Book Review: Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger

As epic as any written masterpiece can be, from its first sentence to the last, Diplomacy sets in motion an unrelentingly overwhelming narrative of political and diplomatic history. HenryKissinger, who happens to be a Professor of History at Harvard University, recounts the settings of World Order from Cardinal Richelieu of France to the last decade of the 20th Century. Diplomacyiterates the major events that shaped global politics by dwelling into how America’sforeign relations came to be. Yet, in an erudite fashion, it started with the European powers and their embrace of the Balance of Power that was so much depended upon by Great Britain. It unfolded the origins of the very foreign policies we see great nations adopt today. Even more than twenty years after its writing, Diplomacy is a gem and a must read, not only to American statesmen, as the general theme of the book might exhibit, but to every individual seeking to understand world order in-depth.

These seemingly voluminous nature of the book is less worrying given the quality of Kissinger’s writing. With the nimble fingers of an artist and the eloquence of a poet, he draws one back into the 16th century and connects him to the 20th century. Writing about the book more than twenty years after it was published; I can confidently remark that the value it holds cannot be overstated (published three years before I was born!).

Throughout the book, the professor teaches one thing; the importance of diplomacy in maintaining world order and the failure of states to make good use of it. This he did in two ways: firstly, by citing the manner in which the major European powers –Britain, France, Germany, and Russia – before and after World War I went about maintaining‘global peace’, and consequently drawing criticisms from it, Henry Kissinger identified the main, inherent flaws that destabilized the old tool of Balance of Power. Secondly, by assessing leaders’ dealings with their counterparts and adversaries, he established a flexible framework and clear prism for a statesman.

In the first scenario, complexities were removed and the dramas of historical narrations were solely inserted, thus, allowing the reader to focus on the specifications and implications of the events cited. It reasoned that the model of the preservation of order among powers adopted by Europe did not restrain some of them from attempting to ‘rule them all’. Napoleon Bonaparte always comes to mind when the flaws of Balance of Power is discussed. The Balance of Power was a design to curtail ambitious states from dominating global resources all alone.

Europe, as the epicenter of global power, was the battling arena for this. Europeans ferried into the world to colonize territories. Colonization was not a problem to cause major international outrage among powers, even if one power snatches a colonial territory away from the other. Storms occur when a power tries to annex a territory to its mainland from a neighbor in Europe.  The Balance of Power was meant to ensure this does not happen.

In spite of that, it could not stop World War I from happening. Even after the intervention of Woodrow Wilson to set up a better design for it in the Versailles Treaty, World War II erupted. The lines of the treaty were entrusted to states incapable of enforcing them. With Adolf Hitler at the helm, Germany steered into starting another World War less than thirty years after its defeat in 1914. A few centuries before the First World War, Napoleon Bonaparte set loose. It seems as if what keeps Balance of Power from being breached is the absence of an iron heart and being armed to the teeth. This is because the periods it was violated were led by a leader of steel and a strong military – France at Napoleon’s time and WW I and WW II Germany. The reason being the imposition of the doctrine requires strength, which none of the countries had before the US. The one country that could do so before World War I was Germany, but it was impossible because it made itself the culprit to contain.

At all occasions of the expansion of a European power, Britain managed to mobilize ‘allies’ to contain and repel its threat. But World War II broke its spell of regaining control, not even as a second driver.

Of all the points treated, the most salient sourced from the question: why did the ‘aggressors’ fail when they were much stronger than the alliance they faced? It sounds simple, yet it is as delicate as anything else a statesman will hope to analyze and answer.

Napoleon Bonaparte had an army strong enough to extend his conquer beyond Europe, yet he was defeated at the snowy plains of Russia. Cannot this be regarded as a victory to the Balance of Power; hence, an indication of its value, at least to their times?

No, not really. It was not Balance of Power that defeated Napoleon, although, the alliance helped. The Balance of Power failed the moment Bonaparte set out. The purpose was to curb the happening of such incidents, not to end them after they occur. Nevertheless, Britain managed to restore the balance to its own benefit. It could not, however, prevent catastrophic wars.

