January 18, 2015
Kissinger's "World Order"
Henry Kissinger’s “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” weighs in around 400 pages but the main substance of the book is contained in fewer than 50 pages (almost exclusively in the final two chapters: Chapter 9 on “Technology, Equilibrium, and Human Consciousness” and the conclusory Chapter 10 “World Order in Our Time?”). The remainder of the book is well-traversed terrain we have largely seen in previous Kissinger work, whether a tour d'horizon of the European balance-of-power system, discussion of Asian geopolitics, or the U.S.’s ostensible mission civilisatrice (additionally, and rather oddly, Kissinger devotes an entire chapter solely to Iran, beyond a broader one on Islamism).
While such production is well enviable in one’s nineties and Kissinger is doubtless the most substantial American national security player alive today, the book is not really a fount of fresh thinking and will hold little by way of blindingly new insight for most readers reasonably versed in international relations. There is also a frustrating aspect with Kissinger’s occasional succumbing to courtier-mode, as when he writes of George W. Bush: “…I want to express here my continuing respect and personal affection for President [Bush] who guided America with courage, dignity and conviction in an unsteady time.” Too often, this tendency to indulge in too ingratiating politesse mitigates the blunter-edged message Kissinger likely wishes to relay on topics such as the limits of American power (of which more below). Still, there is much here to reward the attentive reader, even if Kissinger does not attain the prophetic mantle of a George Kennan.
Kissinger begins World Order retelling how in 1961 as a “young academic” he called on Harry Truman asking the former President what had made him most proud. Truman responded: “(t)hat we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations. I would like to think that only America could have done this.” This same introductory chapter is concluded with a vignette from a Kissinger-Zhou Enlai exchange, on the occasion of Kissinger’s first visit to Beijing in 1971. Kissinger stated to Zhou that “to the American delegation China was a ‘land of mystery’ “, to which Zhou responded: “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not seem so mysterious as before.” These bookends to Kissinger’s introductory chapter not only capture some of the highlights of his life (few if any public personages captivated Kissinger like Zhou Enlai), but also presage tensions in Kissinger’s world-view: ultimately skeptical of American exceptionalism he nonetheless adopts Truman’s sense of America's singularity, albeit counterbalanced by his deep sense of the import of the historic and cultural realities of other great powers.
Before turning to a possible prescription for buttressing global order going forward, Kissinger engages in a thinly-veiled lament at the gross superficiality of much of today’s conduct of foreign policy. As something of a scene-setter, he quotes T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”:
Where is the Life we have lost in Living?
Essentially Kissinger is contending that the titanic reams of information we are bombarded with daily (see your putative Twitter feed) “shrinks perspective.” As Kissinger elaborates: “(b)ecause information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant.” He goes on to caution that policymakers therefore might too frequently “regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum” so that “manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.” One need look no further than the riotously adolescent policy adventurism around Libya (R2P histrionics with Benghazi as an incipient Srebrenica), Ghouta/Syria (almost full-bore into the Levant’s mire on a fuzzily, red-lined whim) or Russia (Pavlovian slap-stick sanctions post-Foggy Bottom egging on recklessly unmoored Ukrainian nationalism) as good examples of this phenomenon. As Kissinger writes: “the new diplomacy risks indiscriminate intervention disconnected from strategy.”
Similarly, we might recall the halcyon days of the early Arab Spring, when Western journalists parachuted into Egypt eager to chronicle the Google generation’s intrepid use of social media to magically catapult a pre-Enlightenment, economically underdeveloped region characterized by entrenched authoritarianism into the world of Montesquieu, Jefferson and Rousseau, seemingly solely on the strength of Tweets from Tahrir Square. Again, we have a superficial spectacle characterized by the “overriding imperative of endorsing a mood of the moment”—see Samantha Power or Susan Rice’s Twitter feeds for near daily, rich evidence of same—ignoring that “the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy”.
