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.