In Sunday's New York Times uber-diplomat Henry Kissinger writes approvingly of Otto von Bismarck, subject of a new biography by Jonathan Steinberg. Writes Kissinger:
Bismarck is often cited as the quintessential realist, relying on power at the expense of ideals. He was, in fact, far more complicated. Power, to be useful, must be understood in its components, including its limits. By the same token, ideals must be brought, at some point, into relationship with the circumstances the leader is seeking to affect. Ignoring that balance threatens policy with either veering toward belligerence from the advocates of power or toward crusades by the idealists.
Bismarck dominated because he understood a wider range of factors relevant to international affairs — some normally identified with power, others generally classified as ideals — than any of his contemporaries.
But the point about Bismarck was the he was tragically limited, a brillient tactician that manipulated Germany onto the world stage as a misshapen hunchback, immensely powerful but uniting the world against it. He strangled the good Germany that longed for freedom and community and delivered it to a princely dynasty long past its sell-by date. When Bismarck left the stage of history there was nobody with the genius to replace him. Writes Kissinger:
Bismarck’s successor, Caprivi, pointed out the essential weakness of the Bismarckian system by saying that while Bismarck had been able to keep five balls in the air simultaneously, he (Caprivi) had difficulty controlling two.
Some of us think that was the problem with Kissinger. It's all very well to have a brilliant power manipulator running foreign policy. But what happens after he's gone? Maybe it's better to be ruled by amiable idiots rather than manipulated into an impossible position by an evil genius.
The great achievement of Bismarck was to unify Germany. But the great evil of Bismarck was to unify it with military victory, bathing the Hohenzollern princes in the glow of German excellence on the field of battle. The result was to sweep the men who could have been the Burkes, the Jeffersons, the Hamiltons off the stage and replace them with ciphers, completely lacking in the skills to put Germany at the head of Europe without scaring the pants off everyone.
The joke is on us. Today, a century after the Great War, Germany presides in avuncular fashion at the head of Europe, and its chancellor is a motherly woman, Angela Merkel. Imagine if the Germans had achieved its avuncularity in 1900 rather than 2000.