Books by Henry Kissinger


book review score+5

Does America Need a Foreign Policy?
Henry Kissinger
Simon and Schuster, 2001, 318 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

During the heady days of millennial globalism, some people proposed, apparently seriously, the idea that national identities will be replaced in the 21st century by “brand names” and that iconology, not ideology, will be the principal determinant of national identity. Although American foreign policy is not yet based on brand names and full-page advertisements in The New York Times and Time Magazine, in the past decade American diplomacy, says Kissinger, “has turned more and more into a series of proposals for adherence to an American agenda.” At the same time, unwillingness to act in unabashed national interest in the past decade has been a prescription for paralysis.

Kissinger is one of America's most experienced authorities on geopolitical strategy. He sees the world in terms of power vacuums, balances of power, and long term security interests, Although much of what he says is common sense, because the advice and insight in this book comes from someone with a demonstrated capacity for rational, long-term strategic calculations, his advice is extremely valuable. Here are some of the insights in the book:

Kissinger praises former President Clinton for passing NAFTA but criticizes his excessive attention to polls and media and his belief that the Cold War was somehow caused by America's supposed excessive concern with strategic issues and geopolitics.

Basing foreign policy on domestic politics instead of universal principles applied in a realistic historical context, Kissinger warns, led to acts of naive arbitrary interventionism such as the American bombing of Yugoslavia in defense of Kosovo while ignoring a nearly identical situation in Chechnya, and naive ideas like Clinton's belief that freedom of speech in China could be produced by unilateral demands of the American legislature. It also signifies a revival of sweeping Wilsonianism that risks making America the world's policeman, which will only guarantee America's isolation in the world community and ensure that every dictator and extremist will make it their life's mission to try to undermine it.

dec 23, 2001

book review score+3

World Order
Henry Kissinger
Penguin, 2014, 420 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

For Henry Kissinger, the Westphalian order of nation-states is the greatest force for stability in the modern world, and possibly the most powerful force for peace Europe ever invented. It was challenged, unsuccessfully, he says, by the French Revolution, communism, and Hitler. Now it is being challenged again by Islam and China.

He argues that WWI was a collapse of the nation-state equilibrium that had kept the peace for a century—discounting the revolutions of 1848, the Crimean war, and the other wars of the period which did not involve the whole continent. He re-interprets WWI as caused by rigidification of the brilliantly conceived balance-of-power system. One could argue that WWI was not caused by rigidification, but by too many diplomats making too many treaties.

I am not sure I agree. Rigidification would have strengthened it. Maybe WWI demonstrated the inherent weakness of a system that relies on mutual defense treaties to keep the peace. Maybe they just had too many diplomats.

Kissinger makes his case by recounting the story of world history since the Middle Ages. This will be familiar to most readers; Kissinger relates it, wherever possible, to challenges faced by the nation-state.

His admiration of Westphalia is understandable. But there is nothing magic about nation-states. Their formation is an inevitable consequence of government. The only choice to make is their size. Last week during the Scottish secession vote, for example, one paper published a map showing what Europe would look like if all the secessionist movements in Europe had succeeded. Belgium and Italy were split in half; France was split into several countries.

What was striking about this map was not how much different it looked from the current map of Europe, but how much more natural it looked. It is today's multiethnic nation-states, like Ukraine and Iraq, that are artificial and inherently unstable. Large, monolithic nations are even more so, and can in addition create a power imbalance that can fail to brake international conflict. What Kissinger and other Realpolitikers need to do is help us understand what is the ideal size and ethnic composition of a state, and what in quantitative terms “balance of power” and other metaphors from vehicular mechanics, or physics, or wherever they came from, actually mean.

The point of Kissinger's history lesson should not be lost: power vacuums and rigid alliances should be avoided. By now I was hoping to hear more theory, or at least some generalizations from this great statesman, but it seems clear that that may never happen. Realpolitik and theory, it seems, are mutually exclusive.

sep 21, 2014

Update Kissinger is obviously a polarizing figure. There are some book reviews out there that express strongly negative opinions about this book and the author. A few are vitriolic. But no one in their right mind would read a book written by a diplomat expecting a history lesson. We read it to find out how the author thinks, and maybe to discover whether his approach—in this case Realpolitik—makes any sense.

A previous version of this page said incorrectly this was his 13th book.