Review of "Diplomacy"

One cannot possibly come to terms with an understanding of the State if one doesn’t factor in the many bureaucrats with varying degrees of intelligence and skill that are tasked with incarnating it to other nations. Whether it is to provide warnings should certain conduct continue, apologies or explanations for a certain occurrence, actionable information to assist an ally or any of a hundred other possibilities – the role of the diplomat to collective security in peace and war is the utmost importance. In this regard, and for many other reasons, Henry Kissinger’s book Diplomacy is a key reading for those concerned with the factors and forces that have composed the current system of international relations and continues to do so.

Kissinger’s opening outlines a metaphysical divergence between two approaches to international relations embodied in two different presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Denoting them respectively as a realist and an idealist, Kissinger limns the valences of each position and leads this discussion of different philosophical approaches to international relations into a broad reaching history of the European continent and the role that diplomacy and war had in forming the nation states of modern Europe.

In the following sections one reads not only the tactics and plans of great statesman such as Metternich, Gladstone, Disraeli, Palmerston, Richelieu, and Bismark but also the ones who played into the hands of their opponents and hobbled themselves as a result and/or were simply inept, such as Napoleon III. This period covers from the 18th century onwards and gives insight into the various war, agreements, alliances, histories and desires of the European nations. These are not just an account of what happens, but also paeans to those practitioners of Realpolitik that Kissinger respects with expressions of commiseration for some given the situation that they have inherited or must now face given the growing role of private citizens in government. Such elite disdain for those which seek some control in government is first couched in German nationalistic reactions and later in the conception of the anti-Vietnam War movement in America as a fifth column for Ho Chi-Minh.

One of the recurring themes of these praises couched in policy analysis is that the weight of uncontrollable circumstances, oftentimes in the form diplomacy not actualized with the proper considerations of audience and history, causes the collapse of the temporarily brokered peace and leads to war. In the chapter entitled “A Political Doomsday Machine,” Kissinger describes the string of bad policy decisions made on behalf of the Prussian Kaiser that caused the First World War to break out with most of the countries against them. Their emotionalism, inability to define long-range projections, bellicose paternalism towards their ostensible ally Great Britain and dogged determination to prove their superior capacity even at the cost of making repeated mistakes.

This tendency for conflict whose ends is spoils of land and waterways, natural resources and productive population is something that we see not only in the diplomatic history Kissinger outlines, but as a metaphysical composition of states themselves. In this it is interesting the manner in which Kissinger focuses on the theater of Europe and elides much of the United States own interventions from the 19th century onwards in order to frame his adopted country as a self-less, disinterested isolationist.

Kissinger excels in formulating his exegesis on the needs of various states as essentially geo-political with ideology and religion as mere masks to this. Britain wants to prevent the emergence of a great European power that could threaten to invade it so will forgive all previous misdeeds done against it in order to ally with the enemy of their enemy. Russia seeks the route to Constantinople and the Straits so it could control the Eastern Mediterranean. France wants to prevent the unification of the Germans so that a united front of once small kingdoms against it is impossible. This constant movement from different levels of abstraction, state to person to industry, shows just how much the Hegelian mode of historiography and dialectic comprehension has influenced Kissinger.

Interspersed throughout the books are pithy statements that give insight into statecraft such as: “A leader who confines his role to his people’s experience dooms himself to stagnation; a leader who outstrips his people’s experience runs the risk of not being understood” (43). In this we see that Kissinger, a noted Harvard academic, writes not just as a historian, but as a formative part of history. This is one of the aspects which makes Diplomacy such a wonderful book is not only for all of the above reasons but as Kissinger was, and at the time of my writing this still is, a major figure amongst the circle of actors directing American foreign policy. This is the reason for so much ire directed at him by those with some kind of moralizing lens. As such, it is no mistake to say that midway through the book, around the period that Kissinger himself is writing about his experiences in conducting statecraft, that these writings can be seen as important to the writings of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, Xenephon’s Persian Expedition or even Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul .

In the period immediately preceding his ascent, with the collapse of European hegemony in the third world and the rise of the bi-polar system, Kissinger lays out the arguments of the others playing important roles in the formation of international policy. He states the policies of Winston Churchill, Walter Lippman, and Henry Wallace as regards the threat of possible confrontation with Soviet Russia and shows the underlying presuppositions in the policy of each. While most view Kissinger as a hawk, in the exegesis of his own positions it becomes clear that he was not so and always sought to avoid direct confrontation. One of the noteworthy aspects of these sections detailing U.S.-Soviet relations is the manner in which Kissinger states that despite their tendency towards soaring rhetoric of impending war, the Soviets were afraid of potential combat with America troops in the period prior to their obtaining nuclear weaponry and even after they had achieved parity for plans were either for Mutually Assured Destruction or a conventional war they were unlikely to win.

After limning how the rationale for the Marshall Plan was a form of Soviet containment and giving extensive details about the origins and reasons for continuance of various conflicts in Asia, Kissinger devotes a the last part of the book to recounting his time in the Nixon administration and detailing the quagmire known as Vietnam. He doesn’t shy away from addressing the various criticisms leveled at him in the period during and following the war, and his explanations why it was that tactical considerations trumped humanitarian ones seem valid due to the books theme showing that raison d’etat is the guiding principle of international relations and will likely continue to be so as those that act otherwise tend to become IR losers. As such, the influence of game theory on Kissinger’s approach to politics comes to the foreground as well as his tendency towards using the “realist” approach by justifying it in terms of “idealist” politics. Such an approach to policy making, never needed to be used by his aristocratic idols, stems from the populist character of modern politics. This presents an alternative from the Roosevelt-Wilson split in orientation outlined in the beginning and is a situation that Kissinger displays a soft contempt for given his belief that only specialists should control policy.