World Order by Henry Kissinger

The author’s own orchestration of the opening of relations with China gives an extra piquancy to his views on Iran: if the US can engage with one isolated regional superpower, why not another?

No clash of civilisations or end of history – this argument for a balance of power is the summation of Kissinger’s thinking

Western politicians who last year advocated bombing Syria now ask whether Damascus should be treated as a tacit ally against Islamic State. John Kerry talks of Iran as a possible partner in that war, while David Cameron meets the country’s president in New York. The quote of the summer from the president of the United States was that “we don’t have a strategy” on how to prevent a conflagration in the Middle East. Yet as old enmities and alliances dissolve and re form at high speed, we are having to develop one, and fast.

One person who has never lacked a strategy is the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, now 91. However, his thoughtful new book aims not so much to advocate specific policies as to portray the shape of the world over the past 2000 years or so, with reflections on where it will go in the next 50.

The book circles much of the globe, covering India, Europe, China and the Middle East. Four specific conceptions of “order” attract most of his attention: the European system, specifically its Westphalian model of sovereign states with equal status within the system; an Islamic system based on a wider idea of an ummah, or community; a Chinese system based on traditional ideas of the Middle Kingdom as a great regional power; and the American order, finding a new purpose a century ago under Woodrow Wilson, eventually dominant across the globe, and now under unprecedented pressure.

This may sound like Samuel Huntington’s idea of the “Clash of Civilizations,” but actually it is more like a bracing mixture of Metternichian pragmatism and – more unexpectedly – Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism”. Kissinger notes that when he told Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that China seemed mysterious, Zhou pointed out that China was not at all mysterious to 900 million of his compatriots. “In our time the quest for world order will require relating the perceptions of societies whose realities have largely been self-contained,” Kissinger argues. In other words, cultural (a preferable term to civilisational) aspects shape societies’ worldviews, but culture is not an impermeable barrier to a wider model of order that can bring different regimes together. In that sense, this is a distinctly anti-Huntingtonian book in that it recognises the need to engage with civilisations rather than asserting the inevitability of their clashing; it also diverges from Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis about the “end of history” by arguing strongly that history and identity are central to societies’ perceptions of themselves today. Kissinger also takes on critics who accuse him of stressing realism above all other considerations, a characterisation he regards as simplistic: “idealists do not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognise that ideals are also part of reality.”

The book draws on a wide range of historical examples to make points about present-day issues. Unsurprisingly, Kissinger spends considerable time on the position of China in the international order, noting its central place in Asia for all but the past century or two. He characterises China’s historical role in East Asia as “conceptual,” whereas that of the US is “pragmatic,” the former shaped by a long history of external attacks on its borders. Certainly the historical basis to Chinese behaviour has emerged ever more clearly in the past few years, as leaders in Beijing have expressed a desire for a prominent global influence based on longstanding ideas of China as a great power. However, there is plenty of pragmatism in Chinese behaviour, too. Today, Beijing feels that Washington is weak and that its commitment to the region is hedged; as a result, China and Japan’s leaders each now claim that the other’s military ambitions in the region are a reason to stockpile arms.

Kissinger uses his “adaptive cultural” thesis to criticise the nation-building project of George W. Bush in Iraq. He notes that he was supportive of the original invasion of Iraq in 2003, but expresses scepticism about the value of Bush’s vision, which “proved beyond what the American public would support and what Iraqi society would accommodate”. In the end, withdrawal from Iraq resembled “Vietnamisation” in 1973-5, with equally dispiriting results. Since the book went to press, the collapse of the al-Maliki government has left Iraq on the brink of dissolution and the new government under Haider al-Abadi is dependent on the success of western air strikes to consolidate power.

The author’s own orchestration of the opening of relations with China gives an extra piquancy to his views on Iran: if the US can engage with one isolated regional superpower, why not another? Yet although he gives a detailed and nuanced account of Iran’s sense of its own imperial heritage over the centuries, he argues unequivocally that Tehran today is not Beijing in 1972.

The book also enables us to assess Kissinger’s own era in government in historical perspective. Few would now dispute the wisdom of ending China’s isolation from the “family of nations”. He reminds us of the importance of 1972-73, Nixon’s high point in foreign policy (Kissinger was national security adviser, before becoming secretary of state): as well as the opening to China, this year saw the end of the American troop presence in Vietnam, détente in eastern Europe, and peace agreements in the Middle East (after an Arab-Israeli war that could have led to major conflagration). There were of course darker aspects of that era, including the bombing of North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia that worsened a domestic crisis and allowed the murderous Khmer Rouge to come to power, and the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile. Yet when we look back at the 1970s as an era of crisis both domestic and international, it is remarkable how much of the international politics of that decade has come out on the positive side of the ledger and how a wider crisis was averted. Kissinger notes that “nuclear weapons must not be permitted to turn into conventional arms”.

Kissinger was a key shaper of a world order that remained stable for a quarter century or more until our own post-cold war era. This urgently written book is a fine account of world order in the longue duree, and also a memorandum to future generations of policymakers that the next half-century will be no easier to manage than the most recent one.

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