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By Victor Fic


Years of Renewal
By Henry A. Kissinger
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Pp. 1,119. $35 cloth.)



Henry Kissinger might just refute Andy Warhol’s nostrum that every American will be famous for fifteen minutes. For decades, he has been conspicuous as a reviled and revered strategist, diplomat, memoirist, consultant, and public speaker.

This third and last installment of his memoirs, covering his tenure as the American secretary of state under Gerald Ford, explains both the high profile and the strong emotions. The book covers many of the controversial international issues of the mid-1970s. Kissinger’s supporters will invoke the memoirs as proof that he was the master conjurer behind magical diplomatic feats; his detractors will say that the book covers up his role as the evil warlock who destroyed Vietnam.

Unfortunately, for the objective reader Kissinger makes little effort to explain his “realist” conceptual framework. We do not learn that realism has venerable pioneer thinkers, including Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Bismarck, or that realism maintains that the international system is anarchic — without a police force. The painful fact of anarchy forces states to define their national interest in terms of survival and the aggrandizement of power. Peace is attained when states calibrate and accommodate their respective national interests and create a stable balance of power.

Perhaps Kissinger omitted fundamentals because he has written about them elsewhere. If so, leaving them out of this volume — meant for the general public — means that non-experts will wonder about the world view that informed his policies. The author instead emphasizes the role of leaders. They must be bold conceptual thinkers who can redefine notions of the possible. Plus, they must be able to create a stable equilibrium through alliances, large or limited wars, nuanced or blunt signals, permanent or ephemeral detentes, deterrence or coercion, arms control or weapons deployments. It makes sense for Kissinger to underscore the role of the statesman, for he dramatically and effectively lived that role. He had the skill to engage both China and the Soviet Union in detente when he served both Ford and his predecessor, Richard Nixon.

Another major theme of the book is the danger of Wilsonianism. Kissinger strangely uses this term very broadly. We encounter the common meaning: Woodrow Wilson’s post-World War I liberal vision of world peace achieved through international institutions such as the League of Nations, which promoted disarmament. The author, however, also insists on using the term to refer to Ronald Reagan’s right-wing clarion call for armed confrontation with the Soviet Union. Kissinger believes that these two camps share faults. They both value maximalist, unattainable goals; they exalt ideology over pragmatism; and they are intensely moralistic. Both types of Wilsonians embark on reckless foreign policy crusades that upset the balance between means and ends. Kissinger the arch-realist prefers to maintain a prudent balance between goals and resources.

His realpolitik has often encouraged his critics to condemn him for being immoral. His detractors must, however, admit that the object of their scorn recognized at times that power politics and morality can rarely be completely divorced. For instance, Kissinger writes that Moscow’s mad, immoral quest for hegemony only provoked opposition; achieving a stable balance of power in Asia required the Americans and Chinese — two enemies — to reconcile; and equilibrium in the Middle East mandated that the antagonists Washington and Cairo talk. In each case, realism was alloyed, if not with Christian idealism, then at least with good will and cooperation. In fact, one is surprised that Kissinger does not insist more bluntly that his China and Russia policies had moral dimensions. After all, arms control with Moscow reduced the risk of nuclear war, and the world became safer after the Sino-American rapprochement of 1972.

The reader will also be disappointed that the book only calls for a judicious mix of principle and power. This ex-Harvard scholar should have addressed whether the nation-state is losing its primacy, challenged by new players like multinationals, international organizations, ethnic groups, terrorists, and tycoons. If so, can the global system be transformed so that a police force, international institutions, or democratic norms promote the common good? Perhaps Kissinger finds the question too, well, Wilsonian.

Overall, one must admit that his record is impressive. For example, he writes that as Secretary of State, he insisted that Washington must exit Vietnam; however, it also had to provide Saigon with the means for self-defense. This was a balanced policy. Unfortunately, it was rejected by both the right and the left. The right wanted to keep fighting a futile war. His liberal critics’ error was to condemn Saigon’s corruption and human rights abuses while idealizing Hanoi.

On Sino-Soviet-American relations, he was at his best. The blustery, peasant-cunning Brezhnev pressed the reluctant Kissinger for a joint nuclear attack on Red China. Beijing feared that post-Vietnam Washington lacked the guts to confront Moscow. In a textbook example of realism, Kissinger exploited the Russo-Chinese tension to extract concessions from both.

The author warns that Wilsonian crusaders are attempting to hijack America’s present China policy. Unfortunately, he does not identify them or refute their claims. This may be because his book is about the past, not present, policy debates.

More than once in his memoir, Kissinger convincingly praises Gerald Ford for his decency and democratic instincts. After the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam, he helped the nation renew itself, hence the book’s title. But what is Kissinger’s legacy?

Kissinger has been known to complain that his fellow Americans do not understand his realism. The irony is that his own peculiar use of the term Wilsonian will likely confuse many. Nonetheless, because he defended the American national interest on China and the USSR in ways that combined the realist’s emphasis on stability and the idealist’s desire for peace, dialogue, and arms control, he must be ranked as one of the finest American secretaries of state.  

Victor Fic is a freelance journalist with CBS News, Seoul, who specializes in Asian affairs.

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