Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Henry Kissinger’s first book, on the Napoleonic Wars, explains Kissinger’s foreign policy better than any of his memoirs, Robert Kaplan says:

Kissinger’s first book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 (1957), covers not the Nazi era but the latter part of the Napoleonic Wars and the efforts of European statesmen to build a durable peace afterward. The book’s principal character, the Austrian diplomat Prince Clemens von Metternich — secretive, manipulative, and tragic in his world view — is often seen as the figure Kissinger took as a model, though Kissinger has denied it. Nevertheless, Munich and the Holocaust are ever-present in A World Restored.

Kissinger, who fled Nazi Germany in 1938, was in the early 1950s trying to claw his way into the stuffy, Protestant-dominated sanctums of the East Coast foreign-policy establishment. He was not about to wear his trauma and his Jewishness on his sleeve, as it is fashionable to do now. Rather, he elegantly camouflaged them. In A World Restored, Napoleon plays the Hitlerite role, and Kissinger’s answer to the problem of mass evil is contrary to the instincts of liberal humanists. His argument is thus subtle, original, and, I believe, brave.

Court diplomacy of early-nineteenth-century Europe seemed quaint and irrelevant at the dawn of the thermonuclear age:

Even if the technology of war had changed, Kissinger implied, the task of statesmen remained the same: to construct a balance of fear among great powers as part of the maintenance of an orderly international system — a system that, while not necessarily just or fair, was accepted by the principal players as legitimate. As long as the system was maintained, no one would challenge it through revolution — the way Hitler in the 1930s, categorized by the thirty-year-old Kissinger as a “revolutionary chieftain,” did.

A world threatened by nuclear disaster could learn much from Metternich:

With the British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Robert Stewart Castlereagh, Metternich built an order so ingenious that from 1815, the year of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, to the outbreak of the First World War, a hundred years later, Europe knew no major conflicts, with the exception of the ten-month-long Franco-Prussian War, in 1870-1871. Thanks in significant measure to Metternich, who did everything in his power to forestall the advent of democracy and freedom in the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, Europe in 1914 saw peace and steady economic growth as natural and permanent conditions. Europe had thus lost that vital, tragic sensibility without which disaster is hard to avoid, and troops rushed onto the battlefields of Flanders in a fit of romanticism.

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