WORLD ORDER: REFLECTIONS ON THE CHARACTER OF NATIONS AND THE COURSE OF HISTORY BY HENRY KISSINGER
First published in The Times on 14 September 2014.
Henry Kissinger is 91, and has marked this by writing a book describing the foreign policy of most of the world. He analyses ancient Indian political philosophers, medieval Chinese official memoranda and Isil (also known as Isis) in Iraq, without ever being tempted into digression, repetition, autobiography or factual errors. It is at the very least an astonishing act of organisation; and a reflection of the relentless discipline that has allowed Kissinger to perpetuate his reputation, four decades beyond the end of his time as Richard Nixon’s foreign policy tsar.
This confident display of knowledge is — the cover of the book promises — “the summation of Henry Kissinger’s thinking about history, strategy and statecraft”. But it is not easy to derive any general principles from his narrative. Much of the book is devoted to the Middle East, Asia and America, but these are not places that attract his clearest thinking, or his best prose.
We learn that from the “stern landscape” of the Middle East there “have issued conquerors and prophets holding aloft banners of universal aspirations”, but he does not seem very interested in the details. Afghanistan appears as a “tribal” society, “not radically different” from what Winston Churchill described in 1897; Iraq is defined by “the millennial conflict between Sunni and Shia”. Kissinger’s account of East Asia includes sharper quotes, and some more daring sketches of local political thinkers, but he still prefers to caricature India, Japan and China as eternal civilisations, rather than engage with their changes. Even his homeland, America, is dismissed with platitudes about puritans.
It is with Europe — and its hero-statesmen — that the book comes to life. We glimpse Napoleon through Hegel’s eyes: “I saw the Emperor — this world-soul…an individual who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.” Such a statesman is not so much a living individual as an archetype in eternal reoccurrence. Richelieu, teaches us that the statesman “must act at the outer edge of the possible”. Bismarck “challenged all the established wisdom of his period”. Across the Atlantic, Theodore Roosevelt, “was acting at the absolute margin of his society’s capabilities”.
Such men have “enhanced, humane and transcendent judgment”; they are “daring” men of “character”, who use their profound feeling for past and future to cut a new and lonely path. Yet, Kissinger loads this archaic superman with an incongruous set of modern virtues. Thus the great statesmen also respect norms, values and ideals, and aim at peace through a “balance of power” between states.
Such heroic statesmen have no obvious place in a world of “failed states”, or “non-state actors”, and Kissinger, therefore, has little to say about terrorism, humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, refugee camps, drugs, piracy or international crime. But the crisis in Ukraine provides a perfect opportunity for him to combine his categories of a grand historical moment and a leader with global aspirations and “norms”.
Thus, his “understanding of history” convinces him that Russia is an inherently expanding empire. Ukraine, he states — which has been Viking, Lithuanian, Polish, Cossack and independent — is really part of Russia. His opinion piece in The Washington Post on March 5 argued that Putin is a “serious strategist on the premises of Russian history”. He also insisted that Putin would be convinced not to annex Crimea, and to allow Ukrainians to choose their own democratic future. Three weeks later, Putin annexed Crimea and revealed himself as a “heroic strat-egist” of a less palatable mode.
So how much “daring” and “originality” should a heroic statesman display in response? Would Bismarck convince us to take Ukraine under Nato’s protection, and dare Putin to take a step further? How would Roosevelt respond to tactical nuclear weapons? Or Richelieu to Russia’s new ambiguous warfare — its cyber-attacks, deniable troops and energy policy? Most importantly, what should the ideal statesman do today?
This is not a question Kissinger can answer, because the response requires not only a precise understanding of Ukraine itself, and the limits of Western influence there, but also an ethical perspective — rooted in moral law and universal rights. We must decide what obligations we have to Ukrainians, to peace in Eastern Europe, and our treaties, and what sacrifices we are prepared to make on their behalf. And, because such issues do not seem to interest Kissinger, he can provide no framework by which to judge any such policy.
This is why Kissinger’s grand narrative becomes an unreliable or even comic guide to contemporary problems. Consider the statesmen he praises. “God,” Kissinger says, “preserves humanity despite its many transgressions because, at any one period, there exist 10 just individuals who…redeem mankind. Gerald Ford was such a man.”And the fruit of all Kissinger’s learning is to insist on his “respect and personal affection for President George W Bush, who guided America with courage, dignity and conviction in an unsteady time”.
Kissinger’s World Order is a confident, neatly constructed historical pageant. But until he provides a moral foundation, his “theatre for heroism” will remain a narrow stage for power, flattery and ultimately oblivion.