Kissinger’s Order


If you have a serious interest in Asia or in foreign policy in general – whether you’re a policy wonk, an academic, or just a good citizen – I have a suggestion for you. Send an email to all of those to whom you owe service, such as employers and children, and ask for a three-day leave. Then take Henry Kissinger’s remarkable new book, World Order, to a hilltop without cell phone or television reception and read it, nay, study it. I assure you that you will feast on it for years to come.

The book is erudite for a professor who long ago left the library stacks to become a public servant and, more recently, a super-consultant. For example, Kissinger points out, “Until the arrival of modern Western powers, no Asian language had a word for ‘Asia.’” (Few of us would be able to make such a statement given the number of Asian languages.) Hence, Kissinger suggests, in my words, that the concept of Asia is a Western construct. He uses this observation to highlight that Asia and, even more so, the East are much less homogenous than the West. Asia has no shared history – no equivalent of the Roman Empire or the Napoleonic Wars – no shared religion, and no set of shared, secular core values. Kissinger concludes that this is one major reason that the peoples of the region are much more given to the pursuit of national agendas than to pooling sovereignty or to forming strong, multilateral institutions or alliances.

The book benefits from a cultural sensitivity, nurtured by Kissinger’s command of history, that is not found in many American writings on international relations. For example, Kissinger’s overview of Chinese history notes that for more than a thousand years China considered itself to be the center of the world and believed that its emperor was the ruler of “All Under Heaven.” Other peoples were offered a variety of rituals by which to pay homage to the emperor, but they were not granted an opportunity to play a role in shaping the world order. Thus, China’s tendency was to conceptualize the world order in hierarchical rather than balance of power terms.

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The book’s core subject is the tension between two major foundations of American foreign policy. On the one hand, Kissinger writes, the United States draws on a perspective first spelled out for the nation by Theodore Roosevelt – that is, a strongly realist perspective focused on national interests, geopolitical considerations, and the use of raw power. On the other, the United States draws on Woodrow Wilson’s idealism, which sought to implement on a global scale the kind of democratic regime the United States fashioned for its own people, to be achieved through international law and diplomacy rather than force. At times, the earlier Kissinger – the hard-core realist – shows up in the book; he almost mocks Wilson as a naïve man who moved into the presidency from academia after only two years in politics. After reviewing the various initiatives Wilson undertook, Kissinger states flatly that “no significant elements of these initiatives survived.” Moreover, Wilson’s idealistic approach to the world, which Kissinger shows all subsequent presidents evoked, did lead to disappointments, frustrations, and sudden shifts from overextensions to abrupt withdrawals: in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other pages, though, the Kissinger who is now closer to meeting his maker seems to have “found religion.” He waxes rhapsodic about the good Americans brought to the world when they set out to serve not the United States’ interests but rather the common good and others’ well-being. The United States joined wars in Europe to defend free peoples, not to gain territory or resources. It helped rebuild its enemies Germany and Japan, and it provided peace and stability to Asia that allowed the region’s nations to thrive. In short, idealism enjoyed some rather big paydays.

Closely related is the issue raised by Kissinger’s high regard for an international order founded on a balance of power rather than on one superpower’s hegemony. The balance of power is associated with moral neutrality and letting each nation follow its own core values. Hegemony is associated with trying to “bring light to the heathens,” such as coercive regime changes to foster democracy, and imposing on other peoples the American view of the international order. Kissinger views the balance of power approach as the more reliable, although less idealistic, of the two. He observes that while a balance of power system does not lead to a good end state – an “end of history,” which anyhow may be elusive – it does provide an international system that through constant adjustments and rebalancing permits the nations of the world to manage matters, to make do. This may be all we can hope to achieve.

This rich 420-page book contains much more that cannot here be captured. The reader will find few specific predictions and fewer prescriptions; instead, the book offers a comprehensive and deep analysis of the issues we face and the conceptual apparatus needed to reflect on them.

Amitai Etzioni’s book The New Normal: Life in Post-Affluence America will be published by Transaction Publishers in November 2014. He is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University.

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