Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #28: Diplomacy, by Henry Kissinger

I recently was introduced to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, who is enjoying a somewhat surprising renaissance, given the long, slow drift towards secularism in the West and the general decay of diplomacy. Niebuhr was a truly fascinating individual, able to blend spirituality and secularism in a way that flattered and accentuated both. I could go on for quite some time here, but will instead advise you to pick up a copy of The Irony of American History and draw your own conclusions. Soon afterward, I was presented with an article from Liam Julien about President Obama's affinity for Niebuhr, which I was to write a 600 word reflection on. Not even the START of being enough to hit everything in that article. I had to forego a couple more complex reactions for the sake of brevity, but one of these discarded topics is a source of constant concern to me, and I think it bears discussion.

*DISCLAIMER: I think Julien's clear bias against Obama interferes with his ability to successfully analyze the situation. It doesn't make his article useless, but I think it makes it weaker. I find that there's a huge problem with commentators voicing dissent with the implication that all liberals/progressives developed their views after some kind of concussion-based accident. To think that anyone who has achieved national office without considering and then shaping their views through serious thought is simply ignorant.*

In the opening paragraphs of Julien's article, he appears to take issue with Obama's declaring certain Republican ideas "dumb." Despite this criticism, Julien later quotes some editorialists in defense of his argument that Obama doesn't quite "get" Niebuhr as calling a certain type of pacifism "dumb" (To be fair, that brand of pacifism is kind of dumb). This might seem like pretty standard juvenile language choice, but I find real cause for concern here. Shouldn't our level of discourse be just a sconch higher than one might find on an elementary school playground? As we have seen since the American Founding, our own domestic policy is immensely difficult to parse out, much less decisions about how to form and enact our foreign policy. Can we ever hope to achieve either objective if our vocabulary is reduced to calling things "dumb"?

As I mentioned before, I have a huge problem with anyone hoping to offer up some objective commentary on the state of American politics assuming that any kind of political philosophy was developed during some kind of Hunter S. Thompson adventure. Even the wackiest political opinions that make it to the national level are well-considered...perhaps not based on good information, perhaps not in accord with one's own logic, but considered. The difference in approach is manifested in the level of respect afforded to one's political opponents. If you begin a conversation with the presumption that your co-conversant is an idiot, your conversation is over. It's as simple as that. You can disagree, you can talk for years without being convinced, but if you do not appreciate that these ideas don't come from thin air, respect is abandoned and so is the possibility for productive discussion. Kim Jong Il is clearly a nut - we could all riff on this theme for ages - but that doesn't negate the fact that a) he believes what he says, b) he's heavily armed and c) he has transformed the Korean state into his own political tool. We can think he's nuts all we want, but if we can't understand these basic realities, we cannot hope to get him to knock it off with the nukes already.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I worry that diplomacy is dying. One of my biggest complaints with the Iraqi War is not necessarily that we went at all, but rather that the Bush Administration repeatedly said they'd tried that whole diplomacy thing and it didn't work, when in fact the diplomatic offices of the Executive were largely limited in their engagement. Please note - I don't think that diplomacy would have worked with Saddam Hussein, no matter how long we tried. But to SAY that you have been working your diplomatic fingers to the bone when diplomatic measures were abandoned or limited early on tells the world something important about your foreign policy, particularly in the context of the Iraqi War. In this case, it says "we're going to ask you a couple times to do what we say, and then if you don't do it, we're just going to smash you. No negotiation." You might agree that smashing was necessary, but the problem is that it's not just our allies who receive these tacit messages - our enemies do as well, and they may take it as a hint to dispense with formalities and just go with a preemptive strike if negotiation is off the table. There is more nuance and care required for successful diplomacy, and I fear that the patience and consideration required for it is slowly dying off as the business culture increasingly influences our political culture.

Now, one person who has and had this stuff on lockdown is Henry Kissinger. (Side note: Kissinger does not appear to have any plans to die, which I enjoy immensely. I think he has the Philosopher's Stone.) First of all, his book is beautifully written - it's a beast and quite possibly gave me carpal tunnel, but may I say? Worth it. - and that alone sheds light on one of the sources of his success. He is incredibly eloquent. You would be hard pressed to find someone with more diplomatic experience than Kissinger, but the real key is his clear study of history and politics, which ranges far beyond his own personal involvement. This is how true diplomacy should be, if we are to resolve the greatest issues of our time - studied, informed and well-considered. Kissinger takes you through Rooseveltian and Wilsonian world views all the way to the Cold War, but this is also much, much more than a history book. Kissinger manages to make political theory not only understandable, but vibrant and relevant. I have heard so many people complain that political theory is too obtuse and that it's outdated and irrelevant, but Kissinger illustrates brilliantly the many ways in which the politics of yesterday continue to influence and shape our political life.

I know it's 800+ pages, I know you think you don't really care that much about history, or diplomacy, EW, but I really encourage you to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this (carefully). I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

836 pages

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