Within the question of why the aggressors failed comes the question: why hope for the trouble of other people at the first place? This takes one back to Cardinal Richelieu who pioneered the concept of Raison D’êtat – National Interest in modern colloquialism. He set the stage for statesmen like Viscount Palmerston of Britain, who said,

We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow,1

Richelieu decorated France for posterity to attain great fate on the basis of Raison D’êtat. France would only pursue matters that served its interests with determination before Napoleon III. In the midst of this evolutionary development in World Order, Napoleon seized power after the French Revolution of 1789-99 with a strong ambition and went on a conquering spree that spanned to Egypt in North Africa. Britain could not have France – or any nation, so to speak – dominating Europe and, possibly, its colonies. Since then, even after the First World War, Great Britain trusted Germany over France, until World War II.

The pursuance of National Interest could vary in its form but always remains the same in nature. Germany’s muscle-flexes that led to upheaval between it and Russia, which subsequently led to World War I could be described as the pursuance of national interest. However, one cannot claim subtlety to Germany’s misuse and application of strength. After humiliating Russia, Germany was flushed with victory and a sense of superiority. Its venture into an upheaval was devoid of a political purpose. Bismarck must have been lamenting the quandary his forced absence caused.

Otto Von Bismarck proved his mettle when he united Germany and set it on a straightened path by adopting the doctrine set by Richelieu. He built a strong nation afterwards and felt so confident that he once quipped that, were the British ever to invade Germany, he would simply instruct the local police force to arrest them.2 However, the hero that gave Germany high status was not the one to oversee its dire moments.

Bismarck was fired, literally, by the young Emperor and was not replaced by a personality of his caliber – or even close. The irresponsible bureaucrats that took over, aligned with the frivolous Emperor subjected Germany to missions of grandeur. Germany was the main arena of European battles. The Thirty Years War was fought there, which is probably why the location the war was settled happened in Germany – Westphalia. This made Germans a harsh people.

Russia was upset by Germany and they clashed over the Balkans area. Negotiations by third parties came to naught and everything further fell apart; World War I began – in addition to other events. In a way, the war could have been avoided but the absence of wise statesmen took a heavy toll on the decisions made by Germany. Britain took it as a chance to get rid of the Islamic Lands without breaking international law and to expand its colonial empire. It managed to influence France to join it with promises of access to the mineral resources in the Middle East; hence, the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Being a book not of history, Diplomacy went on to post-World War I. But one cannot help but notice the manner it did not include the Caliphate i.e. the Ottoman Sultanate, in its overall narrative. Although, the Caliphate was weak from the 18th century, the importance of the Middle East, which was part of it, cannot be brushed off. The prize of World War I to the victors was the destruction of the Caliphate and the distribution of its lands as so-called Protectorates and Mandates – euphemistic terms for colonies. Britain and France were the ostensible caretakers who looted the resources of the region. If World War I was only about containing Germany, who fought alongside the Caliphate, it would have been dismantled back to its previous state before Bismarck – about thirty states or more.

The failure of Germany in World War I can be attached to its lack of intellectual objective. Germany made a strong enemy to itself by disgracing Russia without weakening it, when it had the chance to. This was a clear evidence of its ambiguous objectives.

The same cannot be said of Hitler’s Germany. Adolf Hitler was a lesser statesman than Bismarck, but he was a good statesman nonetheless with equal, if not more, determination. Fond of Otto Von Bismarck, Hitler was renowned for being critical of the Reich for its acceptance of the Versailles Treaty that he saw as a disgrace to the German people. He came to power in 1933 and by 1939, with great political acumen, plunged Europe into another World War. Germany would spend the rest of the century apologizing for his actions. However, Adolf Hitler meant greatness for Germany and whoever read his Mein Kampf can tell that. Although he had visions, they were restricted to his grand belief that the Aryans are superior and his hatred of the Jews apparent. 

