.S. intervention or aid. Yet these same chapters include practically no analysis of the violations by all sides of a 1973 peace accord that few thought would bring peace, of the internal pathologies that so limited the military effectiveness of the Thieu government in South Vietnam, and of the proposed aid's likely impact. The administration's requests for aid, therefore, look like palliatives for a bad conscience.

But Kissinger reminds readers that others should have bad consciences as well, and here his Cambodia chapter is especially wrenching. Some of his opponents in Congress and the media, for example, professed a belief that communist victories would bring a peaceful political settlement. The New York Times reported the approach of the Khmer Rouge to the gates of Phnom Penh under the headline, “Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life.” Those who check Kissinger's footnote will learn that the author of the Times article was Sydney Schanberg, who would later come to prominence as a leading American witness to Cambodia's “killing fields.”


Kissinger's great gifts as a statesman, at least from the evidence in these pages, lay less in analyzing the national interest—where he was neither particularly original nor innovative—than in two other spheres.

First, Kissinger had a great talent for cutting through reams of information to find the operational essence within. He could see the real issues in time, moving backward or forward, and envision the next sequence of bureaucratic and diplomatic moves. It was by harnessing this ability that Kissinger was able to turn abstract wishes into concrete policies. This was, for example, his singular achievement in the opening to China. He found a halting and ineffectual American policy driven mainly by shifts in Chinese politics. Urged on by Nixon's geopolitical musings, Kissinger crafted channels and opportunities for movement.

By the time of the events described in this memoir, however, the Sino-American relationship had been hollowed out by lack of substance and the turmoil of Chinese politics during Mao's last years. In this book the best illustration of Kissinger's operational skill comes in his chapter on the Cyprus crisis of 1974. The analysis of American interests is ordinary, but the analysis of how they could actually be advanced is illuminating, as Kissinger deals first with the Greek moves and then the Turkish response, all the while limiting damage and avoiding ill-considered commitments.

Kissinger's chapter on the Angolan debacle is also well done. He conscientiously raises and addresses his critics' arguments while tracing the destructive interaction between his diplomatic strategy to restrain Cuban and Soviet military intervention, the congressional cutoff of U.S. covert aid, and Soviet political and military calculations. The memoir shows how Kissinger's perceptiveness could lead to frustration: he and Ford set a general direction for U.S. policy—covert aid—but, given the battered leadership at the CIA, lacked subordinates capable of operationalizing their abstract wishes and addressing the policy's temporizing drift. Kissinger had the insight to see it was not working even before Congress killed the program, but had no one with sufficient will or capacity to fix it.

Kissinger's second great gift was an acute intuitive ability to assess other people, situate them in their political environment, and adapt himself to their needs—at least if they were foreigners. This gift is displayed best in the chapters on his Middle East diplomacy, which axe gems.

They are gems, it is worth pointing out, not necessarily because the diplomatic efforts they recount were especially successful. It is a common fallacy to judge a statesman by policy outcomes, which are actually influenced by many variables, rather than by the quality of thought brought to bear on the circumstances he could reasonably have understood. The passage of time has helped Kissinger become more detached, producing some of his finest writing to date. He reflects not only on his own constraints but on those facing Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. He shows exceptional sensitivity to the situation of embattled Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And he recounts the determined and courageous struggle, with very narrow room for maneuver and with his own star waning in Washington, to achieve what became the 1975 Sinai II accord.

Kissinger has empathy—yes, empathy, however clinical—for his foreign interlocutors. It is finely displayed not only in his chapters on the Middle East but also in those on his diplomacy in southern Africa, which describe his 1976 efforts to work toward a settlement on the future of Rhodesia. Setting the policy in context as a successful adaptation to the failure in Angola, describing a situation in which he had practically no assets but his own skill and celebrity, Kissinger charts the maneuvers and shows a penetrating and generous understanding of his African and British counterparts.


The book is mistitled. The years 1974–76 were bad for America, and for Henry Kissinger. The memoir is often hard to read because it evokes so many painful memories of retreat and ruin—even putting aside the sagging, inflation-ridden economy, which gets little space here. Nixon's excesses and the passions summoned by Vietnam ushered in other excesses from Nixon's victorious enemies, epitomized by the infamous Pike Committee investigation of the intelligence community.

The great issue in East-West relations was the future of detente, the relaxation of tensions and attempt to stabilize and regulate what both sides had thought to be an enduring rivalry. The political base for the Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente had eroded badly during 1973–74 under the steady drip of events: Andrei Sakharov's support of trade sanctions, the scapegoating of Kissinger for lack of support to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's exile, Albert Wohlstetter's declaration that the United States was actually losing the arms race.

By mid-1974, when the respected strategic analyst Wohlstetter spoke out and Paul H. Nitze resigned from the SALT talks, domestic support for detente was all but gone. Liberal Democrats despised Kissinger for Vietnam and the Watergate-era abuses of power. Conservative Democrats like Senator Henry Jackson and AFL-CIO President George Meany considered him indifferent to human rights behind the Iron Curtain and were increasingly worried about the arms race. Reagan Republicans shared those concerns and were inflamed by Kissinger's stance on the Panama Canal and Taiwan. What was left was a slice of moderate Republicans so thin that they could barely secure the nomination of President Ford in 1976, a feat accomplished only by political legerdemain in which Kissinger was a liability, not an asset.

From mid-1974 onward any major policy initiative of Kissinger's was targeted as soon as it came into view, to be destroyed as quickly as his opponents could wheel their guns into position. In early 1976 they waited until he was actually negotiating in Moscow to cut the legs out from under him—and these were his colleagues within the administration! Kissinger quotes example after example of situations where everyone seemed to gang up against him whatever the issue, even contrary to their apparent interests (e.g., conservatives refusing to help on Indochina or Angola). As the lightning rod for criticism of a foreign policy with no appreciable general backing, he might well have felt beleaguered.

Detente could have been saved only if Ford had recast the policy, co-opting either centrist Democrats (difficult, since Jackson had presidential ambitions in 1976) or a significant portion of the emerging Reagan wing of the Republican Party. The ideal time for such a move would have been August 1974, when Ford replaced Nixon. But Kissinger's memoir offers no evidence of deep thinking, amid the turmoil of the succession, about a domestic political strategy to sustain Ford's foreign policy. Critical but little noticed, Ford had no real presidential transition, no comprehensive reappraisal of people and policies that would reposition and ostentatiously distinguish his administration from his predecessor's.

So Kissinger charged ahead, striving against all odds to hold detente together without a political base. Ford stood by him as best he could, a debt Kissinger repays with an extremely flattering portrait of Ford as president. But under these circumstances Kissinger's fight was not the policy of a master of realism. It was the policy of a Man of La Mancha. The best defense for it might be that it helped delay or mute the swelling forces of reaction, but that is a tough case to make and Kissinger does not try.

Still, once again this Kissinger seems more interesting than the one in his preferred self-portrait. This memoir is the story of a man trying, in his last years in office, to stand by a few ideals of statecraft and conceptions of national honor. To his foes he was benighted but to his friends he might, during these years, have seemed a bit, just a little bit, gallant.

Philip Zelikow (review date 15 May 1999)

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SOURCE: “Right to the End,” in The Economist, Vol. 351, No. 8119, May 15, 1999, p. 4.

[In following review, Zelikow presents a positive review of Kissinger's Years of Renewal and discusses the memoir as a means by which Kissinger attempts to refute negative criticism of his foreign policy.]

Autobiographies are not biographies, which is one of the reasons why they can be so interesting. Henry Kissinger goes one step further. Like Winston Churchill, he sidesteps simple autobiography, choosing instead to impose his view of his role in history by acting as his own historian. Years of Renewal, which covers the 30 months of the Ford administration, completes Mr Kissinger's three-volume account of his eight years of high office. This book is an apologia—not an apology but a defence in depth against his critics. Mr Kissinger continues to turn the tables on those who criticised his continuation of the Vietnam war for seven years by charging that the critics' final success in cutting off increased funding for the South Vietnamese government in 1975 was the real betrayal of American ideals. Mr Kissinger, appealing to what he asserts were such “unfashionable concepts” as “honour” and “moral obligation”, argued against “simply jettisoning an entire people to which we were allied.”

