Two recent books on the life and career of Henry Kissinger offer complementary (or divergent) views of the work of the former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. The strengths of Jeremi Suri's Henry Kissinger and the American Century are Suri's recognition of Kissinger's foreign policy accomplishments and his evaluation of Kissinger's failures. Robert Dallek's exaggerated critique of the Nixon Administration's foreign policy in Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power is not as persuasive, but he offers a more nuanced account of the relationship between character and statesmanship. These are likely very good histories (I am a political scientist, not an historian), but as studies of political life and action, neither is wholly satisfactory.
Suri has written a biography of Kissinger that on the one hand seeks to explain Kissinger in the context of the American century (Kissinger could only have accomplished what he did in that historical context), and on the other to use Kissinger to explain the American century (America was what it was because of characters like Kissinger). The biography explores Kissinger's youth and career (the descriptions Suri and Dallek provide of Kissinger's army experience in post-war Germany are especially intriguing—a little like reading the Education of Cyrus abbreviated for modern times) with the understanding that his biography produced his ideas, that individuals grow in a "social and political setting" and are "products" of their times. Suri's book has considerable value, but also several weaknesses. It tends toward overly determinative psychobiography. We learn that Kissinger is "a captive of his particular history," and that due to his experience in the Germany in the 1930s "He became a permanent exile, always suspicious of the enemies he knew were lurking among his neighbors." "Like many other people from a similar background, Kissinger was profoundly skeptical about the prospects for democratic deliberation during a moment of crisis." Suri's approach can't explain why so many others with Kissinger's background are much more trusting of democratic deliberation, or why so many who lack that background are also skeptical about democratic deliberation. Nixon, for example, held many of the same opinions about international relations. This is difficult to explain on Suri's terms. Dallek can explain it, but that means that the particulars of biography are not really determinative. Many may arrive at the same conclusion along different paths, and people on the same path may arrive at different conclusions. As Suri observes, Kissinger himself rejects this reading of his life. Kissinger believes, rather, that some individuals have the capacity to shape their own futures and to an extent the futures of their nations. By Suri's approach we paradoxically lose the human individual, and are left with creatures responding to environmental forces.
At times Suri's account is oddly free of political judgment. He recognizes Kissinger's concern that modern democracy is a poor agent for strategic foresight, that "democratic citizens are not capable of recognizing and responding to grave threats in the [sic] midst" and therefore need "powerful figures" to lead them. (We may speculate that democratic toleration inhibits opposition to evil, when it should enable such opposition.) Such a figure must grow in "nondemocratic quarters," hence democracy's need for outsiders or foreigners to rescue it. Such statesmen must therefore transcend particular cultures. So far so good; this is a fine summation of Kissinger's own understanding. But Suri never considers whether Kissinger's judgment might be right. Kissinger's judgment, in this reading, is the product of his experience in the Weimar republic and Nazi Germany—it is not really judgment at all.
Suri's political analysis sometimes grates in the ears of the political scientist. He declares, for example, that European Jews like Kissinger were both "cosmopolitans and patriots at the same time." He needs to do more to work out the paradoxical relation of American citizenship to transatlantic character. There is a long tradition of thought about democracy and the foreigner, but he treats the relationship as unproblematic. Can one be both citizen and non-citizen? His account of political power is clearly more historical than political. Suri tells us that foreign policies result from cultural attitudes and the history of colonialism; certainly that's part of it, but relations of power then appear secondary. The actual politics of international relations sometimes appears as an afterthought in his account, as when he describes Kissinger's vision of a federalist international system in which "authority would follow a meritocratic model." A little later we learn that in international relations authority follows power.
Though Suri describes himself as a critic of Kissinger, his account of Kissinger's career is mostly very favorable. Though he is critical of Kissinger's record on human rights and the Nixon administration's efforts in Chile-like Dallek, he finds that the Nixon administration encouraged but "did not orchestrate" the coup against Allende-Kissinger has for Suri a "supreme genius: [the] ability to connect diverse phenomena and to formulate practical political options." The chapter on Kissinger's work on nuclear strategy is illustrative. Suri emphasizes that "all of Kissinger's ideas about foreign policy begin and end with a focus on the limits of American power." That focus inclines Kissinger toward a search for flexible policy options and an emphasis on negotiation. Suri's account of Kissinger's work to end the war in Vietnam is more balanced than Dallek's, particularly in describing Kissinger's attempt to treat diplomacy and war as two parts of one political process. Similarly, he recognizes the success of Kissinger's system of backchannels, especially in negotiations with the Soviets and the Chinese.
