The Stack

World Order by Henry Kissinger

The last Stack review covered Noam Chomsky’s Masters of Mankind. In his essay on the role of intellectualism in society, Chomsky lays heavy criticism on thinkers who rationalize violence for figures of authority. In Chomsky’s view, members of the intelligentsia who justify immoral acts, corrupt a scholarly ethos. Today’s review covers the magnum opus of one such mastermind.

Henry Kissinger is one of the most influential statesmen in American history. The former Secretary of State is known for expanding a policy of detente with the Soviet Union, opening China to trade, the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war, his tangled relationship with President Nixon, public calls for him to be tried for war crimes, and adopting a strong element of realpolitik into foreign policy. His is a divided legacy.

Regardless of how one feels of Kissinger’s policies, one must respect the depth of his intellect. Kissinger possesses a unique capacity to articulate his thinking with extreme precision, a quality perhaps under-appreciated in modern American statecraft, but nonetheless an essential skill in governance. Over the decades, Kissinger has expressed and expanded upon his positions through, lectures, consulting, and books. Of the last, his latest publication warrants a thorough analysis. Published in 2014, World Order is Kissinger’s most sweeping assessment of power, policy, and political order.

World Order is organized by region and subdivided by nationality and theme. In the introductory chapter, Kissinger outlines his conception of order:

“World Order describes the concept held by a region or civilization about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world. An international order is the practical application of these concepts to a substantial part of the globe — large enough to affect the global balance of power. Regional orders involve the same principles applied to a defined geographic area. Any one of these systems of order bases itself on two components: a set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down, preventing one political unit from subjugating all others.”

To meet this criteria: “Order in this sense must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed … Any system of world order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just — not only by leaders, but also by citizens.”

Order, then, is composed of societal understandings of legitimate authority and actionable power. These understandings are in turn relative, being perceived differently through different frameworks of thought. To this extent, culture plays a large role. As culture is a somewhat ‘fuzzy’ variable to measure, Kissinger evidences his theories with the writings of leaders, diplomats, and philosophers to contextualize these societal ideas.

“For nations, history plays the role that character confers on human beings.”

Kissinger begins with Europe, outlining how the history of the continent shaped both its politics and worldview. While numerous contestants have vied for supremacy, “Europe never had a single governance, or a united, fixed identity. … Europe thrived on fragmentation, and embraced its own divisions.”

This tradition of internal wars led to the rise of a pluralistic understanding of order, a custom exhibited in the Westphalian peace of 1648 and the Congress of Vienna. These conferences were intended to bring stability in the wake of continental conflicts the Thirty Years War and the Napoleon Conquests. This practice established that “the state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European order.” This built the framework in which the state was the basic political unit as well as an obligation to respect the sovereignty of the state. This remains a hallmark of international order today.

Kissinger explores the role different states played in shaping this order. The most powerful continental states have been France and Germany, while other states have realigned to balance these powers when they grew too strong. In the case of Britain, a powerful navy was created to police states that became a threat. “Britain, safe from invasion behind the English Channel and with unique domestic institutions essentially impervious to developments on the Continent, defined order in terms of threats of hegemony on the Continent.” Thus, Britain involved itself only out of necessity, a definitive element of its culture and character. “The hallmarks of Britain’s balancing role were its freedom of action and its proven determination to act.”

Likewise, Kissinger examines “the Russian enigma.” Russia’s history led to a more strict understanding of order. “Russia was learning its sense of geopolitics from the hard school of the steppe, where an array of nomadic hordes contended for resources on an open terrain with few fixed borders. … Russia affirmed its tie to Western culture but… came to see itself as a beleaguered outpost of civilization for which security could be found only through exerting its absolute will over its neighbors.” In Kissinger’s view, this explains the tumultuous role Russia has played in European history.

This shifting balance of power has helped ensure relative peace and order within Europe, broken only when the system is weakened by a lack of enforcement or a lack of perceived legitimacy. World War II was a consequence from when “the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 refused to accept Germany back into European order as the Congress of Vienna had included acceptance of a defeated France.” The devastation of the war left the European states shattered and its order broken, thus giving rise to the American order that followed. Across the globe, different understandings of order arose from circumstance.

