Henry Kissinger has drawn on his experience of statecraft to explore the contradictions of world order, and elucidate how statesmen keep international relations from becoming an anarchic struggle. Pithy observations punctuate his latest analysis, World Order, an engaging book informed by a wide appreciation of history and culture.
While there has never been a truly world order, different civilizations defined their own conceptions of order that shaped interactions long before the modern state emerged. These conceptions gained legitimacy by general acceptance. Distance kept regional orders apart—or at least buffered their interactions—until the 19th century. The emergence of a global international system over the 20th century, however, failed to produce a consensus among leading powers about rules or limits, let alone the ends it should pursue. A resulting clash of political cultures has produced mounting tensions over recent decades. Managing those tensions, Kissinger insists, demands an effort to understand the perspectives behind them.
Niall Ferguson, in a recently published first volume of an authorized biography, argues that Kissinger is more an idealist than his reputation suggests. How does that claim match Kissinger’s lifetime concern with power politics? A careful reading of World Order gives us an answer to the conundrum—and it lies in Kissinger’s belief that channeling conflict is the precondition for the stability that allows human flourishing.
Realist analysis that sees things as they are serves the idealistic aim of preventing the struggle of all against all that Thomas Hobbes famously described as rendering life nasty, brutish, and short. Idealism misapplied, by contrast, risks commitment to unattainable absolutes that put lasting peace out of reach. Security involves not just defeating rivals or compelling them to accept terms, but incorporating them into a structure that makes peaceful relations possible.
Kissinger opens by quoting Harry Truman’s claim that bringing America’s defeated enemies back into the community of nations was the greatest accomplishment of his presidency. Similarly, Lord Castlereagh and Prince Metternich included France under its restored monarchy in a European system whose balance had been upset by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
Drawing former rivals into a constructive relationship that gave them a part in upholding the international order differed from subordinating or excluding them as pariah states. The aftermath of World War I shows the danger of leaving major powers outside the system with an incentive to overthrow it. Kissinger sees international order as the way to enable independent states to function alongside each with minimal conflict.
A framework for structuring relations emerged in early modern Europe by trial and error. Pluralism defined European after the Roman Empire with a patchwork of realms asserting political independence. Competition among them, as Edward Gibbon observed, demanded a military effectiveness that worked against efforts by any single ruler to establish universal empire. The Protestant Reformation added religious differences to other rivalries.
Pluralism, Kissinger notes, thus distinguished Europe from other regions even before the Peace of Westphalia formalized a system of nominally equal independent states whose rulers enjoyed full sovereignty over their own domains. Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War (1618-1848), which had begun as a religious struggle within the Holy Roman Empire. Other powers had joined the conflict to prevent the Austrian Habsburgs, backed by their Spanish cousins, from dominating Central Europe. Catholic France, seeing a united Germany as a threat, aided Protestant rulers in campaigns against Catholic states out of calculations of self-interest.
Westphalia marked a peace of exhaustion, with pragmatism replacing ideology to create a modus vivendi for coexistence in a system without hegemony. The Peace of Westphalia involved a set of complimentary agreements that made states the building blocks of European order. Rather than imposing a program, it set procedural rules by which states could be recognized as independent entitles and be able to maintain their internal structure shielded by the system as a whole.
Legitimacy rested not with any single entity, but in the assumptions under which states interacted. The resulting flexibility, Kissinger argues, helped make the system both resilient and attractive to societies beyond Europe. It remains the scaffolding to such international order as exists today.
Europe’s balance of power established a dynamic equilibrium, but one that broke down at key points. The historian Paul Schroeder argues persuasively that balance-of-power thinking encouraged increasingly aggressive competition as states demanded compensation whenever rivals made any gain. Smaller entitles became prey. The French Revolution, in Schroeder’s reading, partly reflects the Bourbon monarchy’s failure to maintain domestic legitimacy by effectively upholding national interests amidst the competition for advantage.
Kissinger presents the French Revolution as an assault on the ideological and institutional foundations of Europe’s old regime. The broader the revolutionary coalition, he perceptively notes, the greater its capacity to destroy. Napoleon Bonaparte, by taming the Revolution, secured the means for a nearly successful bid at European hegemony. Checking Napoleon required an unprecedented effort that brought other powers together against him. Their cooperation also restored a more subtle equilibrium that prevented a general European war until 1914.
Two world wars, Kissinger argues, led many Europeans to reject the Westphalian system even as its assumptions provide the framework of an expanded international order. Transforming independent nation-states into member states of a European Union aimed to make war among them impossible. But efforts to define Europe’s new identity in the wake of the Cold War were and are rife with contradictions. Integration has stumbled over the internal backlash against the democratic deficit in a hybrid system that makes the European Union something between a state and a confederation. Questions of how much unity Europe needs and how much diversity it can endure while operating effectively remain unanswered. Europe, Kissinger writes, now risks cutting itself off from world order.
