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15th Annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes : WINNER: HENRY KISSINGER 'DIPLOMACY' : The Sorcery of Statecraft

November 13, 1994|JACK BURBY | A current interest book prize judge, Burby is a former Times editorial writer

Henry Kissinger's most recent book, "Diplomacy," is the perfect gift for a rich nation that seems to have everything.

Everything, Kissinger argues persuasively, except a foreign policy free of perpetually conflicting ideologies. On one side stand defenders of a nation's right to use its power wisely; on the other, those who view America's primary diplomatic mission to be sowing democracy as widely as possible.

A concept called "the balance of power" makes room for both perspectives. Kissinger sees it as an idea whose time has come again with the end of the Cold War rearranging national power on a historically unprecedented global scale.

From Kissinger's disciplined eyes, our foreign policy must resemble the negotiations of those weekend bicyclers who weave through suburban streets as though they have been vaccinated against cars. He does not accept the excuse that other countries are even less cautious.

So he has fashioned a stunning 900-page handbook on shaping and executing foreign policy based on his own half-century of analyzing and practicing statecraft.

Massive but not ponderous, "Diplomacy" swarms with leaders groping through three centuries of war for formulas that would give peace a better chance.

A Kissinger trademark is the sardonic aside he throws into a heavy discussion of foreign affairs. "There is in every great leader an element of guile," is one such and it could apply to any of the leaders that march through these pages--Richelieu, William of Orange, Bismarck, and his favorite, Metternich.

But it appears here as a direct reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt's remarkable effort in the late 1930s to keep edging the United States toward readiness for what F.D.R. knew would be its inevitable plunge into World War II. He writes:

"It is difficult to imagine any contemporary of Roosevelt--of either political party--who, having had the courage and foresight to recognize the challenge, would have had the willpower to lead his isolationist people, step by step, toward the commitment to do whatever was necessary to defeat Nazi Germany. . . . The wisdom of his solitary passage is now, quite simply taken for granted."

No leader in Kissinger's pantheon gets higher marks. Why? That Roosevelt got it right would be reason enough.

Attention to detail ranks high on Kissinger's list of wise foreign policy principles. So does seeing things as they are rather than as they should be. So does smiling confidence and one's choice of allies. So does winning.

Kissinger is no more comfortable now than ever with the Wilsonian concept--still very much alive--that every skirmish is part of a crusade in the cause of democratic enlightenment.

Having right as well as might on one's side is better than Bismarck's or Richelieu's notion that might is enough.

But being right without might isn't enough, either.

Another dazzling moment in U.S. diplomatic history is the "long telegram" that George Kennan sent from Moscow in 1946 that was gradually written--or, as Kennan believes, rewritten--into the policy of containment and the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Kennan's waiting game worked. Moscow collapsed. But the strain on the United States took its own toll. Debate over the policy "turned into a struggle for the very soul of America," as Kissinger puts it.

Containment began to go sour in Korea where the United States found itself in "a limited war for which it had no doctrine and in defense of a country for which it had no strategic interest."

But it collapsed in Vietnam where the "almost causal relationship the nation had always enjoyed between its values and its achievements began to fray."

The basic problem, he says, was that "Nobody asked the important questions about" escalation in Vietnam: "Was it really true . . . that every communist gain hurt? . . . (W)as it conceivable that the addition of Indochina to the Communist camp could by itself overthrow the balance of power?"

Kissinger made three trips to Vietnam as a consultant in 1965 and 1966. As he has written before, the visits "convinced me that the war could not be won by the prevailing strategy, and that America would need to extricate itself by negotiating with Hanoi. . . ."

Hanoi knew that, too, and while he covers in detail the Nixon Administration's efforts to prevail, the important lesson for the future is that strategic miscalculations made Vietnam a hopeless cause. Kissinger wants a formula that will avoid future Vietnams, as do we all.

Carefully nurtured, he thinks, a balance of power similar to the one achieved in 1815 by the alliance of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and eventually France, is America's best bet.

The alliance that emerged from the Congress of Vienna worked because its combined military power created a balance to any possible combination of competitors and because the member nations shared a value system.

Despite America's historic aversion to the balance of powers, Kissinger says, the 19th-Century concept can and should be adapted to the new world emerging from the Cold War.

"Though a military superpower," he writes, "America can no longer impose its will because neither its (largely nuclear) power nor its ideology lends itself to imperial ambitions. . . ."

Finding the right allies--allies who share America's values--would be a diplomatic task for the United States as formidable as either Kissinger or his new book. But it's a task that Kissinger inspires us to begin in this important book.

LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZES / CURRENT INTEREST: Nominees

DIPLOMACY, by Henry Kissinger (Simon & Shuster)

ORIGINAL INTENT AND THE FRAMERS OF THE CONSTITUTION: A Disputed Question, by Harry V. Jaffa (Regnery / Gateway)

THE MORNING AFTER: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, by Katherine Rolphe (Little, Brown)

PARALLEL TIME, by Brent Staples (Pantheon Books)

THE MORAL SENSE, by James Q. Wilson (The Free Press)

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