By Henry Kissinger
Penguin Books, 374 pp., $18.00
September 1, 2015
Perhaps it is necessary to begin by stating the obvious: there are a lot of people who do not like Henry Kissinger. The left has said for years that Kissinger is a war criminal, the most prominent being Christoper Hitchens’ The Trials of Henry Kissinger, a polemic on Kissinger’s conduct in Vietnam, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor. The increasingly populist right bristles when Kissinger talks about subjects like “World Order,” seeing it merely as a means for elites to control the globe.
Whatever your feelings about Kissinger himself, he is an exceptionally good writer who presents a viewpoint that, at the very least, should be pondered. World Order delves into Kissinger’s perception of a complete lack of order in the world today, devoid of agreed upon policy objectives or common goals. Returning to one of his favorite themes, he ponders what instills periods of history with order – the answer is generally either enforced order through the hegemony of a single power or the formation of an intricate balance of power diplomacy. Today, as a multi-polar world is developing through a transition of American hegemony, no two regions of the world agree on what actually should constitute order in the world.
The story, as told in the book, begins in 1648, when multiple treaties were signed that constituted the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War. That horrifying conflict caused the death of about 8 million people, 9% of the population. By comparison, about 8% of Europe died in World War II. The fighting was sparked by animosity between Catholics and newly converted Protestants. When the war ended, European leaders realized that steps were needed to minimize a repeat in the future. The agreements that were signed offered limited religious freedom as well as pledges by countries to respect the sovereignty of other nations and not interfere with their internal affairs. The number of recognized new states and the implementation of a system where no one state could defeat all of the other states helped ensure future stability and an equilibrium of power. That system stayed in place until very recently. The creation of the European Union diminished the sovereignty of individual states and relies on shared values between countries as a source of order.
Islamic religious roots mean that the Middle East, by and large, has little interest in a world order along the lines established at Westphalia. Instead, many in the region see order emanating from global Islam uniting peoples. With a history of empires, a state-based Westphalian system existed for a time in the region thanks to European colonization. France controlled Syria and Lebanon, Britain controlled Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. Even after colonization, the Middle East remained in Westphalian order through nation-state and independence movements. Usurping the European system was a move towards Islamic-based law within countries and a popular movement of pan-Arabism. A good portion of that usurpation was sparked by the creation of Israel, giving Arab nations a common cause.
If any part of the world clings to a Westphalian balance of power in search of equilibrium, it is Asia. On that continent, countries with radically different backgrounds all check the power of the others. Yet, that reality is a construct of necessity rather than desire. Few Asian nations would design the system as it actually is. There is also no Great Britain in Asia – the country that was most critical to European balance of power by giving its support to the weaker side in continental conflicts in order to maintain the equilibrium. If anyone now plays this role in Asia, it is the United States. But, even with American involvement, the region rarely agrees on what they should be trying to balance. India views China as its biggest threat and the most important nation to check, but China has much less interest in India and is instead targeting the power of the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Clearly, the actions of China have the biggest consequences for regional and world order. There is also a larger conflict in ideology here and that is that China in no way sees democracy as the best path to world order as the United States does, nor does it see human rights as a pillar of order. As China and the United States will be simultaneously shaping events, it is not possible to reconcile this chasm between the countries.
And what of the American view of world order? Although descended from Europeans, Americans have never been comfortable with Westphalia as a model of world stability. Instead, they see themselves as the yardstick of success and cast suspicion on all those who do not model their affairs as such. In a series of cases of identity crises, though, America has frequently acted in support of Westphalian equilibrium while voicing higher platitudes. When the United States is not pushed to involve itself in global stability, it has always tended to shrink. Kissinger does not see that changing, presenting perhaps the biggest immediate threat to whatever semblance of world order now exists under the umbrella of American power.
Kissinger’s knowledge of history is vast and almost always put to fascinating application. By summarizing each of the regions of the world, he gives an excellent overview of the current state of the world and the challenges faced by it. The normal Kissinger quirks are present in the book: an avoidance to criticize authority out of fear of losing access. Still, his writings are illuminating regardless of whether or not you find yourself in agreement with his assessments.
Shakespeare’s style was such that his characters often spoke past each other, never understanding what the other characters in the play are communicating. Often, Shakespearean tragedy was built upon this miscommunication. Reading World Order leaves a similar impression of the state of international dialogue. Overcoming this is only possible currently through American leadership to bridge the gap between myriads of viewpoints on world order. Kissinger is clear on where he thinks that leadership should be directed, saying: “A world order of states affirming individual dignity and participatory governance, and cooperating internationally in accordance with agreed-upon rules, can be our hope, and should be our inspiration.”
The United States is ultimately presented with two choices: create a durable world order to pass the baton to or pass it to another country and live in the world they create.