Published in two volumes, Mein Kampf was not given the weight that was enough to alert the leaders of Europe about Hitler’s motives, especially Great Britain. Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister before World War II, pursued the policy of appeasement with Germany. Only a few led by Winston Churchill realized the danger Adolf Hitler posed. The threats were laid bare for everyone to read. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief described the Europeans’ hesitation:

…In 1933 a French premier ought to have said(and if I had been the French premier I would have said it): “The new Reich Chancellor is the man that wrote Mein Kampf, which says this and that. This man cannot be tolerated in our vicinity. Either he disappears or we match!” But they didn’t do it… 3

The reference to a French Premier was as a result of France’s fear of a German invasion after Hitler came to power. Britain could not trust France because of Napoleon Bonaparte’s incursion centuries ago. Rather, Britain thought France would do what Germany eventually did. Before Germany’s invasion began, Britain was negotiating with Hitler hoping, apparently beyond hope, that they could come to terms. It later became clear Hitler was playing games. However, this was not too obscure for the British to see. The demand for France to leave the military ground it occupied in Germany as decreed by the Versailles Treaty could have suggested Hitler’s true intention to Britain. But their caution of French possible hidden intention blinded them from seeing an open threat.

When World War II started, it was hopeless that Europe would survive. It would become a German Empire had United States of America not intervened. The Soviet Union played a role but Stalin wanted to have his cake and eat it when the war ended. This set the stage for the Cold War.

World War II heralded the collapse of British and French Imperialism from Africa to the Middle East. Although, these two nations still control some Third World countries, they lost their influence over global affairs. The US and the Soviet Union ascended to the international stage as bi-polar superpowers, with the US having an edge. With a speck of genius, the US subdued its Western European allies.

The European powers were teetering to haul themselves up because Europe was devastated by the war, which left them limped behind in the process. The threat of the Soviet Union was sensed from all corners of the Western Hemisphere. The Germans were defeated and divided into East (Communist) and West (Capitalist). However, peace was not to pave the way to any form of reconciliation or coexistence between the Western and Eastern camps. Rather, the two super powers inevitably found themselves in a fierce intellectual struggle, widely known as the Cold War – this is in addition to the age of great espionage.

In anticipation of the Soviet threat, the United States announced the Marshall Plan that would prop up Western European economy in general. For the US, it was a two-pronged challenge. The first was the challenges within the Western circle; fighting colonialism, which put it in a tense position with Britain and France. In the face of that the British and French could not challenge the US. Despite that, it was not going to be an easy pass.

America went into a quasi-alliance with the Soviet Union in the name of fighting Colonialism. This was the reason Socialism made significant inroads into parts of Africa and other regions. A victim of colonialism once, the US ostensibly embraced freedom as the course of its actions both at home and abroad. For the first time in the history of Western global dominance – or of any area in the globe – the leading state was expected to act contrary to the impulse of self-interest, but by the belief that everyone deserves Freedom and Democracy.

Independent movements were supported by the US and the Soviet Union in all parts of the globe. After independence was given to the colonies, the US had to get rid of British and French agents. Therefore, coup was deployed by both sides to gain and maintain control over the resources in the colonies. Upon critical observation, the US only ended European imperialism to start its own subjugation of the world in a subtler form. This gave birth to the United Nations (UN) – a progeny of the League of Nations – which subsequently resulted to branch agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) in the short span of 1945. With this the US established its influence over the global economy. Britain and France managed to survive with minor influence but their position degraded drastically. US hegemony was too big to defeat.

The second aspect of the challenge the US faced was the most obvious; the threat of Soviet expansion. Despite their deal to fight Colonialism, it was clear both parties were after their interests; the Soviet Union spread Communism to gain resources from Asia and especially Africa; and the US advocates Capitalism by demanding freedom of the people. This was the same thing it did in Vietnam; though, it afterwards became clear it would not succeed there. The US remained there for many years. The deal was congenial to their positions at that time. However, it set the Cold War in motion because they could come to terms with one another from an ideological point of view. The tension between the Soviet Union and the United States was sustained to the advantage of the US in the following decades.

