James Chace, who died of a heart attack in Paris in October just a week shy of his seventy-third birthday, examined the foreign affairs of the nation with sharp insights and finely chiseled words. Newspaper obituaries referred to him as a “foreign policy thinker,” a description that sounds both vague and ponderous. In fact, he was neither. Rather he moved with a light touch and a flashing saber through the slough of muddy dissimulation in which public officials bury their actions and their purposes. In dozens of articles for magazines and newspapers—eighteen in this journal since 1981—and in nine books (not to mention a novel and a memoir) he offered uncommonly sensible insights into the way the world worked, and why the United States so often managed to confound its own interests.
What attracted him to foreign affairs, and what gave his writing both depth and grace, was that he saw it as a human drama. He had little respect for the chilly abstractions that professionals use to quantify conflict and ambition—abstractions like “national interest” and “balance of power” and “spheres of influence.” Rather he saw politics abroad as an extension of politics at home. That is to say as a theater in which greed, pride, ambition, arrogance, idealism, faith, and illusion all played their essential parts.
For him there was no such thing as a political “science,” the self-flattering label affixed by academicians in their perpetual search for certainty in the miasma of human affairs. Rather he viewed politics, foreign and domestic, as a perpetual tragicomic cavalcade of barely contained, and often dangerous, human emotions and delusions. This gave his writing a depth and an edge that are all too rare in the genre. Although fascinated by the process of making decisions, he viewed it less as crisis management than as an effort to cope with the burdens of history, arrogance, and a dangerous innocence.
Indeed he never fit easily into any conventional groove. He was a college professor who never went to graduate school, an influential foreign affairs analyst who never worked in the national security bureaucracy, a traditionalist attracted to revolutionaries, and a Yankee patriot whose great hero was an autocratic French general.
Although dubious about the claims of political “science,” he had a great respect for history. For him current events were always rooted in the actions and attitudes—sometimes inspired, sometimes bizarre, and often dangerously misguided—that fostered and sustained them. To his readers he explained the present by describing the trail that led to it. Every nation, he believed, dragged its past upon its back as it plunged eagerly, and often blindly, into a dangerously tantalizing future. For him an appreciation of how we got there was critical to an understanding—whether the issue was Vietnam, Central America, or Iraq—of how we might succeed, or at least disentangle ourselves without leaving things much worse than we found them.
Combined with this sense of history was an eagerness to be a …