In the Middle East and Islamic world, order is derived from religion; this understanding is by nature contentious with the European comprehension of order, which is in part the cause for the disorder. “A profusion of prophetic absolutisms has been the hallmark of a region suspended between a dream of its former glory and its contemporary inability to unify around common principles of domestic or international legitimacy.”  The imposed European state is antithetical to the historical record of legitimacy.

Kissinger traces the growth of Islam, which at its height covered as far west as the Atlantic, as far east as India, and as north as the Russian border. This expansion was built over several centuries, bringing with it a cultural understanding of legitimacy. “Impelled by the conviction that its spread would unite and bring peace to all humanity, Islam was at once a religion, a multiethnic superstate, and a new world order.”

The Islamic order looked at the world as being split into two realms: “dar al-Islam, the House of Islam, or the realm of peace” and “dar al-harb, the realm of war.” Thus, “Islam’s mission was to incorporate these regions into its own world order and thereby bring universal peace.”

“The strategy to bring about this universal system would be named jihad, an obligation binding on believers to expand their faith through struggle. ‘Jihad’ encompassed warfare, but it was not limited to a military strategy; the term also included other means of exerting one’s full power to redeem and spread the message of Islam, such as spiritual striving or great deeds glorifying the religion’s principles. Depending on the circumstances… the believer might fulfill jihad ‘by his heart; his tongue; his hands; or by the sword.”

However, this quest for an ever expanding world order was stretched too thin. “No single society has ever had the power, no leadership the resilience, and no faith the dynamism to impose its writ enduringly throughout the world. Universality has proved elusive for any conqueror, including Islam. As the early Islamic Empire expanded, it eventually fragmented into multiple centers of power.”

Kissinger continues, outlining the divide between the two dominant branches of Islam, Shia and Sunni, Kissinger traces the history of this division as it shifted, culminating in the contemporary standards bearers of the respective power-centers for each: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Kissinger contends that the fragmented understanding of order plays a role in the chaos that has gripped the Middle East. Conflicting philosophies have been unable to unify the region; Nasser’s Arab nationalism, the Muslim Brotherhood’s hybrid of religion and identity, tribalism, geostrategic ambitions, rejection of Western ideas of the state, and imperial intervention have all led to disorder. Through these contending lens, Kissinger examines the contemporary history, developing an analysis of trends and outcomes on matters such as the Syrian Civil War, the Israel-Palestinian Conflict, and the Arab Spring. He concludes that unless an authority rises, one that is both perceived as legitimate and has the power to effectively enforce its will, the region will likely see further destabilizing elements that threaten not just the regional order, but the world.

Kissinger considers the history of the most populous landmass. A unified conception of Asia exists only through a Western lens. “There has been no common religion, not even one splintered into different branches as is Christianity in the West. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity all thrive in different parts of Asia. There is no common memory of a common empire comparable to that of Rome.” This multiplicity has led to differing understanding of order across the different geographical realms of Asia; most notable between East Asia [China, Korea, Japan] and South Asia [India.]

However, how power has been distributed in the region reflects a certain cultural understanding. “Hierarchy, not sovereign equality, was the organizing principle of Asia’s historic international systems.” Thus, “in Asia’s historic diplomatic systems, whether based on Chinese or Hindu models, monarchy was considered an expression of divinity or, at the very least, a kind of paternal authority.” In this world view then, power trickles down via relation to the supreme monarch.

From the perspective of India, Kissinger examines the Arthashastra, a Machiavellian text that promotes power in absolute terms. This text outlines what equates to a balance of power, termed the “circle of states.” Leaders were to shape alliances and surround adversaries to overpower them. “In the Arthashastra the purpose of strategy was to conquer all other states and to overcome such equilibrium as existed on the road to victory.” This brutal outlook formed out of necessity for survival.