The Communist state was chasing way beyond its shadow’s reach and unrelentingly fell into US’ traps that overstretched it all over the globe – from Cuba in the Americas to Angola in Africa – and drained its fragile economy. This was caused by its leaders’ lack of clear assessment of its reality after Stalin. Emerged the second power after World War I behind the US, the Soviet Union did not contain itself to its abilities. Thus, it went into arms race with the US, resulting in the government to falter in attending to the domestic needs of its people. This was then used as a propaganda weapon against it after its West. The regions within the Soviet Union were ruled from Moscow dictatorially. This defect gave the West a way to challenge the ideology.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Muslim world was enticed into rallying behind and funding Al-Qaeda by the West. The groups believed they were fighting a Jihad to purge Afghanistan of infidels. Communists’ rejection of God played against it. By 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan; Al-Qaedah had defeated a world power. However, to the observer of history, it was not too astonishing because the country was known as The Graveyard of Empires.The Soviet Union took a Norse-dive when it invaded Afghanistan without given deep consideration to the state of its economy and military strength. The US kept luring it into making the wrong decisions. With Mikhail Gorbachev at the helm, he introduced policies that catalyzed the end of the Soviet Union. His policies were in clear contradiction to the Communist ideology. As a result, the Soviet Union was dissolved by 1990-91.

One question remains: did the US really eliminate the Balance of Power and replaced it with something totally different? This requires a bit of consideration to pin down the reality of it all.

After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson helped secured the formation of the League of Nations. Although, the idea was introduced by the British, it was the US that oversaw the establishment of the organization. At that time the US was still observing the policy of isolation but none of the so-called European victors could form it. After World War II, the League of Nations clearly failed and another organization of similar functionalities was formed; the United Nations. The aim of this organization was to maintain order and peace in the international system. However, the US was in effect the United Nations. This was because it emerged the superpower after World War II and could dominate over all the nations alone. Unlike Britain in the centuries prior to World War I, the US was self-sustainable from all aspects when it became the superpower. In its case, it came to dominate over the whole world.This was because its industry was built on its own resources and did not need to colonize the same way the Europeans did.

Setting up the United Nations was a tacit maneuver to tighten other powers to US interests, especially at a time when the world economy slowed down. Therefore, the US only took the Balance of Power to another level and in different forms as it colonized by claiming to represent freedom and declaring itself the sole global policeman.

In the second scenario, the toll of negative decisions take on a country and the benefit of positive decisions reap for a country were presented intermingled with State affairs. Indeed, the decisions of statesmen determine the behavior of states. Therefore, deriving a mild distinction between the role of leaders and countries’ policies is often left unobserved by many. In contrast to general perception, leaders play a distinct role in a country’s fate, albeit in certain eras. The policies a state adopts and executes find origin in some leaders or source of intellectual derivation. The effect of this can be seen in French policies after Napoleon III – Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew.

Similar to Bonaparte, Napoleon III was ambitious; however in contrast to Bonaparte, he lacked the conviction to pursue them. He could take no risk and this lessened the position of France in the eyes of other powers. Diplomacy said about him,

Napoleon had revolutionary ideas  before their implications. Having spent his youth in what in the Twentieth Century would be call protest, he never bridged the gap between the formulation of an idea and its implementation.4

The 21st century would have been a better time for him because he reliedon public opinion to bridge this gap, forgetting that it’s the reality that indicates success, not populism.

Although, Britain continued to view France as a threat, the French could not gain much power to dominate others. To elevate a nation’s position in the international stage is to take risks by threatening a stronger one or carry out an action against it; to gain an edge over a nation of the same level is to upset it and instill fear in it. France under Napoleon III and after him lagged in doing any of this because of the change in its political dispositions caused by one man. Rather, in total contradiction to Richelieu’s dictum, it went into a war in 1859 against Austria that bore no benefit to it in Italy.

