Book Review: Henry Kissinger — World Order

Leiden, a.d. XIII Kal. Mar. MMDCCLXIX A.U.C.,
At the age of 92, Henry Kissinger, head of the National Security Council and secretary of state of the USA during the Vietnam War, is still as productive as ever. Last year he wrote what some have called his summa diplomatica: ‘World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History’Chapters 1 and 2 explain how the modern international system came about as a result of the religious wars in Europe in the early 17th century, ending with the Peace of Westphalia, which introduced the concept of sovereign states. From then on most countries in Europe agreed to respect the domestic policies of other states. This system was almost destroyed by Napoleon, but even then the balance of power ultimately restored the Westphalian system of multipolarity, until the Great War, and a bipolar system replaced it after the second world war.

The subsequent chapters show different conceptions of world order, ranging from radical Islamic ideas of a world wide ummah under one Caliph and China as the centre of the world, to Indian principles very similar to Machiavelli’s ideas and the Westphalian principles and Japanese ideas based on the balance of power. It is here that I completely lose Kissinger’s theoretical train of thought. In chapters 1 and 2 it appears that rational actors, acting in a ‘realist’ way came to an understanding, after which they behaved according to Westphalian principles, in their own self-interest. Once in a while countries tried to upset this system, such as France under Napoleon, Germany under the Hohenzollern dynasty and again under Hitler, and the USSR under Stalin, as they did not subscribe to the sovereignty of other countries, however, they were still constrained by other countries. They had to respond to other countries, what went wrong in the first three is that they did not respond adequately, in the latter, Stalin did understand that he could not take over the world and that trying to would not benefit him.

However, after these two chapters, it is less clear how Kissinger envisions the relation between ideas and behaviour of political leaders. Is this through their preferences? Through their strategies? If different leaders of the same country can pursue entirely different strategies, how relevant is the cultural background of that country? Do nations have a character? Or do individuals have preferences, which can be more or less widely shared in a community? If nations have a character, does that mean that it does not matter who leads the country? And how do major policy changes come about? Given that all countries want to achieve their goals, and maximize their power, and are constrained by other actors, how much do the preferences of individuals and the character of nations even matter in terms of foreign policy? Kissinger leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

The strange thing is, that in The White House Years Kissinger hardly refers to these big ideas, as his own experience showed that they are only important in a very indirect way. He portrayed many rational actors, who tried to achieve certain goals. These goals might be set as a result of certain ideological persuasions, but seeing he was dealing with people in Vietnam, China and Russia predominantly, and communism was invented by a German, it is hard to argue that traditional philosophy that characterizes a nation is the main explanatory or only variable to understand the behaviour of individuals. So while the White House Years shows Kissinger is very perceptive of how individuals make decisions based on ideas and preferences and external pressures, here he focuses on ‘the character of nations.’ In my view this is less fruitful.

Kissinger makes three further points that are of importance. Firstly, keeping in mind how the ascendancy of countries can lead to major wars, think of WW1 or WW2, we need to make sure that the rise of China and India will not be coupled with similar wars. Hillary Clinton, in her review of this book, said that this is exactly what she tried to do when helping Obama with the pivot to Asia. By showing China both that the USA will do everything in its power to protect the international order, and extending a hand to China to be welcomed in that international order, something started by Kissinger in 1973 by the way, Clinton hopes to have played a part in that.

Secondly, with the increasing importance of the internet, the vulnerability of these systems to cyber attacks, and the difficulty of determining who is behind cyber attacks, we need new rules of engagement. While Kissinger does not provide a set of rules that would work, the fact that at his age he has understood the potential dangers of cyber attacks, while understanding the arguments in favour of a free internet is impressive.

Lastly, according to Kissinger the USA needs to balance its urge to bring liberty to the whole world with pragmatism. While I agree at large that the USA has protected liberty, in both WW2 and the Cold War, Kissinger is not very critical of more recent American conduct. The utter stupidity of the Iraq war cannot be defended by either pragmatism or idealism. If the Iraq war had really been about promoting freedom, Guantanamo Bay would never have been opened, the USA would have had a plan to build a state, and the USA would not have had to lie about weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq war was not about freedom, even if I do not have a clue why it was waged. Torturing people to prevent terrorism and introducing the Patriot act are not liberal. Nevertheless, I agree with Kissinger that the USA should strive to support freedom through a smart strategy. A shorter version of the points of this book are more or less in this Wall Street Journal article, in which he is more practically focused.


Bottom Line: All in all this is not Kissinger’s best book, I prefer (and was highly impressed by) the White House Years. It is not really clear what the theoretical point is that Kissinger tries to make, apart from the indefensible position that culture alone, or rather the character of a nation, explains world order.

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