The New York Times
March 28, 1994, Monday, Late Edition - Final
Books of The Times;
A Policy Maker on the Subject He Knows Best
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Diplomacy By Henry Kissinger
With Henry Kissinger's "Diplomacy," the reader actually gets two books in one. On one level, the volume is an elegantly written study of Western diplomacy, from Richelieu down through Metternich and Bismarck to modern times. This book tries to give the reader an understanding of four centuries of Western politics and history, as well as an appreciation of the highly divergent traditions in statesmanship found in Europe and the United States. Like Henry James, Mr. Kissinger contrasts European cold-bloodedness and sophistication with American innocence and naivete; like Tocqueville, he wants to examine the consequences that American optimism and democratic ideals have had on the country's practical conduct.
The second book, the book that emerges as a subtext in "Diplomacy," is a more subjective and cunning one. To begin with, this book attempts to place Mr. Kissinger's own policy-making exploits (as national security adviser and Secretary of State under President Richard M. Nixon) in context with the policy-making records of such historical giants as Metternich, Castlereagh and Bismarck. While making an impassioned case for such Kissingerian concepts as triangular diplomacy, linkage and balance-of-power negotiations, the book also tries to spin recent and not-so-recent history to support Mr. Kissinger's own embrace (as both a scholar and a policy maker) of the power-oriented pragmatics of realpolitik.
For instance, the failure of the Western democracies to recognize the dangers of Nazi Germany early on, Mr. Kissinger suggests, can be attributed to those countries' failure to pay attention to traditional balance-of-power tenets, which "should have made it clear that a large and strong Germany bordered on the east by small and weak states was a dangerous threat," regardless of Hitler's motives.
Such arguments, of course, serve another purpose in this book as well: they provide a resonant historical backdrop for Mr. Kissinger's efforts to explain and vindicate his own handling of foreign affairs for President Nixon. After all, as Mr. Kissinger well knows, books have the capacity to help shape one's place in history (or at least affect how one's efforts are perceived): his second book, "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy" (1957), made him an intellectual celebrity at the age of 34, while his later books, including his best-selling memoirs, helped cement his fame. In this respect, "Diplomacy" can be seen as a kind of response to the publication of recent books (from Seymour M. Hersh's angry diatribe "The Price of Power" to Walter Isaacson's comprehensive biography, "Kissinger") that have provided less-than-flattering portraits of the former Secretary of State.
Indeed, the last portion of "Diplomacy" rehashes events dealt with at length in Mr. Kissinger's two volumes of memoirs ("White House Years" (1979) and "Years of Upheaval" (1982), including the end of the Vietnam War, detente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China. Although Mr. Kissinger does not directly address the charges of secretiveness frequently made against him and Mr. Nixon, he argues (in a passage about Franklin D. Roosevelt) that "there is inevitably in every great leader an element of guile which simplifies, sometimes the objectives, sometimes the magnitude, of the task." Elsewhere, he suggests that only hands-on ministers "with executive powers over all aspects of foreign affairs" can rise to the level of greatness.
Many arguments in "Diplomacy" are decidedly familiar. Once again, Mr. Kissinger complains that Watergate undermined the authority of the President and his long-term foreign-policy objectives. He defends Vietnamization as "the best of the available options." And he angrily rebuts critics like William Shawcross who have charged that his policies set the stage in Cambodia for the Khmer Rouge atrocities.
What overall lesson does Mr. Kissinger draw from the Vietnam War? "The nightmare of Vietnam was not the way in which America entered the war," he writes, "but why it did so without a more careful assessment of the likely costs and potential outcomes. A nation should not send half a million of its young to a distant continent or stake its international standing and domestic cohesion unless its leaders can describe their political goals and offer a realistic strategy for achieving them -- as President Bush did later in the gulf war. Washington should have asked itself two basic questions: Was it possible to establish democracy and achieve military victory more or less simultaneously? And even more crucial, will the benefits justify the costs?"
Whereas the sheer amount of detail in Mr. Kissinger's memoirs often shrouded the larger policy goals of his tenure in the Nixon Administration, "Diplomacy" provides a succinct overview of both his basic philosophy and his interpretation of individual events. The reader finishes the volume with a vivid sense of the author's dark, Hobbesian view of the world and the political implications of that vision.
Moving from the philosophic to the anecdotal with ease, Mr. Kissinger holds the reader's attention with colorful cameo portraits of statesmen, and sharp apercus about the practice of power. He is also adept at articulating parallels between seemingly disparate situations -- between, say, 19th-century Europe and the post-cold-war world -- and using this ability to define broad historical patterns and dynamics. The book's final chapter sketchily sets forth Mr. Kissinger's current views on such matters as United States relations with the former Soviet Union, Germany, Eastern Europe, China and Japan, views that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the author's frequent appearances on public-affairs talk shows on television.
Mr. Kissinger argues that the conduct of American foreign policy has historically divided into two dominant schools: the realist school exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and the messianic, idealist school exemplified by Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan. He argues that America's universalist ideals, combined with its advocacy of collective security, has sometimes blinded the country to the cultural differences of other countries. And he argues that the United States, alone among nations, has "rested its claim to international leadership on its altruism," a claim that possesses "a certain aura of unpredictability" for other countries used to blunt calculations of national interest.
Such assessments of America's role in the world should win Mr. Kissinger a new set of readers, even if "Diplomacy" itself fails to solidify the place in diplomatic history Mr. Kissinger would like. In fact, while Mr. Kissinger's focus on national interests and geopolitical realities frequently led to criticism that he lacked an innate feel, as a policy maker, for American values and mores, his very position as a philosophical outsider in this country makes him a provocative observer and essayist, the roles best ratified by this shrewd, often vexing and consistently absorbing book.