By Henry Kissinger
Penguin Press, $36, 432 pages
In “World Order,” Henry Kissinger writes, “Success in such an effort will require an approach that respects both the multifariousness of the human condition and the ingrained human quest for freedom. Order in this sense must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed.”
Mr. Kissinger will always retain a prominent place in the annals of American diplomacy. This book reminds us why.
For as much as ‘World Order’ offers Mr. Kissinger’s thoughts on the future of geopolitics and the need for a new realism, this book is an extraordinary study of history. Its breadth in that regard is truly staggering. Nearly every page offers a historical anecdote to underpin Mr. Kissinger’s central theme; namely, that a successful world order must be understood intellectually and physically and find support from the world’s many nations.
Examining four systems of historic world order — the Westphalian Peace born of 17th-century Europe, the central imperium philosophy of China, the religious supremacism of political Islam and the democratic idealism of the United States — Mr. Kissinger offers a window into today’s struggling framework of international order. While many works attempt to balance history and political theory in the manner of “World Order,” few succeed. Guided by the book’s comprehensive index and Mr. Kissinger’s passion for international relations theory, the reader is treated to the former secretary of state’s vast knowledge and experience.
He wants readers to understand why the 21st-century international order is under great pressure.
Demanding the translation of intellectual conceptions of order into physical manifestations of trust, international relations are a complicated affair. Early on in “World Order,” Mr. Kissinger hints at this principle. Describing the treaty arrangements pursuant to the Peace of Westphalia, Mr. Kissinger notes how the attending powers were treated as natural equals.
“This novel concept,” he tells us, “was carried so far that the delegations, demanding absolute equality devised a process of entering the sites of negotiation through individual doors and advancing to their seats at equal speed so that none would suffer the ignominy of waiting for the other to arrive at his convenience.”
This manifested balance of power — centered in natural sovereignty, rather than any individual state’s prowess — guides Mr. Kissinger’s perspective on bridging divides. In turn, mutual ownership of “order” is the key foundation for Mr. Kissinger’s contemplation as to how a new world order might be established.
Accordingly, in his consideration of China’s imperial history and its leaders’ expansionist ambitions today, Mr. Kissinger asserts that the hybrid-communist kingdom is uncomfortable with American conceptions of “rules,” “responsibilities” and “order” that “they had no part in making.”
Mr. Kissinger is convinced that an ordered international system is fundamental to global peace. Absent that, he suggests, the costs will be great. This claim anchors Mr. Kissinger’s assessment of the competing anti-order that defines present-day political Islamism. He accurately notes that many Islamist leaders seek “purity, not stability,” and thus disregard concessionary global cooperation.
Mr. Kissinger’s study of Islamist political thought is important, but it’s just one indication of the fact that “World Order” isn’t obsessed by state power alone. Take Mr. Kissinger’s reference to the 18th-century French philosopher, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert. He quotes d’Alembert on the European Enlightenment’s stimulation of revolutionary political thought: “Spreading through nature in all directions like a river which has burst its dams, this fermentation [of thought] has swept away with a sort of violence everything along with it which stood in its way.”
Mr. Kissinger’s prose provokes us to consider this quote along with others in the context of present-day events. We come to realize that d’Alembert could easily have been writing about the Arab Spring.
Still, “World Order” is not without its weaknesses. Seeking to explain America’s difficulties in Iraq, Mr. Kissinger resorts to a broad discussion of Sunni-versus-Shia ancient hatreds. His specific thoughts on American foreign policymakers are also sometimes vague.
On the prospect of Wilsonianism, for example, Mr. Kissinger argues that President Wilson’s durable “genius has been “[Wilsonianism’s] ability to harness American idealism in the service of great foreign-policy undertakings in peacemaking, human rights and cooperative problem solving ” but then argues that the “tragedy of Wilsonianism is that it bequeathed to the twentieth century’s decisive power an elevated foreign-policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.”
Nevertheless, “World Order” is an unambiguous masterpiece. Even at 91, Henry Kissinger clearly remains deep in contemplation. He seems determined to expend every effort to advance his life’s continuing work: helping us understand the intricacies of power in an ever-changing world.
Tom Rogan is a columnist for The National Review and The Daily Telegraph.
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.