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Henry Kissinger: Stability at all costs (White House Photographic Office)

This has been a summer of international turmoil that has underscored a historical peculiarity for all living and recent generations: that the US is no longer willing to act decisively to bring stability to the international order. The present multi-continental slide into chaos has been accompanied by dual (and at times vituperative) debates in the foreign affairs establishment over the Nixon presidency and the outbreak of the First World War. The combined effect has been to transport us back to prior moments of apparent US decline in the 1970s, as well as the structural failure of the international system to prevent the outbreak of war in 1914. 

Henry Kissinger's latest book is a reminder of the timeless question of international relations, how states interact in a condition of international anarchy. The book's title, grandiose in its apparent simplicity, is an attempt to deal with first-order principles and it reveals the fundamental preoccupation which has underpinned Kissinger's career as academic and statesman: the search for international stability. While the title refers analytically to the shape of the international community, it also hints at Kissinger's attempts to preserve order, his desire to confine political instability and chaos to the margins of great power politics.

Readers expecting a radically new position from the former Secretary of State or a repudiation of realism will be disappointed. His views have shifted but those shifts are subtle. Much of the material in this volume will be very familiar to Kissinger-watchers, both amateur and professional. Nonetheless, World Order is a significant piece of scholarship and it does see Kissinger develop his classical realist views. While his analysis of Westphalian diplomacy is extremely well established, his attempt to grapple with the changing dynamics of 21st-century international relations seems a genuine engagement. The timing of this book couldn't be better, coming at a moment of crisis for US power, the point at which international leaders and scholars need to consider the forces which maintain world order and peace. 

For a man who has lived through — and at times shaped — such an incredible span of history, Kissinger remains acutely aware of the forces of change in international relations. He astutely examines the challenges to the dominance of the Westphalian rules-based system which has been in place since the 17th century. The concept of great-power peace, maintained through a balance of power, merely passed as universally applicable because it was "applied to the geographic extent known to statesmen at the time — a pattern repeated in other regions". Westphalian principles spread and have become the basis of our current world order. Kissinger identifies the forces that now challenge the Westphalian system both from without and within. "Outside the Western World, regions that have played a minimal role in these rules' original formulation question their validity in their present form . . . Thus while ‘the international community' is invoked perhaps more insistently now than in any other era, it presents no clear or agreed set of goals, methods, or limits." It is not clear that this is a new state of affairs; questioning of the legitimacy of the international system was commonplace in the second half of the 20th century both in terms of intellectual innovation and bloody conflicts. This is not a particularly novel analysis in a world dominated by varied critical perspectives on global politics, but it is novel for Kissinger and it is unexpected to see him ask whether "regions with such divergent cultures, histories, and traditional theories of order vindicate the legitimacy of any common system?" What is new, a point that Kissinger does not labour, is that American power appears to be declining, or at least that America is less prepared to exercise that power.

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