Sunday, October 26, 2014

In "World Order," Henry Kissinger describes a world divided

A review of World Order by Dr. Henry Kissinger 

Readers of Henry Kissinger’s new book, World Order, will find a volume that is both descriptive and prescriptive, as they follow the author along on his exploration of the regional dynamics and cultural forces which have shaped the political development of individual countries and the relations between them, across a broad swath of the globe. Delving into the origins of the Westphalian system, the author provides an engaging explanation of how and why this particular system of diplomacy and political development was well-suited to Europe in the period following the Dark Ages, embraced by a world in which the desire to expand and control territory was countered by the fear of one’s own neighbors attempting the same. As the author notes, the importance of the Treaty of Westphalia can be found in the fact that, "The state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European Order. The concept of state sovereignty."

This key idea - the view of the state as its own, independent body, not subject to the whims or dictates of a larger power - comes up repeatedly throughout this book, and serves as a foil against which the author looks at other international systems and concepts of the nation state. Structurally, it's a useful starting point for English-speaking readers in the West who are likely to come to this volume with a greater degree of familiarity with the main ideas underpinning this system, in practice if not in name.

As the author goes on to explore other concepts of political self-identity and points of friction between various nations and empires, having this explanation of Westphalian ideals as a reference point is very useful. This is certainly the case as he looks at the rise of China, Iran and Russian as individual states and of the Ottoman Empire as the embodiment of a distinct, religiously-inspired enterprise, possessed of an intensely monolithic worldview.

In light of this I think his analysis of the evolution of these political entities is useful in at least two ways: it reminds us that conflicting world views have pretty much always existed between different groups, and that inevitably, cultural misunderstandings will occur when one or more such group comes into conflict. Furthermore, given the tension that exists today between the U.S. and Russia (as well as Iran and China) knowing a little more about how the leaders of these countries see the world and their place in it, can only be a good thing.

That being said, I could not help get the feeling as I read the book that the author has essentially divided nations into two camps, the first composed of those which have traditionally seen themselves as one nation among many, part of a larger system that benefits individual countries by placing the long-term stability of the collective body ahead of parochial interest. Such nations, as the author sees them, have sought to maintain a regional balance of power by checking the aggression of neighbors and attempting to avoid conflicts that threaten to fundamentally alter the system so as to provide one nation the chance to dominate all the others. The other camp is the province of nations or empires who are unfailingly convinced of their own superiority in virtually every sphere of life, and act accordingly on the world stage. Although wars are certainly fought between nations in the first group, the goal is not the complete destruction of the enemy;  for nations in the second category, nothing short of ceaseless expansion, influence and control will satisfy.

The author also divides nations into another dyad, separating those for whom practical interest of the country come first, from those which place values and ideals at the center of their own foreign policy. It is the second group which Kissinger seems most critical of, outlining the evolution of American diplomacy in the early twentieth century and portraying President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to achieve a new world order based on the idea that all future armed conflicts might be prevented through dialogue as naïve. One of the flaws that the author sees in this way of looking at the world is that it produces its own kind of absolutism, requiring every other nation (even those with a decidedly imperial outlook, in this case Germany) to completely embrace this new model.Kissinger points to this attitude on the part of Wilson as particularly damaging,  suggesting that it inadvertently led to an extension of hostilities in WWI as the American president held out for the complete surrender of the Kaiser before he would seriously engage in a peace process with Germany. Kissinger is even more critical of the long-term impact of Wilson’s diplomatic idealism, writing: 

“The concept of transcending war by giving each nation a state, similarly admirable as a general concept, faced analogous difficulties in practice. Ironically, the redrawing of Europe’s map on the new principle of linguistically based national self-determination, largely at Wilson’s behest, enhanced Germany’s geopolitical prospects.” 

Given this, and many other examples one could draw from reading World Order,  it’s hard not to get the impression that Kissinger sees foreign policy which acts solely on the basis of ideology, and without concern for history or context, to be quite damaging. I am inclined to agree that these other two elements should be considered, but I do take issue with the idea that we cannot let our better angels serve as signposts, if not guides, in how we conduct ourselves in the world.

