George Kennan, left, director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, had an artist’s approach to foreign policy, according to David Milne’s categories. (Associated Press)

Rosa Brooks is a professor at Georgetown Law School and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

There are books that are read and books that are admired, and they are not necessarily the same books. “Worldmaking,” by David Milne, seems destined to be more admired than read. Its subject alone tends to induce a respectful but glazed silence. If the topic is intellectually hefty, the book itself is heftier still (it weighs in at more than 500 pages of text), and the print is so small that readers over 40 would do well to keep their magnifying glasses handy.

This is a shame, since readers who can get past the book’s forbidding presentation will find much to enjoy. Milne, a historian at Britain’s University of East Anglia, offers up detailed and often surprisingly moving portraits of nine prominent American foreign policy thinkers, from Alfred Thayer Mahan and George Kennan to Henry Kissinger and, finally, Barack Obama. Each portrait is rich in detail, contextualizing its subject’s understanding of America’s role in the world and offering a glimpse into the debates and dilemmas that have troubled policymakers for a century or more.

We begin in 1949, in medias res, as Kennan, the State Department’s director of policy planning staff, and his deputy, Paul Nitze, struggle to develop a critical policy recommendation for President Harry Truman: In light of evidence that the Soviets had tested an atomic weapon late in 1949, should the United States push forward with its own efforts to develop a hydrogen bomb? Milne quotes Churchill’s observation that the hydrogen bomb, with its world-destroying potential, would be as far removed from the atom bomb as the atom bomb was “from the bow and arrow.”

For Kennan, deciding whether the United States should seek to develop fusion bombs could not be reduced to a mere question of strategy; it was a moral issue, freighted with near-theological significance. Ultimately, Kennan “crafted a seventy-nine-page paper, rich in history and philosophy,” counseling “against building this fearsome weapon.” Fusion weapons, he argued, could lead only to wars that no one could win: No nation could be trusted with a weapon so dangerous. He cited Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”:

HANDOUT IMAGE: "Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy" by David Milne (credit: FSG) ***ONE TIME USE ONLY. NOT FOR RESALE (FSG/FSG)

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And last eat up himself.

The solution, to Kennan, lay in calling on all states to disavow fusion weapons and give control over nuclear research to an international organization.

Kennan’s protege Nitze saw things quite differently. Nitze had little use for philosophy or poetry; to him, the matter was simple. The Soviets surely would not stop at the atom bomb, so the United States couldn’t afford to stop there, either. The Cold War’s cold logic required an arms race; peace, precarious or not, could best be secured only through what later came to be called the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

The face-off between Kennan and Nitze is compellingly described. Though Milne makes no secret of his own views (Kennan’s call for the United States to abandon H-bomb development was “well-intentioned but dangerous,” he writes), his sympathy for the cerebral and bookish Kennan is just as evident. A similar empathy characterizes his examination of the book’s other central characters, shining through even in the least likely of places. Readers inclined to dismiss Paul Wolfowitz as a neoconservative warmonger, for instance, may find themselves in grudging sympathy with the idealistic young scholar who marched for civil rights in the early 1960s, then “dropped his tenure-track job at Yale as if it were a paper route” when offered the opportunity to serve in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Then there is Adm. Mahan, whose skepticism of America’s ability to impose its way of life on other nations is often missed by those who caricature him as a flag-waving advocate of American imperialism, and Obama, now lambasted on the right by critics who view him as passive and indecisive, even as critics on the left condemn his pitilessly lethal approach to counterterrorism. Milne quotes a passage in Obama’s early memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” that seems, in hindsight, remarkably telling. As a college student poring over the classics of African American literature, he was dismayed: “In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. . . . Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; . . . his unadorned insistence on respect promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”

It is when Milne turns to theory that “Worldmaking” falls somewhat flat. While rightly dismissive of the reductionist claim that foreign policy theorists are divided between realists and idealists, Milne uses his opening vignette — the standoff between Kennan and Nitze — to introduce his own alternative binary: “art versus science.”

The artists of American foreign policy, represented by Mahan, Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Kissinger and Obama, view the world with a sense of “tragedy and caution,” combined with a “reluctance . . . to depart from observed historical precedents.” They see abstract theorizing as foolhardy, and view intuition and humility as the sole touchstones in an uncertain, unpredictable world. Meanwhile, the scientists, typified by Woodrow Wilson, Charles Beard, Nitze and Wolfowitz, believe they can both discern and transcend the patterns of history. They see the world as malleable, capable of being remade through the joint application of American power and American moral rectitude.

But as Milne acknowledges, the art/science binary is as susceptible to criticism as the realist/idealist one. Kennan, for instance, is introduced in the first pages of “Worldmaking” as a man convinced that a U.S. decision to eschew the hydrogen bomb — on moral grounds — would persuade the Soviets to do likewise. Yet the conviction that an American moral vision could change the course of world history is, in Milne’s framework, surely the vision of a scientist, not an artist; it smacks of grand Wilsonian dreams, not the caution and attentiveness to precedent that Milne sees as characterizing artists. Milne acknowleges this but excuses Kennan’s deviation from his artist role by noting that “the fate of the world was deemed to be at stake.” For a book dedicated to the proposition that much about American foreign policy can be explained by the art/science binary, it seems rather odd to open with a vignette in which a leading figure plays a distinctly out-of-character role.

But Milne would prefer to have it both ways: “The individuals who populate this book exhibit these disciplinary tendencies to varying degrees,” he admits, and “this is no clear-cut binary.” Some, after all, “are partial to both artistry and scientism,” and the art/science binary is thus “intended as an illuminating background theme, not as a reductive master narrative.” That’s good, since if most of the individuals profiled turn out to fall less than neatly into one of his two categories, the art/science binary doesn’t tell much of a story. One might as well say that it’s all a matter of personality, or that U.S. foreign policy has been marked by a divide between the overly humble and the overly confident, or the pessimistic and the optimistic. Even after more than 500 pages, “Worldmaking” leaves the reader suspecting that almost any such binary might have been defended with equal success.

Many readers also will quibble with Milne’s choice of top foreign policy intellectuals. Not a single woman makes his list, for instance, and though he acknowledges that “gender discrimination . . . in foreign policymaking [and] academia” might have something to do with this, he can’t stop himself from adding that “the contributions made” by women such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice do not yet “compare, in terms of traction and longevity, to those made by Mahan, Kissinger, and Wolfowitz.” (Wolfowitz, in fact, is the subject of by far the longest chapter in “Worldmaking,” even longer than Wilson’s.)

All the same, it’s a good book. Foreign policy aficionados will be tempted to buy it, place their pristine copy on a coffee table and speak of it in hushed, reverential tones. I suggest reading it instead.

The Art and Science of American Diplomacy

By David Milne

Farrar Straus Giroux. 609 pp. $35