The British could always lure the French into an alliance to fight a war like the First World War or a colonial venture like in the Indian Sub-Continent and Africa. In the end, the weakness of one man translated into the weakness of a once strong nation. This haunts French policies till date and it will not change until another Richelieu emerges – far-fetched, I’d say.

Another example was Joseph Stalin. A man of high intellect and extraordinary determination, Stalin managed to fish-tail the Soviet Union out of a debacle in World War II and emerged a victor with the Allies. At first, he wanted to negotiate with Hitler. Being the cunning statesman he was, Hitler was delaying and waiting for the right moment to pounce. Stalin always took his time to assess the situation before making a decision. He was not too hasty in his conducts and was careful not to be reckless. This gave him an edge against the Western countries after World War II. However, it almost turned its back on him against Adolf Hitler before he suddenly changed course. Stalin always assumed that his opponents were reasonable as he was. He did not realize that not all leaders were as reasonable as needed be. Therefore, he did not take into notice Hitler’s rage. Adolf Hitler himself led Germany to World War II and led it to failure. He was in a hurry to achieve his aim but did not realize that he was too quick.

In all these, one sees the effect of leaders’ actions on a nation and, thus, history. That is why there are names considered as great in every epoch. This was due to the influence of their decisions and actions on events – hence, the meaning of making a name for oneself. Therefore, statesmen rule the world; while analysts can only theorize about it; there is no reversing a decision for the statesman; but the analyst gets to issue a new edition if he later finds his theory false.

Conclusion: World Order Reconsidered

Just like World War II, the Cold War was a critical juncture for the world order. It was expected the victor between the US and the Soviet Union would take over the world alone. The fall of the Soviet Union was somewhat unexpected but heralded by past events. The invasion of Afghanistan might seem as the harbinger to its downfall. But the invasion itself was an immediate cause that sourced from decades of blunders by Soviet leaders. When the then Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev had a meeting in 1961 with John F. Kennedy, the Soviet Union agreed to a factor that contradicted its ideology; to halt the expansion of its State. In addition, the arms race, which overstretched and drained its economy – hence, creating social frustration – cost it a lot and it did not realize that until it was too late.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union left the world to the US for the taking without a worthy opponent at the last decade of the 20th Century.  Europe was haggling over its unity; Russia was struggling domestically; France and Britain were fighting to maintain control over some of their former colonies. All that stood on US’ way to absolute dominance were the few remnants of East European, Asian, and African satellite and subordinate states influenced by Russia, Britain, and France.

British cunning kept the United Kingdom in the international stage; French boastful behavior earned it a place as long one of the powers finds it useful; Russia’s stooges in former Soviet states gave it a bit of a weigh. Yet, all these were not enough to pose a challenge to the US with its overwhelming military strength and economic resources. Even the military groups in Afghanistan – that had US support against Soviet invasion – were doing better than these so-called European powers. The establishment of the EU did not provide Europe with a chance. Instead, it became a factor that keeps its members occupied. With Brexit underway and multiple regions trying to break further apart, the worse is probably yet to be seen. The European Union, if truly united, could be a strong force. The late American political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington suggested that:

The European Community, if it were to become politically cohesive, would have the population, resources, economic wealth, technology,and actual and potential military strength to be the preeminent power of the twenty-first century. Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union have specialized respectively in investment, consumption, and arms. Europe balances all three. It invests less of its GNP than Japan but more than the United States and possibly more than the Soviet Union. It consumes less of its GNP than the United States but more than Japan and the Soviet Union. It arms less than the United States and the Soviet Union but more than Japan…5

But the lot of Europe has always been its tendency of incoherence and nothing could put an end to plotting against each other except it changes direction completely from Western ideology.

