Essays & Reviews

Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 (1957)

Henry Kissinger is an icon within the American foreign policy community, but that was not always the case. A World Restored Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problem of Peace, 1812-1822, his first book, was written in the early 1950s while Kissinger was a young doctoral student at Harvard. Restored was initially not as famous or as influential as his later books. Its focus on diplomatic negotiations following the fall of Napoleon was seen by his peers as esoteric and out of tune with the times. In a world featuring nuclear weapons, why dissect the diplomatic wrangling of the 19th century? This view may have characterized the dissertation turned book at the time of its writing, but today Restored is widely regarded as essential reading for the student of strategy and diplomacy.

It may be read several ways. First and most obviously, it is an historical analysis of the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) and the foundations of the subsequent “long peace” that characterized Europe for generations. Examining this period of history offers Kissinger an opportunity to divine lessons of the past relevant to political challenges of the present. Second, the book may be viewed as an important milestone in the development of Kissinger as a foreign policy thinker. Its arguments remained an important part of the scholar-practitioner’s thinking for decades to come. Finally, Restored is a rare kind of scholarly work, one imbued with important ideas wrapped in masterful writing.

This essay distils the major arguments of A World Restored through the eyes of several scholars who sought to identify both its meaning and relevance. It does not offer a comprehensive history of the Napoleonic era, the Congress of Vienna, or the subsequent peace in Europe, instead focusing on the important findings Kissinger made by studying this period of history. The opening section offers a brief introduction to Henry Kissinger as both a statesman and scholar. Following this the essay digs into the most important themes presented in Restored, first using historian Niell Ferguson’s official biography of Kissinger as a guide, and then striking out independently. Finally, it considers the ongoing relevance of these themes to the theory and practice of international relations.

A Graduate Student, a Dissertation

In 1954, when Henry Kissinger finished his dissertation, he was little known outside of a small circle of academics treading the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Only later would he be known as President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, two of the most influential roles in American foreign policy that he happened to hold concurrently, the only person to do so. The shelf of books he would write were no more than an aspiration at this point. No, in 1954, while putting the finishing touches on his dissertation, Henry Kissinger was like many doctoral candidates, preoccupied with gaining what he hoped would be his first academic appointment (Ferguson 2015, 324 – 327). It is here, however, that the similarities fall away.

By the time he enrolled in Harvard’s doctoral program, Kissinger had already been a refugee fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany, had served in the U.S. Army, including during the Battle of the Bulge, and been in positions of some responsibility during the American occupation of his native country. While several of his peers at Harvard had also served, few had the first-hand experience of persecution that Kissinger brought with him from his earlier years. The young Jewish man was not just older than many of his fellow graduate students, he had aged in less visible ways, the ways that only a person fleeing for his life might. Additionally, even as he toiled in the Widener Library on his dissertation, the married man was engaged in filling the duties of a reserve officer, an activity that kept one foot firmly outside of the ivory tower. All told, he struck many of those around him as quite serious and severe (Isaacson 1992, 79). When he did graduate, Kissinger was already thirty-one years of age and a good deal more experienced than many donning a cap and gown in the spring of 1954.

A World Restored was a young but somber Kissinger’s answer not just to understanding the Napoleonic era’s end but also applying that history to the present. In his view, nuclear weapons and the fear they sowed did not change world politics; instead, these devastating weapons only demonstrated that governments had more to learn about keeping a stable international order, an issue about which the Congress of Vienna spoke directly (Isaacson 1992, 74 – 75; Kaplan 1999). He ardently believed that by looking back into the past it might be possible to see how historical analogy could be used to help guide policies of the modern age (Kissinger 2013, 331).

