Kissinger and Baker III: two new books shed light on the giants of US diplomacy

James Baker III and Henry Kissinger were giants of American diplomacy who experienced firsthand – and often decided – the most significant events of the twentieth century. For many years the literature on them has magnified their achievements and influence in the Republican Party and beyond. But now two new volumes also shed light on their connections and their ambitions, providing us with not only a professional but also a human portrait of their life. "The man who ran Washington: the life and times of James Baker III" , by Peter Baker and Susan Glaser, tells the life and career of the man of power by definition of the republican establishment as the two correspondents of the White House of the New York Times . Baker was the only American Mandarin who could boast the title of Chief of Staff for two presidents: Ronald Reagan and his close friend George HW Bush. However, it was during the tenure of Bush Sr. that Baker fulfilled his dream of becoming Secretary of State, leaving the back of the stage to become the absolute protagonist of American foreign policy in the years of the end of the Cold War and the first war in Iraq.

The man who had woven relationships with the most influential figures in American politics and Western chancelleries manages to forge a broad coalition at the UN against Saddam Hussein in 1990 and, in the same way, is worried about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the effect it can have in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Baker was far from convinced that the end of the Soviet Empire would be bloodless despite the opening of credit that the US administration had given first to Gorbachev and then, subsequently, to Boris Yeltsin. Years after successfully leading the United States to unprecedented pax in American history, we find Baker in the role of head of the team of lawyers that helped George W. Bush win the presidency in 2000 at the expense of Al Gore. It was Bush Sr. himself who asked him to get back on track for the recount of votes in Florida, leveraging his spirit of service and his past as a brilliant attorney in one of Houston's leading law firms.

But his legendary reserve and his proverbial sociability also have a side b: according to the authors of the book, Baker resented the success of the men he worked for, and, in a perfect logic of the relationship between master and servant , he never felt adequately rewarded for his work. At home on America's most celebrated golf courses as well as in Washington's most exclusive cocktails for diplomats and beau monde , Baker harbored the ambition, one day, to be president himself, even if for many it's always been.

“In Henry Kissinger and American power: a political biography”, Thomas A. Schwartz recounts an aspect much underestimated by many kissingerologists: the use of foreign policy for internal purposes and for personal realignment by the great weaver of opening up to China. For having been a great actor in the diplomacy of the realist school, Kissinger was an eminently political Mandarin, immersed in the game of the Washington parties and eager to appear indispensable to any administration. According to the author of the book, often his famous texts on foreign policy were more tools to woo the presidents and secretaries of state of the moment than works with a discourse and internal political coherence such as to make them appear unassailable. Thus, when Kissinger published “The necessity for choice” in 1961, his work was also and above all a job application aimed at the newly elected president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But his ability as a courtier and his extraordinary ability to self-promote does not detract from the greatness of a man who has known how to sail in Washington for over half a century, understanding first of all who were the interlocutors who would have been useful in the future. Only once was he wrong: when he called Vice President Dan Quayle "well informed and intelligent", believing him to be destined one day for the White House. "In Henry's language – says the New York Times editor Arthur Schlesinger in the book – it meant that that politician was willing to listen to him and revere him".

"More political than intellectual" and "more tactical than strategist": after all, Schwartz's conclusion sounds like a condemnation – rather severe and very questionable – for a man renowned for his intellect and propensity to conceptualize long-term solutions for the his country.

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This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Atlantico Quotidiano at the URL on Wed, 30 Sep 2020 03:38:00 +0000.