Here his notion of morality overcomes his realism. While Mr Kissinger is certain that increased American aid would have staved off the South Vietnamese collapse during 1975, he is unable to assert or to find any intelligence estimate suggesting that, with any level of American aid short of combat involvement, the south could have ultimately prevailed. Indeed, it defies common sense to imagine that a government, both corrupt and ineffectual, could have accomplished without American troops what it did not achieve with more than 500,000 American soldiers at hand. Mr Kissinger's position might have prolonged the war, perhaps until after the 1976 presidential election, but the price would have been further loss of Vietnamese lives and greater devastation without any change in outcome.

Mr Kissinger regards the need to define the relationship between the pragmatic and the moral as the key task of American foreign policy, something with which Madeleine Albright might well agree. He quotes a moving letter his father wrote him in 1946, when he thought he might die: “a human being must always fulfil his moral obligations.”

Having set himself the task, Mr Kissinger makes a valiant attempt at being faithful, reliable and selfless. The self-portrait is that of a highly moral man of gravitas, but his actual morality is quite peculiar. The reader of this volume would not understand why a top historian, John Lewis Gaddis, could conclude that “it is becoming clear that Mr Kissinger relied unusually heavily upon bending the truth, not just in his dealings with foreign statesmen but also with his own friends, associates, and at times even presidents for whom he worked.” Yet he remains convinced he was right. To this day, Mr Kissinger has not apologised to his colleagues or their families for his complicity in the wiretaps placed on their home telephones.

A reviewer of another of Mr Kissinger's works once remarked that whether or not he was a great writer, anyone who finished was a great reader. The comment is tempting but unfair. The arguments over Henry Kissinger's character and accomplishments will intrigue generations of historians. But his thoroughness, even if occasionally tedious, is a service to history. He often writes with pithy elegance, and the intellectual force displayed in his memoirs should place them among the few current foreign-affairs books which will be noteworthy 50 years hence.

John O'Sullivan (review date 17 May 1999)

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SOURCE: “What Makes God Laugh?,” in National Review, Vol. 51, No. 9, May 17, 1999, p. 56.

[In the following review of Years of Renewal, O'Sullivan discusses Kissinger's foreign policies, specifically focusing on alliance with China, the conclusion of the Vietnam War, peace negotiations with the Middle East, the Cyprus dispute, and the Soviet arms control in the wake of Watergate.]

Towards the end of his third volume of memoirs, Henry Kissinger indulges in some reflections on the changing nature of statesmanship. These are characteristically shrewd until he reaches the argument that information has largely removed the need for style as an instrument of diplomacy. Where once the statesman absorbed history and a sense of perspective by reading well-constructed and precisely phrased diplomatic analyses, runs the argument, he can now retrieve all the information on any given topic at the touch of a button on a computer keyboard.

At this point, the reader has just completed 1,078 pages of Kissinger's stylish prose. Would he have plowed happily through the same volume of words, culled by an Internet search engine, to learn about the Cyprus crisis of 1974, the “new dialogue” (also of 1974) with Latin America, the “breakthrough” to majority rule in Rhodesia, and many other now-distant controversies? The question answers itself. History recreates the dilemmas that faced the statesman at the time in all their painful, absorbing complexity; the computer merely tells that he took Course A rather than Course B. It is style, clarifying choices and helping the past to live again, that makes the difference between the two types of information.

But then Kissinger has always been his own best historian, for the unflattering reason that he is actually less biased about his own diplomatic career than have been certain critics who are moved by an almost superhuman animus towards him. Years of Renewal is unlikely to remove that hostility. As other reviewers have noted, however, it sheds as much light on the author as it does on the events he describes. Threaded through the details of diplomatic negotiations is a melancholy story of personal honor preserved amid the self-destruction of America's honor.

This third volume describes the fate of the foreign policy that the author, as national security advisor or secretary of state, helped Richard Nixon to shape and Gerald Ford to sustain from, roughly, the 1972 presidential election to Ford's defeat in 1976. As Kissinger points out, the main lines of that foreign policy—the strategic alliance with China, the Middle East peace process, the arms-control process with the Soviet Union, even a version of detente—were all continued by the administrations that followed Nixon-Ford. Yet when he handed over the reins to Cyrus Vance in 1977, it was the common view that his foreign policy had fallen apart, with the collapse of detente, the rise of a new adventurism in Soviet policy, and the crippling of American initiative by the “Vietnam syndrome” occasioned by the fall of Saigon in 1975. And Left and Right, which agreed on so little else, were agreed that perhaps his policy deserved to fail because it was a Machiavellian realpolitik detached from the idealism of the American people.

If anything of that caricature still remains, it should finally be eradicated by this account. Diplomatic history is, of course, an education in the vanity of human wishes. Many of the attempts to solve ancient disputes here chronicledmdash;in which so much intellectual effort and, yes, idealism were invested—either went nowhere or ended in tears. The Middle East peace process is still with us, of course; but then so is the Arab-Israeli conflict to which it is a seemingly permanent response. The Cyprus dispute, featuring some of the original disputants, is still on the international agenda. And Rhodesia has become majority-rule Zimbabwe, but is today a ruined country. As a character says in Hugh Whitemore's recent play about the Profumo affair: “What makes God laugh? People making plans.”

Most of this final volume, however, is concerned with two questions that had momentous consequences and continue to agitate us still—the policy of detente with the Soviet Union and the fall of Vietnam. On the former, Kissinger takes considerable pains to respond to the neoconservative critique of detente: namely, that by treating the Soviet Union as a legitimate partner in world order, he was unable to call on the idealism of the American people to resist Soviet ambitions, weakening the U.S. in negotiations and compelling undue concessions in trade, arms control, and human rights. When Ronald Reagan sounded the ideological trumpet, directly challenging Soviet legitimacy, the walls of Jericho promptly collapsed.

Kissinger concedes that Reagan was right to wage this rhetorical war. He points out, however, that it was an accompaniment to—not a substitute for—containment, arms control, and superpower summits. The author himself could not have carried out the same fruitful combination of kicks and kindnesses, in part because the Soviet Union was at an earlier stage of decay, but mainly because he was operating in more hostile domestic political circumstances.

Almost all of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford foreign policy was conducted against the background of a moral civil war in America in which the liberal establishment had embraced the radical view of “Amerika” as a domineering and aggressive hegemon. The period described in Years of Renewal was darkened still more by the shadow of Watergate, which gravely weakened the executive branch in its relations with Congress. As a result, there was almost no political support available for consistent policies either of strong resistance to the Soviet Union or of prudent mutual bargains with it. The former were seen as aggressive, the latter as unprincipled, and both were seen as expressions of an amoral realpolitik incarnated in the secretary of state. Speculatively but persuasively, Kissinger argues that it would have been Utopian to attempt a Reaganite foreign policy when all the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were doves at best.

What eventually happened, of course, was that the Soviets realized the paralysis of their adversary (by then adopted as high policy in the Carter administration) and overreached in Afghanistan, southern Africa, and even Central America. This adventurism discredited the post Vietnam appeasements of Vance and Carter and paved the way for Reagan's ideological crusade. As Kissinger puts it: “Reagan's eventual ascendancy was the American people's delayed reaction to the largely self-imposed humiliation in Vietnam.”

It was, however, Watergate that had ensured that humiliation. Again speculatively, and again persuasively, the former secretary of state argues that South Vietnam could have survived if America had fulfilled its moral obligation to assist its ally with military material when it came under North Vietnamese attack. Even Vietnam doves like senators Frank Church, Clifford Case, and Mike Mansfield had given unambiguous backing to such support in the debates leading up to the Paris peace accords. Once the accords had been signed, however, they gradually backed away from their commitments. The leading media encouraged such backsliding with their fantasies of a “political settlement” supposedly obstructed by the “Thieu regime.” (If there was a Pulitzer for journalism that facilitated genocide, the New York Times would now have at least two.) And when the North Vietnamese attack came in 1975, Congress cut off all aid to the South, dooming its ally and thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians who had trusted America to death, torture, and imprisonment.

Kissinger's gripping account of the final days of Cambodia and Vietnam as seen from Washington evokes tears of sorrow and bitterness. President Ford and his secretary of state struggled hard to sustain military aid, not only to save their ally but also to retrieve America's honor. But a terrible disease of moral masochism had seized the nation—or at least the political establishment. Senators, bureaucrats, and pundits seemed actually to want the destruction of their ally as a vicarious punishment for America's supposed sins of overweening power. Crippled by Watergate, opposed even in its inmost councils, the Ford administration was reduced to watching helplessly as Saigon and Phnom Penh fell—and the bloodbath was set in train.