Still, if this is how Kissinger viewed one goal of his dissertation, few shared it. Many of his peers and the Harvard intelligentsia opined that his work was “outdated” and featured analysis of politicians whose roles in history were well understood, though this did not bother Kissinger (Ferguson 2015, 304; Isaacson 1992, 75). Additionally, the dissertation was light on primary sources, generally a hallmark of doctoral work expected to break fresh scholarly ground (Isaacson 1992, 76). In many ways Kissinger’s writing was that of a contrarian, bucking the trends in modern political science and the academy as a whole. It was also that of a man attempting to “claw his way into the stuffy, Protestant-dominated sanctums of the East Coast foreign-policy establishment” (Kaplan 1999). Still, for all the puzzlement his dissertation stirred and for all his intellectual arrogance and grand ambitions, Kissinger’s peers recognized his special intellect and often found themselves admiring the dogged student despite themselves (Isaacson 1992, 78 – 80). The dissertation on which A World Restored ultimately earned Harvard’s Sumner Prize and was regarded by at least a number of faculty and scholars as first-rate work, even if several suggested he was far too enamored with Austrian Prince Metternich’s successes (Ferguson 2015, 311). It would ultimately be published and remains to this day on many syllabuses as essential reading.

Four Contrarian Themes

Kissinger’s latest biographer, Niall Ferguson, offers an especially cogent analysis of A World Restored. The British historian identifies four contrarian themes within the book’s pages that distill not just Kissinger’s intellectual development and approach to statecraft but also explore his analysis of the 19th century “long peace.” These themes are overlapping and mutually supporting as each really cannot stand without the others. While Kissinger’s dissertation may have seemed out of place to peers, looking back at the book from these perspectives shows the full magnitude of its importance as scholarship and as a study of its author.

The theme often most closely associated with Restored, is the “role of force in diplomacy” (Ferguson 2015, 294 – 295). Later analysts would associate this intertwining of talking and fighting (or at least willingness to fight) with Kissinger’s tenure in the White House and State Department (Kaplan 1999). However, these views were already apparent in the man’s treatment of the Congress of Vienna. As one biographer described the future Secretary of State’s examination of diplomacy in Restored, it was an argument that “diplomacy cannot be divorced from the realities of force and power. But diplomacy should be divorced… from a moralistic and meddlesome concern with the internal policies of other nations” (Isaacson 1992, 75). Indeed this vision of diplomacy is reinforced throughout the book. The statesman, according to Kissinger, aims “to create a pattern of obligations sufficiently spontaneous to reduce to a minimum the necessity for the application of force, but, at the same time, of sufficient firmness not to require the legitimization of a moment of exaltation” (Kissinger 2013, 317). Additionally, the wise statesman “must be prepared for the worst contingency” and never rely on the “goodwill” of another state or the “moral purity” of the individual leading it (Kissinger 2013, 316). Such trust only opens one up to unnecessary risk. The ultimate “test of a statesman, then, is his ability to recognize the real relationship of forces and to make this knowledge serve his ends” (Kissinger 2013, 325).

This relationship between force and diplomacy underpins one of the key observations in Restored. Namely, the most stable times in the past were those when states were not “in search of peace.” Instead, “whenever the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace, stability based on an equilibrium of forces was at least conceivable” (Kissinger 2013, 1). Stability, what ought to be the aim of statesmen, does not come from seeking peace, but rather from establishing “accepted legitimacy” thanks to an equilibrium, or “balance of forces,” among states (Kissinger 2013, 1). As Walter Isaacson summarizes the argument, stability “is served when nations accept the legitimacy of the existing world order and when they act based on their national interests; it is threatened when nations embark on ideological or moral crusades” (Isaacson 1992, 75). But what is “legitimacy”? Kissinger is quite clear:

‘Legitimacy’ as here used should not be confused with justice. It means no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. It implies the acceptance of the framework of the international order by all major powers, at least to the extent that no state is so dissatisfied that, like Germany after the Treaty of Versailles [ending World War I], it expresses its dissatisfaction in a revolutionary foreign policy (Kissinger 2013, 1).

The concept of legitimacy was central to the future Secretary of State’s worldview, and he would write about it again in later books and advocate for it in the halls of government.

This argument about legitimacy and stability evolved directly from Kissinger studying the Congress of Vienna. In 1814-1815, as the Great Powers of Europe gathered in the wake of Napoleon’s devastation to establish a new international system, there was a chance to build a lasting, legitimate order capable of keeping Europe stable; indeed, as Kissinger made this argument he was likely thinking about just how such an order might be established and maintained during the Cold War in the face of a revolutionary Soviet Union (Ferguson 2015, 305). Of the ultimate settlement in Vienna, the Harvard scholar reflected:

…what is surprising is not how imperfect was the settlement that emerged, but how sane… It may not have fulfilled all hopes in an idealistic generation, but it gave this generation something perhaps more precious: a period of stability which permitted their hopes to be realized without a major war or a permanent revolution (Kissinger 2015, 5).

