Realism and Revisionism: Henry Kissinger from Diplomacy (1994) to Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (2001). Part One


This is the first of a three-part essay examining Henry Kissinger’s writings on how to manage American foreign policy in the post-Cold War period.






Realism and Revisionism: Henry Kissinger from Diplomacy (1994) to Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (2001)Part One

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

Henry Kissinger needs no lengthy introduction. National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for bringing the lengthy war in Vietnam to a conclusion. After leaving office following the Republican loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 elections, he established a very successful consultancy serving multinational corporations and foreign governments. His private life was followed closely for years by the paparazzi who reported on his romances and socialite habits to a curious general public.

Even in his late 80s, Dr Kissinger remains very much in the public eye. In the past year he played a key role in preparations for the first summit between Presidents Obama and Medvedev in London on April 1st. His articles on current major issues in international affairs appear frequently in the New York Times and are carried in syndicated mainstream media.

Henry Kissinger’s public persona was formed in academia, more specifically at Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude from the College and completed his doctorate in 1954.

Notwithstanding his intense work for the federal government and then his years in business, Kissinger never let go of his intellectual preoccupations. In 1973, he published A World Restored based on his doctoral dissertation and dealing with the peace concluding the Napoleonic wars. His weighty tomes of memoirs from his government service in Washington culminated in Years of Renewal, published in 1999.

From among his many publications, there are within the post-Cold War period two which may be said to represent Kissinger’s response to the new opportunities and risks of the 21st century and we shall examine them here at some length. These are his 835 page scholarly work Diplomacy published in 1994 and the facetiously titled Does America Need a Foreign Policy? published in 2001.

Although Henry Kissinger’s Curriculum Vitae places him at the very center of the American foreign policy Establishment, the two volumes under consideration, particularly Diplomacy would, if authored by anyone of lesser prestige and proven gravitas, merit characterization as revisionism. These works are more critical, more revelatory of national weaknesses and misperceptions than one could find in the writings of many nonconformist or irresponsible intellectuals in ivory towers.

Kissinger himself would probably vehemently deny that anything like revisionism was his intention. It emerges time and again as an almost involuntary subtext which, despite his praise in major for the positive contributions of his homeland to peace and justice worldwide over the past century by acting out the national myths, nonetheless carries a minor motif which is derogatory of those same myths and of simplistic good-heartedness. He never lets us forget how peace and justice are often contradictory objectives before foreign policy makers and implementers.


As you first leaf through the 835 page text of Diplomacy plus the Notes, it is to all appearances a textbook on how foreign relations were conducted in Europe and the United States over the course of 300 years with particular attention to the accepted notions of statecraft and the view of mankind these presuppose. The frequent repetition of general conclusions throughout the book suggests that the publishers expected readers would not have the patience to swallow it at one go but would possibly see in it a reference work to be dipped into as needed. Kissinger’s dedication of the book to officers of the U.S. Foreign Service adds to this view.

However, nothing could be more erroneous than this initial impression. Upon full reading, it becomes clear that the author had a very insistent message, one which is not so much scholarly as practically orientated, to guide and inform an appreciation of what must change in American thinking and practices to deal with the new international landscape of the post-Cold War world. The book was meant to be very topical in 1994 and it has become even more so today following the experience of two presidencies, Democratic and Republican, in which outworn policies and mentalities proved their inability to deal with the present and future much as Kissinger had reasoned.


Like any classic, Diplomacy operates on several different levels and appeals to readers having different interests and objectives. This is a history of statecraft, but one that has been selectively assembled with enormous care by a seasoned educator to serve practical and immediate needs.


In Diplomacy, Professor Kissinger delivers what could be masterful lectures to undergraduates, describing events and statesmen in an entertaining manner and ending each segment in small discoveries or paradoxes, drawing parallels between the past and the present that are useful for mnemonic purposes. At the same time, he conducts a graduate class elucidating the big picture, in this case the vindication of realism and a severe rebuke to idealism in the management of international affairs.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010

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For the full analysis, see the author’s 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.   G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is today (2013) an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest work, published in April 2013, is Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Non-conformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12. Both works are available from and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.



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