George Bernard Shaw said that “there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” Is this really democracy that is breaking out across North Africa and the Middle East, or some harbinger of something that we cannot yet imagine? To answer this, I found myself running to Henry Kissinger’s excellent book, Diplomacy, in which he describes the art and craft of this inexact science.

But first…Reports are coming in from Libya that elements of the army have defected to the opposition and have taken Libya’s second largest city Benghazi. This would be an astounding turn of events. Does Libya head in the direction of Algeria, which has never been quite right since the French invaded in 1830? If so, this could mean civil war for many years to come. Whatever happens, the US needs to tread carefully, particularly since we have a stellar reputation for backing the wrong horse.

In what was perhaps Franklin Roosevelt’s greatest misreading of characters, and the moment when the Cold War could have been prevented, he dissociated himself from Churchill in order “…to gain Stalin’s confidence…” From Kissinger: “The reinvention of Stalin, organizer of purges and recent collaborator of Hitler, into ‘Uncle Joe,’ the paragon of moderation, was surely the ultimate triumph of hope over experience.”

Let us not make the mistake made by Europe in the run up to World War I. According to Kissinger, Europe “…had forgotten Pascal’s warning in Pensées – if they had ever known it – ‘We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.’” And we must remember “…John Quincy Adam’s warning against ‘going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’”