Sleight of hand from a maestro

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Henry Kissinger's book Diplomacy, published this month in the United States (Simon and Schuster, 912 pages, dollars 35) is, as one would expect, instructive and entertaining. As readers of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval, would also expect, the instruction is limited by discretion, while the entertainment is sometimes intentional, sometimes inadvertent, sometimes ambiguous.

The book's dedication seems to fall into the last category: 'To the men and women of the Foreign Service of the United States, whose professionalism and dedication sustain American diplomacy.'

Only the simple-minded among those men and women - not an insignificant proportion of the total - will be wholly gratified by that compliment. 'Professionalism and dedication . . .' - no reference to 'wisdom' or even 'skill'. Worse, 'sustain' not 'execute', still less 'constitute'. The clear implication is that diplomatic policy is shaped by a different order of beings, and that all these dedicated professionals are there to make appointments, supply interpreters and generally make themselves useful to such people as Henry Kissinger.

Although today's recipients of the compliment in question are too young to recall this, Kissinger's formidable effectiveness in his days as a practitioner rested precisely on his capacity to bypass all that 'professionalism and dedication', except in so far as it was required for carrying his bags.

In the circumstances, Kissinger's dedication in the book has the ring of a tip: a well- earned gratuity affably bestowed.

Diplomacy has a thesis, to the general effect that American policy is based on 'exceptionalism', a uniquely American form of idealism. The foreign policies of other countries are by definition lacking in this noble characteristic.

It would therefore be prudent in an imperfect world for Americans to moderate their idealism a bit, to safeguard their interests. Henry James would nod approvingly. Kissinger has been an American citizen for more than 50 years and has a right to his share in the American Myth. According to the Myth, the New World (or rather the English-speaking part of it, south of the 49th parallel) is providentially protected from the consequences of the Fall, while the inhabitants of the Old World are fascinatingly post-serpentine.

Henry Kissinger, as serpentine a diplomatist as ever wound his way through any sinful capital, knows better than anyone else that the American Myth does not fit the sub-luminary facts of American diplomatic practice. Much of the fun of reading Diplomacy is watching how Kissinger copes with the facts, while still doing his best for the Myth. Sometimes he boldly states a fact that does not fit the Myth in the least, and then goes back to the Myth as if nothing had happened. The book is a lot more complex than you would gather from the blurb, which says: 'Kissinger shows how Americans, from the very beginning, sought a distinctive foreign policy, based on idealism.' Kissinger shows nothing of the kind.

American foreign policy in the earliest years of the United States was shaped by George Washington in his two administrations. Kissinger accurately defines the Washingtonian approach in the early years of the republic: 'American foreign policy was, in fact, a sophisticated reflection of the national interest, which was, simply, to fortify the new nation's independence.'

There was no cant about Washington, nor about his immediate successor, John Adams. Cant set in with Jefferson, Madison and Monroe and eventually overwhelmed several of their 20th-century successors, most notably Woodrow Wilson. Much of Kissinger's Diplomacy consists of a critique of the Wilsonian approach.

'Wilson not only responded to the wellsprings of American motivation (that is, 'exceptionalism'), but took it to a new and higher level. All his successors have been Wilsonian to some degree, and subsequent American foreign policy has been shaped by his maxims.'

That last statement is flatly untrue, and nobody has more reason to know this than its author.

American foreign policy has not been shaped by Wilson's maxims. American rhetoric concerning foreign policy has been influenced by the Wilsonian style, and actual policy has sometimes been affected, usually disconcertingly, by the consequences of the rhetoric.

The policy, like the policies of other countries, is always based on perceptions of national interest, always seen in terms defined by the rulers at the time, with their own specific political interests also very much in mind. How you dress it all up for public consumption is a secondary matter everywhere.

The American rhetorical tradition, from Jefferson through Wilson down to our own times, requires a particularly sanctimonious and highfalutin style of dressing up. Sometimes the execution of the policy may belie the dressing up, and require improvised refurbishings, liable to be dictated by Machiavellian rather than Wilsonian considerations. Example: in 1956 when Eisenhower had encouraged the Hungarians to revolt, and then left them in the lurch, he took the matter to the United Nations in an orgy of Wilsonian rhetoric, in order to make it appear that it was the United Nations, not the United States, that had left the Hungarians in the lurch. Wilsonian rhetoric, Machiavellian substance.

I fancy Dr Kissinger, as he reads all this (which he will), is murmuring to himself: 'Who are you telling? Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs]'

A sound point, but the trouble with this particular grandmother is that though she knows all about sucking eggs, she likes to pretend she doesn't.

I wonder why a grandmother should carry on in this way? At her age, what has she to gain by it? Why not confess her partiality for eggs, and avow her adroitness in the sucking of the same?

I suspect the answer is: sheer habit. The old maestro is so used to diplomatic sleight-of- hand that he can't stop. Thus he tells the story of how Nixon extricated the United States from Vietnam in a way that reveals many detailed transactions while stopping short of the actual substance: the ditching of America's allies, under the pretence that they could win on their own. That tactic, which Kissinger helped to shape, was brilliantly successful from an American point of view. But it was not pretty, and was far from Wilsonian. Grandmother does not recall that it ever happened.

(Photograph omitted)