The secretary of state retrieved his own honor in those days of the locust. America's honor is still in pawn. Those who urged and engineered the abandonment of the nation's honor have yet to be called to account.

Robert Kagan (review date 21 June 1999)

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SOURCE: “The Revolutionist: How Henry Kissinger Won the Cold War, or So He Thinks,” in The New Republic, Vol. 220, No. 25, June 21, 1999, p. 38–48.

[In the following review of Years of Renewal, Kagan negatively discusses Kissinger's analysis of Soviet foreign relations in the Nixon-Ford era as a revisionist, distorted version of historical events, asserting that Kissinger retrospectively attributes the demise of the Soviet system and the Cold War to Nixon's, Ford's, and his own policies of détente.]


Of the handful of American diplomats who achieved any real fame, Henry Kissinger may be unique in having earned renown for presiding over a period in American foreign policy widely regarded as disastrous. Especially miserable were the latter years of Kissinger's government career, from 1974 through 1976, which is the period that he covers in Years of Renewal, his third and concluding volume of memoirs. Before 1973, there had been some modest successes, and the promise, at least, of dramatic breakthroughs: the peace agreement that ended the Vietnam War, the opening to China, the expulsion of Soviet advisers from Egypt, and two successful American-Soviet summits that opened the possibility, or so Kissinger and Richard Nixon believed, of an improved relationship with a more restrained Soviet Union.

After 1973, however, the pillars that held up Nixon's and Kissinger's “new structure of peace” collapsed. Scandal at home helped to precipitate failure abroad; the Soviet Union entered a new phase of adventure and aggressiveness; and American foreign policy began a downward spiral, reaching bottom by the mid-1970s. Here is how Kissinger described this period in his second volume of memoirs, Years of Upheaval, which appeared in 1982:

Congressional assaults on a weakened President robbed him of both the means of containment and the incentives for Soviet moderation. … [P]rogressive restrictions on executive authority from 1973 to 1976 … doomed Indochina to destruction … [and] blocked military assistance to key allies. In time the Soviets could not resist the opportunity presented by a weakened President and a divided America abdicating from foreign responsibilities. By 1975 Soviet adventurism had returned, reinforced by an unprecedented panoply of modern arms.

In Years of Upheaval, the most that Kissinger was prepared to say about the years after 1973 was that he and Ford had held the fort. The country and its Constitution survived. Beyond noting this de minimis accomplishment, however, Kissinger advanced only modest claims on behalf of his policies in the Ford years. He took some intellectual satisfaction from the fact that “the basic categories of our public discourse on international affairs—China, the Mideast, SALT and the strategic balance, energy policy, new initiatives with allies—[were] still those established during the years of upheaval now coming to an end.” (The italics are mine.) But Kissinger believed, and everyone believed, that America's “years of upheaval” had ended, and its “years of renewal” had begun, not during the presidency of Gerald Ford, but with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Indeed, Kissinger described the rout of American interests after 1973 in a later work, Diplomacy:

The collapse of Indochina in 1975 [was] followed in America by a retreat from Angola and a deepening of domestic divisions, and by an extraordinary surge in expansionism on the part of the Soviet Union. Cuban military forces had spread from Angola to Ethiopia in tandem with thousands of Soviet combat advisers. In Cambodia, Vietnamese troops backed and supplied by the Soviet Union were subjugating that tormented country. Afghanistan was occupied by over 100,000 Soviet troops. The government of the pro-Western Shah of Iran collapsed and was replaced by a radically anti-American fundamentalist regime which seized fifty-two Americans, almost all of whom were officials, as hostages. Whatever the causes, the dominos indeed appeared to be falling.

The mid- to late 1970s, he acknowledged, were the “seeming nadir of America's international position.”

Kissinger's own position as America's premier statesman also took a tumble after 1973. During Nixon's first term, Kissinger bestrode the world like a geopolitical colossus. As national security adviser, he leapt from one spectacular diplomatic feat to another, and he enjoyed a national and international celebrity hitherto unknown to American policy-makers. His fame was such that Oriana Fallacci could ask, in a famous interview, “How do you explain the incredible movie-star status you enjoy? How do you explain the fact that you are almost more famous and popular than the president?” To which Kissinger, giddy with success, apparently replied (he later denied using these words) that Americans admired him for achieving great things single-handedly: “Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town with his horse and nothing else.”

After Nixon's resignation, however, Kissinger's influence inside the government, and his reputation outside it, declined precipitously. Without Nixon to back him—by 1973, even Nixon had grown jealous and resentful of Kissinger's fame—Kissinger's career as a virtuoso on the world stage ended. On the most important matters of arms control and détente with the Soviet Union, he faced sniping from within the Ford cabinet, and by the end he had to travel to Moscow in humiliation, without even the authority to close deals. Outside the administration, Kissinger became the prime target for conservatives and neo-conservatives (and a smattering of liberals) seeking an end to détente and a tougher line against the Soviets. Reagan practically made Kissinger a campaign issue in his challenge to Ford in 1976, and Ford was forced to clip Kissinger's wings, “demoting” him from national security adviser to Secretary of State and publicly promising never to use the word “détente” again.

For these reasons, perhaps, Kissinger for many years apparently felt no compelling need to produce a third volume of memoirs on those last, hapless years in office. His first two volumes came forth in an explosion of fevered industriousness. Kissinger left office in January 1977 and immediately began work on White House Years, which came out two years later. Then he turned quickly to the second volume, Years of Upheaval, which was published in 1982. But Kissinger did not produce his next book until 1994, and it was Diplomacy—a historical treatise on the conduct of American foreign policy. When Diplomacy appeared, it was reasonable to assume that Kissinger might never produce a third volume of memoirs.

By the 1990s, indeed, the world was not exactly waiting with breathless anticipation for Kissinger's account of the Ford administration, which, to say the least, lacked the excitement of the Nixon years. The conflict in Cyprus, the Sinai disengagement agreements, the ethnic turmoil in Lebanon, the summit between Ford and Mao in 1975, the Panama Canal treaty negotiations, the crisis in Angola, and the interim arms control agreement signed at Vladivostok in 1974: whatever significance one might attach to these events—and Kissinger in this volume has interesting things to say about all of them—they were not the stuff of high diplomatic drama. Who would have blamed Kissinger for quitting after the first two volumes, which were masterpieces in their genre?

In the foreword to his new book, Kissinger claims that he waited more than a decade to write about the Ford years in order “to permit the evaluation of the entire period of my government service from a philosophical perspective rather than according to the tactics of the moment.” Whatever this may mean, the very title of Kissinger's third volume of memoirs shows that his aim in this massive tome is not merely to complete the dreary record of his last years in office. His goal is a good deal more ambitious: it is to salvage the glittering reputation that was tarnished by the Ford years, and to do so by providing a grand revisionist account of those last years in office.

Some of this revisionism is merely a matter of tone. Did Kissinger emphasize rather darkly in Years of Upheaval that it was during the Ford years that Indochina was “doomed to destruction” by a feckless Congress and the breakdown of presidential authority? In Years of Renewal he paints those events in brighter colors, claiming as one of the achievements of the Ford administration the way it “managed the collapse of Indochina with dignity and restraint.” Other revisions are more substantive. Had Kissinger lamented, seventeen years ago, that the “interim” arms agreement struck at Vladivostok was drained of whatever importance it might have had by the fierce opposition it aroused in the United States? In the present volume Kissinger calls that agreement “a major breakthrough on strategic arms control.”

Yet these are relatively minor emendations compared with Kissinger's broader assertion in Years of Renewal. For Kissinger now claims that, far from merely holding the fort in the mid-1970s against a storm of adverse domestic and global forces, he and Ford actually laid the foundations for America's eventual victory in the Cold War. They did so, moreover, consciously and deliberately, with a foresight and a confidence that has somehow been overlooked by most observers. This is a grand and startling claim.


As Kissinger now tells the story, the Ford administration achieved this triumph by challenging Moscow on the battleground of ideology, by bringing “human rights” and the issue of Soviet treatment of citizens in the Eastern bloc to the fore in U.S.-Soviet relations. A decisive moment, Kissinger now claims, came at the meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki in 1975, when the United States and its allies forced a reluctant Moscow leadership to accept two principles of behavior that would later prove its undoing. One was the principle of “peaceful change of borders,” which in some respects established the legal basis on which Germany was eventually reunified in 1991.