In Kissinger’s final chapter he attempts to sketch a strategic approach regarding advancing world order in this new century. We are embarking on an era beyond that which prevailed from the end of WWII to perhaps around 9/11: “when one could speak of an incipient global order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional concepts of balance of power.” Kissinger does not quite say it directly but appears to believe the U.S. must more assiduously seek to unwind any post-Cold War hyper-power pretense that pointed briefly towards a unitary hegemon bestriding the globe unchallenged. Beyond China (whose rise Kissinger compares to 20th Century Germany’s in the context of presenting a “comparable structural challenge in the 21st Century”) Kissinger sees material challenges from Russia, the Middle East, and perhaps, a scuttled European project leading to unpredictable instabilities on the Continent. For Kissinger, the risk is less about increasing multi-polarity in and of itself, but rather “a world of increasingly contradictory realities”, one which we cannot assume “left unattended” will “reconcile automatically to a world of balance and cooperation—or even any order at all.”
What is to be done? Kissinger describes the essence of statesmanship as striking a balance between “the two aspects of order”, namely: “power and legitimacy”. Such an already challenging balancing act must be fashioned in the context of profound differences between the post-Renaissance Western tradition focused on reality "external to the observer" versus other great civilizations where reality is “conceived as internal to the observer, defined by psychological, philosophical, or religious convictions” (Chinese culture, Islam, Hinduism, and arguably, Russian Slavophilism). What is more, Kissinger sees four factors posing challenges to assembly of a 21st Century Order: 1) the state itself, the international system’s fundamental building-block, is under siege (pan-national projects like the Euro-zone, failed states, etc.); 2) economic globalization has outpaced political integration (see the financial crisis, or periphery contagion risks in Europe today); 3) unconvincing mechanisms for great power coordination exist which permit “little beyond designing a formal communique—at best, a discussion of pending tactical issues, and, at worst, a new form of summitry as ‘social media’ event”); and 4) American leadership being withdrawn from the international scene.
Putting aside aspects of the merits of this diagnosis: is it possible to reconstruct an international system in this challenging context (what Kissinger calls the “ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time”)? Kissinger suggests—and this is arguably the most important and telling sentence of the book—that the “contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions, and to relate these regional orders to one another” [bolded portion emphasized in original]. In other words, Kissinger is politely sounding the death-knell for an age of American pan-regional supremacy all the while bemoaning the United States’ supposedly less engaged posture of late. Yet despite Kissinger’s thinly-veiled incantations for Washington to ‘step up’ (as Beltway simpletons often put it) he nonetheless evokes Edmund Burke urging us to disabuse ourselves of maximalist goals so as “to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect.”
I suspect Kissinger is suggesting as part of this regional ordering we must be more accommodative of powers like China and Russia (or, even, Islamist resurgence in some areas), whilst seeking, in turn, to then painstakingly work towards better integrating said regional orders into a revamped global international system. Acknowledging that “world order cannot be achieved by any one country alone” Kissinger suggests we need a “second culture that is global, structural, and juridical—a concept of order that transcends the perspective of any one region or nation.” A tall order: the closest Kissinger comes to a more concrete prescription is “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities”, which leaves much to the imagination.
In the late autumn of his life, Kissinger tacks more modestly than the heretofore brash commanding heights of Nixon and Ford's Washington, concluding (in an apparent, en passant, rebuff to Francis Fukuyama): “(l)ong ago, in youth, I was brash enough to think myself able to pronounce on “The Meaning of History.” I now know that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared.” Unsurprisingly, there is no specific roadmap contained in World Order that provides real comfort we will be able to avoid “the dogs of war” amidst the “rushing stream of history”. Perhaps one can only hope more subtle appreciation and understanding of other key powers’ differing cultural, historic, geopolitical and philosophical premises will better help create ‘zones of stability’ within regions. With the Panglossian figment of a providential Pax Americana fading into history, key international actors will need to embark on a difficult journey towards helping re-balance an international system away from the giddy American triumphalism of the post-War and post-Cold War eras. At minimum, one hopes the reader will come away hungering for more substance in foreign policy-making, married to greater humility of goals within more strategically disciplined and structurally sound approaches to staunching erosion of world order. With some luck, we might even espy the gradual creation of an updated Westphalian model which captures the hugely greater complexities of our globally interconnected time than existed in 17th Century Europe. However, a "Present at the Creation" leadership moment characterized by inspired Achesonian aplomb seems rather a stretch, and Kissinger inviting us to midwife more regionally-scaled blocs--at least on an interim basis--seems to acknowledge this reality.
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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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