Geopolitics underlines how Britain and Russia operated in Europe from its periphery. The combination of detachment and strategic depth brought formidable advantages that shaped distinctive outlooks. Both states had interests outside Continental Europe that allowed choice on whether and how to intervene. Russia’s particular experience, however, forged an authoritarianism at odds with European norms. Its rulers concluded that checks on state power brought internal upheaval whereas failure to control surroundings meant invasion or conquest of the homeland. Defensiveness fueled reflexive assertiveness.
Adopting Western manners and technology while participating in the Concert of Europe has not changed the attitudes that still guide policy in the Kremlin. Statesmen before 1914 who shared an elite cosmopolitan culture found Russia a difficult partner—and the differences in outlook with Europeans and Americans are even greater today.
The Islamic world, particularly the Ottoman Empire, also participated in the European system. But it remained even further outside it culturally than Russia. A succession of empires from before Islam set conceptions of order without theoretically equal sovereign and independent states. The Ottoman Empire’s decline and fall left a left a legacy of disorder. Secular modernity fueled an Islamist backlash starting in the mid-20th century, with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood bent on imposing a more pure form of the faith. Transnational and subnational forces are now stronger in the Middle East than most governments. Almost all states in the region face militant challenges to their legitimacy while struggling to externally balance rivalries sharpened by religious animosity.
Control over the Muslim holy places gives Saudi Arabia an influence within global Islam enhanced by wealth, but it also binds the Saudis to uphold religious orthodoxy. While striving for constructive relations with the West and participating in the global economy, the Saudis have promoted an especially militant form of Islam. Jihadist fervor creates problems, not least since political Islam has made Saudi Arabia’s principled ambiguity harder to maintain. Conflicts between Muslim regimes that had joined the Westphalian system parallel rivalry between Shia and Sunni Islam and the insurgency by Islamists who reject as an abomination prevailing concepts of international order. Saudi Arabia now faces Iran in a struggle for regional mastery.
According to Kissinger, Iran, with its reverence for a pre-Islamic past, had a more elaborate tradition of statecraft as well as a greater sense of nationhood than other Middle Eastern countries. The Persian imperial project, like that of China, marked a form of world ordering grounded in cultural superiority. Despite its vulnerable position at the intersection of East and West, Persia retained its distinct identity even in defeat. It also developed a sophisticated canon of diplomacy valuing endurance, shrewdness, and psychologically manipulating adversaries. The 1979 revolution that established the present Islamic Republic married that tradition to an ideologically expansive project. A movement determined to overthrow Westphalian norms claimed the rights and privileges they conferred.
The result presents a difficult challenge for American leadership now focused on the tricky question of nuclear proliferation. Bridging different perspectives on global order makes securing cooperation from leading states much harder.
Asia presents a deceptive image of coherence at odds with its cultural diversity and lack of the historic cohesion that Rome gave Europe. Asian countries still treat the state as a basic political unit. Hierarchy rather than sovereign equality, however, sets the terms for relations among states. Regional power models, Kissinger notes, whether Hindu or Chinese, imposed a subordinate role on smaller polities, though tributary states often played rulers off against each other. The Westphalian system Europeans introduced has to accommodate the emphasis on protocol and standing coupled with adroit maneuver that defines Asian diplomacy.
China’s position has crucial implications. It has the longest-lasting and most clearly defined understanding of world order of any Asian country, but also the understanding furthest from Westphalian principles. China claimed to rule all under heaven with other polities subordinated to the Middle Kingdom. Rulers considered exchange tribute from subordinates rather than trade among partners. A clash in perspective brought 19th century wars with Britain and then decades of decline and humiliation. Revolution shattered Confucian civilization as the quest to establish communism left chaos and a moral vacuum. Deng Xiaoping’s reform project sought to put back together the pieces without stirring new conflict. Growth and stability since the 1970s transformed China into the world’s second largest economy. But its participation in the global system has an ambivalence Kissinger locates in the way that Westerners forced China to engage on terms at odds with its self-image, and also at odds with avowed Westphalian principles of sovereignty. Will the future bring cooperation or conflict?
Kissinger’s part in the Sino-American rapprochement of the 1970s and the relationship it began lend particular weight to his observations. While shaped by their country’s history, China’s leaders are, he insists, not captured by it even as differences with the United States remain. Preventing those differences from spiraling into conflict is essential. No formal compromise on human rights is possible: Americans can adjust the application of their principles to strategic reality but cannot, for domestic reasons, abandon these principles—any more than China can embrace democracy. Ceding to China ascendancy in East Asia would destabilize the region. Kissinger instead urges joining to the balance of power a conception of partnership that allows for friction. Otherwise, disaster beckons.
