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Henry Kissinger:  Where it All Went Wrong



A book review essay for Peacehawks, based on The Inevitability of Tragedy:  Henry Kissinger and His World, by Barry Gewen.[1]


by Jamie Arbuckle, November 2020



Idealism, which has been won from human experience, is far more realistic than ideology – not to mention cynicism or resignation.


Sir Brian Urquhart,  A Life







Barry Gewen attempts in this very useful biography of Henry Kissinger to avoid hagiography, but he can’t quite. In a conversation with a ” friend”, which serves as  his introduction, he states his own views as “Realpolitik “, reaching “conclusions based on … power relationships … to distinguish what was true – Realism – from what one wished to be true”.  His friend, on the other hand, “put more emphasis on the place of ethics in foreign policy … without a moral component international affairs would degenerate into a Hobbesian world of all against all, … and only  bullies and gangsters would prevail”.[2]


Gewen attempts to see, or at least to present fairly, both sides of the Kant-Hobbes dichotomy, but he is firmly on the side of the decidedly Hobbesian Henry Kissinger:


… we dismiss or ignore him at our peril. … He is a philosopher of international relations who has much to teach us about how the modern world works – and often doesn’t. His arguments for his brand of Realism – thinking in terms of national interest and a balance of power – offer the possibility of rationality, coherence, and a necessary long-term perspective at a time when all three of these qualities seem to be in short supply. [3]


And that, as this book cannot avoid showing us, was Kissinger leading his country, under a succession of Presidents, stumbling into a series  of diplomatic disasters with which we all have had to live ever since.  The worst of these were: the Domino Theory, especially as it was applied in Latin America and in South-East Asia for almost 25 years; the U.S. intervention in Chile in the 1970s; these culminating in the bombing and invasion of Cambodia in 1969-70 and the eventual humiliation and expulsion of the U.S. from Vietnam.

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