Dallek's book is in most respects very different. Suri provides five chapters on Kissinger's youth and early career, and one on his work in the Nixon administration. Dallek offers much shorter accounts of the biographies of his principles before 1968, but these are sufficient to establish themes of character. He shares Suri's psycho-historical approach, but does not adhere as firmly to it. Dallek, though less insistently, also sees Kissinger as an outsider or a bridge between America and the world. "Serving diverse communities without full membership in any, Kissinger filled a vital foreign-policy need." Dallek is willing to go much further to acknowledge Kissinger's view that individuals can "rise above historical circumstances to shape their own destinies." And Dallek seems most interested in the connection between what ought to be called character (he prefers personality) to policy. Both Nixon and Kissinger were driven by personal ambition and insecurity, at times moved more by these demons than by their concern for the national interest. But Dallek's descriptions of the policies that emerge are generally disappointing, and his account of Nixon-era foreign policy is too willfully constructed.
Dallek's efforts to illustrate the connection between character and policy occasionally lead down blind alleys. He refuses to see that what policy makers say in private ought to differ from their public pronouncements, treating these discrepancies as hypocrisy. One illustration of the intemperate character of Dallek's critique: he describes Nixon's policy during the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict as "yet another foreign policy blunder." Dallek may be right that Kissinger and Nixon misread the crisis through a Cold War lens, rather than viewing it as an isolated regional conflict. Much of his narrative centers on the quite disgusting language that Nixon, especially, used to describe Mrs. Gandhi. (These are not always, or often, very likable men.) His argument seems to be that the incident reveals how character shapes or misshapes policy. That such conversations were always private and that Nixon's public pronouncements tended to show great moderation count for little as Dallek reports the story. Instead, we are told that Nixon's deep-seated need to appear tough, his insecurities about his manliness, led him to escalate the conflict. Dallek is not entirely wrong about that, and to a point his book is a fascinating read. But when Nixon sends a message to the Chinese advising them that he understands they may need to act to defend Pakistan, Dallek interprets the message to mean that Nixon has made a "promise" to support the Chinese "against the Soviets." Who exactly is imposing a Cold War interpretation now? In the end the "blunder" Dallek describes is this: Nixon and Kissinger engaged in a "reckless discussion" of the possibility of conflict with the USSR over the India-Pakistan War. If an admittedly reckless but internal "discussion" constitutes a blunder, then no policymaker is safe from the historian's abuse. There are far too many examples of the bizarre style by which Dallek supports such arguments: Kissinger, in commenting on Nixon's work in the Middle East, asserts that it was a result of the president's calculation of the national interest. Dallek quotes him to that effect and concludes, "and, Henry might have added, domestic political self-interest." Of course, "Henry" added no such thing. But, like a lawyer leading a witness, Dallek manages to insert his own testimony into the record.
Dallek insists that Nixon was motivated more by a concern for domestic politics and reelection than for foreign policy. This is, in fact, a substantial part of his thesis. In April 1970, he argues, Nixon was willing to "accomodat[e]" Moscow so that the administration could make a better case for itself in the mid-term elections. On the next page we learn that the Soviets were so eager for a summit that they were willing to support a neutral government in South Vietnam and a compromise in the Middle East, and that when they asked for U.S. cooperation against China, Nixon refused. Apparently the president was more interested in getting foreign policy right than in domestic politics after all.
