World Order by Henry Kissinger
World Order is book that discussed exploration of global power dynamic, written by Henry Kissinger.
No clash of civilisations or end of history – this argument for a balance of power is the summation of Kissinger’s thinking
Western politicians who last year advocated bombing Syria now ask whether Damascus should be treated as a tacit ally against Islamic State. John Kerry talks of Iran as a possible partner in that war, while David Cameron meets the country’s president in New York. The quote of the summer from the president of the United States was that “we don’t have a strategy” on how to prevent a conflagration in the Middle East. Yet as old enmities and alliances dissolve and re‑form at high speed, we are having to develop one, and fast.
One person who has never lacked a strategy is the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, now 91. However, his thoughtful new book aims not so much to advocate specific policies as to portray the shape of the world over the past 2000 years or so, with reflections on where it will go in the next 50.
World Order – The book circles much of the globe, covering India, Europe, China and the Middle East. Four specific conceptions of “order” attract most of his attention: the European system, specifically its Westphalian model of sovereign states with equal status within the system; an Islamic system based on a wider idea of an ummah, or community; a Chinese system based on traditional ideas of the Middle Kingdom as a great regional power; and the American order, finding a new purpose a century ago under Woodrow Wilson, eventually dominant across the globe, and now under unprecedented pressure.
This may sound like Samuel Huntington’s idea of the “clash of civilisations”, but actually it is more like a bracing mixture of Metternichian pragmatism and – more unexpectedly – Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism”. Kissinger notes that when he told Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that China seemed mysterious, Zhou pointed out that China was not at all mysterious to 900 million of his compatriots. “In our time the quest for world order will require relating the perceptions of societies whose realities have largely been self-contained,” Kissinger argues. In other words, cultural (a preferable term to civilisational) aspects shape societies’ worldviews, but culture is not an impermeable barrier to a wider model of order that can bring different regimes together. In that sense, this is a distinctly anti-Huntingtonian book in that it recognises the need to engage with civilisations rather than asserting the inevitability of their clashing; it also diverges from Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis about the “end of history” by arguing strongly that history and identity are central to societies’ perceptions of themselves today. Kissinger also takes on critics who accuse him of stressing realism above all other considerations, a characterisation he regards as simplistic: “idealists do not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognise that ideals are also part of reality.”
World Order draws on a wide range of historical examples to make points about present-day issues. Unsurprisingly, Kissinger spends considerable time on the position of China in the international order, noting its central place in Asia for all but the past century or two. He characterises China’s historical role in east Asia as “conceptual”, whereas that of the US is “pragmatic”, the former shaped by a long history of external attacks on its borders. Certainly the historical basis to Chinese behaviour has emerged ever more clearly in the past few years, as leaders in Beijing have expressed a desire for a prominent global influence based on longstanding ideas of China as a great power. However, there is plenty of pragmatism in Chinese behaviour, too. Today, Beijing feels that Washington is weak and that its commitment to the region is hedged; as a result, China and Japan’s leaders each now claim that the other’s military ambitions in the region are a reason to stockpile arms.
Kissinger uses his “adaptive cultural” thesis to criticise the nation-building project of George W Bush in Iraq. He notes that he was supportive of the original invasion of Iraq in 2003, but expresses scepticism about the value of Bush’s vision, which “proved beyond what the American public would support and what Iraqi society would accommodate”. In the end, withdrawal from Iraq resembled “Vietnamisation” in 1973-5, with equally dispiriting results. Since the book went to press, the collapse of the al-Maliki government has left Iraq on the brink of dissolution and the new government under Haider al-Abadi is dependent on the success of western air strikes to consolidate power.