Of equal if not greater importance, Kissinger contends, was the enshrinement of human rights principles in the so-called “Basket III” of issues in the Helsinki Final Act. According to Kissinger's account, these “provisions for the free movement of peoples and ideas and for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,’ which the democracies insisted on including in the Final Act,” were poison pills in the Helsinki agreement that eventually undid Communism and the Soviet Union. In the years to come, “visionary and courageous activists like Václav Havel and Lech Walesa turned these clauses of the Final Act into rallying cries for resisting totalitarianism in the Communist world and thereby ultimately brought about the liberation of Eastern Europe.” Human rights advocates throughout the Soviet bloc, Kissinger argues, “interpreted the Helsinki Final Act as enshrining human rights in international law—a view we fully supported.”

Kissinger asserts not only that he supported this elevation of human rights as a matter of moral principle. He also claims to have suspected, even in 1975, that these human rights provisions in the Helsinki Final Act would bring the Soviet Union down. According to Kissinger, “the Western democracies pushed Basket III and peaceful change to exploit what we had come to recognize as the latent vulnerabilities of the Soviet empire.” Many of his critics in the United States attacked the Helsinki Final Act as a sell-out and a “Super Yalta,” because it appeared to accept and to legitimize Soviet control of Eastern Europe in a legally binding international agreement; but Kissinger argues that the critics were proved wrong, shamefully wrong. “Rarely has a diplomatic process so illuminated the limitations of human foresight.” With the passage of time, the Helsinki Final Act “came to be appreciated as a political and moral landmark that contributed to the progressive decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet system over the next decade and a half.”

In these memoirs, Kissinger depicts himself as something of a lonely prophet of the end of the Cold War. As he tells it, all too few had perceived the opportunity at hand in the mid-1970s, but Kissinger and Ford persisted, confident in their purposes and optimistic about the ultimate triumph of the West over an enemy whose imminent crack-up was visible to those with vision, with special insight. To be sure, Kissinger abjures any pretense of clairvoyance: “statesmen act on the basis of tendencies, not certainties.” Nor does he pretend that he expected the Soviet Union “to collapse so quickly.” Still, the tendencies—toward the decline and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union—were, he claims, both visible and exploitable. True, “intelligence reports conveyed fearsome images of a vast military capacity in the service of an implacable resolve,” Kissinger writes. “But anyone who had ever been on an official visit to the Soviet Union … could not but gain the impression that the whole elaborately constructed stage set was precarious and might collapse at any moment.” All that was needed, apparently, was the right ideological thrust aimed at the chink in the totalitarian Soviet armor.

Without expecting the immediate collapse of the Soviet Empire, Kissinger claims, “we were content to loosen its bonds wherever possible and to push the right of peaceful change while awaiting the conditions that would enable the democracies to pursue it.” In the end, and no thanks to its many liberal and neo-conservative detractors, “the Ford Administration achieved what turned out to be a strategic victory” at Helsinki. Others helped to achieve this victory, of course, especially in the 1980s. Kissinger does not wish to “tak[e] credit away from great men like Havel [and] Walesa.” But he does wish to reapportion the credit that has hitherto been distributed among American leaders. “Other presidents were to receive the credit for winning the Cold War,” Kissinger notes with a trace of resentment at this historical injustice. But he is “certain the time will come when it is recognized that the Cold War could not have been won” without Gerald Ford.

Nor, presumably, without Henry Kissinger. Amid his many encomia to Gerald Ford as the savior of his country, Kissinger cannot help but point out that in matters of foreign policy Ford was an ill-informed novice without strategic understanding, a decent and modest man whom Nixon had made vice president precisely because “he had so little background in international affairs.” (In fact, Kissinger notes, Nixon had hoped the selection of Ford would dissuade Congress, for this very reason, from proceeding toward impeachment.) Of course, Kissinger himself is too modest to claim openly that credit for engineering America's triumph in the Cold War really belongs to him. But the astute reader will perhaps understand that if the Ford administration cleverly sowed the seeds of the Soviet Union's later demise, then the mastermind behind that strategy was probably someone other than Gerald Ford.

For all his praise of Ford, in fact, Kissinger's goal in these memoirs is not primarily to resurrect Ford's reputation but to repair his own, and Nixon's. He does so by means of an extraordinary assertion. Kissinger's account of the 1970s is designed to establish an essential continuity between the policies of détente and the policies of Ronald Reagan. “If Harry Truman was the architect of the core institutions that won the Cold War and Ronald Reagan provided the impetus for the end game, Richard Nixon was the pivotal figure in the middle period.” And pivotal not just in the sense of keeping America intact as a global power in the disastrous final years of Vietnam. It was during Nixon's presidency, Kissinger claims, “that the main lines of American policy for the final two decades of the Cold War were put in place.”

Kissinger's revisionist interpretation aims at refuting the common view that Reagan's policies were a sharp departure from the détente practiced by Nixon, Ford, and Carter. “Ronald Reagan and his associates deserve much credit for the denouement of the Cold War,” Kissinger acknowledges, but not because they took a different course. “Reagan's policy,” he claims, “was, in fact, a canny reassertion of the geopolitical strategies of the Nixon and Ford Administrations clothed in the rhetoric of Wilsonianism.” The “victories of the 1980s derived from a Reaganite variant—not a rejection—of the strategies of the 1970s.”

This is a significant assertion, with important implications, as Kissinger intends, not only for our understanding of the Cold War but also for the conduct of American foreign policy more generally. It is one thing if Reagan won the Cold War by returning to the confrontational and ideologically charged policies of the Truman era, as most observers at the time believed and as later historians have reaffirmed. It is quite another thing if Reagan's policies were little more than a “variant” on Nixonian détente and Kissingerian realism, merely dressed up in ideological rhetoric. After all, there is a rather important debate raging over the proper place of morality and ideology in American foreign policy today, on issues ranging from the intervention in Kosovo to the conduct of relations with China. Whether or not Kissinger's revisionism takes over as the common interpretation of the last two decades of the Cold War should have no small impact on that debate.

It should have no small impact, that is, if anyone is paying attention. Judging from the reviews of Years of Renewal, however, one gets the impression that no one is paying attention. Not a single reviewer has even made reference to Kissinger's revisionist claims, much less tried to evaluate their merit. Perhaps this neglect is due to the fact that Years of Renewal is a very fat book, and there is only so much one can cover in a review. But there may also be a more disturbing explanation: that we remain in the midst of a historical process of smoothing over what were once titanic Cold War disputes, treating them as if they were mere differences of nuance among policy disputants who, for all their minor disagreements, nevertheless shared the same broad goals and the same general view of how those goals could be attained.

We commonly hear these days that the Cold War was a time of relatively simple strategic verities and, compared with our present era of uncertainly, confusion, and rancor, a period of bipartisanship and common agreement on the need to contain and to defeat the Soviet menace. Occasionally, someone such as William Bundy comes along to remind us rudely of the vicious personal, partisan, and ideological struggles that actually dominated the Cold War years. And Kissinger himself in these memoirs re-fights some of those old battles with a fresh bitterness that belies his assertion of seamless continuity (about which more later). But the tendency since 1989 has been toward forgiving and, more importantly, forgetting. The decade since the end of the Cold War has been an era of good feelings, a time of historiographical healing.

Kissinger is no doubt counting on this self-willed collective amnesia to bring about a general acceptance of the bold revisionist argument of his book. Before we slip permanently into our post-Cold War coma, however, it may be worth returning to the record just for a moment to examine whether Kissinger's claim to a share of the Cold War victory has any merit.


The record is not exactly thin. Kissinger is one of only a handful of American foreign policymakers in history whose very name has stood for a certain clear and well-defined theory of international relations, and for a distinct view of the way the United States should conduct itself in its dealings with the rest of the world. In the past century, one thinks of John Hay and the “Open Door,” George Kennan and “containment,” John Foster Dulles and “rollback.” But even those precedents do not match the breadth and the depth of vision with which Kissinger's name is linked. There was more to Kissinger than détente. Both in office and in his voluminous writings, Kissinger elaborated broad theories of international politics, attempted to explain the way the world works, discussed in a general sense what was possible in foreign affairs and what was not, and attempted to fit the conduct of American foreign policy, and in particular the way it had to be managed during the turbulent 1970s, within these overarching constructs.

