Book Reviews

"World Order," by Henry Kissinger

By Book Review Editor
Friday, January 30, 2015, 11:19 PM

Published by Penguin Press (2014)

Reviewed by Ali Wyne

In over six decades as a scholar, Henry Kissinger has trained his historical depth and panoramic worldview on an ambitious range of subjects. His undergraduate honors thesis probes the thinking of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Immanuel Kant in an attempt to divine “the meaning of history.” His first book, A World Restored: Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace (1954), surveys early 19th-century Europe’s attempt to fashion a durable settlement during and immediately following the Napoleonic Wars. His second book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), analyzes the strategic dimensions of the atomic age.

Subsequent tomes of Kissinger’s examine the challenges confronting transatlantic ties, America’s involvement in Indochina, and the ways in which the global strategic balance evolved during his time in government. In 2011 (at the age of 88), he published On China, which chronicles the historical origins of China’s approach to foreign policy and mulls whether it and the United States are fated to a military confrontation. One can regard Kissinger’s newest book, his fourteenth, as both the summit of his intellectual journey and a glimpse into the prism through which he has long tried to make sense of world affairs. Of the preoccupations that underlie Kissinger’s prodigious corpus of work, after all, few rank higher than “world order”—both the imperative of pursuing it and the difficulty of maintaining it. Kissinger regards order as evanescent, not enduring; its objectives, more aspirational than concrete. He understands it less as an end than as a process of interminable duration.

Legitimacy Versus Justice

In a 1968 essay, he argues that the “greatest need of the contemporary international system is an agreed concept of order. In its absence, the awesome available power is unrestrained by any consensus as to legitimacy.” The establishment and maintenance of order, in turn, require that the strongest would-be revisionists accept its core assumptions and arrangements—if not their justness, then their immunity to systemic challenge. In A World Restored, he asserts that a sustainable order is anchored in “the relative security—and therefore the relative insecurity—of its members. Its stability reflects, not the absence of unsatisfied claims, but the absence of a grievance of such magnitude that redress will be sought in overturning the settlement rather than through an adjustment within its framework” (emphases Kissinger’s).

Kissinger has long distinguished between legitimacy and justice. Again in A World Restored, he observes that stability

has commonly resulted not from a quest for peace but from a generally accepted legitimacy. “Legitimacy” as here used should not be confused with justice. It means no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. It implies the acceptance of the framework of the international order by all major powers, at least to the extent that no state is so dissatisfied that, like Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, it expresses its dissatisfaction in a revolutionary foreign policy…. Wars may occur, but they will be fought in the name of the existing structure and the peace which follows will be justified as a better expression of the “legitimate,” general consensus.

In recent years, however, Kissinger has accorded a more central role to justice in his conception of a durable world order. In perhaps his best-known text, Diplomacy (1994), he concludes that an “international order which is not considered just will be challenged sooner or later.” In a review of George Kennan: An American Life (2011), John Gaddis’s acclaimed biography of containment’s architect, he declares that sustainable orders “require elements of both power and morality. In a world without equilibrium, the stronger will encounter no restraint, and the weak will find no means of vindication. At the same time, if there is no commitment to the essential justice of existing arrangements, constant challenges or else a crusading attempt to impose value systems are inevitable.”

It is in World Order, however, that he avows the importance of justice most explicitly; one could even posit that Kissinger has come to regard justice and legitimacy as interdependent: “Any system of world order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just—not only by leaders but also by citizens.” This proposition reflects not so much a newfound moralism on Kissinger’s part as it does a longstanding realism. He told Der Spiegel in July 2009 that there are “objective circumstances without which foreign policy cannot be conducted. To try to deal with the fate of nations without looking at the circumstances with which they have to deal is escapism.” World Order reflects at least two such circumstances: the strategic balance among states is in turmoil, with power diffusing from west to east and, to a less apparent extent, north to south; and the components of world order itself are shifting, with non-state actors assuming an ever-greater role.

Objective Circumstances

The tendency to use “liberal world order” and “world order” interchangeably is a testament not only to how much the former has accomplished in so little time, but also to how dominant its assumptions and arrangements remain. In the seven decades in which it has prevailed, the world has witnessed the resuscitation of Western Europe and East Asia; the integration of Asia’s two giants, China and India, into global patterns of economic activity; and gains in human welfare that exceed those in all of recorded history prior to the conclusion of the Second World War. John Ikenberry argues that for an “international order to be durable, it needs to be built around three features. It must be supported by a configuration of power, wielded by one or several leading states. There must be some measure of legitimacy to the rule and institutions that mark the order. And the order must provide functional returns to participating states.”

