In 1806, after Napoleon Bonaparte’s crushing victory over the Prussians at Jena, a still obscure professor at the university there, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, reported to a friend: “I saw the Emperor, this World Soul [Weltseele], riding through the town reconnoitring. It is indeed a wonderful feeling to see an individual of this kind, who, concentrated here to a single point, sitting on horseback, reaches out over the entire world and masters it.” Thus did the great philosopher pay tribute to the greatest warlord of the age, then at the zenith of his power.
A distant echo of this world-historical encounter took place in 1976, when the Israeli diplomat Shlomo Avineri met the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in Washington to discuss the threat that a Syrian incursion into Lebanon posed to Israel. According to an essay by Avineri in the Jewish Review of Books (Winter 2012), he presented Kissinger with a Hebrew translation of Immanuel Kant’s On Perpetual Peace. Kissinger turned out to have read Avineri’s own book on Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. The two diplomatists promptly engaged in a learned comparison of Kantian and Hegelian views on war, before finally turning from theory to practice: how to face down the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. On his return to Jerusalem, Avineri was gently mocked by his boss, Foreign Minister Yigal Allon: “You two professors had the time of your life with Kant and Hegel, eh?” Their disputation on German philosophy had greatly amused officials on both sides — but the upshot was a firm US-Israeli stand against Assad, who abandoned his threats.
Commenting on Avineri’s account (JRB, Spring 2013), Dr Kissinger admits that he has “no recollection of that conversation now some forty years old”, but adds that while he has admired Kant ever since he was an undergraduate at Harvard, he has “never been attracted to Hegel”. Presumably Kissinger, arch-realist though he is, rejects the Hegelian habit of rationalising the irrational (“what is real is rational”), especially in the form of the state (to which “man owes his entire existence”).
Kissinger illuminates the failure of the Obama administration to deter dictators from Syria to Korea, where the US is now confronted by blustering threats of “thermo-nuclear war” from North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, whose fragile hold on power depends on sustaining delusions of grandeur. But the Pentagon, now under the former Republican Senator Charles Hagel, did not call his bluff. Instead, by postponing a routine Minuteman 3 missile test for a month, the Secretary of Defense blinked, sending out a dismal signal not only to Pyongyang but to other rogue states. Why did “Chuck” Hagel feed a tyrant’s insatiable appetite for appeasement? Unlike his Prussian near-namesake, Mr Hagel hasn’t Hegel’s excuse that Napoleon had, after all, just conquered a continent. Kim Jong-un is merely the spoilt scion of a despised dynasty. The homespun wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt — “Speak softly and carry a big stick” — is a better guide to dealing with desperate despots than Hegel’s hero-worship.