The United States has been a reluctant superpower, dragged into the role by conflicts it could not avoid without paying unacceptable costs. Once the protracted struggle of the Cold War ended, ambivalence returned, the impact of which has become clear only gradually. Tensions between ideals and reality, along with unease over prolonged commitments without clear outcomes, have come to the fore since the 1990s.
How, then, have American conceptions of world order changed?
Kissinger takes a well-worn path in writing that the United States defined itself as a new kind of power with the Declaration of Independence, while noting that its Founding generation were “sophisticated men who understood the European balance of power and manipulated it to the new country’s advantage.” The wider British Atlantic world had been part of the Westphalian system. The struggle for mastery in North America, like its counterpart in India, marked an extension of European rivalries. British dominance in North America ironically contributed to the clash between colonists and Britain that created the United States.
The Americans’ domestic principles certainly articulated universal claims about self-government that, when applied abroad, clashed with Westphalian rules and power politics alike. Focusing on that point, however, downplays the fragility of the early republic as it lay vulnerable to foreign interference in domestic concerns. The Constitution ratified in 1788 to form a more perfect union also involved a largely overlooked geopolitical effort to resist external influence.
Another round of European war that lasted until Waterloo in 1815 underlined the difficulties of remaining neutral while relying upon foreign trade. Distance, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, did not alone provide security. A balancing act that upheld national honor and secured key interests while keeping out of Napoleon’s wars became increasingly difficult. Lessons from managing it shaped how Americans understood their place in the global order.
After a narrow escape in the War of 1812, where the United States became Napoleon’s de facto ally, American policy focused almost entirely on keeping foreign conflicts at bay. Kissinger does not draw the parallel but, where Metternich and Bismarck used alliance systems in different ways for leverage to secure key interests, George Washington’s rejection of entangling alliances turned political detachment to the same end. His rhetorical support for universal liberty aside, John Quincy Adams charted a lasting strategy by insisting the United States would champion and vindicate only its own. British naval superiority and the absence of a general European war until 1914 enabled the United States to consolidate its position in North America through what Jefferson had called an empire of liberty.
Not just America’s rise to great power status, but growing instability in Europe forced a reassessment. Theodore Roosevelt, likening the international system to a frontier community lacking police, recognized America’s need to enter power politics. That entry protected national interests even as it helped balance the system as a whole.
Woodrow Wilson, however, saw competition to uphold a balance as itself destabilizing. His efforts to globalize American principles and make the world safe for democracy, Kissinger notes, became with minor variations the U.S. program for world order ever since. President Wilson, he writes, touched a chord in the American soul. But Wilson also set a lasting pattern of framing disputes in moral terms that makes resolving them by compromise difficult.
World Wars followed by a Cold War forced the United States to address problems it would otherwise have avoided. Struggle brought unity of purpose, though pragmatic responses to particular challenges balanced idealism. Kissinger praises Richard Nixon’s realism amidst the breakdown of national consensus over Vietnam. Not only did Nixon articulate the case for a balance of power in terms that Americans accepted, he drew China into the global system on terms that sustained that system. In the face of much criticism, Nixon strived to make idealism practical and turn American pragmatism into a long-term approach—a project he then sabotaged in the Watergate scandal that drove him from office.
Ronald Reagan’s successful approach to ending the Cold War played to Soviet weaknesses by combining an idealistic commitment to democracy with strong defense and economic policies. Enlarging the sphere of global democracy worked in Europe and the Americas, but hit resistance in China and the Middle East.
Consensus on a post-Cold War global order never caught up with challenges at the start of the century. Failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States brought a disillusionment similar to the aftermath of Vietnam, yet American leadership remains essential. The United States must be clear on what it seeks to prevent, what it seeks to accomplish, and where it should avoid any involvement at all. It also needs clarity on the nature of values to be upheld and how circumstance guides their application. Answering those questions would set the parameters of a sustainable approach. Others countries need to make a similar assessment.
The challenge of global order today is to reconcile disparate regional conceptions within a relatively stable working balance. Failed states—or regions where order breaks down—complicate the task. Meeting it demands imagination grounded in knowledge. Tradition matters, Kissinger writes, because societies cannot proceed through history as if they had no past and every course of future action stood open to them. Attention to the experiences of others and to the traditions of American policy is necessary for charting a course that can successfully maintain world order.
An equilibrium that restrains the dogs of war remains the goal. That is Henry Kissinger’s sound conclusion, to which one might add: Keeping this as our goal offers a more practical idealism than does the pursuit of illusory hopes for universal peace.