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Altered states: Henry Kissinger’s scathing take-down of Obama

Under the surface of World Order is a searing critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. While Obama has embraced the label of “realist”, this is not a realism that Kissinger recognises.

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World Order
Henry Kissinger
Allen Lane, 432pp, £25

One could be forgiven for thinking that we have been here before. In 1907, America’s forceful and urbane president, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote to his close friend Cecil Spring Rice, a British diplomat and a future ambassador in Washington who had been his best man at his wedding. Roosevelt was well read in British history and, with the existing world order beginning to creak and fray around the edges after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, he decried the “pseudo-humanitarianism which treats advance of civilisation as necessarily and rightfully implying a weakening of the fighting spirit and which therefore invites destruction of the advanced civilisation by some less advanced type”.

These warning words echo throughout Henry Kissinger’s new book, which, in addition to bearing the distilled wisdom of a career that began with the completion of his PhD thesis 60 years ago, is a clarion call to the west to think again – and think harder – about the world in which it finds itself. The importance of history, combined with a strong grasp of geography, is the leitmotif of this book and the key ingredient of the Kissingerian mind, as lively as ever at the age of 91. “For nations,” he writes, “history plays the role that character confers on human beings.”

The trick of World Order is that it manages to reinforce arguments that Kissinger has been making for the past six decades, while still challenging one’s preconceptions about the world in 2014. Of the many criticisms levelled at him, the oddest is that he is adept in the art of political survival, not only making the transition from academia into statesmanship (a once well-trodden path that has fallen into disuse in Britain) but never relenting his position as the west’s foremost foreign policy sage.

It has been almost 40 years since Kissinger has had an official position in government. Yet, like or loathe the fact, no one else comes close to having the same sway – ask Beijing and Moscow, where his percolated wisdom is treated like gold dust. It is no coincidence that Hillary Clinton devoted 2,000 words to reviewing the latest offering in the Washington Post in an extremely carefully worded statement of her own foreign policy credentials.

Kissinger watchers will not be surprised to learn that the book begins with the emergence of the Westphalian system (so called after a series of treaties signed in the Westphalia region in Germany), by which European states negotiated an end to the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which had torn the continent apart. Attempting to put an end to absolutist wars of religion, they settled on a new understanding of sovereignty that was a de facto acceptance of European plurality. From this practical accommodation, based on a “balance of power” between the major continental states, emerged new notions of “national interest”, raison d’état and statecraft, as well as a cast of wily practitioners and thinkers who still shape our world today. Cardinal de Richelieu, the French chief minister from 1624 to 1642, is a familiar Kissinger favourite who bequeathed the lesson that a statesman must know what his strategy is, where it is leading and why.

Britain became the offshore balancer in this equilibrium, attempting to prevent any single power from gaining hegemony in Europe. This was no simple formula, however, and involved persistent debates about intervention or isolation and – more often – a variety of options in between. From the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, through Islamists and communists and even some schools of American foreign policy thinking (on left and right), Kissinger argues that the one thing that is anathema to international order is the conduct of international relations as a sphere of ideological battle.

Napoleon, he notes, nearly cracked the code and transformed the European order. However, his megalomania and restless expansionism got the better of him, in failing to make a permanent alliance with Russia because he wanted to defeat Britain outright. Russia remained the “enigma” in European affairs, oscillating between the role of participant in the balance and destabiliser of it, embodying the “insecurities of a parvenu” in the European community of nations. The death knell of British balancing, writes Kissinger, came when Britain abandoned “splendid isolation” and joined the entente cordiale of France and Russia after 1904. Two world wars were the consequence of this collapse of order. A century later, Europe now finds itself “suspended between a past it seeks to overcome and a future it has not yet defined”.

The simultaneous collapse of the Middle Eastern order, one built on the crumbling authority of the Ottoman empire, resulted in two separate geopolitical systems becoming ever more entangled in the 20th century. The modern Middle East suffers from the same condition as pre-Westphalian Europe – a “profusion of prophetic absolutisms”. Islamists, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Islamic State, have rejected the notion of international order as an affront to the only true order, that based on the word of God. The most worrying trend in the Middle East is the decline of the state. “When states are not governed in their entirety, the international or regional order itself begins to disintegrate,” Kissinger writes. Order must be re-established, or the contagion will spread.

