Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

September Books 17) Diplomacy, by Henry Kissinger

This is a somewhat frustrating book. The opening chapters, based apparently on the author's PhD thesis about diplomacy in the nineteenth century, are pretty dull, even soporific. But once Kissinger gets to the twentieth century, it all gets rather exciting - particularly as regards the foreign policy of Germany in the period between the two world wars and between 1945 and 1961; I don't think I have read a better analysis. But then, rather surprisingly, as Kissinger himself becomes an actor the book becomes less interesting; his fascination with the characters of Nixon and Reagan robs him of any ability to judge their efforts objectively, and even his account of ending the Vietnam War is repetitious and oddly unenlightening.

The book fails to establish its main intellectual theses which are that a) America is unique in bringing its own moral values to international diplomacy and b) that this is only successful when these are consciously married to a realist perception of what is possible. The first proposition is easily falsified by the large number of other countries which have attempted to export their own ideologies to the rest of the world. America has been more successful, admittedly (though the jury must surely still be out on the Chinese), but that's not the same as being unique.

The second proposition is trickier. Kissinger's bête noire is John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, who he blames for Suez, Hungary and the initial and irreversible commitment to Vietnam. But on Kissinger's evidence, the problem with Dulles was not faulty ideology but poor personal management skills; Dulles made speeches without reference to his own officials' painstakingly compiled research, containing commitments on which he was utterly unable to deliver (or, worse, from which it was impossible for him to disengage). It was, on Kissinger's account, fortunate for Dulles that for most of his term of office the Soviet Union was led by Khrushchev, whose own personal management skills were even worse.

Kissinger's praise for Ronald Reagan, despite his total lack of intellectual depth (which Kissinger describes in a couple of devastating phrases), is further evidence for my view that knowing a lot about international relations in theory is not a good qualification for actually being involved in practice. I'm dubious anyway about the genuine value of Reagan's legacy - again, on Kissinger's own evidence, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze first discussed how to change the Soviet Union years before Reagan came to power, thanks to the CSCE process started by Nixon and ended by Ford; SDI had little to do with it. But if you think Reagan was in any way successful, that in itself is a serious strike against the idea that studying IR is any use at all (other than for potentially generating literature to be read by other IR scholars, rather than practitioners). Kissinger damns Carter by barely mentioning him.

I also found fault with Kissinger's analysis of American discourse. He singles out the Vietnam war as having been a uniquely divisive and horrible event in the American psyche. But the more I read about American history, the more it seems to me that the nasty, viscerally horrible debate that was happening 40 years ago about Vietnam, the brutal debate happening now about health care, the question of slavery which sparked armed conflict in the 1860s, the division between John Adams and Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s, that this style is all fairly characteristic of the standard mode of American discourse. It's not for the faint-hearted, and it's not for me, but it's a recurrent phenomenon through history. I'm sure that for Kissinger and for many of his colleagues, Vietnam was a uniquely searing experience. But in the context of American history, it seems less so (at least to me).

Cyprus conspiracy theorists will be (and already have been) disappointed that the island is not mentioned even once in the book.
Tags: bookblog 2009
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