He goes on to on to link stability and legitimacy with the use of force and the role of diplomacy:

Their [the diplomats in Vienna] goal was stability, not perfection, and the balance of power is the classic expression of the lesson of history that no order is safe without physical safeguards against aggression… there was created a balance of forces which, because it conferred a relative security, came to be generally accepted, and whose relationships grew increasingly spontaneous as its legitimacy came to be taken for granted (Kissinger 2013, 317 – 318).

From this perspective, Kissinger was making an important point that would later be associated not just with him, but with the realist movement in international affairs – preserving stability is the paramount goal of the statesman, and it follows from the balance of power and establishment of legitimacy (Kaplan 1999).

While a misbalance of forces could undermine stability, threats from a revolutionary state capitalizing on this disequilibrium to challenge a world order’s legitimacy most concerned Kissinger. A revolutionary power, according to the young scholar, was one that could never be reassured of its security and that consequently sought to guarantee absolute security at the expense of others in the system (Kissinger 2013, 2). Such a state sees the existing international order or legitimization of it as oppressive; it will never have peaceful relations with the powers party to that order (Kissinger 2013, 2). In Restored’s analysis this role was represented by Napoleon’s France in the early 1800s. While marching through Europe at the tip of a bayonet, France directly threatened stability while also indirectly undermining it by spreading dangerous ideas about nationalism and liberalism that undercut the sovereignty of existing states. “Napoleon had succeeded in overthrowing the existing concept of legitimacy, he could not replace it with an alternative,” and this was left to the peacemakers in Vienna (Kissinger 2013, 4). While France was the revolutionary power that spurred diplomatic activity in Vienna, those assembled there were well aware that a future revolutionary state in the form of Russia could pose a dangerous new hazard. Logically, then, Russia would need to buy into the legitimacy of the new system, and accept an equilibrium of power, if there were to be lasting peace. How this practically played out was most readily apparent in the formation of the Holy Alliance, a topic that will be discussed later in this essay.

A practical feature flowing from this discussion of legitimacy centers on what diplomacy can and cannot achieve under particular circumstances. Kissinger argues that “diplomacy in the classic sense, the adjustment of differences through negotiation, is possible only in ‘legitimate’ international orders” (Kissinger 2013, 2). While force is necessary to underpin diplomacy, its practice is essentially “… the art of relating states to each other by agreement rather than by the exercise of force” (Kissinger 2013, 326). However, if a revolutionary state is growling at those supporting the present order, diplomacy cannot function with a wolf at the door. It may carry on among the states party to the same mutually agreed upon and legitimate order, but not with states outside of such an order. Yet even among these states there are limits. Kissinger argues that the “achievements” of diplomacy hinge on its objectives, “which are defined outside the sphere of diplomacy and which diplomacy must treat at given” (Kissinger 2013, 322). Like Clausewitz who argued for the matching of military strategies with political goals, Kissinger reminds us that the diplomat may only maneuver within the space outlined by the policies of his or her government and aim to deploy a diplomatic strategy in support of such policies. These policies may not, however, always be achievable by diplomatic means.

The second major theme of Restored identified by Ferguson is the “nature of conservatism” (Ferguson 2015, 296). Kissinger employed the term “conservative” to “refer to the European thinkers of the nineteenth century who opposed revolutionary upheavals” (Isaacson 1992, 79). Kissinger saw himself as a conservative, advocating against the “disorder or ‘chaos’” of revolution in modern politics that characterized Napoleon’s France; thus, he aligned himself with the sensibilities of politicians like Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria and Great Britain’s Viscount Castlereagh, the two pivotal figures at the Congress of Vienna (Ferguson 2015, 297). These men, in pursuit of a new legitimate world order, successfully established stability in Europe after a period of revolutionary upheaval. The conservativism embodied by them featured duty as essential, while accepting “freedom as a quality of authority” rather than as something flowing from mere loyalty to the revolutionary ideal (Ferguson 2015, 297). Conservatism was about ensuring the status quo, not engaging in revolutionary social movements, regardless of the cause. Freedom was possible because of deference to a legitimate authority and the statesman was duty bound to support this system, not to tear it down.