Détente was not just a tactic. If one takes Kissinger seriously as a strategic thinker, détente was the product of a consistent and well-constructed worldview applied to the trying circumstances of a specific era but theoretically applicable to all eras, including our own. And the principles upon which Kissinger based the policy of détente could not have been clearer. In order to evaluate his new claim that there was essential continuity between his policies and the “variant” pursued by Ronald Reagan, it is necessary to go back and examine those principles, and the manner in which Kissinger put them into practice in the 1970s.

Readers of Years of Renewal may want to recall that first among these principles, and shaping all the others, was the reality and the necessity of coexistence with the Soviet Union and with Soviet Communism; and not as a temporary condition of international relations, but as a permanent one. The expectation of a Soviet collapse that Kissinger now retrospectively attributes to himself was nowhere apparent in his actions or in his statements as a policy-maker. Quite the contrary. The conflict with the Soviet Union, he admonished Americans throughout the 1970s, would simply “not admit of resolution by victory in the classical sense. We are compelled to coexist.” To believe otherwise, Kissinger argued, to ignore what he called in 1974 the “imperative of coexistence.” was to engage in self-delusion and, indeed, a dangerous self-delusion.

The misguided hope of American leaders in the early Cold War years, leaders such as Truman and Dean Acheson, was that “containment would transform the Soviet Union and that a changed Soviet society would then evolve inexorably into a compatible member of a harmonious international community.” But this had proved a false dream. As late as 1976, Kissinger was urging Americans to confront the fact that, in the thirty years since the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had “recovered from the devastation of World War II and pressed vigorously ahead on the path of industrial growth.” With the “acquisition of nuclear technology and the transformation of the international system through decolonization,” the Soviet Union had emerged as a “first-class military power.” Soviet “industrial, technological, and military power” had grown impressively, and by the 1970s it had developed “its economic strength and technology to a point where it can match the West in many sectors of industrial and military power.”

Kissinger now claims that he believed that the Soviet Union was teetering on the edge of collapse in the mid-1970s. But in 1976, even after what he now alleges was the “strategic victory” at Helsinki, he was arguing the opposite. It was precisely the enduring reality of Soviet power, he insisted, that made coexistence rather than confrontation the necessary goal of American foreign policy. Indeed, given the fact of Soviet power, and especially the mammoth nuclear arsenal that it had amassed since the 1960s, it was folly to pursue any goal other than coexistence. Any other goal risked catastrophe. Soviet power, Kissinger declared in a speech in 1973, had made it a “necessity” to shift “from confrontation to negotiation.”

The second principle of détente was more hopeful. Since each superpower had the capacity to destroy the other, Kissinger argued in the 1970s, this paradoxically gave them a shared interest in self-preservation, and it was upon this fundamental common interest that a structure of peaceful coexistence, and even cooperation, could be erected. Given the apocalyptic dangers of confrontation, each side had to act with restraint, each had to be conscious of the needs and the interests of its adversary, and each had to avoid taking opportunistic advantage of the other side's vulnerabilities lest even relatively minor crises escalate rapidly to nuclear confrontation.

Much to the dismay of liberal critics, then and now, Kissinger's détente did not aim at ending the Cold War competition. Hopes for such an outcome were utopian (and for that very reason, Kissinger believed, typically American). Kissinger himself entertained no such fancies. His efforts to forge closer ties with China were designed to unnerve the Soviets and to make them more pliable. His Middle East policies aimed at reducing Soviet influence in that vital region. As he tried to explain to liberal critics at the time, “the very concept of ‘détente’” was “applicable only to an adversary relationship.” For Kissinger, the purpose of détente was not to end competition but to manage it, and to keep it from flaring into global conflagration. Even as the competition continued, Kissinger hoped that he could propound and codify some rules of the road, some “principles of responsible relations in the nuclear age.” These rules would include “respect for the interests of all, restraint in the uses of power, and abstention from efforts to exploit instability or local conflicts for unilateral advantage.”

Kissinger expected neither an end to competition nor an escape from coexistence. The outer limit of Kissinger's optimism in the 1970s was that “with patience, a pattern of restraints and a network of vested interests” could develop which might “give coexistence a more hopeful dimension and make both sides conscious of what they would stand to lose by reverting to the politics of pressure, confrontation, and crisis.” Ultimately, in the best of circumstances, détente might advance beyond establishing a stable equilibrium between the two superpowers and promote “the habits of mutual restraint, coexistence, and, ultimately, cooperation.”

Such confidence as Kissinger expressed in the 1970s, therefore, was not a confidence in the West's ultimate triumph—certainly not within a foreseeable future that could have any relevance for current policies—but in its ability to establish and to maintain a global equilibrium. “We cannot prevent the growth of Soviet power,” he argued in a speech in 1976, but “the industrial democracies possess vast strengths,” and if used with confidence and consistency those strengths could be used “to contain Soviet power and to channel that power in constructive directions.” Still, far from envisioning an eventual Soviet collapse, Kissinger argued that these important, if limited, goals could be accomplished only if the American people did not “mesmerize themselves with the illusion of simple solutions”—solutions such as the transformation of Soviet society or the possibility of victory in the Cold War.

These premises of détente had clear implications for the way the United States had to deal with the Soviet Union in the contest of ideologies. In Kissinger's view, the American goal could not be the transformation of Soviet society—indeed, the United States could not even apply pressure for change—because the Communist leaders in Moscow would then have no incentive to cooperate in the peaceful structures of détente. “To combine détente with increasing pressure on the Soviet Union,” he warned Congress in 1974, “would be disastrous. We would not accept it from Moscow; Moscow will not accept it from us.”

Americans had to understand “what can and cannot be achieved in changing human conditions in the East.” The United States could not demand “that the Soviet Union, in effect, suddenly reverse five decades of Soviet, and centuries of Russian, history. Such an attempt would be futile and at the same time hazard all that has already been achieved.” If the United States tried to “transform the Soviet system by pressure,” Kissinger argued in 1974, then “we would be reviving the doctrines of liberation and massive retaliation of the 1950s. And we would do so at a time when Soviet physical power and influence in the world are greater than a quarter-century ago when those policies were devised and failed. The futility of such a course is as certain as its danger.”

Here again, Kissinger in the 1970s portrayed the Soviet Union not as a weak power susceptible to change, but as a strong power whose internal structures could not be forced to change without risking Armageddon. In response to critics who claimed that this policy lacked a moral core, Kissinger invoked the specter of nuclear war, and pointed out that “the preservation of human life and human society are moral values, too.” The “moral” imperatives of peace and stability required the United States to abstain from ideological confrontation. How hard could the United States press, Kissinger asked in 1973, “without provoking the Soviet leadership into returning to practices in its foreign policy that increase international tensions?” Was the American public “ready to face the crises and increased defense budgets that a return to Cold War conditions would spawn?” And would increased pressure from the West “enhance the well-being or nourish the hope for liberty of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union?” Kissinger thought not.

Kissinger's wariness of—indeed, his opposition to—a foreign policy shaped by ideology transcended the immediate circumstances of the détente era. Ideology, he believed, was not only the enemy of détente; it was also the enemy of a stable international order. And the problem was not just Communist ideology. America's Universalist pretensions were also a danger. No matter what the source, Kissinger argued, as a general rule “ideological conflict” tended only to compound international instabilities, to “deepen international schisms.”

Like Hans Morgenthau, the founder of modern realism, Kissinger asserted that “in the great periods of cabinet diplomacy,” especially during the nineteenth century, “diplomats spoke the same language, not only in the sense that French was the lingua franca, but more importantly because they tended to understand intangibles in the same manner. A similar outlook about aims and methods eases the task of diplomacy—it may even be a precondition for it.” To establish and to maintain international peace and stability required setting ideological differences aside and establishing a common understanding that transcended ideology, an understanding based on the amoral imperatives of geopolitics. “The greatest need of the contemporary international system,” Kissinger insisted, was not an agreed concept of right and wrong, which was impossible, but “an agreed concept of order.”

As a matter of principle, Kissinger believed the United States had no more right to impose its ideology on others than the Soviet Union did. Exasperated by critics who demanded that détente give way to more pressure for change in the Soviet Union, Kissinger noted in 1973 that “for half a century we have objected to Communist efforts to alter the domestic structures of other countries. For a generation of Cold War we sought to ease the risks produced by competing ideologies. Are we now to come full circle and insist on domestic compatibility as a condition of progress?” As Kissinger saw it, the goal of American foreign policy should not be to wage the ideological struggle with Soviet Communism, but to “manage” the “clash of ideologies,” to “transform ideological conflict into constructive participation in building a better world,” to “harness the rivalry of the nuclear superpowers, first into coexistence and then mold coexistence into a more positive and cooperative future.”