From the ashes of centuries of the burden of humiliation after the Opium Wars, a bloody Cultural Revolution that brought Mao Zhedong to power after World War II, and economic backwardness emerged a regional power in Far-East Asia; China.The rise of China proved a nation can grow without adopting Liberal Democracy.  The West will want to have everyone believe otherwise, but the reality has proven likewise. Although, books like Why Nations Fail by Daren Acemoglu and James A. Robinson claim China’s growth is not sustainable, the country’s economy has been growing as it continues to expand its economic empire throughout Asia and Africa.

From a Geopolitical perspective, the US sees China as a regional threat; from an economic one, it sees China as a global threat. Despite having a world-class economy, China is not a global power. This is because politics and economy work in tandem. Its lack of global political ambition restricts its reach to its region, Far-East Asia. The region is now contested by China and the US. Chinese actions in this area are seen in a different spotlight from its actions in Africa; so far, they are strictly economic. China does not yet aspires to influence the political events in the continent. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage to it.

It is an advantage because it is not overstretching itself. Focusing on its region means it seeks to deal with the threats close home. If it does not do that, then it will always have to look over its shoulders, which can be tiring. The US’ position as the superpower is stronger than Britain’s because it had no problem with its neighbors – because it suppresses them. Therefore, if China manages to dominate Far East Asia, which itself is a gigantic task, it will have a more viable chance to compete for global political dominance. So it is better that its global pursuance is limited to economy, which is the disadvantageous aspect.

The difference between China’s rise and the US’ is that America had sufficient resources at its disposal. China’s economy is export-driven. A large part of its revenue comes from exports. That is why it devalues its Yuan so as to gain surplus growth. However, a simple blockade can have drastic effects on the economy. Although, the One Belt, One Road initiative could curb that, or lessen the effect, the weakness of China is its lack of energy resources enough to sustain its economic growth, which it needs to import.

The 21st Century has seen the global balance of power shake but it hasnot changed significantly. This is because all the prospectors do not have whatit takes to challenge the US, despite its weakening by the many unfruitfulyears in Afghanistan and fighting more than five wars all over the world at atime.

The United States has created a lot of enemies to itself, while China is making friends. The US has been distorting Third World countries with its economic aids, like Pakistan. Although, China-Pakistan relations are economy based, this could have future unwanted repercussions to the US. With the ascension of Donald Trump to power in 2016, things have worsened for the US in diplomatic relations.

The point of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy is to depict the importance of diplomatic actions in many scenarios, which the book did eruditely. Having served as US Secretary of State during the Cold War, Kissinger has a first-hand experience with the intricacies of international relations. It is not a wonder that he is still appealed to when negotiations come to naught. Diplomacy is not a book of guidelines on how to hold a tea-cup or wear suite on diplomatic missions. It is a book of diplomatic and statesmanship phenomenon in the real arena of life.

Umar Abu Ammar Bin Ahmad



2 Fareed Zakaria, The Post American World, Pg 181, W.W Norton & Company 2008

3Quoted in Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p.341

4Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, Pg 136, Simon & Schuster 1994

5 Quoted in the book by Paul Kennedy, “Preparing for the Twenty-First Century”, Pg 258, Fontana Press 1994

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger

  1. Sarah says:

    Did I miss the part where you analyze how Kissinger was a genocidal maniac who was responsible for the ruin of Cambodia??? Next up I expect we’ll be getting praiseful reviews of George W Bush’s autobiography.

    • Umar Abu Ammar Ahmad says:

      Thanks for your input. You didn’t miss it, sis. However, the point I tried to make is on the mentality of the Statesman and the formation of a state policy in relation to its foreign affairs i.e the impact past decisions made by statesmen on a State’s policy etc. Maybe I should have discussed, even if it was a bit about Cambodia and also the carnage in Vietnam. However, still, you will notice I only draw from a few examples the point I wanted to make about the book, which is the value it holds in relation to the mindset of a statesman. Thank you for your input. It was not about Kissinger himself but rather the lessons it teaches to the statesman (where are the smileys?). And also, the difference between him and the political theorist. Thanks again. It was a good reminder.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: