Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order’: reflections and review

Summary Review

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Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order’ is a paean to Great Power politics. It is also, in a more subtle way, a lament. The book, part world history, part contemporary international relations is, in a way, a distillation of Kissinger’s view of the world, as understood through his long career in the field of international politics, as an academic, diplomat and, now, consultant. Following Kissinger’s own proclivities and orientations, necessarily, the argument is both Euro-centric, later West-centric, and reductive to reflect America’s interests and views of the world. That is not to say that this makes the book insignificant for readers across the world.

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As a leading diplomat, who, very intentionally, modeled himself on the Mitterands and the Richelieu’s of the past, Henry Kissinger has both been a scholar of historic world orders and their engineer – a mason of new world orders. The book works in explaining Kissinger’s mind, and by extension, the world-views of the realist, even neo-conservative, sections of the American foreign policy elite. However, as a work of scholarship too, World Order is a valuable contribution, showcasing Kissinger’s classical realist ideas in a dialogue with the rugged, everchanging, landscapes of geopolitics and geostrategy, most current, in our times with the rise of China, and the return of the Asian rimland to the centre-stage of global geopolitics.

Thematic Structure of Argument

Structurally, the book takes a regional-civilizational approach to historic world orders, with each major region/(pivot) of world history located at the centre of its own system of political/international order, within its broadly defined boundaries. Their hierarchies of power, philosophical assumptions and persistent structures of civilizational orders are traced, historically, until they are subsumed by the tides of history, and the entire globe is re-ordered into one international system, primarily of West European origin, ending in the mid 20th century.

The themes in the book can be understood roughly in four parts. The first part of the book,  while setting the intellectual framework of Kissinger’s broad arguments, discusses the transition and spread of this European world order into an international order. Taking a rather mainstream, traditional approach to the study of international politics, as should be expected from Kissinger, this is described as the Westphalian state system, with its core feature being state sovereignty and the inviolability of international borders. The Westphalian system creates a system of ‘horizontal’ relationships between participant states, with each state, theoretically, enshrined with equal rights as a member of the international system. In practice, this equality is complicated by Great Power politics, in which groups of two or more powerful states operate in ‘concerts’ of ‘balance of power’, checking each other and keeping any one power, or bloc, from becoming predominant, so as to threaten the system. This introduces a dimension of ‘horizontality’ to the Westphalian system. Power and legitimacy found the basis of this system, with the former manifested in concerts of great powers balancing each other, and the latter in the universally accepted principles of the Westphalian system.

The second part of the book discusses the historical structures and legacies in other major historical/civilizational systems. The civilizations discussed here make up the usual, popular, choices – the Chinese, the Indian, the Japanese and the Russian, with the focus being on the verticality of their political orders, and the primary purpose, implicitly, to contrast them with the horizontality of the Westphalian system. Before we move on to a discussion of the third part, primarily dealing with the United States of America, and the fourth, concerning chiefly the transitions of the 21st century, a few words on the inter-connections and transitions between the first two parts should help elucidate Kissinger’s unfolding argument.

Historical Transitions – Interlude

The World Order whose development is both traced and extolled in Kissinger’s thesis is, as we mentioned before, the Westphalian State System, born in the wake of the Thirty Years Wars in Europe, in the early 17th century, before the 1620’s. The core feature of the Westphalian state system was the idea of state sovereignty. Following the many sided religious conflicts between various Protestant and Catholic armies, armies of kings, princes, lords and popes, Europe settled into a system in which Kings, leading territorially bounded countries, with clearly defined borders, would be the sole arbiter’s of national policies and destinies, within their nations. This was the principle of national sovereignty. It brought peace to Europe, in a way. An era of peace and prosperity, which was broken, so to say, in the mid-18th century, by the French Revolution, which introduced into the dynamic the new idea, or force, of nationalism. The European theatre in international relations began to rapidly grow into an international theatre subsequently, but only after the ‘storms’ of the French Revolution had settled.

With the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and the previous century of colonial expansion, especially in the Americas, but also in South and South-east Asia, European politics became international in its nature and scope. This European politics was initially overlain on pre-existing regional orders, each with their own dynamics, but gradually, both were inter-operating with each other. As examples, the extension of the European Wars into North America drew in alliance partners from the Native Americans, who, as is to be expected in any regional system, had their own rivalries, interests and calculations of power; similarly, in South Asia, in the Indian subcontinent, French and British forces, armies and navies, became, initially, partners with local rulers, on opposite sides, until one side, the British, gained predominance over both its European rivals – in addition to France, Portugal (the Netherlands had been ejected by local Indian powers much earlier, mainly the maritime Kingdom of Travancore) – and local rulers, becoming the sole, hegemonic power.

Analysis and Argument – was the Westphalian system global?

Kissinger sees European colonialism as the force which spread the Westphalian system globally. Such an analysis requires a reduction of historical processes. The architecture of control imposed by European powers in their newly conquered lands was far from one horizontally reciprocative relationships. It was, in fact, an adoption of local, imperial systems, and an adaptation of these pre-existing systems to facilitate the transfer of wealth from the ‘colonies’ to the Imperial centre, the so-called ‘mother’ country. Of course, Empire was cloaked in some sort of discursive legitimacy through fictions such as the ‘white man’s burden’, or its variants in other civilizing missions. So, the roughly two centuries of European colonialism were hardly the extension of the Westphalian system. To be fair, Kissinger admits this. But, he holds that when the age of European Imperialism ended, the new post-colonial order which emerged, was a distinctly Westphalian one, maintaining the ideas of state sovereignty and the inviolability of borders as the key to international politics. However, if one was to dig a little deeper, even this assertion does not hold true.

The international system which emerged after colonialism was that of the multi-polar world of the Cold War. Within the two blocs, led by the two superpowers, how much sovereignty did smaller states, junior partners as they were, have? Perhaps a little more in the Western bloc, which did have its own internal balance of power, with important states like France, often refusing to toe USA’s line. In the eastern bloc, there was lesser scope for disagreement, as states like Hungary found out when they tried to break free of Soviet dominance. So, where was the scope for sovereignty? Perhaps, only in the the states of the third world, some of which professed non-alignment, like Indian and Egypt, and others which refused to be junior parters to the USSR, like China, and even Yugoslavia. Also, in the post-war world, with the rise of transnational institutions, especially in the Bretton Woods economic system, in the United Nations, to a limited degree, and various Non-proliferation regimes, state sovereignty became a more and more scarce idea.

Further thoughts on themes and structure… and other insights from Kissinger

Rather than getting into a stretched out discussion here, it is suffice to say that describing the modern world, beginning from the mid-20th century, as a Westphalian world, is very myopic. While Kissinger’s excursions into a discussion of regional orders is quite nuanced, even if summarily conceived, his description of the modern world order is very inadequate. Nevertheless, while Kissinger might not have succeeded in making the case for a Westphalian world order, his analysis of American foreign policy is very elucidatory.

Beginning with discussions of American exceptionalism and the idea of manifest destiny, Kissinger gives us a framework to understand the American ‘foreign policy machine. The USA is founded, as the declaration of independence proclaims, on universal principles applicable to all mankind and it is the manifest destiny of the USA, led by these ideas, to prosper and grow. Thereafter, American foreign policy is explained through two Presidential schools of thought, the Rooseveltian (Theodore, not FDR), and the Wilsonian. The first takes a more realist orientation with the second being, famously, more idealist. Both, however, are founded on the idea of America’s unique role in the world. Kissinger uses these ideas to explore the USA’s positions in its various conflicts around the world in the 20th century, from the Korean War to Vietnam, and the long rivalry of the Cold War to reconciliation, and possibly, renewed conflict with China – fourty years after the reconciliation engineered by Kissinger himself. As the book approaches contemporary problems, Kissinger’s ideas seem to veer towards policy analysis, rather than world order, though possibilities of an emerging Asian order, and the USA’s role in it are discussed.

Kissinger China

It is towards the end, in the fourth part, that the brilliance of Henry Kissinger’s mind really shines in all its glory. Kissinger’s analysis of the the technological challenges facing 21st century geopoliticians, the possibilities and threats of cyberspace, and the uncertain landscapes of the information age puts forward many pertinent questions. Do the old rules apply anymore at all? In the context of the argument, however, such questions just might tell us how futile the idea of a Westphalian order, with its concept of the nation-state as a sealed container of national politics and interests, really is.

Towards a conclusion… a worthy read…

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However, even if one find it hard to accept Kissinger’s descriptions, even then his understanding of great power politics, and how one should, or should not, manage the rise and fall of old and new powers offers very succinct and thoughtful propositions to statesman and analysts of world politics.

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Such as, Kissinger’s call for a concert of Asia to manage the rise of China, much like the concert of Europe that kept peace in the continent for almost a century after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. When the concert did break down, however, the relentless pursuit of great power politics resulted in two total wars that brought ruin to millions and millions of people across the world. In our times, this will lead only to a mutually assured destruction of vast swathes of human civilization, if not humanity itself. The stakes now are total, a mutually assured destruction of the world, as it is. This surely, as Henry Kissinger observes, should not be the basis for a new world order.

A book by a master diplomat, and also, as it should be mentioned, a man both appreciated and reviled in almost equal parts, which despite its flaws and inherent assumptions is, to use a cliche, a must read to make sense of our complex, ever-changing world.

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