Book review: World Order

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If you want to understand the point of Henry Kissinger, play this mind game: Imagine that he had run American foreign policy instead of the neocons of the Bush years, who saw his realpolitik as appeasement, and Obama’s non-interventionists, who hate all foreign entanglements Might not a little of Kissinger’s realism have been useful in Iraq or Afghanistan?

World Order


Allen Lane, 432pp, £25

Would he have issued a red-line warning to Syria and then allowed Assad to go unpunished when he used chemical weapons? Or let a power vacuum gradually develop onPutin’s borders? Or looked on as the South China Sea became a cockpit of rivalries?

Kissinger’s latest book brings together history, geography, modern politics and no small amount of passion. Yes, passion, for this is a cri de coeur from a famous sceptic, a warning to future generations from an old man steeped in the past. It comes with faults: It is contorted by his concerns about his legacy and by a needless craving not to upset the Lilliputian leaders he still seeks to influence. Nevertheless, it’s a must-read all the same.

The premise is that we live in a world of disorder and always have. So the best starting point remains Europe’s “Westphalian” balance of power, which began in 1648 when 235 envoys in separate towns around Westphalia worked out three different treaties to end the Thirty Years’ War opening up an age of diplomacy (before then only the Venetians had what we would call ambassadors). Equilibrium did not always last: Inevitably, there were rising powers to contain, as well as irrational surges like the French Revolution’s desire to bring equality to all. After Waterloo, the dominant British provided the balance by tilting to one side or another.

This is Kissinger’s home territory – and he tells the story well. His heroes inevitably are realpolitikers, like Cardinal Richelieu, France’s chief minister from 1624 to 1642, who heretically sided with the Protestants, explaining that “man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter. The state has no immortality, its salvation is now or never”; Austria’s Klemens von Metternich, the architect of the Congress of Vienna; Britain’s pragmatic Lord Palmerston (“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies”), and – above all – Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand.

Kissinger also canters eloquently through Russia. Vladimir Putin’s nationalism makes more sense once you understand the historical chip on his shoulder and his country’s centuries-long, remorseless expansion: Russia added an average of 100,000 square kilometers a year to its territory from 1552 to 1917.

Still, the book stalls a bit with Islam. Religion used to be one of Kissinger’s blind spots: now he seems to have swung too far the other way. Islam’s failure to differentiate between mosque and state suddenly explains virtually everything (though not, presumably, the success of the largest Muslim-dominated state, Indonesia). Iran is perfidy personified. By contrast, Israel is a victim, “a Westphalian state” in a sea of unreason. He does not mention its unhelpful settlement-building or examine the Jewish state’s own extremists (the man who killed the peacemaking Yitzhak Rabin is a “radical Israeli student”).

It’s not just the Middle East, of course: there’s the spread of nuclear weapons, the emergence of cyberspace as an unregulated military arena and the reordering of Asia. The challenge is “not simply a multipolarity of power but a world of increasingly contradictory realities,” Kissinger writes. “It must not be assumed that, left unattended, these trends will at some point reconcile automatically to a world of balance and cooperation – or even any order at all.”

Meanwhile, statesmanship, the craft of “attending” to these problems, is getting harder. Kissinger rightly mocks the cyber-utopian idea that greater connectiveness and transparency will make the world safer, as nations learn about one another: “Conflicts within and between societies have occurred since the dawn of civilization. The causes of these conflicts have not been limited to an absence of information or an insufficient ability to share it.”

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?” . Reading this book would be a useful first step forward.