In This Review

How to Make Love to a Despot: An Alternative Foreign Policy for the Twenty-first Century
How to Make Love to a Despot: An Alternative Foreign Policy for the Twenty-first Century
By Stephen D. Krasner
336 pp, Liveright, 2020
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The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World
The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World
By Barry Gewen
480 pp, Norton, 2020
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These two volumes are among a coming tidal wave of books that debate what the United States’ strategic posture should be now that its global primacy seems to have run its course. Krasner argues that because prosperous, democratic nations are exceptions in international politics, the United States would protect itself better and make the world safer if it adopted policies “acceptable to despotic rulers,” coming to terms with the “good-enough governance” of nondemocratic governments instead of trying to consolidate democracy around the world. His detailed list of what counts as good enough leaves no doubt that he is calling for a dramatic departure from current policy. Good-enough governments are those that are able to maintain order and a moderate level of economic growth and uphold rule by law (if not necessarily the rule of law). Washington would accept that elections in many countries are a sham and that it is hard to protect human rights from abroad. Because weak states can cause such great harm to others (from terrorism, pandemics, proliferation, refugee flows, and other transnational threats), their capacity to govern is more important than the finer points of democracy. Good enough, it seems, is a very low bar. Krasner’s call for greater humility in U.S. foreign policy is welcome, but many will find it hard to discern how such a policy is compatible with American values.

Gewen, an editor of The New York Times Book Review, has written a sterling, highly readable intellectual biography of Henry Kissinger. Although the former U.S. secretary of state has been out of office for more than 40 years, Gewen convincingly argues that a full appreciation of Kissinger’s realist philosophy is now more important than ever, as the United States rethinks its role in the world. The main topics are familiar: the centrality of the national interest and the balance of power and the importance of a deep understanding of and respect for others’ national interests and therefore of diplomatic compromise. But the profound pessimism of Kissinger’s view of history and his deep ambivalence about democracy—forged by a childhood under Nazism—will be new to many readers. The book does not attempt to render a judgment on Kissinger’s policies in government and his abiding influence thereafter. Gewen is obviously an admirer, but he is also unflinching in portraying Kissinger’s deviousness, thin skin, and overweening ambition.