Jeremi Suri is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin. His publications include The Global Revolutions of 1968 and Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente.
His new book is Henry Kissinger and the American Century.
Here he responds to a few questions about Kissinger that I put to him:
Oliver Wendell Holmes reportedly said of FDR: he has "a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament." In your view, what class intellect and temperament did Kissinger the diplomat have?Learn more about Henry Kissinger and the American Century, and read an excerpt, at the Harvard University Press website.
Henry Kissinger is a first class intellect. He is broadly read and he has a penetrating mind. He has a remarkable talent for digesting, ordering, and critically evaluating mountains of material. He identifies core problems and mobilizes diverse ideas and concepts to offer coherent and practical solutions. This combination of big ideas and effective steps for action is what has long made Kissinger an attractive advisor for presidents. Kissinger does not, however, possess a first class temperament. He is self-centered, incredibly suspicious, and monumentally insecure. Part of this comes, as my book shows, from his experiences as a German-Jew in Weimar and American society. Part of this also comes from his personality. Kissinger is a man who learned to ingratiate the elites he had to please, but he has enormous trouble forming congenial bonds with others.
Many political scientists like to view international politics at three levels: the individual, the state, and international system. That is, do individuals have a decisive impact on international life?; or is the quality of the domestic regime (democratic or communist or fascist) or internal politics that which matters most in international life?; or is the distribution of global power more significant (i.e., rich and powerful countries have their way more often than poor countries)? I imagine historians aren't so enthralled with a such a reductive model, but what weight did Kissinger give to each of the levels, and is your view similar to his?
Kissinger believes that all three of these levels have important influence, but he gives primary place to the individual "statesman." The leader must understand the nature of various regimes and the distribution of global power, but he can shift these in various directions for his state's interests. In this sense, the great leader for Kissinger is someone with an acute understanding of the contemporary world, a vision of the future, and an ability to identify and exploit small opportunities for shifting power. As I show in my book, Kissinger defines the statesman in Romantic terms -- like Goethe or Nietzsche. He is an extraordinary figure -- a Bismarck or a Churchill -- who, in Bismarck words can “listen to the footsteps of God, get hold of the hem of His cloak, and walk with Him a few steps of the way.” The statesman for Kissinger is transformative in his insight and his connection to divine power. I share some of Kissinger's focus on the power of an effective statesman, but I also see a need for greater democratic and other institutional checks on the overweening power of a Kissinger-like leader.
Who is the statesman Kissinger most admired (Zhou Enlai? Bismarck? someone else?) and why?
Bismarck is Kissinger's model statesman. He brought a vision of German unification to fruition, and built a foundation for stability and peace in Central Europe. This came apart when Bismarck's boss, Kaiser Wilhelm II, fired the great statesman and embarked on misguided policies. The problem for Kissinger is that great statesman are very rare, and their achievements are often undone by inferior successors.
A question about Kissinger the scholar: is his first book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22 (1957), still considered an important work about that era in European politics or has it been superseded by other scholarship?
Kissinger's dissertation and first book, A World Restored, is still highly influential, especially among non-historians. Kissinger's picture of a conservative and stable post-Napoleonic settlement, and the personal roles of Metternich and Castlereagh, continues to influence how people view the Congress of Vienna and its aftermath. Scholars have complicated this picture, but Kissinger's simpler version remains important.
Harold Nicholson (I think it was) wrote that the best diplomats possessed Fingerspitzengefühl -- roughly, having a sure instinct for the job as if the important facts and issues were at one's fingertips. Does Kissinger possess Fingerspitzengefühl?
Kissinger definitely has Fingerspitzengefühl. He needed it throughout his career to survive, to ingratiate the right people, and to make a remarkable career for himself from a very modest background. During his time in the Nixon administration, he developed into a widely respected and effective international negotiator with men like Zhou Enlai, Le Duc Tho, and Anatoly Dobrynin. They all had more experience in this realm than Kissinger, Yet, Kissinger quickly learned to match their wit, their patience, and their determination at the negotiating table. That is a testament to his ability to sense and master his environment.
What are you working on now?
I am starting another big book that will examine why powerful states intervene in places far away, where they have limited interests, in ways that are doomed to failure. I will take this history back to the Greeks and forward to the present. I will argue that regime-type and personality are not determinative. Dominance in the international system brings inherent perils -- hubris, overstretch of resources, and popular resentment. Dominance also breeds a combination of domestic sensitivity and foreign callousness that encourages a search for brutal but cheap responses to crises. An international system with one dominant power, in this sense, is unstable and prone to warfare. I hope my book will offer a warning to American policy-makers about the dangers of our dominance in the world today.