Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Couple of Trailers—Book Trailers: Kissinger & Fukuyama

I don't often write a review of a review or of a blog post based on an upcoming book, but I’m going to make an exception. Both Henry Kissinger and Francis Fukuyama have books coming out in September, and both will come to the top of my “to read” list. 

Image result for images: henry kissingerFor many, including me, the name of Henry Kissinger conjures up a lot of contrary thoughts and ambiguity. Some think of him as amoral, others as immoral, and still others as the devil incarnate. Of course, he’s also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, so go figure. Without question, his tenure as National Security Advisor and later as Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford Administrations provides plenty of reasons to question his judgment, not to mention the morality of his actions. But set aside that period of this life and consider the role that he played both before and after his time in office: that of historian and theoretician to international relations. (With Kissinger, the roles of historian and theoretician don’t seem at all separated, which I believe makes his work all the more compelling and insightful.) I first read Kissinger as an undergraduate when Professor David Schoenbaum assigned A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 for his 19th Century Europe class. That book is a study of the Congress of Vienna and the effort led by Prince Metternich to establish a stable political order in Europe following the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Later, on my own, I read a large chunk of his memoir of the Nixon Administration, a large chunk of his book Diplomacy (quite intriguing), and the entirety of this On China, which I found informative and fascinating  (and which I’ve now got on deck to read again). As a scholar, Kissinger writes well and he has terrific insights. Thus I’m I ready—eager—to set aside doubts arising from my uncertainty about his actions as a statesman to appreciate his scholarship. (Great figures, whether judged good or ill, are rarely simple and never unalloyed.) Now past 90 years of age, he still garners respect. (Just look at his 90th birthday party list from 2013: the Clintons, John Kerry, Valery Giscard D’Estaing, Donald Rumsfeld, James Baker, George Shultz, and John McCain. None were political allies of Kissinger, but all came, I assume, came out of a sense of respect.)

A preview review of the book by Jacob Heilbrunn in the National Interest praises Kissinger’s upcoming World Order. According to Heilbrunn, Kissinger argues that the nation-state system of balance of power and interest politics established by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) remains relevant in the contemporary world. Kissinger is a master of this area of history (see his work Diplomacy for an existing example). In an era where China is on the rise and playing a larger role on the world stage; Russia remains an assertive—even aggressive—player; and the U.S., Japan, and Europe, all have significant and varying interests and roles to play, Kissinger’s insights will bear close consideration. Heilbrunn praises Kissinger for his lucid and incisive prose, and his use of diplomatic history, now often shunted aside in the study of IR (international relations). Along with examining the structures of international relations through the centuries, Kissinger also notes the importance of individuals, from Cardinal Richelieu to Metternich to Teddy Roosevelt, who ushered the U.S. on to the world stage. Of course, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon receive consideration as two presidents who highlight the U.S. tension between idealism and realism in American foreign affairs. (Aside: Heilbrunn reports that Kissinger admires Nixon and offers the opinion that “Nixon’s solitary nature meant that he had read widely, a trait that Kissinger avers made him the best-prepared incoming president since TR on foreign policy.” Interesting angle.) 

The review essay is worth reading as a summary of what Kissinger has written and it provides a good summary of the history of his influence, especially within the context of the Republican Party. 

Image result for francis fukuyamaThe other short piece that I read was by Francis Fukuyama. He had a new blog entry after about a year and an essay in Foreign Affairs, both based on parts of this forth coming Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy that will come out at the end of September. I’m embarrassed to report that I haven’t read volume one (encouragement from the Glamorous Nomad notwithstanding), but I plan to dive right into volume 2. His Foreign Affairs essay on the decline of American political institutions is insightful (and depressing). His updating of his mentor Samuel Huntington on political society will certainly prove thought provoking. I find Fukuyama one of the most insightful political commentators writing today. Like Kissinger, he comes out of the academy, but he's worked for the State Department and Rand Corporation, so he’s been in a position to influence events as well as write about them from the outside. Also, like Kissinger, he draws freely and extensively upon history in his analysis. History is the ultimate laboratory for social science experiments, and it provides much greater insight than modeling and theorizing can provide on their own. 

I’m looking forward to both of these books, and it’s great to have these previews to guide my way into them. Like a good movie trailer, they make me want to take in the whole feature. Get out the popcorn! (Well, no, too greasy on the pages—even electronic pages.)

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