The author’s own orchestration of the opening of relations with China gives an extra piquancy to his views on Iran: if the US can engage with one isolated regional superpower, why not another? Yet although he gives a detailed and nuanced account of Iran’s sense of its own imperial heritage over the centuries, he argues unequivocally that Tehran today is not Beijing in 1972. The China of the cultural revolution was vulnerable to the USSR and therefore needed to befriend the US to balance its enemies: “No such incentive is self-evident in Iranian-western relations.” Perhaps, but the kaleidoscopic changes of this summer may have changed the situation with regard to Iran, too, as Islamic State in Iraq and Levant is a threat to Tehran as well as to the west. Furthermore, the Iranian regime, however nasty it is, has the capacity for change (as the election of President Rouhani makes clear), and also shows no signs of collapsing (unlike Syria or Iraq). Realism might mean seizing the opportunity for a reorientation in the region that was not evident even a short while ago.
The book is described as “the summation of Henry Kissinger’s thinking about history, strategy and statecraft”. What, then, is the worldview that emerges from these pages? Readers of this newspaper may associate Kissinger with the exercise of American power to impose outcomes preferred by Washington, a view expressed forcefully in Christopher Hitchens’s polemic The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001). However, the nature of American power as a whole has become much clearer in the past half century, revealing different strengths and flaws as regards international intervention. Lyndon Johnson and George W Bush were perhaps the presidents most unsuited to compromise with local realities in the developing countries (in Vietnam and Iraq respectively), and Ronald Reagan the most willing to confront the USSR in the emergence of the “new cold war” of the early 1980s. Over the same sweep of time, Truman and Acheson, Nixon and Kissinger, and George W Bush and James Baker now seem more considered and pragmatic practitioners.
That changing perspective explains why the book accords with liberal sensitivities in a way that would have seemed unlikely in the 1970s. The view that an international order cannot be created simply in a monochrome western image would find little resistance from the left. There is a wistfulness too for an era when the compelling power of governments and individuals could change the path of international relations (something harder to do in an era of flighty capital and transnational corporations), and a reminder that if broadly liberal regimes do not create order, there are plenty of illiberal ones that will.
World Order also enables us to assess Kissinger’s own era in government in historical perspective. Few would now dispute the wisdom of ending China’s isolation from the “family of nations”. He reminds us of the importance of 1972-3, Nixon’s high point in foreign policy (Kissinger was national security adviser, before becoming secretary of state): as well as the opening to China, this year saw the end of the American troop presence in Vietnam, detente in eastern Europe, and peace agreements in the Middle East (after an Arab-Israeli war that could have led to major conflagration). There were of course darker aspects of that era, including the bombing of North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia that worsened a domestic crisis and allowed the murderous Khmer Rouge to come to power, and the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile. Yet when we look back at the 1970s as an era of crisis both domestic and international, it is remarkable how much of the international politics of that decade has come out on the positive side of the ledger and how a wider crisis was averted. Kissinger notes that “nuclear weapons must not be permitted to turn into conventional arms”. This statement seems unexceptionable until one recalls that the 1964 Republican candidate for US president was Barry Goldwater, who advocated using atomic bombs in Vietnam. In contrast, it was the Nixon and Ford administrations that negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks talks in 1969-72 that reduced nuclear tensions in Europe.
Kissinger was a key shaper of a world order that remained stable for a quarter century or more until our own post-cold war era. This urgently written book is a fine account of world order in the longue duree, and also a memorandum to future generations of policymakers that the next half-century will be no easier to manage than the most recent one.
Hillary Clinton, The Washington Post:
“It is vintage Kissinger, with his singular combination of breadth and acuity along with his knack for connecting headlines to trend lines. ”
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“[C]ould not be more timely… the book puts the problems of today’s world and America’s role in that increasingly interconnected and increasingly riven world into useful—and often illuminating—context.”
The Financial Times
“Kissinger’s conclusion deserves to be read and understood by all candidates ahead of the 2016 presidential election. World order depends on it.”
John Micklethwait, The New York Times Book Review
“If you think America is doing just fine, then skip ahead to the poetry reviews. If, however, you worry about a globe spinning out of control, then World Order is for you.”
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