BOOK REVIEW / More than a media magician: Godfrey Hodgson has his mind changed by Henry Kissinger's forthright new book: 'Diplomacy' - Henry Kissinger: Simon & Schuster, 25 pounds

THERE ARE two images of Henry Kissinger you should dismiss from your mind before you sit down to read this big and, I think, profoundly important book. The first is that of Super K, the vulgarly promoted (often self- promoted) magician of media diplomacy. The second, which may be harder for some of us to discard, is of a ruthless, devious, even mendacious man, a genuine scholar transformed by ambition into a caricature of a court jester.

These were always inadequate portrayals of Kissinger's complex personality. Put them aside, and you may be surprised to find how intellectually rigorous, honest and courageous this book is. Diplomacy is nothing less than a history of the relations of what used to be called the Powers; it moves from Richelieu's ruthless application of raison d'etat to the fall of Gorbachev and the hesitations of Bill Clinton.

It is not flawless. The margin of my copy is dotted, especially in the earlier pages, with irritated little queries against sweeping and questionable statements: that the Indian subcontinent had not been ruled as a single political unit before the British Raj (what about the Mughal empire, which exerted hegemony from the Himalayas to the Deccan?); or that the French Revolution ended in 1793. A glance at the endnotes suggests that Kissinger is often more familiar with the secondary than with the primary sources. As a historian, just as in his days of power, he is weak on economics and prone to underestimate domestic politics.

As I read, though, the little queries became thinner and farther apart and the spontaneous little ticks, opposite sentences of penetrating insight or descriptive accuracy, became far more frequent. In short, having been a suspicious and inveterate critic of Kissinger for almost three decades, I found myself won over by the sheer force of his argument.

It is hard not to admire the soaring scope of the arch that Kissinger throws across the great abyss between the world of his youthful heroes, Metternich and Bismarck, and the world he now observes. Many diplomats and statesmen have published memoirs, from Bismarck to De Gaulle and Churchill. But never before has a professional historian left the library to wade so deep into the ocean of international struggle, and then returned to write so elaborate a history.

To compress more than 800 pages into a few sentences, Kissinger argues that after the Thirty Years War destroyed any possibility of a single European state, the peace of Europe was kept, and, when breached, restored by the craft of diplomacy. Statesmen acknowledged and tamed the interests of nations by a number of techniques, foremost among them the application of the balance of power. To handle the complexity and danger of these transactions they developed a technique of analysis which ruthlessly excluded ethical or moral considerations. Richelieu called it raison d'etat; Bismarck called it realpolitik, often a term of abuse in English, though it really only means 'policy based on reality'.

The First World War reversed three centuries of growing European power and brought in as Europe's supreme arbiter the incongruous figure of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the incarnation of liberal idealism, but also of American exceptionalism. One of Wilson's chief goals was to replace the cynical realpolitik of the Old Diplomacy with a new, 'innocent', American idealism.

Kissinger is not a Wilsonian. His underlying purpose is to preach a sermon to his fellow-Americans against the disastrous consequences of the tradition of American-inspired idealism in the style of Woodrow Wilson, as well as a plea for a return to the pre- Wilsonian realpolitik of the Founding Fathers and their European contemporaries.

American exceptionalism is not simply the belief that the United States is exceptional. It is the belief that because the United States is unlike all other states in its moral nature, it should behave in certain ways. Astutely, Kissinsger points out that Wilsonian idealism, the impulse to act globally to fulfil American ideals, and isolationism, are alike products of exceptionalism.

Kissinger is surely right when he argues that the American impulse to intervene everywhere to fulfil American ideals is both dangerous and doomed. He point out that a universalist idealism is logically bound to be defeated, since there are literally no limits to its goals. For Kissinger, Vietnam was the limiting case. 'In the cauldron of Vietnam,' he writes, 'America was to learn that there are limits to the most sacred beliefs, and was forced to come to terms with the gap which can arise between power and principle.'

Four Presidents - Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson - had committed the United States to fight for its own ideals of how the Vietnamese ought to live without much thought of the gap between power and principle. By the time Richard Nixon was presented with the problem and Henry Kissinger was called on to help him, the limits of American power had become clear. The unwillingness of the American people to 'pay any price' - to use John F Kennedy's phrase - 'for the defence of freedom' in the jungles of South-East Asia, had become an inescapable political reality, even though the anti-war movement probably had as much to do with isolationism as with idealist exceptionalism.

Kissinger's argument, for realpolitik and against Wilsonianism, is in part self-serving. It was his policy, and it is not surprising if he thinks it worked well and would have worked better if more widely tried. It does not follow from his general argument that the policy he and Richard Nixon followed in South-East Asia was correct or even defensible. But on the general point, I think he is right. American exceptionalism is not only inherently offensive to the great majority of the world's population who are not Americans. It is, both in its isolationist and its Wilsonian versions, dangerous to America and to the world. Criticise Henry Kissinger and his doings if you like. But in pitting his formidable intellect against Wilsonian exceptionalism he has performed a genuine service.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?