Article published on February 23, 2012.
Scholarly books on international power politics tend to be hampered by the absolute divorce between the material and the author. As Cormac McCarthy likes to say, what is constant in history is violence and greed and a love of blood, but books about history are generally written by academics with a love of quiet contemplation, theorising, and musty libraries, which makes it difficult for them to imagine what was really going on in the minds of Bismarck or Stalin or, most baffling of all, Ronald Reagan.
That’s why anyone seriously interested in understanding Realpolitik should be delighted with Henry Kissinger’s account of international relations from the age of Richelieu to the end of the Cold War. Kissinger (for those who need an introduction) is a German-American academic specialising in international politics who served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State during the 1970s and played a key role in the secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War (when Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, the satirist Tom Lehrer retired from public performances claiming political satire had just been made redundant by reality). However, Kissinger’s unique position as a highly-trained scholar who thrives on the frontlines gives him a distinctive insight into the workings of international power relations.The book is organised into chapters that single out critical moments in the balance of power and combines sharp portrayals of key figures with reasoned analysis of their strategic dilemmas and theoretical reflections on the nature of their solutions. Kissinger’s pacing is superb and each chapter forms its own gripping story in the larger narrative as different characters clash and nations go to war and to the victor go the spoils. The early chapters, particularly the one on Bismarck and Napoleon III, are greatest in their narrative sweep; the pace slows in the second half of the book as Kissinger devotes more time to explaining the intricacies of Cold War politics, and in particular the Vietnam War, to which he devotes three chapters. One could argue here that Kissinger’s focus on personalities ignores the significance of broader economic and military factors, but it does make it of greater interest to the general reader and his strategic analyses remain perceptive and persuasive.
It helps greatly that these insights are delivered in crisp, epigrammatic prose, eg. “Whereas the nemesis of Wilsonian idealism is the gap between its profession and reality, the nemesis of raison d’etat is overextension – except in the hands of a master, and it probably is even then.” Kissinger’s ability to express difficult concepts in pithy formulations makes him a superb guide through the maze of intricate calculations surrounding major events in European and American history. The only problem here is that one suspects the actual thought processes of those involved were much more muddled than Kissinger’s lucid writing can express. If they had all reasoned with such clarity, how could they ever have made such mistakes? Nevertheless, one of the strengths of the book is not just Kissinger’s elucidation of Realpolitik reasoning processes but also his analyses of what key figures should have done. In this respect, his analysis of the failures at Versailles, in contrast to the successes of the Congress of Vienna, is masterful.
Overall, this is a brilliant work, scholarly but highly readable, and bursting with unique insights into international relations. Some may object to the basic amorality of its approach to war and imperialism, but this is actually one of the book’s strengths. Few writers can write so dispassionately and analytically, and with such sparkling clarity, about those great constants of history, of violence and greed and the love of blood.
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