Such a non-ideological approach to foreign policy was alien to American sensibilities, and Kissinger was well aware of this. He conceived it as his great task during the Nixon and Ford years—it was a task worthy of a lone cowboy—to try to wean Americans away from their sentimental idealism, from their habitual fondness for ideological crusades, and to make them see the virtue and the necessity of pursuing the more modest aims of equilibrium and stability. Kissinger insisted in 1974 that Americans focus not on the Soviet Union's domestic behavior but use its international behavior as the “primary index of our relationship.” Beyond this, Americans might “use our influence to the maximum to alleviate suffering and to respond to humane appeals.” Above all, Americans had to accept reality. The Soviet Union was not going away, and its system was unlikely to change appreciably for many, many decades to come.

Insofar as Kissinger held out any hope for internal change in the Soviet empire—and on occasion even he felt compelled to dangle some hope of an eventual respite before an American populace ever desirous of “simple solutions”—this change would come not through confrontation, and much less through ideological confrontation. It would come only through détente and the relaxation of tensions. “Changes in Soviet society have already occurred,” Kissinger declared in 1974, at the height of the Brezhnev era, “and more will come.” But such changes were “most likely to develop through an evolution that can best go forward in an environment of decreasing international tensions. A renewal of the Cold War will hardly encourage the Soviet Union to change its emigration policies or adopt a more benevolent attitude toward dissent.” It was détente that had “generated the ferment and the demand for openness we are now witnessing.”

Again, it would be through détente that such openness would be realized. Kissinger endorsed the argument advanced by Cold War liberals and doves “that the reason the Soviet system was able to maintain its authoritarian hold was because of its invocation of foreign danger, and that to the degree that the foreign danger diminished it would not be able to maintain the more repressive aspects of its system.” In the long run, Kissinger told members of Congress in 1973, he believed that “this will turn out to be a correct judgment.” By reducing the danger of war, by denying the Soviets an enemy, and by “forcing the Soviet system into a cooperative relationship with the rest of the world in the field of foreign policy,” détente would “over a period of time mitigate their system.”


This was Kissinger's strategy and philosophy in the 1970s. It was patiently elaborated in numerous speeches throughout his eight years in office, then expounded in the thoughtful prose of his first two volumes of memoirs. So what are we to make of his present claim that he and the Ford administration scored a “strategic victory” by exploiting, through the human rights and peaceful change provisions in the Helsinki Final Act, what “we had come to recognize as the latent vulnerabilities of the Soviet empire?” Are we to believe that in defiance of his own carefully constructed strategy and his own well-articulated philosophy, Kissinger sought to use the Helsinki process to strike at precisely those internal structures of the Soviet system which he had so persistently declared out-of-bounds according to the rules of détente? Are we to accept Kissinger's claim that he deliberately tried to exploit weaknesses in the Soviet system and to hasten its demise, when we know that his foreign policy of the 1970s rested on the twin premises of Soviet strength and the unalterable reality of coexistence? And what exactly happened at Helsinki? In what way can the Helsinki Final Act be understood as a turning point in the Cold War?

To answer these questions requires putting the Helsinki conference back into its historical context. Kissinger would like us to forget that context, and to view Helsinki only from a post-1989 perspective, as an important and logical step on the path to our inevitable victory in the Cold War. But our victory was not inevitable. In 1975, indeed, it was virtually inconceivable. Kissinger's claims may appear plausible from a post-Cold-War perspective—they are plausible only from that misleading perspective—but when it comes to explaining the actions and the motives of participants in historical events, it is the historian's task to try to recreate “reality” as it appeared to contemporaries. Writing history backwards can often yield important ideas about the past; but in careless hands—or in the hands of an interested party—it can produce error and distortion.

To understand the Helsinki conference in its historical context is to understand why so many critics from the left and the right viewed it as a capitulation to the Soviet Union, as a defeat for the United States and the West, as holding little promise of a better future. The conference was the culmination of a process that Kissinger himself had long viewed with a varying mixture of skepticism, scorn, and concern. And with good reason: the initial impetus for a pan-European conference had come from Moscow. Soviet leaders, sensing the distress of Europe, and especially Germany, over the continuing tensions of the Cold War, and sensing also their unease with the policies of the United States, especially in its conduct of the war in Vietnam, had hoped to exploit this disquiet in the Western alliance by appealing to a vague but growing desire for some assertion of European independence.

Originally, the Soviet idea for a pan-European conference had excluded the United States, and although Washington convinced its NATO allies not to allow such a wedge to be driven through the trans-Atlantic partnership, the conference continued to have an anti-American flavor. The United States was finally allowed to participate, but the clear purpose of the planned Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was for the Europeans—that is, the West Europeans, the East Europeans, and the Soviet Union—to take some control of their own common destiny and to establish a continental modus vivendi. For the Soviet Union, this meant above all the acceptance by Western Europe—the formal and legal acceptance—of the legitimacy and, therefore, the permanence of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, including, very importantly, East Germany.

Kissinger would later argue that the intense Soviet desire for the legitimization of its imperial position in Europe was a sign of weakness and insecurity. This may have been the case; but throughout the early and mid-1970s many Americans, especially conservatives but also many in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including Kissinger, viewed the conference with genuine trepidation. The West was insecure, too. Kissinger did his best to slow the process down, to burden it by linking it to other matters, and to make its accomplishment contingent on the satisfaction of American demands on other issues. He tried to counter the drift of Western allies toward accommodation with Moscow with his proclamation of an American-sponsored “Year of Europe” in 1973, and with an initiative for establishing a “new Atlantic charter.” These efforts were major diplomatic failures. They had the opposite of their intended effect: they further revealed the determination of the European allies to display their independence from Washington.

Eventually, through assiduous work with the allies, but mostly thanks to residual allied fears of being left to confront the Soviets by themselves, the United States managed to corral the West Europeans and to prevent the worst manifestations of European neutralism. But Kissinger never really changed his sour view of the conference. In White House Years, published four years after what Kissinger now alleges was the West's great triumph at Helsinki, he disparaged the European conference as a Soviet ploy, championed in the West by that most untrustworthy of European leaders, Willy Brandt. In Years of Upheaval, published seven years after Helsinki, Kissinger makes a few references to the evolving European conference, but he gives no hint that he believes it had produced anything worth commenting on, and least of all in the area of human rights. The foresight that Kissinger retroactively attributes to himself today—that he both recognized and then exploited Soviet vulnerabilities in 1975—is nowhere to be found in Kissinger's writings of 1979 and 1982.

In fact, those memoirs reflected the mood and the reality of 1975 and subsequent years far more accurately than Kissinger's post-1989 revisionist account. At the time of the European conference, few on either side of the Atlantic seriously contemplated a loosening of Soviet control in Eastern Europe, much less the eventual collapse of Soviet Communism. The “tendencies,” to borrow Kissinger's word, were all in the opposite direction. The animating impulses behind the conference were the insistence upon an acceptance of the division of Europe as an enduring reality, in order to lessen the tensions and the anxieties of the Cold War, and then, on the basis of such a reconciliation with reality, to make life as bearable as possible for Europeans on both sides of the divide.

It hardly bears mentioning that, notwithstanding his present claims, Kissinger at the time took little if any interest in the so-called “human rights” issues of Basket III of the Helsinki Final Act. It would have been out of character for him to do so in any case, nor would pressing for human rights have fit well within his strategy of détente. In none of his writings before this new volume of memoirs did Kissinger ever pretend to take those issues seriously. Even in his account of the Helsinki conference in Diplomacy, published just five years ago, Kissinger claimed no role in pushing Basket III, stating only, and with perhaps deliberate opacity, that “the American delegation contributed” to the final provisions. In the present volume, Kissinger in one place asserts that “the Western democracies pushed Basket III and peaceful change to exploit what we had come to recognize as the latent vulnerabilities of the Soviet empire.” That “we” is a clever bit of legerdemain. Elsewhere he admits that “I for one was initially skeptical about the possibilities of Basket III.” It is fair to assume that Kissinger overcame his initial skepticism only after 1989, when the unintended consequences of Basket III became manifest.

And the consequences were unintended. Kissinger aside, even the proponents of the provisions in Basket III did not believe in 1975 that they were planting the seeds of a future revolution in the Soviet empire, for the simple reason that in the mid-1970s no one inside or outside the Soviet system believed that such a revolution was possible. Just about everyone shared the view, which Kissinger himself at the time repeatedly advanced, that the Soviet state, for all its weaknesses, was strong enough to persist. As Martin Malia has pointed out, not even Soviet dissidents had “any clear idea of how advanced the crisis of the system was, even as late as the end of the 1970s.”

For the Europeans who really pushed Basket III, the purpose of expanding East-West contacts, and of calling for an easing of repression in the Eastern bloc, was not to undermine the Soviet Empire. Their goals, too, were in keeping with the conference's broader purpose of accepting the legitimacy and the likely permanence of that empire. The idea was to alleviate the worst manifestations of the division of Europe, not to undo it. Kissinger himself in 1976 explained the purposes of Helsinki entirely within the familiar context of détente and the “imperative of coexistence.” It was, he said, a Western European effort “to strengthen their bilateral and regional ties with the countries of Eastern Europe. We hope that this process will help heal the divisions of Europe. … We will continue to pursue measures to improve the lives of the people in Eastern Europe in basic human terms—such as freer emigration, the unification of families, greater flow of information, increased economic interchange, and more opportunities for travel.” Kissinger rejected more revolutionary goals.

In White House Years, he recounted how Willy Brandt, in trying to convince the Americans to support the European conference, had invoked “the standard European argument that it was desired precisely by the most independent countries of Eastern Europe as a means of buttressing their autonomy.” But Kissinger at the time saw through the hollowness of this argument, and sneeringly dismissed it. Brandt, he wrote, could never explain “why the Soviets were pressing for a conference that would loosen their hold on the satellite orbit.” Why, indeed.

By 1975, like other leading Germans, Brandt had given up even on the dream of the reunification of West and East Germany. Brandt confessed “that I have stopped speaking about reunification.” As Phillip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice have pointed out, the unification of Germany “seemed an academic point in the world of 1975.” In his pursuit of Ostpolitik, Brandt had come to accept “the original Eastern view that reunification should take a back seat to the relaxation of broader East-West tensions.” The Helsinki Final Act's declaration concerning the “peaceful change of borders,” therefore, was empty symbolism, and in its time it was understood to be such.

In reality, as Zelikow and Rice note, the Act “came to stand for acceptance of the postwar borders and the de facto settlement imposed by the victors.” The West Germans “believed that they had to accept the status quo in order to change it someday.” But as the years passed, the “West German timetable … seemed to be measured on a time scale more familiar to geologists than to politicians.” As late as 1988, Helmut Kohl, when asked whether Mikhail Gorbachev might someday agree to reunification, answered that “I do not write futuristic novels like [H. G.] Wells. What you ask now, that is in the realm of fantasy.”

Kissinger was certainly no more zealous for reunification than the Germans, not in 1975 and not in 1990. As Zelikow and Rice point out, “Henry Kissinger had for many years thought the German question secondary to the overall management of the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. Thus, for the United States détente and a modus vivendi with the Soviets on Germany went hand in hand.” Brent Scowcroft, the long-time aide, associate, and friend of Kissinger, expressed a most Kissingerian view of reunification in the memoirs that he recently co-authored with George Bush. Even as late as 1990, Scowcroft recalls, “I was skeptical about the wisdom of pursuing German unification. … What was wrong with a divided Germany as long as the situation was stable? The very process of unification could be extremely destabilizing, and could even lead to conflict.” Kissinger certainly held this view at the time of Helsinki, and for many years afterward. And so his present argument—that he favored the peaceful change provisions in the Final Act as laying the groundwork for a future reunification—is hard to take seriously.

Historians, as opposed to revisionist memoirists, have described Helsinki not as a “strategic victory” for a West determined to exploit alleged Soviet vulnerabilities, but as the “high point of détente.” The most favorable interpretation of Helsinki at the time, and in the years that followed, was that the West had not given up anything of real importance. As A. W. DePorte put it in 1979, “The Soviet success in this drawn-out but essentially marginal policy was a gain for them by their lights but not a loss for the West, except for the loss of illusions. It changed nothing in the European status quo except to reveal more clearly—to any who could not see—what the status quo has been and is.”

This was the best that could be said about Helsinki. But there was also a darker interpretation. For in the years following the European conference, Soviet behavior went from bad to worse. In 1975, the very year in which Helsinki was signed, Moscow continued to arrest dissidents; and although Helsinki theoretically provided the dissidents and their Western supporters a legalistic club with which to beat them, Soviet leaders were impervious to this pressure throughout the remainder of the 1970s. By 1980 they had just about stamped out the dissident movement. As Malia writes, the Soviets considered their human rights pledges “a mere formality … a minor annoyance as against the great gain of international legitimation of their external empire.”

In the context of the 1970s, which was the only context that mattered to both Kissinger and his many critics at the time, were the Soviets wrong? Kissinger now argues that the Soviet Union in “its desperate quest for legitimacy” had paid a fateful price for that legitimacy by agreeing to the human rights and peaceful change clauses of the Helsinki Final Act. But this is a complete distortion of the reality of 1975. There was nothing desperate about the Soviets' circumstances in the mid-1970s. Whatever their mounting internal difficulties, and even in reformist government circles these were thought to be solvable, in the global competition the Soviets were on a roll.

There are good grounds for believing that Helsinki, in fact, marked the inauguration of a new phase of Soviet aggressiveness. “In the 1960s and early 1970s, under Brezhnev,” as Malia among others has noted, the Soviets “had built up their strength to the level of that of the United States and could therefore accept the negotiations leading to SALT I and détente. As the 1970s progressed, however, the ‘correlation of forces’ seemed to shift in favor of the Soviets, so toward the end of that decade they themselves took to acting ‘from positions of strength.’ The shift began with the fall of South Vietnam and the signing of the Helsinki agreements in 1975.” Helsinki, the “high point of détente,” was also the high point of Soviet confidence, and it helped set the stage for the more aggressive Soviet moves, in Angola, in the Horn of Africa, in Cambodia, and in Afghanistan, which led in the United States to the final renunciation of détente and the inauguration of the confrontational policies of the early Reagan years.


So Kissinger's claim that the West scored a “strategic victory” at Helsinki is unsupportable. His suggestion that he consciously intended to use the Helsinki provisions to exploit Soviet vulnerabilities and eventually to bring down the USSR is, at best, thoroughly misleading. For anyone trying to understand Kissinger's broad strategy, it is also confusing. Had Kissinger actually possessed the intention that he now imputes to himself, it would have contradicted every major premise of his strategy in the 1970s.

Kissinger's purpose in Years of Renewal is precisely to blur the record, to cover up the traces of his failures for a generation of readers that has presumably forgotten them. His revisionist interpretation of Helsinki, and of his own role in shaping its provisions, is as artful as it is transparent. It is an attempt to create a link between Kissinger's actions in the 1970s and the events of the Reagan years, to draw a seamless connection between his policy of détente and the collapse of the Soviet empire and the unraveling of Soviet Communism a decade and a half later. It is an effort, above all, to distort the historical record, so that détente no longer appears to have been a failure at all—and, more importantly, so that Kissinger himself, as the primary author and practitioner of détente, need no longer bear the historical responsibility for that failure.

But détente was a failure, and it was only with the reversal of détente and the return to confrontation in the Reagan years—that is, it was only with the repudiation and the rejection of Kissinger's strategy—that the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act took on their unintended and unforeseen significance. And détente did not fail in the 1970s only because the Watergate scandal destroyed presidential authority and robbed Kissinger of the tools to resist Soviet encroachments in Angola and elsewhere. This had always been Kissinger's contention, and defense, before he decided to try the more daring approach of claiming credit for victory in the Cold War.

Kissinger used to argue, and with some plausibility, that the foreign and defense policies that Reagan later carried out had been politically impossible in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. In earlier writings, Kissinger acknowledged that détente had failed, but he laid the blame on an irresponsible Congress, on back-stabbing colleagues, on McGovernite liberals, on conservatives, on neo-conservatives, on Nixon—on just about everyone in the world except himself. And in Years of Renewal he continues to blame everyone for destroying détente even as he advances his novel assertion that some “Reaganite variant” of détente actually succeeded.

