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Looking for Order


by Henry Kissinger
Simon and Schuster, 912 pp., $35.00

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, and

never before has a new world order had to be assembled from so many different perceptions, or on so global a scale. Nor has any previous order had to combine the attributes of the historic balance-of-power systems with global democratic opinion and the exploding technology of the contemporary period.

Where are we to turn for guidance as we approach this task? Mr. Kissinger suggests that the only resource we have is the history of the ways in which states have regulated their relations with each other in the past.


Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy is highly selective in what it includes. Despite its title and the fact that it is dedicated to “the men and women of the Foreign Service of the United States of America,” it says almost nothing about them or about diplomacy proper, its origins and the development of its procedures, or the great ambassadors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and their accomplishments. This is perhaps understandable. Ever since the interwar period, and particularly since the Second World War and the cold war years, diplomacy in the historical sense has been in deep decline, and the roles of the ambassador and the foreign office professionals have been increasingly subverted by foreign ministers and heads of state and by that worst of all diplomatic inventions, the summit conference. John Foster Dulles is reported to have said during his tenure as secretary of state,

Nowadays, when you can by overnight flight talk face to face with the foreign ministers of other countries, it’s silly to go at it the old fashioned way of exchanging notes, which take a month perhaps before you get as good an understanding, and then not as good as you can get talking a few minutes face to face.5

During his own secretaryship, Henry Kissinger insisted on making all major decisions himself and hence carried the State Department along with him during his shuttle diplomacy in 1973 in what one newspaperman called “the biggest permanent floating foreign policy establishment in history.”6

This process has probably gone too far to be reversed, but, even so, something might have been said here about the diplomacy that is now all but gone. It is worth remembering that the Italian city states had a functioning system of permanent embassies before there were any Great Powers, and that it was the fidelity of those early diplomats in protecting the interests of their masters and the standards they developed for accurate reporting, realistic appraisal of risks, and effective negotiation that were in time transmitted to the greater states of the West and became the basis of the raison d’état, or science of government, that guided their foreign policy and the procedures of their own diplomatic establishments. Kissinger’s heroes Metternich and Bismarck were, it should be noted, themselves products of this system, and both had been distinguished ambassadors before they rose to ministerial rank, the first at the court of Napoleon, the second in the Prussian embassies in Frankfurt, St. Petersburg, and Paris.

In his book, Kissinger has preferred, however, to concentrate on the search for international order and upon the statesmen who, like himself, sought to establish systems that would preserve it, and he has accomplished this with great skill and shrewdness. He begins with the period between the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, in the course of which a Europe that was dominated by the Habsburg family connection and a militant Counter Reformation was transformed into a continent of individual powers competing on equal terms. There were perhaps more reasons for this change than Kissinger discusses, having to do with demographic and economic developments and the Turkish threat to Habsburg possessions at the end of the seventeenth century; but he is certainly right in emphasizing as one of the most important a new kind of statecraft exemplified by Cardinal Richelieu of France, whose diplomacy during the Thirty Years’ War defeated Habsburg pretensions and left the German states atomized and powerless to threaten France for the next two hundred years, and by William III, Stadtholder of the United Netherlands and after 1689 King of England, who was the spiritus rector of the alliance that finally defeated Louis XIV’s attempt at continental hegemony.

The weapons they both used were a relentless realism, an indifference to ideological and religious affinity, and an imaginative use of the new technique of balance of power, which Ranke once said was invented so that the union of many other states might combat the ambitions of the “exorbitant” ones. Of Richelieu, whom he obviously finds a congenial figure, Kissinger writes, “few statesmen can claim a greater impact on history,” since he was the father of the modern state system and the man under whose auspices “raison d’état replaced the medieval concept of universal moral values as the operating principle” not only of France’s policy but of that of its neighbors. Of William III, he says in one of the perceptive asides that are sprinkled throughout his book, that he

played the equivalent of Theodore Roosevelt’s later role in America, warning his essentially isolationist people that their safety depended on a participation in a balance of power overseas,

and unlike Roosevelt doing so with such success that within twenty years of his death an opposition paper was stating that the balance of power was one of the “original, everlasting principles of British politics” and that peace on the continent was essential to the prosperity of a trading nation and hence an objective to be sought by the government.

The eighteenth century, although often called the age of reason, was dominated by the passions of princes and the violence of intermittent warfare. Yet there were signs of a desire for a more ordered international community: a general agreement that five principal powers—Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia—were normal and legitimate and should not be diminished in number; a significant degree of restraint on the part of all powers in territorial matters and a feeling that, when gains were made by one, other powers deserved compensation; and a good deal of talk about European federation. But nothing had come of this before the divisions and greed of the powers had lamed their response to the French Revolution; and before long Napoleon’s military-political strategy had divided and isolated them and confronted them with a threat of domination greater than that posed by Louis XIV.

It was only after twenty-five years of war that Europe was able to sit down and negotiate what Kissinger regards as the most successful modern system of international order. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 realized the dreams of statesmen like William Pitt the Younger and gave Europe, in Kissinger’s words, “the longest period of peace it had ever known.” He ascribes this to the skill of Prince Metternich of Austria, Viscount Castlereagh of Great Britain, and their colleagues in devising a system that was based upon a territorial equilibrium that was so stable as to discourage attempts to overthrow it and upon “a sense of shared values…. There was not only a physical equilibrium, but a moral one. Power and justice were in substantial harmony.”

This is, of course, true but seems overemphasized in Kissinger’s account. There were precious few shared values between Metternich on the one hand, and Canning and Palmerston on the other, and postwar fatigue and the low prevailing levels of armament were probably stronger deterrents to violence than moral considerations. After 1830, there was a growing division between the liberal powers, Britain and France, and the three conservative ones of the east, although dangerous crises were avoided by adventitious deals between ideological opposites. Thus, when the revolutions of 1848 shook the whole Vienna system, long-distance cooperation between Britain and Russia, in Germany and Hungary, for example, prevented it from total collapse. When those two powers stumbled into war against each other in the Crimea in 1854 that dissolution could no longer be delayed.

  1. 1

    François de Callières, The Art of Diplomacy, edited by H.M.A. Krens Soper and Karl W. Schweizer (Holmes and Meier, 1983), p. 62.

  2. 2

    Two Hundred Years of American Foreign Policy, edited by William P. Bundy (Council on Foreign Relations/New York University Press, 1977), p. 73.

  3. 3

    Two Hundred Years of American Foreign Policy, p. 68.

  4. 4

    See Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, We All Lost the Cold War (Princeton University Press, 1994).

  5. 5

    John Robinson Beal, John Foster Dulles: A Biography (Harper and Row, 1957), p. 154.

  6. 6

    Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 557.

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