Was Kissinger just a very clever chancer, lucky not to be dragged down by the Watergate scandal that consumed so many of the Nixon crew? Did he always serve, as he claims, the national interest? Did he fundamentally change the course of history? Gewen’s book misses many targets, but he does at least remind us of a very interesting and complex personality. As a trained historian, Kissinger has been very determined that he shouldn’t be dismissed by new generations as the poodle of a corrupt and paranoid president. If we want the evidence for and against him to be properly weighed, I fear that we will have to wait until Niall Ferguson has turned in the next volume of his epic biography.
The Inevitability of Tragedy treats Weimar’s collapse as the formative event in Kissinger’s life. The book’s central premises are that democracies do not necessarily hold and that nations may be forced to choose from menus that offer only rancid dishes. From the author’s perspective, unyielding moral codes may end up as burdensome ballast that leaves decision makers frozen. Or worse. Gewen’s prose is mellifluous even if his judgment of Kissinger remains debatable. The reader is drawn into the book’s telling, regardless of possible disagreement. More often than not, the author gives Kissinger the benefit of the doubt – even as the bodies pile up.
Gewen seeks to escape this cartoon depiction of Kissinger, absurd in its Manichaean extremes. He does so successfully with sympathy for his subject, subtlety, good writing and not a little humour. His book examines three sets of complexities better to understand the man, the thinker and the diplomat — complexities all of which are intertwined. This is not a book for those who like their characters cut and dried, black and white. It is a portrait painted in multiple shades of grey.