Henry Kissinger, like Shakespeare’s unreflective King Lear, has grown old without growing wise.
In “World Order,” his latest handiwork, Mr. Kissinger discovers no theory of international relations like Newton’s laws of motion or Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Instead, he perceives historical events as a series of binomial equations, each with its unique backward-looking answer. He sees world affairs like a kaleidoscope — constantly changing and eluding any overarching, organizing and predictive principle.
Mr. Kissinger is utterly uninterested in justice both within and among nations. The word does not appear in the book index. The exclusion is stunning. Men and women are little more than savages if justice is not their North Star. it is the raison d’etre of human existence as soon as it is civilized.
Ulterior motives may have been at work. Christopher Hitchens’ “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” maintains that the author of “World Order” should be prosecuted “for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common and customary international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping and torture.” Among other things, these crimes relate to Vietnam, Bangladesh, East Timor and Chile.
In 1976, then-Secretary of State Kissinger heartily supported a military coup in Argentina that predictably unleashed a savage Argentinian dirty war featuring “Operation Condor” and the disappearances of 30,000 youths. Even today, grandmothers and mothers of Plaza de Mayo gather to demand an accounting for their grandchildren and children.
Mr. Kissinger taught at Harvard. He served as national security adviser and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He then became an all-purpose eminence grise to occupants of the White House and foreign leaders.
Despite his vast wealth of experience and knowledge, Mr. Kissinger is unable to discern a theory of man that explains from time immemorial chronic wars, international enmities and the lion’s share of the world’s misery index. It is not difficult. The DNA of the species creates an instinct to dominate for the sake of domination, hoping to find self-importance at the hazard of self-ruination. Alcibiades and Syracuse, Napoleon and Moscow, Hitler and Barbarossa, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, and the United States and Vietnam and Iraq are corroborative.
Rome exhibits the changeless dynamics of international relations. It first fought in self-defense, then in defense of allies, then invented allies to defend, and finally fought for its own sake, i.e., conquest for the sake of conquest. As Joseph Schumpeter elaborated in “The Sociology of Imperialism”: “It may sound paradoxical, but numberless wars — perhaps the majority of all wars — have been waged without adequate ‘reason.’”
None of this should be surprising. Long ago, Ecclesiastes 1:9 sermonized: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Only the choreography and stage props change. The human narrative stays the same.
Mr. Kissinger’s fixation is order and equilibrium. He neurotically worries over the extremism that may flourish during times of upheaval or domestic unrest. But he ignores the vastly worse extremism that finds expression in tyrannical governments sustained by order. All the terrorist organizations from the beginning of time have perpetrated only a tiny fraction of the horrors of Mao’s People’s Republic of China, Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Hitler’s Third Reich.
The United States was born by taking up arms against the order of the British Empire, not by submitting to the injustices of King George III. Nothing in “World Order” suggests Mr. Kissinger would have risked his life, fortune and sacred honor for Gen. George Washington.
Mr. Kissinger frets about Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia. but he is silent as the Sphinx about the extremist, absolutist Saudi government that gave birth to Islamic extremism by subjugating women, crushing dissent, beheading criminals, repudiating due process, championing religious bigotry, and generally oppressing the entire Saudi population of 30 million.
Mr. Kissinger possesses an awesome mastery of historical detail about countless conflicts over eons of time. On that score, the scholar-statesman is like a baseball aficionado who knows the batting average of every player since 1900 but is stumped at how to hit a home run. Mr. Kissinger navigates the past, but throws up his hands at the future. Knowledge that lacks predictive power, however, is indistinguishable from fool’s gold.
“World Order” is thin gruel, like Oliver Twist’s soup. It leaves you hungry for something more intellectually and morally nourishing. Mr. Kissinger’s closing advice for the future is as inscrutable as Yogi Berra’s, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Greatness is made of more profound stuff.
Bruce Fein is a former associate deputy attorney general and general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission under President Reagan. He is author of “American Empire Before the Fall and Constitutional Peril: The Life and Death Struggle for Our Constitution and Democracy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
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