The three reigns of Kissinger

Monday Book Review

April 18, 1994|By Dan Berger

DIPLOMACY. By Henry Kissinger. Simon & Schuster. 912 pages. $35.

HENRY Kissinger I was a brilliant emigre political scientist who wrote a masterful book on the Congress of Vienna of 1815, and another that started the nation thinking about the strategic and political uses of nuclear weapons. (He kept changing his mind about whether nuclear wars are winnable.)

He was the hot professor at Harvard three decades ago. His graduate "seminar" in defense policy was a huge lecture series, held in awed respect, largely about why the U.S. should get into Vietnam.

Faculty adversaries branded him a "crackpot realist." He was the inspiration for "Doctor Strangelove." He drove a blue Mercedes. In a firmament of Democrats, he hitched his wagon to Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's star. He always took the long view.

Henry Kissinger II, Rockefeller's gift to Richard Nixon, was national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations, their chief claim to intellectual respectability.

He brokered the opening of China and detente with the Soviet Union, based on calculations of balance of power, not niceness. The policy was for the United States to be closer to each communist superpower than either was to the other. It worked beautifully.

He extracted the United States from Vietnam over four years. It probably could have been done in much shorter time with less aggravation, but it won him the Nobel Prize for Peace.

He conducted shuttle diplomacy between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It accomplished nothing at the time but led to breathtaking accords long afterward. He always took the short view.

Henry Kissinger III did not return to the academy. He set up shop as an incredibly successful consultant to international businesses, performing services he will not explain for clients he refuses to identify. That is, he is an archetypal revolving door careerist.

Now Kissinger III has written a Eurocentric essay on diplomacy and its practitioners from Cardinal Richelieu through Metternich and Bismarck, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, up to the Clinton administration.

He gives to the subject matter of Kissinger I the insights of Kissinger II. The latter contributes a valuable store of experience, even wisdom, that Kissinger I was unable to tap. Kissinger III has therefore written Kissinger I's most important book, the one most likely to endure, and certainly the longest.

As Kissinger I, Henry Kissinger is able to fit Kissinger II into the long sweep of history. This is not a memoir, which he has written elsewhere. Instead of "I," it says "Nixon and his advisers." The Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy is given just the space it deserves in context.

It is a wonderful conceit. Only two other American statesmen were students of history enough to have been capable of it. Theodore Roosevelt didn't. Woodrow Wilson, felled by stroke before attaining the ex-presidency, couldn't.

That does not mean that Henry Kissinger gets to define Henry Kissinger's place in history. Posterity will assign that task to others. The attempt, however, is engaging, yet not what the book is for. "Diplomacy" stands or falls without its self-contemplating chapters.

Kissinger III, like Kissinger I, is a great-power man. That explains why Kissinger II could ignore whole continents as fundamentally unimportant.

"Diplomacy," therefore, gives great importance to Richard Nixon's openings of China and the Soviet Union, comparatively little to Vietnam, which did so much to destroy Kissinger II's reputation, and next to nothing to Israel and the Arabs, which did so much to restore it.

Despite his reputation for Germanic pedantry, Kissinger III has strewn his book with enough apt epigrams and pithy summations to deserve two pages in the next Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations." An example:

"Intellectuals analyze the operations of international systems; statesmen build them. And there is a vast difference between the perspective of an analyst and that of a statesman.

"The analyst can choose which problem he wishes to study, whereas the statesman's problems are imposed on him. The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion; the overwhelming challenge to the statesman is the pressure of time.

"The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong he can write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable."

Was it Kissinger I, II or III who said that?

It took all three. That's the beauty of "Diplomacy."

Dan Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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