The old medicine: Henry Kissinger’s prescription for global stability

Kissinger’s latest work proposes a return to the balance-of-power system that produced relative peace in Europe in the 19th century – an idea that will doubtless be welcomed by those seeking clarity in a complex and changing world.

Pro-Russian forces at a checkpoint near Donetsk on the way to Mariupol in Ukraine. Kissinger suggests a system of sovereign powers with agreed spheres of influence could restore international order. Philippe Desmazes / AFP
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"A reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time," writes Henry Kissinger in his latest book, World Order [;], and the 91-year-old former American national security adviser and secretary of state spends most of the book's 400-plus pages counselling a course of old-school realpolitik.

Largely insipid and uninspired, World Order nevertheless contributes to – and given both the status and sheer size of Kissinger's readership, will likely enlarge – a crucial debate facing us all: what to do in the face of an onslaught of international crises?

In short, World Order calls for states – that is, sovereign countries – to step up and insist on taking pride of place in the international system. Order requires the most important of these sovereign countries to then arrange themselves in, and commit to, a balance of power.

The first requirement, Kissinger argues, is an updated and revitalised “Westphalian order”. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia ended decades of war in Europe and produced what we think of today as the sovereign state. In a Westphalian system, Kissinger says, countries must abide certain principles: non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, the inviolability of borders, sovereignty and what he curiously calls the “encouragements of international law”.

But to get powerful countries to submit to a balance of power they must be convinced the proposed balance – the relative shares of territory and spheres of influence, for example – is legitimate. Crafting a legitimate balance is therefore the great challenge. But once there’s buy-in, the temptation for a country to strike out on its own, conquer territory or make war on other powers takes on too big a risk, promises too little pay-off and is outweighed by the benefits of maintaining the balance. Restraint and relative peace therefore come to govern relations between nations and the balance holds the laws of the jungle at bay.

In calling for an update and “modernisation” of a Westphalian order, Kissinger reminds us this has been accomplished before – the Congress of Vienna, concluded in 1815 following the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, kept a relative peace, Kissinger writes, for almost 60 years.

The unification of Germany in 1871 rattled the foundations of the arrangement and undermined its legitimacy. What was once balanced soon began to lurch. Increased power contests and what Kissinger calls “routinised confrontation” and dysfunction led ultimately to cataclysm: the First World War, the Versailles peace treaty, the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.

These disasters were not inevitable, Kissinger argues, but “arose from a series of miscalculations made by serious leaders who did not understand the consequences of their planning … the final maelstrom triggered by a terrorist attack …” Here, Kissinger no doubt knew his choice of words would, and likely should, give pause to readers today.

In essence, World Order is a call to update and recreate the earlier success of the Congress of Vienna. In making the Congress the exemplar of a refined Westphalian model of sovereign states set up in a balance of power, Kissinger returns to the roots of his very first book, published almost six decades ago, in 1957. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 is a study of the Congress of Vienna based on his Harvard doctoral dissertation.

Perhaps it's not surprising then, that despite being right up to date, World Order reads like a relic. The chapter on "Foreign Policy in the Digital Era", for example, clearly illustrates the quite understandable limitations of the book's nonagenarian author.

But whether old-school or out-of-touch, Kissinger may not mind having the work called dated. Realpolitik belongs to a much broader tradition called “political realism” of which a central tenet, as articulated by Hans Morgenthau, a godfather of 20th-century American realism (and both a friend and critic of Kissinger), reads: “Human nature, in which the laws of politics have their roots, has not changed since the classical philosophies of China, India and Greece endeavoured to discover these laws. Hence, novelty is not necessarily a virtue in political theory, nor is old age a defect …”

Often thought stark and amoral, political realism is a rich tradition. It traces its roots to the Athenian general and historian Thucydides and the approach he took to write his history of the Peloponnesian War. Morgenthau, for example, was a devoted disciple of the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Twentieth-century realism emerged as a reaction to the “wishful thinking” of the idealist statesmen who drafted the Treaty of Versailles, set up the League of Nations and, in their hopes of preventing international bad behaviour with little more than public condemnation, opened the road to Hitler’s rise.

But Kissinger's "realism" in World Order, though applied to lots of information, reveals little of the depth of this rich tradition. His narrative of power relations is often breathless and superficial; his descriptions of diplomacy are oddly abstract and mechanistic; the tone of the book is rarely deeper than that of advertising copy or a brochure. And coming full-circle back to his earliest writings, World Order reads like the capstone chapter of Kissinger's intellectual autobiography; unfortunately it suffers the defects common to most political memoirs. Past practitioners can rarely help sounding like apologists.

As such, readers interested in the Middle East may find, as I did, the relevant sections of World Order to suffer from dissimulation and equivocation. For example, the Cold War contest in the Middle East is described primarily as a series of bouts between local powers; corresponding superpower policy towards the Middle East is almost entirely passive and reactive. Kissinger shows a bias in his characterisation of the Sunni-Shia divide, suggestive of a difference between the reasonable and the hysterical: "When Ali, eventually coming to power as the fourth caliph, was challenged by rebellion and murdered by a mob, the Sunnis treated the central task as the restoration of order in Islam and backed the faction that re-established stability. Shias decried the new authorities as illegitimate usurpers and lionised the martyrs who had died in resistance. These general attitudes would prevail for centuries."

Kissinger stresses the government and sovereignty of (Sunni) Saudi Arabia be protected. The kingdom is the “central eventual prize” of both Sunni and Shia jihadists; its fall would jeopardise the international system. Western policymakers must be forgiving and understanding of Saudi Arabia’s religious fundamentalism and lack of democracy and the kingdom must be bolstered against domestic upheaval, Kissinger argues. Especially, Saudi Arabia must be supported in its rivalry with (Shia) Iran, a contest Kissinger says must be understood, before anything else, as a 1,000-year-old Sunni-Shia “religious struggle”.

In fact, Kissinger reduces much of Egypt’s part in the Arab Spring to a study of what not to do in the hypothetical case of Saudi Arabia. The United States had supported the original Tahrir Square uprising at the expense of its old ally Hosni Mubarak. But instead of democracy and freedom, the uprising gave way to a party that identified democracy as a “plebiscite on the implementation of religious domination” and then to a new military regime cold to American interests. Should America, Kissinger asks, “support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system?” The Saudis, Kissinger points out, came to see American policy towards Egypt “as the threat of American abandonment”.

Political Islam is a danger primarily, Kissinger argues, because it, like Islam itself, is driven by a totalising and unifying imperative to expand the “House of Islam” (Dar Al Islam) at the expense of the “House of War” (Dar Al Harb). Modern political Islam, a lineage of ideas Kissinger traces from Sayyid Qutb to Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbollah, the Taliban, Iran’s rulers and ISIL, is a “declaration of war” against the Westphalian conception of a system of sovereign states. Its vision of one, ever-enlarging, just state makes political Islam incompatible with a balance of power.

Whether this is too essentialist or facile is just one problem. In contrast, Kissinger doesn't take issue with many other sovereignty-­reducing global regimes. For a book titled World Order, that Kissinger mentions the International Monetary Fund only once, in passing, and the International Criminal Court not at all are just two of many conspicuous absences.

But in an era when “renationalisation” has become a buzzword – whether with regards to the internet or currencies – and when crucial crises explicitly concern states, such as Russia, Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, Kissinger’s state-centric view of a complex world may be found very persuasive by policymakers and so deserves to be well-considered.

Caleb Lauer is a freelance journalist based in Turkey.