This is the second of a three-part essay examining Henry Kissinger’s writings on how to manage American foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. Revised 5 March 2010.
Henry Kissinger from Diplomacy (1994) to Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (2001) Part Two
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
The Missed Opportunity to Avert the Cold War
One of the most remarkable instances of revisionism in Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy is his treatment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the origins of the Cold War. At the time of his writing in 1994, the mood in the United States was celebratory, nay triumphalist. Notwithstanding forty years of ‘containment’ of Communism pursued unfailingly by a succession of American presidential administrations, for many Americans it was the morally sound, uncompromising spirit of Reaganism which brought about the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union and its ‘evil empire,’ ending the Cold War. And here Kissinger is telling us with great authority and painstaking detail that the Cold War itself need not have come about if only FDR had listened to Churchill starting in 1942 and sat down with Stalin to agree on the post-war settlement in terms of ‘balance of power’ analysis……
Surely the boldness of Kissinger’s revisionism on this issue arises from something closer to his heart than dispassionate historical research. Kissinger is defending his own record when he undercuts the hero worship of Reagan, since admirers of the policies of the 40th President were often explicitly critical of the détente approach to the USSR which was emblematic of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy. In this view, which was honed to perfection by the Neoconservatives, détente promoted accommodation with evil and so perpetuated it when the task should have been to vanquish evil.
Kissinger deals with this threat to his place in history and takes his revisionism one step further in his chapter on the end of the Cold War….
The New World Order Reconsidered
Assuming that professional readers would restrict their perusal of Diplomacy to the final chapter in which he moved from history to his analysis of the present state of international relations and offered advice on future policy, Kissinger spent the first few pages restating his lessons from the 800 preceding pages.
As might be expected, he argued the case for geopolitical analysis to inform policy formulation. He called for differentiating between challenges and prioritizing diplomatic efforts on issues of critical national interest while husbanding resources and avoiding making blanket commitments. The only strategic threat facing the United States would be domination of either Europe or Asia by a single power.
Though a superpower militarily, America would have to accept that it was finally a nation like the others. This was not a sign of national decline but merely the reestablishment of the situation prevailing through most of its history.
He tells us that America should stop trying to remake the world in its own image, but that its foreign policy must nonetheless reflect its core values so as to resonate with the public. It should attempt to forge the broadest possible moral consensus around the world. Here Kissinger makes his peace with his adopted homeland and tries to put behind him the lingering charges of being cynical and amoral.
In the tour d’horizon of countries and regions which follows, Kissinger applies the discerning, case by case approach…..
Diplomacy is not a work of new scholarship. A large part of the material on the history of diplomacy in the 17th – 19th centuries was surely taken from his lectures going back to the 1960s and, in turn, was anchored in his own dissertation research in the 1950s. The Notes point to classics in the field of European history, mostly published well before Kissinger’s graduate studies. For the second half of the 20th century he draws on presidential papers and other documents published by the U.S. Government Printing Office, on his own private papers and recollections and on some unpublished writings of associates, as well as later monographs.
As critics of Kissinger’s Diplomacy pointed out, he belongs to the ‘great man’ school of history, very conservative and very traditional. Given that diplomacy is almost everywhere even today the domain of the executive branch of government with little or no legislative supervision, the‘great man’ approach is, by itself, not necessarily wrong-headed or currently inappropriate.
Kissinger’s conservatism as an historian has another dimension which commentators seem to have ignored totally. This is his adherence to the school of historical fact as kiln-fired bricks from which one can build a strong structure of interpretational certitude. This confidence in history as science is misplaced. There are many professionals today who walk more humbly with their God and acknowledge that their craft is an art, no more. If this is so, Kissinger’s confidence in the safe footing of realism for formulation of foreign policy has to be questioned.
The critical response to Diplomacy
The outsized persona of Henry Kissinger, his intellectual brilliance, his challenge to academic scholars and people of action alike, ensured that the publication of Diplomacy would not pass without notice, nor would the work end up on the overstock tables of discount booksellers….
© 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 amazon.com and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.