Henry Kissinger

Diplomacy

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Diplomacy Summary

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Henry Alfred Kissinger’s political history, Diplomacy (1994), is an account of his experiences as the former American Secretary of State, and how diplomacy shapes the world in which we live. Critics praise the book for its unique take on foreign policy and America’s diplomatic history. It won the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest. A German-born American diplomat who served as both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor during the Nixon administration, Kissinger was a dominant politician. He was also the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Diplomacy offers insight into how international relations play out behind closed doors, and why politicians and diplomats make the decisions they make. The book focuses primarily on the history of Western international relations, although Kissinger touches upon other world leaders where relevant, reflecting on his personal experiences dealing with these leaders, and how conversations he’s had have shaped international relationships.

Throughout the book, Kissinger weaves two overlying points. The first is that world leaders are most effective when they find a balance between their own domestic needs and what benefits the international community. The second is that the most successful world leaders generally follow realpolitik, otherwise known as a pragmatic approach to politics.

Kissinger emphasizes that countries must decide what role they want to play on the international stage, because only when a nation has a clear, focused agenda can it move forward. He is especially interested in the role that the U.S. plays in shaping global politics. In Kissinger’s opinion, America performs well in international relations because it has strong, unique moral values that underpin everything politicians and diplomats do. Other countries cannot help but respond positively to this.

The book considers specific time periods in the most detail, such as the period between the World Wars. Kissinger reflects on the lessons nations learned—or failed to learn—during these periods, and how the decisions made then still affect policy and diplomacy today. He also reflects on the importance of the year 1648, as this is when the Church lost its status as the ultimate source of power, and Europe began shaping its own political future based on evolving circumstances.

Although Kissinger promotes US dominance of the international stage, he argues that the Europeans first shaped the modern political world. He does not accept that Eastern cultures or politics played a role in this political revolution; readers criticize him for ignoring evidence to the contrary. Kissinger believes that non-Western powers struggled to adapt because they knew they had to adopt cultural and political norms that were far removed from their traditional societies.

When considering the future of Europe and its role in international politics, Kissinger is less complimentary. He believes that, while Europe had great thinkers in the past, modern Europe suffers from insularism. Europe is only interested in its own interests, which is dangerous because Europe helped shape the very global political system that is now in danger of falling apart without its intervention.

Diplomacy also considers the future of global politics, with an emphasis on US politics. Kissinger notes that the U.S. has become contradictory. He argues that the U.S. promotes liberty, opportunities, and freedom, imposing these ideals onto countries that aren’t ready for them. He notes that the U.S. is responsible for causing political disruption across the world, in places such as Haiti, because it insists on imposing its idea of democracy on societies that do not have the structures in place to support it. Kissinger also examines in detail the disastrous interventions and military escalations in Vietnam.

Although Kissinger dissects foreign policy across the centuries, he assumes readers already have a working knowledge of the policies to which he refers. If readers do not, for example, know much about the Crimean War or centuries-old diplomatic summits, then some of the references won’t make much sense. On the other hand, readers can still appreciate the foreign moves and counter-moves in the abstract.

Kissinger devotes some chapters to studying political heavyweights individually—such as Roosevelt, Bismarck, and Napoleon III. He looks at how these men made pragmatic decisions based on the world around them, and how personal opinions often shape how a leader analyses any given situation. Kissinger also discusses the dangers of letting personal beliefs get in the way of sound political decision-making.

After considering historical political crises in some detail, Kissinger turns to the future, and how our current global leaders can shape the world to come. As the world becomes increasingly less focused on national governance, and more focused on supranationalism, we can draw comparisons with the centuries-old dilemma of certain authorities wielding excessive political control over large territories. Kissinger leaves it to the reader to consider what is at stake for the future of global politics.