Kissinger’s Diplomacy

This is one of a series of weekly review papers I had to write during my “Introduction to International Relations” course. It reviews selected portions of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, specifically chapters involving Europe from 1800-1930 (with a focus on Germany).

Throughout his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger spends several chapters analyzing not just international systems but the character traits of leaders in Europe who manipulated (or failed to manipulate!) those systems successfully. He argues that these traits made the difference between France and Germany in World Wars I and II; allowed Germany to flourish today even after being defeated in the two largest wars in history; and caused France’s influence to decline and disappear throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Clearly these traits impact more than mere whims of the elite; therefore they must be studied.

Napoleon III was called “the Sphinx of the Tuileries” for his presumed oh-so-subtle machinations, but Kissinger intellectually mocks him throughout the study of his reign. Kissinger’s criticisms fall primarily into two categories: Napoleon III had no grand strategy throughout his reign, and he had huge ambitions without a correspondingly great willingness to take risks. Because he had no grand strategy, he constantly pursued mutually incompatible goals, trying to promote nationalism and self-determination throughout all of Europe, yet still trying to keep Germany divided according to the traditional French foreign policy. Either because Napoleon III had no grand strategy or for the same root reason, he made several grand errors in judgment, including his misjudgment about the likely victor and cost of a war between Prussia and Austria. Because he had such grand objectives but was unwilling to take risks, Napoleon III constantly squandered his influence on frivolities, attempting to organize numerous Congresses to rearrange the European order, but unwilling to give anything up or use force to encourage the matter. Because he had such grand thoughts of himself but did not come from the legitimate European old guard royalty, Napoleon III was obsessed with public opinion and rarely did anything against its impulse — an unfortunate trait for a leader in any time and place, but doubly so when that leader is presiding over the fall of your nation’s entire sphere of influence.

On the flip side, Kissinger examines such leaders as Otto von Bismarck, Gustav Stresemman, and Josef Stalin. These leaders presided through different times, but his primary reason for admiring each of them rested in their understanding and implementations of realpolitik as first articulated by Cardinal Richelieu. Bismarck is held up explicitly as an example against Napoleon, since they ruled at the same time and occasionally competed explicitly. Bismarck felt no compunctions about the principles of his allies because in his view the advancement of Prussia’s interest was the only determinant of an action’s worth.  Moreover, he had a prevailing grand strategy: Bismarck wanted to unite Germany under Prussian rule and position Prussia as the dominant nation in Europe simply by being diplomatically friendly to every nation in the continent — easy to do since Austria was the only country Prussia had ever opposed for a sustained time. Unfortunately, Bismarck did fail in one way: the policies he architected required every generation to have a great leader. This leader didn’t appear after Bismarck died, and his successors — who didn’t have Bismarck’s talent for diplomacy or appreciation of peace — continued Bismarck’s realpolitik policies and extended them into military action, leading to World War I.

After World War I, another great leader of Germany appeared again in Stresemann. And again, Kissinger seems to admire Stresemann mainly because he was a disciple of realpolitik; but unlike Bismarck Stresemann was a secret disciple! Stresemann recognized that Germany’s geographical position and manpower meant it could be the strongest nation in Europe, but that it needed to remove some (not necessarily all) of the Versailles’ Treaty’s shackles in order to rise again. These allowed him to use his charming personality and proclaimed preferences for peace to Germany’s advantage in negotiations while simultaneously encouraging rifts between the Allied powers France and Great Britain.