But what was clear at the time, and what remains clear in retrospect, is that détente failed also on its own merits. The Soviets never accepted the logic of détente. They never accepted the new rules of the road, the need for restraint, the need for cooperation for its own sake. Even in 1978 Stanley Hoffmann, not exactly a hawk, argued that it had become became “pretty hard” by the late 1970s “to find any evidence of Soviet moderation in conflicts in which Russia was directly or indirectly involved.” There had been signs of moderation before 1973—before, that is, “the agreements that the Soviets needed were signed … SALT I, with its recognition of parity; the trade and credit deals; Helsinki, with its acceptance of the division of Europe.” But once the Soviets had gotten what they wanted from these deals with the West, they simply pocketed them and pressed ahead with their global ambitions. If Kissinger had bet that détente would tie the Soviets into an interdependent and, therefore, more restrained and cooperative relationship with the West, and Soviet leaders had bet that détente would demoralize the West and consolidate their own global position, then it appeared to Hoffmann in 1978 that the Soviet bet had “been more vindicated than America's.”

The Soviets, it now seems clear, saw détente much as Kissinger's conservative and neo-conservative critics did: not as a mutual agreement for international restraint but as a Western retreat, as an acknowledgment by Washington that American power and American will were declining. As Ronald E. Powaski writes in his history of the Cold War published last year, “in the eyes of the Soviets, détente was a necessary accommodation by the West to a ‘correlation of forces’ that the Soviets viewed as increasingly favorable to the communist movement.” Détente failed, moreover, not only in practice, but also in theory. As Martin Malia argues in The Soviet Tragedy, which appeared in 1994:

the Cold War was not the product of rash policies or misunderstandings based on mutual ignorance that could be overcome by ‘confidence-building measures,’ as the philosophy of détente had it. It was, rather, the product of the genuine incompatibility of the interests and structures of the two ‘camps,’ as standard Soviet doctrine had it. In this perspective, the three or four years of détente were a kind of diplomatic NEP designed to build Soviet strength for a new offensive, and the ten years of renewed Soviet pressure after 1975 were a return to the system's norm.

This was precisely what conservatives and neo-conservatives charged during the Nixon and Ford years: that détente was sapping the West's will and allowing the Soviets first to consolidate and then to extend their global power. And it is the continuing accuracy of this charge that no doubt explains why Kissinger's attack on neo-conservatives, some of whom he calls his friends, is even more vitriolic in Years of Renewal than in his previous volumes. Kissinger depicts the neo-conservatives of the 1970s as wild-eyed Wilsonians, oblivious to geopolitics, who thought they could vanquish the Soviet Union overnight with a “burst of ideological elan.”

But it was precisely the burst of ideological élan represented by the election of Ronald Reagan that began to turn the mounting disaster spawned by détente around. Reagan did so not by pursuing his own “variant” of détente—as Kissinger would now have us believe—but by pursuing in his first term the kinds of confrontational policies and ideological challenges that Kissinger had opposed so consistently and so vigorously in the 1970s. Was it a “variant” of détente to declare the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” to accelerate the arms race and abjure for four years any serious effort at arms control? Was it a “variant” of détente to support “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia? Were Reagan's policies nothing more than Nixonian détente dressed up in Wilsonian garb, as Kissinger now claims?

Remarkably, a mere five years ago, Kissinger had very different answers to these questions than he offers today. In Diplomacy Kissinger acknowledged that there had been an “enormous difference” between Reagan's tactics and those of Nixon and Ford. Reagan had presented the Soviets with a “a direct moral challenge from which all of his predecessors had recoiled.” He was the first Cold War president “to take the offensive both ideologically and geopolitically.” Under Reagan, “America's goal was no longer relaxation of tensions but crusade and conversion.” Reagan's first term, therefore, had “marked the formal end of the period of détente.” Reagan and his advisers “considered concern with the balance of power too confining and too pessimistic. They strove not for gradualism, but for a final outcome.”

In Years of Renewal, Kissinger indicts the neo-conservatives for this kind of thinking, as hopelessly divorced from reality. But in Diplomacy, he argued that “this faith gave the Reagan team an extraordinary tactical flexibility.” While Kissinger gave “considerable” credit for the Cold War victory to Reagan's predecessors and to George Bush, he was unequivocal in declaring that it was “Ronald Reagan's presidency which marked the turning point.” One can only guess what happened to Kissinger's interpretation between the publication of Diplomacy and his writing of Years of Renewal. Somehow, one suspects, the old neo-conservative criticism of détente had once again gotten under Kissinger's skin, and he determined to answer it very differently than he had in the past—by claiming, preposterously, that Reagan's policies were merely variants of his own policies, and that he and Nixon ought to share more equally in the credit for the Cold War victory.

We may never know exactly what role Reagan's policies played in the Soviet Union's downfall. Much of the credit for the undoing of Soviet Communism belongs to Mikhail Gorbachev, whose bumbling efforts to reform Communism led to consequences that could not be foreseen by him, much less by any Western observer. But we do know some of the ways in which Reagan's policies may have contributed to the chain of events that led to the upheavals of 1989. We know that Reagan's arms buildup, and especially Reagan's commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative, panicked Soviet leaders into believing, first, that a more rapid and radical economic restructuring would be necessary if the Soviet Union was to compete in the new arms race both quantitatively and qualitatively, and second, that the Soviet Union therefore needed a respite from the Cold War while it got its own house in order. The first judgment helped to convince Gorbachev to undertake the political and economic reforms that quickly flew beyond his control. The second judgment caused Gorbachev to carry out a deliberate strategy of retreat on the world stage, a tactical measure that Malia likens to Lenin's agreement to the Brest-Litovsk treaty in 1917, but which led, again, to the entirely unforeseen unraveling of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe.

It was Reagan's restoration of ideology to foreign policy, and the ideological challenge that he posed to Moscow, that to some extent sparked and to some extent encouraged dissident movements in the Soviet bloc. Since the end of the Cold War, more than one former dissident has pointed to Reagan's “evil empire” speech as an inspiration and a turning point in their struggle. Would the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act have acquired their historic significance in the absence of Reagan's challenge? Would they have provided a successful rallying point for dissidents if détente, with its rigid commitment to equilibrium and the status quo, had continued to be American policy on into the 1980s? Again, we will never know. What we do know, however, is that during the years of détente the dissident movements in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern bloc were going nowhere. But they erupted in the Reagan years, in the context of renewed confrontation. This was probably not a historical accident, and there is at least a plausible case for cause and effect.

Why has Kissinger taken the risk of advancing such transparently ludicrous claims? There is something dishonorable in his distortion of history. So what if he was wrong in the 1970s? America has long since forgiven and, indeed, forgotten. Today Kissinger's prestige may be almost as great as it was in his heyday during Nixon's first term. Republican congressmen consider themselves honored to be in his company. Just being seen with Henry Kissinger is a mark of seriousness and legitimacy. Politicians and policymakers of both parties continue to look to Kissinger for advice on subjects ranging from NATO to China. (I wonder how many are even aware that his prescriptions for American relations with China—denying Beijing an enemy, eschewing ideological confrontation, and trying to draw China into a web of interdependence—are exactly the prescriptions that he advanced for dealing with the Soviet Union in the era of détente.)

Kissinger, in short, is still a national and international celebrity. So whence comes this continuing need for vindication, this continuing bitterness at old enemies—now “friends”—who today no longer even remember what the battles were about? One should perhaps leave this to the psychologists, but Kissinger himself provides a clue. He seems to do so almost intentionally. In one of his many fascinating discussions of Richard Nixon's character, Kissinger notes that “Nixon's convictions, while firm and—in foreign policy—carefully thought out, did not seem able to sustain him unless they resonated not just with public acclaim but with the approval of the classes he admired and despised at the same time. His actions were in the mold of heroes, but Nixon doomed them by a frantic quest for stardom shading into efforts to vindicate his perception of the ruthlessness of his rivals.”

And then, in one of the frankest moments of his memoir, Kissinger makes a rather striking admission. “Ultimately,” he reflects, what “proved so unsettling, even threatening” about Nixon's “obvious and unending struggle with himself” was that “deep down one could never be certain that what one found so disturbing in Nixon might not also be a reflection of some suppressed flaw within oneself.”

Additional coverage of Kissinger's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1–4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 33, 66; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1.


Principal Works