Grandmaster of the Global Chessboard

Henry Kissinger’s latest book is a reminder of the timeless question of international relations

Books History
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.

Kissinger’s goal remains steadfast: the creation of a durable world order. But he is at pains to remind us that “order in this sense must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed. This is particularly so in an age of instantaneous communication and revolutionary political flux. Any system of world order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just . . . Order and freedom, sometimes described as opposite poles on the spectrum of experience, should instead be understood as interdependent.”

There is always a temptation in Kissinger’s books to skip to the sections which concern his time in office. These sections in World Order provide no further explication of strategy nor the apologia his critics continually demand of him. Unsurprisingly the sections covering Vietnam and US foreign policy in the 1970s offer little in the way of new detail. However, the nature and degree of the change in Kissinger’s views can be teased out by examining the importance his central thesis gives to the views of formerly peripheral powers during his quest to support Cold War bipolarity in the 1970s. As Vietnam showed, it was impossible to find solutions to very complex regional problems without the active involvement of local powers. A changed dynamic in Soviet-American or Sino-American relations and the use of triangular diplomacy were irrelevant in deciding the outcome of Vietnam. The acceptance of this analysis does mark a change in Kissinger’s worldview. The implicit hierarchy in place during his tenure in government gave precedence to great powers. Instead, World Order is predicated on his vision of an international system where great powers matter less and countries relegated to secondary and passive roles in the Cold War suddenly matter much more. In that sense the task at hand in creating world order is much more difficult: “The mystery to be overcome is one all peoples share — how divergent historic experiences and values can be shaped into a common order.”

Kissinger is in his element in the more academic, analytic sections of the book. He takes as his starting point a comparison of competing visions of world order and their historical basis. This works well and Kissinger is able to draw usefully from his academic expertise. For instance, he suggests that the disintegration of Arab nations into sectarian division is reminiscent of the religious wars that ripped through pre-Westphalian Europe. He writes magnificently when he is on familiar territory, examining the emergence of the concept of balance of power and the Westphalian state system. He also delivers a nuanced critique of American exceptionalism, the dual sense of American uniqueness among states and the perceived universalism of her values. His realism, like that of many postwar German intellectuals, was a deliberate check on the possible excesses of such idealism.

As in previous books, Kissinger’s historical analysis is intended to direct the reader to his overarching thesis that “a reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge of statesmanship in our time. The penalty for failing will be not so much a major war between states as an evolution into spheres of influence . . . the ‘Chinese model’ as against the American one, or Middle Eastern states as against the Iranian.” Kissinger is really arguing for an updated balance of power, a Westphalian settlement for the 21st century. 

This is an important book, but more for what it illustrates about Kissinger than the substantive contribution it makes to our understanding of international affairs. Kissinger’s theoretical position about state interaction appears largely unchanged, even while he acknowledges the rapidly changing international environment. His preoccupation with the subject of world order is not new. More than any other postwar US Secretary of State, he had the intellectual capability and overt desire to construct a blueprint for a stable international order. Nonetheless, a new generation of scholarship has suggested that Kissinger was less of a realist than his critics have suggested and also probably less of one than he realised himself. Indeed, his foreign policy approach was less of a break from traditional US concerns and far more evolutionary. The logic of détente saw outright US victory in the Cold War as a dangerously unachievable end. Instead, Kissinger pursued a strategy that was intended to conserve the stability of a bipolar world, in effect to maintain the Cold War while removing its overt ideological components. A number of works linking Kissinger’s biography to his diplomacy have suggested that his pursuit of international stability, at times at the expense of the traditional US values of democracy promotion, was explained by his experience of the Second World War and the instability of Germany under the Nazis.

World Order starts to acknowledge the limits of realism as a prescriptive formula for international politics, even while Kissinger uses the idea of realism as the analytic lens to explain so many conceptions of world order. He acknowledges that “power” is not the only determining factor in state action. In his formulation, “An attempt to operate on principles of power alone will prove unsustainable . . . Idealists do not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognise that ideals are also part of reality.”

Like so many realist scholars Kissinger’s theoretical parsimony about state interaction fails to provide any satisfying answers about the interaction between power and ideas. However, his realism does allow him to ask difficult questions of American national strategy: “What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? The answer defines the minimum condition of the survival of the society.” The interlinked questions he posits for the US are intimately concerned with setting minimal and maximal boundaries for strategic ambition. 

Many realists are necessarily concerned with the possibility of untrammelled state ambition. This is a perennial Kissingerian preoccupation, preventing US overreach, while recognising her special role in international politics. Unsurprisingly, he recognises the limits of any one country in achieving world order. 

Those who have spent the better part of this year transfixed as a perfect storm of international conflicts has emerged and intensified will recognise the value of this book. In keeping with the realist tradition, to which he is most often assigned, Kissinger’s contribution is both analytic and prescriptive. His ultimate call is for “a second culture that is global, structural and juridicial — a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation. At this moment in history, this is a modernisation of the Westphalian system toward an ultimate structure that allows for contemporary realities.” This remains a goal which seems dangerously out of reach.