By Lionel Barber
World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, by Henry Kissinger, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.
Henry Kissinger’s latest opus is exquisitely timed. The Middle East is ablaze from Gaza to Iraq and Syria.
Russia under Vladimir Putin has turned revanchist, annexing Crimea and mounting a stealth invasion of eastern Ukraine.
China is jockeying for power and influence in the Pacific and beyond, testing the resolve of a war-weary America. We are watching a world in disorder.
The question is how far these convulsions are due to a power vacuum in the international system.
Kissinger, 91, Harvard academic-turned-secretary of state to two US presidents, does not tackle this head-on in World Order but it is implicit in every page.
The answers he suggests go to the heart of the debate about American leadership.
For the past 25 years, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has occupied the role of hegemon. The unipolar moment is now coming to an inglorious end.
America under George W Bush overreached after the September 11 terrorist attacks, presiding in his first term over a militarisation of foreign policy that delivered a stalemate at best in Afghanistan and a broken state in Iraq.
The result: a split western alliance, a disillusioned American public and a strengthening of theocratic Iran.
Under Barack Obama, the US has arguably over-corrected. The emphasis has been on bringing the troops home, first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan.
Yet now the US is poised to re-engage militarily in the Middle East and is struggling to contain Putin. Policy in the wake of the Arab Awakening has been equally piecemeal.
President Hosni Mubarak was dumped in the name of Egyptian democracy in 2011 but Washington turned a blind eye to the military coup that two years later ousted the admittedly incompetent and intolerant Muslim Brotherhood.
Gaddafi was toppled in Libya, largely due to pressure from Britain and France. Libya is now falling apart, riven by gangs and tribal rivalry.
In Syria, Obama invoked a red line over the use of chemical weapons but faltered when confronted with evidence that Bashar al-Assad had indeed deployed WMD against his own people.
From the vantage point of Moscow and Beijing, not just the laptop bombardiers in the western media, the US appears irresolute and lacking a sense of strategy.
Yet America, Kissinger argues persuasively, must play a leadership role to preserve world order – not as a moralising global policeman but as a hard-nosed great power acting in concert with allies, and sometimes with rivals, to maintain equilibrium and keep the threat of war within tolerable limits.
Someone, in other words, has to manage the peace.
World Order reprises the themes of earlier works such as the magisterial Diplomacy (1994) and A World Restored (1957), the young Harvard professor’s paean to Prince Klemens von Metternich, the 19th century master-diplomat.
Kissinger’s model for world order is the “concert of Europe” that held sway between 1815 and 1914 and drew inspiration from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, a conflict in which political and religious disputes commingled and nearly a quarter of the population of central Europe died from combat, disease or starvation.
The Peace of Westphalia marked a breakthrough because it relied on independent states refraining from interference in each other’s affairs and recognising a balance of power on the continent.
As Kissinger observes, pointedly: Westphalia “reflected a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight”. These words sum up Realpolitik, of which Kissinger and his boss Richard Nixon were arch-exponents.
The dark side was America’s secret front in Cambodia during the Vietnam war, and the covert operation to undermine the Marxist president Salvador Allende in Chile.
Today, it is more fashionable to dwell on the duo’s foreign policy successes: détente with the Soviet Union, the opening to Communist China, the Paris accords ending the Vietnam war, and the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
One specific concern is the future of the nuclear talks with Iran, a state Kissinger views with great suspicion.
These are given their due in a book that is part history, part lecture, part memoir.
There are gaps: Africa and Latin America barely feature, and there is insufficient discussion about the role of non-state actors.
The latest expression is Isis, a group of fanatical and well-financed Islamist fighters seeking to establish a Caliphate stretching from Syria through northern Iraq. But there are other forms, such as Putin’s irregulars in eastern Ukraine and Chinese cyber-hackers.
Each exploits asymmetry and (vaguely) plausible deniability to challenge traditional doctrines such as deterrence, which have underpinned world order.
At times, Kissinger’s portentous aphorisms are beyond parody. Thus Germany is “either too weak or too strong”; Russia is “a uniquely ‘Eurasian’ power, sprawling across two continents but never entirely at home in either”.
China and America are both “indispensable pillars of world order”. Theocratic Iran “must decide whether it is a country or a cause”.
Kissinger blames the new world disorder first on the unravelling of the modern state.
In Europe this has happened by design, as part of the development of a union whose members have agreed to pool sovereignty, at the expense of being an effective international actor.
In the Middle East, the state has corroded from neglect, dissolving into sectarian and ethnic conflict often exacerbated by outside powers.
Second, there is the mismatch between the world’s economic system, which is based on the free flow of goods and capital, and a political system that remains national.
For Kissinger, this contradiction partly accounts for a succession of economic crises driven by speculation and under-appreciation of risk. Economics is not Kissinger’s strongest suit.
He is more fluent writing about the lack of effective mechanisms for leading nations to consult on pressing issues. None of the regional forums such as Asean or Apec works, and the Group of Seven summits have been captured by bureaucrats.
Kissinger might have given more space to Nato, which critics were too quick to dismiss to post-cold war irrelevance. Instead, he sounds a grumpy lament: politicians have become risk-averse. In the digital age, a surfeit of information has triumphed over knowledge and wisdom. (Tweeters, official and unofficial, take note.)
Above all, Kissinger frets about America, which he labels “the ambivalent superpower”. He is careful to pay tribute to George W Bush’s resolve after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and admits that he himself backed the removal of Saddam Hussein.
But he is dismayed by the naive trillion-plus-dollar effort at democracy-building in the Middle East, a region with little historical experience of such western political values, to be accomplished on an absurdly tight US election timetable.
There was, he declares with understatement, a “Sisyphean quality” to the whole exercise. Barack Obama fares little better. The new world disorder would test the mettle of any US president, especially one faced with an implacable Republican opposition in Congress. But the US remains the most powerful country in the world.
The Obama presidency does not compare well with, say, Harry Truman’s after 1945 or George HW Bush’s in 1989. Bush Sr, much underestimated, assembled a first-rate national security team and managed the peaceful end of the cold war with finesse.
Kissinger is too polite to say that the Obama team has been curiously passive, often failing to recognise the value of building coalitions, reassuring and prodding allies, and arming those who will fight enemies without the direct use of US force.
Kissinger is worried about the dangers of a power vacuum left by a weakened president and a dispirited American public. One specific concern is the future of the nuclear talks with Iran, a state he views with great suspicion.
He frets about the mullahs whose concept of jihad (struggle) is fundamentally at odds with Westphalian order. If the talks fail, he argues, the danger is nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, a hugely destabilising development.
He is more optimistic about US relations with China, a more natural supporter of Westphalian order (notably on non-interference in other countries’ affairs).
A Sinophile by temperament, Kissinger believes China’s rise can and should be accommodated as long as it does not fundamentally upset the balance of power. In the last resort, the US must somehow find a median point between overconfidence and introspection in its dealings with the rest of the world.
The quest for a balance between a values-driven foreign policy and Realpolitik is unavoidable for the superpower. Striking that balance is difficult but ultimately manageable. “What it does not permit is withdrawal.”
Kissinger’s conclusion deserves to be read and understood by all candidates ahead of the 2016 presidential election. World order depends on it.
Lionel Barber is editor of the Financial Times