“For nearly a millennium, India… became a target for conquest and conversion. Waves of conquerors and adventurers — Turks, Afghans, Parthians, Mongols — descended each century from Central and Southwest Asia into the Indian plains… the subcontinent was thus ‘grafted to the Greater Middle East’ with ties of religion and ethnicity and strategic sensitivities that endure to this day.”

Kissinger notes that this complex identity was brought together by British colonization, which connected India through a common language [English] and a series of rail systems. As India grew post-independence, this coalescence was tied by a sense of national identity that has grown particularly prominent in modern politics, which in turn is part of a larger trend in the Asian world order.

“The most common feature of Asian states is their sense of representing ‘emerging’ or ‘postcolonial’ countries. All have sought to overcome the legacy of colonial rule by asserting a strong national identity. … In Asia, almost every state is impelled by its own dynamism. Convinced that it is ‘rising,’ it operates with the conviction that the world has yet to affirm its full deserved role.” This phenomenon is seen in India, as well as its Northern neighbor, China.

“Of all conceptions of world order in Asia, China operated the longest lasting, the most clearly defined, and the one furthest from Westphalian ideas. … In [China’s] view, world order reflected a universal hierarchy, not an equilibrium of competing sovereign states.”

To Kissinger, China has resisted the impulses of the West by quietly asserting its own order, in which the Middle Kingdom was the center. China rejected European diplomacy, in part because it saw itself as superior. Europe vied for Chinese goods, however, this desire for trade was not reciprocal. China was opened by force, and opium was pushed into Sino-markets.

“China’s acquiescence in the concept of reciprocal diplomacy within a Westphalian system of sovereign states was reluctant and resentful.”

As Chinese culture evolved, propelled by Mao’s rebellion and later Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, it learned to work within this imposed system, using the strength of its growing economy and its position as permanent member of the Security Council to shape the international order. While the West has at times decried what is seen as China’s obstructionist policies, China asserts its will to impose its own sense of structure.

“When urged to adhere to the international system’s ‘rules of the game’ and ‘responsibilities,’ the visceral reaction of many Chinese — including senior leaders — has been profoundly affected by the awareness that China has not participated in making the rules of the system.”

Despite its subjective use of power and the international challenges to non-democratic forms of governance, China is a pillar of world order. China’s sense of cultural superiority is mired by another pillar of the world order, which sees itself as exceptional.

The American dominated world order arose from the ashes of World War II. However, how that sense of order has been shaped is complex and conflicted. Kissinger explores American history through the lens of its greatest statesmen to distill the challenges and achievements of the United States.

Kissinger examines America’s growth, from revolutionary upstart to global hegemony. Its expansion was predicated on ideas of democratic ideals, and worked into policy through declarations of intent such as Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine. Despite this, American leaders sought to limit their role in global affairs.

“America’s favorable geography and vast resources facilitated a perception that foreign policy was an optional activity. Secure behind two great oceans, the United States was in a position to treat foreign policy as a series of episodic challenges rather than a permanent enterprise.”

At the onset of the 20th century, several American Presidents reshaped the nation’s international role. Foremost among them, Teddy Roosevelt.

“Hard-driving, ferociously ambitious, highly educated, and widely read, a brilliant cosmopolitan cultivating the air of a ranch hand and subtle far beyond the estimation of his contemporaries, Roosevelt saw the United States as potentially the greatest power — called by its fortuitous political, geographic and cultural inheritance to an essential world role.”

Roosevelt is best remembered for his epigram on foreign policy; “walk softly and carry a big stick.” To this, Kissinger supplements more of Roosevelt’s wit; “our words must be judged by our deeds.” The rationale to both statements was Roosevelt’s belief that power was effective only so long as it was demonstrable.

“Roosevelt adopted a generally skeptical view of abstract invocations of international goodwill. He averred that it did no good, and often active harm, for America to make grand pronouncements of principle if it was not in a position to enforce them against determined opposition.” In light of Obama’s Syrian red line, it is advice best heeded. However, what Kissinger implies is the most important implication of the Rooseveltian doctrine is the necessity of geopolitical power.

