Book Review: ‘World Order’ by Henry Kissinger -Wall Street Journal

A review of the always controversial Henry Kissenger’s book, ‘World Order’ with an interesting discussion of the uber-realist’s view on the Westphalian system, IS and the G.W. Bush. Most notable is Kissinger’s position on morality and prudence. While it’s critics often argue there is no moral center to realism, Kissinger makes the argument that prudence is an issue of morality, not just cynical self-interest. Then again,the idea of Henry Kissinger talking about morality will strike some people as odd…
World Order
By Henry Kissinger
Penguin Press, 420 pages, $36
Recent years have not been kind to those who believe in America’s missionary role abroad. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001 upended our sense of the world, the United States has been governed by a conservative idealist who tried to impose American values on the Middle East, and failed calamitously, and a liberal idealist who invited America’s adversaries to re-engage with us on the basis of a new humility and mutual respect, and found his hopes dashed.
It is, in short, a moment for Henry Kissinger, the un-illusioned analyst who has spent more than six decades putting American foreign policy on the couch—and eight enormously consequential and controversial years executing it. Mr. Kissinger is now 91 years old. The fact that he has written yet another book, the succinctly titled “World Order,” is impressive in itself. What is more remarkable is that it effectively carries on his campaign to undermine the romantic pieties of left and right that have shaped so much of American foreign policy over the past century. Mr. Kissinger bids fair to outlast many of the people who hate him and make others forget why they hated him in the first place.
What is distinctive about “World Order” is not the argument itself, which will be familiar to anyone who knows anything of Mr. Kissinger’s work, but rather the idea of providing a natural history of the concept in question. World order as we understand it, he argues, is neither a monolithic entity nor an inevitable consequence of statecraft but a cultural, historical artifact shaped by the character and experiences of specific people. It is a descendant of the Westphalian system that developed in 17th-century Europe in response to the brutal religious violence of the Thirty Years War (1618-48).
For Mr. Kissinger, Westphalia is not simply one system among many but the most morally, intellectually and even aesthetically pleasing of all such systems. The story begins with France’s Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who articulated a doctrine that “the state was an abstract and permanent entity existing in its own right,” holding interests peculiar to itself—raison d’état. When the religious wars of the mid-17th century exhausted all parties, the diplomats who gathered in the northwest German province of Westphalia in the mid-1640s agreed that they would not seek to impose their own religious principles upon one another. States would no longer interfere with the domestic order of other states. “The Westphalian concept took multiplicity as its starting point,” Mr. Kissinger writes, and thus incorporated “multiple societies” into “a common search for order.”
Mr. Kissinger narrates the history of the challenges to this secular or agnostic order. The French Revolution (and then the French empire under Napoleon) sought to propagate republicanism across Europe, much as German princes had sought to impose Protestantism on their Catholic neighbors during the Thirty Years War. Russia threatened the system with its rival vision of Christian orthodoxy and autocratic control. Then the expansionism of a united Germany further upset the delicate balance of forces at the heart of Europe.
The villains of Mr. Kissinger’s account are the totalizers, like Napoleon and Bismarck; the heroes are the deft manipulators of an ever-shifting equilibrium among states— Talleyrand and Metternich. There is something in Mr. Kissinger’s mitteleuropean soul that thrills at Westphalian statecraft, which in his hands sounds like a combination of fluid dynamics and jazz. The balance-of-power statesman, he writes, “must act at the outer edge of the possible, bridging the gap between his society’s experiences and its aspirations. Because repetition of the familiar leads to stagnation, no little daring is required.” Mr. Kissinger is at pains to assert that balance-of-power diplomacy arises not from cynical indifference to moral principles but from the deeply moral imperative of keeping states from destroying one another over irreconcilable conceptions of national interest or the supreme good.
The Westphalian system was the ordering principle only of Europe; very different, and far less supple, conceptions of order appeared in China, Persia, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and, of course, the United States, each of which Mr. Kissinger describes in historical terms before turning to its contemporary incarnation. In Iran, Mr. Kissinger argues, Ayatollah Khomeini grafted upon an inherited Persian sense of cultural greatness an Islamic worldview that sees states as impediments to the transcendent obligation to convert unbelievers. Today’s Iran endangers world order both as the legatee of an empire and as a revolutionary project. In Westphalian terms, the Islamic world seems to have reached only the early stages of the Thirty Years War, which would so exhaust the combatants as to recommend the virtues of noninterference.
Of all the universalizing dogmas that have threatened the house Richelieu built, the one Mr. Kissinger finds the most appealing is the American one. The New World beckoned believers: Mr. Kissinger makes the nice point that at the very moment when Europeans recognized that their “ideal of a continent unified by a single divine governance would never be achieved, America provided a place to do so on distant shores.” America emerged on the world stage in World War I with the explicit goal of substituting its liberating vision of global democracy for the balance-of-power politics that Woodrow Wilson believed, with good reason, had led Europe down the terrible spiral of war.
In “Diplomacy” (1994), Mr. Kissinger acknowledged that all American presidents since that time have been Wilsonians; leaders who cannot touch those resonant chords will not inspire the American people to leave their continental fortress and risk their comforts abroad. Nevertheless, Mr. Kissinger argues here, as he has so often before, that Wilson was a deluded soul who naively imagined that the world could be made good by collective action. His heirs have propagated that delusion.
“The tragedy of Wilsonianism,” Mr. Kissinger writes, “is that it bequeathed to the twentieth century’s decisive power an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.” It is hard to argue with the claim he makes here that Americans find it easier to see foreign policy as a teleological struggle for justice than as a “permanent endeavor for contingent aims.” The idea that history is tragic does not come naturally to Americans.
Mr. Kissinger, nonetheless, lavishes praise on the most reckless Wilsonian of them all, George W. Bush, claiming that “his objectives and dedication” in Iraq “honored his country even when in some cases they proved unattainable within the American political cycle.” President Bush and his chief advisers were Kissingerian realists right up to Sept. 11, 2001; the terrorist attacks persuaded them that Westphalian agnosticism was a dead letter. Since events had shown America to be terribly vulnerable to ideologies that incubated in failed and repressive states, as the president said in his second inaugural, it was plain that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Noninterference, that is, was not only morally suspect—as it has always been—but strategically unaffordable.
Was Mr. Bush right? Or is promoting liberty abroad a Wilsonian chimera, no matter how deeply it might be in America’s interests to do so? Mr. Kissinger does not say so in “World Order,” though elsewhere—in his 2001 book “Does America Need a Foreign Policy?,” for example—he has made short work of both democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention. The dismaying trajectory of the Arab uprising of 2011, and especially the terrifying rise of the apocalyptic army of ISIS, does not offer much encouragement to those who would like to tinker with the insides of Middle Eastern states.
Westphalia may well be an antiquated metaphor for world order at a time when America is menaced not only by classically aggrandizing states like Russia but also by nonstate actors like al Qaeda and ISIS. Nevertheless, given the terrible intractability of world affairs, the precept of diplomacy as a permanent endeavor for contingent aims feels almost inspiring. Secretary of State John Kerry, barely staving off exhaustion as he sprints from crisis to crisis in pursuit of what look like unattainable goals, could scarcely find a worthier motto.