It is this concept of conservativism that Kissinger carried with him through life. He would later write that “the true conservative is not at home in social struggle. He will attempt to avoid unbridgeable schism, because he knows that a stable social structure thrives not on triumphs but on reconciliations” (Kaplan 1999). This kind of conservatism was featured at the Congress of Vienna. as the settlements there sought to reintegrate France with the European system, bind Russia to the new world order, and establish the ongoing relevance of the status quo monarchies permeating the Continent. Kissinger concluded that “most great statesmen” were conservative because it is the conservative who “understands the experience of his people and of the essence of a continuing relationship, which is the key to a stable international organization” (Kissinger 2013, 329). It is due to understanding and bridging divides that a statesman becomes great.

The third and fourth contrarian themes that Ferguson pulls from the pages of Restored both center on history, but in different ways. To begin with, Kissinger held a “distinctly old-fashioned view of history as an essentially tragic discipline” (Ferguson 2015, 299). “The statesman,” writes Kissinger in Restored, “is therefore like one of the heroes in a classical drama who has had a vision of the future but who cannot transmit it directly to his fellow-men and who cannot validate its ‘truth’.” (Kissinger 2013, 329). The statesman is “tragic” because he ceaselessly engages in this struggle, a struggle defined by historical features that cannot be changed in a single lifespan (Ferguson 2015, 299). While a statesman might learn the “truth” in his own time, nations learn through experience alone, making the statesman’s warnings, especially those about the risks posed by revolutionary powers, seem out of place and time (Kissinger 2013, 329). Foreign policy needs to be executed with the sense that all could go terribly wrong; only then is the proper care and foresight employed.

There are at least two forces at work against which the tragic hero of the statesman struggles. The first is “the problem of legitimizing a policy within a governmental apparatus;” an issue Kissinger calls a “problem of bureaucratic rationality” (Kissinger 2013, 326). While the making of policy is defined by contingency and flexibility, bureaucracies of government measure success in terms of calculability and safety, characteristics uncommonly associated with the messy process of policymaking (Kissinger 2013, 326 – 327). Policy aims at fixing problems while bureaucracy aims to prevent them (Kissinger 2013, 327). One is flexible, the other cautiously static, and these are fundamentally opposed orientations. Additionally, bureaucracies are only capable of carrying out a limited set of actions since they are bound by the fixed values of the societies they serve and are charged with achieving instrumental success rather than social goals (Kissinger 2013, 327). These are all hallmarks of a bureaucratic rationality against which a statesman will always struggle.

The second force confronting the statesman centers on policy “harmonizing with the national experience, which is a problem of historical development” (Kissinger 2013, 326). This comes in two varieties. First, a statesman struggles to justify policy decisions to domestic audiences because “the international experience of a people is a challenge to the universality of its notion of justice, for the stability of an international order depends on self-limitation, on reconciliation of different versions of legitimacy” (Kissinger 2013, 328). Different states may hold different notions of justice, and this can make achieving stabilizing policies difficult for the statesman. Kissinger contends:

…if a society legitimizes itself by a principle which claims both universality and exclusiveness, if its concept of ‘justice,’ in short, does not include the existence of different principles of legitimacy, relations between it and other societies will come to be based on force (Kissinger 2013, 328).

This is not a conducive setting for diplomacy. Second, “even when there exists no fundamental ideological gulf, a nation’s domestic experience will tend to inhibit its comprehension of foreign affairs” (Kissinger 2013, 328). Modern political science calls these two varieties of domestic pressure problems of two-level games. Statesmen must meet two sets of demands – those made by the opposing state and those made by domestic audiences. The domestic experience, meaning the domestic politics and social values of a state, may well prohibit certain policies that would best address the needs of the international system writ large. This is a timeless obstacle facing the would-be statesman, and it only adds to his or her tragic existence.