This friction can be seen today in many places, but one spot on the globe where this tension between systems has persisted at a structural level is the Middle East. Kissinger describes the imposition of the Westphalian system on this region as particularly insidious. I am inclined to agree that some of the problems which have persisted in the last 100 years in this area can be traced back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and to the European instinct to construct new states, sometimes based on historical claims and often out of whole cloth, following the end of World War I.

These events set up a major tension between the idea of secular states and the previously dominant notion of a vast world-wide caliphate, or Islamic state, previously under the guidance and protection of the Ottomans. Furthermore, the introduction of this system flew in the face of political norms the Ottomans had established in their own relations with Europe, which had emphasized the subordination of European rulers, including royalty, to the Sultan. Kissinger sees this conflict playing out today between Israel and its neighbors, writing:

 “The conflict of two concepts of world order is embedded in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Israel is by definition a Westphalian state, founded as such in 1947(sic); the United States, its principal ally, has been a steward and key defender of the Westphalian international order. But the core countries and factions in the Middle East view international order to a greater or lesser extent through an Islamic consciousness.” 

This is an astute observation, but it begs the question as to how this view can help advance the cause of peace. This is not Kissinger's question, per se, but it is one of mine – explication has value to be sure, but is there a useful or positive takeaway from seeing the conflict through this lens? After all, the idea that Israel, a technologically advanced democracy which maintains good relations with the West, embraced a different founding ethos than other states in the Middle East, is not all that surprising. Later Kissinger writes:

 “…the issue comes down to the possibility of coexistence between two concepts of world order – through two states – Israel and Palestine – in the relatively narrow space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

 This idea fits neatly with the overarching theme of the book, and Kissinger has identified one root cause of this conflict and its apparent intractability, but it also leaves out any mention of the complex and often violent history between Israel and Palestinian terror groups over the past 60-odd years, not to mention the constraints that leaders have faced on both sides, imposed by their respective peoples. True, Kissinger has not set out to provide a lengthy treatise on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but differing worldviews are not, in my opinion, the one key obstacle to peace. The divide between how Israelis and Palestinians see the world is worth considering, but there are far more significant factors preventing peace, including continued attacks orchestrated by Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention an extraordinary level of dysfunction within the Palestinian political leadership.

One place where I think Kissinger could have done more was in his exploration of the influence of non-state actors on both individual societies and international relations. He does not ignore their presence or their role, but as a reader I would have liked to have had a more thorough examination of how these groups are interacting with the other political systems he describes in the book. Kissinger plays around the margins of this topic, noting the role that Afghanistan played as a safe-haven for Al-Queda and mentions the growing influence of ISIS and the broader threat is poses, but does not offer substantive suggestions as to how this threat can or should be addressed.

Overall, Kissinger has written a useful, interesting book that looks at different ways nation-states and empires have developed over time.  By devoting pages to India, China, Russia, the US and Europe, he presents an overview of the main actors on the world stage at the moment, and provides a succinct summary of the evolution of political thought within each of them. Ultimately the picture that emerges from his prose is one of a world divided, where the principle entities are tightly bound by occasionally misguided, if well-intentioned, ideas about their own identity and role to play in the world. It is in these miscalculations that folly (or worse) lies, Kissinger would have us believe, and I think he is at least partly correct. It is not hard to see how inherently different worldviews contributed to friction between the Ottoman Empire and Europe from the Great Britain in the 17th century onward, between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War or between America and Iran today – the question I had after reading this book, though, was how terrorist groups and other movements may influence such ideological conflicts today in ways that could have a very real outcome in this young century. Each nation and alliance of nations will surely continue to make foreign policy in ways that furthers their own interests, but more and more these non-state actors may influence that decision making. But perhaps that is a topic better addressed in Kissinger’s next book. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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