His broader conclusions on the Middle East offer a note of optimism. He cites the rebalancing of the region from the Yom Kippur war in 1973 to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 as evidence that, when violent designs are thwarted, this is precisely the moment for the emergence of leaders with a vision of peace.

Although the perspective of World Order is unavoidably western (as well as frequent quotations from Edmund Burke, there are discussions of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Hobbes and Kant), Kissinger, more than most, has spent much time thinking about Asia and in particular China. He stresses the different world-views found in the most powerful Asian nations, based on alternative conceptions of time, place and history.

Traditionally, Asia has had its own state system based on hierarchy rather than sovereignty. That coda has, to a great extent, survived its confrontation with the western state system. Today two balances are emerging: one in south Asia, the other in east Asia. Neither system, Kissinger writes, has a balancer, with the result that the US will indeed have a growing role as a Pacific power. As with 19th-century Britain, that will require astute management and care.

Oddly, as relatively new and mildly reluctant participants in the international system, China and America have something in common. In Kissinger’s view, both need to absorb the lessons of the decade before the First World War, when the gradual emergence of an atmosphere of suspicion and latent confrontation escalated into conflict. Partnership, he warns, “cannot be achieved by proclamation”. America’s position as an ally of Japan and a nominal strategic partner of China is not necessarily contradictory. What is needed is not a grand bargain between the US and China but “a second culture that is global, structural and juridical – a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation”. Intriguingly, Kissinger begins to hint that this new world order might need new international institutions to manage it.

While the notion of an “international community” is today invoked more often than in any other historical era, we struggle to define what it means. The gap between our discourse about foreign affairs and the reality of the international system has rarely been wider. The domestic politi­cisation of the foreign policy process – in which polling figures are paramount – is not a new phenomenon but it is now in danger of becoming a serious strategic flaw in the west. “A combination of chronic insecurity and insistent self-assertion threatens both leaders and the public in the internet age,” Kissinger writes, with an eye on the current incumbent of the White House.

He is prepared to concede that the “old diplomacy sometimes failed to extend support to morally deserving political forces” – something for which he was often condemned during the cold war. Yet he is surely right to note that the “new” diplomacy of the 21st century “declares moral absolutes to a global audience before it has become possible to assess the long-term intentions of the principal actors, their prospects for success, or the ability to carry out a long-term policy”.

The United States remains what Kissinger calls an “ambivalent power” – torn between its yearning for withdrawal from the world’s strife and its inherent advocacy of universal principles. All presidents – “though Barack Obama less so” – have proclaimed the relevance of American political principles to the rest of the world. Even the US diplomat George F Kennan’s “long telegram” of 1946, sometimes regarded as the foundation stone of cold war detente, contained within it a “Wilsonian” belief that the superiority of democratic principles would prevail over authoritarian forms of government.

Under the surface of World Order is a searing critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. While Obama has embraced the label of “realist”, this is not a realism that Kissinger recognises. The
tendency to define oneself by the limit of one’s capabilities is more likely to generate conflict than order, he writes when discussing Richelieu but clearly with contemporary affairs in mind.

Yet the fundamental point of the book is one that would once have been regarded as axiomatic but needs someone of Kissinger’s stature to restate. It is that the west needs both a coherent view of international order and the wherewithal – the matching of power, legitimacy and strategy – to implement it. This is no mere parlour game but a matter of survival.

Many will object to this being a new world order envisaged by Henry Kissinger, the subject of some of the most divisive disputes in western foreign policy during his time as national security adviser and secretary of state from 1969 to 1977. Those who do should confront the reality that liberals willing to articulate and stand up for a liberal world order are few and far between. “We live in a wondrous time,” said Otto von Bismarck a century and a half ago, “in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.” 

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article appears in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies