This is another book that I wasn’t aware of until I stumbled on it in a used bookstore. I was surprised that memoirs by Klemens von Metternich wouldn’t be more talked-about since he’s such a respected figure among the Right, and I went into the book with high expectations, thinking it would be something like a more focused version of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy.
Now, the book is titled The Autobiography: 1773-1815, but it’s not really an autobiography, since Metternich says very little about his personal life, especially once he begins his diplomatic career. It’s not a history, either, as he says explicitly a few times. I called it a memoir above because it’s mostly a collection of anecdotes, conversations, and commentary on events Metternich was involved in. It’s a bit odd stylistically, but perhaps that’s to be expected; Metternich didn’t publish this himself, and doesn’t seem to have intended for all of it to be published. Rather, it’s a collection of three works edited together by his son, Prince Richard Metternich. Two of them blend together seamlessly, but the third, On the History of the Alliances, does stick out noticeably, and is a more traditional historical narrative of the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1813-15, though still focusing on the events Metternich personally took part in and avoiding well-known explanations of the battles and broader history.
So, those looking for a self-revealing memoir will be disappointed, since Metternich isn’t self-revealing at all, as will those looking for in-depth diplomatic history or theory. However, the book is still worth reading because one does get a fascinating sketch of some of the most influential people of the era by a man who seemed to know everyone of importance. For example, early in his career Metternich met and got along very well with Emperor Alexander of Russia, who requested that he be sent to St. Petersburg as Austria’s ambassador. When Metternich was sent to France instead, the Emperor took some offense. Metternich says, “The Emperor Alexander did not allow of any graduations in the behaviour of another, because he knew none in his own political conduct, as he was always going backwards and forwards from one extreme to another, in the most opposite directions; he therefore suspected me of being altogether on the side of France and of nourishing great prejudices against Russia.”…
Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, published in 1994, looks at diplomatic history from Richelieu up to the early 1990’s, focusing on Europe and the United States and especially on the Cold War era. Overall, the book is excellent, and very useful to anyone looking for an introduction to how diplomacy is, and generally ought to be, conducted. Kissinger takes a point of view that reminds me of a craftsman looking at his peers’ work; he avoids moralising for the most part, and instead focuses on whether a particular policy worked or not, and why. For example, while discussing Joseph Stalin, he does mention the enormous death toll of his purges, but is primarily concerned with his relations with the Western powers and analysing his personality and domestic terror only insofar as it affected his foreign policy.
Now, as great as the book is, at 836 pages it’s also a project to get through. By far the best chapters are those covering events up through the Second World War, especially the first few that cover the basic theories of how nations ought to conduct foreign policy, with Richelieu and Bismarck’s Realpolitik and how this compares to Wilsonianism, and the three dealing with the Vietnam War. Of course, Kissinger was personally involved with some of the events he describes, and some of the personal anecdotes he provides are interesting in themselves. The rest of the book isn’t bad, but by then most of the basic conceptual points have been made and illustrated, and how interesting one finds these chapters depends largely on how interested one is in the history of the Cold War.
I should also mention that those of us who prefer a generally non-interventionist style of foreign policy may be annoyed at Kissinger’s occasional implicit and explicit dismissals of that position, mainly by his obvious admiration for Franklin Roosevelt. There are also a few comments that strike me as flattering his mostly American audience by seemingly approving of American Messianism, even though in the other places he criticises this attitude and clearly favours a more realistic approach to foreign policy based primarily in national interest, as was practiced by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. For instance, at the end of his final chapter on Vietnam where he says, “[T]he sadness of the memories of Indochina should serve to remind us that American unity is both a duty and the hope of the world.”
Those criticisms aside, though, Diplomacy is essential reading for anyone who wants to comment intelligently on foreign policy issues.…