World Order: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: September 20th, 2014 by bobmorris

World OrderWorld Order
Henry Kissinger
Penguin Press (2014)

A brilliant response to so many compelling questions about balance of power then, now, and in years to come

I have read most of Henry Kissinger’s previously published books and reviewed several of them. In my opinion, his latest — World Power — is the most valuable thus far because it addresses a challenge that the human race faces in months and years to come, one that it has never faced before: the possibility of total global chaos.

Consider these observations by Kissinger in the Introduction: “No truly global ‘world power’ has ever existed. What passes for order in our time was devised in Western Europe nearly four centuries ago, at a peace conference in the German region of Westphalia, conducted without the involvement or even the awareness of most other continents or civilizations.” Without a global world power, obviously, there can be no world order.

The title of my review refers to a number of compelling questions and the first one posed in the Introduction is a whopper: “Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the constraints of any order determine the future?” Here are some others to which Kissinger also responds:

o What is the relevance of the Westphalian System to world order? So what?
o To what extent has Islamism threatened world order throughout the last 1,000 years?
o To what extent does Islamism (or at least radical Islamism) threaten world order today?
o What can be learned from the relationship between the U.S. and Iran during the last 50 years?
o What is the relevance of Asian multiplicity to world order?
0 What are the various stages of development of the U.S. foreign policies with regard to world order since Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901?
o Insofar as world order is concerned, what valuable lessons can be learned from the Cold War?
o Are nuclear military power and world order incompatible?
o To what extent do disruptive technologies threaten world order?
o To what extent can they help to establish, perhaps then strengthen world order?
o Given the current and imminent realities as well as probabilities, must the human race do to achieve world order?

Kissinger thoughtfully and illuminating responses to these and other questions are best revealed within his lively and eloquent narrative, in context. However, it may be of interest to check out a few brief excerpts that are representative of the thrust and flavor of his style:

o “The history of most civilizations is a tale of the rise and fall of empires. Order was established by their internal governance, not through equilibrium among states: strong when the central authority was cohesive, more haphazard under weaker rulers. In imperial systems, wars generally took place at the frontiers of the empire or as civil wars. Peace was identified with the reach of imperial power.” (Page 11)

o “Europe turns inward just as the quest for a world order it significantly designed faces a fraught juncture whose outcome could engulf any region that fails to shape it. Europe thus finds itself suspended between a past it seeks to overcome and a future it has not yet defined.” (95)

o “At least three viewpoints are identifiable in Arab attitudes: a small dedicated but not very vocal group accepting genuine coexistence with Israel and prepared to work for it; a much larger group seeking to destroy Israel by permanent confrontation; and those willing to negotiate with Israel but justifying negotiations, at least domestically, in part as a means to over come the Jewish state in stages.” (131)

o “Order always requires a subtle balance of restraint, force, and legitimacy. In Asia, it must combine a balance of power with a concept of partnership. A purely military definition of the balance will shade into confrontation. A purely psychological approach to partnership will raise fears of hegemony. Wise statesmanship must try to find that balance. For outside it, disaster beckons.” (233)

o “The American domestic debate is frequently described as a contest between idealism and realism. It may turn out — for America and the rest of the world — that if America cannot act in both modes, it will not be able to fulfill either.” (329)

o “Is it possible to translate divergent cultures into a common system? The Westphalian system was drafted by some two hundred delegates, none of whom has entered the annals of history as a major figure, who met in two provincial German towns forty miles apart (a significant distance in the seventeenth century) in two separate groups. They overcame their obstacles because they shared the devastating experience of the Thirty Years’ War, and they were determined to prevent its recurrence. Our time, facing even graver prospects, needs to act on its necessities before it is engulfed by them.” (373)

I wholly agree with the remarks with which John Micklethwait concludes his review of World Order for The New York Times: After expressing some dismay concerning Kissinger’s self-serving equivocation and courtiership, he suggests “the message is clear and even angry: The world is drifting, unattended, and America, an indispensable part of any new order, has yet to answer even basic questions, like ‘What do we seek to prevent?’ and ‘What do we seek to achieve?’ Its politicians and people are unprepared for the century ahead. Reading this book would be a useful first step.”

Even if all the world leaders ask the same questions, including those suggested by Henry Kissinger in this book, it seems certain that there will then be serious differences between and among them in terms of what they believe are the right answers. Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss would have each of us tend to our own garden in the best of all possible worlds. Today, that garden is the planet Earth. It is perhaps possible but, in my opinion, highly unlikely that world leaders will ever be able to agree on a set of rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down. I am again reminded of Pogo the possum….

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