This view of history and diplomacy ultimately brings dark tidings. If the statesman is always fighting a losing battle against the engrained features of his government and society, disaster ultimately and cyclically strikes. For instance, Ferguson argues that Kissinger saw the seeds of Europe’s Great War were planted at the Congress of Vienna (Ferguson 2015, 298). How? Stability lulled states to sleep. Even the ablest statesmen who refused to rest in their jobs would be unable to move nations who had become accustomed to peace. Robert Kaplan, another observer of Kissinger, agrees with Ferguson’s assessment. By the time World War I broke, “Europe had thus lost that vital, tragic sensibility without which disaster is hard to avoid, and troops rushed onto the battlefields of Flanders in a fit of romanticism,” he wrote in a review of A World Restored. Gone were the lessons of the Napoleonic age that were acted on by Metternich and Castlereagh and such is the tragedy of history about which Kissinger was so concerned.

Ferguson identifies one last joint theme in Restored, namely history “as a source of analogies for the statesman” and as “the defining factor in national identity” (Ferguson 2015, 300). Kissinger maintains that history instructs today’s policymakers not through scientific laws or identities, but rather through analogies that might serve as guides for addressing modern policy problems (Kissinger 2013, 331). In making this claim the young scholar was criticizing modern trends in political science that attempted to discover covering laws for political interaction (Ferguson 2015, 296).

Secondly, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama explains, Kissinger was “…always conscious of the fact that foreign policy was made by statesmen who operated in a specific historical, cultural, and political context that shaped their goals and limited their options” (Fukuyama 1997). Nothing was given in world politics; rather, it was the product of an intractably intertwined historical experience. Kissinger makes this plain by writing “no significant conclusions are possible in the study of foreign affairs – the study of states acting as units – without an awareness of the historical context” (Kissinger 2013, 331). This view bucked not just the views in vogue in  political science, but also ran counter to those policymakers who approached political challenges as isolated problems for solving.

The practical implications of this last joint theme are clear. Kissinger saw “the world of the Cold War was not in fact unprecedented and that, by analogy, useful insights could be gleaned from the study of nineteenth-century Europe” (Ferguson 2015, 300). There were echoes between the Congress of Vienna and the modern era well worth exploring. The Cold War was certainly tense and the Soviet Union a potential revisionist state, but stability could be achieved if legitimacy and equilibrium could be established. While the United States must confront the Kremlin, t was possible to promote an international order conducive to stability, if not peace. This would require, however, internalizing the experiences of 19th century diplomatic wrangling in Vienna.

Beyond his four themes, Ferguson eventually makes several closing observations about A World Restored and its author. He concludes that “Kissinger set out simultaneously an idealist methodology, a conservative ideology, a philosophy of history, and a tragic sensibility” with his book (Ferguson 2015, 300). Ultimately, however, “the challenge to the modern reader is to appreciate the full richness of his argument by analogy because so much of it is left implicit” (Ferguson 2015, 300 – 301). There are none of the outlines, subtitles, bulleted lists, or two-by-two tables that have come to characterize modern political science. No explicit “lessons learned” section awaits the reader at the end of Restored. Its insights into the past and present are wound throughout its chapters and seep from its paragraphs. Present day students of strategy and diplomacy will likely find more in common between Kissinger’s writing style and that of the 19th century thinkers he studied, than they will contemporary social scientists or even historians. Still, this is part of the book’s charm and makes coming back to it more enjoyable each time.

The Influence of Individuals on History

Indeed, the reader who burrows into Restored will find other themes Ferguson left less thoroughly explored. Perhaps the most valuable is Kissinger’s analysis of the importance that individual personality plays in the conduct of foreign policy. “Kissinger’s depictions of Metternich, Castlereagh, and Talleyrand reflect that consciousness and an attuned sensitivity to the nuances of character,” writes Fukuyama (Fukuyama 1997). However, two feature most prominently in the years following Napoleon’s defeat. Castlereagh, who negotiated the peace, and Metternich, who sought to give it legitimacy, are the central to Kissinger’s analysis (Kissinger 2013, 5). Careful readers of history learn that these were “men marked by individuality” that made all the difference in achieving and maintaining a stable international system (Kissinger 2013, 316). To be sure, these men faced the limitations imposed on them by their respective states, but they rose to the occasion and forged a system with lasting implications for European politics (Kissinger 2013, 5). This could only be done because each acted in the interests of his respective state and pursued conservative foreign policy goals that buttressed international stability.

