Henry Kissinger from Diplomacy (1994) to Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (2001) Part Three

This is the third 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 Three



by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.




Does America Need a Foreign Policy?


This book was written in 2001 before the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and followed the American tradition of seasoned experts in the field of foreign policy giving advice to the new Prince either prior to the presidential election or soon after the new Administration is put in place.


In his campaign for the presidency, George W. Bush, like his opponent, dealt rather little with international affairs but what he said suggested that he favored constraining foreign policy more narrowly to the defense of America’s geopolitical interests. He and his supporters were especially critical of the many humanitarian interventions of the Clinton Administration. Accordingly it was reasonable to expect that the new Washington team would be receptive to pragmatic policy recommendations from the grand master of Realpolitik.


Why the title?


The facetious title arose from Kissinger’s positioning of the book as a critique of the foreign policy of the Clinton Administration, which professionals on both sides of the aisle in American politics faulted at the time for the President’s apparent belief globalization could substitute for a foreign policy in the post-Cold War world when there was no longer a global enemy to confront. In a way, Clinton’s domestic priorities (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) carried over into his treatment of international affairs.


Kissinger chose to deal with Bill Clinton’s eight years in office as one seamless period, though there were significant policy differences from the first term, when Warren Christopher was Secretary of State and brought an inbasket-outbasket approach to the job and the second term when that post was filled by Madeleine Albright, who clearly had an agenda of foreign policy objectives to achieve during her tenure, whatever the President’s personal enthusiasms. Her agenda, of course, was rather close to that of her one-time mentor and boss, Zbigniew Brzezinski.


Kissinger sees in Bill Clinton and his close foreign policy advisers an ideological predisposition towards idealism and an antipathy to foreign policy strategy. The roots were generational. In the person of the President, Kissinger was dealing with precisely the generation of Vietnam War protesters who had so complicated his efforts to end the war with U.S. honor intact, as he told us at length in Diplomacy. The self-righteous idealism of those protesters had turned against Washington. They condemned the war policy of Lyndon Johnson and then of Richard Nixon and Kissinger on grounds that America had shown itself to be unworthy of its high ideals. Thus they called upon the country to lower its profile in the world.


In Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Henry Kissinger continues to educate the general public on the two opposing overarching concepts of foreign policy which have dominated thinking in America for the past 100 years, idealism and realism. He also stops to consider several sub-schools which have moved to center stage since the fall of Communism. One dates back to the middle of the 19th century (Jacksonian isolationism) and the other is of more recent coinage, Neoconservatism dating from the 1970s.


After dispatching the competing notions, Kissinger proceeds to concentrate on his recommended choice, a foreign policy built on realism. This means formulating policy to best defend America’s national interests. It means calculating carefully respective power relationships vis-à-vis other state actors and the feasibility of implementing your preferred objectives. This, in turn, assumes that policy makers have at their command an in-depth knowledge of the specifics of each given country and region, in contrast to Wilsonian idealism, where the U.S. stretches a one-size-fits-all policy across the globe in the mistaken belief that people everywhere have the same interests and that any conflicts which may arise are just due to misunderstandings.


We have already seen in Part Two of this essay how Kissinger’s command of Russian history failed to meet his own requirement of good country expertise essential to the success of a realist foreign policy. In our examination of his 2001 book, we will come back to this very question because it bears on the much more detailed policy recommendations he issues here and on why, in the end, his recommendations country by country are often not so different from those delivered by his intellectual opponents, the idealists.


Though Kissinger deploys in his 2001 work many of the lessons about the workings of international relations which he set out previously in Diplomacy, here they are just connective glue between very detailed advice for Washington to follow.


The problem with writing a book which has so direct and immediate an objective is that it very quickly becomes dated, whereas his historical interpretations and theoretical musings in Diplomacy are and will long remain a classic. Also by the very specificity of the author’s recommendations he exposes himself to ridicule if he gets any of his facts wrong. Given the vast scope of his enterprise, it was inevitable this would happen in at least a couple of instances.


Indeed, it is much easier to say what foreign policy should not be – dogmatic and ideologically driven – than to say what realism dictates. One man’s strategy is another’s tactics. And as Kissinger himself argued in his treatment of Napoleon III in Diplomacy, a winning analysis of relative power requires great acumen. He might have added that a winning policy also requires a good measure of luck.




© 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.