Sunday, May 13, 2007

Two Takes on Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger

Presidential leadership during wartime is a major topic on law listservs and the law blogophere. A new history, from the Vietnam era, has just been released and today is the topic of two intelligent reviews by important scholars of the history of foreign affairs.
NIXON AND KISSINGER: Partners in Power by Robert Dallek (HarperCollins) is reviewed today in the New York Times and the Washington Post by Mark Attwood Lawrence and Margaret MacMillan, respectively, both authors of important recent books. Readers interested in American politics and U.S. foreign relations will be indebted to both reviewers for their apt snapshots of Dallek's imposing 700+ page work. They come to some parallel conclusions, but also offer different perspectives.

MacMillan writes, Dallek "focuses on a relationship between one of the most controversial recent American presidents and his most influential foreign policy collaborator. So close was the partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that one historian has talked of a "Nixinger" foreign policy." She finds the book a "vivid portrait of two clever, insecure men, each wanting a place in history," who "shared a similar view of the world -- that nations should act to promote their own interests and to encourage international stability." The book is "very much a history of the period as seen from inside the Beltway. Other countries and their leaders serve as background and obliging extras." Yet,

For all the fascinating detail, the big picture remains elusive. Curiously for a book about one of the key relationships in American foreign policy, there is little extended analysis of what the two men thought about the world and the role of the United States. Nixon, Dallek tells us, wanted to advance world peace. So do beauty pageant contestants. Nixon is "an idealist" and "a defender of national traditions," and Kissinger is America's "chief practitioner of realpolitik." We need more explanation. The two men "had a hidden agenda that they themselves did not fully glimpse." Well, neither do we.

Lawrence had more space to work with, and provides a review that is a model of summary and critique, making the case for the importance of the well-matched academic book critic in mainstream book reviews.

Lawrence suggests that one of Dallek's important achievements "is to connect the unevenness of [Nixon's and Kissinger's] policy-making performance with the ups and downs of their peculiar personalities. 'The careers of both Nixon and Kissinger,' Dallek asserts, 'reflect the extent to which great accomplishments and public wrongdoing can spring from inner lives.'" Lawrence writes,

Under some circumstances, Dallek suggests, their blend of ideological flexibility and monumental egotism produced bold foreign policy advances, most notably the opening of relations with Communist China in 1971-72....On other occasions, Dallek writes, Nixon and Kissinger’s cynicism and unreasonable fear of defeat interacted to produce some of the administration’s ugliest moments....

What’s more, Dallek presents a devastating account of irresponsibility and dysfunction within the White House as the Watergate scandal unfolded. Desperate to save their careers, Nixon and Kissinger schemed to manipulate foreign policy to distract attention from the deepening domestic crisis. When these efforts failed, an increasingly unbalanced and alcohol-fogged Nixon abandoned foreign affairs almost entirely, leaving Kissinger in charge as a sort of unelected “co-president.”

Dallek’s attention to personalities makes “Nixon and Kissinger” remarkably engaging for a 700-page study of policy making. But this emphasis also underlies its chief weakness: the implication that the foreign policy devised by Nixon and Kissinger lacked intellectual coherence. Curiously, Dallek fails to describe at any length the rapidly shifting geostrategic landscape that confronted the Nixon administration as it entered office in 1969 — above all, the relative decline of American power due to the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union’s attainment of nuclear parity with the United States. Nor does he adequately explore Nixon’s or Kissinger’s innovative response to this new situation. Champions of realpolitik, the two men deliberately favored cool-headed calculation of national interests over ideological consistency. Without this essential background, their decisions seem haphazard rather than parts of a strategy to shore up United States influence by cultivating a new partner in China, easing the cost of the arms race with Moscow, bolstering pro-American leaders in the third world and avoiding defeat in Vietnam.
To continue reading, Lawrence in the New York Times is here, MacMillan in the Washington Post is here.