Dallek is highly critical of the Nixon-Kissinger plan to centralize foreign policy-making in the White House. There are some good reasons for this criticism, in particular that centralization narrows the perspectives and thus the level of insight at the planning table. Clearly administration policy during the India-Pakistan conflict would have benefited from a diversity of perspectives. But there is also good reason for favoring the centralization approach. Nixon and Kissinger knew that they wanted to forge a new direction in policy (though they did not always know how), and that bureaucracies tend to prevent innovation. They understood that every agency has a sense of mission, and that the professional staff at each agency pursues its mission doggedly. Nixon was the one elected to make the policy; he wanted the freedom to make the policy he chose. Dallek does not explore this reasoning in depth, but he effectively denies it. He does this even though he provides examples of professional civil servants leaking information contrary to Nixon's policy in order to undermine that policy. Sometimes this took the form of a kind of whistle-blowing to correct distortions in the White House's presentation of events, but more often it took the form of political infighting to set the course of American foreign policy.
Dallek's critique of early Nixon administration failure in foreign policy is so harsh that no policy could really satisfy him. Too often he makes the perfect the enemy of the good, or the possible, or even the necessary. He demonstrates very little appreciation for the incremental quality of negotiations; they either succeed or they fail. When in Dallek's narrative Nixon issues his "First Annual Report on United States Foreign Policy" in the winter of 1969-70, Dallek concludes that the report was a failure because Nixon's approval rating subsequently fell. He does not consider that the report might have been more for Soviet or Chinese consumption than for domestic politics. For all his concern with showing that domestic politics was in the forefront of Nixon's mind, Dallek does not really consider the political effect of a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam on the nation's capacity to support an active foreign policy. He first calls Kissinger's attempts to establish "linkage" among issues unrealistic, but then explains that the Soviets took the idea of linkage quite seriously. Kissinger's trip to China did bring the Soviets to see that a superpower summit was vital, and the realignment of the great powers did contribute to a negotiated if deeply flawed settlement of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He is especially critical of the failure of the Nixon administration to end the war in Vietnam in its first few months in office. The narrative rarely considers Vietnam in its larger Cold War context—at least not until the Soviets make linkage obviously true. Yet one emerging story from Dallek's narrative is that only when Vietnam was firmly made a central point in U.S.-Soviet negotiations, linkage was established, and Kissinger succeeded in combining military force with diplomacy could a settlement be negotiated. Indeed, Dallek seems to lack Kissinger's grand view of world politics. If Kissinger can be criticized for not noticing that particular human beings die as a result of his policies, Dallek should be faulted for his failure to see that two superpowers in a bipolar environment are bound to consider the fates of nations more than individuals.
Both authors claim that their works offer lessons for contemporary American foreign policy. The lessons they draw are starkly different. Dallek's brief conclusion ends with a warning that the citizenry of a democratic system must not "take the good judgment of its leaders for granted," and that in spite of its occasional successes the Nixon administration "stands as a cautionary tale that the country forgets at its peril." Dallek apparently reads his book in the light of his view of the Bush administration. Though his depiction of Nixon's damaged psyche and Kissinger's attempts to nurse it is compelling, by the time we reach the conclusion his political judgment is suspect.
I prefer Suri's conclusion: that Kissinger's emphasis on peace and stability in the Middle East tended toward maintaining regimes, not reforming them. Terrorism results, in part, from this policy, and American support for those regimes and Israel has made the United States a special target. What follows is thus surprising: in "a radical departure" from Kissinger's strategy the current Bush administration has reversed course to pursue "a program for muscular democratization in the region." In Iraq, as Suri implies Kissinger might have predicted, "[p]opular rule produced more violence, not less." Our experience in Iraq has "inspired a return to Kissinger's emphasis on stability and negotiation with local leaders." Suri leaves us with a conundrum: "Kissinger's policies contributed to the anti-Americanism that breeds terrorism. Nonetheless, no alternative strategic vision for managing the Middle East and other regions of the world has emerged in its place. Rhetoric about democracy does not provide a path forward in dealing with violence and hatred. International peace requires a careful calibration of means and ends," and Suri concludes, "the twenty-first century awaits Kissinger's successor."
As Kissinger makes clear in his own books, statesmanship is a challenge in any regime, but it is especially difficult in a modern liberal democracy. Public opinion in a liberal and democratic regime must be educated for life in the real world; it must be educated for a kind of moral realism. Simply put, to do good in the world we must understand both the limits of our power, and how that power may be employed. Kissinger is quite critical of the Nixon administration's failure to supply that education. Surely our nation needs such an education even more today.