There is no coherent alternative to the liberal conception of world order, let alone one that can satisfy Ikenberry’s three criteria. Still, it represents an imposition—even if it is less the product of explicit coercion than a consequence implicit in the immediate postwar balance of power. The continuation of relative Western decline will focus attention on alternative conceptions. Kissinger principally focuses on two in World Order: the Islamic “vision of a single divinely sanctioned governance uniting and pacifying the world,” dating to the seventh century; and the Chinese conviction, dating to 221 BC, that “[e]very known society” exists “in some kind of tributary relationship with China, based in part on its approximation of Chinese culture.” In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Kissinger suggested one could even think of a distinct, Russian approach to world order.

A growing number of observers fear that the disintegration of the Middle East—most evident in Syria and Iraq, but also apparent in Libya and Yemen—will create a vacuum in which a fundamentalist strain of Islam will incubate across a wide stretch of the Levant. China, meanwhile, regards its contemporary resurgence as at least a partial corrective to Western preeminence since the Industrial Revolution. While the scale and rapidity of its ascent over the past 35 years are indisputable, however, it is far from clear that China would be able to restore a hierarchical arrangement of relations with its neighbors, let alone emerge as “the Middle Kingdom” of the entire world. Still, initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund offer some sense of China’s nascent efforts to weaken the grip of Western influence—particularly that of the United States—in the Asia-Pacific. As the strategic balance among states evolves, one would expect to see the proliferation and interaction of a range of regional orders, chipping away at but not displacing the liberal world order.

Kissinger notes in Diplomacy that the elements comprising world order “are in constant flux.” Two decades ago, though, the shift of power from states to non-state actors did not figure prominently in the dynamism of world order; instead, the novelty of the post-Cold War balance lay primarily in how widely power was distributed among states: “No previous international order,” he explained, “has contained major centers of power distributed around the entire globe.”

Today, however, the growing role of non-state actors is intuitively evident; unfortunately, though, it is far more difficult to analyze than relations among states. While allowing that the “nation-state”—the dominant building block of world affairs for over three and a half centuries—is an elastic phenomenon, encompassing many countries that contain an array of nationalities and/or little of the functionality one associates with a state, the “sovereign state” is airtight compared to “non-state actors.” How does one even begin to make analytical sense of a category that encompasses such a kaleidoscopic array of actors? There are tech-savvy social activists, nonprofit organizations, terrorist outfits, hacking units, drug cartels, and a multitude of others, all racing to leverage technologies whose number and sophistication are racing ahead of our ability to comprehend.

Kissinger is especially concerned with the dilemmas of the cyber age: “It will not be possible to conceive of international order,” he warns, “when the region through which states’ survival and progress are taking place remains without any international standards of conduct and is left to unilateral decisions.” Where he expresses alarm about the gap between capabilities and doctrine in cyber space, he sounds a more resigned tone in discussing the impact of digital activism—particularly that which facilitates mass social movements—on traditional strategic thinking. Citing the role social media played in spurring the upheavals of the “Arab Spring”—upheavals that have largely produced greater violence and repression to date—he ventures that the “temptation to cater to the demands of the digitally reflected multitude may override the judgment required to chart a complex course in harmony with long-term purposes. The distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom is weakened.”

It is difficult to appreciate, or overstate, how quickly that distinction has blurred. When Diplomacy was published, a mere 0.4% of the world’s people were Internet users; the overwhelming proportion, moreover, were located in the West. By July 2014, that figure had crossed 40%. Facebook, the juggernaut of social media, debuted 11 years ago; YouTube was launched a decade ago; and Twitter was created only nine years ago.

Disorder and Progress

In the aggregate, Kissinger’s analysis portrays a world on the precipice of disorder, assuming that devolution has not already begun. The first element of that analysis focuses on individual countries and regions. He believes the United States, as the world’s preeminent power, must “play an indispensable role in the search for world order,” but suggests it has not come “to terms with that role and with itself.” Europe, he fears, “is in danger of cutting itself off from the contemporary quest for world order by identifying its internal construction with its ultimate geopolitical purpose.” In the Middle East, “vast areas risk being opened to anarchy and to forms of extremism that will spread organically into other regions.” Neither South Asia nor East Asia “possesses the characteristic integral to the European balance of power: a balancer, a country capable of establishing an equilibrium by shifting its weight to the weaker side.”