In desiring to ensure Great Britain was not threatened by a Continental Europe under the command of a single power, Castlereagh used the negotiations in Vienna to engineer a system for balancing forces through the Quadruple Alliance (Kissinger, 2013, 5-6). He ultimately hoped regular meetings between the Great Powers, called congresses, might offer a chance for this alliance to respond to security threats as they emerged and before they got out of hand. Metternich, preoccupied with preventing the development of threats in the first place, especially challenges from anti-monarchical revolutions, established the “doctrine of legitimacy” by coopting Tsar Alexander’s idea for a Holy Alliance (Kissinger 2013, 5-6). Conservative, monarchal states of Europe would band together to prevent revolutions at home and abroad. This reactionary alliance to prevent revolution was brought about by Metternich appropriating the idea from Alexander who initially thought the capability to intervene might help further Russia’s future aspirations (Kissinger 2013, 188 – 190 & 216). Redirecting the Holy Alliance at preserving stability rather than justifying revolution is yet another example of Metternich’s effective diplomatic skill.

In the end both Castlereagh and Metternich were vital to the stability that emerged from Vienna. While these men were certainly products of their times, their times did not guarantee a particular outcome. In fact, there was much vacillation between potential policies within the governments concerned (Kissinger 2013, 324). These men engaged in a “moral act: an estimate which depended for its validity on a conception of goals as much as on an understanding of the available material, which was based on knowledge but not identical with it” (Kissinger 2013, 325). The dealings of Metternich and Castlereagh made the post-war world stable. After all, it is only the individual statesman who can engage in decisive moral acts, who can lead. As new models explaining political interaction are developed in the social sciences, we do well to remember this basic insight into the nature of politics that was so important to Kissinger even so early in his life.

Finally, there is a great deal of speculation about the role these historical figures played in the life Henry Kissinger beyond his dissertation. Isaacson argues that Restored is most interesting for offering a window into “who Kissinger was and what he believed” (Isaacson 1992, 76). The dissertation turned book “laid the foundation for his philosophy of realpolitik and the conservative outlook that endured throughout his career” (Isaacson 1992, 75). Fukuyama builds on this assessment. Not only was the book “the classic statement of political realism”, but it also “lays out the general principles of the balance-of power diplomacy that would characterize his own policies as national security advisor and secretary of state” (Fukuyama 1997). Kaplan suggests that “the book’s principal character, the Austrian diplomat Prince Clemens von Metternich — secretive, manipulative, and tragic in his world view — is often seen as the figure Kissinger took as a model…” (Kaplan 1999). For his part, Kissinger vehemently denied basing his life’s work on that of the Austrian Prince (Isaacson 1992, 76 – 77; Kaplan 1999). Still, the two men shared similar visions for the role of diplomacy, and Kissinger saw Metternich’s role during the Congress of Vienna and after as essential. All the same, the scholar-practitioner refused to be linked so inextricably with the  Austrian statesman. In this light, Ferguson argues that it is “wrong to think of A World Restored as some kind of anticipatory guide to statecraft by a future practitioner” (Ferguson 2015, 295). Rather, it was the kind of dissertation whose findings might help mold the mind of a man who would become a future practitioner, a subtle difference.

If there is a hero in Restored, however, it may well be Castlereagh (Ferguson 2015, 303). Ferguson contends Kissinger is much more ambivalent toward Metternich than often considered in large part because even for all his diplomatic genius, the prince left his country in a much more difficult position than his British counterpart (Ferguson 2015, 301). Metternich’s designs lacked “inspiration” and for all his cunning, the Austrian had limitations of his own (Ferguson 2015, 302). Isaacson suggests that while Kissinger displays Metternich’s flaws throughout Restored, he pays him “tribute” for the diplomatic and negotiation skills he mustered during his life (Isaacson 1992, 77). Meanwhile, Castlereagh was the “authentically tragic statesman” trying to get the best for his country abroad, but struggling all the same against timeless, confounding domestic forces (Ferguson 2015, 303). His long study of Metternich and Castlereagh must have affected Kissinger’s development as a policymaker, but what his dissertation really offered him was a laboratory to explore how these practitioners engaged in foreign policy realism. It would be as a realist that Kissinger would make his first-hand mark on the conduct of international affairs (Kaplan 1999).

