In 1716, when the French ambassador François de Callières’s treatise On Negotiating with Sovereign Princes was published in English translation, an English reader wrote ruefully that the diplomatic corps of continental states seemed to be filled with persons well trained in civil law and the law of nations, deeply read in history, and acquainted with the interests of the respective princes of Europe. This made a better basis for the conduct of foreign policy than the English style, whose initiatives and démarches he described as being supported by no other authority or argument than Juvenal’s Hoc volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas (Because I want it is reason enough).1
During the wars of the eighteenth century, the English learned that they could not prosper by exclusive cultivation of their own desires without making concessions to the interests of others. Their colonists in America, on the other hand, once they had gained their independence, were much slower to learn that lesson. From the very beginning Americans preferred—in the words of Henry Clay—“to pursue a policy exclusively American, uninfluenced by the policy of My Lord Castlereagh, Count Nesselrode, or any other of the great men of Europe.”2 They either abstained from any involvement in the quarrels and problems of other nations or, when they felt compelled to intervene, did so on their own terms and sometimes for objectives imperfectly understood or agreed to by their allies. Americans were deeply ambivalent about history, choosing instead to follow the imperative of moral absolutes; they were uncomfortable with the idea of national interest as a guiding principle of policy, preferring motivations that were nobler, even if harder to define; and they were indifferent to the modalities that other Great Powers had devised over time to help protect themselves from aggression—particularly what John Adams had called “their real and imaginary balances of power.” 3
It cannot, however, be said that these attitudes had fortunate results over the long haul. Once the revolution in communications and military science had contracted the territory of international violence, America could not remain immune to the quarrels of the old world. Nor did it, and its armies played a crucial role in the two world wars of this century. But its military triumphs were not matched by diplomatic ones. Its attempts to revolutionize the rules of international discourse at Paris in 1919 failed lamentably, and its failure during the war against Hitler to coordinate its political with its military strategy was one of the main causes of the subsequent cold war, which it also conducted, in large part, with little regard for diplomacy and which ended with something less than a triumph.4
The time has come, Henry Kissinger says at the beginning of his new book, to put aside old prejudices and correct old mistakes. The challenge facing the great powers in the post–cold war period is to bring order to the multi-state system that is emerging. None of them has had any experience with this,…
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