The second, more abstract element of Kissinger’s assessment identifies three systemic threats to the revitalization of world order: the state is under growing duress; the world’s economic system is becoming more global while its political structure exhibits a renewed sensitivity to borders and nationalisms; and great powers are unable to cooperate substantively on pressing issues.

Kissinger argues that progress along the path to a more durable world order “will need to be sustained through a series of intermediary stages.” It is not difficult to imagine crises that would compel at least short-term cooperation between the great powers: another financial crisis on par with that which began in late 2008; an armed clash between China and Japan that draws in the United States; an act of nuclear terrorism in a major world capital; or a global pandemic are only a handful that come to mind. That said, it is not clear that any of these crises would produce enough activation energy to propel world order to the next intermediary stage.

It took horrific convulsions—among them two world wars, which collectively killed 80 million people—to produce the liberal order that largely endures to the present. Nor were the convulsions themselves a guarantee of a liberal order’s emergence; that outcome required the liberal democracies to win. It should not be surprising, then, in a world of nuclear weapons and a range of technology-driven threats that were scarcely imaginable at the turn of the century, if today’s leaders conclude that the costs of propelling world order to the next stage might well outweigh the benefits. There are at least two other reasons why they might render that judgment. First, it is not apparent what the objective of world order’s next stage would be. Kissinger argues in the second-to-last paragraph of World Order that the objective of its revitalization should be to “achieve that equilibrium [between change and strife] while restraining the dogs of war” (this objective is both more concrete and less aspirational than the one he proposes in the introduction, that of forging a world order that leaders and citizens alike regard as just).

If restraint is a euphemism for elimination, that goal may prove elusive. If, however, it refers to a world in which war plays a less central role, the evidence strongly supports the judgment that the current order is performing well. Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack summarized the evidence in December: “the rate of killing civilians has dropped by about three orders of magnitude since the decade after World War II, and by four orders of magnitude since the war itself”; “the number of interstate wars has plummeted since 1945, and the most destructive kind of war, in which great powers or developed states fight each other, has vanished altogether”; and there has been “a steep reduction in the number of armed conflicts of all kinds” since the Cold War.

The second reason today’s leaders may hesitate to modernize world order is that growing disorder has not, thus far, undermined human progress: most trends suggest the world is becoming not only safer, as Pinker and Mack document, but also healthier and wealthier, despite rising disorder in particular regions. According to the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, “global life expectancy increased by 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women” between 1990 and 2013. During the same period, the United Nations found that the mortality rate for children under five fell from 90 per thousand births to 46, and the percent of the world’s people that is “clinically malnourished” fell from 18.7 to 11.3. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, real global GDP more than tripled between 1970 and 2010, rising from approximately $18.8 trillion to $64.4 trillion; during the same period, real global GDP per capita increased from roughly $5,100 to $9,400. In large part because of torrid growth in China and India, especially the former, Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic calculated last May that “global inequality—as measured by most conventional indicators—went down [from 1988 to 2008]. The global Gini coefficient fell by almost 2 Gini points (from 72.2 to 70.5).”

Such realities notwithstanding, today’s order is scarcely idyllic. In 2013, for the first time in the postwar era, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world surpassed 50 million. Over 200,000 have perished in Syria’s grisly war of attrition between Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the coterie of outfits opposing him, and over 15,000 have been killed in Nigeria since Goodluck Jonathan’s inauguration as president. Despite the accomplishments of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India and Pakistan are rapidly expanding their nuclear programs; so is North Korea, which, according to Siegfried Hecker, “may possess a nuclear arsenal of roughly 12 nuclear weapons.” Humanitarian crimes and nuclear proliferation are far from the only blemishes on the current order. In Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015, the World Economic Forum cites “rising pollution in the developing world,” “increasing occurrence of severe weather events,” and “increasing water stress” as three of the trends that will have the greatest impact on world order over the next year to year and a half.

Still, few would trade the challenges that lie ahead with the horrors that civilization has left behind. Kissinger believes the “penalty for failing [to revitalize world order] will be not so much a major war between states…as an evolution into spheres of influence identified with particular domestic structures and forms of governance—for example, the Westphalian model as against the radical Islamist version.” Today’s leaders may well be willing to pay that price so long as the current order sustains advances in human welfare. One of this century’s most crucial experiments will be how long this duality—disorder and progress—can endure.

(Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a global fellow with PS21, a think tank that launched this January.)