Realism certainly became his creed. Its counterpoint, idealism, in his view had failed repeatedly throughout American history and served only to cause an “inefficient cycle of intense hope and activity abroad followed by morose withdrawal once it became apparent that hope and activity were unlikely to remake the world” (Kaplan 1999). This was a dangerous cycle, but it could be broken with a return to the conservative realism practiced by Metternich and Castlereagh according to the themes of Restored. It is this view that opened Kissinger up to some criticism. As Fukuyama points out, “the book’s greatest failing was its inability to appreciate the fact that history for the past two centuries has been on the side of the idealist Alexander I and not the amoral calculator Metternich” (Fukuyama 1997). In fact, idealism, in either its traditional liberal form or in what became known as neoconservatism, played a hugely important role throughout modern history, for good or ill. Kissinger’s vision of realism might have been the subjective best practice for engaging in foreign policy, but it hardly captured the rich history of international relations that characterized periods of history wider than just the Congress of Vienna.

From History to Policy

There is no dearth of policy recommendations that flow from A World Restored. Indeed, students of strategy and diplomacy will do best to consider these in some detail. First, Kissinger firmly makes the case for engaging in ongoing conservative, realist foreign policy. In his mind, it best matches the means of diplomacy and force with the ends of policy and ensures the legitimate, stable world order. Such a world may not be perfect, but it is better than the chaos of revolution. Second, Kissinger envisioned a specific role for the United States in the modern international system – the same role Great Britain filled throughout the 19th century – that of “offshore balancing power” (Ferguson 2015, 301). In the Quadruple Alliance, it was the power that Great Britain brought to bear which ensured stability in Europe. States on the continent might align and realign with one another, but Great Britain could shift its allegiance as necessary to keep balance. Such a role is essential to a modern, stable international system. Finally, there is a humility that readers today should take from reading Restored. “Only a shallow historicism would maintain that successful policies are always possible,” wrote Kissinger in his first book (Kissinger 2013, 322). Indeed, the worst can happen in international politics and there may only be choices among bad options. Even the very best strategists and diplomats may not be able to achieve some political goals. Thus, it is ever important to keep the importance of matching means with ends in mind.

Ultimately, A World Restored offers its readers a rich historical take on an important part of Europe’s history. That the Congress of Vienna produced a peace that lasted for almost one hundred years makes it a worthwhile case to study.



Ferguson, Niell. Kissinger 1923 – 1968: The Idealist. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2015.

Ferguson is in the process a multi-book effort to examine Henry Kissinger’s entire life. This first entry in that effort is wonderfully written and clearly argued. A historian, Ferguson takes careful time to examine primary and secondary sources in treating his subject, and it shows. Both macro arguments and micro details are accessible and carefully researched. Chapter 9, “Doctor Kissinger,” discusses A World Restored at length and is the very best summary of the book available. If students of strategy and diplomacy read one book on Henry Kissinger, this should be it.

Fukuyaman, Francis. “A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon.” Foreign Affairs. September/October 1997.

This is a very short book review written by one of the best known modern political scientists. Fukuyama in this brief piece highlights Kissinger’s major arguments in A World Restored and offers useful criticism as well.

Isaacson, Walter. Kissinger: A Biography. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Before Ferguson’s books, this was the most commonly read Kissinger biography. It is not as detailed as the newer effort, but it still offers important views into the life of its subject, especially the early life leading to his writing A World Restored.

Kaplan, Robert. “Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism.” The Atlantic, June 1999.

Robert Kaplan has built a reputation for popularizing sometimes bulky academic arguments. This short piece in The Atlantic revisits A World Restored and considers its implications for modern conservatism and realism.

Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812 –1822 Echo Point Books & Media, 2013.

First published in 1957, A World Restored is the published version of Henry Kissinger’s Harvard doctoral thesis. One of the most cogent examinations of the Congress of Vienna, conservatism, and political realism, it is still required reading in many international relations graduate programs. This edition is the latest reprinting.