By contrast, one of Roosevelt’s successors would implement another of America’s legacies: Woodrow Wilson adopted America’s role as the world’s conscience.

“Imbued by America’s historic sense of moral mission, Wilson proclaimed that America had intervened [in World War 1] not to restore the European balance of power but to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ — in other words, to base world order on the compatibility of domestic institutions reflecting the American example.”

This belief, that democratic principles are key to global peace and order, is a sentiment that has shaped American foreign policy as recently as the Iraq war. In Wilson’s view, these democratic principles would be implemented by allowing each state its own self-determination. To ensure this global democratic order, Wilson helped lay the foundation for the League of Nations.

“All states in the League of Nations concept would pledge themselves to the peaceful resolution of disputes and would subordinate themselves to the neutral application of a shared set of rules of fair conduct.”

Thus, this world order was based not on power politics, but on the legitimacy of its moral resolution. However, as history has shown, the realities of power cannot be so easily discarded for lofty idealism. As Kissinger explains:

“The distinction Wilson made between alliances and collective security… was central to dilemmas that have followed since. An alliance comes about as an agreement on specific facts or expectations. It creates a formal obligation to act in a precise way in defined contingencies. It brings about a strategic obligation fulfillable in an agreed manner. … Collective security, by contrast, is a legal construct addressed to no specific contingency. It defines no particular obligations except joint action of some kind when the rules of peaceful international order are violated. In practice, action must be negotiated from case to case.”

Ultimately, this is the failing of both the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. The moral principles guiding the institutions are undermined when conflict is met by inaction— inaction due to states not seeing the conflict situation as a worthwhile investment of resources or contrary to their geopolitical objectives. Thus, as Kissinger stated earlier, order must be balanced between legitimacy and power.

Kissinger tracks American history up to the present (noticeably downplaying his own role). However, a just world order must be balanced between the poles of legitimacy and power, just as the conflicted heart of American policy; its moral impulses weighed against geostrategic necessity.

The final chapter of World Order looks to the future, and is appropriately titled ‘Technology, Equilibrium, and Human Consciousness.’ Kissinger details the role nuclear weapons have played in international affairs, and the theory of deterrence. He counters this against the ways cyberspace and the internet have completely restructured diplomacy and politics, and human communications as a whole.

“Before the cyber age, nations’ capabilities could still be assessed through an amalgam of manpower, equipment, geography, economics and morale. There was a clear distinction between periods of peace and war. Hostilities were triggered by defined events and carried out with strategies for which some intelligent doctrine had been formulated. … Internet technology has outstripped strategy or doctrine. … The complexity is compounded by the fact that it is easier to mount cyberattacks than to defend against them, possibly encouraging an offensive bias…”

Moreover, Kissinger looks to what he calls “technologies impact on the human factor.”

“Communications technology threatens to diminish the individual’s capacity for an inward quest by increasing his reliance on technology as a facilitator and mediator of thought. … The concept of truth is being relativized and individualized — losing its universal character. … The pursuit of transparency and connectivity in all aspects of existence, by destroying privacy, inhibits the development of personalities with the strength to take lonely decisions.”

However, given the book was published in 2014, Kissinger’s most terrifyingly prescient statement is this:

“Presidential campaigns are on the verge of turning into media contests between master operators of the internet. What once had been substantive debates about the content of governance will reduce candidates to being spokesmen for a marketing effort… Can democracy avoid an evolution toward a demagogic outcome based on emotional mass appeal rather than the reasoned process the Founding Fathers imagined? … In such an environment, the participants in the public debate risk being driven less by reasoned arguments than by what catches the mood of the moment.”

Henry Kissinger was a hard diplomat, and remains a seasoned statesman, despite his divided legacy. No matter one’s thoughts on his policies, the strength of his intellect is worth consideration for any who hope to develop a more rounded understanding of international affairs. World Order displays the depth of Kissinger’s knowledge, and an acute analysis of global history.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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