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Dreams Die Hard

YEARS OF RENEWAL; \o7 By Henry Kissinger (Simon and Schuster: 1,152 pp., $35)\f7

THE KISSINGER TRANSCRIPTS; \o7 Edited by William Burr (The New Press: 516 pp., $30)\f7

May 16, 1999|BENJAMIN SCHWARZ | Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent for Atlantic Monthly and a contributing writer to Book Review

With "Years of Renewal," Henry Kissinger concludes his mountainous three-volume memoir of his years in power. Kissinger has never been at a loss for words (his behemoth senior thesis at Harvard--the subject of which was nothing less than "The Meaning of History"--famously prompted that university to institute the "Kissinger rule," limiting the number of pages that an undergraduate could write), and his need for an editor has never been more striking than in this book, which in its daunting length and Teutonic thoroughness lacks focus and penetration. For the reader willing to do far more work than should be asked, however, "Years of Renewal" is ultimately revealing, in spite of itself.

It's been 15 years since Kissinger finished the second volume. His hesitancy in surmounting the final hurdle is understandable. In the first two works, which covered the Nixon years, Kissinger was often writing of high drama--the Paris peace talks, the Watergate scandal, and of his own triumphant diplomatic initiatives--detente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China. But in "Years of Renewal," he covers the Ford administration, which means that he owes his reader excruciatingly detailed discussions of long-ago arms-control issues (anyone remember the debate over the Backfire bomber?) and, far more important, a record of diplomatic disasters and defeats, running from the stalled Sino-American strategic relationship to the scuttling of detente to the humiliating fall of South Vietnam to the United States' unnecessary and self-inflicted defeat in Angola to the swelling opposition to himself and his policies, which contributed significantly to Gerald Ford's defeat in the 1976 election and Kissinger's (as it turned out) permanent banishment from power. Far from years of renewal, the Ford years were for Kissinger the time when things fell apart.

Throughout this volume he inadvertently reveals a profound inconsistency in his thinking and policies. Skeptical of globalist rhetoric, sensitive to the limits of power and to the dangers of a conception of U.S. security that demanded that America remake the world in its own image and convinced that interests, not ideology, should govern foreign policy, Kissinger has nevertheless often advocated American intervention against ideological foes in situations in which no specific American interests have been at stake. Few U.S. statesmen since World War II have been as critical of America's missionary impulse, but few have been as governed by such apparently discredited notions as the domino theory.

The cool, dispassionate, sensible Kissinger is, of course, both applauded and condemned for detente. Formulated by Kissinger and Richard Nixon, detente was a significant departure from previous Cold War policies. Not since Franklin Roosevelt's had an American administration been willing explicitly to recognize the Soviet Union as a collaborator in, rather than a challenger to, the effort to maintain an international order. To appreciate this dramatic shift, it's helpful to contrast JFK's inaugural address, in which that paragon of Cold War liberalism advanced the stirring but rather dangerous notion that in the struggle with communism, the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden," with Nixon's first inaugural address, which promulgated the realistic but conciliatory message that "we cannot expect to make everyone our friend, but we can try to make no one our enemy." This was detente's animating sentiment.

Although at several points in "Years of Renewal" Kissinger attempts to rewrite history by claiming that at the time he, Nixon and Ford foresaw the Soviet collapse, detente was in fact based on the idea (hardly contested at the time) that the Soviet Union wouldn't go away. Since the superpower rivalry could destroy humanity, there was, as Kissinger declared, "no alternative to coexistence." Detente, then, was a strategy for managing a permanent relationship. In what Kissinger hoped would develop into a "mature" relationship, Moscow and Washington would each acknowledge the legitimate interests of the other and try not to let their inevitable disagreements poison their accommodations. As is clear in the transcripts of conversations and negotiations between Kissinger and the Soviets collected in "The Kissinger Transcripts," detente was a shift in style as much as in substance--or rather, a shift in style that had substantive consequences: The Soviets (and, of course, the Chinese) were to be treated not as alien ideologues but as intelligent adults with whom a substantial area of common interest could be found. Kissinger was confident that through this change of approach and through an elaborate strategy of diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks ("linkage"), the Soviet Union could be induced to behave like a "normal" great power.

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